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Battle of the Premium Travel Rewards Cards: Which Is the Best?

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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here – Chase Sapphire Reserve

Update 12/6/16: This post was updated to reflect the Amex Platinum card’s new 5x earning opportunity on airfare purchases.

Choosing the best travel rewards credit cards to carry in your wallet can be a daunting task. Each one offers a different value proposition that may appeal to some travelers over others, and this is especially applicable when it comes to premium credit cards. The recent release of the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card and the newly enhanced benefits on the Ritz-Carlton Rewards Card have created more competition than ever in this segment, so today I want to refresh my post from a couple of years ago and answer the following question: Which premium travel rewards credit cards is the best?

To accomplish this task, I’ll follow a similar format to the one I used previously, though I’ll be considering additional cards in my analysis. Here’s a list of the premium cards I’ve included:

I’ll compare each of these cards across eight categories: annual fee, current sign-up bonus, point earning, redemptions, travel credits, lounge access, additional travel perks and coverage. For each category, I’ll rank the cards from best to worst and award points accordingly (6 points to the best card in the category, 5 points to the second best card in the category, etc.). At the end, I’ll tally up the results and crown a champion!

As always, feel free to adjust (or even weight) the categories as needed based on your own travel patterns. The AAdvantage Executive Card or United Club Card could be preferred if you’re a Chicago-based traveler, while others might live in New York and value the access you’ll get to both the Centurion Lounge at LaGuardia and Delta Sky Clubs across the globe with the Amex Platinum. This analysis is based on a generic traveler trying to decide which one of these six cards should go in his/her wallet.

Let’s get started!

ANNUAL FEE

Credit card cash featured
These cards all charge high annual fees, but is one a better option than the others? Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Amex Platinum: $450 (plus $175 for up to three additional cardholders)
Citi Prestige: $450 (plus $50 for each additional cardholder)
Sapphire Reserve: $450 ($75 for each additional cardholder)
Ritz: $450 ($0 for each additional cardholder)
AAdvantage Executive: $450 ($0 for each additional cardholder)
United Club: $450 ($0 for each additional cardholder)

Analysis

On the surface, this seems like a tie, since all six cards have a $450 annual fee. However, the cost (or lack thereof) of additional cardholders provides some separation. The clear winner here is the Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard, which doesn’t charge an added fee for authorized users but still gives those cardholders full Admirals Club access. While the Ritz Card and United Club Card also don’t charge a fee for additional cardholders, the Ritz Card only offers AUs Priority Pass access and the $100 airfare discount through Visa Infinite — and the United Club Card doesn’t offer anything.

The competition between the other three is a bit closer. On all three, additional cardholders can enjoy access to Priority Pass lounges, even when not traveling with the primary cardholders. These benefits also include Centurion Lounges and Sky Clubs on the Amex Platinum though don’t extend to Admirals Club access on the Citi Prestige (a benefit going away as of July 2017). Since the fee is lower on the Citi Prestige, I’ll rank that in second place and slot both the Sapphire Reserve and Amex Platinum in a tie for third.

Ranking:
AAdvantage Executive (6 points)
Citi Prestige (5 points)
Chase Sapphire Reserve and Amex Platinum (4 points)
Ritz and United Club (2 points)

CURRENT SIGN-UP BONUS

ritz laguna niguel - featured
The Ritz-Carlton Rewards Card carries a newly enhanced sign-up bonus, but is it the best on this list?

Amex Platinum: 40,000 Membership Rewards points after you use your new card to make $3,000 in purchases in the first three months (worth $760 based on TPG’s most recent valuations)
Citi Prestige: 40,000 bonus ThankYou points after $4,000 in purchases within three months of account opening (worth $640)
Sapphire Reserve: 100,000 bonus Ultimate Rewards points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening (worth $2,100)
Ritz: Three complimentary nights at any participating Tier 1-4 Ritz-Carlton hotel after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first three months after account opening (value depends on the property at which you redeem free nights, but it can get you more than $2,000 of value in free stays)
AAdvantage Executive: 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage bonus miles after spending $5,000 in purchases within the first three months of account opening (worth $750)
United Club: $100 statement credit after your first purchase

Analysis

There’s a clear winner in this category: the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card, one of the most exciting credit cards in recent memory. The Ultimate Rewards points you earn on the card are worth at least $1,500 if you redeem them directly for travel, but you also have the option to transfer them to partners like Hyatt and United for fantastic redemptions like luxurious resorts and first-class flights. This gives you valuable flexibility when it comes to your rewards.

