The Ultimate Guide To Premium Credit Cards

by Sanjay
There are so many premium credit cards available today. Learn which one is best for you with our comprehensive guide (and interactive chart).

Historically, The Platinum Card by American Express was the only card product designed to cater to what many assumed was a niche market: people willing to pay a hefty annual fee for the promise of a more luxurious travel experience and the possibility of earning more points.

That all changed with the insanely successful launch of the Chase Sapphire Reserve in August 2016. The Chase Sapphire Reserve definitively proved that millions of Americans are willing to fork over $450 or more for premium credit cards that offer the right bundle of value. Since that inflection point, premium cards have proliferated as credit cards issuers attempt to capitalize on this opportunity.

With so many choices now available, the hard part is determining which of the premium credit cards is right for you. This guide is designed to make it easy to compare the many premium card options available today and pick the perfect card or cards for you and your travel goals.

First, What is a “Premium Credit Card?”

For the purposes of this guide, a premium card is defined as one that charges an annual fee of $450 or more. Typically, these cards offer a bundle of benefits (more on that later) and the ability to offset the annual fee with one or more statement credits. For instance, the $550 Chase Sapphire Reserve offers a generous $300 travel credit that, for most cardholders, is easy to redeem when spending on everything from airfare to Uber rides. Consequently, the annual net cost of this card is actually $250 for most cardholders. This fee can be further reduced by taking advantage of the newly announced $120 credit for deliveries on DoorDash.

Almost all premium credit cards include a statement credit to sign up for Global Entry/TSA PreCheck every four years. Most also include generous car rental and trip delay/interruption benefits – with the notable exception of the Citi Prestige. Given how ubiquitous these features are, I won’t be covering them as they shouldn’t be a factor in making a decision about which card to sign up for and use.

The Two Kinds of Premium Credit Cards

I categorize premium cards into two buckets: Proprietary and Co-brand.

Proprietary cards earn points issued by a bank, including American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, and Citi ThankYou points. These cards tend to offer the most generous rewards and give cardholders a versatile  transferrable currency that can be redeemed in multiple ways, including for a cash value. However, the best value is usually to transfer these points to an airline or hotel partner at a 1:1 or better ratio. Learn more about the pros and cons of the major points currencies. 

Co-brand cards are issued as a result of a partnership between a bank and an airline or hotel brand. These cards earn miles or points in the program of the airline or hotel. For instance, the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve will only earn SkyMiles, which can only be redeemed with Delta and its partners.

premium credit cards

Visit the American Express Centurion Lounge in Mexico City as a Platinum Card holder. Photo by TravelingOtter on Flickr, used with permission.

A proprietary card is the best choice for most people. Proprietary cards offer an unbeatable combination of rich rewards and flexibility. However, co-brand cards are a great second or third card or ideal for those who are either loyal to or stuck with a specific airline or hotel. For example, a frequent Delta traveler based in Atlanta may want to consider the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve card for the ability to fast track elite status. On the other hand, the average resident in Philadelphia — an American Airlines hub — should probably skip that card.

Making the Right Card Choice

To pick the right premium card, first ask yourself what matters more to you –- to travel more or travel well?

Those who want to travel more should aim to maximize their points. The goal is to select a card that earns the most points for every dollar of spend. These points can be easily redeemed on airfare or transferred to an airline and used to book high-value awards. The Chase Sapphire Reserve is great card for this person. (October 2020 Update: I no longer recommend the Citi Prestige card as a primary card for spending, due to the lack of travel trip delay/insurance and purchase protection coverage).

Those who want to travel well should aim to maximize their perks. Perks might include access to airport lounges, upgrades, and automatic elite status. The Platinum Card by American Express and the Hilton Honors Aspire card are two cards that cater to this type of person.

Think of maximizing points and maximizing perks as two ends of a spectrum. Most cards offer a mix of points and perks, and it is up to you to determine which end of the spectrum you want to be closer to. Of course, you could always have multiple cards to reap the benefits of both points and perks.

premium credit cards

Fly in a premium cabin with Singapore. Singapore Air is a transfer partner with Citi, Chase, and American Express, which means its easy to accumulate points. Photo credit: Singapore Airlines

Comparing Your Premium Credit Card Options: A Heat Map

Below is a summary table of the most popular premium cards available today – coded using this color key.

premium credit cards

The color coding is ultimately a subjective recommendation and you should take your own personal preferences and circumstances into account when selecting a card.

Pro tip: If viewing from a desktop, hover your cursor over the heat map to magnify. Mobile viewers – zoom in as usual!

The heat map clearly illuminates the incredible value that proprietary cards offer relative to the co-brand airline cards. The  airline cards are expensive and usually only offer one truly valuable feature: access to a rather mediocre lounge network. The one exception is the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve by American Express, which is very compelling right now with the current offer of 100,000 miles + 20,000 MQM + lounge access + companion certificate.

