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Altitude Alert: U.S. Bank Climbs Into Premium Card Market

May 1, 2017
Credit Cards, Promos, Travel Credit Cards
Altitude Alert: U.S. Bank Enters Premium Card Market
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We adhere to strict standards of editorial integrity. Some of the products we feature are from our partners. Here’s how we make money.

A new premium travel credit card from U.S. Bank is potentially a game-changer in the industry because of its generous travel benefits and triple earnings on mobile wallet purchases, but it comes with a catch when applying.

The U.S. Bank Altitude Reserve Visa Infinite Card, scheduled for release May 1, offers perks and features that rival the best premium travel cards, including an industry-high travel credit of $325 per year that significantly lessens the blow of its $400 annual fee.

The catch: You can’t apply for the card unless you’ve been a U.S. Bank customer for at least 35 days, although carrying one of the bank’s other credit cards counts. A bank official confirmed that applications could be opened to a wider audience later.

The new card is made of engraved stainless steel and joins a recent flurry of activity in the premium credit card market, where cards with high annual fees and outsized perks jockey for the attention of high-spending travelers. Competitors include the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, The Platinum Card® from American Express and the Citi Prestige® Card.

Headline features

  • Sign-up bonus: 50,000 points after spending $4,500 in the first 90 days — worth $750 if redeemed for travel booked through U.S. Bank
  • Annual fee: $400, plus $75 for each authorized user
  • Travel credit: $325 annually. If fully used, it effectively reduces the annual fee to $75. The credit is applied automatically to spending directly with airlines, hotels, car rental companies, taxis, limousines, passenger trains and cruise line companies.
  • Rewards rates:
    • 3 points per dollar spent on travel purchases made directly with the same companies that qualify for the travel credit (airlines, hotels, etc.)
    • 3 points per dollar spent on mobile wallet purchases
    • 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases
  • Redemption value: 1 point is worth 1.5 cents when redeeming for travel through U.S. Bank, less if redeemed other ways.

3X points for mobile wallets and travel

The U.S. Bank card’s primary differentiator is its unlimited 3 points per dollar spent on mobile wallet purchases, making it a flat-rate triple-points card at merchants that accept Apple Pay, Android Pay, Samsung Pay or Microsoft Wallet.

This offer is about anticipating the future needs of travelers, says Bob Daly, a senior vice president of retail payment solutions at U.S. Bank.

“Acceptance isn’t everywhere, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone to suggest it’s not going to grow,” Daly says of mobile wallets. “It’s very forward-looking in that regard.” The premium on mobile wallet spending also nods to the lifestyles of traveling professionals, who are accustomed to using smartphones for daily activities, he says.

Perhaps cardholders finally will have an incentive to figure out how to wave their smartphones at checkout payment terminals.

Cardholders also get 3 points per dollar spent on travel booked directly with airlines, hotels, taxis (this includes ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft), and other eligible merchants. All other spending earns 1 point per dollar.

In designing the card, U.S. Bank officials examined the entire travel experience and added features and perks to either address problems during travel or add luxury, Daly says. “These are busy professionals. And that segment has really come to expect a truly valuable reward card — and one that’s easy to use,” he says.

Daly points to the $325 travel credit, which is automatically applied to eligible travel spending. It doesn’t have the restrictions some competitors do, such as being applicable only to airline spending. “We really tried to map through a trip from start to finish and ask, ‘How can we help out?'” he says.

Redemption options

Rewards are earned in a new U.S. Bank rewards currency called Altitude points. If points are redeemed for travel through U.S. Bank’s online travel agency, which has been upgraded for the new card’s launch, they are worth 1.5 cents apiece. That gives you an effective rewards rate of 4.5% on mobile purchases and travel spending. (Points can also be redeemed at a lower rate for cash back, gift cards, merchandise, entertainment and magazines.) Points do not expire.

Few cards from large issuers offer such lucrative rewards on a potentially broad array of spending. For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve® offers triple points on travel and restaurants only; with that card, too, points can be worth as much as 1.5 cents when redeemed for travel.

U.S. Bank offers an unusual option that it calls real-time mobile rewards redemption. A system first introduced with U.S. Bank’s other rewards program, FlexPerks, it will be available with Altitude points, too. It allows you to use your smartphone to pay with rewards points, erasing the cost of a purchase you just made without having to visit an online redemption center.

You set spending categories and spending thresholds to get offers from U.S. Bank for redeeming points. For example, you might set one for supermarket purchases above $50. As your transaction is being approved at checkout, you might get a text message offering you the opportunity to pay for the purchase with points. Simply reply “redeem” to accept the offer, and you’ll get a statement credit for the purchase. These offers will always be worth at least 1 cent per point, Daly says.

Eligibility

To be approved for the card, you must have had a relationship with U.S. bank for at least 35 days. Eligible accounts include checking, savings, certificate of deposit, mortgage, home equity loan, home equity line of credit, vehicle loans, personal loans and lines of credit, private banking account or consumer credit card issued by U.S. Bank.

Daly says the card is an investment in the relationship with U.S. Bank customers, although new customers will be able to get the card more quickly in the future. “Later this year, it will be a much shorter time frame,” he says. While business banking relationships don’t count at first, they will later, he says.

Daly would not characterize the type of credit score required to be approved for the card, saying only that applicants will go through the normal U.S. Bank underwriting process.

Other perks and features

  • Up to $100 in statement credit every four years to reimburse the application fee for either TSA PreCheck or Global Entry
  • 12 free Gogo internet passes per year
  • Airport lounge access through Priority Pass Select — limited to four visits per year, but includes one guest each time
  • No foreign transaction fee
  • Rental car discounts with Silvercar and others

What it lacks

Partners. The card at least initially will offer no transfer partners, such as airlines or hotels, for Altitude points. “We have a high degree of confidence that our customers are going to find the value of an Altitude point to be rich enough that they don’t want another currency,” Daly says.

The bank’s other rewards currency, FlexPoints, will transfer to Altitude points at a 1:1 ratio. However, Altitude points cannot be transferred into the FlexPerks program.

Visa Infinite flight discount. The card is on the Visa Infinite platform, but it will not include one notable Infinite perk: a $100 discount on purchase of two to five round-trip domestic coach tickets on the same itinerary. Daly says that benefit has some conditions that make using it complicated, and it didn’t match the bank’s goal for ease of use.

Information related to the Chase Sapphire Reserve® has been collected by NerdWallet and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of this card.

Gregory Karp is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: gkarp@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @spendingsmart.