Best Travel Credit Cards for Business Travel

At Management Consulted, we believe in maximizing life, not just career. And a big part of that for us is travel. Plus, a big part of our career is traveling, like it may be for you!

In today’s episode, Namaan and Stephanie (80+ countries combined) share the best travel credit cards for business travelers. When used strategically, and as a part of a holistic financial strategy, travel credit cards can help you take advantage of spending you are already doing to procure points, miles, and other travel perks.

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Transcription: Best Travel Credit Cards for Business Travel

MC: Namaan Mian 

Welcome back to another episode of Strategy Simplified, and I’m on here joined by Stephanie and today we’re talking about travel credit card strategy, specifically for those of you who would consider yourself to be business or power travelers. And here at Management Consulted, we’re about maximizing life, not just career. Career is a part of life, but it’s not all of life. And for us here at MC a big part of life is the ability to travel, and having that travel fit into our career plans, goals and structure. And so today, we’re going to be talking about how we, Stephanie and I, use credit cards to help facilitate a lifestyle of travel. On top of that, a big part of our career is traveling like it may be for you. So we’re excited to talk about how we mix some personal and business travel together when we can. And when used strategically, and as part of a holistic financial strategy, travel credit cards can help you take advantage of spending that you’re already doing to secure points, miles and other travel perks.

And Stephanie, the way that we think about travel credit cards, we’ve really bucketed them into three different categories. And we understand that there may be more. But the way that we think about travel cards is that you’ve got your general travel cards, I’ll call that bucket one. You’ve got your airline travel cards, I’ll call that bucket two. And then you’ve got your hotel travel cards, I’ll call that bucket three. And we’re going to walk through a couple of our favorite cards in each category a little bit later. But before we get there, I’m just curious, we know you as former McKinsey Engagement Manager, Stephanie Knight. You’re on the podcast talking about case interviews and consulting and business skills. But can you give us a bit of insight into Stephanie Knight, the world traveler?

MC: Stephanie Knight 

Thanks, Namaan. Yeah, absolutely. I was lucky enough to start my traveling journey before my time at McKinsey and time in consulting. But I think that my time traveling for work, just really supercharged all of that. So I think before I did my MBA, my country count was maybe 20 to 25 countries. I mean, I had already already traveled quite extensively. And then through starting to travel for work, starting to take advantage of travel perks, loyalty programs, credit cards, and the fact that I was, you know, flying anyway, being able to kind of add on little trips off of my engagements and things, and take opportunities during PTO, paid time off, to be able to travel to new countries.

I’m now up in the low 50s in terms of countries. I need to re-look back at my list, especially because shortly I’m going to be adding a couple of countries to that list. I get the chance to go to Panama and Costa Rica for the first time here in the next few weeks. So excited about that. But it may be directly related to your work, it may be outside of your work but really just agree with Namaan about the sense of leveraging and taking advantage of what you’re already doing in work to help benefit your life, and these loyalty programs and credit cards can really be a huge boost and a helpful benefit in doing that.

MC: Namaan Mian 

Stephanie, you’re one of the few people I talked to you that makes me feel like I haven’t traveled a whole lot. I’m probably 20 countries behind you on my list. And most people I talk to I’m like okay, I’m doing pretty well. But then I talk to you I’m like okay, I’m not doing so well.

MC: Stephanie Knight 

Well, you gotta do those trips where you can just like add a whole bunch, right?

MC: Namaan Mian 


MC: Stephanie Knight 

Exactly. That Caribbean cruise, that tour around Europe, bouncing around the Middle East or even southeast or Central Asia. I mean, there’s lots of opportunities. But there’s so many places I still haven’t been. But you know, we’re going to pivot. And we’re and certainly we’re talking about travel today. But from that business aspect, and it kind of that work angle, I was able to do a lot in the one year that I did a short term transfer to Switzerland at McKinsey. And different firms have different global rotation programs or short term transfer programs, long term permanent transfer programs. And I find that a lot of people are interested in such a thing, but don’t actually go through the all the motions to be able to investigate and then take advantage of such programs. And in this post-COVID world, hopefully, more people will kind of continue to push themselves to both work and travel as extensively as possible, right? Take advantage of it while we can.

MC: Namaan Mian 

Absolutely, I certainly don’t take it for granted, I in 2020, had four international trips canceled. They were booked, confirmed. I was going to be all over the world. And then I had to claw and scratch and fight for the refunds that I got. And that was a whole other podcast episode trying to figure that process out. But I’ve been ready to get back out there for a little while. And I’m hoping 2023 is the year when that really accelerates. So like I mentioned at the top, Stephanie, the way that we think about travel credit cards is in those three buckets. And I’ll start by talking about the general travel cards. So these are credit cards that are not affiliated with a specific airline or hotel. But they are issued by a financial services firm, like American Express, Chase, Citibank, etc.