Otherwise, unless lounge access with a specific airline is an important priority, I recommend steering clear of the airline cards and focusing instead on the proprietary and hotel-branded cards.  I personally justify spending $395 annually to keep both the Chase Sapphire Reserve and Citi Prestige (along with the no-fee Amex Blue Business Plus) in my wallet to enjoy the flexibility that come with earning multiple points currencies.

The Best Signup Bonus Offers Available Today

Once you’ve selected the right card for you, use one of the links below to access the best available sign up offers available today.

Proprietary Cards to Consider

The Platinum Card by American Express is currently offering 60,000 Membership Reward Points after you use your card to make $5,000 in purchases in the first 3 months of account opening. Terms and conditions apply.  Before signing up for this offer – check if you’ve been targeted for a special 100K offer at CardMatch.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve is currently offering the ability to earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.

The Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card is offering 75,000 bonus points after you use your new card to make $3,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of Card Membership. Terms and Conditions apply.

Co-Brand Cards

The Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card is currently offering 150,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 in purchases on the card within 3 months of  account opening

The Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard® is currently offering 50,000 bonus miles after spending $5,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening. The card comes with Admirals Club® membership for you and access for guests traveling with you. To access the best available offer, scroll half way down on this page. 

The Future of Premium Credit Cards

My hunch is that we’ve reached peak saturation of premium cards as banks run into the reality that there is a limit to how many cards with a $450+ annual fee people are willing to have in their wallet. It’s worth noting that the Sapphire Reserve, the card that started this movement, reportedly lost over $330 million for JPMorgan Chase (though also captured a very loyal and affluent customer base for them).

As a result – we’re now seeing the banks focus more on attracting customers to their mid-range cards with annual fees in the $95 – $250 range. Card products like the Chase Sapphire Preferred,  The Gold Card by American Express and the recently refreshed Green Card by American Express offer a ton of value – especially if the goal is to maximize points earn. I predict we’ll see more products like these in the near future along with rich sign up offers. The takeaway for now is to consider jumping on the premium cards today before the banks turn their attention elsewhere.

The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

33 comments
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33 comments

DaninMCI June 9, 2019 - 3:12 pm

I have the CSR, CSP and Citi AA Exec cards. One thing that I think will change the landscape on the co-branded airline club cards is when they start requiring same day travel on that airline to get entry to that lounge. This will ruin many of these for a bunch of folks. I’d hate to be a lounge gatekeeper on the first few days they put those rules into place later this year. You also show no additional perks on the CSR which actually has some decent side benefits as a Visa Infinity card and offers good insurance products for rental cards and trip interruption I think.

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Sanjay June 9, 2019 - 3:51 pm

I agree with you Daninmci – the co-brand cards will become considerably less valuable when lounge access policies change.

I make a note in the post that many of these cards come with great insurance and car rental features and that I wouldn’t be covering those benefits in this post. They are certainly valuable features, but generally comparable across these cards, with the CSR being the best of the bunch. I also don’t mention the concierge services – but those I find to be mostly useless.

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Paul from SAT October 30, 2019 - 7:45 am

I currently negotiated a Discover Blue Card (color of card, not sure what it means) which has a Zero Interest rate and 1.5% back as rewards dollars. Since we have a 60K credit line and only have to pay a very small required payment per month, we actually have a credit line of 60K which they pay us 1.5%. We have large purchases during the month and use this card to pay and as we reach the 60K line we go on line and make a checking account payment which takes 24 hours to credit the account. Example, we purchase 15K in goods (gold & silver) then we get 1.5% on the purchase, sell the goods and then reload the card, then purchase another 10K to 25K and do the process over and over. Since we pay multiple times per month, never have to worry about the monthly payment which would only be around $350. We have gotten thousands of $’s doing this and Discover will actually send the rewards directly to our checking account. We negotiated this card for one year, not sure what will happen in another 4 months.

We also have an AmEx Pt card so that on airline tickets and hotel reservations done directly with the airlines and hotel chains we earn 5x’s the points or miles. We also negotiate or annual fee down to zero by taking to a second line manager that we have a larger purchase where we can use AmEx or MC or Visa card. Normally they give us a $500 credit in the next month cycle if we do use their card. This has worked for the last four to five years. We do this on ALL OF THE LARGE fee credit cards we have. Every one seems to win since we use our cards for business reasons.

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Sanjay October 31, 2019 - 7:01 am

Nice! You raise a good point – the banks are sometimes open to negotiation for the right customer.

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AlwaysFlying June 9, 2019 - 8:08 pm

Missing cards = incomplete research = useless article.

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Sanjay Sharma June 9, 2019 - 8:20 pm

As I said in the post, I was focused on covering the most popular cards. What other cards would you have liked to see?

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Marguerite June 12, 2019 - 11:11 am

How about Canadian cards ?

