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 $450 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 $150 for most cardholders.
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 Reserve card will only earn SkyMiles, which can only be redeemed with Delta and its partners.
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 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.
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.
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 Reserve card by American Express, which is very compelling right now with the current offer of 75,000 miles + 5,000 MQM + lounge access + companion certificate. This offer is available until October 30, 2019.
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.
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.
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