I’m finally willing to admit I’ve had an irrational attachment to certain travel credit cards. You know, the cards that I’ve had for a while and kept paying the annual fee even though the benefits aren’t worth what the card cost me every year. I tried to rationalize why paying for the card made sense. My arguments were convincing but eventually I took a step back and gave a long and hard look at the money I was spending. I realized that I was giving way too much value to the “possible uses” for the card instead of looking at the actual value I was getting.
I give the credit card companies credit; they were able to make me think I was winning at this game. I had all these perks, got statement credits for expenses and my out of pocket cost whittled down to almost nothing. It’s like they were paying me to keep the card. Wait, I know that’s not true. No bank is going to pay you to keep a card for the long term. They’d eventually go out of business.
So how’d the person who is so proud of not being loyal to any airline, hotel or rental car company end up in a unhealthy relationship with some credit cards? Here are just a few of the traps that I fell into that lead to making irrational decisions.
This is the main way that cards try to make a large annual fee look less imposing. I’ll use the American Express Platinum as an example because I just cancelled this card and my calculations ended up being the basis for this post.
The personal AMEX Platinum card has a $550 annual fee. If and when you call cancel, the representative will tell you all the credits you get to offset the fee:
- $200 Airline Fee credit
- $100 Global Entry (or $85 TSA Precheck) credit
- $200 Uber credits
- $100 Saks Fifth Avenue credit
That’s $600 right there. By keeping the card, you’re making money! You gotta spend money to make money, right? No, not right.
The airline fee credit is only good for one airline and you need to pick the airline at the beginning of the year. It’s only
supposed to be good for extra fees like seat upgrades, luggage fees or lounge entry, not airfare. That’s a whole bunch of restrictions on a premium card credit.
The Global Entry/TSA Precheck credit is only good once every 4 years. The Uber credits are issued monthly and if you don’t use it that month, you lose it. The Saks credit is only issued as a $50 statement credit every 6 months.
I was able to use all of my credits because, well, I paid for them. So I made sure to use them. I booked flights on airlines only because I had a credit to use, even if they weren’t the best options. I used an Uber (or ordered from Uber Eats) just to use the credit every month. I have a nice Saks bathing suit that I’ll use a few times a year (although I could have just as easily bought one at JCPenney).
If you’re going to use all the credits without having them affect your choices, then you’re doing great. For me, I was making choices BECAUSE of the credits. That’s exactly why I don’t care about loyalty programs. I finally realized this.
Overlap of Perks From Different Cards
Remember the Global Entry reimbursement I mentioned above? I have four cards between the two of us that offer the same benefit. I only need to use two of them. The other two cards offer no additional value. Since we both just renewed Global Entry, I won’t even have to worry about this for another five years.
The same goes for Priority Pass. We have three of these cards and each one provides entry for the cardholder and guest. We really only need one, or at most two memberships to keep one in each of our names for the rare case when we travel separately.
Perceived vs. Actual Value
This is one of the harder things to account for. Trust me, credit card marketing teams count on this. It’s easy to see how you “might” use something but what’s important is how often you actually use it and what that’s worth to you. I’ll use the American Express Centurion Lounges as an example.
You get entry to the clubs with the Platinum card. They are undoubtedly the nicest lounges in the US. I’ve always felt my time spent there was better than anywhere else I could have been at an airport for that time. But how many times did I go? I’d need to be at an airport with an Centurion Lounge and there are only eight of them. I’d have to have enough time to visit the lounge and it would have to be convenient to the airline I was flying. That’s a whole lot of “ifs” that need to happen for me to visit.
In the past year, we visited twice (but it could have been three times). Were those visits worth $25, $50, $100? Would I have gotten to the airport as early if I wasn’t able to visit? For 30-45 min, I could sit at the gate. Many airports have charging ports at the seats. If I really want a drink, there’s no shortages of bars in airports. I have noise cancelling headphones if I need to drown out the yelling, snoring and babbling from the TV heads playing overhead.
Same goes for the free checked bags that many cards offer. You’d need to fly on that airline and be checking a bag to make the benefit make sense. I get a free checked bag with my JetBlue Plus card but I didn’t need to check a bag on my most recent flight to Newark. Same goes for an upcoming trip to Chicago on American.
What about early boarding? If you’re a frequent flyer, you get this anyway. The only reason to want to get on a plane early is to have access to the overhead bin space. If you only have a small bag that fits in the space under the seat, why would you want to get crammed into the plane any earlier than you’d have to?
A benefit you don’t use isn’t worth anything. A benefit you have but only use because you have it isn’t worth more than what you’d spend on the alternate. Remember that.
This is the probably the hardest thing to overcome and the banks count on it. If you’ve had a card for a while, you’ve already convinced yourself once that it’s worth keeping. The annual fee hits and you see it but remember you’ve kept the card before. It would require effort to figure out if the card is still worth it.
Even if you’ve looked at a card before, things may have changed. Maybe you’re not staying at that hotel chain that much anymore (or they’ve merged with another chain and now you have cards with overlapping benefits like Marriott and Starwood cards). Maybe you don’t fly that airline anymore, like if you refuse to fly on United. You just might decide since the annual fee went up, the card just isn’t worth it anymore.
You still need to call and cancel the card. That takes time. You’re a busy person and maybe you don’t like talking to people on the phone. The bank is counting on every one of these things to keep you from cancelling. Don’t let them win.
It only takes a few minutes each year to look at a credit card and decide if it’s still worth keeping. Give a good hard look. Did you use any of the benefits the card provided in the previous year? Will you be using them in the next year? Does the card benefits overlap with other cards or statuses you already have? Are you paying more just to use the benefits of the card? Could you just pay cash for the benefits you’re getting (checked bag, early seating). Do you really need the card benefits based on your travel patterns?
I looked at my cards this way and I have five cards possibly on the chopping block over the next few months. I’m not getting rid of all of them, but I’ll give a good look at which ones still give me value for my money.
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary