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One of my foremost pieces of advice to award travelers is to make sure you earn points and miles on every dollar you spend, and the best way to do that is by using the right rewards credit card, or in many cases, cards. Today TPG Senior Points and Miles Correspondent Jason Steele looks at credit card combinations tailored to offer the best return for those who fly international business and first class.
Points and miles enthusiasts are often looking for the elusive “best credit card” for earning travel rewards, but the reality is that the combined value of several different cards is greater than the sum of each one individually, and most savvy award travelers carry more than one card. So this week, rather than look at which single card offers the greatest return, I’ll look at credit card combinations that work together to achieve particular travel goals.
Monday’s post focused on cards for domestic economy travelers, and on Friday I’ll wrap up the series with card combos designed to maximize mid-level hotel stays, but today’s focus is on jet-setters who crave international award trips in business and first class. The card combinations below are designed for travelers who really value lounge access, elite status perks, and the biggest comfiest seats miles can buy.
As I did on Monday, I’ll analyze three combinations of three cards, discuss the merits and drawbacks of each (including sign-up bonuses and ongoing benefits), and pick a winning combination of the cards that best complement each other.
Today’s Focus: The International Business / First Class Traveler
Today’s card combinations are designed for travelers who want a premium experience from origin to destination, and are willing to invest a bit to get it at a huge discount. Thus, I’m looking for cards that offer lucrative benefits like lounge access, elite status, and a range of redemption options for international business and first class awards. Steeper annual fees are acceptable so long as they’re justified by the perks of cardmembership.
Here’s what’s on the menu:
The Lounge Lizard – This card combination works best for those who mostly crave lounge access, especially for couples and families. It starts with the Citi Prestige card for its lounge benefits and transferable points. Next, I include the CitiBusiness AAdvantage Platinum Select World MasterCard, which is currently offering a great sign-up bonus and comes with plenty of perks when traveling on American and US Airways. Finally, I wrap things up with the Starwood Preferred Guest card from American Express, which lets you top off your AAdvantage account (or several other Citi ThankYou transfer partners).
The Platinum Purist – This is the card combination for those who are loyal to The Platinum from American Express and all of its benefits. The Platinum card offers fantastic lounge club access, but it only offers one Membership Rewards point per dollar spent, so I would complement that card with the American Express Everyday Preferred (which earns as much as 4.5 points per dollar) and the American Express Business Rewards Gold card, which offers up to 3 points per dollar, and a solid sign-up bonus.
Rhapsody in Blue – This card combination begins with the United Club Card from Chase, which offers lounge access for two people or an entire family at United Clubs worldwide, as well as the airport lounges of all Star Alliance partners. I would combine that with the points earning and transfer potential of both the Chase Ink Plus and Chase Sapphire Preferred, each in its own shade of blue.
Other cards I considered
Like the Delta Loyalist combination I offered in Monday’s post, there’s a strong case to be made for cards that offer Delta status. But unfortunately, the Delta SkyMiles Reserve card isn’t very competitive, since it only offers the entry to the cardholder (companions and guests pay extra). Furthermore, Delta SkyClubs aren’t as numerous as the lounge options offered in the three selections above.
I’m also still captivated by the idea of getting plenty of international lounge access through the Diners Club Premier card for merely a $100 annual fee, but the lack of a sign-up bonus makes this card less attractive.
Finally, I wanted to include the US Airways Premier World MasterCard with the 40,000 mile sign-up bonus and no minimum spending requirement. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t make the cut against the CitiBusiness AAdvantage card with its sign-up and spending category bonuses. In the crowded market for co-branded AA and US Airways cards available now, the US Airways card just didn’t distinguish itself.
Comparing Sign-up Bonuses and Annual Fees
Lounge Lizard: Citi Prestige offering 30,000 ThankYou points after spending $2,000 within three months, while the CitiBusiness AAdvantage card offers 50,000 AAdvantage miles and after you make $3,000 in purchases within the first three months of account opening. But you can give the lounge passes to a friend, since AA lounge access for two guests or your whole family is already included with the Prestige card. Finally, the SPG Amex offers 10,000 Starpoints after your first purchase, and an additional 15,000 Starpoints after you make $5,000 in purchases within the first six months.
