It’s a new year. That means it’s time to re-evaluate the award travel party. For me, that’s talking about the best travel credit card of 2019.
In 2018, we saw the dethroning of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, Priority Pass get even shittier, the relaunch of some old school favorites, like the Amex Gold and Citi Prestige and 2nd tier issuers like Discover and Capital One put forward some genuinely competitive products.
While the value of airline miles has generally decreased in recent years, the number of ways in which a savvy points traveler can earn them has increased. In order to come up with the best travel credit card of 2019. We have to define what metric determines rank. I can think of three, so I’m going to come up with winners in each of the following categories.
- Best return on investment
- Best total earn
- Most likely to provide the opportunity for ultra-high value award redemptions.
Unlike some of my head to head videos, for the sake of brevity, I’m going to skip the insurance and misc purchase protection comparisons for now. In this video, we’re only looking at what card is most likely to get you in that international business-class seat the quickest.
To keep the list manageable, we’re going to be limiting our options to those cards earning transferable points. For those new to the game, that means limiting our options to issuers that offer cards that earn points that can be redeemed for airlines miles, hotel points, cash or statement credits.
We’re further assuming each of these cards will be new accounts and that the cardholder will meet the issuer’s minimum spend requirement.
Our contenders are as follows. From Chase, we’ve got the Sapphire Preferred and Sapphire Reserve, costing 95 and $450 respectively. Coming from American Express, it’s the Gold and Platinum, running 250 and $550. From Citi we’ve got the Premier and yet to launch, but confirmed, new Prestige, 95 and 495. Finally, we’ve got Capital One’s entry, the Venture Rewards Credit Card at $95.
Getting right into the top line, we’ve got signup bonuses. I’m going to use what’s available at the time I film this, so go ahead and verify if reading any time in the future. Also worth noting, is that I use the best publicly available offer. I’ve had some comments in the past that point out what some consider an error in not including referral or targeted offers. The reason I don’t use these, is simply because they’re not accessible to everyone. While it may be prudent to hit up r/churning for a referral link and a better signup offer, not everyone is comfortable doing so.
Starting with the Chase duo, the Sapphire Preferred and Reserve. Both offer 50,000 Ultimate Rewards to new cardholders. My current Points Reckoning value of this currency is 2.19¢. This make the 50K signup bonus on either worth $1095.
I value American Express Membership Rewards a little higher, 2.26¢ per point. Amex is currently publicly offering 50,000 Membership Reward points to new Gold Cardholders and 75,000 to new Platinum ballers. Running the mathematics gives us a respective value of 1,130 and $1,695.
The least valuable of the big three transferable currencies available to US consumer are Citi’s ThankYou Points. Though they’re still quite good. I value them at 1.86¢ each. New Citi Premier cardholders will earn 50,000 of them after a $4,000 minimum spend over three months. This is worth $930. Then there’s the Prestige. It’s not actually available yet, but should be launching any day now. Because it’s not available, we don’t know what the signup bonus will be. Based on history, and the fact I like to remain conservative, I’m going to ballpark its signup bonus at 50,000 points. Many in the game are hoping for 75,000 and praying for 100. I’m hoping they go big as well, but for purposes of this video, I’m sticking with a value of $930.
Capital One Venture Rewards are a little wonky. Unlike Chase Ultimate Rewards, Amex Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou Points, they don’t transfer to airlines one to one. Instead you’ll get 1.5 airline miles for every 2 Venture Rewards points. Running the numbers here gives us a value of 1.73¢ per Capital One Venture Rewards Point. At the time of filming, the issuer is offering 50,000 points to new card members. This is a little disappointing, as they were offering 75k just a few weeks ago. In any case, they’re currently worth $865.
Return on Spend
In addition to points awarded as signup bonuses, you’ll also be treated to points on everyday spend. To figure how much they’re worth I’m going to use my own spending patterns and apply them to a hypothetical $20,000.
I also like to mention that points and miles travel is a double-edged sword. Typically, the bonuses on travel-related spend categories are great. But because you’re now traveling on award tickets, you end up spending less on airfare and hotels. Just keep that in mind if you’re running your own estimated earnings numbers.
The Chase siblings each earn bonus points on travel and dining. In these categories, you’ll earn 2 points per dollar on the Preferred and 3 on the Reserve. Unlike some other issuers, this is a worldwide category. Meaning that meal in China will earn bonus points. Everything else will earn 1.
Bumping those bonus earn categories up against our hypothetical annual spend provides us with $526 in value for the Chase Sapphire Preferred and $614 for the Sapphire Reserve.
Moving on to Amex, and we’ve got 5 points per dollar on airfare and hotels booked with Amex travel and 1 point on everything else. It’s a pretty un-remarkable points-earning card. The cheaper Amex Gold is better. Here, we’ve got 4 points per dollar at US restaurants, 4 at US supermarkets, 3 on flights and one on everything else. Tossing these numbers at the Excel pixies provides an annual earn of 556 for the Platinum and $768 for the Gold. I’m a huge fan of the Gold’s grocery bonus. It’s an underserved category that isn’t duplicated on many other cards.
