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Chase Sapphire Card Showdown: Reserve Beats Preferred for Most Travelers

Credit Cards, Rewards Credit Cards, Travel Credit Cards
Chase Sapphire Showdown
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The Chase Sapphire Reserve® does the impossible: It makes a $450 annual fee seem like a steal. That’s thanks to its high rewards rate and top-notch benefits and sign-up bonus.

Its sister card, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, comes with an annual fee of $0 for the first year, then $95, and a sign-up bonus that’s a step down in value from that on the Chase Sapphire Reserve®. The critical question is: Do the juiced-up rewards and benefits on the Chase Sapphire Reserve® justify the higher annual fee?

We found that they do — at least, for most travelers. The rewards rate on the Chase Sapphire Reserve® makes it easier to break even on the annual fee, compared with the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card.

The Sapphire cards, side by side

Here’s how the cards stack up on the basics:

 Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Sign-up bonusEarn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $625 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. Earn 50K 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® .
Annual fee$0 for the first year, then $95 $450
Rewards
  • 2 points per $1 spent on travel and dining.

  • 1 point per $1 spent on everything else.
  • 3 points per $1 spent on travel and dining.

  • 1 point per $1 spent on everything else.
Point value1.25 cents apiece when redeemed for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards1.5 cents apiece when redeemed for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards
Annual credit for travel expensesNone$300, automatically applied to travel spending
Other notable benefits
  • 1:1 transfer partners, including British Airways, United, Southwest Airlines and Hyatt, among others.
  • 1:1 transfer partners (same as the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card).
  • Unlimited access to more than 1,000 airport lounges worldwide through Priority Pass Select.
  • Up to $100 reimbursement every four years for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fees charged to your card.

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Why the Chase Sapphire Reserve® wins

It’s a luxury card, but the Chase Sapphire Reserve® is more about function than flash. This is one big reason why it outshines the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card.

It comes with a $300 annual travel credit. Chase automatically applies this credit to any travel purchases you make with your card, effectively canceling out most of its annual fee. And Chase’s broad definition of travel — which includes timeshares, campgrounds and ferries, among other categories — makes it pretty easy to take advantage of this benefit.

Even with the annual fee, it easily leads in rewards. Looking past the first year’s bonuses, the Chase Sapphire Reserve®’s superior rewards rate and redemption value, coupled with its $300 annual travel credit, give it much greater earning potential and long-term value.

With the Chase Sapphire Reserve®’s travel credit, you could break even on its annual fee after just $3,333 in spending after the first year — assuming you spent in the bonus categories and redeemed your points in Chase’s travel portal. That’s $467 less than you’d have to spend on the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card to make up for its annual fee after the first year.

The difference in rewards grows the more you spend. If you put $20,000 on the card, for example, with a quarter of that on travel and dining, you’d earn over $80 more in net rewards after the first year with the Chase Sapphire Reserve®:

Both cards also allow you to transfer points to some airlines and hotels — such as British Airways, United and Hyatt — at a 1:1 ratio, which could earn you even more value per point in some cases.

It offers airport lounge access and other top-tier benefits. The Chase Sapphire Reserve® already rises above the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card with its generous travel credit and big rewards. But its benefits send the card’s value to new heights.

With the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, you get Priority Pass Select access to more than 900 VIP airport lounges in more than 400 cities worldwide. That means you can relax in a comfy armchair before your flight and take advantage of free snacks and drinks. It’s hard to put a price on an experience like that, but according to Priority Pass, those unlimited free lounge visits are worth $399 a year. Among other benefits, the card also offers up to $100 reimbursement every four years for the application fee for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, which lets you sail through the customs or security lines on your next trip.

Why you might want the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card instead

In some cases, the more affordable Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card can be the better deal:

You want to add authorized users. The Chase Sapphire Reserve® charges a $75 annual fee for each authorized user you add to the account. This isn’t unusual for luxury cards, but it changes the math. Even if you added just one authorized user, you’d have to spend at least $5,000 to break even, assuming you redeemed rewards through Chase’s travel portal. The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card might be a better deal in this case. It actually gives you a 5,000-point bonus — worth $62.50 when redeemed through Chase — for adding an authorized user within the first three months of account opening.

You can’t stomach the annual fee. If you don’t plan on using the Chase Sapphire Reserve®’s benefits, avoiding its $450 annual fee and applying for another card is a smart call. The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card offers some similar features at a lower price — $0 for the first year, then $95 — and could be a better fit for you. Alternatively, there are great travel cards with even lower annual fees, and no fee at all in some cases.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve® isn’t your average luxury card

If you’re keen on keeping your cards’ annual fees in the double digits, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card may be a better choice for you. But if you travel frequently, the Chase Sapphire Reserve® lives up to its $450 fee. Its valuable rewards and benefits even give it the potential to be an excellent choice for serious travelers who don’t typically put that kind of money on their cards. That’s something that can’t be said for most luxury cards. If you’re always planning new getaways, it’s an exceptional choice.

Claire Tsosie is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: claire@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @ideclaire7.