Winner: Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card
With this award, we recognize the charge card with the most useful features for day-to-day use by travelers who have no compelling loyalty to any specific airline, hotel chain, cruise line, or rental car company. As with other cards, the award is based strictly on awards, not financial terms and conditions, initial sign-up bonuses, or credit eligibility limitations.
The winner: Starwood Preferred Guest credit card, issued by American Express. Key features are the ability to earn credit that can be used not only for Starwood hotel stays but also converted to miles in the programs of more than 30 airlines, including transfer bonuses for many lines. Also, travelers with AmEx cards can convert the usual secondary rental car collision insurance to primary insurance for a modest fee—a feature not available with any conventional Discover, MasterCard, or Visa cards.
Starwood's hotel-award features are competitive with those of other major mid- to upper-scale hotel chains. And Starwood points (known as "Starpoints"), earned at the industry standard of one point per dollar charged to the card, can be transferred at a one-to-one conversion rate to miles in the programs of Air Canada, Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, US Airways, and 14 foreign lines, with a 5,000-mile bonus for transfers of 20,000 points. With the bonus, Starwood card users earn miles in these programs at a 20 percent higher rate than users of each individual airline's co-branded card. Starpoints can also be transferred to a few other lines at a lower exchange rate. Note that this is a somewhat different list from the AmEx Membership Rewards program.
As an alternative, Starpoints can be used to buy tickets on any airline at a rate of approximately 1.1 cent per point—a bit better than the industry standard of one cent per point.
Beyond earning airline miles, the second most important feature in a travel card is availability of primary insurance coverage for damage to a rented car. Although all AmEx, most MasterCard and Visa, and some Discover cards cover rented cars, most coverage is secondary. Primary coverage, however, is significantly superior, and the Starwood card, as with other AmEx cards, offers an upgrade to primary for $24.95 per rental—not attractive for one-day rentals but a good deal for longer periods.
In addition, the Starwood card offers the usual mix of minor benefits (lost baggage, product warranty extension, and such) that are par for the course. The $45 annual fee is competitive with or lower than the annual fee for most airline-sponsored cards.
Although the Starwood card looks good for the average traveler, there are other good choices out there as well. Honorable mentions go to:
- Diners Club, for many years a perennial winner of Randy Petersen's Freddie award for charge cards, also offers point transfers to many airlines, although the exchange rate isn't as good as Starwood's. Diners' main feature is primary rental car coverage at no extra cost—an important benefit and advantage over Starwood's card. However, at this time, Diners seems to be limiting enrollments to corporate and professional accounts; its website doesn't even offer an enrollment application.
- Non-travel cards. People who travel sometimes suffer from tunnel vision about charge card rewards, zoning in on travel and nothing else. But the payout—the value of rewards, compared with amounts charged—is often significantly higher with gasoline, automobile purchase, and a wide variety of other specialized cards. And cashback cards with good payout rates allow users to buy just about anything they want.
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Most Customer-Friendly Airline | Best Free Airline Perk | Best Coach-Class Experience | Best Value Airline | Best Value Destination | Best Hotel Loyalty Program | Best Rental Car Loyalty Program | Best Travel Rewards Card for Domestic Use | Best Travel Rewards Card for Overseas Use | Best Travel Rewards Card for ATM Use | Best Airline Website | Best Use of Social Media | Most Pet-Friendly Airline for Checked Pets | Most Pet-Friendly Airline for Carry-On Pets | Most Eco-Friendly Airline | Best Airport for Layovers | Best Airport for Connections