Next up, we can’t have a conversation about the best travel credit card of 2019 without talking about the currently available Citi Premier and the upcoming Citi Prestige. They’re some of the best earners out there. The Premier earns 3 points per dollar on travel, including gas, 2 points per dollar on dining and entertainment and 1 point per dollar on everything else. The Prestige ups that game a bit. Here, we’ve got 5 points per dollar on dining and air travel, 3 on cruises and hotels plus one on everything else. Also, we temporarily have 2 points per dollar on the often hard-to-describe entertainment category. Because this video is geared towards 2019, and the entertainment bonus is good for ¾ of it, I’ll include ¾ of this bonus.
Running the numbers on these two cards and we come up with an earn value of 533 for the Premiere and $663 on the Prestige.
The final card to calculate an annual value of points earned for 2019 on is the Capital One Venture Reward Credit Card. Only recently has this card been in the conversation, as they just added transfer partners, making their award currency much more valuable. Because of this, and their generous 2 point per dollar everyday earn, plus 10 on hotels booked via hotels.com, we’re earning $772 in value annually on 20,000 in spend. That’s really quite good.
The Value of Statement Credits
Next thing to talk about in the best travel credit card of 2019 conversation is statement credits and additional perks. I’m going to start with the easy one. Lounge Access. This benefit generally just follows the price curve. The lower priced Sapphire Preferred, Amex Gold, Citi Premier and Capital One Venture Rewards Card don’t offer anything.
Moving up the price ladder, and there are very few things in this life that I love to hate more than Priority Pass. Whether it’s being turned away from an Alaska Lounge due to capacity constraints, or told I couldn’t enter The Club at PHX because it transforms into a British Airways lounge at 3:30 PM, I’m just generally over the program, at least as it pertains to the United States. Overseas, I’ve had better luck. Unfortunately, this sad network is all Sapphire Reserve and Citi Prestige customers have to work with. On the opposite end of this spectrum is a shining glimmer of hope, the Amex Platinum, with it’s far and away better Global Lounge Collection. Included in this gem, we’ve got the fantastic American Express Centurion lounges, the crappy Priority Pass network, Delta Skyclubs, provided one is flying Delta, Escape Lounges and Airspace ones. If there is one benefit that Amex is the undisputed leader of, it’s airport lounge access.
For me personally, I’m based in Seattle, and totally spoiled for choice. We’ve got an Amex lounge, two Delta Skyclubs and two Priority Pass lounges. It’s kinda like an Amex cardholder’s playground. There are more lounges available to the Platinum cardholder at Seatac than there are regular terminal bathrooms /s/.
I value a Priority Pass Select Membership at $150, calculated as $15 per visit, 5 visits a year, each with a guest. I know the going rate as charged by Priority Pass is $32 per person, per visit. But I think that’s grossly overpriced and I can’t image there’s anyone who actually pays it without being reimbursed by their company. I consider the Global Lounge Collection by Amex to be at least twice as good, so it’s worth $300.
Reimbursable expenses are up next. The simplest to cover are the Chase Sapphire Preferred and the Citi Premier. Neither offer anything. The Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card has only one, a Global Entry or TSA Precheck reimbursement. It’s technically worth $100. But this is a massively-covered benefit, and thus is highly subject to benefit overlap. I really wish card issuers would consider forgoing this and offering something else in its place, maybe Clear?
At the $250 price point, we’ve got the American Express Gold Card. It’s got more to work with. This is a good time to point out that I only consider a statement credit useful when it can realistically offset something one is going to spend money on otherwise. Case in point, The Amex Gold Card’s dining credit. It’s only available at Grubhub, Seamless, The Cheesecake Factory, Ruth’s Chris Steak House and participating Shake Shack locations. Those are all things I don’t really use. That’s not to say the benefit isn’t useful, just that it’s not that useful to me. I could go out of my way, or change my spending habits to glean some value, but that kind of defeats the point. It’s completely case-dependent and often-times subjective. That’s why I discount benefits that aren’t universal by 25%. This makes the $120 dining credit worth $90 in my opinion. The same goes for the airline credit. Though it’s advertised at $100, I consider it worth 75.
Our most expensive card today, the $550 American Express Platinum card is up next. It too has some statement credits that could be great, or could go unused. Let’s start with the statement credit most likely to remain unused, $100 annually at Saks Fifth Avenue. We’ve also got $200 in airline incidentals and $200 on Uber. At least that last one is easy to soak up. The full-face value is $500 for all of these, but because of their use-restrictions, I’m reducing by 25% again and calling it 375. The Platinum card, like the Venture Rewards above and the Chase/Citi offerings below offer a TSA Precheck or Global Entry credit.
Both the Sapphire Reserve and Citi Prestige offer broad category travel credits. 300 and $250 respectively. Because they’re both easy to use and can reliably replace everyday expenditures, I’ll included their full value when we total everything up.
