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Has the Chase Sapphire Reserve been dethroned for leisure travelers?

Jan. 18, 2020
10 min read
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Editor’s note: This post was originally published on Oct. 24, 2018, but has been updated with current news and offers.

In 2016 the Chase Sapphire Reserve claimed the (unofficial) throne as the king of rewards credit cards. It didn't really matter if you were a single business traveler who lived in Manhattan or a family of four from Omaha, the Sapphire Reserve was the card for those serious about their rewards.

It offered, and still offers, 3x transferable points per dollar on travel and dining worth at least 1.5 cents each, a $300 annual travel credit, Priority Pass membership and a litany of other perks both old and new. The huge 100,000-point sign-up bonus available at launch certainly helped it explode onto the scene, but even with the current 50,000-point bonus (after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening) that has persisted for close to three years, the card has been a force to be reckoned with. I've had the Sapphire Reserve since shortly after it launched.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve is so nice, TPG made a jacket out of it. (Photo by Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images for The Points Guy)

But -- slowly and surely — it feels like other rewards cards may be lining up to overthrow the king. Family vacationers and other leisure travelers who may have felt tethered to the Chase Sapphire Reserve over the last few years can potentially do better elsewhere now. Even if you end up deciding to maintain your allegiance to this king, with the fee now at $550 per year it's time to look around and be sure you've got the right card for your needs.

Related reading: Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card review

Earn more points with half the annual fee

Let's talk about the American Express® Gold Card which, when it relaunched in late 2018, became very attractive with 4x Membership Rewards points earned per dollar spent at U.S. supermarkets (up to $25,000 in purchases per calendar year; then 1x) and at restaurants. It also awards an up to $10 monthly statement credit each month (up to $120 in statement credits per calendar year) when you dine at participating restaurants (enrollment required). The card does all this and more with an annual fee of just $250 (see rates & fees), which is less than half of the Sapphire Reserve's annual fee. Enrollment required for select benefits.

Since TPG values both the Amex Membership Rewards points and Chase Ultimate Rewards points at 2 cents each, the math of 4x points on dining at restaurants via the Amex Gold versus 3x on dining via the Sapphire Reserve works in favor of earning 4x Membership Rewards points.

A majority of our family's daily spending is often spent on dining and in supermarkets, so racking up four transferrable points per dollar in those categories is huge and more than any other card offers on those purchases.

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Earn 3x for (much) less

I know what you're thinking -- 4x on restaurants via the Amex Gold is good, but what about travel? In late 2019, American Express refreshed the American Express® Green Card so that it now awards 3x points on travel, dining at restaurants and transit. Sound familiar? But instead of a massive annual fee for the Sapphire Reserve, the Amex Green comes with an annual fee of just $150 (see rates and fees).

It does not come with a big annual travel credit, but it does come with an up to $100 statement credit toward Clear® membership -- a perk my family absolutely loves. It also provides an up to $100 annual statement credit for LoungeBuddy access. Enrollment required for select benefits.

The information for the Amex Green Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Related reading: For the modern traveler: American Express Green Card review

(Photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy)

The true king Of airfare and dining

If the Amex Green and Gold options are strong challengers to the Sapphire Reserve (and they are), the true champion for earning points on dining and some travel charges might be a Citi card.

The Citi Prestige® Card awards 5x on dining, airfare and travel agencies. It then awards 3x points on hotels and cruises. So if you pay for a hotel room or cruise directly with the hotel or cruise line, you’d earn 3x points. But if you pay for a hotel room or cruise though a travel agent, you'd earn 5x points. (And you really should be booking your cruises through a travel agent for onboard credits and perks.)

This card has a $495 annual fee with a $250 travel credit, so it prices in the same annual range as the Sapphire Reserve, but it has the potential to earn more points per dollar.

