Today we’re taking a look at the best travel credit card of 2020. Good candidates should provide access to a wide variety of frequent flyer and hotel award programs. Furthermore, it should waive foreign transaction fees, provide lucrative bonus earn categories and offer some level of trip-related insurance.
Before getting going, I just want to point out that a lot of what I’m about to say results from personal opinions. Back when I was in college, I remember a finance professor once saying that business valuation makes astrology look like an exact science. That always stuck with me and really applies to credit card valuations as well. Take lounge access for example, I use a fixed value of $15 per visit. That’s about how much I’d pay. Would you pay more? Would you pay less? Ultimately, it’s those kind of judgement calls that will determine how much of a card’s benefits are truly of value.
How We Determine Rank
Like last year, 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 capable of providing the opportunity for ultra-high value award redemptions.
Unlike some of my head to head videos, and 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 or over-water bungalow the quickest.
That said, let’s not discount trip related coverage. Both Chase and American Express continue to offer excellent protection for things like delays, rental car damage waivers, lost baggage and even medical evacuations. Whereas the scumbags over at Citi dropped almost all of that last year. So while this aspect of the game won’t effect today’s rankings, it nevertheless shouldn’t be ignored.
Also, 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 issuers that offer cards which earn points that can be redeemed for airlines miles, hotel points, cash or statement credits in any combination the cardholder feels like.
We’re further assuming each of these cards will be new accounts and that the cardholder will meet the issuer’s minimum spend requirements to earn its signup bonus.
Where We Were in 2019
In 2019 we found the Capital One Venture Rewards Card to be our best bet from a return on spend standpoint.
Our card with the maximum net value was the American Express Platinum card. Despite it’s high annual fee of $550, it provided $3,151 in value for a net of $2,601.
Finally, our 2019 card with the most upside was the Citi Prestige. It’s net value of $2,398 was objectively less than the Amex Platinum, but it’s 4th night free benefit, could still theoretically provide 4 figures worth of value alone.
History behind us, let’s take a look at this year’s 2020 contenders. The Sapphire Duo from Chase is back. The lower-cost card, the Preferred is little changed, still coming in at $95. Sadly no longer waived in year one. On the other hand, Chase has followed Amex up the price ladder with the Reserve and increased it’s annual fee to $550. Some new benefits go along with that, we’ll get to those in a bit.
From Amex, the Platinum and Gold Cards return, also little changed. Annual fees stay the same, 550 and $250 respectively. New to this year’s comparisons is the re-launched Green Card. It’s got some great bonus earn categories and costs $150.
Citi returns with the ThankYou Preferred and Prestige Cards. There’s really not a ton new with them either. Annual fees remain the same, 95 and $495. Like Chase, Citi has stopped waiving the annual fee in year one on the lower-priced card.
Capital One is back with the Venture Rewards Card. We’ve got a little shakeup on bonus categories but the annual fee of $95 remains unchanged.
First, let’s take a look at intro bonuses. They get a lot of attention. And for good reason. They’re a quick way to massively boost your points balance without a whole lot of spend. I’m going to limit these to publicly available offers. Starting with the Sapphire Preferred, we’ve got 60,000 points. Historically, this has been a 50,000 point card. But, with the disappearance of the first-year annual fee waiver, they bumped it up. I actually think that’s a very good trade.
I peg Ultimate Rewards at 2.07¢ each, making this signup bonus worth $1,241. Despite being a higher-tiered card, the Sapphire Reserve actually provides less, only 50k, making it’s signup bonus worth $1,034.
Moving over to American Express and we’ve got Membership Rewards to work with. I value them at 2.34¢ each. The Green Card, our cheapest Amex offering is only offering 30,000 points to new card members. This signup bonus is worth $701. The Gold Card is only marginally better. Offering just 35,000 points, worth $818. Finally, we’ve got the Platinum with a nice 60k worth $1,402.
That said, be careful with Amex cards. They limit signup bonuses to once per lifetime. So, while 60,000 points may sound like a lot, I’d hold off for better. 75,000 is not uncommon and 100,000 pops up once or twice a year, especially when using Cardmatch.
Citi Cards are home to ThankYou Points. What I consider the least valuable of the big 4 transferable award currencies. I peg them at just 1.41¢ each. The Premier Card offers 60,000 of them to new cardholders, worth $844.
Like Chase, Citi gives you less for more when you move up one tier. The Prestige is currently only offering 50,000 points, worth just $704.
Finally, we’ve got the Capital One Venture Card. It earns Venture Rewards. The newest program to enter the game but is starting off right. I already consider it superior to Citi’s program. I reckon Venture Rewards are worth 1.66¢ each.
Currently, the Venture Rewards card is publicly offering a 50,000 point signup bonus worth $829. However, 60,000 point offers come up quite frequently. So, you might want to consider holding out.