The second slot goes to the Ritz Card thanks to the improved sign-up bonus that was part of the card’s recent refresh. Many Tier 1-4 Ritz hotels can easily set you back hundreds of dollars per night, so there are many properties that will net you at least $1,000 of value out of the sign-up bonus alone.

The final order is self-explanatory: The Amex Platinum edges the AAdvantage Executive Card by a mere $10, followed by the Citi Prestige. The United Club Card brings up the rear, with a paltry $100 statement credit.

Ranking:
Chase Sapphire Reserve (6 points)
Ritz (5 points)
Amex Platinum (4 points)
AAdvantage Executive (3 points)
Citi Prestige (2 points)
United Club (1 point)

POINT EARNING

chase sapphire reserve mta subway featured
The Sapphire Reserve is very rewarding on a daily basis, with triple points on all travel and dining purchases.

Amex Platinum: 5 Membership Reward points for every dollar you spend on airfare purchases; 1 point per dollar on other purchases
Citi Prestige: 3 ThankYou points per dollar spent on air travel and hotels; 2 ThankYou points per dollar spent on dining and entertainment; 1 ThankYou point per dollar spent on other purchases
Sapphire Reserve: 3x points on travel and dining purchases; 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases
Ritz: 5 points per dollar spent at any Ritz-Carlton or Marriott hotel; 2 points per dollar spent on airline tickets purchased directly with the airline and at car rental agencies and restaurants; 1 point per dollar spent on all other card purchases
AAdvantage Executive: 2 AAdvantage miles for every dollar spent on eligible American Airline purchases and 1 AAdvantage mile for every dollar spent on other purchases
United Club: 2 miles per dollar spent on United ticket purchases; 1.5 miles per dollar spent on all other purchases

Analysis

Once again, there’s a clear winner in this category, and it’s a familiar one: the Sapphire Reserve. Having any type of triple points category is nice by itself, but when it applies to travel and dining purchases, that’s a powerful combination. The card has a very broad definition of what constitutes travel, and I’ve even had Chase count numerous bars under the “dining” category, even when they don’t serve food at all. It also doesn’t hurt that you’re earning valuable Ultimate Rewards points on all purchases.

The Citi Prestige slides into second place thanks to the triple points on hotels and airfare plus double points on dining and entertainment purchases, and the Amex Platinum card comes in at #3 thanks for its very generous 5x earnings on airfare. But fourth place is a bit more challenging. While the Ritz card has some decent bonuses on the surface, those points aren’t nearly as valuable as the others on the list; TPG pegged them at just 0.7 cents apiece in his most recent valuations. As a result, I’d put the United Card in fourth (thanks to the 1.5 miles per dollar on everyday purchases) and the Ritz Card in fifth, followed by the AAdvantage Executive.

Ranking:
Chase Sapphire Reserve (6 points)
Citi Prestige (5 points)
Amex Platinum (4 points)
United Club (3 points)
Ritz (2 points)
AAdvantage Executive (1 point)

REDEMPTIONS

EtihadApartmentFeat
Etihad’s First Apartment on the A380 is a great use of AAdvantage miles from the Citi Executive card, but are there more rewarding redemptions on other cards?

Amex Platinum: Numerous direct redemptions like gift cards, Uber rides and travel; transfer points to one of 17 airline partners (like Etihad and Singapore) or three hotel partners
Citi Prestige: Redeem points directly for airfare at a rate of 1.33 cents per point (or 1.6 cents per point on American flights), though this is dropping to a flat 1.25 cents as of July 2017; transfer points to one of 12 airline partners (Virgin America was the most recent addition) plus Hilton HHonors
Sapphire Reserve: Redeem points directly for travel at a rate of 1.5 cents per point; transfer points to one of seven airline partners (like British Airways and Southwest) or four hotel partners (like IHG)
Ritz: Redeem points for stays at Ritz-Carlton or Marriott hotels
AAdvantage Executive: Redeem miles for flights on American and its various partners (like Etihad and Cathay Pacific)
United Club: Redeem miles for flights on United and its various partners (like Lufthansa)

Analysis

This category is a bit closer, as each card has its own appealing redemptions. However, I’d group the top three cards together thanks to the flexibility of transferable points that won’t lock you into a specific set of airlines. Of those three, I’d give the nod to the Sapphire Reserve. Even though the Amex Platinum has more transfer partners, the Reserve also has the ability to redeem points for travel at a rate of 1.5 cents apiece, guaranteeing that you can get some great value out of the program. The Citi Prestige comes in third thanks to the less-than-exciting list of transfer partners (like Qantas and Thai).

