The top travel rewards cards that can pay for themselves

Jun 29, 2020

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Premium credit cards have been one of the fastest growing segments of the reward card market in recent years, as customers with varying levels of income and net worth get comfortable with the idea of paying several hundred dollars a year in annual fees.

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Of course people aren’t just handing their money over to the banks, but rather many of these cards are structured in such a way that they can pay for themselves over time with the benefits they offer. Today we’re going to take a look at the top credit cards that can pay for themselves if you’re able to maximize their top benefits.

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

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The top credit cards that pay for themselves

You’ll notice that many of the cards on this list carry massive annual fees well above $400 a year. Just because a card can pay for itself, doesn’t mean it necessarily will. It’s up to you to make sure you utilize all the different statement credits, free nights, and other perks the card offers in order to get the maximum value possible.

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Comparing the top credit cards that pay for themselves

Card Welcome bonus Bonus value Annual fee Valuable perks
The Platinum Card® from American Express 100,000 Membership Rewards® Points after you spend $6,000 on purchases on the Card in your first 6 months of Card Membership. $2,000 $695 (see rates & fees) up to $200 annual airline incidental fee credit

up to $200 annual Uber credit ($15 a month with a $20 bonus in December)

up to $100 annual Saks Fifth Avenue credit ($50 from January to June and again from July to December)

Priority Pass select membership, access to Amex Centurion lounges and Delta SkyClubs when flying Delta

Enrollment required for select benefits.

Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card Earn 75,000 bonus points after you spend $3,000 in purchases within the first three months.​ Plus, earn up to $200 in statement credits for eligible purchases at U.S. restaurants within the first six months of card membership. up to $800 $450 (see rates & fees) up to $300 annual Marriott property statement credit on eligible purchases at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy program

Anniversary free night certificate worth up to 50,000 points

up to $100 luxury property credit on eligible stays of two nights or more at St. Regis and Ritz Carlton hotels

Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card Earn 150,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months $900 $450 (see rates & fees) up to $250 annual Hilton resort credit

up to $250 annual airline fee credit

up to $100 Hilton luxury property credit one eligible stays of two nights or more at Conrad and Waldorf Astoria hotels

Hilton Diamond status

Citi Prestige® Card Earn 50,000 ThankYou Points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months $850 $495 up to $250 annual travel credit

4th night free on eligible hotel stays, up to twice a year

Bank of America® Premium Rewards® credit card Earn 50,000 points after spending $3,000 in the first 90 days of account opening $500 $95 up to $100 annual airline incidental statement credit
Honorable mention: American Express® Gold Card Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months. $1,200 $250 (see rates & fees) up to $10 monthly dining credit at participating partners, including Grubhub, Seamless, The Cheesecake Factory, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, some Shake Shack locations and Boxed

Enrollment required.

*Value of points based on TPG valuations and not provided by issuers

The information for the Citi Prestige card and Hilton Aspire Amex 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.

The Platinum Card® from American Express

(Photo by Isabelle Raphael / The Points Guy)
(Photo by Isabelle Raphael / The Points Guy)

Welcome offer: Earn 100,000 Membership Rewards® Points after you spend $6,000 on purchases on the Card in your first 6 months of Card Membership. Plus, earn 10x points on eligible purchases on the Card at restaurants worldwide and when you Shop Small in the U.S., on up to $25,000 in combined purchases, during your first 6 months of Card Membership.

Annual fee: $695 (see rates & fees)

Earning rates: Earn 5x points per dollar on flights booked directly with the airline and flights (starting Jan. 1, 2021, earn 5x points on up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year). Earn 5x points on prepaid hotels booked with American Express Travel. Earn 1x on all other purchases,

Analysis: The Amex Platinum was the original premium credit card, and it’s long been at or near the top of the pack when it comes to annual fee and benefits. In exchange for your $695 annual fee (see rates and fees) you’ll receive up to $500 in annual statement credits, broken down as follows:

  • Up to $200 annual airline incidental fee credit. Unfortunately this credit can’t be used towards airfare, only select incidental fees like checked bags or seat assignment. Additionally, you need to designate an airline from an eligible list each year. This can be very valuable for frequent travelers, but due to the many restrictions, you should make sure you have a plan in place for how you’ll utilize this credit.
  • Up to $200 annual Uber credit. Each month you’ll receive $15 in Uber cash, with a $20 bonus in December. The good news is that even if you don’t use Uber, you can use this credit towards Uber Eats delivery orders.
  • Up to $100 Saks Fifth Avenue credit. This is broken up into a $50 credit for the first half of the year (January through June) and another $50 for the second half (July through December).
  • Limited-time perk. Up to $320 in statement credits on select streaming and wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers (up to $20 per month) through December 2020.

