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As 2015 kicks into gear along with the quest for elite qualification, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about membership-only cards that can help you gain fast-track elite status, airfare and hotel discounts, and other benefits. Today, TPG Contributor (and COO) Leigh Rowan reviews one of the more prominent of these cards, FoundersCard.

TPG first reviewed FoundersCard in 2011 and then again in 2013, each time assessing the value proposition and trying to answer the most fundamental question: is FoundersCard worth getting? Today I’d like to take another look at FoundersCard as the first of a handful of membership-only cards that we’ll be reviewing in the coming weeks.

First, a disclaimer: I’ve been a long-time FC member (in fact, I turned TPG onto the card in 2011!), and I’ve found membership to be quite valuable, though it does have its limitations. In this review, I’ll discuss how the card has been useful to me, as well as what I think sets FC apart from other similar products.

The FoundersCard allows you access to Elite Status with airlines, hotels and car rental companies, and provides special hotel rates.
FoundersCard offers elite status with airlines, hotels and car rental companies, as well as discounts.

FoundersCard Overview

FoundersCard‘s current public offer is $595/year for membership, plus a one-time $95 initiation fee. That said, there are sometimes discounted FC rates available online; if you use the code FCTPG17 at sign-up, you’ll receive annual membership for only $495 with a waived initiation fee.

That’s a sizable chunk of change—even with the discount, the cost to join FoundersCard is on par with the annual fee for most premium travel rewards cards. So what do you get for the cost of admission? Read on and see.

FoundersCard Travel Benefits
A sampling of the FoundersCard Travel Benefits

Features Set – What’s Included, What’s Not

FoundersCard features a variety of Hotel, Travel, Fashion/Lifestyle and Business-focused discount opportunities, and members also receive invitations to cocktail parties and networking events around the globe. There are over 100 different benefits and discounts, truly too many to list here.

On the lifestyle side, you’ll get special offers and discounts ranging from 5-25% off at almost 60 different fashion brands (including Trunk Club, Bonobos, rag & bone, and John Varvatos), as well as discounted memberships at gyms, spas and health clubs. There are even special offers on the lease or purchase of Audi vehicles, which can more than make up for the annual fee.

On the business side, the card offers discounts on Apple and Dell computers, AT&T phone service, UPS shipping, Legalzoom legal services, co-working spaces, and more.

Elite Status Benefits

Perhaps most importantly (from the points and miles perspective), the card offers fast-track elite status to 4 airlines (American Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Virgin America and Virgin Atlantic) and 2 hotel brands (Hilton, with special perks at top-end Conrad and Waldorf-Astoria Properties, and Caesar’s Entertainment). FoundersCard also comes with benefits like discounted room rates and automatic room upgrades for properties and chains without elite status upgrades.

The card also features an American Airlines AAdvantage Platinum Status Challenge – for members who aren’t Executive Platinum or Platinum already, you must sign up through the member portal by January 30 and fly 10,000 EQPs on American and select partners between February 12 and April 12 in order to receive Platinum status through February 29, 2016.

In his series analyzing the value of hotel elite status, TPG Contributor Nick Ewen estimated that Hilton Honors Gold Status is worth $751 per year, illustrating that you can extract great value from FoundersCard’s elite status benefits if you know how to use them.

 

Mandarin Oriental Bangkok
The gorgeous lobby of the Author’s Lounge at the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok

Using FoundersCard Benefits

All redemptions—from discount codes to elite upgrades—are handled on a per-perk basis, meaning that you have to log in to the member dashboard in FoundersCard to request the benefit in order for it to be applied to your loyalty account. Benefits are usually activated pretty quickly, though in some cases (like Caesar’s Total Rewards Diamond Status) it can take up to 2 weeks. Overall, I appreciate the diversity of the FoundersCard benefits, even though I only tend to use them when I’m already staying at a hotel property or flying an airline anyway.

I’ve highlighted a handful of my favorite benefits that I’ve used over the past 5 years:

  • Elite Status Upgrades: Hilton Honors Gold, Sixt Rental Car Platinum, Caesar’s Total Rewards Diamond, American AAdvantage Platinum, and Cathay Pacific Silver.
  • Flight Discounts: American Airlines, JetBlue and British Airways.
  • Hotel Discounts: Mandarin Oriental Bangkok (pictured above), Conrad Chicago, W Austin, Cosmopolitan Las Vegas, The Standard Downtown LA and The SLS South Beach.
  • Business Discounts: Domain name registration through Namecheap, discounts on Apple products, 20% off LegalZoom fees, 32% off of UPS shipping fees and 20% off Moo.com printing services.

Given that I would have been flying those airlines or staying at comparable properties over the past few years, having the FoundersCard benefits and discounts available to me has added points to my accounts and kept money in my wallet. I’ve found that I get good value out of the benefits even if I only use ~10% of them in a given year.

Is It Worth It?