And one of the benefits of these general cards is that you can apply the perks across partners. So I could use my points, for example, perhaps on United, Delta, or another airline, or Marriott, and Hilton. And so I can be a little bit more brand agnostic if I want to be. And it just gives me a little bit more flexibility in how I apply perks. And so one of the ways that I’ve really optimized my travel, and my just the spend in my personal life is through some of these general travel credit cards. And our two favorite here at Management Consulted are the Platinum Card from American Express and the Chase Sapphire Reserve. And the Platinum Card from American Express really is our favorite for lounge access. If that’s something that’s important to you as you’re traveling, if you find yourself doing a lot of international travel, or just very frequent travel, and you either haven’t hit the status tier that you need with an airline to get access to their lounges, or you just aren’t really a big fan of the airline lounges, then the Platinum Card from American Express really opens up access to you to a few different types of lounges, and I’ll talk about that here in just a second.

But first, let me just talk a little bit more broadly about why the Platinum Card from American Express or in short, I’ll call it the AMEX platinum, what that can give you know why that might be an option for you if you’re looking to really optimize your spend and unlock some travel rewards this next year. So I have to start with the introductory offer. So after spending $6,000 within the first six months, American Express will offer you 80,000 bonus points. And our friends over at the Points Guy, by the way, fantastic travel website if you’ve never heard of them, highly recommend them. They value 80,000 Amex points at $1,600. And so if you are going to utilize the points in a way that’s meaningful to you, then that makes the annual fee much more palatable because it is a big pill to swallow. It’s $695, the annual fee. And so you really have to run a cost benefit analysis as you’re looking at the AMEX platinum or some of these other more premium travel credit cards. Do I get the return on investment here that I need to justify the annual fee. Again, I mentioned that one of the big perks of this card is lounge access. And so holding the AMEX platinum gives you a priority pass select membership.

Priority pass has a network of over 1000 lounges and airports around the world. You not only get access for yourself, but you you get to bring two free guests. When you’re flying Delta and you hold this card, you get access to the Delta Sky Club as well, if there is one of the airports that you’re flying through. And just as an aside, I think out of the domestic US airlines, Delta definitely rules the roost when it comes to their lounge experience. And if you have guests that you’re traveling with, it’s just $29 each to bring guests into the Delta sky club if you hold this card. One of my favorite lounge experiences in the US is the AMEX Centurion lounge. And so when you hold this card you have access to the Centurion lounges and you get to bring two guests in for free as well. And then finally, you also get access to the airspace lounges as well. And so, no matter where you’re flying through, or from or to, chances are that there’s either a priority pass or Amex Centurion or airspace lounge in the airports that you’re traversing. And so there’s optionality there for you if the lounge experience is meaningful to you.

On top of that, there are pretty generous rewards rates that American Express offers here on this card. And we’ll link in the show notes to all the details, you don’t want to hear me rattle off numbers and bonus categories for the next 10 minutes. But what I will say is, if you book travel through the American Express travel hub, then you get five times the points per dollar spent on all flights and hotels that you book through that travel hub. And so that can be a really great way to boost your earning potential if you’re going to be booking travel anyways. And once you earn those points, there are a myriad of ways that you can spend them. One of the main ways is you can transfer them to travel partners. And American Express has 21 total travel partners. Again, I’m not going to list them all here, but a few of the notable ones include Delta, JetBlue, Hawaiian Airlines, Hilton Honors and Marriott Bonvoy.

So in summary, if you’re looking for a premium travel card that helps you accelerate the points that you’re earning, and you want a card where you can apply those points across travel partners, and you’re looking for some additional perks as well, like lounge access, then the Platinum Card from American Express may be the right fit for you. Stephanie, any thoughts on the Platinum Card or just on American Express in general, because I know you’ve got some experience there as well.

MC: Stephanie Knight 

I would just say that we’re covering some highlights today. But certainly for any of the cards that we’re talking about, there are multiple tiers that exists. So if, for example, the AMEX platinum is outside of your price range, that there are other levels and tiers which may provide some of the benefit and bonus for lower annual fees. But we think that these really represent a good value, as long as you’re interested in taking advantage of the majority of the benefit categories that exist.