For the latter part of the list, I’ll place the AAdvantage Executive and United Club card in a tie for fourth, as they both can get you some pretty terrific flight redemptions and are especially valuable for first or business class (feel free to move one of these down to fifth place in your own analysis if you’re loyal to either airline). Finally, the Ritz card comes in last, as it will take you quite some time to get comparable redemption value out of your Ritz-Carlton points than the others.

Ranking:
Chase Sapphire Reserve (6 points)
Amex Platinum (5 points)
Citi Prestige (4 points)
AAdvantage Executive and United Club (3 points)
Ritz (1 point)

TRAVEL CREDITS

I'm beyond excited about my new Chase Sapphire Reserve.
The Sapphire Reserve’s annual credit truly blows the other cards’ similar offerings out of the water.

Amex Platinum: $200 airline fee credit toward incidentals like baggage fees and lounge passes
Citi Prestige: $250 airfare credit each year
Sapphire Reserve: $300 travel credit each year
Ritz: $300 credit toward incidentals like baggage fees and lounge passes
AAdvantage Executive: None
United Club: None

Analysis

As with some of the earlier categories, the Sapphire Reserve is head-and-shoulders above the rest of the cards. For starters, the credit is a higher dollar amount and also applies to any travel purchase (as opposed to just fees or airfare like some of its competition). In addition, the credits post instantly; others require you to wait an entire statement or even force you to call and have customer service manually issue you a credit.

The second best offering goes to the Citi Prestige. This may be surprising, given that the dollar amount is lower than that of the Ritz Card, but the $250 Prestige credit includes any “flight-related expenses charged to your card, including airline tickets.” Many of the incidental expenses covered by the Ritz statement credit may be worthless to a frequent traveler who may already get free checked bags and lounge access without paying. In addition, you must call and request a statement credit for purchases, and you’re at the mercy of the phone agent in deciding whether the purchase is eligible. I’d rather have an easy and virtually guaranteed $250 credit as opposed to $300 that’s far from simple.

The Amex Platinum’s credit comes in fourth due to its lower dollar amount and the fact that you must choose a single airline on which it will apply. The AAdvantage Executive and United Club cards bring up the rear, with no comparable offering.

Ranking:
Chase Sapphire Reserve (6 points)
Citi Prestige (5 points)
Ritz (4 points)
Amex Platinum (3 points)
AAdvantage Executive and United Club (1 point)*

NOTE: Based on the established criteria, a tie for fifth place should award two points apiece, but given the complete lack of travel credits on the AA and UA cards, I think it’s fair to award them both 1 point (and you could even make an argument for awarding them zero points!).

LOUNGE ACCESS

You can get access to the Virgin America Loft at LAX with a Priority Pass Select membership.
All of these cards include lounge access of some sort, with many granting Priority Pass membership, opening up lounges like the Virgin America Loft at Los Angeles (LAX).

Amex Platinum: Priority Pass Select (guests are $27 each), Delta Sky Clubs when flying Delta (guests are $29 each), Airspace lounges (two free guests or immediate family) and Centurion Lounges (two free guests or immediate family)
Citi Prestige: Priority Pass Select (two free guests or immediate family) and Admirals Club access (two free guests or immediate family, though this benefit is going away in July 2017 and it no longer available for new cardholders)
Sapphire Reserve: Priority Pass Select (unlimited guests)
Ritz: Priority Pass Select (no published guest policy, but reports indicate guests are allowed for free)
AAdvantage Executive: Full Admirals Club membership (two free guests or immediate family, plus complimentary access for authorized users)
United Club: Full United Club membership (two free guests or immediate family)

Analysis

This category is much tougher to rank, given that the true value of lounge access is based on so many factors: your typical departure airport(s), your preferred airline(s) and how frequently you travel with guests, to name a few. The Amex Platinum gives you great flexibility, but those guest fees will really add up. The unlimited guests with the Sapphire Reserve is great, but there are only 25 airports in the US with Priority Pass lounges. The AAdvantage Executive card comes with full Admirals Club membership but also has a limited footprint, with only 25 or so airports in the US.

