New Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card is the best card for free travel with great perks

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I am an unabashed advocate of making travel free, comfortable, or both by smartly using travel credit card points, perks, and incentives. Earlier this month I recommended that travelers considering a new credit card hold off for a few weeks to see how some recent moves by Citi and Chase play out. The verdict is in: About a month after Citi dramatically reduced the benefits of its once-stellar Prestige card, Chase this week launched the Chase Sapphire Reserve Visa, quite possibly the best travel credit card ever.

With the exception of a few very specific circumstances (that I’ll get to), the Chase Sapphire Reserve card is absolutely the best bet for those wishing to maximize the travel benefits they receive from a credit card. Most even casual travelers will easily get more back in benefits to offset the hefty annual fee of $450. I heartily recommend you get one if you can.

Why the Sapphire Reserve?

Your math will be unique to you based on your spending habits, but I’ve run some quick numbers on this and have determined that the Reserve could potentially give me $1000 of extra plane tickets every year over the card I am using today. That’s huge. The benefits that set this card apart from the competition are:

  • 100,000 point bonus for new card members who spend at least $4000 on the card in the first 3 months of account opening (as you’ll see in a moment, that alone nets you $1500 free travel)
  • $300 automatically credited back to your statement each year for travel expenses (including airfare)
  • 3x points for every dollar spent on travel and dining
  • Redeem points for 50% more on airfare, hotels, car rental, and cruises

The 3x points and the 50% redemption bonus make a big difference. While the Citi Prestige card offers 3x points per dollar on travel, only the Chase Sapphire Reserve offers 3x on both travel and dining. That means that you earn 3000 points back for every $1000 you spend at a restaurant of any kind, airfare, travel incidentals (think baggage or wine on the plane), taxis (I also hear that Uber and Lyft are included), trains, rental cars, etc. Divide the total number of points by 100 to figure out how many dollars of travel those points will get you (so 3000 / 100 = $30). Then, because of the 50% bonus, multiply that number by 1.5 to mean that you get $45 of free travel for every $1000 you spend on travel or dining of any kind. Put another way, when armed with the Chase Sapphire Reserve, your travel and dining expenses are all basically 4.5% off, all the time.

What else does it get me?

Sapphire Reserve’s other benefits (which I consider less special because the competition offers them, more or less) include:

  • 1x point for every dollar spent on all non-travel purchases (that goes into your put at x1.5 same as above)
  • $100 automatically credited back to your statement as reimbursement for signing up for Global Entry or TSA Pre
  • Transfer points at a ratio of 1:1 to other airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Free Priority Pass Select membership gives you access to over 900 airport lounges worldwide
  • Special car rental privileges from National, Avis, and Silvercar
  • More benefits that you can find on the Chase Website

Lets zero in on the Priority Pass Select lounge access and the 1:1 point transfer. Both can be obscenely valuable. In the United States alone, this pass will give you access to lounges at busy airports in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Boston, and more. Those lounges are going to hook you up with complimentary snacks and beverages, to say nothing of the quiet more relaxed space outside of busy gate areas. There are even more in-network lounges internationally.

The 1:1 point transfer ratio could be an even bigger deal for you, because it allows you to transfer your points into accounts you have direct with the airlines. This is particularly useful if you’re looking to fly first class internationally, as often these seats are far cheaper with airline points / miles than they are in cash.

What does it cost?

Face value is a $450 annual fee. Many folks tell me that they prefer to not “pay” for a card with an annual fee, but frankly that’s (usually) nonsense. The aforementioned $300 travel rebate knocks the real value of the annual fee down to $150, an amount many will easily make up between the complimentary drinks in lounges and the already-discussed points earning.

Who should get it?

The Chase Sapphire Reserve is a no-brainer if you spend more than $300 per year on travel of any kind. Obviously the more you travel and eat at restaurants, the more valuable the card becomes. Anyone currently toting around the Chase Sapphire Preferred card (Chase’s next tier down) should absolutely upgrade, though it’s wise to do so with a completely new card application (rather than just calling to upgrade your existing card) so you can snatch the 100,000 point bonus. Sapphire Preferred carries a $95 annual fee, so if you buy my logic about the Reserve’s $300 travel credit making its real annual fee $150, you’re basically paying $55 more per year for lounge access and much better point earning (Preferred currently offers 2x points for dining and travel, and only a 25% redemption bonus).

Who should not get it?

The card is too new for the Internet to have generated enough good data points on which ranges of credit score + annual income + other factors are sufficient to actually be approved for the Chase Sapphire Reserve. However, assuming you could get accepted, we'll say Reserve is not for you if you don’t spend at least $300 per year on travel, or don’t really care much about traveling. Also, if you regularly stay four or more consecutive nights at the same hotel, you might find that the Citi Prestige’s “Fourth Night Free” benefit makes that a better card option for you. Likewise, if you are a frequent Delta traveler or if you frequently fly through an airport with one of the amazing American Express Centurion Lounges (DFW, IAH, LAS, LGA, MIA, SEA, or SFO), you might find the AMEX Platinum is a better value. Nothing wrong with having Chase Sapphire Reserve in addition to, but it is only in these limited circumstances that I see one of its competitors being a better value.