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The Chase Sapphire Reserve, Citi Prestige, Platinum Card from American Express, and Ritz-Carlton are four of the top benefit-based credit cards available for travelers. I’ve already compared the Sapphire Reserve vs the Prestige and vs the Platinum Card, so check those articles for very detailed comparisons. (Also check out this brilliant breakdown from Reddit and this article from the Doctor of Credit to see more a side-by-side comparison of thee three cards.) While those in-depth comparisons are very helpful, this article walks you through a series of questions in an effort to point you in the right direction for choosing the right card or cards for your wallet.
Are you solely interested in the sign-up bonus?
Are you primarily or heavily interested in the sign-up bonus of a benefits card but not interested in holding on to the card beyond the first year?
If that’s the case, then I recommend a couple of options.
My first recommendation would be to get the Chase Sapphire Reserve, since it currently comes with a 100K sign-up bonus after spending $3,000 in the first three months that’s open to the public. It’s rumored that the bonus may drop down after September, but nobody really knows for sure.
The Platinum Card occasionally sends out targeted offers for 100K and every now and again leaks a link for the 100K offer (although the last leak resulted in the great freeze of 2016). Other offers go out for 75K and 50K but the standard public offer is 40K. If you’re primarily concerned with earnings from the sign-up bonus, I say try to wait it out for the 100K or even 75K offer. I personally, wouldn’t go for the 40K simply for the sign-up bonus since you could rack up 50K Membership Rewards with cards that have no first year annual fee, such as the Green or Gold card (might need Google Incognito to show those bonuses).
The current Prestige offer for 40K is also uninspiring and not worth it to pursue simply for the sign-up bonus, in my opinion. Sign-up bonuses for the Prestige have been as high as 100K but judging by the recent trend of Citi lowering bonuses (or removing them all together), I think it might be a while before we see another large sign-up bonus for the Prestige.
The Ritz-Carlton currently offers three complimentary nights (at categories 1 – 4) after you spend $5,000 in purchases in the first three months from account opening. Three nights at a Ritz-Carlton category 4 hotel could add up to close to $3,000 in value if properly utilized so this is nothing to scoff at, though you obviously don’t benefit from the flexibility provided by the other cards.
Do you need a solid exit strategy?
If you’re just getting the card(s) for the sign-up bonus, you’re going to need an “exit strategy” that can get you out of paying the annual fee in the future. The best exit strategies are those that allow you to downgrade or product change to cards that don’t require you to pay annual fee, so that you can allow your average age of accounts to lengthen and increase your credit score at no cost.
The Sapphire Reserve should be able to be downgraded after 12 months to a no-annual fee Sapphire or no-annual fee Freedom card, such as the Freedom (classic) or Freedom Unlimited and the Prestige also should be able to be downgraded to the Citi Thankyou Preferred, another no-annual fee card (Citi may allow you other non-Thankyou card product changes as well).
Unfortunately, the best you could do with the Platinum Card is downgrade to a card like the Green Card that still has an annual fee of $95. And finally, I’m not aware of people having success with product changing the Ritz-Carlton card to a card with no annual fee so there may not be a way to get around the annual fee this way for the Ritz-Carlton.
Thus the Sapphire Reserve and Citi Prestige have the best exit strategies.
Are you very averse to a high annual fee?
A lot of people see an annual fee for over $400 and think there’s no way in Hades they’d apply for such a card. But once you understand the value you receive from a high annual fee card and how you can utilize travel credits to mitigate these fees, the fees actually become pretty reasonable.
If you’re wanting a card with the best way to reduce your annual fee,then my recommendation would be the Chase Sapphire Reserve. It has the highest travel credit worth $300 and it also has the most broadly defined travel category, making it the best way to reduce an annual of $450 down to essentially $150.
The Ritz-Carlton card also offers a $100 travel credit that’s not quite as expansive as the Sapphire Reserve, but still not too shabby. It knocks the annual fee of the Ritz to an effective $150 and with the $100 off roundtrip domestic tickets, one could easily more than cancel out what they pay for the annual fee.
The Prestige has a $250 airline credit that can help knock its $450 fee down to $200 but it’s not as expansive as the Reserve. It is still quite broad, though, and can even be used toward the purchase of airline tickets.
Finally, the travel credit from the Platinum is a bit limited. It’s limited to incidentals to one domestic airline that you must choose and it’s only $200, meaning that your annual fee is reduced to $250. One big plus to the Platinum Card is that you can utilize the MPX app to make purchases at department stores and places like Amazon, so for some people, this “travel credit” actually can work out to be even more useful and practical than the travel credit for the Reserve.
