I've never had a card with an annual fee of over $100 — here's why that's changing
In any high school, it's easy to spot the cool kids — they're the ones sitting together and sporting fancy headphones and expensive sneakers. At TPG, it's a little different — here, they're the ones who have premium credit cards.
Before coming to TPG, I spent nine years booking my travel with credit card rewards. I was a teacher and on a very limited budget, so my main points and miles goal was to go on as many trips while spending as little out of pocket as possible.
One of my rules to make this possible was that I only got cards with annual fees under $100. This strategy worked well for me so I really didn't get the hype around premium cards.
The way I saw it, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card did basically the same things as the Chase Sapphire Reserve® but for $455 less. And the The Platinum Card® from American Express was really just a status symbol.
But after some time working at TPG, I'm learning there's more to the story. Now, I find myself ready to pull up a seat at the cool table and get my first premium card. You might be in a similar situation, so I'm going to explain why.
My previous strategy
When I was a teacher, I wanted to cover as many of my travel costs as I could with credit card rewards. This meant that my points and miles strategy almost always involved three cards: an airline card, a hotel card and a cash-back card.
Nothing about my travels was fancy. I had (and still have) the mindset that I would rather use my available miles to take multiple trips, even if it meant leaving at 5 a.m. and sitting in a middle seat, versus using all my miles for a more comfortable trip. I applied this same mindset to my hotel points, opting to stretch my points for multiple nights at a mid-range hotel instead of one or two nights at a much more luxurious one.
I would use my cash-back rewards to cover what points and miles didn't: things like meals, Lyft rides and theme park tickets. With this strategy, I was able to travel on almost every school break and multiple times each summer during my time as a teacher.
My favorite cards in my wallet
These are some of my favorite lower annual fee cards that made my teacher travels possible:
My first flight at age 10 was on Southwest and I have been a Southwest loyalist ever since. I've had and loved the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card and Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card, both of which came with welcome bonuses that I was able to squeeze multiple trips from.
For the places I wanted to go that Southwest wouldn't take me, I've used American AAdvantage miles from my AAdvantage Aviator Mastercard and Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard® (see rates and fees). The value I got from these card bonuses more than justified their low annual fees.
The information for the AAdvantage Aviator Mastercard has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
I have loved my World of Hyatt Credit Card from Chase because I can almost always find a hotel where I want to go that's in a relatively low category to help me stretch my points the farthest.
I've also paid for several beach trips with the bonuses from my IHG Select Card (no longer available to new applicants) and IHG® Rewards Traveler Credit Card.
The information for the IHG Select 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.
I got my first Chase Sapphire Preferred Card early in my points and miles journey. I love that I can transfer my Chase Ultimate Rewards points to my Hyatt or Southwest accounts whenever I need to top off my point balances.
My Citi® Double Cash Card (see rates and fees) will always hold a special place in my heart for its reliable cash-back earning.
I also love the flexibility that comes with my Chase Freedom (no longer available to new applicants) and Chase Freedom Unlimited® cards. Before I had my Chase Sapphire Preferred, I used my Chase Freedom exclusively for cash back. Now, however, I transfer my points from these cards to my Chase Sapphire Preferred account and use them to travel with Chase travel partners.
The information for the Chase Freedom has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
My new strategy
After so many years of scoffing at the higher annual fees that premium cards carry, I still feel some sticker shock when I look at them today. However, I now know that there are some significant benefits that come with these cards, making the cards worth more to many people than their high annual fees.
There are some of the benefits convincing me to get one:
Free airport lounge access
I've never before felt that I needed or wanted a card that gave me airport lounge access. Mostly my home base, Nashville International Airport (BNA), doesn't have a lot to offer in this area. Plus, I actually enjoy walking around my airport. We have great coffee and there's almost always some excellent live music somewhere nearby.
Until now, I was mostly flying domestically and I book nonstop flights when I can, so I haven't had many long layovers to deal with. Maybe most importantly, I was always on vacation when I traveled as a teacher, so I didn't feel the need to go somewhere quiet to get work done while I was at the airport.
However, now that I'm traveling for work, I learned recently that the live music at BNA quickly loses its charm when I'm trying to finish up a project before my flight leaves. Plus, I'm planning a few international trips over the next year, so I'm really starting to see the appeal of having access to a lounge during a layover between long flights.
