Why I Upgraded to a Premium Travel Credit Card in the Middle of a Pandemic

I decided to pay $455 more to upgrade my travel card, in a year when I'm not traveling at all. Here's why the math made sense.

Erin HurdJun 4, 2021
Many or all of the products featured here are from our partners who compensate us. This may influence which products we write about and where and how the product appears on a page. However, this does not influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own. Here is a list of our partners and here's how we make money.

When, in mid-2020, I told my husband I wanted to upgrade my credit card to a premium travel credit card with a $550 annual fee, he looked at me sideways from across the room like I had lost my marbles.

Much of the world was still in varying degrees of COVID-19-related lockdown restrictions. Our daily lives were still far from normal. We had to cancel our big spring trip to Japan, and though we’re avid travelers, we had no idea when we’d get the chance again.

But here I was, wanting to spend an extra $455 to upgrade my credit card to a luxury travel product. Here’s why I made this “crazy” move, and why it could make sense for some other cardholders, too.

Chase Chase Sapphire Reserve Credit Card
NerdWallet rating 
Learn More

I'd had experience with the Chase Sapphire Reserve® before ...

The premium travel card in question — the Chase Sapphire Reserve® — made a big splash in 2016 when it launched with a then-unheard-of sign-up bonus of 100,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards® points, worth $1,500 when redeemed for travel through Chase. (That offer has since expired.)

Along with that truly eye-popping bonus came rich ongoing rewards and a pile of travel perks, packed into a sleek metal card. It was such a massive hit that Chase even temporarily ran out of that metal. The card achieved cultlike status and redefined what a premium credit card is.

I was among the many who jumped on the card when it debuted. I did the required spending, got my big influx of points and took my family on a trip to Paris. Life was good.

I paired that card with the Chase Freedom® and the Chase Freedom Unlimited® to form a rewarding "Chase trifecta" and was earning between 1.5x and 5x Ultimate Rewards® points on every purchase I made.

... But it got hard to justify the $550 fee ...

Still, after a couple of years of holding the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, I decided to save some money and downgrade it to a Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, with a more palatable annual fee of $95.

My reasoning at the time: I had other credit cards that could deliver some of the travel benefits I got from the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, like airport lounge access. And since I mostly used my Chase Ultimate Rewards® points to transfer to travel partners like Hyatt, United and Southwest, I wasn’t too worried about losing the boost in point value the card offers when you book travel directly through Chase.

Nerdy tip: Holders of the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card can redeem points for 1.25 cents each when booking travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards® portal. For those who hold the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, points are worth 1.5 cents when used this way.

... Until the card began boosting its value

Some of the card's updates came before the COVID-19 pandemic started to hammer the U.S., including a Lyft Pink membership and bonus points on Lyft rides.

More relevant to me was the card's new $60 DoorDash credit for 2020 and 2021. I order food delivery for my family on occasion, especially during the pandemic. Using the credit this year will be easy and is something I’d do anyway. The card also offers a complimentary DashPass subscription. Terms apply.

These benefits alone wouldn't have been enough to get me to (re-)upgrade to the Chase Sapphire Reserve®. But amid the pandemic, the card rolled out other updates that made the switch worth it for me.

Travel credit flexibility

The Chase Sapphire Reserve® $300 annual travel credit has always helped to take some of the sting out of its annual fee. Even if I’m not traveling by plane and staying in hotels this year like I usually would, Chase has a broad definition of travel. Things like campgrounds, parking garages, toll bridges and highways even count.

But Chase has also recently expanded that list further. Through June 30, 2021, gas station and grocery store purchases will count toward earning the travel credit.

Pay Yourself Back feature

Usually, with the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, the only way to redeem points for 1.5 cents each is to book travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards® travel portal. If you want to use your points for things other than travel — like gift cards, shopping or cash back — you’ll get a lower value for them.

