Chase Sapphire Reserve vs. Amex Platinum: Which is better for airfare purchases?

Jan 15, 2020

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To The Point

Both the Chase Sapphire Reserve and Platinum Card from American Express are excellent choices for airfare purchases.

Editor’s note: This post has been updated with new information about the cards. It was originally published on March 2, 2018.

One of the questions that TPG readers ask most often is: Which credit card is best for airfare purchases? The answer can depend on which cards earn the most points or miles per dollar on airfare, whether a card offers any discounts specifically on airline purchases and what kinds of travel protections each card includes.

Two products that perennially top our lists of the best rewards cards for airfare purchases are the Chase Sapphire Reserve® and The Platinum Card® from American Express. As two of the most popular premium rewards cards available, the Sapphire Reserve and Amex Platinum regularly go head-to-head in discussions of earning rates, benefits and annual fees. Now that Chase has unveiled new perks — and a higher $550 annual fee — it’s time to see if it’s keeping up with the Amex Platinum card.

For the purposes of this post, we are going to limit our analysis to a few key criteria that relate to airfare [purchases. If you are interested in seeing how the two cards stack up in a broader range of categories, we have a detailed comparison post that drills down farther into the reasons you might want one or the other. To read still more about the ins and outs of each card, check out our Review of the Chase Sapphire Reserve and our Platinum Card from American Express Review.

In the meantime, here’s a look at how they rate specifically on airfare purchases and the benefits each has to offer.

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In This Post

Earning rates

How many points does each card earn on airfare? The good news is, both are strong contenders.

(Photo by Anete Lūsiņa on Unsplash)
Both cards are great for airfare purchases, but which is better for you? (Photo by Anete Lūsiņa on Unsplash)

The Chase Sapphire Reserve earns a respectable 3x Ultimate Rewards points per dollar on a broad spectrum of travel purchases that includes airfare (and also includes tickets purchased via an online travel agency such as Expedia). Ultimate Rewards points transfer to 10 airline and three hotel partners, including Southwest Airlines, United Airlines and Hyatt.

Based on current TPG valuations, each Ultimate Rewards point is worth around two cents apiece, so 3x points per dollar is a roughly 6% return on spending.

The Platinum Card from American Express cardholders earn 5x points per dollar on airfare purchased either directly from an airline or through Amex Travel. Amex Membership Rewards points transfer to 19 airline and three hotel partners, including Air France/KLM, Delta Air Lines and Marriott.

By TPG valuations, Membership Rewards points are also worth around two cents apiece, so your return on spending could be pegged at around 10% specifically for airfare.

However, as with all things points-related, these values are relative. You might be able to maximize Ultimate Rewards points much better than Membership Rewards points, depending on the redemption method or transfer partner. Or you might be forced to purchase the majority of your travel through a channel that is neither direct from the airline or via Amex Travel — if, say, you have a corporate travel desk you have to use.

Determining which card’s earning rates you will be able to maximize will depend on how you typically purchase airfare and which points program holds more opportunities for you.

Airfare-related discounts

This brings us to our second criterion: Which card’s travel discounts and fee refunds are a better fit for your spending?

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

Every year, Chase Sapphire Reserve cardholders receive up to $300 credit back on travel purchases that is applied automatically. There’s no need to specify which purchases you want it to count toward. Chase just issues statement credits against your travel purchases until you hit that $300 mark every cardmember year.

Thus, this benefit is easy to take advantage of with minimal effort. It counts toward many types of travel buys, but airfare is definitely included. Note you don’t start earning 3 points per dollar spent on travel until your entire $300 travel credit is spent.

The Platinum Card from American Express offers its own set of unique benefits. The best known is its annual credit for airline fees of up to $200, which we have covered extensively in this post.

Photo by Eric Helgas
To use the Amex Platinum’s fee credit you need to select a specific airline. (Photo by Eric Helgas/The Points Guy)

Each calendar year, cardholders must specify a particular airline to which they want this credit to apply. They can choose from the following carriers:

  • Alaska Airlines
  • American Airlines
  • Delta
  • Frontier
  • Hawaiian Airlines
  • JetBlue
  • Spirit
  • Southwest
  • United

This credit cannot be put toward airfare, but it can be used for the following:

  • Checked baggage fees
  • Overweight/oversize baggage fees
  • Change fees
  • Phone reservation fees
  • Pet flight fees
  • Airport lounge day passes and annual memberships
  • Seat assignment fees
  • Inflight amenity fees (beverages, food, pillows/blankets, etc.)
  • Inflight entertainment fees (excluding wireless internet)

So although it’s not strictly an airfare perk and you do have to make some effort to leverage it, this benefit is something to consider if you’re likely to make airline purchases that fall within these categories.

On top of that, The Platinum Card from American Express offers its cardmembers savings through a lesser-known benefit called the International Airline Program. The IAP is a booking portal (or service, if you want to do it via phone or online chat) that often yields significant discounts on premium economy, business-class, or first-class tickets on 25 partner airlines, including Air France/KLM, Cathay Pacific, Delta, Emirates, Lufthansa, Qantas, Singapore Airlines, and others.