Annual Points on Spend
Next up, let’s look at points earned from everyday spend. I always like to remind everyone that cards providing travel rewards are a double-edged sword. While most earn bonus points on things like airfare and hotels, you end up spending less on those things because you’re paying for them with points.
I’m going to continue using last-years spending data because I think it paints a more realistic picture. Early 2019, I bought a house and have spent a decent amount of my time and funds doing things related to that instead of having fun. In other words, I traded in trips to Seatac Airport for depressing visits to Home Depot. That’s why I’m purposefully using aged data. I think it portrays a more typical year in the life of a Millennial. You know, spending too much on food and cool but useless tech and pretending to care about issues when it makes me look good.
As always, I’ll use my personal spending patterns and apply them to a hypothetical $20,000. You can find all data and calculation steps on this Google Sheet.
We’ll once again start with the Sapphire Preferred. It earns 5 points per dollar on Lyft, 2 points per dollar on travel and dining and 1 point on everything else. The Sapphire Reserve just ups those numbers a bit. It’s got 10 points per dollar on Lyft, 3 on travel and dining and 1 on everything else. Applying our hypothetical spend give us a total of 25,492 points on the Preferred and 31,352 on the Reserve. These are worth 527 and $649 respectively.
Moving on to Amex and we’re looking at the Green Card. It’ earns 3 points per dollar on Dining and Travel and 1 point on everything else. Throwing those at our hypothetical spend and we’ve got 28,776 points worth $672. The Gold Card is a less travel-centric affair. It earns 4 points per dollar on dining and grocery and 3 on airfare. I’m a big fan of those bonus points at supermarkets. It’s a less-covered category so it’s inclusion shouldn’t be overlooked. Anyhow, this points-earning scheme nets us 34,000 points worth $794.
Last up under the Amex umbrella is the Platinum Card. It’s actually the least-valuable of the three from an earn on spend metric. It only offers 5 points per dollar on airfare and hotels booked via Amex Travel and just 1 on everything else. The end result after a year of spend is just 24,640 points worth $576.
Citi is up next, and being the least valuable transferable currency will likely result in the least amount of return on spend. The Citi Premier offers 3 points per dollar on travel, nicely including gas, 2 points on entertainment and dining and one on everything else. The end result of this is $414 in value, $113 less than it’s direct competitor, the Chase Sapphire Preferred.
The Prestige Card is a bit more limited in how it defines travel. Only providing bonus points on airfare, hotels and cruises. We’ve also got 5 on dining and one on everything else. The net results being 34,290 points worth $491.
Finally, we’ve got the Capital One Venture Card. It’s points earning structure is dead simple, 2 points per dollar on everything. Sadly, the 10 point per dollar bonus on hotels.com purchases we had least year is no longer available. In the end, this nets us 40,000 points worth $663.
2020 Credit Card Statement Credits
Next up, we’re going to take a look at statement credits. This is where the premium cards really show their value. Let’s start with the easy one’s, the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Citi Premier, Amex Gold/Green and Venture Card because they’ve got nothing.
The Chase Sapphire Reserve is up next with what might be easiest-to-use credit among all issuers, $300 towards travel. It covers a broad number of categories and reimbursement is automatic. Next, we’ve got a $60 DoorDash credit. It’s not as universal as the travel credit and for some people may go unused. I always discount these types of credits by 25%, so it’s adjusted value is $45.
The American Express Gold Card offers two. First is a $120 dining credit. Like the Sapphire Reserve’s DoorDash credit it is not universal and might go unused, for this reason, we discount by 25%. We’ve also got a $100 incidental airline fee reimbursement that Amex has made a genuine pain in the a*$ to use. I’m cutting its value in half.
The Amex Platinum Card has three credits we’ll be taking a look at. $200 at Uber and $100 at Saks 5th Avenue. Both discounted 25% for difficulty of use. A $200 incidental airline fee credit is also available. Like the Gold Card’s credit, this one get’s a 50% reduction in value.
Finally, there’s the Citi Prestige. Like the Sapphire Reserve, it’s got a well-rounded, easy to use travel credit of $250.
2020 Airport Lounge Access
Next up is lounge access. For those who travel frequently and would like to grab a seat in a crowded room that serves drinks instead of a crowded one that doesn’t, this benefit is for you. Earlier I mentioned that I value a single, run-of-the-mill lounge visit at $15.
The American Express Green Card offers a $100 annual LoungeBuddy credit. But, what exactly does that mean? Just for fun, I took a little random sampling of their available lounges. The average cost was $45.40, with a low of 39 and a high of 50. This means that for our $100 credit, we’ll only get two visits. At $15 in value a piece, I consider this $100 credit worth only $30.
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.
I’m going to assume 5 visits a year, each with a guest, for a total of 10 at $15 each. This means I peg the value of lounge access from the Reserve or Prestige card at $150.
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 craptacular Priority Pass network, Delta Skyclubs, Escape Lounges and Airspace ones. If there is one benefit that Amex is the undisputed leader of, it’s airport lounge access.
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.
