Breaking down the best credit cards for travelers

Employees at the reception area at the lobby of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo on Aug. 19, 2016. Bloomberg photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi.

Employees at the reception area at the lobby of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo on Aug. 19, 2016. Bloomberg photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi.

If you’re not obsessed with your credit card’s travel perks, chances are you’re not carrying the right plastic.

In August, Chase raised eyebrows (and sent travelers scrambling for applications) by launching what many are calling the best travel rewards credit card ever. The Sapphire Reserve has a hefty $450 annual fee, but offers top-shelf benefits like an annual $300 travel statement credit, access to more than 600 airport lounges through Priority Pass Select, and a Global Entry application-fee reimbursement worth $100. It also comes with a 100,000-point sign-up bonus (provided that you spend $4,000 in the first three months). The bonus alone is worth $1,500 in flights.

The move cements Chase’s ambitions to be the top player in the world of travel rewards cards. But the Sapphire Reserve has tough competition, thanks to compelling offerings and advancements at both American Express and Citibank.

On the surface, all three cards-the Citi Prestige, the enhanced American Express Platinum, and the new Sapphire Reserve-have comparable advantages. All carry a $450 annual fee. None of them partner with specific airlines or hotel companies (a criterion that may rule all three out, if you’re a brand loyalist). Together, they’re the crème de la crème of non-branded travel rewards cards.

There are, however, significant variations among the specific perks that each card offers. So as long as you can decide which amenities you’d like to prioritize, we can help you find the right choice for you.

Free money: Travel spending credits are like free money: they help offset an annual fee but come with specific usage rules. For all three cards, the credits must be used within the calendar year and can't be rolled over.

- The Platinum Card from American Express: Each year, Platinum cardholders get $200 to spend with the single airline of their choice. The credit can’t be applied to airfare, but covers incidentals like baggage fees, in-flight food, or lounge access.

- Citi Prestige: The Citi Prestige’s $250 credit is automatically applied to the purchases made directly with any airline, including both airfare and incidental fees.

- Chase Sapphire Reserve: With $300 of credits per calendar year, this card bests the competition. The credit can be applied to any purchase Chase deems relevant to travel, retroactively refunding purchases made with airlines, hotels, rental car agencies, or even taxis, among other points of sale.

Winner: Chase Sapphire Reserve.

Point multipliers: If you want to get multiple points per dollar spent on travel, you can automatically rule out one card.

- The Platinum Card from American Express: Nothing to look at here! The Amex Platinum card earns just one point per dollar on all purchases.

- Citi Prestige: Earns three points per dollar on purchases from airlines, hotels, and travel agencies, and two points per dollar on dining and entertainment (think concerts, sports events, movie theaters, amusement parks and museums).

- Chase Sapphire Reserve: For all travel and dining expenses, you’ll get three points per dollar spent. Chase is generous with their assessment of “travel expenses,” too: it includes buses, trains, taxis, tolls, parking garages, and even Uber rides.

Winner: Chase Sapphire Reserve.

Airline and hotel transfer partners: If you're as strategic about using miles as you are about your investment portfolio, you know you can get more bang for your buck via currency exchange. The ability to exchange points for airline miles is among the most important to travel insiders-so don't overlook this benefit.

- The Platinum Card from American Express: Amex Membership Rewards points can be transferred to 21 airline and hotel partners including Air Canada, Air France/KLM, British Airways, Delta, Singapore, Virgin Atlantic, Hilton, and Starwood.

- Citi Prestige: Prestige cardholders can transfer their ThankYou points to 13 airline and hotel partners including Air France/KLM, Etihad, Qantas, and Hilton.

- Chase Sapphire Reserve: This card may only 11 partners, but it has the largest global footprint-especially with its hotel affiliates. The card’s Ultimate Rewards points can be transferred to British Airways, Southwest, United, Hyatt, Intercontinental, and Marriot, among others.

Winner: We’ll call this a two-way tie between the Platinum Card and Sapphire Reserve.

Value of the points themselves: If you'd rather not worry about exchanging points for miles on partner airlines, prioritize this metric.

- The Platinum Card from American Express: Amex Platinum cardholders typically get 1 cent per point on airline bookings and slightly less on hotel bookings.

