Premium credit cards usually offer elite travel perks that make just about any avid traveler drool. But those sky-high annual fees? Not so much.
For people who travel often, though, the best premium credit cards can be more than worth the $400-plus fee if you use them right. Here’s how you can decide if those premium credit card perks outweigh the costs.
How to maximize the perks of premium credit cards
Like any annual-fee credit card, premium credit cards essentially pay for themselves if you maximize their rewards and benefits. Here are three ways you can do so effectively.
1. Know all the benefits
Most credit cards advertise their best perks, but they don’t spend much time covering their valuable ancillary benefits.
For example, American Express mentions only briefly that its Platinum Card gives you access to presale tickets to concerts, shows, and sporting events.
Last year, I took advantage of this perk to buy four tickets to Hamilton on Broadway in New York City at face value. Then, I turned around and sold them on StubHub and made a $1,000 profit.
Of course, you won’t always receive that much value from a benefit. But it does pay to know how to utilize what you have.
2. Plan your travel accordingly
Premium credit cards typically come with airport lounge access, so you’ll want to make sure you arrive at the airport early. Some lounges offer hors d’oeuvres, and others provide you with a full meal, helping you avoid paying for costly airport food.
The best premium credit cards also offer elite status or VIP amenities at certain hotel chains. So, you’ll want to make sure you book your travel in a way that maximizes these extras.
Also, some premium credit cards give you more value if you book your travel through their websites rather than with airlines, hotels, or rental car companies directly. Make sure you know which redemption option gives you the best value.
3. Do the math
As you use your premium credit card, keep track of the value you receive. It’s much easier to justify a high annual fee if you can prove the monetary value of its perks.
At the very least, make sure the rewards you’re earning outweigh the cost of the annual fee. Knowing how rewards points are counted and how much they’re worth can help you maximize their value.
3 best premium credit cards available today
Not all premium credit cards are created equal. Each one has a different rewards structure and offers different perks. Review them carefully to make sure you get the most bang for your buck.
Let’s review the main perks of three popular premium credit cards and compare each card’s value to its annual fee.
1. The Chase Sapphire Reserve
The Chase Sapphire Reserve’s $450 annual fee is easily covered in the first year by its sign-up bonus.
You’ll earn 50,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first three months — that’s worth $750 if you redeem the points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards.
Although the card’s sign-up bonus is worth more than its annual fee, you won’t receive one every year. For ongoing rewards, the card offers three points per dollar on travel and dining purchases and one point per dollar on everything else.
According to Allianz Travel Insurance, Americans spend, on average, $1,798 on a summer vacation. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics pegs the average household budget for dining out at $3,095 per year.
If we assume only one summer vacation each year, you’ll earn 14,679 points every year just from travel and dining purchases:
($1,798 + $3,095) x 3 points per dollar = 14,679 points
And if you use those points to book travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards, your points are worth 1.5 cents apiece. As a result, your points will be worth $220.19:
14,679 points x $0.015 per point = $220.19
That doesn’t include rewards you earn on non-travel and non-dining purchases. For those, you earn one point per dollar.
For example, say you spend $2,500 per month on non-travel and non-dining purchases — or $30,000 per year. You’ll earn 30,000 points on those purchases, which will be worth $450 if you use them to book travel through Chase:
30,000 points x $0.015 per point = $450
Combined, you’ll earn $670.19 worth of free travel every year. And if you spend more than that, you’ll earn even more value.
Annual travel credit
In addition to standout rewards, the Sapphire Reserve also gives you an annual travel credit. If you book travel using your card, Chase will automatically reimburse you up to $300 per year.
Between the travel credit and the bonus rewards alone, you’re receiving roughly $520 in value each year.
Global Entry or TSA PreCheck
These programs help you get through security and customs more quickly, and the Sapphire Reserve offers an application fee credit up to $100, which you can use for either one.
A Global Entry membership lasts five years, so you’re essentially earning $20 per year in value from this benefit.
To make your airport experience less hectic, the card comes with complimentary Priority Pass Select membership. The program includes more than 1,000 lounges worldwide. With unlimited free visits for you, that means you have Prestige membership (worth $399).
