This is a guide to the big, swinging dicks of travel credit cards . . . at least that’s what the premium travel cards we are going to review purport to be. To find out if their claims are true we’re going to do some extreme pantsing on the AAdvantage Executive World Elite, AMEX Platinum, Chase Sapphire Reserve, Citi Prestige, Delta Reserve, Ritz-Carlton Rewards, Visa Black Card, and United MileagePlus Club cards to take a peek below their waistlines and see if the hype is justified.

WHO SHOULD SIGN UP FOR A PREMIUM TRAVEL CARD?

Frequent travelers. The best perks offered by all these cards are available to hotel and airport denizens. These perks often exceed the value of the hefty annual fee these cards carry, but if you aren’t someone who will take advantage of those perks, there are award travel cards out there that will hold better value for you, even if they aren’t of the premium variety.

COMMONALITIES

Each of these cards carries with it a hefty annual fee. These fees can be offset by the other features offered by these cards, such as airport lounge access, 24/7 concierge service to help with dining reservations, booking travel, or buying gifts, and elite status benefits in various loyalty programs, amongst other things. Of course, when viewed side-by-side, it’s clear not all premium travel cards are created equal.

HOW DO THESE PREMIUM TRAVEL CARDS MEASURE UP?

Not all of these categories provide information to make straight-forward calls on which card is good, which card is bad, and which card is best. That won’t stop me from providing my own personal rankings and recommendations, though.

My biases will show through on the category rankings below, but I will try to mitigate my personal preferences as much as possible and look only at the facts. As such, I’ve created a point system to help rank these premium travel cards.

The first ranked card will receive 7 points. The last ranked card will receive 0 points. All other ranks will receive points in between, e.g., 2nd gets 6 points, 3rd gets 5, 4th gets 4, and so on till there are no points left to give. If cards tie in a category, according to my measure, it will drop them to the lower rank, not the higher rank.

To some of you (or all of you) this ranking system may seem like…

...but that’s the system I’m going with, so you’ll have to deal. Since most of you don't care about the barely analytical breakdown of perks and drawbacks, click here to skip all the numbers and tables. If you want to see all the tables and numbers, scroll onward.

Analysis:  All these cards carry a hefty fee. The number alone is enough to scare many people off, but for someone who travels often, the benefits these cards come with can easily eclipse the annual fee, if they are taken advantage of. The most obvious thing that can be pointed to as a justification for the annual fee…?

Analysis:  All these cards carry a hefty fee. The number alone is enough to scare many people off, but for someone who travels often, the benefits these cards come with can easily eclipse the annual fee, if they are taken advantage of. The most obvious thing that can be pointed to as a justification for the annual fee…?

Analysis:  (Quick Note:  The Global Entry / TSA PreCheck category is an “either or” category, which is why it’s listed together. For all cards offering this fee credit, it’s given once every 5 years.) The Ritz-Carlton card carries the top with its recurring credits surpassing its annual fee, especially for those who frequently stay at Ritz-Carlton hotels. The $100 hotel credit is extended to primary cardholders for each stay at Ritz-Carlton properties of 2 nights or more and can be used on ancillary charges at the hotel, such as food, drink, and spa charges. The extra $100 off on select airfare also helps it edge out its competition.  The AMEX Platinum comes in a close second. It’s $200 Uber credit is meant to help offset the now higher annual fee imposed on its users, and this card is probably better than the Ritz-Carlton card for those who don’t stay at Ritz-Carlton properties often.  The Prestige also does a good job of justifying its annual fee. None of the top cards in this category is co-branded with an airline, so perhaps they feel the need to do more to recruit customers.  The co-branded cards don’t do much in this category, so I blanked most of them in my points ranking. I threw a bone to the AAdvantage Executive card, though, since at least it made a passing attempt here by offering something once every 5 years.

Analysis:  (Quick Note:  The Global Entry / TSA PreCheck category is an “either or” category, which is why it’s listed together. For all cards offering this fee credit, it’s given once every 5 years.) The Ritz-Carlton card carries the top with its recurring credits surpassing its annual fee, especially for those who frequently stay at Ritz-Carlton hotels. The $100 hotel credit is extended to primary cardholders for each stay at Ritz-Carlton properties of 2 nights or more and can be used on ancillary charges at the hotel, such as food, drink, and spa charges. The extra $100 off on select airfare also helps it edge out its competition.

