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The Ultimate Guide to Credit Card Travel Rewards | Part 6

Choose FI has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Choose FI and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. Opinions, reviews, analyses & recommendations are the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, endorsed or approved by any of these entities. Disclosures.

How to Unlock Elite Status and Lounge Access

Closing out our Ultimate Guide to Travel Reward series, we are going to walk you through the best ways to get access to loyalty programs and other tools that will expedite the process of flying. If you’ve found your way here through a Google rabbit hole, you can rewind and find part 1 here.

Want to know how to stay in the best lounges in the country? Get through customs quicker and save you a lot of headaches? We’ve got the skinny.

Start Your Trip Out Right With Lounge Access

One of my favorite perks when traveling with the family is getting access to lounges before our flight. Free food. Free drinks. WiFi. And a place to sit down and catch up on things. In some locations, you even get a shower!

What’s not to like?

Airport lounges used to be something reserved for passengers on premium international cabins, who are top elite members, or, who pay for the privilege.

The great news for those of us in this travel game is that many of the premium travel credit cards come with complimentary lounge access.

Here’s a summary of the different ways to get into airport lounges for free.

Domestic Airline Lounges

Even if you are flying in domestic coach, you can still get access to a lounge. The catch is that you must have the right premium travel credit card, and, a same-day boarding pass for that airline.

For instance, as of November 2021, the Platinum Card® from American Express will get you into a Delta Sky Lounge. So will the premium Delta Airlines co-branded cards with American Express.

On American Airlines, you and up to two guests can access the carrier’s Admirals Club if you have the premium co-branded cards with CitiBank.

For United Airlines, some of the United co-branded cards with Chase may get you access when combined with a same-day boarding pass for United and Star Alliance flights. Or if you just want to see what the fuss is all about, some of the entry-level United co-branded credit cards may get you up to two single-day passes.

The American Express Lounge Network

Aside from Delta Sky Lounges, the American Express platinum cards will also unlock for you the Centurion lounges across major airports in the US.

There are some restrictions, the main ones being you need a boarding pass that shows you have a flight on the same day (including connections), and you can only get into the club three hours before departure.

Other lounges available to Platinum cardholders include International American Express Lounges, as well as smaller lounge networks such as Escape Lounge, Airspace, Plaza Premium Airport Lounges, and Lufthansa Lounges.

Lots of terms and conditions apply, so check the fine print.

Priority Passes

If you have the platinum cards from American Express or the Chase Sapphire Reserve, you’ll get access to the Priority Pass network of airport lounges.

These passes are great because they get you and two guests into lounges all over the country and the world.

Some lounges are nicer than others, but all come at the great price of $0 and can be easily located with the Priority Pass app. There are usually a few types of lounges in the Priority Pass network:

Participating Airline Lounges

These are networks that serve premium cabin passengers of multiple airlines departing from a given airport.

Independent Lounge Networks

These are networks that serve premium cabin passengers of multiple airlines departing from a given airport.

Minute Suites

These aren’t lounges, but a small room with a daybed, pillow, and white noise generator where you can take a nap. The first hour is free, and then there is an hourly fee after that. If you have two or more Priority Passcards, you might be able to get the attending agent to check you in for two-three free hours back-to-back.

Restaurant Perks

In airports where there aren’t any in-network lounges, there may be restaurants where you can get generous rebates on food and beverages, including alcohol in some places. 

Airline Elite Status

When it comes to elite status with airlines, we’re not going to get too far into the weeds on them because the whole point is to try to pay almost nothing for the award flights.

This means it’ll be pretty hard to earn elite status just by flying since most US-based airlines require some kind of spending to earn status.

The biggest perks of elite status are upgrades to premium cabins or preferred seats in coach, free baggage, and maybe access to airport lounges.

Some experts in the travel game go really deep into the elite status rabbit hole and actually go on “mileage runs.”

A mileage run is a practice of finding discounted flights at great deals and flying for no reason other than to earn or renew elite status. This makes more sense if you are already close to an elite tier, and just need a flight or two more to reach the next level.