MC: Namaan Mian 

Absolutely, if the rewards that are most meaningful to you are travel rewards, then these are the cards for you. But I completely understand if cashback is the part that means the most to you. Or bonus point earning in different categories like gas or groceries is what’s most important to you, then these probably aren’t going to be the best cards for you. But if maximizing your travel rewards is what you’re all about, then these are some good options. Okay, so we’ve got the Platinum Card from American Express. That’s our first contender in the general travel credit card category. The second contender, and a card that I hold and I’ve really enjoyed holding is the Chase Sapphire Reserve. And so this is Chase’s answer to the Platinum Card from American Express, it’s their premium travel card, and gives you a lot of the same types of perks that the AMEX platinum does. Specifically, here, right now Chase is offering a 60,000 point bonus on the Chase Sapphire Reserve after you spend $4,000 within the first three months. And again, our friends over at the Points Guy values 60,000 Chase points at $1,200.

So again, if you’re going to use those points maximize the rewards that you earn that makes the annual fee more palatable. And it’s another hefty one, it’s $550, this annual fee, and an additional $75 a year per authorized user. If you wanted to add a partner or somebody else onto the card, then you’re looking at an even higher annual fee. But what does that get you beyond the bonus points? Well, it gets you some incredible rewards rates on certain categories. So 10X the points on hotels and car rentals and 5X points on flights that you booked through Chase’s ultimate rewards travel portal, and it also gives you three times the points on all travel and dining expenses that you charge to the card outside of that rewards portal. So what I mean when I say three times the points is that’s three points for every $1 that you spend inside of those categories.

And I found that Chase is quite generous with what they categorize as travel and what they categorize as dining, which has been really nice as far as the bonus earning potential is concerned. The Chase Sapphire reserve also gives you lounge access, but it’s nowhere near as comprehensive as what the Platinum Card from Amex gives you. Specifically, the Sapphire Reserve will give you a membership to priority pass select and again, priority pass has a network of over 1000 lounges in airports around the world. This perk will allow you to enter those lounges when they’re open and bring two guests in with you complimentary. One of the perks of priority pass beyond just a lounge access is that there are restaurants that are part of the priority pass network as well.

So, for example, when I fly through San Francisco, there are a couple of restaurants in San Francisco that are part of the priority pass lounge network. There’s not a priority pass lounge in SFO. So instead, priority pass has added at these restaurants to their network instead. And I can go to a restaurant and as a part of my priority pass membership, I can get $28 worth of food for free at that restaurant in lieu of a lounge visit. And so a cool perk of priority pass is that even in airports where they don’t have a “lounge” presence, there are some perks that you can take advantage of in many of these major airports. And if you’ve got the time on a layover, then hey, it’s nice to get some free lunch or free dinner while you’re making your way to your final destination.

Chase has a myriad of travel transfer partners that you can move points over to as well. Again, the list is not as comprehensive as the Platinum Card from Amex. But Chase does have 14 total transfer partners. The main ones include United , Southwest JetBlue, Marriott Hyatt and IHG. And so again, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice that the the transfer partners are different for the most part from the transfer partners for American Express. And so one of my main considerations as I was deciding between these two cards was, well, which airlines do I fly more? And where most likely am I going to want to transfer the points that I earn. And for me, the answer was, well, it’s going to be Chase’s travel partners over American Express’s travel partners. So that’s one of the reasons I ended up going with the Sapphire Reserve.

There are other benefits as well that the Sapphire Reserve gives you. Primary rental car insurance on any rental car you pay for through the card, DoorDash credits that hit your DoorDash account every month, if that’s something that you’re interested in. A $300 annual travel credit. This is pretty nice. The first $300 a year that you charge inside the travel category to your Sapphire Reserve, you get a statement credit for that spend. And so effectively, that brings the annual fee down from $550 to $250. If you know that you’re going to spend that $300 a year on travel, you just know that that’s taken care of and credited back to your statement. So in summary, if you’re looking for a travel card that gives you lounge access, that gives you some flexibility in how you transfer your points, the Sapphire Reserve can be a great option to add to your wallet. It’ll save you a little bit of money on the annual fee compared to the AMEX platinum. If you prefer to fly with the Chase travel partners and really care about the travel credits, then that might nudge the Sapphire Reserve a little bit ahead of the AMEX platinum for you.

One thing I’ll mention here, as I’m wrapping up this category is that both the American Express Platinum and the Chase Sapphire Reserve also give you statement credits for TSA Precheck and Clear. So if you’re interested in joining some of those expedited security programs here in the US, then you can click on the link in the show notes to learn more about what those statement credits look like. But you do get some money back for joining Precheck and Clear. Alright, well, Stephanie, I’ll turn it over to you to talk us through a couple of the airline credit cards, because I know this is the strategy that you’ve employed more to earn the perks and the miles that you care about.