This is the big question, and one that TPG gets all the time: are membership-only cards like FoundersCard actually worth it? As with all valuations, the answer depends on your own usage of the card, and how well you can maximize its benefits.

Let’s imagine two scenarios—both drawing from some of my recent travels and FoundersCard uses—for potential entrepreneurs and business travelers who might regularly use the card.

Scenario One
In early March, you have to fly LAX-BKK for a week-long business trip. Your company will cover business class tickets because of the distance, but they want to you fly as cheaply as possible, regardless of which airline you fly. They’ll let you stay in whatever 4 or 5 star hotel you prefer while in Bangkok.

Flights: According to a quick search on Kayak as of press time, the cheapest flights from March 8 – 14 flying LAX-(connection)-BKK are $3,000-$3,400 in business class on Philippine Air, Air China or China Eastern. If you were to use FoundersCard to get a maximum possible 25% discount on Cathay Pacific, you would pay $4,780. In this case, it’s much cheaper to buy business class tickets on the other carriers, even if their product isn’t as impressive as Cathay’s.

Hotel: You want to stay at the elegant Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, one of Asia’s nicest hotels. The rack rate is about $460/night. FoundersCard offers that same room for 285/night, a savings of $175/night.

Verdict: mixed. While the cost savings on the hotel stay are substantial (and clearly cover the $395 annual fee), the card doesn’t help with international business class fares for your destination.

Scenario Two
You fly transcontinental SFO-FLL service on JetBlue or Virgin America once monthly, and while you like to stay at Hilton properties because of their convenience, you’re interested in trying out other luxury properties as long as the price is right. Each trip, you stay in a hotel for 3 nights (36 nights annually).

Flights: Here FoundersCard can offer some significant value. The discounts on Virgin America range from 5-12%, while on JetBlue you save a flat 5%. Given that average flights (Monday-Thursday RTs) are $330+ depending on the month, the 5% discount can save you at least $198 annually, possibly more.

Hotel: With FoundersCard, your hotel options are interesting. You could stay at the W Fort Lauderdale at a discounted rate of $164/night for a Wonderful Room, or you can use the Hilton Honors Gold benefit to stay with perks/discounts at any number of Hilton properties, including the upcoming Fort Lauderdale Conrad. The Hilton Honors Gold benefit comes in handy because you wouldn’t hit the Gold threshold even if you stayed all 36 nights at Hilton properties. You elect to stay half the time at the W (saving approximately $60-80/night) and half the time at the Hampton Inn Fort Lauderdale Downtown for $143/night.

Verdict: Yes, FoundersCard is worth it. Combining the discounted airfare value of roughly $200 a year and the discounted rates at the W, plus the value of the Hilton elite benefits, you easily save enough to justify the annual cost of the card.

My Take

These two results indicate that, as expected, the card offers great returns if you put the benefits to good use. You could just as easily get Hilton Gold status (for example) with either the Citi Hilton Reserve or the Hilton HHonors Surpass card from Amex, which have much lower annual fees. However, you wouldn’t get flight discounts, business discounts, other status upgrades, or any of the other benefits that come with FoundersCard.

You should crunch the numbers to see if the card makes sense for you, but my guess is that if you’re likely to use more than a few of the benefits regularly, then the annual fee will be more than justified.

As a reminder, if you sign up for a FoundersCard and use the code FCPOINTS15 at sign-up, you’ll receive annual membership for only $395.

Stay tuned for more reviews of members-only discount and loyalty cards in the coming weeks!

Have you gotten value from FoundersCard? Please share your experiences in the comments below!

The Platinum Card® from American Express

The American Express Platinum card has some of the best perks out there: cardholders enjoy the best domestic lounge access (Delta SkyClubs, Centurion Lounges, and Priority Pass), a $200 annual airline fee credit as well as up to $200 in Uber credits, and mid-tier elite status at SPG, Marriott, and Hilton. Combined with the 60,000 point welcome offer -- worth $1,140 based on TPG's valuations -- this card is a no-brainer for frequent travelers. Here are 5 reasons you should consider this card, as well as how you can figure out if the $550 annual fee makes sense for you.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you use your new Card to make $5,000 in purchases in your first 3 months.
  • Enjoy Uber VIP status and free rides in the U.S. up to $15 each month, plus a bonus $20 in December. That can be up to $200 in annual Uber savings.
  • 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel.
  • 5X Membership Rewards points on prepaid hotels booked on amextravel.com.
  • Enjoy access to the Global Lounge Collection, the only credit card airport lounge access program that includes proprietary lounge locations around the world.
  • Receive complimentary benefits with an average total value of $550 with Fine Hotels & Resorts. Learn More.
  • $200 Airline Fee Credit, up to $200 per calendar year in baggage fees and more at one qualifying airline.
  • Get up to $100 in statement credits annually for purchases at Saks Fifth Avenue on your Platinum Card®. Enrollment required.
  • $550 annual fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Intro APR on Purchases
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Annual Fee
$550
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Recommended Credit
Excellent/Good
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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: 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.