If you like traveling in style, it could make sense to get a travel credit card that offers luxurious perks, such as free cocktails for when you're waiting to board your flight or complimentary stays at five-star hotels.
To determine the best elite card overall, CNBC Make It analyzed 35 of the most popular travel cards in the U.S. Using a sample budget based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we estimated how much money each card would save the typical American, as well as frequent travelers, after five years. We also evaluated the ease of use of each card, plus notable features and potential downsides including annual fees and interest rates.
The Platinum card offers Priority Pass Select lounge membership and complimentary access to the highly regarded American Express Centurion lounges, plus Delta Sky Club access when you fly directly with Delta. As for hotel perks, cardholders receive free nights and other benefits with the American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts program, and they qualify for Gold elite status with Hilton and Starwood hotels.
The card does require a hefty $550 annual fee but users receive up to $200 per year in Uber credits and $200 in annual airline credits which you can use to check a bag or purchase in-flight refreshments. For rewards, the card offers five points on all hotels and airlines booked with American Express Travel, two points on other travel bookings through the site, such as vacation packages, and one point on all other purchases. When you sign up, you receive 60,000 bonus points as long as you spend $5,000 in the first three months. That's $600 toward travel or gift cards.
The Platinum card is technically a charge card, which is similar to a credit card, except with a charge card you have to pay off your balance in full each month or you'll be hit with a late fee. If you want to have the option to carry a balance on the Platinum card, you have to enroll in the card's Pay Over Time feature.
If you care more about savings than perks, there may be better premier options, such as the Barclays Arrival Premier World Elite Mastercard: With a modest $150 annual fee and an unlimited two miles per dollar on all purchases, that card can earn you more over five years, according to our analysis. Or you might consider the Chase Sapphire Reserve, our runner-up choice for the best travel card overall, which promises a sign-up bonus amounting to $750 when redeemed for travel, plus, like the Platinum card, the option to transfer points to partner reward programs.
But five points back on all hotels and flights can add up if you travel a lot. And if you're looking for the most comprehensive set of premier benefits, the Platinum Card from American Express is the way to go.
American Express Platinum at a glance:
- Rewards: Five points on flights booked with airlines or American Express Travel and five points on hotels booked with American Express Travel; two points on other travel expenses booked through American Express; one point on all other purchases
- Annual fee: $550
- Bonus: 60,000 points if you spend $5,000 within first three months
- Variable APR: 14.74 to 25.74 percent based on your credit score for those who enroll in Pay Over Time
- Estimated five-year return for average travelers: $280 to $970
- Estimated five-year return for frequent travelers: $790 to $1,820
- How you redeem points: Transfer points to a partner rewards program, book travel directly through American Express Travel, donate to a non-profit or redeem for cash or merchandise at a lower rate
- Notable perks: $200 in annual airline fee credits; $200 in Uber credits; Up to $100 for Global Entry or TSA Precheck; Centurion Lounge access; Global Lounge Collection; Fine Hotels & Resorts benefits
To determine which card offers the best deal for travelers who want luxury, CNBC Make It compiled a list of 35 highly rated travel credit cards. We vetted each card based on its reward offers, introductory and eventual APR, annual fee, bonus, recommended credit score, late fee, balance transfer fee, foreign transaction fee, redemption rates, transfer options, customer reviews and extra perks.
We then estimated how much money each card would save the typical American and a frequent traveler after one year, two years and five years. Our assessment heavily weighs the five-year return to avoid a large sign-up bonus skewing the results. We also assume that most people want a great card that they can stick with for years, especially since bouncing from card to card can be bad for your credit score.
To estimate the return, we used expenditure data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to make a sample budget broken down by average annual spending in categories like gas ($1,909), groceries ($4,049), dining out ($3,154) and general purchases ($12,833). The general spending category includes shopping, entertainment, public transit, vehicle expenses other than gas, some household costs and travel expenses like airline fares ($403), hotels ($475) and vehicle rentals ($64).
For the average-traveler budget, travel expenses were drawn directly from the BLS. For the frequent-traveler budget, we revised these categories upward based on the expert recommendation that you should spend at least $8,600 on travel and dining each year to make getting a travel card worth it. We increased the expenses proportionally to the average budget, estimating annual airfare costs of $2,300, hotel costs of $2,700 and vehicle rentals of $400.
We also include a range for the estimated return because, in most cases, the value of a credit card's rewards vary depending on how they are redeemed.
The estimates also incorporate bonuses and perks like travel credits that can be used to pay for flights. (Less quantifiable perks like TSA Precheck credits and free bag checking were considered for each card but not included in the estimated returns.) Estimates assume you have a high credit limit and that you use your card for 90 percent of the purchases you make in these categories, accounting for instances where you have to use cash or shop somewhere that doesn't accept your card. They also assume you don't carry a balance.
Once we had our estimates, we then weighed the returns against other factors including interest rates and fees, practicality, bonuses and other perks, such as lounge access and insurance coverage. Reward transfer opportunities were a top consideration, since redeeming your rewards through a frequent flier or hotel program can increase their value immensely or earn you luxury benefits for an affordable price.
We also considered redemption options, since a card that reimburses general travel purchases made anywhere by offering you statement credit in your account is significantly more convenient than one that requires you to use your points or miles via a specific travel portal.
For information about who should get a travel card, check out our comprehensive list of the best travel cards out there.
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