It was starting to look as if 2017 would finally be the year that I skipped my annual calamitous experience traveling from Boston to Washington, DC (the 2016 edition was fun, I tell you). Not to be. This past Monday night, a hazardous material incident (construction fumes) shut down a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) control center that handles traffic into all three DC-area airports. The upshot was that anyone trying to fly into town was out of luck: I was rebooked on seven different flights in a fifteen hour period -- though really appreciated every last friendly American Airlines employee who helped me on my way -- spent the night in Boston, and was utterly failed by my American Express Platinum card. Key takeaway is that the value of the AMEX Platinum as a travel card just plummeted in our book. Here's what you need to know.
Winner: American Airlines
First, credit where credit is due, any airline employee with hands on routes to and from DC had a tough day. I was originally booked on the 9pm out of Boston, which was cancelled. A helpful fellow at the counter quickly rebooked me on the 8pm that was still on track, but was promptly cancelled ten minutes after I was rebooked. A helpful lady at the Admirals Club then rebooked me on the 11am next day, with a standby for 6am. The latter was full, and the former was cancelled later, whereupon I was automatically rebooked on the 5pm next day. I worked with someone on the phone to get switched to a flight to Philadelphia, but when I arrived to check in at the airport Tuesday morning, the fellow at the counter (one of the absolutely nicest people I've met in the airline industry) advised me that the 10am flight had been re-instated. He booked me there, and hooked me up with a backup option that would have routed me through LaGuardia in New York before connecting home to DC. The 10am finally took off at 11:52, and I was wheels down in DC a bit after 2pm. Count 'em up, and you'll see that I had seats on seven different flights in a fifteen hour period. It took a lot of airline employees a lot of patience to make similar things happen under tough circumstances for thousands more people, yet every single one of them that I encountered kept their cool and went out of their way. It was a breath of fresh air in a year during which we've heard a lot of bad news about airline employees. The lesson for travelers is to be respectful, smile, and remember that most people are sincerely trying to do a good job.
Loser: American Express
I am used to the trip cancellation / interruption insurance and trip delay protection offered as a benefit when you pay for your tickets on either the Citi Prestige and Chase Sapphire Reserve credit cards. However, I had booked this trip on my American Express Platinum card, taking advantage of the 5x points they are now offering on airfare booked through them. It's on me that I didn't realize that AMEX offers zero of these benefits, perhaps because I didn't read Do You Get Travel Insurance With the AMEX Platinum Card? from the Million Mile Secrets blog, and because it's a benefit that most of us don't think of until the rare moment we need it. For more on trip delay insurance, try 10 Credit Cards That Reimburse You If Your Flight Is Delayed on One Mile at a Time.
Incidentally, the most enraging thing about this experience was that the person at AMEX tried to tell me that no credit card offers this benefit, and then backtracked by accusing me of having not specifically purchased the benefit on my AMEX. These two arguments are not only logically incompatible (how could I have purchased something that you just claimed doesn't exist anywhere), but at least the former is flat wrong. If you're going to pass yourself off as the top of the line premium card for travel, and not offer a benefit that all of your competition offers, you should at least own it.
Now, some might argue that the point return you get from AMEX's more generous 5x bonus makes it worth skipping the insurance, so let's do some math... The more generous points bonus means that you earn about 3 cents worth of future travel per dollar of travel spent with your AMEX Platinum than with your Chase Sapphire Reserve. This delay set me back about $300, or 30,000 cents, meaning that I'd have to spend $10,000 of travel on the AMEX over the Chase in order to make up the $300 hit I took without travel insurance to cover it. If I'd been set back $500 (the maximum per incident coverage from Chase), I'd be looking at having to spend $16,666 of travel on the AMEX over the Chase in order to make up enough points to come out ahead.
This is really a judgement call that turns on two questions: (1) Do you think that you will experience $300 to $500 of trip delay expenses every $10,000 to $16,666 worth of travel you take, and (2) Would you rather take your chances to possibly get more free travel in the future (via points), or have peace of mind knowing that you're covered when you travel?
For my taste, I'll book on the Chase Sapphire Reserve every time. Sorry, but AMEX is going to have to do better.