But during the pandemic, Chase introduced a new feature that — through April 30, 2021 — lets you redeem points for statement credits applied toward purchases at:

  • Grocery stores (includes eligible delivery services).

  • Restaurants (includes takeout and eligible delivery services).

  • Home improvement stores.

  • Select charitable organizations.

If you have a Chase Sapphire Reserve®, you can redeem points for these purchases at a rate of 1.5 cents each — the same value you’d usually get from travel. (Those who hold the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card will get a value of 1.25 cents per point when they redeem this way.)

I’m sitting on a nice stash of Ultimate Rewards® because I haven’t traveled this year or booked any trips for next year. But I don't have to travel to take advantage of that 1.5-cent-per-point boost; I could still redeem, say, 50,000 points toward any of the eligible purchases above and snag a $750 statement credit.

Bonus on grocery store spending

Earlier in 2020, Chase offered heightened grocery bonuses on several travel credit cards for the months of May and June. Then again in November, Chase announced another round of grocery bonuses for the Sapphire cards that will last six months.

From Nov. 1, 2020, to April 30, 2021, the Chase Sapphire Reserve® will earn 3 points per $1 spent on grocery store purchases, on up to $1,000 in spending per month. (The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card will earn 2 points per $1 spent.)

A spending cap of $1,000 per month on groceries sounds like a lot, but with a family of four, spending $250 per week isn’t too much of a stretch (especially when we’re not dining out much amid the pandemic).

But let’s say I spent only half of that cap. That’s $500 a month for six months, for a total grocery spend of $3,000. Even then, holding the Chase Sapphire Reserve® instead of the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card would net me more in rewards:

Earn rate

Points earned on $3,000 spent

Point value

Total

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

2x

6,000

1.25 cents

$75

Chase Sapphire Reserve®

3x

9,000

1.5 cents

$135

Peloton credits

Starting in November 2020, holders of the Chase Sapphire Reserve® can get up to $120 back on Peloton fitness memberships through the end of 2021.

Since I already have an active Peloton subscription, these are credits I will use in full on money I would have spent anyway.

Those who hold the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card will also get Peloton credits, but only $60 worth.

Does the math work?

Since I wasn’t planning on canceling my Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and have been happy to pay the $95, I am factoring that cost into my equation. Here's where I stood before taking into account the changes the card made amid the COVID-19 pandemic:

Chase Sapphire Reserve® annual fee: $550

  • -$300 annual travel credit.

  • -$60 annual DoorDash credit.

  • -$95 annual fee I was already paying for the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card.

= $95 in value to make up

When I then factor in those COVID-related updates, the math does indeed work. As noted above, the Pay Yourself Back feature and my grocery store spending could easily make up for that $95, and then some — and that's before even taking into account the Peloton benefit.

But that doesn’t mean the math works universally. If you wouldn’t usually use DoorDash or Peloton, those credits won’t add real value for you. And if you aren’t interested in cashing out your points for anything other than travel, it may not make sense.

Why didn't I just apply for the Chase Sapphire Reserve® as a new customer and get the bonus?

One of the big initial benefits to a credit card is the sign-up bonus. At the time I made my decision, the Chase Sapphire Reserve® offered the following: Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.

(Note, the bonus has since changed to: Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $900 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.)

There are three reasons why signing up for a new Chase Sapphire Reserve® wasn't an option for me:

  • Chase's "One Sapphire" rule: For a period of time in the past, you could hold both the Chase Sapphire Reserve® and the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. But that changed in 2017.

  • Chase's "5/24" rule: If you’ve opened more than five credit cards, across any issuers, in the past 24 months, your new Chase card application will be denied. Because I’ve opened more than five cards in the past two years, I couldn’t just cancel my Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and get approved for a new Chase Sapphire Reserve®.

  • Chase's "48-month" rule: You’re not eligible to sign up for a new Sapphire credit card if you’ve gotten one in the past 48 months. Since it's been less than 48 months since I initially opened my Chase Sapphire Reserve®, I wouldn’t be eligible for a new one.