Travel Wise: Picking the right credit card for travel perks
Be prudent when signing up for travel-linked credit cards, as costs and confusion can mount.
The New York Times
With all these frantic credit-card merchants beseeching me these days, I'm feeling as if I'm a tourist wandering the Marrakech souk. "Joseph! Last chance to earn 35,000 bonus miles!" implores a new email from Delta Air Lines for its Gold Delta SkyMiles credit card from American Express. It also guarantees priority boarding and free checked bags for me and "up to eight others" who may be traveling with me — with the $95 annual fee waived for the first year.
But wait, there's more. Just a few days ago, I got an offer for a "preapproved" Citi AAdvantage card with 35,000 bonus American Airlines miles; first-year fee also waived. Last year, meanwhile, I accepted an offer for a Chase British Airways Signature card that came with 100,000 bonus miles. Then last month, I opted for a new Chase United MileagePlus Explorer Visa card (the names roll off the tongue, don't they?) whose enticements included 50,000 bonus miles, priority boarding status, two passes to United Airlines' airport lounges and a first-year waiving of the $95 annual fee.
The various credit-card offers, which seem to come anew every day, are aimed at increasing airline revenue and building loyalty or, for the higher-level cards, to compete with industry giants such as the American Express Platinum Card. That card costs $450 a year but comes with a wide range of benefits, including free access to the airport clubs of Delta, American and US Airways (but not United), $200 in annual reimbursements for various airline fees and elite-status membership in various car-rental companies.
"I've been in this business a long time, and there definitely have been times of very aggressive marketing of airline and other travel cards," said David Gold, general manager of Chase Card Services. "We happen to be in one of them now."
Joe Brancatelli, who runs the business-travel membership website Joesentme.com, agrees that the incentives are remarkable right now, providing opportunity for business travelers to "edit their wallets" and decide which cards to keep for travel and which might be good ones to acquire, given the lavish enticements.
But I advise both prudence and organizational acumen. I, for one, am at the limit of my logistical skills keeping track of my basic travel card, an American Express Platinum, along with the two new airline cards I acquired with all those sign-up benefits. I intend to drop those new cards before the annual fees take effect after 12 months. Meanwhile, I'll enjoy all those bonuses like the caches of frequent-flier miles that came as enticements.
The best bet is to choose the card and the offers that fit your travel needs. Chase, Citibank and American Express are the major players in the ongoing battle for travel cards, including those issued with airline partners who see their branded-card users as a pool of potentially loyal customers who also generate revenue with each purchase.
Brancatelli says he likes the American Express Platinum. The $450 annual fee can pay for itself if you count the free access to hundreds of airline clubs and $200 annual credit for ancillary fees for things such as checking a bag.
"I think it's the best general card to have if you spread your travel spending around," he said. "Now, if you're a heavy United player, a heavy American player or whatever, you at least have to have their cards, too," he added.