Cardholders can either use their card or Pay With Points from their account to book. We have found that reservations through the IAP can save thousands of dollars on some premium fares. So if your travel bookings tend to have you turning left and sitting up front, this one benefit might be all the reason you need to carry The Platinum Card from American Express.

Related reading: Best airline credit cards

Travel protections

Both the Chase Sapphire Reserve and The Platinum Card from American Express cards now offer pretty comprehensive coverage if something goes wrong with your travel plans.

When you use the Sapphire Reserve to purchase an airline ticket, it confers all sorts of value-added benefits in case things go awry.

The card’s trip interruption and cancellation coverage maxes out at $10,000 per person or $20,000 per trip. Its trip delay protection kicks in at six hours or if your delay requires an overnight stay and is capped at $500 per ticket for things like meals and lodging. With delayed baggage protection, when a bag is missing for six hours or more, cardholders are covered up to $100 per day for up to five days for purchases like clothes and toiletries. Lost luggage is covered up to $3,000 per passenger.

Although the Amex Platinum did not offer a ton of travel protections before, Amex revamped the card’s coverage and benefits for 2020. Now cardmembers are eligible for trip cancellation or delay coverage of up to $10,000 per trip and $20,000 per account each consecutive 12-month period on round-trip, one-way, or combinations of round-trip and one-way tickets purchased entirely with the card (taxes and fees on award tickets as well as using Pay With Points also count). The card’s new trip delay insurance starts the clock at six hours and covers up to $500 per trip. It also offers lost luggage coverage of up to $3,000, but not baggage delay insurance.

Other considerations

Aside from airfare-specific bonuses and perks, you might want to consider a few other factors when choosing between these two cards.

Black businessman rolling luggage
Trip delay coverage can save you cash on long delays. (Photo via Getty Images)

First, the Chase Sapphire Reserve’s annual fee was just increased to $550 (the $550 fee applies to renewals after April 1, 2020) and its current sign-up bonus is 50,000 points after you use your card to spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It refunds cardholders for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fees (up to $100) and gets cardholders into more than 1,3000 Priority Pass lounges at airports around the world. One of its unsung perks is the fact that it includes automatic primary insurance on most car rentals. The Sapphire Reserve also can save you on rides to the airport because it earns 10x points on Lyft rides and cardholders will be able to get a year of Lyft Pink for free (15% off Lyft rides and more). Cardholders also get $60 in DoorDash credits for 2020 and another $60 in DoorDash credit in 2021. Plus, when you set your DoorDash default payment to your Sapphire Reserve card (by Dec. 31, 2021) you’ll get at least 12 months of complimentary DashPass (no delivery fee).

The Platinum Card from American Express costs $550 per year to carry (see rates and fees) and is currently fielding a welcome offer of 60,000 points after you use your card to make $5,000 in purchases in the first three months (though you might find offers of up to 100,000 points through the CardMatch Tool; offer subject to change at anytime). Among its benefits are a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee credit (up to $100), up to $200 worth of Uber credits annually and both Marriott Bonvoy Gold and Hilton Honors Gold elite status. It also grants access to Priority Pass lounges, Delta Sky Clubs when flying Delta and Amex’s own Centurion Lounges.

Related reading: Best cards with travel protections

Bottom line

Both the Chase Sapphire Reserve and The Platinum Card from American Express are excellent choices for airfare purchases. They both earn bonus points on airfare and include some great travel protections. The Chase card’s bonus earning usually applies no matter which portal you purchase your tickets through, and its $300 annual travel credit is easier to use than the Platinum Card’s and can be put directly toward airline tickets.

On the other hand, the Amex card’s annual credit for up to $200 in airline incidental fees and participation in the International Airline Program might make more sense for travelers who can book through Amex Travel and tend to buy tickets in premium cabins.

Finally, you should think about whether you will get more use out of Chase Ultimate Rewards points and that program’s transfer partners (not to mention the 1.5 cents-per-point rate on direct redemptions for travel through the Ultimate Rewards portal) or those of American Express Membership Rewards. Once you answer these questions, you should be able to figure out which card will be better for your airfare purchases.

Additional reporting by Jason Stauffer

Featured photo by Zach Griff / The Points Guy.

For rates and fees of the Amex Platinum card, click here.

2019 TPG Award Winner: Premium Card of the Year
Chase Sapphire Reserve®

SIGN-UP BONUS: 50,000 Points

TPG'S BONUS VALUATION*: $1,000

CARD HIGHLIGHTS: 3X points on all travel and dining, $300 annual travel credit, points transferrable to over a dozen travel partners

*Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer. View our latest valuations here.

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More Things to Know
  • Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year
  • 3X points on travel immediately after earning your $300 travel credit. 3X points on dining at restaurants & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases. $0 foreign transaction fees.
  • Get 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 50,000 points are worth $750 toward travel
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Access to 1,000+ airport lounges worldwide after an easy, one-time enrollment in Priority Pass™ Select
  • Up to $100 application fee credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓®
  • One Year Complimentary Lyft Pink ($199 minimum value). Complimentary DashPass subscription from DoorDash after activating by 12/31/21.
Intro APR on Purchases
N/A
Regular APR
16.99%-23.99% Variable
Annual Fee
$550
Balance Transfer Fee
Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each balance transfer, whichever is greater
Recommended Credit
Excellent Credit

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.