The AMEX Platinum comes in a close second. It’s $200 Uber credit is meant to help offset the now higher annual fee imposed on its users, and this card is probably better than the Ritz-Carlton card for those who don’t stay at Ritz-Carlton properties often.

The Prestige also does a good job of justifying its annual fee. None of the top cards in this category is co-branded with an airline, so perhaps they feel the need to do more to recruit customers.

The co-branded cards don’t do much in this category, so I blanked most of them in my points ranking. I threw a bone to the AAdvantage Executive card, though, since at least it made a passing attempt here by offering something once every 5 years.

Analysis:  If you time it right, or are targeted, you can get a higher sign-up bonus than the ones listed in the chart above, but for ease of calculation, I went with the general sign-up bonus out there for the average person. I also decided to give more weight to rewards that could be used on airlines over hotels.

Analysis:  If you time it right, or are targeted, you can get a higher sign-up bonus than the ones listed in the chart above, but for ease of calculation, I went with the general sign-up bonus out there for the average person. I also decided to give more weight to rewards that could be used on airlines over hotels.

Analysis:  The best cards for airport lounge access on the list begin and end with the top two spots. The cards that offer Priority Pass Select top the Full Admirals and United Clubs, just because of amount of locations worldwide.  Since some form of airport lounge access is offered by all cards, I decided to leave them in point-earning spots.

Analysis:  The best cards for airport lounge access on the list begin and end with the top two spots. The cards that offer Priority Pass Select top the Full Admirals and United Clubs, just because of amount of locations worldwide.

Since some form of airport lounge access is offered by all cards, I decided to leave them in point-earning spots.

Analysis:  Earning elite qualifying miles without having to fly remains an invaluable tool to gain elite status in airline loyalty programs, especially for frequent fliers on those loyalty programs who will get to take advantage of free upgrades and mile bonuses. The Delta Reserve card, when compared to the others, is handing out these elite qualifying miles like candy on Halloween, easily taking the top spot in this category.

Analysis:  Earning elite qualifying miles without having to fly remains an invaluable tool to gain elite status in airline loyalty programs, especially for frequent fliers on those loyalty programs who will get to take advantage of free upgrades and mile bonuses. The Delta Reserve card, when compared to the others, is handing out these elite qualifying miles like candy on Halloween, easily taking the top spot in this category.

Analysis:  These premium cards are ultimately best suited for frequent travelers. As such, bonus spend for travel categories matters. The Reserve and Prestige cards thus carry this category with strong returns for travel expenses, especially since the bonus points earned can be used across multiple reward programs. The Reserve edges the Prestige with its higher bonus on restaurant purchases.  The United MileagePlus and AAdvantage Executive cards are ultimately very similar and benefit their co-branded program only. United sneaks ahead of American ever so slightly with its higher bonus on all qualifying spend.  The AMEX Platinum offers no bonuses on the dollars spent on the card. The reason it’s ahead of the final three cards listed in this category is simply because AMEX points are valuable to accrue, even at a 1:1 spend to point ratio, and allow for flexibility in how the points can reward the cardholder.  The last three cards are do have some value, so I’ve allowed them to accrue a point in this competition. Their value is minimal, however, and in the case of the Delta Reserve and Ritz-Carlton cards, their value is largely within their specific programs.

Analysis:  These premium cards are ultimately best suited for frequent travelers. As such, bonus spend for travel categories matters. The Reserve and Prestige cards thus carry this category with strong returns for travel expenses, especially since the bonus points earned can be used across multiple reward programs. The Reserve edges the Prestige with its higher bonus on restaurant purchases.

The United MileagePlus and AAdvantage Executive cards are ultimately very similar and benefit their co-branded program only. United sneaks ahead of American ever so slightly with its higher bonus on all qualifying spend.

The AMEX Platinum offers no bonuses on the dollars spent on the card. The reason it’s ahead of the final three cards listed in this category is simply because AMEX points are valuable to accrue, even at a 1:1 spend to point ratio, and allow for flexibility in how the points can reward the cardholder.

