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.
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.
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.
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 . . .
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.