Given all of that, I’ll slot the AAdvantage Executive in first thanks to the full Admirals Club membership and the fact that authorized users can access Admirals Clubs on their own (and there’s no fee for adding them!). I’ll then place the Amex Platinum in second and call it a four-way tie for third between the Sapphire Reserve, Ritz, Citi Prestige and United Club card (note that the Prestige would drop once the card loses Admirals Club access in July 2017).

Ranking:
AAdvantage Executive (6 points)
Amex Platinum (5 points)
Chase Sapphire Reserve, Ritz, Citi Prestige and United Club (4 points)

ADDITIONAL PERKS

While the previous two benefits deserved their own category (in my opinion), these cards also provide a host of other travel and entertainment-related benefits that are probably best expressed in a table format. Here’s a snapshot, though note that I focused on perks that I considered most likely to be used by a broad audience:

Benefit Amex Platinum Citi Prestige Sapphire Reserve Ritz AAdvantage Executive United Club
Airline Perks International Airline Program lets you bring a companion when you buy a qualifying refundable ticket None None $100 off round-trip domestic coach airfare for two to five passengers Free checked bag on domestic AA flights; priority check-in, security and boarding; 25% discount on in-flight purchases; reduced mileage awards; 10,000 EQMs after spending $40,000 Two free checked bags; Premier Access; waived close-in award-booking fees
Hotel Perks American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts 4th night free on paid hotel stays Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection $100 hotel credit on paid stays of two nights or longer; three Club Level upgrades on paid stays per year None Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection
Hotel Elite Status SPG Gold and Hilton HHonors Gold None None Gold Elite status for the first year and after spending $10,000 in subsequent years; Platinum status after spending $75,000 in a year None Hyatt Gold Passport Platinum
Global Entry/TSA
PreCheck Credit
One credit every five years One credit every five years One credit every four years One credit every four years One credit every five years None
Car Rental Elite Status Avis Preferred, Hertz Gold and National Emerald Club Executive Avis Preferred Plus, National Emerald Club Executive, and Sixt Platinum Privileges at Avis, National and Silvercar Privileges at Avis,
National and Silvercar
Avis Preferred Plus,
National Emerald Club Executive, and Sixt Platinum
None
Other Perks Complimentary Boingo Wi-Fi access Three free rounds of golf per year (being discontinued in July 2017) None None None None

Analysis

This category also makes it a bit challenging to compare cards given the different benefits offered on each and how those benefits are valued by different travelers. However, I’d say the Amex Platinum occupies the top spot given the hotel elite status plus the Fine Hotels & Resorts program. I’d probably place the Ritz Card as number two thanks to the full Visa Infinite perks like the $100 airfare discount plus the array of benefits when staying at a Ritz-Carlton or Marriott property. Rounding out the list would be the Citi Prestige in the third spot (thanks almost entirely to the 4th Night Free perk) followed by the AAdvantage Executive and United Club cards tied for fourth and the Sapphire Reserve in last.

Ranking:
Amex Platinum (6 points)
Ritz (5 points)
Citi Prestige (4 points)
AAdvantage Executive and United Club (3 points)
Chase Sapphire Reserve (1 point)

COVERAGE

All of these cards also provide various coverages and protections when you’re traveling or making purchases, and again this is probably best visualized using a table:

Benefit Amex Platinum Citi Prestige Sapphire Reserve Ritz AAdvantage Executive United Club
Car Rental Coverage Yes (secondary) Yes (secondary) Yes (primary) Yes (primary) Yes (secondary in the US, primary in other countries) Yes (primary)
Travel Assistance Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Baggage Loss or Damage Yes (up to $2,000 for checked bags and $3,000 for all luggage) Yes (up to $3,000 per traveler per trip) Yes (up to $3,000 per passenger) Yes (up to $3,000 per passenger) Yes (up to $3,000 per passenger or $10,000 for all passengers) Yes (up to $3,000 per passenger)
Baggage Delay No Yes (up to $500 per trip if bags are more than three hours late) Yes ($100 per day for up to five days if bags are more than six hours late) Yes ($100 per day for up to five days if bags are more than six hours late) Yes (up to $500 if bags are more than three hours late) Yes (up to $100 per day for three days if bags are more than six hours late)
Trip Delay No Yes (up to $500 per trip) Yes (up to $500 per ticket) Yes (up to $500 per ticket) Yes (up to $500 per trip) Yes (up to $500 per ticket)
Trip Cancellation / Interruption No Yes (up to $5,000 per trip) Yes (up to $10,000 per trip) Yes (up to $10,000 per trip) Yes (up to $5,000 per trip) Yes (up to $10,000 per trip)
Travel Accident Insurance Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Emergency Evacuation & Transportation Yes Yes (up to $100,000) Yes (up to $100,000) Yes (up to $100,000) Yes (up to $100,000) Yes
Roadside Assistance Yes (up to four times per year at no cost) Yes Yes (up to $50 per incident, four times per year) Yes (up to $50 per incident, four times per year) Yes Yes (up to $50 per incident, four times per year)
Purchase Protection Yes (within 90 days, up to $10,000 per occurrence and $50,000 per year) Yes (within 120 days, up to $10,000 per item and $50,000 per year) Yes (within 120 days, up to $10,000 per claim and $50,000 per year) Yes (within 120 days, up to $10,000 per claim and $50,000 per year) Yes (within 120 days, or 90 days for New York residents; up to $10,000 per item or $50,000 per year) Yes (within 120 days, up to $10,000 per item or $50,000 per year)
Extended Warranty Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Return Protection Yes (up to $300 per item and $1,000 per year) Yes (up to $500 per item and $2,500 per year) Yes (up to $500 per item and $1,000 per year) Yes (up to $500 per item and $1,000 per year) Yes (up to $500 per item and $2,500 per year) Yes (up to $500 per item and $1,000 year year)
Price Protection No Yes (within 60 days, up to $300 per item and $1,200 per year) Yes (within 90 days, up to $500 per item and $2,500 per year) Yes (within 90 days, up to $500 per item and $2,500 per year) Yes (within 60 days, up to $500 per item and $2,500 per year) Yes (within 90 days, up to $500 per item and $2,500 per year)

Analysis

Our final category is a close one as well, though you’d (hopefully) not need to take advantage of these very frequently. The top spot is a tie between the Sapphire Reserve, the Ritz Card and the United Club card. All three of these cards offer primary rental car coverage and provide many other benefits that are more generous than others in both the dollar amount and the timeframe.

The fourth place slot will actually also be a tie between the Citi Prestige and AAdvantage Executive, as they too offer very similar perks. The Amex Platinum occupies the bottom spot on the list due to the four “No” answers in the above table plus a couple of less generous policies.

Ranking:
Sapphire Reserve, Ritz and United Club (6 points)
Citi Prestige and AAdvantage Executive (3 points)
Amex Platinum (1 point)

FINAL ANALYSIS

chase sapphire reserve featured
Not surprisingly, the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card came out on top by a wide margin!

So…where do the numbers shake out? Following the formula I mention above and the individual rankings I’ve laid out, here are the final tallies:

  1. Chase Sapphire Reserve Card: 39 points
  2. Citi Prestige Card: 32 points
  3. The Platinum Card from American Express: 32 points
  4. Ritz-Carlton Rewards Credit Card: 30 points
  5. Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard: 27 points
  6. United MileagePlus Club Card: 24 points

As you can see, there’s a clear winner: the Sapphire Reserve. This really shouldn’t come as any surprise given the incredible hype surrounding the card. The second most valuable option was the Citi Prestige, again a not too surprising result given the wealth of ways to maximize those benefits. However, I’m surprised at how close the remaining four cards are, with just six points separating them. All it would take to change this order is a shift of one or two rankings above based on your personal preference, so be sure to consider your own situation before applying for a new card, especially one with such a high annual fee!

Bottom Line

You may think that it’s crazy to pay $450 for a credit card, but as you can see, all of these premium travel rewards cards carry a host of benefits that can easily cover that fee (and then some). As always, you should definitely adjust the rankings I use above based on what’s most important to you, but hopefully this post has given you a framework to use as you try to decide which of these terrific cards should earn a spot in your wallet!

What’s your favorite premium travel credit card?

Chase Sapphire Reserve℠