While some of the Sapphire Reserve’s benefits are quantifiable, others might not be so easy to value. For example, you’ll receive the following:
- Special rental car privileges, including discounts from National Car Rental, Avis, and Silvercar
- Special perks when you stay at Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection properties, including room upgrades, complimentary Wi-Fi, and more
- Transfer of points to 11 other loyalty programs, including Marriott, Hyatt, Southwest Airlines, and United Airlines
- Trip protections, including trip cancellation and interruption insurance, travel accident insurance, and lost luggage reimbursement
All things considered, you’ll receive at least the following value every year from the card:
- Bonus rewards: $220
- Annual travel credit: $300
- Global Entry: $20
- Priority Pass Select membership: $399
Combined, these perks are worth $939 every year — more than double the card’s $450 annual fee. Of course, you have to utilize the airport lounges to get value out of that membership. But even without it, you’ll receive more value than what you’re paying.
2. Platinum Card from American Express
The Platinum Card from American Express isn’t heavy on rewards. But it stands out, even among the best premium credit cards, for its elite benefits.
The card’s $550 annual fee is high, but it’s easy to gain that value back if you travel even just a few times each year.
What’s more, the sign-up bonus is enough to cover the annual fee in the first year. You’ll earn 60,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $5,000 in the first three months. Although point values vary depending on how you use them, the sign-up bonus is worth up to $600.
Airline fee credit
Every year, the Platinum Card gives you $200 in airline incidental fee credits. You can use them for things like checked bags and in-flight meals.
However, there’s a catch: You can use the credits on only one airline, and you can choose your airline only once per year. But if you’re loyal to one airline, these credits should be easy to use up.
Each month, the Platinum Card will add $15 to your Uber account to use for rides or Uber Eats. You’ll receive an extra $20 in December, so the total for the year comes to $200. Those credits don’t roll over from month to month, so you’ll need to use them by the end of each month.
The card also qualifies you for Uber VIP, the ride-sharing service’s elite status. With it, you’ll have access to the highest-rated drivers as well as exclusive promotions and discounts.
The Platinum Card gives you five points per dollar spent on flights and hotels booked through American Express Travel. This rewards rate is virtually unbeatable, but it’s hard to say exactly how much it’s worth.
For example, let’s assume the flight and hotel make up at least 50 percent of the average vacation. That’s $899 per year based on the Allianz Travel Insurance estimate. If you book through American Express Travel, you’ll earn 4,495 points on those bookings:
$899 x 5 points per dollar = 4,495 points
That’s $44.95 worth of points every year, on average, from the card’s bonus rewards alone.
Airport lounge access
Many of the best premium credit cards offer access to Priority Pass Select lounges. The Platinum Card takes it a step further, though, offering you more options.
For starters, you’ll receive Priority Pass Select Prestige membership (worth $399). You also can bring two free guests every time you visit one of the lounges. And you’ll have access to The Centurion Lounge network and Delta Sky Club lounges if you fly Delta.
To enter a Centurion Lounge without the Platinum Card, you’ll need another American Express credit card and will have to pay $50 per visit. A single-visit pass to a Delta Sky Club lounge is $59.
Unlike the Priority Pass Select membership, it can be hard to assess the value of access to these other lounges. But the more you travel, the more value you’ll receive.
Global Entry or TSA PreCheck
Like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Platinum Card offers a statement credit up to $100 for your Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application. Assuming you choose Global Entry to get both options, that’s worth $20 per year.
With your Platinum Card, you’ll receive complimentary unlimited access to more than 1 million Boingo Wi-Fi hot spots worldwide.
Boingo doesn’t have a comparable membership level, but its Boingo Global membership, which gives you 2,000 minutes per month, is worth $39 per month. So this benefit is worth at least $468 per year.
It’s impossible to set a dollar value to this benefit, but it can be invaluable to people who travel often. You’ll receive automatic Starwood Preferred Guest Gold and Hilton Honors Gold status with the card.
With SPG Gold status, you’ll receive room upgrades, late checkout, and bonus rewards every time you book a stay. With Hilton Gold, you’ll receive discounts, late checkouts, room upgrades at certain hotels, and your fifth night free when you book with points.
You’ll also receive complimentary membership in premium car rental programs, which will give you special discounts and upgrades.