Valuations may vary (mine are actually higher), but TPG values Citi ThankYou points at 1.7 cents each, meaning that 5x on dining or airfare on this card is worth 8.5 cents in rewards. That compares to earning 6 cents in rewards on travel and dining on the Chase Sapphire Reserve.The information for the Citi Prestige card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

(Image courtesy of Getty Images)

What about the Amex Platinum?

If you are spending $550 per year for the Sapphire Reserve, The Platinum Card® from American Express, which has a higher annual fee of $695 (see rates & fees), also has to be in the discussion -- especially now that it offers not only 5x points on direct airfare purchases or those booked through Amex Travel (up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year) but also provides built-in trip protections of up to $10,000 per covered trip.

Related reading: Battle of the premium travel rewards cards: Which is the best?

If you're a traveler who likes lounges, the Amex Platinum actually gets you into more lounges than the Sapphire Reserve thanks to a partnership with Delta Sky Club and the growing network of Amex Centurion Lounges, along with Delta SkyClubs on same-day flights, Escapes and Airspace lounges. You'll also have the up to $200 annual airline-fee credit, up to $100 in annual Saks credits, up to $200 in annual Uber Cash, etc. It can be a pain to use up all those relatively niche credits, but they are there. Enrollment required for select benefits.

Related reading: Maximizing the benefits of the Amex Platinum

Chasing Mickey

Since this is a story aimed at leisure travelers and Disney's Magic Kingdom alone gets more annual visitors than all of Hawaii combined, I must talk about Disney. In recent years, the Chase Sapphire Reserve card has gone from a card that earned points worth 1.5 cents each to book Disney resorts, Disney Cruises and Disney park tickets to having points that can't be used for anything Disney. That is super unfortunate for the millions and millions of people seeking ways to do Disney for less.

(Photo by Melissa Ann Photography)

For those with a points-fueled Disney visit on their radar, this was a very real blow to the overall value proposition of the Chase Ultimate Rewards cards. And remember that Citi Prestige we talked about? Those Citi ThankYou points can still be used to book Disney resorts, tickets and cruises. In fact, this is how I have been using points to fund our own Disney ticket purchases over the last couple years. (But be sure to use your Chase Sapphire Reserve to earn 10x points on Minnie Van rides at Disney World -- they are booked through Lyft.)

Related reading: How to use points for Disney tickets

The king hasn't left the building

For earning as many transferrable points as possible on dining and airfare, there are conceivably better alternatives to the Sapphire Reserve. Heck, from the perspective of just earning a flat 3x on travel and dining, you could shift to the less-expensive Amex Green card.

But that doesn't mean everyone should lay down their Sapphire Reserve cards. Just like my coworker Katherine Fan, I don't see the Sapphire Reserve getting pried out of my cold hands anytime soon. My family's travel redemption patterns value the Ultimate Rewards transfer partners -- including United, Hyatt and Southwest -- so it will stay in my wallet.

Related reading: Our top 6 family award trips

We also like to use the Priority Pass dining credit at airport restaurants (you can't do that with Amex-issued Priority Pass memberships anymore) and when you factor in the card's flexible $300 travel credit, the true cost of the annual fee quickly drops to $250, in line with the Amex Gold card. We will also be sure to earn 10x points on Lyft rides, though that is not a common expense for us suburban folks.

However, with the annual fee now at $550, we will almost certainly go from being a two Sapphire Reserve card family down to a one Sapphire Reserve card family. My husband and I have each had one since they came out, but this will likely be the year we downsize to one CSR in the household.

Bottom line

(Photo by The Points Guy)
(Photo by The Points Guy)

I don't know where the ceiling is on credit card rewards and perks, but the Chase Sapphire Reserve could not one-up its rewards card rivals forever. American Express and Citi have been challenging -- and potentially overtaking -- many features once unique to the Sapphire king of credit card land.

With the Reserve's higher annual fee now in place, will one of these challengers dethrone the Chase Sapphire Reserve in your wallet?

For rates and fees of the Amex Green Card, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Amex Platinum Card, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Amex Gold Card, please click here.

Featured image by Getty Images/iStockphoto
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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