In total, you’ll earn 32,000 Citi ThankYou points and the equivalent of 87,000 American Airlines miles (119,000 total combined) after meeting all of the minimum spending requirements, which total $10,000 over six months. The Citi Prestige has an annual fee of $450. The CitiBusiness AAdvantage card has an annual fee of $95, and the SPG card has a fee of $65, both of which are waived in the first year. Thus, you’re looking at $450 in annual fees initially, and $610 per year thereafter.
Platinum Purist: The current standard offer for Amex Platinum is 40,000 points after spending $3,000 in three months, but Amex customers often receive targeted offers for more. The Amex Everyday Preferred is currently offering just 15,000 miles for spending $1,000 in three months, but there are public offers for the Business Rewards Gold for 50,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $5,000 within the first three months of account opening. (There are also targeted offers for 75,000 points after spending $10,000 in three months.) The Everyday Preferred also includes a one year subscription to Amazon Prime. In total, you’ll earn 114,000 points after spending $9,000 over six months.
Annual fees are $450 for the Platinum card, $175 for the Business Rewards Gold card, and $95 fee for the Everyday Preferred, for a total of $720.
Rhapsody in Blue: Start with the United Club card, which doesn’t offer a sign-up bonus, but is available on United’s web site (once you login) or reportedly in Chase branches with no annual fee for the first year. You can quickly make up for it with the Ink Plus card. The link above offers 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points after spending $5,000 in the first three months, and waives the annual fee. However, you can again find a better offer in a Chase branch for 70,000 points after spending $5,000 within three months, though in this case the annual fee is not waived for the first year. Finally, the Sapphire Preferred offers 40,000 points after spending $4,000 within three months of account opening. In the end, you’ll earn a combined total of 118,000 United miles and Chase Ultimate Rewards points after spending $8,000 in three months.
One of the best aspects of this plan is that two of these cards are available with no initial annual fee, so you’ll pay only $95 in the first year. Beyond that, the annual fees are $395 for the United Club card and $95 for both the Ink Plus and Sapphire Preferred, for a total of $585.
Which combination offers the best sign-up bonus?
The Platinum Purist plan offers slightly fewer points (114,000), but that’s with only the standard offers for both the American Express Platinum card and Business Rewards Gold card. If you can get a targeted offer for either of them, you’ll come out way ahead. Unlike the other two card combinations, all of the points you’ll earn with the Platinum Purist are in the same program, so there’s no need to worry about mixing and matching award transfers. Should you take advantage of one of Amex’s frequent points transfer bonuses, you’ll be looking at some serious luxury travel options for the sign-up bonuses alone.
Comparing Ongoing Benefits
Lounge Lizard: With the Citi Prestige, cardholders receive access to the American and US Airways lounges along with two guests or immediate family (including all children under 18). In addition, this card includes access for both the cardmember and a guest to lounges in the Priority Pass Select network, which has incredibly strong options overseas, spanning countries from Albania to Zimbabwe.
The Prestige card also offers 3x points on air travel and at hotels, 2x points on dining and entertainment expenses, and one ThankYou Point per dollar spent on other purchases. Points can be transferred to nine different airline transfer partners, including Singapore Airlines Krisflyer and the Flying Blue program of Air France, KLM, and others. Other benefits include a $250 annual air travel credit, a $100 Global Entry application fee credit, and no foreign transaction fees. Finally, cardholders can redeem points directly for 1.6 cents apiece toward flights on American and US Airways, which count as revenue bookings that earn miles and are eligible for upgrades.
The CitiBusiness AAdvantage card offers double miles not just on American and US Airways purchases, but also for car rentals, office supplies, and telecommunication bills. Other perks include group 1 priority boarding and a checked bag fee waiver for the cardholder and up to four companions on the same reservation. Finally, the Starwood Preferred Guest card offers points that can be transferred to over 30 different carriers including American, Flying Blue, and Singapore, so it complements the Prestige and AAdvantage cards.