Do you want to redeem points for travel?
Not everyone wants to transfer points to travel partners. Some people like to redeem for their points for travel because it’s simpler than transferring points as there are no black out dates and when you redeem points for travel, it’s like paying cash so you can earn miles on your travels and achieve elite status easier.
If you want to redeem points for travel, such as airfare or hotels, then your decision is easy, go with the Chase Sapphire Reserve, where you can redeem at a rate of 1.5 cents per point through the Ultimate Rewards travel portal on airfare, hotels, and cruises.
Here are the redemptions rates compared for the major programs:
Chase Ultimate Rewards
Ultimate Rewards can be redeemed in the following ways:
- 1.0 cent per point for cash back
- 1.0 cent per point for gift cards
- As a Sapphire Reserve card holder, you can redeem points as 1.5 cents per point on the Ultimate Rewards travel portal.
Citi Thankyou Points
Thankyou Points can be redeemed in the following ways:
- 1.0 cent per point for cash back
- 1.0 cent per point for gift cards
- As a Citi Prestige card holder, you can redeem points as 1.25 cents per point on airlines.
The Prestige comes close in competing with the Reserve, but after losing its 1.6 cents per point redemption rate on American Airlines, it now sits at second place behind the Reserve.
American Express Membership Rewards
Membership Rewards can be redeemed in the following ways:
- Between .5 and 1.0 cent per point for gift cards
- 0.6 cent per point for a statement credit/charge.
- 1.0 cent per point on airfare
- 0.7 cent per point on hotels, cruises, and vacation packages.
Do you fly Delta?
If you fly Delta often, you should consider the Platinum Card. It offers you entry to Delta Sky Club lounges when you fly with Delta on that day, regardless of the class you booked. One thing, you’ll have to pay to have up to two guests join you.
Do you frequent airports with Centurion lounges?
Just about everyone agrees that American Express Centurion lounges are among the best airport lounges in the United States. With the Platinum Card from American Express (or Centurion black card), access to these lounges is free and you bring in immediate family members or up to two guests.
These lounges are found at the following airports:
- SEA (smaller studio version, though currently expanding)
If you regularly fly in or out of these airports, then holding on to an American Express Platinum Card may be worth it. Access to these lounges is restricted to American Express cardholders and without a Platinum/Centurion card, they must pay $50 for a day pass. Thus, even if you only visit a Centurion lounge a handful of times a year, you’re still getting significant value from your Platinum Card.
Do you travel with family and friends?
If you regularly travel with family and friends, then chances are that you’re going to want them to be able to accompany you in the lounges.
Several cards can accomplish this goal albeit in different ways.
Guest access with Priority Pass lounges
It’s still not 100% clear to me what the guest policy will be for the Sapphire Reserve but it appears to be similar if not the same as the Citi Prestige, in that at least two guests will be allowed to enter for free (though this may be subject to the discretion of the lounge being visited). The Ritz-Carlton card also offers this same type of guest policy, thus all three of these cards are great options for bringing along guests and/or family members into lounges with you.
The Platinum Card’s Priority Pass membership does not include complimentary guest access which is a bit of a bummer. Of course, as just stated, you can get guests in to Centurion lounges for free, so if most/all of your travels are domestic and go through major airports with Centurion lounges then the guest policy effectively works out to be the same.
Do you plan on adding authorized users?
For all of these cards, authorized users receive the same lounge benefits but they all have different price tags for adding them.
The Ritz-Carlton card is the best for adding authorized users because you can add as many authorized users as you want for free, meaning that you can confer the Priority Pass benefit worth $400 to people with no cost! The rest of the cards charge as follows:
- Citi Prestige: $50 fee for adding authorized users
- Chase Sapphire Reserve: $75 fee for adding authorized users
- Platinum Card: $175 for adding 1 to 3 authorized users; after that it’s $175 per authorized user.
The drawback to the Ritz card is that you won’t be earning a rewards currency that transfer out to as many partners (at good ratios) so you lose that but if your priority is getting lounge access to a handful of authorized users, you could easily save a couple of hundred bucks by going with the Ritz-Carlton card.
Are you concerned with earning bonus points?