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Sanjay June 12, 2019 - 11:52 am

Unfortunately I really do not know the Canadian card market and wouldn’t feel comfortable making recommendations that I can’t confidently vouch for. Apologies!

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Jeremy Dawkins June 10, 2019 - 5:29 am

Hey Sanjay, great article.
You’ve brought gamification to the drudgery of business travel!
As a veteran road warrior who has always ‘winged it’ with cards, this is incredibly useful.

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patrick June 12, 2019 - 9:36 am

Hi Sanjay
Interesting article. Any chance you could do something similar that is not USA focused? Us poor folks in Europe seem to have the short end of the stick, as we have premium cards but not that much choice. A similar overview for the EU would be fantastic.

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Sanjay June 12, 2019 - 11:51 am

Thanks! I unfortunately really do not know the European card market and wouldn’t feel comfortable making recommendations that I can’t confidently vouch for. Apologies!

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BondJames June 12, 2019 - 9:41 am

Thanks for the diligent breakdown of Card Perks!

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Sanjay June 12, 2019 - 11:53 am

Thanks for reading! I hope you found a good card for yourself.

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JAMES W CHENG June 12, 2019 - 10:02 am

Is it possible to provide the chart as an excel sheet? Thx

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Sanjay June 12, 2019 - 11:53 am

shoot me an email at sanjay@juicymiles.com and I can provide it.

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Avi Lado June 21, 2019 - 9:39 am

Hey Sanjay – Mind sharing the spreadsheet please?Thanks

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Ahmed June 12, 2019 - 3:33 pm

I would love to see the same review on Business Credit Card. Thank you for this AWESOME review

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Sanjay Sharma June 13, 2019 - 4:09 am

Thanks! I will plan to get one up in the near future.

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MJW June 12, 2019 - 5:03 pm

Thanks for the matrix.
Can you explain why the AX Marriot Bonvoy Brilliant is considered a “poor value” (red)? The Reward Earning on Spend is similar, if not better than the Chase SR and others.

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Sanjay June 13, 2019 - 4:16 am

Good question. It has to do with how one can redeem Marriott points. I personally like to transfer them to airline partners – where they transfer at a 3:1 ratio. Contrast that with Ultimate Reward or Membership Reward point, which transfer at a 1:1 ratio to airlines.That means the points are only worth roughly 1/3 as much as an Ultimate Reward or Membership Reward point.

I personally value Marriott points at around 0.9 cents per point, while UR, MR, and TY are all roughly 1.9 cents per point.

At that ratio, you’re better off using your Chase Reserve even when spending at Marriott properties as you’d earn 3X UR verses just 6X Marriott points.

Beyond airline redemptions, Marriott has raised the prices for most hotel redemptions. There are some good values left, but not for the most aspirational hotel stays.

That being said, I think Marriott points are a useful currency to hold on to given that they transfer to so many airlines. I recommend signing up for that card for the sign up bonus.

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Robert Riser June 16, 2019 - 10:22 am

Enjoyed reading this article! Summary table very informative. I considered getting a premium credit card; however, it seems I’m receiving equal or better benefits from a combination of non premium credit cards. AMEX Hilton Ascend; Annual fee: $95, includes Priority Pass. United Explorer; Annual fee: $95, includes free checked bag. Also, trip delay insurance as long as part of trip charged to card. Two United Lounge passes at renewal. Delta Platinum; Annual fee: $195, free companion certificate at renewal and free checked bags. Is there a premium card you would recommend to replace these or should I keep the cards I have? Thanks!

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Sanjay June 16, 2019 - 10:25 am

Hey,

Thanks for reading. Your combination sounds pretty good. It’s tough to make a good recommendation without knowing much about your travel circumstances and preferences. For instance, how often do you check a bag? What do you spend on?

On first glance I think you have a good set of cards – but one option to consider is to swap the United Explorer card for the Chase Sapphire preferred. Same annual fee, but the point earning structure is way better and those UR points would transfer to United at a 1:1 ratio. Of course, you’d give up the checked bags and lounge passes for that benefit.

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Barry June 17, 2019 - 7:42 am

Good article that stimulates much thought.
You stated that you value Marriott points at .09 cents per point. Since the AE Marriott Bonvoy card gives you 2 points per dollar spent, that means for every dollar spent you get 1.8 cents in value. Most other cards only give 1 point per dollar spent. It doesn’t appear that you have factored this important difference into your analysis.

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Sanjay June 17, 2019 - 6:59 pm

Thanks Barry.

I do personally value Marriott points at .09 cents per points. However, I value Chase UR, Amex MR, and Citi TY points at around 1.8 – 2 cents per point. That means I see ~2 Marriott points = 1 Chase/Citi/Amex point.