While individual people may place different values on these perks, already you’re looking at $500 in annual statement credits against a $695 annual fee (see rates and fees). It’s easy to make up that last $195 in value from the Platinum’s other excellent travel perks, such as Gold elite status with both Marriott and Hilton and comprehensive airport lounge benefits, including a Priority Pass select membership, access to Amex’s ever growing collection of Centurion lounges, and access to Delta SkyClubs when flying Delta.

Related reading: The Platinum Card from American Express review 

Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant American Express Card

(Photo by Eden Batki/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Eden Batki/The Points Guy)

Welcome offer: Earn 75,000 bonus points after you spend $3,000 in purchases within the first three months.​ Plus, earn up to $200 in statement credits for eligible purchases at U.S. restaurants within the first six months of card membership.

Annual fee: $450 (see rates & fees)

Earning rates: Earn 6x points per dollar on eligible purchases at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy program, 3x points per dollar at U.S. restaurants and on flights booked directly with airlines and 2x points per dollar on all other eligible purchases.

Analysis: The Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant offers an incredibly compelling value proposition and is a no brainer for anyone who stays at a Marriott even semi regularly. If you’re considering getting a hotel’s premium credit card then I’ll assume that the up to $300 annual Marriott credit – valid on room rates as well as food and beverage and spa treatments – is as good as cash to you, effectively lowering your out of pocket cost to just $150 a year.

In exchange for that, you get Marriott Gold elite status which includes a 25% points bonus and upgrade to enhanced rooms, as well as the ability to upgrade to Platinum status by spending $75,000 a year. The most valuable perk of the card is the anniversary free night certificate, valid at hotels costing up to 50,000 points per night. TPG values Marriott points at 0.8 cents each, making this certificate worth $400, but it’s easy to get even more value. For example, I redeemed mine this year for a free night at the St. Regis Langkawi that would’ve cost $650 cash. When you add in the incredible suite upgrade we received and one of the best hotel breakfasts I’ve ever seen, I put the real value I got from this free night certificate closer to $800.

Related reading: Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant Amex review

(Photo by Ethan Steinberg/The Points Guy)
I was able to get well over $650 in value by redeeming my 50,000 point free night certificate at the St. Regis Langkawi. Photo by Ethan Steinberg / The Points Guy

 

Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card

Hilton Honors American Express Aspire card. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)
Hilton Honors American Express Aspire card. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

Welcome offer: Earn 150,000 Hilton Honors points after spending $4,000 in the first three months

Annual fee: $450 (see rates & fees)

Earning rates: Earn 14x points per dollar spent at Hilton properties, 7x points on flights booked directly with airlines or through amextravel.com, car rentals booked directly from select car rental companies and at U.S. restaurants and 3x points on all other purchases.

Analysis: Because it offers automatic top-tier Hilton Diamond status, the Aspire is such a valuable card that it’s a good reason for brand-agnostic travelers to consider becoming loyal to Hilton. The card is also full of perks and credits to help you recoup your initial cost and then some. In fact, you can easily redeem up to $500 worth of credits each year in exchange for your $450 annual fee (see rates and fees), starting with an up to $250 annual airline incidental fee credit. This carries the same restrictions as the credit on the Amex Platinum, and it’s rare for a hotel card to offer an airline credit like this. Next up is the $250 annual Hilton resort credit, valid for select room rates as well as food, beverage and other activities at participating Hilton resorts.

One of the biggest draws of hotel credit cards is the free night certificates they offer, and this is an area where the Aspire excels. On account opening you’ll receive a free weekend night certificate valid at just about any property in the Hilton portfolio (including aspirational hotels like the Waldorf Astoria Maldives), and another on your account anniversary.

Related reading: Hilton Honors American Express Aspire review

Citi Prestige® Card

(Photo by Eric Helgas/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Eric Helgas/The Points Guy)

Sign-up bonus: Earn 50,000 points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months of account opening.

Annual fee: $495

Earning rates: Earn 5x points on dining at restaurants and air travel, 3x points at hotels and cruise lines and 1x everywhere else.

Analysis: The Citi Prestige has undergone a number of devaluations in recent years, from losing most of its travel insurance protections to seeing the valuable 4th night free on hotel stays capped at two uses per year. Still, with an annual fee just a hair below the main competition from Chase and Amex, the Prestige has an easier time paying for itself. The card offers an up to $250 annual travel credit which is automatically applied to a wide range of purchases, including airfare and hotel stays. This drops the out of pocket cost to just $245 a year.