For most of us in the FI community, mileage runs likely won’t make sense. Neither does another way to earn entry-level elite status: spending large amounts on co-branded credit cards.

If the idea is to earn almost free flights, better use of that expenditure is to meet minimum spending requirements and earn bonuses with new credit cards.

Status Matches

From time to time, airlines may have status match challenges. This is a promotion targeted at people who already have elite status at one airline, and who may get a matching status with another carrier if they complete a challenge, such as taking a number of minimum flights within a period.

The Bottom-Line

Getting elite status with airlines isn’t a great idea for most of us in the FI community. Free award flights don’t help us earn status, and spending a lot of money on co-branded cards just to earn basic elite status seems like a wasted opportunity for many minimum spends

Hotel Elite Status

Unlike elite status with airlines, status with hotels may actually make sense because most chains track award nights as part of earning status.

Hotels.com: The Alternate Loyalty Program

If you do not care for hotel elite status, you could consider an alternate hotel loyalty program with Hotels.com, which awards you a free night after staying 10 nights.

A reminder: it’s not actually a free night, it’s a discount equal to the average of what you paid for your 10 paid consecutive nights.

When you book a stay at a chain hotel through Hotels.com, you do not get any credit towards a chain hotel’s elite membership, and you probably won’t get any of the elite benefits either.

The benefit of Hotels.com’s 11th night free is that it earns you a discount across most properties in the world, from the most luxurious resorts to spartan hostels, even owner-owned properties similar to properties you find on Airbnb. So you never have to feel like you have to stick to a chain.

What Does Elite Status Earn You With Hotel Chains?

Like with airline elite status, we’ll just do an overview of hotel loyalty programs in general, then we’ll look at some ways to get the elite status if that is something of value to you.

Some of the perks of elite status include the following:

  • Priority check-in
  • Free breakfast for two where available
  • Lounge access
  • Free upgrades to better rooms and occasionally, suites
  • Point multiplier on money spent at the chain
  • Fourth award night free for IHG, and fifth award night free for Hilton and Marriott properties
  • Late check out
  • Property-specific perks. Warning: some can be pretty lame, like premium wifi that isn’t that much faster, or free water or snacks
  • Personalized service for highest tiers: Hyatt has its Concierge program for members staying 60 nights in a year, and Marriott has its Ambassador program with 100 nights and a steep $20,000 of spend. Reviews of the programs have been mixed

Just like with airline elite status, there are travel rewards experts who do “mattress runs,” which is the practice of chalking up nights at a hotel chain’s lower-tier properties at great prices or using points, even if they do not really have a need to stay at a hotel.

Unlike mileage runs, mattress runs can be more feasible because award nights count towards elite status.

Earning Free Hotel Elite Status

Another way to get hotel elite status is with a co-branded credit card. Some examples:

Hilton Honors

  • You can get complementary Hilton Honors Diamond status with the premium Hilton Honors cobranded cards with American Express.

Marriot Bonvoy

  • You can get elite status by spending massive amounts of money on a Marriott co-branded credit card with American Express or Chase. In my estimation, these are extremely sub-optimal options.
  • You can get gold status with the platinum cards from American Express.

World Of Hyatt

  • You get the entry-level Discoverist elite status with Hyatt cobranded card with Chase.

So that’s a quick skinny of hotel elite status. While the order of priority is to work towards award flights, if you do have the points to get award nights at a chain, it might make sense to try to earn elite status.

Travel Insurance

No one really wants to go on a trip planning for the worst to happen. That’s no fun at all.

But during a crisis, we should be focusing on what’s truly important–getting ourselves and the people we care for the best care available and then getting out of dodge ASAP.

The last thing we need is to also be worrying about the financial fallout of the emergency. Having the right combination of travel insurance will take care of both

Here are a few ways in which travel insurance will cover you–but note that not every policy will provide every benefit.

  • The cost in cash or points of your trip if it is canceled (i.e., before it starts) or if it is interrupted mid-trip by a covered reason.
  • Travel delays by a common carrier, usually six hours and more.
  • Loss of or damage to baggage, and delays of baggage, usually by more than 24 hours.
  • Loss of or damage to a rental car. This usually excludes liability to third parties.
  • Emergency medical and dental care
  • Emergency medical transportation and evacuation. This is a black swan event–rare but potentially devastating from a health and wealth standpoint.

There are many different policies from different credit cards, airlines, online travel agencies, and travel insurance companies, so it can get confusing.

It took a while to figure most of it out, but for many people, combining the free travel insurance of credit cards with that of a reasonable paid plan would yield the maximum coverage for the least amount of money.

Free Travel Insurance With Credit Cards

For everything excluding emergency medical and dental care and emergency medical transportation, the Chase premium cards can be pretty good.

Sure, the annual fees may be hefty, but the reimbursements could really add up. The coverage is a free benefit as long as you paid for part of the trip with credit cards.

For the big scary medical emergencies, the free travel coverage from credit cards does not meet the grade. For that, I turn to paid travel insurance to plug the gap.

Paid Travel Insurance

Allianz Travel Insurance

The free medical emergency coverage from credit cards tends to cap coverage to around $2,000 to $3,000. These will not go very far at all in a real medical emergency abroad.

It’s why I turn to paid travel insurance, but as with everything in my life, I make sure to optimize these policies to get the most protection for the lowest premiums.

A quick search will show up several travel insurance providers in the market. We’ll focus on just one–Allianz–which we know many in our community have had great personal experiences with.

When you stack the free coverage from a premium card against the Allianz plan, you’ll be getting up to 10x the emergency medical coverage at $25,000.

In case of a black swan event and you or your family need to be evacuated for medical emergencies, the Chase cards provide up to $100,000 in coverage. Allianz covers you for $500,000 per person.

Save on Premiums on Trip Cancellation and Interruption

If you low-balled the estimated cost of the trip when getting an Allianz quote, you may not get much coverage for trip cancelations or interruptions, but you would still get the oversized emergency medical protection.

I usually just go with a $1,000 quote, because all I really care about is the medical coverage. I let my credit cards take care of the inconveniences.

Emergency Quarterback

When you call the Allianz 24/7 helpline during a medical emergency, a Benefits Administrator will be assigned to help with coordinating your care, and if needed, your evacuation. That takes a major stress factor off our shoulders.

A word of caution: The Benefit Administrator must verify your emergency with medical authorities. This person also has to be the one to coordinate all medical care and transportation, or you will not be reimbursed.

Get Covered From Day One

Another reason why the Allianz plan complements free coverage is that some cards only cover trips spanning 5-60 days. This is the case for both the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and the Chase Sapphire Reserve.

So a short four-day stay and an extended 61-day or more excursion aren’t covered by the Chase Sapphire Reserve. Your Allianz plan starts from the day of scheduled departure through the 90th day.

Save Even More With an Annual Plan

If you travel at least twice a year, the best deal you can get with Allianz is with an annual plan. If you travel with family and friends, this is a no-brainer because there is a flat-rate premium for between 2-8 people for the same set of benefits and coverage.

In March 2019, I paid $450 for my family of five, covering unlimited trips over 12 months. Each trip had to be under 90 days, which worked well for my family. That was the biggest bargain I ever got on solid travel insurance.

MedJet Assist

I have not personally used MedJet’s air ambulance and crisis mitigation services (thank goodness), but I’ve been a member. I signed up because Medjet has a policy that covers one aspect that a travel policy like Allianz does not: rescue from a destination when things go really, really badly.

This is a niche service that most of you will not need. But if you go to a country where the situation becomes unstable due to political unrest, natural disaster, or a pandemic, MedJet and its partner, Focus International, will coordinate rescue for you and your family, regardless of whether or not a government-issued evacuation has been ordered.

Expedited Travel Screening And Processing Benefits

If you love traveling but hate waiting in line to clear security, I hear you. That’s one of the biggest buzzkills for me.