Other benefits that aren’t easily quantifiable include the following:
- Complimentary benefits when you book a stay at Fine Hotel & Resorts properties
- Upgrades and hotel credits when you stay at The Hotel Collection properties
- Custom itineraries and recommendations through the Platinum Travel service
- Presale tickets to concerts, shows, sporting events, and more
- Transfer of points to 21 partners, including Delta, JetBlue, and Starwood
Although you can’t place a monetary value on all the Platinum Card’s perks, you can do so on the following:
- Airline fee credit: $200
- Uber credit: $200
- Bonus rewards: $44.95
- Airport lounge access: $399-plus
- Global Entry: $20
- Boingo Wi-Fi: $468-plus
Combined, those benefits are worth at least $1,466.80 annually. Of course, the value you get out of those perks will depend on how often you use them.
3. U.S. Bank Altitude Reserve Visa Infinite Card
This card is reserved for U.S. Bank customers, but its benefits make becoming one worthwhile.
The U.S. Bank Altitude Reserve charges a $400 annual fee, making it among the least inexpensive premium credit cards. And it won’t be hard for cardholders to gain that value back.
For the first year, the card’s sign-up bonus is almost double the annual fee. You’ll earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,500 in 90 days. With points worth 1.5 cents apiece when you redeem for travel, that’s worth $750.
For ongoing value after the first year, you’ll receive the following benefits.
Annual travel credit
Like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Altitude Reserve offers a catch-all travel credit. It’s valid for purchases made directly from airlines, hotels, car rental companies, taxis, limousines, passenger trains, and cruise lines.
U.S. Bank will automatically reimburse you up to $325 per year on these purchases.
The Altitude Reserve offers three points per dollar on travel purchases and mobile wallet purchases. For the travel portion, you’ll earn 5,394 points per year based on the Allianz Travel Insurance study:
$1,798 x 3 points per dollar = 5,394 points
If you use those points for travel, you’ll have $80.91 worth of travel every year:
5,394 points x $0.015 per point = $80.91
With the mobile wallet purchases portion, this one could become lucrative quickly. Since mobile wallets are becoming more common, you can earn three points per dollar on most of your purchases.
It depends on your spending habits, but this could mean hundreds of dollars in rewards every year.
Gogo in-flight Wi-Fi
Each year, the Altitude Reserve deposits 12 complimentary Gogo in-flight Wi-Fi sessions into your Gogo account. Each session lasts for the duration of the flight.
Gogo doesn’t have an option for a full-flight session; rather, it charges $7 per hour. So, if we assume two hours of in-flight internet time per flight, you’ll get $14 of value out of each pass — or $168 per year.
Like many of the best premium credit cards, the Altitude Reserve offers a Priority Pass Select membership only. The membership is more limiting, however, as it offers you and one guest four visits per year.
With Priority Pass Select lounges typically charging $27 per visit, this benefit is worth $216.
GroundLink black-car service
If you need help getting from the airport to your hotel, you don’t need to worry about taking a shuttle. The Altitude Reserve offers a 15 percent discount on GroundLink black-car service reservations. You’ll also receive a one-time $30 promotional credit to use whenever you want.
Global Entry or TSA PreCheck
As with the other best premium credit cards, you’ll receive a statement credit up to $100 for your Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application. Assuming you choose Global Entry, that’s worth $20 per year.
The card’s other benefits aren’t easy to place a dollar value on, but they could be valuable to you nonetheless:
- Certain benefits when you rent an Audi A4 through Silvercar
- A VIP welcome and complimentary breakfast when you stay at Relais & Chateaux boutique luxury hotels
The Altitude Reserve isn’t quite as lucrative as the Platinum Card, but its perks easily outpace the card’s annual fee in value:
- Annual travel credit: $325
- Bonus rewards: $81 (travel only)
- Gogo in-flight passes: $168
- Lounge access: $216
- GroundLink black-car service: $30+
- Global Entry: $20
With these benefits alone, you’ll get $840 in value every year. That’s more than double the card’s annual fee.
Should you apply for a premium credit card?
The best premium credit cards offer perks that are worth far more than their annual fees. If you travel at least a few times each year, you’ll likely get more value out of them than what you’re paying.
In the end, though, it depends on how you value the perks. For example, if you don’t care about airport lounges and are fine hanging out near the gate, that benefit isn’t worth much to you.
As you research premium credit cards, tally up the value of the perks you might use to ensure that you get the most bang for your buck. If you apply for one, continue to track that value over the years to make sure you’re getting enough value to make the card worth it.
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