I consider the Global Lounge Collection to be at least twice as valuable as the offerings from Chase or Citi, so we’re calling this one $300…and, it probably should be more.
Expedited Security Offerings
Of course, just to get to a lounge, one needs to navigate their way through the security theater operation known as the TSA. For that, Precheck, Global Entry and CLEAR credits come in handy.
The Sapphire Reserve, Amex Platinum, Citi Prestige and Capital One Venture Card all reimburse Precheck or Global Entry fees once every five years. At this point, if you’ve got any premium cards, you’ve got this covered. Watch out for benefit overlap here.
New to the game is the Amex Green Card’s CLEAR credit. Up to $100 per year will be reimbursed. It’s the only card among today’s contenders that offers this benefit. I think this is just fantastic, and really furthers the value proposition of pairing the Green and Platinum Cards.+
2020 Credit Card Miscellaneous Benefits
Our last item to discuss before tidying everything up is what I call “other benefits”. The odd men out. The things that don’t fit neatly into any other category.
The Sapphire Reserve’s Lyft Pink membership is one of these. I had a hard time with this one, even when deciding whether to even include it or not. Considering I don’t include cash value for things like hotel or car rental status, I was conflicted. Ultimately, I decided to do it like this: the biggest cash benefit or savings from the program comes from it’s 15% discount on rides. So, I took 15% and multiplied it by the total spend on rideshares in our hypothetical budget. The result being $55, so that’s how much I included. If you never ride, this is worth nothing. If you ride a lot, it’s worth somewhere between 0 and $199. The latter being the actual cash price of the program.
We’ve also got the Citi Prestige’s 4th night free benefit. Although its value was severely neutered during last year’s relaunch, it still provides a lot of potential upside. Instead of being unlimited, it’s now only available 2 times per year. But, I think getting 250 in value out of each of those nights is pretty easy, we’ll call this one $500.
Putting Everything Together
And with that, we’ve got enough to draw some conclusions. So let’s put everything together, starting with the Chase Sapphire Duo.
|The Sapphire Duo from Chase|
|Intro Bonus Value||$1,241||$1,034|
|Value of Y1 Points on Spend||527||649|
|Points Value Subtotal||1,769||1,683|
|Lounge Access Program||–||150|
|Expedited Screening Credits||–||100|
|Benefits Value Subtotal||–||650|
|The Trio from Amex
|Intro Bonus Value||$701||$818||$1,402|
|Value of Y1 Points on Spend||672||794||576|
|Points Value Subtotal||1,373||1,612||1,978|
|Lounge Access Program||30||–||300|
|Expedited Screening Credits||100||–||100|
|Benefits Value Subtotal||130||140||725|
|The Citi ThankYou Siblings|
|Intro Bonus Value||$844||$704|
|Value of Y1 Points on Spend||414||491|
|Points Value Subtotal||$1,258||$1,195|
|Lounge Access Program||–||150|
|Expedited Screening Credits||–||100|
|Benefits Value Subtotal||–||1,000|
|The Lone Ranger from Capital One|
|Venture Rewards Card|
|Intro Bonus Value||$829|
|Value of Y1 Points on Spend||663|
|Points Value Subtotal||1,492|
|Lounge Access Program||–|
|Expedited Screening Credits||100|
|Benefits Value Subtotal||100|
The Best Travel Card of 2020
Ok, so now that all our cards are on the table let’s put them in order. And remember, we’re going to be assigning a winner in three categories. The most valuable card in year one, highest ROI in year two and the card most likely to provide ultra-high valued redemptions.
Our least valuable travel credit card of 2020, is the Citi Premier with a net value of $1,674. This is followed by the Amex Green, Amex Gold, Capital One Venture Card, Chase Sapphire Preferred, Citi Prestige, Chase Sapphire Reserve and finally, in the same place it was last year, the Platinum Card by American Express.
Next, we’ll look at ROI. But for that, we need to move past year one. In year 2 intro bonuses go away, so do one-time credits.
Because of the massive discrepancy in price, the cheaper cards are now on top. Our least valuable card from and ROI point of view is the Sapphire Reserve. It generates $1,199 in value over a cost of $550, providing a return of 218%. This is followed by the Amex Platinum, Citi Prestige, Amex Gold, Citi Premier, Amex Green, Sapphire Preferred and finally, also reclaiming it’s number one spot, the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card.
The last thing we’re going to look at, is the card most likely to provide ultra-high value returns. Here, I’m giving it to the Amex Platinum. I say this because it has a full six of what I would class high-value transfer partners. Marriott Bonvoy, Avianca Lifemiles, ANA Mileage Club, Flying Blue, Delta Skymiles and Air Canada Aeroplan, at least when their website is actually working. Furthermore, across all my recent reckonings, they had nine transfer partners with at least one redemption in excess of 4¢ per point.
And, that’s it. With wins in two out of our three categories, we’re calling the Platinum Card from American Express the most valuable travel card of 2020.