That’s why I think my TSA Precheck membership is such a godsend–it’s saved me so much time getting on flights, and one time, it even saved me from missing a flight because the regular lines were so dang long.

TSA Precheck

There is usually a shorter line at TSA Precheck, mostly because travelers get to keep their shoes, belts, and light jackets on, and laptops and 3-1-1 liquid compliant bags in their carry-on.

Here are some key features of the program:

  • All major national and most US regional airlines in the US participate in TSA Precheck, as do about 50 international carriers. If the airline you are flying on is not in the TSA Precheck program, you’ll have to use the non-TSA lines.
  • TSA Precheck is only available at about 200 airports or so in the US. If you are flying out of a smaller airport, you may not have TSA Precheck, but on the flipside, the lines may not be that long to start with.

The neat thing is that many credit card issuers will give you up to a $100 statement credit every four-five years when you use a premium card to apply for a program like TSA Precheck.

Since TSA Precheck membership is good for five years, and cost just $85, this credit card benefit is more than adequate.

Note: TSA Precheck comes free when you are approved for Global Entry, which costs $100 and is also good for five years. So, you don’t need both. You should just max out the $100 benefit and get Global Entry since it is only $15 more and includes TSA Precheck.

What’s Global Entry? Great question.

Global Entry

Both TSA Precheck and Global Entry both traveler programs administered by the Department of Homeland Security, but they expedite your travel processing in different ways.

TSA Precheck is for expedited flight document verification and security screening on airport departures, whereas Global Entry is for expedited immigration and customs processing when you return to the US.

This can save you hours each time you waltz past the normal customs line and has become an essential piece of our traveler’s toolkit.

The thing that ties both TSA Pre and Global Entry together is what’s known as a Known Traveler Number, or KTN.

When you are approved for Global Entry, you get a KTN, and that’s the number you plug into your airline profiles. That way, the TSA Precheck logo will appear on your boarding passes (paper and digital), and then you will be let into the TSA Precheck line.

Both programs require a simple in-person interview, but the application process is a little different.

To apply for Global Entry (recommended), start by creating an account with the DHS Trusted Traveler Program.

To apply for TSA Precheck only (not recommended), click here.

Reminder: We don’t recommend applying for TSA Precheck since it comes free with Global Entry.

Other Options For Expedited Travel Processing

Clear

A service that’s great to stack with TSA Precheck is a for-profit service called Clear. Clear uses your biometric information (fingerprints and iris scans) to speed you through the travel document verification process.

The nice thing about Clear is that it is not tied to airline participation, so it’ll work no matter what carrier you are flying with. Another bonus is that children 18 and under can use the Clear lane for free, whereas kids 13 and up need their own TSA Precheck credentials.

There is however a way to get Clear at a discount:

  • Start with a free 2-month trialYou’ll have to apply online or at an airport Clear station, verify your ID, and then scan your prints and iris. If you feel like you are getting value, then you can take the next step to get a discount.
  • First, if you choose to cancel your trial, Clear may offer you a lower annual price if you have TSA Precheck. This may change, but keep an eye out for it.

If your home airport’s TSA Precheck lines take longer than you’d like, and you have kids between 13-and 18, and travel a lot, Clear might be a great option if you are in one of its 30+ locations.

The alternative is to either get TSA Precheck for the kids or, stand in line for hours on end.

Mobile Passport

While I love Global Entry, I’ve become a fan of the US Customs and Border Protection’s Mobile Passport app.

Why? Because it gets my family through passport control and customs inspections faster when we return to the US. Way faster.

And as of Nov 2021, it’s free. No applications, no approvals. If you have a US or Canadian passport, just download the app on iTunes or GooglePlay. There is a paid version if you want to store your traveler profiles, but for infrequent international travelers, free works just fine. 

