Two new cards from Citi and some new features from American Express keep the current credit-card war hot. At the same time the card issuers keep hiking fees, adding new ones, and tightening credit requirements for those of you with shaky credit, they also keep adding perks and benefits for the high-scoring crowd. And they're steadily increasing the competitive field of premium cards. Several offers have been put on the table since my report earlier this year.
The New Citi Cards
Beyond the usual cash-equivalent points for each dollar you spend, the "ThankYou Premier Card" offers several special benefits:
- A yearly "free" companion on a coach class ticket for travel within the base 48 states. The usual rules apply to the companion ticket: you still have to pay applicable taxes and fees, travel on the same itinerary, and such.
- A 15 percent discount on any coach/economy or first class domestic or international air ticket.
- Up to $1,500 in trip-cancellation insurance for trips billed to the card, and up to $3,000 for baggage lost on common carriers.
The annual fee for this card is $125 for the primary member and $50 for each additional member; both fees waived the first year. The APR ranges between 13.99 percent and 21.99 percent, depending on credit rating.
The premium "ThankYou Prestige Card" adds to the list of travel benefits:
- The yearly companion ticket can be for an international trip as well as a domestic trip.
- Gold-level membership in Hilton's HHonors frequent stay program.
- Access to personalized "concierge" service for tickets and such.
- As previously reported, membership in the Priority Pass, worldwide airport lounge program.
The travel discount and insurance benefits are the same as with the Premier card. The annual fee for this card is $500 for the primary member and $175 for each additional member; the APR is 15.24 percent.
Clearly, the big deals in these offerings are the companion tickets and the 15 percent discount on all air tickets. I checked on the usual "gotchas" in such offers, and Citi responds that the promotion doesn't involve the big problem that afflicts so many such offers. All too often, a "free" companion ticket or big discount offer requires you to buy the base ticket at an inflated fare, but Citi says this isn't the case. The base fares for the companion ticket and the 15 percent discount, Citi says, are the lowest published fares available through the GDS. Those are normally the lowest fares you can find anywhere other than a few negotiated discounts.
There are, however, some other glitches in the offers:
- Both promotions are available only when you buy tickets through Spirit Incentives, a promotional company that runs the program for Citi.
- Because the deals are based on fares available only in the GDS, neither discount nor companion ticket can be on an airline that doesn't list through a GDS.
- The 15 percent discount offer does not apply to any ticket you might decide you want. Instead, Spirit Incentives chooses the airline, routing, and schedule. In effect, it's like dealing with Hotwire or Priceline, where you have to take pot luck on whichever airline wants to cut the price and on which flights.
- For some reason, the discount award applies only to coach/economy or first class tickets and does not include business class or premium economy. That isn't much of a problem for domestic travel, but for international travel, business class is now the predominant premium cabin option: Many airlines have abandoned first class entirely, and those that retain it charge astronomical prices. My guess is that this limitation is an oversight rather than a deliberate attempt to avoid arranging premium cabin companion tickets, but I could be wrong. Either way, it prices a premium cabin companion ticket out of reach for most travelers.
- A companion ticket on a foreign line is likely to entail a very large "fuel surcharge" that could be up to $500 each way. This problem is not confined to the Citi promotion. As far as I can tell, it affects any companion ticket offer, but it can come as a shock when you expect a "free" ticket.
I always get nervous about any offer that requires you to buy tickets (or hotel rooms, tours, or anything else) through a third-party outfit I don't know. I don't see any obvious traps in the current Citi offering, but some traps can be pretty well hidden. In any event, however, although the Citi promotion is, in some regards, a bit less than it seems, it still seems to be an attractive set of credit card benefits.
Still More From AmEx Platinum
AmEx Platinum has added Priority Pass membership to its benefits. As I noted in my earlier report on the Citi Thank You Prestige Card, this program provides access to 600 airline club and VIP airport lounges at more than 300 airports around the world through including 37 in the U.S. This benefit is on top of Platinum's ongoing program of admittance to lounge clubs operated by American, Delta, and US Airways, plus Continental, but only through next September.
AmEx Platinum now also includes membership in the Global Entry program that allows "fast lane" immigration clearance for previously vetted U.S. citizens arriving back in the U.S. The usual cost is $100 for five years. The vetting process can be a hassle, but if you travel internationally several times a year, quick processing can be a major benefit.