THE NEW WALLET WAR
By Joe Brancatelli
October 24, 2013 --Good news: American Express debuted a swanky club at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport last week, the second of at least three Centurion Lounges the credit card giant will open this year.
Better news: Amex now waives the Centurion Lounge's $50 entry fee for Platinum cardholders, a freebie once reserved for those who pay $2,500 a year for the by-invitation-only, hush-hush, black-tinted American Express Centurion Card.
Best news of all: Amex's decision to give Platinum cardholders a free pass to the Centurion Lounges is the latest salvo in a credit card industry's pitched battle to capture the hearts, minds and wallets of the nation's high-spending business travelers.
Airline prices may be rising, hotel service is sometimes iffy and it's getting harder and harder to secure a low-mileage rental car. But the credit card industry is only doing better and better by business travelers. Hardly a day goes by when there isn't news about a new card benefit or a hefty "acquisition bonus" of points or miles to take a new travel-related card.
The battle for business-travel spending is now so intense that those of us who live our lives on the road need to constantly ask ourselves the question that Alec Baldwin poses in those omnipresent Capital One commercials: What is in our wallet? More importantly, are the cards that are there now the right ones given our travel patterns and the card industry's share-of-wallet war?
Your mileage (and spending) may vary, but here's how I see the current landscape. And while I'm no Alec Baldwin, here's what I think should be in your wallet now.
Amex Platinum, the gold standard
Sapphire is the new black The folks who run Chase's Sapphire Preferred portfolio seem to view it predominantly as a sort of cash-rewards card, but savvy business travelers know better. The five-year-old Sapphire Preferred is shaping up as a formidable and low-cost ($95 annually, with the first year's fee waived) competitor to the Platinum Card. The basic benefits are strong (no foreign exchange fees, a 40,000-point acquisition bonus, alignment with Visa's superior global merchant acceptance) and the supplemental perks are extraordinary. You'll get double points on travel and restaurant charges and a 7 percent annual points bonus on all charges. What do all those points (called Ultimate Rewards) get you? An astonishing 1-to-1 transfer opportunity into the frequent flier programs of United and Southwest airlines as well as British Airways, Korean Air and Virgin Atlantic. Prefer hotel points? Chase's currency will transfer 1:1 to the Marriott, Hyatt and InterContinental frequent guest plans. You can even move them to Amtrak if you wish. And if you're into aesthetics, Chase Sapphire Preferred is a cool-looking card (no embossed numbers on the front) fabricated of a heavy, metal-like substance.
One perk to rule them all
Charge where you travel Travelers who are loyal to particular hotel brands or airlines should also have one of the credit cards offered by their preferred lodging chain or carrier. For airlines, the "basic" (read: lowest annual fee) cards will probably do because they routinely offer perks such as a free checked bag and faster boarding. But if you regularly fly United Airlines (NYSE: UAL) and its Star Alliance partners, consider the upgraded United MileagePlus Club Card. The $395-a-year card has very useful perks including membership in the United Club airport lounges and they're not accessible via the Amex Platinum card. The card also is free of foreign-exchange fees; allows you to book some MileagePlus awards without pricey, close-in booking fees; and gets you entry-levl elite status with Hyatt Gold Passport. It's also a terrific general-spend card because it offers 1.5 miles for all purchases as well as 2 miles for purchases on United Airlines. There's also a $100 statement credit when you first use the card and a hidden perk: primary car-rental coverage that allows you to decline the rental firms' expensive CDW waivers and bypass your own insurance if you're involved in an accident.
A card for infrequent travelers
One gigantic caveat
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2013 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2013 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.