The last three cards are do have some value, so I’ve allowed them to accrue a point in this competition. Their value is minimal, however, and in the case of the Delta Reserve and Ritz-Carlton cards, their value is largely within their specific programs.

Analysis:  I tend to prefer flying benefits over hotel benefits and hotel benefits over rental car benefits. But while the AAdvantage Executive and United MileagePlus cards offer the best flying benefits (basically benefits afforded to first-class travelers without having to buy a first class ticket), the AMEX Platinum eclipses them by the sheer volume of programs for which it provides elite status or elite status benefits. The Ritz-Carlton Gold Elite status is complimentary the first year and then requires $10,000 in spend for subsequent years. Platinum Elite status can be achieved with $75,000 in spend.

Analysis:  I tend to prefer flying benefits over hotel benefits and hotel benefits over rental car benefits. But while the AAdvantage Executive and United MileagePlus cards offer the best flying benefits (basically benefits afforded to first-class travelers without having to buy a first class ticket), the AMEX Platinum eclipses them by the sheer volume of programs for which it provides elite status or elite status benefits. The Ritz-Carlton Gold Elite status is complimentary the first year and then requires $10,000 in spend for subsequent years. Platinum Elite status can be achieved with $75,000 in spend.

Analysis:  Most of these cards only allow authorized users to benefit the primary card holder by earning them points, miles, or elite-qualifying bonuses. The AMEX Platinum card goes above and beyond in its extended benefits, which more than makes up for the $175 fee for up to three authorized users.  The Citi Prestige also eclipses the small $50 per authorized user fee it charges by extending valuable Priority Pass membership to those users.  As for the rest of the cards, well, in comparison they don’t offer nearly enough.

Analysis:  Most of these cards only allow authorized users to benefit the primary card holder by earning them points, miles, or elite-qualifying bonuses. The AMEX Platinum card goes above and beyond in its extended benefits, which more than makes up for the $175 fee for up to three authorized users.

The Citi Prestige also eclipses the small $50 per authorized user fee it charges by extending valuable Priority Pass membership to those users.

As for the rest of the cards, well, in comparison they don’t offer nearly enough.

Analysis:  The ranks in this category are heavily influenced by personal preference. Your preferences may be different than mine, but unless you’re a mouth-breathing idiot, the top spot has to go to the Citi Prestige, if only for the 4th night free benefit.  The Ritz-Carlton offers great benefits as well that could match the Citi Prestige, but is limited only to Ritz-Carlton hotels.  For the rest of the cards, I give the edge to the AMEX Platinum for the free wi-fi versus whatever mystery gifts may come my way via the Visa Black Card. The co-branded cards bring up the rear, offering no other benefits of note.

Analysis:  The ranks in this category are heavily influenced by personal preference. Your preferences may be different than mine, but unless you’re a mouth-breathing idiot, the top spot has to go to the Citi Prestige, if only for the 4th night free benefit.

The Ritz-Carlton offers great benefits as well that could match the Citi Prestige, but is limited only to Ritz-Carlton hotels.

For the rest of the cards, I give the edge to the AMEX Platinum for the free wi-fi versus whatever mystery gifts may come my way via the Visa Black Card. The co-branded cards bring up the rear, offering no other benefits of note.

WORST TO FIRST

So, how did they stack up? Let’s start with the card to avoid.

Mastercard Luxury Black Card - 10 points

Apparently the black thing is a myth . . . at least in this case.

This card is basically that annoying kid at your high school who tried to get everyone to call him by the nickname “hoss” or “bad mother f-er” or “dig bick,” when in actuality he was the opposite. This card tried to ride the coattails of the actual “black card,” the American Express Centurion card (which isn’t on this list because you can’t apply for it but instead have to be invited), but since I don’t know anyone who actually has this card, I’m pretty sure that ploy failed.

Ultimately, products have to deliver or they won’t be used. The Mastercard Luxury Black Card doesn’t deliver.

Delta Reserve - 17 points

This card slides just ahead of the Mastercard Luxury Black Card since it can offer tremendous value to frequent Delta Airlines travelers, especially in its ability to hand out MQMs through its sign-up bonus and daily spend. These elite qualifying miles can be extremely valuable for specific individuals.

United MileagePlus - 20 points

Again, the main value of this card is for a frequent flier of United, the co-branded airline. To United’s credit, this card is the most generous co-branded card with spend with at least 1.5 miles per dollar spent using the card.

