Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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What's in Your Wallet Now?
October 15, 2015 --Business travelers can create an existential crisis out of almost anything, even something as mundane as choosing a new wallet.
When I recently purchased a new one at an airport shop while killing time between flights, I realized it was existential decision time. The new wallet I'd chosen has slots for only four credit cards compared to the six-card capability of my former hip-pocket companion. Even when you consider that, like many business travelers, I carry a separate wallet for my passport, frequency cards and other bits of travel ephemera, a few pieces of plastic had to go. I won't bore you with the specifics of my own choices, but here's a way to think about what should be in your wallet now. Best card for travel perks The American Express Platinum card remains indispensable for business travelers. Carp about the $450 annual fee if you must, but the card includes more valuable travel perks and privileges than you can buy with three times that amount. Platinum confers elite-status recognition at Starwood and Hilton hotels and at National Car Rental locations. It reimburses your fee for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck. It'll kick back $200 annually in airline ancillary charges, too. You'll also get complimentary Boingo WiFi coverage worldwide. And Amex Platinum is the key to free entry at 800 airport lounges from Albania to Zimbabwe, including Amex's proprietary and much-admired Centurion Lounges. Best cards for travel spending Amex Platinum, however, is a card you carry for its perks and rarely use to pay for goods and services. The reason? It only offers one point per dollar charged in Membership Rewards. If your goal is to pile up points and then transfer them to airline or hotel frequent travel plans, there are better cards. Namely, the Amex Premier Rewards Gold. It offers three points per dollar spent on airfare and two points per dollar at U.S. restaurants, gas stations and supermarkets. There's also a $100 annual reimbursement for airline fees. The card is free for the first year and then $195 annually. Or, if you can handle permutations, there's the Amex Everyday Preferred. It gives three points on supermarket purchases, two points at gasoline stations and a 50 percent bonus each month you use the card at least 30 times. The fee is low, too, only $95 annually. Yet Membership Rewards now has a nearly fatal flaw. Most business travelers will be tempted to transfer Amex points to Delta SkyMiles and that's a fool's errand. Delta has so ferociously devalued SkyMiles and manages it so opaquely that it is nearly impossible to recommend anything aligned with it. Instead, focus your spending on the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. It earns two points per dollar on travel and at restaurants. Plus you'll receive a 40,000-point bonus when you acquire the card and charge $4,000 in the first 90 days. The card is cheap to carry: $95 annually and that fee is waived in the first year. Sapphire Preferred even has a perk Amex Platinum lacks. Its car rental coverage is primary, which means Sapphire Preferred covers all damages and you never have to invoke your personal vehicle insurance. Points you earn with Sapphire Preferred funnel into Chase Ultimate Rewards and can then be transferred into a passel of airline frequency programs (United, Southwest, Virgin America, British Airways and Korean Air) and the hotel plans sponsored by Hyatt, InterContinental and Marriott. Are Chase Ultimate Rewards points more valuable than Amex Membership Rewards points? Your metaphoric mileage will vary and Membership Rewards does have some exceedingly valuable — if exotic — plays for sophisticated players. But Ultimate Rewards wins for the most popular transfers because it isn't intricately intertwined with SkyMiles. Other options? Sagacious blogger and award planner Gary Leff is a proponent of the points-transfer flexibility of the Amex Starwood Preferred card. "It's the best card for earning American Airlines or Alaska Airlines miles, for instance, better than either airline's own co-brand" cards, he says. I don't disagree, but I am not a fan of carrying cards from travel companies whose products I don't particularly favor. Another thought: Citibank is playing catch-up with Amex and Chase, so it is lavishing attention and bonuses on the ThankYou Rewards plan. ThankYou still lacks a legacy U.S. carrier as a transfer partner, however. That makes it a marginal play. But if you are playing, the Citi Prestige card offers great earnings: three points per dollar on airline and hotel spending and two points on dining and entertainment charges. There's also a bundle of other perks: a $250-a-year rebate on airline fees; a free fourth night on hotel stays; free greens fees at thousands of golf courses and complimentary access to American Airlines Admirals Clubs and hundreds of other airport lounges. The $450 annual fee is offset by a 50,000-point bonus when you spend $3,000 during the first three months you have the card. Airline 'clawback' cards Like it or not, you probably should acquire a credit card tied to the carrier you fly most frequently. The reason? As airlines unbundled airfares and have made once-standard services "optional" charges, the only way to claw back the fees is by carrying their co-branded credit card. The United Club card from Chase, for example, offers a suite of United benefits called "premier access" as well as free checked bags. United's "close-in" fee for booking MileagePlus awards is also waived. The card boasts excellent earnings (two miles per dollar on United tickets and 1.5 miles on all other purchases), primary car rental coverage and a full membership in the United network of airport lounges. The $450 annual fee is partially mitigated with a $100 statement credit. Hotel Elite Step-Up cards Finally, it makes sense to carry the co-branded credit card of the hotel chain you most frequently frequent. Unlike airline cards, they aren't about getting back perks, but getting new ones. The $75-a-year Hyatt Card, or example, confers Hyatt Gold Passport Platinum status. You'll also receive two free hotel nights in the first year and an additional free night each year you carry the card. There are bonus earnings for charges at Hyatt hotels and at other travel suppliers. So leave wallet space for at least one lodging card.
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