In addition to the just-mentioned travel credit, the Citi Prestige offers what might be the most-valuable perk available among all travel-related credit cards. The 4th night free. The issuer will reimburse the cardholder for the cost of the 4th night of a hotel stay, after 3 paid nights, when booked through Citi travel. This benefit used to be unlimited, but going forward, after September, will be limited to just 2 free nights per year. It’s anyone’s guess how many people took full advantage of this. There have been reports of points and miles players gleaning thousands and thousands in value from this perk over the course of a year. For this group, this change is devastating. To the more average user, it will only sting a little bit. I’m calling this one at $500. Two, $250 per night reimbursements. Hopefully you can do better.
The Citi Premier and Prestige each offer one more, often-overlooked feature the other entries can’t touch. Price Rewind. If the Citi Cardholder finds a lower price within 60 days of purchase, the issuer will reimburse the cardholder up to $200 per item and $1,000 per year. There is even an automated tool to help manage purchases. I think this benefit is just outstanding, and a bit overlooked. This actually used to be a more common benefit, but has taken a hit over the last couple of years. I don’t expect Price Rewind to be long for this world. That said, it was just devalued back in July of 2018, so I think it’s safe for at least another year. It would be pretty easy to save $200 annually from this perk, so that’s what I’ll call it.
Putting it All Together
Now that we’ve laid everything out, let’s put it all together and come up with some best travel credit card of 2019 conclusions. We’ll start in year one with the Chase siblings. Dropping in our intro bonuses, the value of yearly points earned, annual credits, lounge access, miscellaneous insurance, TSE Precheck or Global Entry, and other, which in this case is nothing, give us a value subtotal of $1,671 for the Chase Sapphire Preferred and $2,359 for the Chase Sapphire Reserve. The annual fee in year one for the Preferred is $0, since it’s waived, and $450 for the Reserve. This provides a net year one value of $1671 for the Chase Sapphire Preferred and $1,909 for the Chase Sapphire Reserve.
Next up is the Amex duo, the Gold and the Platinum cards. We drop everything in just like we did for Chase and find a value subtotal of $2,113 for the Amex Gold and 3,151 for the Platinum. Our annual fees of $250 and $550 come in next. Mathed all out and we get a net year one value of $1,863 for the American Express Gold Card and 2,601 for the Amex Platinum.
Moving right along and we now have the Citi siblings, the Premier and the Prestige. Everything is once again accounted for providing a net year one value of 1,713 for the Citi Premier and $2,2398 for the Citi Prestige. If anyone’s curious, the value in other here is a result of Price Rewind and the 4th Night Free hotel benefit.
Finally, the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card is all alone. We run all the numbers and find a net value of $1,787 here.
So one thing is immediately obvious, there is no bad choice. All offer great 4-figure earning potential with virtually no effort. It’s not like one is an order of magnitude better than another.
Looking at everything on the same screen, from least valuable to most, we’ve got the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Citi Premier, Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, Amex Gold, Chase Sapphire Reserve, Citi Prestige and finally, the most valuable travel credit card of 2019, the Platinum Card by American Express.
I also wanted to take a look at year two and beyond. Earlier in this video, I mentioned that I’d also rank the cards based on percentage return on spend. That is, total value divided by annual fee. Because the cheaper cards waive their annual fee in year one, and we cannot divide by zero, we need to look one year out.
In year two, intro bonuses go away, as do the TSA Precheck/Global Entry credits. Everything else remains. But now that we’re ordering cards based on percentage ROI, the rankings drastically change. The expensive cards are now the least valuable. From worst to best, it’s the Amex Platinum, 247%, Chase Sapphire Reserve, 259, Citi Prestige, 376, Amex Gold, 393, Sapphire Preferred, 606, Citi Premier, 825 and the most valuable card from on a ROI basis, the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card earning a 866% return.
The Winner’s Circle
At this point, can we say definitively what is the best travel rewards credit card of 2019? Absolutely not. But we can come up with some recommendations based on your spending habits and preferences.
For those looking for simplicity and return on investment, the winner is the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card. It’s got a solid 2 point per dollar earn on everyday spend and a whopping 10 on hotels. It won’t cost very much, only $95 and it’s new partner network adds some big value.
For those looking for reliability and dislike hassle, I like the Chase Sapphire Reserve. It’s $300 annual travel credit couldn’t be easier to use and the fact that it’s rewards currency can be redeemed for 1.5¢ per point via the Expedia powered travel portal means using your points is effortless.
For those looking for the smoothest travel experience and maximum net value, it’s the American Express Platinum Card. It’s lounge network is second to none, well, except the Black Card. However, this comes at the expense of poor earn on everyday spend and statement credits that should be easier to use. The fact that I live in Seattle, and am thus spoiled for choice when it comes to airport lounges means I likely keep this card in my wallet. If I lived elsewhere, I might not.
Finally, for those looking for the most upside, it’s the Citi Prestige. What I consider the card most likely to provide for ultra-high value award redemptions. Though it’s ThankYou Points are objectively worth less that Membership or Ultimate Rewards, I know from experience, that with some patience, they can be worth upwards of 4¢ each. Plus, the card earns a lot of them. Price Rewind can earn up to $1000 on it’s own and the 4the night free perk has the ability to be worth thousands. This is something no other card comes close to.