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While the number of premium travel rewards cards has increased dramatically in recent years, there’s still a strong case to be made for mid-tier cards with annual fees of about $100. At this price point, you can still earn great rewards on your travel, dining and more, as well as transfer your points to several different airlines or book travel directly through the card issuer’s travel agency.

The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card was one of the first cards to really define this segment, and it was later joined by the Citi ThankYou Premier Card and the Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express. All of these cards have undergone significant changes over the years, and today, I want to take a closer look at how they currently compare to each other.

Sign-Up Bonus and Spending Requirements

The chance to earn a great sign-up bonus is just one reason to consider one of these cards.

Chase Sapphire Preferred: 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points when you spend $4,000 within three months of account opening. That’s $625 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards. Plus earn an additional 5,000 points when you add an additional user and made a purchase within the first three months. Based on TPG’s valuations, 55,000 Ultimate Rewards points are worth $1,155.

Amex Premier Rewards Gold: This card offers you 25,000 Membership Rewards points when you spend $2,000 within three months of account opening. That’s worth $475 based on TPG’s valuations. Always be on the lookout for higher targeted offers as well.

Citi ThankYou Premier: 50,000 ThankYou® Points when you spend $4,000 in the first three months of account opening.

Winner: Sapphire Preferred

Bonus Categories

One thing that makes these cards superior to options with no annual fee is that you earn bonus points for travel, dining and more.

Sapphire Preferred: Earn double points on all restaurant and travel purchases, including expenses like tolls, parking and subways. You can also earn an extra point per dollar when you book travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards shopping portal. Assuming you make most of your purchases through merchants rather than through the Chase travel portal, you’re looking at a return of 4.2% based on our valuations.

Premier Rewards Gold: Earn 3x points (a 5.7% return) for flights booked directly with airlines, and 2x points (a 3.8% return) at US restaurants, US gas stations and US supermarkets.

ThankYou Premier: Earn 3x (equal to a 5.1% return) points on gas and all travel including taxis, tolls and public transit. You earn 2x points (a 3.4% return) at restaurants and on entertainment purchases.

Winner: Premier Rewards Gold — it technically offers the greatest return, but only for airfare purchases.

Citi ThankYou Premier vs. Sapphire Preferred vs. Premier Rewards Gold

Annual Fee

Many choose these mid-tier travel rewards cards because they lack the $450 (and higher) annual fees found on premium reward cards.

Sapphire Preferred: $95, waived the first year.

Premier Rewards Gold: $0 annual fee for the first year, then $195.

ThankYou Premier: $95, waived the first year.

Winner: This is a three-way tie if you factor in the Amex Premier Rewards Gold Card’s $100 annual airline fee credit. However, keep in mind that this credit isn’t valid for actual airfare; only for incidentals like baggage fees and lounge access. Additionally, you need to pick one airline with which you’ll redeem the credit — you can’t split it up among multiple carriers.

Transfer Partners

Park Hyatt, Saigon. Photo courtesy Hyatt
Redeem Chase points for Hyatt stays. Image courtesy of the Park Hyatt Saigon.

What I love about these cards is that you earn points that you can transfer to airlines and hotels. The Premier Rewards Gold earns American Express Membership Rewards points; the Sapphire Preferred earns Chase Ultimate Rewards points; and the Citi Premier offers ThankYou points.

It’s hard to directly compare these programs, because each will serve some people better than others, depending on their airline and hotel loyalties and which destinations they have in mind.

Sapphire Preferred: With this card, you earn Ultimate Rewards that transfer at a 1:1 ratio to nine frequent flyer programs and four hotel chains. Most of these options offer instant point transfers, which will reduce your stress level when making large a transfer to capture fleeting award seats. Here are the transfer partners:

  • Aer Lingus
  • Flying Blue (Air France, KLM and others)
  • British Airways
  • Iberia
  • Korean Air
  • Singapore Airlines
  • Southwest
  • United
  • Virgin Atlantic
  • Hyatt
  • IHG Rewards
  • Marriott
  • Ritz-Carlton

The great thing about Chase’s selection of partners is that all three major airline alliances are represented, as well as Aer Lingus, Southwest and Virgin Atlantic. It also offers hotel transfers, but Hyatt is the only one that offers a competitive value. According to TPG’s latest monthly valuations, Hyatt points are worth 1.8 cents each while Marriott and Ritz points are worth just 0.9 cents each, and IHG points are worth only 0.7 cents each. In fact, you’re almost always better off redeeming your points for stays at Marriott, Ritz-Carlton and IHG properties through the Chase Ultimate Rewards Travel Center, which offers a consistent 1.25 cents in value to Sapphire Preferred cardholders.

