This was written for a few colleagues that also often travel frequently. But I thought I’d post it here for broader reach to share.

A few notes: I’m a United person because SFO is a hub and I like their European partners. A big factor in which cards you go with should be for transferring points to your airline

Alright, so a few people have been wondering about various cards/reward programs/etc. and which make sense. I’m gonna run through a few of these and various ways to optimize.

Amex Platinum

First going to start with my favorite the American Express platinum. It has a annual fee at $550. But with that card you receive annually $200 in Uber credits and $200 in airline credits (for things like bags, food, wifi – not tickets or upgrades). This brings effectively the cost of the card down to $150 annually.

The pros of this card are:

  • 5x points on airline miles
  • Centurion lounge access
  • Good sign-up bonus

The medium perks are:

  • Pre-check or global entry fee paid for
  • Priority pass for other lounges
  • Status with Hilton and Marriott

The down sides of this card:

  • Cannot transfer points to United
  • Only 1x points on other purchases

Centurion lounge

For those not familiar with the airport lounge experience, you walk in and you get some level of free or discounted things. Most US based lounges have cold cuts, nuts, gummy bears, chips, and then drinks. Sodas and such are free, and then at most lounges they have some form of beer/wine/hard alcolhol for free (usually crappy stuff) – and then some level of discount on better beer and wine (The united lounge in SFO a shock top is considered premium beer and about $3-$5). Better lounges will give you slightly better beers for free.

The centurion lounge… is more like international lounges. It includes a broad selection of very good wine, beer, and hard alcohol. You can go in and have a very good scotch or cocktail, a full meal (salad, braised pork, quiche for breakfast) and it is all free (though please do tip a the bar). If you stop in here for a meal and a drink you can estimate the cost at $25-$50 depending.

How points work

You earn 1 point per $1 you spend. The 5x multiplier on airline dollars is nice. If you spend $1,000 on flights you end up with 5,000 points. The best use of points is to transfer them to another loyalty program (though you can use them for something like cash or gift cards).

How transferring works

You can transfer to a number of other loyalty programs a few highlights are:

  • From Amex to Delta – 1000 amex points = 1000 delta points
  • From Amex to Hilton – 1000 amex points = 2000 hilton points
  • From Amex to Hawaiian airlines – 1000 amex points = 1000 hawaiian points
  • From Amex to Marriott – 1000 amex points = 1000 marriott points

Point transfer values change from time to time with bonuses, but usually match at 1:1

A round-trip flight in contintal US is often 25,000 points. A one night hotel stay can range from 7,500 points upward.

Calculating the pay-off

Not counting the initial bonus of points which you should take into effect if you use the lounge for 6 different occassions within a year, even at the $25 estimate for food/drink you’ve broken even. If you spend $2,000 a year on flights (which may be on the higher end) that is 10,000 points effectively 1 free night in a hotel room or about a one way ticket for a flight. I’d personally estimate that at about a $150 value.

Assuming the 60,000 point bonus if you can spend $5,000 in the first 3 months, alone that could be worth over $1000 all depending on how well you can spend the points.

Chase Sapphire Reserve

This is the other typically premium card. It is $450 annually, but comes with $300 in airline credits. This similarly brings the effective cost down to $150. It has a sign-up bonus of 50,000 points as opposed to 60,000 when you spend more than 4k in the first 3 months.

The pros of this card are:

  • 3x points on flights and dining (the dining is where this one shines)
  • More transfer options of note United and Southwest

The medium perks:

  • Pre-check or global entry fee paid for
  • Priority pass for other lounges

The down sides of this card:

  • No unique special lounges only priority pass
  • 3x vs. 5x on airline travel

The rest of this card reads pretty similar to the Amex. Most people I know tend to go with the Amex OR this one, some do both. Another note is that this card has a lower level that is 2x points on dining/etc. This is the one I use as my every day card. The annual fee on that is only $95 and is waved the first year. It has a similar sign-up bonus of 50,000 points and with a waved fee for the first year can be a good deal.

Why not Airline specific cards

As an example the United MileagePlus Club card is $450. It gets you access to United lounges, but not priority pass for other places where there is no United lounge. There are no extra credits that come with it, and the multiplier on airline costs is only 2X. You basically have to really like United lounges to make this worth while.

The same applies to Delta and really any Airline specific credit card. You get some perk from that specific airline, but you can find more perks benefits that can advantage you just as much with a more broad card without locking you in.

Personal approach

I generally have 3 cards I actively enjoy. Reality is I have many more because of various reasons. One of those being that bonuses for signup can be significant. So you can grab a new card and keep for a few years then get rid of it. Anyways by primary 3 are:

  1. Amex Platinum
  2. Chase Preferred (lower level of Chase) – I use this for day to day
  3. Marriott Card (this offered a great sign-up bonus at time and gives 15 nights towards status which help towards next level).