This is how I use it:

  • When thee plane touches down from an overseas destination as soon as we’re clear to fire up our phones, I launch the Mobile Passport App while the plane is still taxiing.
  • I add my family’s passport information, and when it is safe and practical to do so, take a photo of each person.
  • I select if I am returning by air or sea.
  • I create my declaration by selecting all the travelers in my party, then select the port of entry and the airline.
  • I answer the five CBP Inspection Questions.
  • I confirm and certify the declaration, and submit it while the plane is still taxiing to the terminal. The app creates a QR code, and I have four hours to complete the re-entry process.
  • When I disembark, my family bypasses all the lines. We even pass the folks waiting to get to the Global Entry kiosks and head straight to pick up our checked in luggage.
  • When we have our luggage, we present the QR code to the customs official, answer a few questions, and voila, we’re done within 20-30 minutes of getting off the plane.

With the CBP’s Mobile App, I love how the biggest holdup is how quickly your luggage is offloaded, rather than standing in line at passport control, which makes it on par with a domestic flight.

Will I still get Global Entry? Yes, because I like having TSA Precheck.

But if I don’t have a credit card that’ll reimburse me, I might just go for TSA Precheck since it’s a little cheaper.

Why Keep A Credit Card Open

As the annual anniversary date of your annual fee card approaches, you should start thinking about what you want to do with it.

Many people who do not know how to get the maximum value from the cards will be inclined to close the accounts. But there are several good reasons to keep the cards open, such as:

  • You were able to use the tips above to get more value out of the card than the cost of the annual fee.
    • You want to keep a favorable credit utilization rate, one of many factors that contributes to your credit score. The higher the amount of credit you have available to you, the better your credit utilization rate.
    • You want to maintain a good relationship with the banks to continue to get more cards in the future. Banks in general have gotten a lot better at looking at the totality of your relationship with them. If it looks like you are gaming the system, you will very likely get shut down. A pattern of closing cards just after an annual fee hits does not encourage the bank to want to continue doing business with you.
    • You think you can get a retention bonus. If you used the card significantly through the year, there is a chance that you may be offered a bonus to keep the card open. You’ll have to meet a new minimum spend to earn the retention bonus, usually without impacting your 5/24 number.
    • For some cards, you can do a product change and downgrade to a no-annual fee card. These include:
      • Downgrading the Chase Sapphire brand of cards to the Freedom cards.

If You Must Close The Card

If closing a card is the best option for you and you are sure it won’t risk your relationship with the bank, make sure you have a plan for all the hard-earned points in the account.

Ideally, you want to move your points to another account with the bank, rather than transfer them all to its airline or hotel partner because partner transfers are one-way.

Option 1: Transfer To Another Account You Own

The simplest way is to move the points to your no-fee credit card account with the same account until it is time to get a new premium card.

Option 2: Transfer Them To Another Person’s Account

Another option for Chase and Capital One customers is to transfer the points to an account owned by someone else in the household. Capital One steps it up a notch by allowing transfers to any Capital One account.

Unfortunately, you cannot transfer American Express Member Rewards between American Express accounts.

Option 3: Use Them Or Move The Points To A Transfer Partner

If you actually have a trip coming up, it’ll make sense to use the points with either the bank’s travel portal or transfer them to a transfer partner. If you choose to transfer the points to an airline or hotel loyalty program, just remember that the miles and points will expire if there is no activity.

Final Thoughts on This Section

In the 10 years or so I have been nerding out on travel rewards, I have closed only 9 cards, downgraded 8, and earned 10 retention bonuses.  

I keep as many cards open, for as long as they make financial sense.

The bottom line is that I would like to still be traveling the world on miles and points well into the future, so I want to give the card issuers a reason to keep me as a customer.

Wow You Finished!! Congrats and Here are your Next Steps

You did it! You got through this entire series.

So, what do you do now?

If you haven’t already, join the ChooseFI Travel Facebook Group. The focus here will be on travel experiences rather than travel rewards, although we will definitely be dipping our toes into it from time to time.

Other than that, figure out your Why Of Travel, pick your How Of Travel, then line up all the steps you need to make it happen.

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Choose FI has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Choose FI and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. Opinions, reviews, analyses & recommendations are the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, endorsed or approved by any of these entities. Disclosures.
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