Ritz-Carlton Rewards - 28 points

Seeing how well this card stacked up against the others was as surprising as finding out Screech released his own sex tape. I’d never really considered this card for myself, but the recurring credits it offers on travel make it kinda worthwhile in my eyes, as I know I’ll recoup the value of the annual fee without issue. It also makes staying at Ritz-Carlton hotels more affordable. And I like Ritz-Carlton hotels!

AAdvantage Executive - 29 points

This is the best of the co-branded premium travel rewards cards. Like Toby Keith, it ain’t as good as it once was (thanks, devaluations!), but it’s as good once as it ever was . . . or something like that.

                                    What good used to be, according to Toby Keith.

                                    What good used to be, according to Toby Keith.

While it’s clearly a step below the next three cards on this list, it’s clearly a step above all other co-branded cards. If American Airlines is one of the or the primary airline at the closest airport near you, I’d suggest getting this card. The sign-up bonus is excellent, and you’ll receive first class accommodations in the airport when flying American, even if you aren’t flying first class.

Now, on to the medal stand . . .

The podium

Honestly, any or all of these three contenders are worthy Premium cards. In fact, I’m a bit surprised the CSR didn’t perform better.
 

Chase Sapphire Reserve - 35 points

The new kid on the block certainly disrupted the premium travel card category when it bursted on the scene at the end of 2016. When it had a 100,000 UR sign-up bonus, it probably contended better with the two cards that edged it out, but its current lack of elite benefits at top loyalty programs keeps it in third for now. The way Chase has been going, though, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it’s current weakness made its number one strength in the coming years.

Citi Prestige - 44 points

When the Citi Prestige card had its golf benefit, it was my absolute favorite premium travel card. The benefit is gone now and Citi’s ThankYou point program isn’t quite what it once was because of devaluations. Nonetheless, the 4th-night free benefit is still excellent, and it’s other perks aren’t bad either. But, there’s still a better card out there . . .

AMEX Platinum - 47 points

It may seem a little unfair to AMEX to choose its disappointing son for this comparison -- like comparing George W to Jeb. American Express’ true premium card is the make-your-country-club-friends-jealous Centurion Card. The only reason the Platinum is included in this group is because -- like your cousin was for prom -- it’s a realistic option. And hell, whether you agree with it or not, it won this illegitimate competition.

In actuality, however, the AMEX Platinum might be better than the Centurion, not at making friends at the country club jealous, of course, but in everyday value, maybe. George W at least inspired enough people to vote him POTUS, whereas Jeb still has to beg politely for people to clap for him.

The AMEX Platinum offers excellent benefits for travelers, especially those with Delta SkyClubs and Centurion lounges in the airports they frequent. The recurring credits also go a long way in canceling out the annual fee. And if you find yourself targeted with a 100,000 point sign-up bonus offer for this card, I definitely recommend pulling the trigger.

THE WRAP UP

Having explored these premium travel cards in depth, it’s clear they should be separated into three distinct categories:  co-branded premium travel cards and flexible premium travel cards. In general, the flexible premium travel cards are the better cards to have in your wallet -- and indeed, the top three cards come from this group -- but if you travel frequently on a specific airline or stay at a particular hotel, having the co-branded card may be more valuable to you specifically -- especially if you happen to fly American or nearly exclusively stay at Ritz-Carltons.

For me, the top three cards have a reserved space in my wallet. All of the cards offer distinctive value to me. Of course, that’s $1,450 in annual fees with just those cards alone. So, if you don’t travel frequently enough to make sure you get value from all three annual fees at once - and most of us don’t - you’ll want to decide which card is right for you.

For some, it may make sense to only have the Citi Prestige in order to get the 4th night free benefit. For or other, the Chase Sapphire Reserve might make sense because of their previous relationship with Chase bank and want to stack UR points.

Many prestige travelers, though, will find the AMEX Platinum still offers the best premium benefits of all of these cards and should definitely make sure it stays in their wallet. It rates highly across multiple categories and provides flexibility in the rewards you can earn through it.

The AMEX Platinum  is still the winner of the coveted Biggest Swinging Dick amongst Premium Travel Cards Award for now.