March 27, 2014 at 1:25 PM ET
The gold-standard credit card for travelers has lost some of its luster amid recent airline mergers. But new benefits mean it could still merit a spot in your wallet.
Travel experts have long hailed American Express Platinum as a valuable card for travelers, thanks to the issuer's travel services as well as card-specific benefits such as $200 in reimbursed airline fees and complimentary airline lounge access.
Perks have been in flux in recent years, however, with one-time point-transfer partners including United and Southwest moving their programs to Chase. A bigger change: As of this week, platinum cardholders no longer have free access to American Airlines and US Airways lounges.
"They've made the decision to pull away from the American Express partnership, which is obviously disappointing to our cardholders," said Sravanthi Agrawal, vice president of public affairs.
"There definitely have been some major hits," said Brian Kelly, founder of ThePointsGuy.com. "Platinum still has perks, but it is harder for some people to justify. You really have to piece together and say, how much value am I really getting?" That reassessment is necessary for all credit cards with an annual fee, but particularly when the card in question costs $450 a year.
Just days before the American and US Airways lounge cutoff, American Express announced two new benefits for platinum members: unlimited global access to land-based Wi-Fi via Boingo (worth about $60 per month) and an $85 credit to cover the application fee for TSA Pre-Check. (Cardholders were already entitled to a $100 credit for Global Entry program application, which extends eligibility to Pre-Check.) Both target pain points consumers have complained about — namely, slow or expensive Wi-Fi, and long airport security lines, said Agrawal. "American Express is committed to enhancing card-members' travel journey," she said.
The issuer is also in the process of boosting lounge access, with its own brand of Centurian Lounges featuring free amenities including a craft cocktail menu, buffet of seasonal fare and quick spa treatments.
"Platinum still has perks, but it is harder for some people to justify. You really have to piece together and say, how much value am I really getting?"
"We think of all of this as, we want you to have a nice experience that makes your travel enjoyable," Agrawal said. Locations in Las Vegas and Dallas have opened in recent months; spaces in San Francisco and New York's LaGuardia are in progress. Cardholders also retain some longstanding perks there: access to partner Delta lounges (which regularly costs $695 per year), and membership to lounge network Priority Pass ($249 per year).
If you're a loyal Delta flier, the value of the platinum card still pays for itself in lounge access alone, said Kelly. Travelers who fly other airlines may also be able to cobble together a strategy to break even on the annual fee. A la carte lounge access can cost up to $50 per day. Some fliers have had success getting that $200 reimbursement for the "fee" of buying airline gift cards; dining and spa credits and other exclusive perks on hotel rooms booked through AmEx can be worth $150 or more per night, he said.
"There are ways to leverage the platinum card," Kelly said. "I don't think they're done elevating the benefits."
Still, the AmEx Platinum doesn't make sense for infrequent travelers — the card's benefits aren't really savings if you wouldn't otherwise be buying a lounge membership or paying for airport Wi-Fi, which is often free, said Odysseas Papadimitriou, chief executive of CardHub.com. Others need to be amortized: The $100 Global Entry or $85 TSA Pre-Check application fees get you into the programs for five years, reducing the annual benefit to $20, max.
American Express's base rate of a point-per-dollar spent is also half what other travel rewards cards — ones with substantially lower annual fees — offer, said Curtis Arnold, founder of comparison site CardRatings.com. Sign-on bonuses for new cards can be enough to redeem for a free domestic round-trip flight, with miles left to spare. "Some of these cards are very, very aggressive," he said.