That amount can easily be recouped through two uses of the 4th night free benefit, and if you’re staying at pricier hotels you could potentially save much more. The Prestige is still a popular choice because of its strong 5x earning on dining and air travel, and if you can unlock those valuable bonus categories with a card that pays for itself every year, even better.

Related reading: Citi Prestige review

Bank of America® Premium Rewards® credit card

Sign-up bonus: Earn 50,000 points (worth $500) after spending $3,000 in the first 90 days of account opening.

Annual fee: $95

Earning rates: Earn 2x points on travel and dining and 1.5x on everything else. Plus, earn 2 points for every $1 spent on grocery store purchases- now through 12/31/21. Bank of America Preferred Rewards members can unlock higher earning rates as well.

Analysis: It’s no surprise that most of the cards on this list are in the premium family, as higher annual fees tend to correlate with more valuable perks. The Bank of America Preferred Rewards is a fantastic option for anyone looking for solid, uncomplicated cash back rewards who aren’t interested in paying a large annual fee. The card charges a $95 annual fee but offers an up to $100 annual airline incidental fee statement credit, meaning you can actually get paid $5 every year to keep this card open! If you already have a banking relationship with Bank of America and qualify for the Preferred Rewards program this card becomes even more rewarding, and may even supplant some of the points earning cards currently in your wallet.

Related reading: Bank of America Premium Rewards review

Honorable mention: American Express® Gold Card

(Photo by Isabelle Raphael/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Isabelle Raphael/The Points Guy)

Welcome offer: Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months.

Annual fee: $250 (see rates & fees)

Earning rates: Earn 4x points per dollar at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets (U.S. supermarkets capped at $25,000 per calendar year, then 1x), 3x on flights booked directly from the airline or amextravel.com and 1x everywhere else.

Analysis: The Amex Gold straddles the line between premium and entry level, offering some of the best earning rates on restaurants and groceries with a manageable annual fee. While it doesn’t completely pay for itself (unless you factor in the thousands of points you can earn each year from its 4x bonus categories), it does get close enough to earn itself a spot in the list.

The $250 annual fee (see rates and fees) is offset by an up to $120 annual dining credit, which breaks down as up to $10 a month at the following dining partners: Grubhub, Seamless, The Cheesecake Factory, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, some Shake Shack locations and Boxed. If you can maximize both credits each year you’ll drop your out of pocket cost to just $130, and that’s a very reasonable price to pay to unlock 4x earning in both dining and groceries, two of the categories people spend the most in.

Related reading: Ameican Express Gold Card review

Bottom line

Picking the right credit card is a balancing act as you have to find the right perks, benefits and bonus categories while keeping the annual fee in a range you’re comfortable with. Many of the cards on this list charge large upfront annual fees, but all of them can pay for themselves and then some year after year thanks to the incredibly valuable benefits they offer.

For rates and fees of the Platinum Card, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Bonvoy Brilliant Card, please click here.

For rates and fees of the Hilton Aspire Card, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Amex Gold Card, please click here.

Featured image by Isabelle Raphael / The Points Guy

Updated on 5/3/21.

Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card

Earn 90,000 bonus miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new card in the first three months of card membership. Offer ends 11/10/2021.

With Status Boost™, earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, up to two times per year getting you closer to Medallion Status. Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels, 2X Miles at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets and earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases. Terms Apply.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 90,000 Bonus Miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer expires 11/10/2021.
  • Earn up to 20,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) with Status Boost® per year. After you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, you can earn 10,000 MQMs two times per year, getting you closer to Medallion® Status. MQMs are used to determine Medallion® Status and are different than miles you earn toward flights.
  • Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels.
  • Earn 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide, including takeout and delivery and at U.S. supermarkets.
  • Earn 1X Miles on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a Domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate each year upon renewal of your Card. *Payment of the government imposed taxes and fees of no more than $75 for roundtrip domestic flights (for itineraries with up to four flight segments) is required. Baggage charges and other restrictions apply. See terms and conditions for details.
  • Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.
  • Fee Credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓®.
  • Enjoy an exclusive rate of $39 per person per visit to enter the Delta Sky Club® for you and up to two guests when traveling on a Delta flight.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • $250 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Regular APR
15.74%-24.74% Variable
Annual Fee
$250
Balance Transfer Fee
N/A
Recommended Credit
Excellent/Good
Terms and restrictions apply. See rates & fees.

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.