Easy-to-use travel credits
Since I previously aimed to pay as little cash as possible for my travels, I had no need for the travel credits these cards offer. The $300 travel credit on the Chase Sapphire Reserve, for example, wouldn't help offset the annual fee for me if I wasn't spending $300 on travel to begin with, thanks to my points and miles strategy.
Now, I'm traveling more and therefore spending more money out of pocket. While that amount still isn't much, a benefit of working at TPG is that there are plenty of experts to teach me all the ways I can use these credits. That $300 Sapphire Reserve credit, for instance, can cover more than just airline tickets and hotels. It can also be applied to airport parking, a cruise booking or a Lyft ride to the airport. For anyone spending this money anyway, these travel credits easily help offset the cost of the higher annual fees these cards carry.
In addition to the lounge access and credits they offer, these cards come with perks like cellphone protection and Global Entry credits. These alone might not justify the increased annual fees for me, but they do add significant value. In fact, the specific perks a card offers will ultimately help me decide which card to get from my list of considerations.
Which premium travel rewards card should I get?
There are three contenders in the running for my first premium card:
Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Since I already love my Chase Sapphire Preferred card, its bigger sibling is definitely one I'm thinking about.
Perks: I like that the Chase Sapphire Reserve comes with a Priority Pass Select membership and a pretty versatile $300 annual travel credit. With its added Global Entry fee credit and 3 points per dollar spent on travel, I can more easily get on board with the card's higher annual fee.
Welcome Bonus: 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening.
Annual fee: $550.
Official application link: Chase Sapphire Reserve
Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card
Capital One's premium card has a lot of sparkle to it.
Perks: Not only does the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card come with access to Capital One Lounges, Priority Pass and Plaza Premium Lounges, you can also bring two guests in with you for free. The ability for my friends or parents to tag along to a lounge is really appealing to me.
Plus, the Venture X also comes with a $300 annual travel credit, 10,000 anniversary miles (worth $185 according to TPG valuations), a Global Entry fee credit and cellphone protection. This card packs a lot of value and has the lowest annual fee of the cards I'm considering.
Welcome Bonus: 75,000 miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months from account opening.
Annual fee: $395.
Official application link: Capital One Venture X
The Platinum Card® from American Express
Finally, I am considering The Platinum Card® from American Express. It's the sexy status symbol of the card world and people love it. As much as I tried not to, I think I might become one of those people. And, as it turns out, they have some really good reasons to love this card.
Perks: First, the card comes with access to the American Express Global Lounge collection. When I ask my TPG friends about their airport lounge experiences, a dreamy look will come over their faces as they wax poetic about their favorite American Express Centurion lounge. According to them, if I want airport lounge access, I want the superior lounge access that comes with The Platinum Card.
The Platinum Card also comes with a list of perks that's almost tiring to write out. Most interesting to me are the up to $200 hotel credit, up to $200 airline fee credit, up to $155 Walmart+ credit, up to $240 digital entertainment credit, up to $200 Uber cash, up to $100 Saks credit and cellphone protection.* If you got lost doing that math, just believe me when I say there's over $1,000 in value from these perks alone. Enrollment is required for select benefits.
When I look at it this way, the card's annual fee seems, dare I say, almost reasonable.
Welcome Bonus: 80,000 Membership Rewards Points after you spend $6,000 on purchases in your first six months of card membership.
Annual Fee: $695. (See rates & fees)
Official application link: The Platinum Card from American Express
*Eligibility and benefit levels vary by card. Terms, conditions and limitations apply. Visit americanexpress.com/benefitsguide for details. Policies are underwritten by New Hampshire Insurance Company, an AIG Company.
There is no one card that's right for everyone. As your travel needs and habits change, so should your card strategy. I'm living proof that you don't have to have a premium card to do a lot of points and miles travel.
At the same time, if you've written off premium cards as not being for you, you may want to take a second look at your options. No matter what you decide, you're sure to find a card that gives you a lot of points and miles bang for your annual fee buck.
For rates and fees of the Amex Platinum please click here.
For Capital One products listed on this page, some of the above benefits are provided by Visa® or Mastercard® and may vary by product. See the respective Guide to Benefits for details, as terms and exclusions apply.