(Bloomberg) -- After a period of staying home, travelers are spending heavily and putting miles and points to work for them again. So much so that airport perks and credit card benefits are getting a bit of fine tuning to better manage the surge in demand—especially when it comes airport lounges. Starting this week, some travelers may get the boot when they least expect it. Are you one of them?
Whatever your travel plans and priorities, choosing and using a solid travel-focused credit card should be front and center in your planning. As with any points and miles strategies, knowing what card to use for which kind of travel spending can help you maximize your earnings and improve the travel experience. Newer freebies include credits you can use at home (a holdover from Covid-19 pivots that proved popular) such as food delivery, digital entertainment and ride-sharing benefits.
These five cards excel among the best travel credit cards for 2023 by virtue of covering travelers in the major airline networks, as well as bundling the largest range of benefits not tethered to a single carrier.
A generous sign-up bonus can certainly change the metric. But in sorting through a mountain of travel-focused plastic—and noting the ever-changing rules—we have focused on annual, ongoing perks rather than a one-time bump. For this reason, cards that offer the “same old” travel benefits (we’re looking at you, Capital One Venture) did not make the list.
Still, if a big bonus is important to you, shop around. You may find a better deal online than what you’re offered on an airplane or in an airport.
Platinum Card from American Express
Annual Fee: $695
What you need to know: A subtle downgrade for one of the most popular travel cards—and the most expensive one—took effect on Wednesday, Feb. 1. Access to the network of more than 40 Centurion Lounges in airports around the US and in several international locations no longer includes free guest privileges. The change, thankfully announced more than a year ago, should reduce entry lines and quiet things down inside.
Platinum cardholders will now need to fork over $50 per guest ($30 for children aged 2–18). This is in addition to a recent change that bars entry to a lounge until three hours before a flight is scheduled to depart; those on layover longer than that, can still enter with a waiver.
There are workarounds, though. You can add up to three registered users to your Platinum account for only $175 per year. Each registered user would then receive a card in their name to use when traveling with or without you. For little more than the cost of a one-time, single-person lounge visit, you can give three people unlimited access to Centurion Lounges for a year.
Spending more than $75,000 on the card within the calendar year will also bring cardholders the privilege of bringing two guests for free through the end of the following calendar year (and the following January). For example, if you earn the benefit by this June, you’ll be able to use it until Jan. 31, 2025.
The perks: Returns on the $695 annual fee are packed with travel benefits (and new, non-travel ones) whose value can easily negate the annual fee, even beyond the prospect for earning points. This includes access to such other airport lounges as Delta Sky Clubs (when flying Delta), Escape and Plaza Premium lounges, and Priority Pass membership, which counts more than 1,300 locations in its portfolio.
Other benefits include a $200 airline credit for such incidental fees as seat assignments and bag surcharges, monthly credits for Uber and digital entertainment (like Disney+, SiriusXM and the New York Times). Also part of the deal is a $200 hotel credit through the Fine Hotels and Resorts program, credits toward Equinox gym and Global Entry, TSA PreCheck or Clear membership, and instant Gold-level elite status in both Marriott Bonvoy and Hilton Honors loyalty programs. Gold status brings bonus points, room upgrades and even complimentary breakfast at many properties.
Cardholders earn Membership Rewards points they can redeem like cash for flights, hotels and other travel (one point equals one cent) or can choose to transfer to airline or hotel loyalty programs such as Air France/KLM, Delta and Virgin Atlantic. Bonus point earnings are not as plentiful, unless you book flights or prepaid hotels through American Express, which lets you earn five points per dollar spent. When booking hotels through the Fine Hotels and Resorts program from American Express, guests using the card are eligible for on-property amenities, free breakfast, room upgrades and late checkout.
Travel insurance benefits include protection for car rentals, trip delays or cancellations, baggage delays or losses, and medical, legal, or roadside assistance.
Best for: Travelers who want the ultimate in airport lounge benefits—exceeding those of any other card—and hotel elite status in multiple programs, as well as the ability to redeem points for all kinds of travel.
Chase Sapphire Reserve
Annual Fee: $550
What you need to know: Chase Sapphire Reserve deserves attention for its (lower) $550 fee, along with a heap of travel benefits. Its more favorable redemption rate for travel (1.5 cents per point versus 1 cent) puts it a notch above the American Express Platinum Card when it comes to securing solid value, even if its own moves into the branded, luxury lounge airport space are making slow progress.
The perks: Bonus points are the name of the game. Sapphire Reserve earns Chase Ultimate Rewards points, a highly valuable and flexible points currency that can be cashed in for travel at a lucrative rate or transferred to other loyalty programs such as British Airways, Hyatt or United.
You’ll earn 10 points per dollar on hotels, car rentals and dining that are booked through Chase (five points per dollar on flights booked through the Chase portal) as well as 10 points per dollar on Lyft rides. When it comes to dining and other travel purchases, you’ll earn three points per dollar. All other purchases earn one point per $1.