Platinum Purist: The Platinum card offers a Delta SkyClub membership, which is now only good for one free entry. Similarly, unlike the Priority Pass Select membership offered by Citi Prestige, Platinum cardholders only receive a single free entry for themselves. American Express does have a handful of Centurion airport lounges (in Las Vegas, Dallas, New York, LaGuardia, San Francisco, and Miami coming in 2015), and Platinum cardholders get free access for themselves and two guests or their immediate family.
Other Platinum card benefits include a $200 annual airline fee credit, a $100 Global entry fee application credit, and numerous travel insurance and purchase protection policies. The wildcard is the business or first class international companion benefit, which requires booking a full fare ticket through American Express, often at more than double the price of a discounted ticket. For travelers who normally book full fare premium class tickets, this is an unbeatable benefit; otherwise it’s not particularly useful.
The Amex Business Rewards Gold card earns 3x points for airfare and 2x points for advertising, shipping, gas, computer hardware, software, and cloud computing services. Finally, the Amex EveryDay Preferred offers 3x points at U.S. supermarkets on up to $6,000 of eligible spending each calendar year, and 2x points at U.S. gas stations. Cardholders also receive a 50% points bonus when they use the card for 30 or more transactions during a statement period, so you can boost those earning rates to 4.5x at supermarkets, 3x on gas, and 1.5x on other spending. All of these cards earn Amex Membership Rewards points, which transfer to 17 different airline programs.
Rhapsody in Blue: The United Club card lacks the sheer number of benefits offered by the American Express Platinum and the Citi Prestige, but it offers more than most people realize. In addition to United Club access for the cardholders and immediate family or two guests, this card earns an impressive 1.5 United miles per dollar spent on all purchases. Cardholders also receive two checked bags free for the cardholder and one companion.
It also includes the whole range of Premier Access perks, such as priority check-in, security, boarding, and baggage handling. Cardholders can book any seat as an award (at the standard mileage levels), and receive a waiver of their close-in award booking fee (normally $75 per person for award flights within 21 days).
Adding the Sapphire Preferred offers double points on all dining and travel expenses, while the Ink Plus offers double points on hotels and gas, as well as 5x on office supplies and telecommunications charges (on up to $50,000 in spending for each).
Which combination offers the best ongoing card benefits?
When it comes to cardmember benefits, I like the Lounge Lizard combination the best. The Citi Prestige card’s $250 airline fee credit is extremely flexible, and unlike the American Express Platinum, can even be used to purchase airline tickets. I also love the lounge access for family or guests in Admirals Club, US Airways, and Priority Pass Select lounges. Finally, its nice to have access to two transferable points programs, Citi ThankYou and SPG.
Close behind is the Platinum Purist, which benefits from a never-ending list of benefits from the Platinum card, including Centurion Lounge access. Add a second authorized user for $175 a year, and its lounge benefit competes with that of Citi Prestige. Alternatively, you could sign up for the Morgan Stanley version of the American Express Platinum, which offers an additional authorized cardholder at no extra charge.
Picking an overall winner
To meet the needs of most premium international travelers, I would choose the Platinum Purist combination, as it offers access to 17 different frequent flyer programs and three different lounge networks.
The Rhapsody in Blue combination is competitive, especially for the ability to always earn 1.5 miles per dollar even outside of bonus categories. It’s just too bad that United is charging so much for many international partner awards in business and first class.
If Citi ThankYou Rewards ever gets around to adding AA/US as transfer partners, then we’d have a whole other ballgame.
If your mission is to travel the world in style, the Amex Platinum, Business Rewards Gold, and Everyday Preferred are about the best hand of cards that you can hold. While this premium card has one of the highest annual fees on the market, it has several valuable perks that could make it worthwhile, depending on your travel patterns. These include a $200 annual airline rebate, lounge access, free Hilton Gold status and free Starwood Preferred Guest Gold status.
While this premium card has one of the highest annual fees on the market, it has several valuable perks that could make it worthwhile, depending on your travel patterns. These include a $200 annual airline rebate, lounge access, free Hilton Gold status and free Starwood Preferred Guest Gold status.