Luxury reward perks: What you get for paying big annual fee
By Jenny Hoff | Published: October 13, 2015
Mix and mingle with celebrities at the Sundance Film Festival, sip on Napa Valley's best wines at an exclusive airport lounge, skip the commercial flight and board a private jet instead -- it's all possible if you have the right credit card.
While cards with the most benefits don't come cheap, the perks can far outweigh the cost if you use them often. If you're a frequent traveler and ready to take on a big annual fee, then discover the luxuries that await you.
Airport lounge access
With free Wi-Fi, beverages and snacks, airport lounges can make you feel pampered, especially before a long-haul flight. Several credit cards come with access to lounges connected to various airlines.
A unique perk of the American Express Platinum card ($450 annual fee) is access to the company's private Centurion lounges for you and your travel companions at no additional cost. "They are quite beautiful. They range between 7,000 and 10,000 square feet and they have celebrity chefs that curate the menus," says Elizabeth Crosta, American Express vice president of public affairs. "Each of these chefs curates cuisine that you would find in the local area, with seasonal, fresh ingredients." Four of the six Centurion lounges (a seventh is currently being built in Houston) include a family room and play area, two have a spa. The San Francisco lounge has a wine tasting area for members to sample curated, local wines.
The AmEx Platinum card also offers access to Delta lounges as well as Priority Pass, an independent airport lounge program that includes 650 lounges worldwide.
The Citi AAdvantage World Elite MasterCard ($450 annual fee) is another pricey card, but in return offers entry to the Admirals Club for you and your travel companions, as well as priority boarding and a host of other benefits. Similarly, the United MileagePlus Club card ($450 annual fee) gets you and your eligible travel companions into United Clubs and participating Star Alliance affiliated lounges worldwide.
If you're not a frequent traveler and don't require unlimited lounge access, there are cards that charge less and still offer some perks, such as the United MileagePlus Explorer Card ($95 annual fee, waived the first year), which offers two free lounge passes a year and priority boarding.
One of the most prized perks among travelers is being told, "We're moving you to a better cabin/room." While it's difficult to get elite status with an airline unless you are a very frequent traveler, there are some credit cards that offer elite qualifying points as a sign-on bonus, such as the Platinum Delta SkyMiles ($195 annual fee) and Delta Reserve ($450 annual fee) American Express cards. The Platinum card gives you 5,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (and 35,000 regular miles) after you spend $1,000 on the card in the first three months; the Reserve card gives you 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (and 10,000 regular miles) after your first purchase on the card. Both give you the opportunity to earn more MQMs through spending. Once you earn elite status, you will qualify for automatic cabin upgrades on flights.
In fact, Delta recently introduced invite-only opportunities to forgo your commercial flight and take a Delta private jet instead. Though the option will be available even to the lowest Medallion status (silver), your chances may increase with platinum or diamond status (similar to free upgrades). While the odds are long, with private jets only available in select East Coast cities and by invite only to certain Medallion members, it is an incentive to spend your way to diamond Medallion status and up your chances of luxury travel.
You have to look at the perks you'll get and make sure you'll get enough to be more valuable than the annual fee.
There are also hotel cards that give you gold status just for getting the card. Daraius Dubash, who runs the Million Mile Secrets blog, recommends the Citi Hilton Reserve credit card for hotel perks for a relatively moderate $95 annual fee. By getting automatic gold status, you'll receive free hotel Wi-Fi as well as breakfast and room upgrades if available.
The AmEx Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) business card ($95, waived the first year) offers freebies at Starwood hotels such as Wi-Fi and access to Sheraton Clubs, which are hotel lounges with sweeping views of cityscapes or beaches and a wide array of free snacks and drinks. "We also sometimes get a complimentary upgrade or more points upon check-in," says Maggie Stolzberg, a destination wedding photographer who travels almost every weekend and uses an AmEx SPG business credit card for hotel bookings. "These little perks are nice."
Visa Signature cards, which are co-branded with a wide variety of card issuers, also come with many perks. For example, cardholders can take advantage of the Visa Signature Luxury Hotel Collection, which offers special deals at 900 hotels around the world, including complimentary upgrades, Wi-Fi, breakfast and discounted rates.
You'll find similar perks through the Leading Hotels of the World club membership that comes with the World Elite MasterCard (which also is co-branded with major issuers). In addition, the card features special deals at various restaurants, spas and hotels in select cities.
Instead of spending hours online reading reviews, finding hotel and airline deals, and planning an exhaustive travel itinerary, you may be able to rely on a personalized travel agent that's available through your card at any time, for no extra fee.
Many of the cards listed above come with complimentary concierge service, which can be used not only for booking trips, but also to secure tickets to exclusive events and restaurants. Even though she works for American Express, Crosta was impressed when she recently booked a trip to the Galapagos Islands through the company's concierge service.
"I was overwhelmed with the boat choices," she says. "But they helped me find what I was looking for -- a boat that would be kid-friendly and offer the services I wanted."
The World Elite MasterCard (which also is co-branded with major issuers) offers a similar service. Annual fees vary depending on which World Elite card you get, but the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite ($89 annual fee, waived the first year) comes with all of the World Elite MasterCard travel benefits for a relatively low annual fee.
The Citi Prestige World Elite MasterCard ($450 annual fee) also offers personalized concierge service, as well as a free fourth consecutive night at all hotels booked through a personal travel adviser designated through MasterCard. In addition to numerous other travel benefits, cardholders receive complimentary green fees to various golf courses around the world.
Watch Formula 1 races from an exclusive lounge above the track with spa services and a curated whiskey bar. Celebrate with the owner of the fastest horse at the Kentucky Derby VIP winner's party. Or mingle with celebrities at Sundance. While these exclusive experiences come with a price tag, they aren't reserved only for the rich and famous. If you have a high-end credit card, you, too, can purchase these once-in-a-lifetime experiences with special invites and packages from your card issuer.
Brian Kelly blogged on ThePointsGuy.com about going to the Sundance Film Festival through a package offered by his Chase Sapphire Preferred card. While he paid $4,000 for the deal, it included a five-night stay at the Hotel Park City (a $3,000 value), two tickets to the premiere movie screening on the first day of the festival and invites to parties, among other benefits.
Many of the cards in the $450 annual fee range also cover TSA/Global Entry fees (about $100), which allow you to skip long security lines. They also may offer a $200-$250 credit that can be used toward baggage fees, online drinks and snacks, and in some cases, flight bookings.
However, before you invest in new cards to pounce on these potential benefits, be sure to find out what benefits you may already have with your current credit cards. Also, calculate how often you think you'll take advantage of a new card's benefits.
"You have to look at the perks you'll get and make sure you'll get enough to be more valuable than the annual fee," says Kelly. However, he says, if you know you'll take advantage of the benefits, don't be daunted by a slightly higher annual fee. "If you spend a little, you can get a lot more back."See related: Unaffiliated travel reward cards give you choices, bonuses, 5 questions for picking a rewards card -- and 1 that shouldn't matter, Perks multiply in latest generation of elite cards
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