Further benefits include a $300 annual credit on any travel booked with the card, a two-year Lyft Pink All Access membership ($199 value), $100 credit toward TSA PreCheck or Global Entry applications, and a membership to Priority Pass (opening the door to airport lounges around the world, which typically costs more than $450 for an annual membership). Hotel perks such as free breakfast, room upgrades and late checkout are available when booking rooms through Chase’s Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection, as well as Relais & Châteaux properties, DoorDash DashPass membership and a monthly $5 credit toward the service.
Travel insurance protections include rental cars, trip delay or cancellation, baggage delay or loss, and roadside assistance.
Best for: Frequent travelers who want airport perks and the best dollar value from travel redemptions without being tied to a particular airline.
Delta SkyMiles Reserve Credit Card
Annual Fee: $550
What you need to know: This card made headlines in 2022 for issuing a subset of cards made of scrap metal from a former Delta Boeing 747. Owning a piece of this vintage “Queen of the Skies” aircraft constitutes a badge of honor for many aviation geeks. The card comes with the ability to earn three miles per dollar on Delta purchases (one mile for every other purchase), as well as securing higher priority on the upgrade list.
This year, it can act as workaround for those elite Delta flyers who were left in the lurch following the airline’s rather sudden changes to its airport lounge policies. Effective Feb. 2, to combat lounge overcrowding, Diamond, Platinum and Gold Medallion travelers in economy class or Delta Comfort+ on international flights (who previously were granted lounge access even without a Sky Club membership) are losing this SkyTeam alliance benefit.
Cardholders get Sky Club access on all itineraries—as well as access to Centurion Lounges—when flying Delta or partner airlines, which applies to long-haul flights when they’re not booked in the premium cabin or holding a general Sky Club membership. Cardholders get two free one-time guest passes per year; otherwise it costs $50 per person to bring up to two additional guests who are traveling on the same itinerary.
The perks: Basic benefits include free checked bags, a 20% discount on in-flight purchases, priority boarding and a credit for either Global Entry or TSA PreCheck. Travel insurance perks are manifold, including car rental; bag delay or loss; flight delay or cancellation; and general travel mishap issues.
Cardholders can use the card to earn Medallion Qualifying Miles and Medallion Qualifying Dollars by meeting certain annual spending thresholds, thereby inching toward Medallion elite status with Delta.
It’s worth noting that the card with $550 annual fee does not earn transferrable points; it awards only SkyMiles, an inflated mileage currency that’s derided in many aviation circles. While redemptions for economy-class flights aren’t so bad, depending on where you live (there’s no award chart to help you), expect to be charged quadruple or even more miles for premium cabin flights, compared to what other airline loyalty programs charge.
Best for: The most frequent Delta flyers who aren’t seeking maximum value when redeeming miles.
United Club Infinite Card
Annual Fee: $525
What you need to know: The real value of this card comes from cheaper access to United Clubs (it’s essentially a $125 discount on the $650 general membership fee for a year) and better access to United MileagePlus award redemptions, just for holding the card.
The perks: United miles are generally viewed as a highly valuable currency. The program still offers fair rates (compared with Delta, for example) on economy and business-class awards, with plenty of transparency of award availability. With this card, you’ll earn four miles per dollar spent on United purchases, two miles on dining and other travel charges, and one mile on everything else.
It also provides Premier Qualifying Points based on reaching certain spending thresholds, which can help you reach United elite status faster, as well as a credit toward TSA PreCheck or Global Entry membership. Free checked bags, 25% off in-flight and United Club purchases, a 10% discount on most North American mileage awards, and travel insurance covering the standard benefits (trip delay/cancellation, bag delay/loss, rental cars and other general travel protections).
This card also comes with complimentary membership as an IHG One Rewards Platinum Elite membership (late checkout, bonus points and room upgrade perks) and DoorDash DashPass membership. While there are no transfer partners, United’s membership in Star Alliance brings plenty of redemption options on other airlines.
Best for: United flyers who want lounge access and decently priced mileage redemptions on global airlines.
Citi /AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard
Annual Fee: $450
What you need to know: This is one of the real winners to highlight for 2023—for American Airlines frequent flyers, at least. In the past year, American has been allowing co-branded credit card spending to count toward elite status earning. While the no-fee American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp Card offers the same path to status, it lacks the perks of this $450 travel-focused credit card.
The perks: The card comes with Admirals Club lounge access (permitting two additional guests and without the time limits imposed by other airlines) when flying American or a partner carrier. This is a great way to get lounge access at a discount because American charges $650 for a general membership. You earn double miles on American Airlines purchases (one mile on everything else), plus such perks as a free checked bag, $100 credit to TSA PreCheck or Global Entry, priority boarding, and 25% off in-flight food and drink purchases.
While all these miles count toward “loyalty point” earning to get you closer to elite status, you can expedite the process by meeting certain spending thresholds for additional loyalty points (such as 10,000 loyalty points after reaching $40,000 in qualifying-year spending).
A major caveat: Unlike its many competitors, this card does not offer travel insurance protection.
Best for: Frequent American Airlines flyers who value an expedited path to elite status, some additional travel perks and a discount on lounge membership in exchange for forgoing travel insurance.
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