I’m a longtime member of the cash back club, but the siren song of travel rewards is getting louder. Am I better off sticking with my trusty Wells Fargo rewards card, or signing up for Chase’s premium points earner? Here’s how they stack up, and which one is the winner for me.
The Yankees and the Red Sox. Pepsi and Coke. Cash back and travel rewards. These are some of the greatest rivalries in history.
I’m a longtime member of the cash back club, but the siren song of travel rewards is getting louder. I recently noticed that my travel and dining card, the Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card, has been my top earner so far this year. Am I better off with the no-annual-fee Propel card or the much more ballyhooed Chase Sapphire Reserve card?
The Sapphire Reserve is a great comparison because it’s a favorite of travel rewards devotees, and its earn rate is basically the same as the Propel card: 3 points per dollar on travel and dining, 1 point per dollar on everything else.
Of course, Sapphire Reserve points are valued differently from Propel points because they can be transferred to 10 airline partners and three hotel chains, or you can book travel through Chase at a rate of 1.5 cents per point.
The Propel card also gives 3 points per dollar on select streaming services, although I don’t subscribe to any of those. I use that card exclusively for travel and dining. I’ve redeemed 40,000 points for $400 in cash back so far this year. Those same spending habits would have yielded 40,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points, worth at least $600 in travel.
See related: Chase Sapphire Reserve: Is it worth it?
The Propel card gives 20,000 bonus points (worth $200) for spending $1,000 in the first three months. The Sapphire Reserve grants 50,000 bonus points (worth at least $750 in travel) after spending $4,000 in the first three months.
The Sapphire Reserve charges $550, although it’s really $250 when you subtract the $300 annual travel credit. You don’t get rewards on that $300, so to be very technical, that represents an additional opportunity cost of 900 points (worth $13.50 in travel). The Propel card does not charge an annual fee.
Winner: Wells Fargo
See related: I’m finally going to pay an annual fee
The Sapphire Reserve is loaded with travel benefits, including free access to Priority Pass airport lounges, a Global Entry/TSA Precheck fee waiver, primary car rental insurance and generous assistance for delayed flights, lost luggage and more.
The Propel card’s most notable extra feature is cellphone insurance (up to $600 per claim and $1,200 per 12-month period, with a $25 deductible).
Objectively, the Sapphire Reserve is the clear winner. But it’s less straightforward for my personal situation.
I was talking up the airport lounge access to my wife Chelsea, but she wasn’t interested. She likes to spend as little time in airports as possible. We have a four-year-old, and most of our family trips are cross-country treks to visit Chelsea’s parents. It usually takes 12 hours door-to-door and adding any time to that – even in a luxurious airport lounge – is a tough sell in my household.
It’s also not practical, because the airports we use the most are JFK (New York City) and SFO (San Francisco). Priority Pass has four lounges at JFK, but they’re not in the terminals we typically use. And the only Priority Pass lounge in the SFO terminal we tend to fly out of has very limited hours that probably wouldn’t work for our schedule.
I might be able to use airport lounges on business trips, although much of the same applies. Out of the airports I’ve visited for business over the past year, only Charlotte has good Priority Pass availability. There are zero Priority Pass lounges at LaGuardia (New York City), New Orleans, Austin or White Plains, New York, and the only options at O’Hare in Chicago are in the international terminal.
TSA Precheck would save me some time on business trips. For family use, we’d have to buy Chelsea a membership out of pocket ($85), because ditching her in the regular security line would not go over well!
The other travel perks are total wild cards. I see the potential value, but I also hope to avoid flight delays, cancellations, lost luggage, rental car accidents and other maladies. While I might be whistling past the graveyard, these alone aren’t reasons for me to get a new credit card.
Despite the outcome, I’m sticking with what I have
Since I’m not sure the travel benefits are right for me, the other math is pretty close, particularly once you get past the welcome bonus. And I’m not a card churner – I view my cards through a long-term lens. This exercise validates my earlier thinking that if I sign up for a travel card with an annual fee, it should be the Citi Premier® Card.
That card doesn’t offer as many travel extras, but the annual fee is lower than the Sapphire Reserve, the welcome bonus is equivalent, the travel earn rate is the same and I have the escape hatch of product changing to the Citi Double Cash Card after a year if I don’t like it. That appeals to me more than any of Chase’s alternatives.
For now, I’m going to stick with what I already have.