I think that the majority of travelers will benefit from the bonus categories of the Sapphire Reserve more than any other card. That’s because the travel category is very broad and covers the following expenses:
airlines, hotels, motels, timeshares, campgrounds, car rental agencies, cruise lines, travel agencies, discount travel sites, and operators of passenger trains, buses, taxis, limousines, ferries, toll bridges and highways, and parking lots and garages.
The Prestige comes close with its 3X on airfare and hotels but those two categories only make up a subsection of the travel category.
The 2X on entertainment offered by the Prestige covers:
select entertainment merchants, including sports promoters, theatrical promoters, movie theaters, amusement parks, tourist attractions, record stores and video rental stores.
These expenses on entertainment can certainly add up but I don’t think that they will net more earnings for most travelers who will earn 3X on travel purchases and an extra 1X on dining. Thus, if you want a benefits card that’s going to earn you the most points via spending, the Chase Sapphire Reserve is likely your best option.
For your reference, here are the earning rates of the other cards:
- 3X on travel
- 3X on dining
- 1X on all other purchases
- 3X on air travel and hotels
- 2X on dining and entertainment
- 1X on all other purchases
Ritz-Carlton credit card
- 5X on Ritz-Carlton/Marriott and partner hotel purchases
- 2X on dining and airline and car rental
- 1X on all other purchases
Updated: October 5, 2016
- 5X on airfare purchased directly from airlines
- 1.5X on purchases over $5,000
- 1X on all purchases
Do you plan on getting additional cards to increase earnings?
When it comes to combining earning potential with other no-annual fee credit cards, the Sapphire Reserve is reigns supreme.
The great thing about the Sapphire Reserve is that it can be combined with several no-annual fee cards that earn tremendous bonus rates on purchases. You could add: 1) the Freedom Classic which offers 5X on rotating categories like gas, dining, groceries, etc.; 2) the Freedom Unlimited that earns 1.5X on all purchases on an unlimited basis; and 3) the Chase Ink Cash, a small business credit card that offers superb 5X earnings on cable, internet, and phone bills, and office supply stores. If you could swing those three cards along with the Sapphire Reserve, you’ll have a points-earning machine unmatched by anything.
The Amex EveryDay card is a nice addition to the Platinum that earns 2x points at US supermarkets, on up to $6,000 per year in purchases and then allows you to earn a 20% bonus on points earned during the month when you make over 20 transactions. While those earnings are nice, they simply don’t compare to the potential earnings of the Chase cards.
Finally, Citi does not offer a credit card with no annual fee that earns points in categories that the Prestige does not currently earn.
Do you spend 4 nights or more for hotel stays?
If you regularly spend 4 nights or more at hotels than the Prestige can easily net you the most value out of any of these cards, as you easily can bite off a couple of hundred in savings each time you use it. However, there are some factors to consider.
In order to take advantage of this benefit you have to book your hotel through Citi, which means that sometimes there may be better rates out there for the hotels you’re booking. Also, Citi just changed the calculation methods for the free night and they now calculate the rate on an average nightly rate basis and taxes are not included. However, even with some limitations, the 4th night free is a powerful benefit that if used effeciently can easily bring you more value than any other benefits card.
Do you value primary car rental insurance?
Primary rental card insurance is a tremendous benefit because it makes dealing with accidents while traveling abroad much more streamlined and can help you avoid having to file a claim with your car insurance company and risk increasing your premium.
The only two cards to offer primary rental car insurance are the Chase Sapphire Reserve and the Ritz-Carlton card. Both the Platinum Card and the Prestige offer only secondary coverage.
Are you concerned with trip interruption?
The Citi Prestige offers the best trip interruption/delay protections as it only requires you to wait 3 hours before coverage comes into effect and the Chase Sapphire Reserve requires you to wait 6 hours. Unfortunately, these protections are not built-in to the Platinum Card and you’ll have to pay extra for this kind of coverage to apply.
In terms of other protections like lost luggage, purchase protection, return protection, extended warranties, etc. all of the cards offer pretty similar coverage with the Platinum Card lacking on some things like price protection. Thus, overall, you can’t really go wrong with the protections offered by these cards but I’d probably stick with the Reserve or Prestige to maximize the protections.
As you can tell, the Sapphire Reserve card is on another level compared to all of the other credit cards, as it beats them out almost all the way across the board. There are some specific instances when you’d want to stick with the Prestige, Platinum, or Ritz-Carlton credit card, but overall the Reserve is going to bring more value to more people on average, I’d suspect. While I am a fan of getting several of these cards for their great sign-up bonuses, I think that I’d probably stick with the Reserve in the long-run.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and CNBC.