Premier Rewards Gold: The Membership Rewards program features 16 airlines and four hotel programs that you can transfer your Membership Rewards points to. Unfortunately, some of these transfer partners aren’t instantaneous. However,  Amex frequently offers transfer bonuses. Here are the transfer partners:

  • Air Canada Aeroplan
  • Aeromexico (1,000:1,600)
  • Air France/KLM Flying Blue
  • Alitalia
  • ANA
  • British Airways
  • Asia Miles
  • Delta
  • El Al (1,000:20)
  • Etihad Guest
  • Emirates Skywards
  • Hawaiian Airlines
  • Iberia
  • JetBlue (250:200)
  • Singapore Airlines
  • Virgin Atlantic
  • Best Western Rewards (1:1)
  • Choice Privileges (1:1)
  • Hilton (1:2)
  • Starwood (1,000:333)

Citi ThankYou Premier: Citi offers an eclectic mix of airline transfer partners at a 1:1 ratio, but none are US-based (JetBlue has a lower transfer rate). Now that the program’s dropped Hilton, it unfortunately doesn’t have any hotel partners.

  • Asia Miles (Cathay Pacific)
  • Avianca LifeMiles
  • EVA Air
  • Etihad Guest
  • Flying Blue
  • Garuda Indonesia
  • Jet Airways
  • JetBlue (1,000:500)
  • Malaysia Airlines Enrich
  • Qantas
  • Qatar
  • Singapore Airlines
  • Thai
  • Virgin Atlantic
  • Sears Shop Your Way (1:12)

Winner: Chase Sapphire Preferred. Even though it has fewer transfer partners than its competitors, Chase has the most well-rounded selection of carriers from all three major global airline alliances, plus Southwest and Virgin Atlantic. Furthermore, Ultimate Rewards is the only program that has relationships with United and Southwest, and it features instantaneous transfers to most partners.

Other Benefits and Redemptions

Chase Sapphire Preferred: Among the features of this cards are no foreign transaction feesprimary rental car insurance, trip cancellation/interruption coverage of up to $10,000 per trip and other Visa Signature benefits. Chase also lets you book travel reservations, including rental cars, cruises and activities, at a rate of 1.25 cents per point. Finally, you can cash out your points at a rate of 1 cent each toward statement credits or even a deposit in a bank account.

Premier Rewards Gold: This card offers you a $100 annual statement credit toward air travel fees. You have to designate an airline, but it covers change fees, bag fees, seat selection fees and most other charges, not including tickets and seat upgrade purchases.

You can also redeem your Amex points for gift cards and with partners. As for car rental insurance, I especially like Amex’s premium primary car rental insurance program for $24.95 per rental ($17.95 for California residents), which is a better deal the longer you rent.

Citi ThankYou Premier: As with the Sapphire Preferred Card, points can be redeemed for 1.25 cents each toward travel reservations, or for about 1 cent each toward merchandise, gift cards or even loan repayments. Citi also offers plenty of travel insurance and purchase protection policies, including worldwide rental car insurance.

Winner: Sapphire Preferred, due to its primary rental car insurance and travel redemption options.

Conclusion

These cards represent a sweet spot for many award travel enthusiasts who aren’t ready to shell out hundreds of dollars for an annual fee. By offering some 3x bonus categories the American Express Premier Rewards Gold and Citi ThankYou Premier cards have both eclipsed the Sapphire Preferred on the earnings side, however TPG still values Ultimate Rewards points at 2.1 cents each compared to 1.9 for Membership Rewards and 1.6 for ThankYou points. That’s because Ultimate Rewards offers superior value due to its strong selection of partners and instantaneous transfers to many of them. American Express’ travel partners can be great for some uses, especially when the offer transfer bonuses, while Citi’s partners are largely inferior. Another factor is that Amex and Chase offer small business credit cards that allow you to earn more points in the same rewards program, while Citi lacks such an option.

By leading in three of these four areas, the Sapphire Preferred has the edge, but any one of these cards may be best suited to you, depending on how you earn, and spend your rewards. By closely examining all of these cards’ features and benefits, the one that best meets your needs will eventually become clear.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are 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.

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