Valuing points is really more art than science. The ‘value’ really comes down to how you plan to use the points. I’d encourage you to have a think about what’s most important to you when identifying which card is right for you.

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Nevsky July 24, 2019 - 10:10 am

Excellent table. Of course, one major update is that Citi Prestige will eliminate most of the insurance benefits soon. Also, the price for an additional card would be nice to have in the table. As I remember, the price for that is $75, which really is expensive for an extra two points on restaurant spend for my wife. So many cards have a Priority Pass membership so that is not an added benefit for the cost. I could, of course, purchase airline tickets for my wife, but that does not even make sense, as the Platinum Card will be better for that as it has more transfer partners and offers at least some insurance benefits. In other cases Chase Sapphire might work better for the insurance benefits.

Also, the Fourth Night Free has been decimated, as one will soon have to book online and one will not get one’s elite benefits in most cases.

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mojo October 28, 2019 - 3:59 pm

How is the Amex Bonvoy Brilliant card *not* a co-brand card on your chart?

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Sanjay Sharma October 28, 2019 - 4:11 pm

Hey Mojo – I agree that the Bonvoy card is absolutely technically a co-brand product. However, the points earned are so versatile that they are effectively a transferable currency like UR, MR, and TY points. That fact sets them apart from a more traditional co-brand (e.g. the Delta card), which effectively lock you into that travel providers air or hotel brand.

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SAR October 29, 2019 - 5:36 pm

Thanks for the focus on premium cards! I realize I’m jumping in quite late to the original post as a result of added comments; nonetheless, I’m confused by your reply to the new comment. It is my understanding that the points earned by the AmEx Bonvoy Brilliant card are sent directly to the owner’s Marriott Bonvoy account as Marriott points. If it is true, how can that be anything but a co-branded product? Any transfers those points can accomplish are what are available through Marriott Bonvoy, correct? Are you suggesting that Marriott Bonvoy points are a separate currency on the same level or equal to UR, MR, and TY?

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Sanjay October 30, 2019 - 5:29 am

Hey SAR,

Thanks for reading! Yes – I consider Bonvoy points similar to UR, MR, and TY because they can be transferred to over 40 airlines. That means they are incredibly flexible. They typically transfer at a 3:1 ratio, with a bonus 5000 points for every 20,000 points transferred. The BIG catch is that the transfer times are NOT instant – which means you’ll typically have to wait for the points with your airline of choice. See this page for a full list of transfer partners: https://www.marriott.com/loyalty/redeem/travel/points-to-miles.mi

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ian duncan October 30, 2019 - 7:23 am

I upgraded from regular Amex (green, after Amex raised my Gold Card price a few years ago) to Platinum Business for the perks and lounges. But the new lounge policy and pricing makes it difficult to continue to justify. I had always been attracted by the 5x points on booking flights through Amex travel but Amex travel is SO clunky and hard to use compared with directly booking with the airline that i have given up. Not sure i will keep as i also have United and American lounge memberships (1K and Exec Plat flyer) so not sure Amex is worth it. Thoughts?

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Sanjay October 31, 2019 - 7:05 am

Yeah – I also have a hard time justifying the Amex Platinum value proposition. You could consider the Citi Prestige card, which also earns 5x on air travel AND dining. While the annual fee for that card is also high at $495, the 4th night free benefit can be very lucrative if you’re able to take advantage of it. My one caution is that the Citi card no longer offer trips protection/trip delay insurance.

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JW November 1, 2019 - 3:00 pm

Hello Sanjay,
Great article and thoughtful comments – really appreciate the work you put into this to help readers, especially those of us newer to the Points and Miles Strategy.

I have been slowly building up and currently have 200K+ Marriott Points which I plan to eventually use for Airline Miles (hoping for aspirational Business class redemption), and like you mention, the fact Marriott points transfer to 40 airline partners make them valuable.

However, I’m concerned about the length of time it takes for Marriott to transfer points to airline, and given that award availability is often limited when “great sale/promos” occur – what is a realistic turn around time to expect for Marriott to transfer? What data points do you have for Marriott, and how many times have you (and other bloggers) transfer the points over and then “miss” the award space due to delay in Marriott’s transfers?

Any insights you can offer appreciated. THANK YOU!!

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sanjay November 3, 2019 - 6:20 am

Hey – the Marriott transfer times really do vary a lot by airline. Usually when I’m considering a transfer I’ll just google “Marriott transfer time to [insert airline name]” and take a look at recent posts that test average transfer times..

Unfortunately, it is very common to ‘miss’ an award space due to transfer times . Airlines usually release a limited number of seats for award booking and those get snapped up quickly. I would recommend you only transfer points to a program when there are backup options available or if its a program that you know you’ll eventually use later on. Also – a few airlines do still allow one to hold a reservation for a limited period (e.g. 24 – 72 hours), which can be useful while points post. Again, I’d google it to find those airlines.

Hope that helps.

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