- Citi Prestige: For now, Citi Prestige cardholders can redeem their ThankYou points for 1.33 cents apiece on airline tickets, or 1.6 cents apiece on American Airlines tickets specifically, though both rates will be decreased to 1.25 cents apiece on July 23, 2017. Some cardholders find Citi’s travel portal difficult to use with unreliable flight availability, so this redemption method might not be for everyone.

- Chase Sapphire Reserve: Chase Sapphire Reserve cardholders can redeem their points at a rate of 1.5 cents on all travel purchases made through the Ultimate Rewards portal, which includes most major airlines, hotel companies, car rental companies, and even local tours.

Winner: Chase Sapphire Reserve, no question.

Lounge access: If you don't fly business class regularly, lounge access can be an important consideration.

- The Platinum Card from American Express: Cardholders get complimentary access to Delta SkyClubs (when flying Delta) and Priority Pass lounges. They can also bring two guests to Airspace lounges and their entire families to Amex’s own Centurion Lounges.

- Citi Prestige: If you already have this card, you (along with immediate family or two guests) are eligible for American Airlines Admirals Club lounge access until July 23, 2017-a perk worth enjoying while it lasts. New and old cardholders also have a longer-lasting benefit: Priority Pass Select membership that includes access for two guests.

- Chase Sapphire Reserve: Primary cardholders and authorized users get Priority Pass Select membership, along with access for their travel companions.

Winner: If you live in a city with a Centurion lounge or frequently fly on Delta, Amex wins. Otherwise, this one goes to Citi Prestige.

Free hotel upgrades: If you're swimming in airline miles, you might care more about on-property perks.

- The Platinum Card from American Express: Cardholders who book stays with partner hotels through Amex’s Fine Hotels & Resorts program get perks like room upgrades, late check-out, spa or restaurant credits, and even free nights on multiple-night stays. (Those perks may be subject to availability.) Primary and additional cardholders are also grandfathered in to Starwood Preferred Guest Gold status and Hilton HHonors Gold status, which add additional perks like complimentary breakfast or Wi-Fi.

- Citi Prestige: Citi Prestige’s cardholders get the fourth night free on any paid hotel stay if they book through Citi’s concierge service. This can equate to thousands of dollars per year in savings, as the perk can be employed on an unlimited basis.

- Chase Sapphire Reserve: These benefits are subtler. You’ll get Relais & Chateaux elite status after just two nights (within a 12-month period), earning benefits such as room upgrades and complimentary breakfast. You’ll also get other potential perks like meal vouchers or third- and fourth-night-free offers if you book through Visa’s Luxury Hotel & Resort portal.

Winner: If you want bonus perks, go with American Express. To decrease your bottom line, go with Citi.

Insurance protection-for rental cars and beyond: For road warriors, trip delay or cancellation coverage can be invaluable benefits that save time and worry. Rental-car elite status and insurance are icing on the cake.

- The Platinum Card from American Express: The Platinum Card comes with trip cancellation and interruption insurance of up to $10,000 and trip-delay reimbursement of up to $250. Lost or stolen luggage coverage ranges up to $3,500. Cardholders are also eligible for Emerald Club Executive status with National Car Rental, and get free secondary rental car insurance. Primary coverage covers up to $100,000 and costs up to $25 per rental.

- Citi Prestige: This card offers trip cancellation and interruption insurance of up to $5,000 and trip-delay protection up to $500. Lost luggage is insured up to $3,000. Primary car insurance is included outside the U.S., and cardholders get elite status with Avis, National, and Sixt.

- Chase Sapphire Reserve: The new card offers trip cancellation and interruption insurance of up to $10,000 and trip-delay protection up to $500. Lost luggage insurance is up to $3,000. But the fine print associated with these protections offers the highest potential for reimbursement if anything should go wrong.

Primary rental car insurance is also an automatic perk no matter where you are, and covers up to $75,000.

Winner: Chase Sapphire Reserve.

So which card is the overall winner?

Chase’s Sapphire Reserve sweeps the most categories. But the answer is highly personal, and depends on your individual travel goals. Analyze your travel habits, focus on the two or three benefits you value the most, and pick the card whose benefits best address your specific needs.