MC: Stephanie Knight 

Yeah. So when we think about the other two categories that exist, airlines and hotels, just broadly speaking, this makes sense for the brand loyalists. And you may be a brand loyalists because you prefer that experience and you prefer the benefits of that company and that service, or it could be more forced upon you, so to speak. So, one key disclaimer would be do your research. Figure out if your firm, if your company has any specific contracts, specific requirements as it relates to travel for which airlines you’re going to be flying, which hotels you’re going to be staying in. And then you can make sure to, to maximize your credits from the get go. If you are then also able to utilize your personal card with spinning for business expenses. And then you may also make a decision, you know, think about airlines.

Let’s say you live in Chicago, you’re going to fly United a lot. Let’s say that you live in Charlotte, and you’re going to fly American, let’s say you live in Minneapolis, and you’re going to fly Delta. So if and when for personal reasons or professional reasons you become a brand loyalists, it can make a lot of sense to get a branded airline or hotel card. There some value and benefit lost by these these general travel cards and the numerous travel partners that you can transfer your points over to. You’re going to get the most bang for your buck if you get one branded loyalty card if you’re only flying or staying in that company. So for airlines, we’ve got three cards we want to highlight here. We’re not going to go into the same level of detail as Namaan went through for the general travel cards, but for the United Explore card, the Delta SkyMiles Platinum American Express card, and the Citi Double Advantage Platinum Select World Elite MasterCard, all of these as you’ll be able to see as we go through a couple of the stats can easily pay themselves off an annual fee, just through the intro offer, let alone the extensive ongoing benefits that you can get from the card. But all of these have a long list of benefits.

You’re going to need to go in, check out the link in the show notes, do additional research, understand everything that’s involved. But just if we look at the intro offer, and the fact that each of these include free checked bag, bag or bags, that alone, if you are flying, this airline should pay off that annual fee. So for the United explorer card, for example, the intro offer right now is 60,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 In the first three months after opening the account, which the Points Guy valued at $726. That easily pays off that annual fee of first year $0 And then $95 a year after that if you take good advantage of applying those bonus miles to a free flight in the future. And then you think about additional benefits of Global Entry, TSA PreCheck, a couple United club passes a year and then checked bags, it makes sense if you are exclusively or in a majority way flying United. Similarly speaking, if we think about the Delta SkyMiles platinum, that intro offer is 50,000 bonus miles and 5000 medallion qualification miles after spending 3000 In the first six months after opening the account, which the points guy valued at $705. And that plus free checked bag, that’s going to help pay off that $250 annual fee.

And then there’s a lot of rewards past to that as well. Of course, one thing with Delta is they’ve got for their loyalty tier qualification, there is dollar requirement in addition to a mileage requirement, and having a Delta branded card allows you to have an additional way to qualify for that. This is a way that over time, Delta has tried to make their program more exclusive is by adding that that qualifying dollars limit in addition to the qualification miles, and having a Delta card can fast track you on the way to do that. And then for American, the American Advantage Platinum Card, that intro offers 50,000 American miles after spending $2.5 thousand in the first three months of account opening, which Points Guy values that at $885. Purely based on that makes it a great deal given the fact that this card is $0 in the first year and $99 after for an annual fee, also including free checked bag for domestic flights. So all of these are going to ,again, they’re going to make sense if you take advantage of flying that airline often. So in a very similar way, we’ll get into hotels here in just a second, but Namaan I want to pass it over to you to talk a little bit about Southwest and your experience there.

MC: Namaan Mian 

Yeah, absolutely. Southwest sometimes can be viewed as the stepchild of US domestic airlines. But I think that there’s some real advantages to flying Southwest. Stephanie, in some of the business travel that we do, we don’t have the most flexibility in when we can fly, so we have to choose our options based on just pure timing. And so that’s led to me having status on the United, Delta and Southwest. The purists out there will say, Hey, you should have just focused all of that flying in one airline and maxed out your status tier. And it’s just not realistic for us the way that we operate sometimes.

And so I found the Southwest Rapid Rewards priority credit card to be a useful addition to my wallet, for really just one reason, and it was the intro offer. Because Southwest has this really unique perk among US airlines called a companion pass. And what the companion pass is, is that any ticket that you purchase, whether through points or through dollars, you can bring a companion along for free on that itinerary. And all you have to do is pay the taxes and fees. It’s an incredible perk, there’s no other US airline that offers anything like it. You know, Alaska Airlines does offer a companion certificate, but that’s good for one flight a year. Southwest is unlimited flights a year, whether you spent money or miles on that flight, you can bring somebody along with you for free, just designate them as your companion for the year.

So for me, I designated my partner as my companion and we flew by one, get one for a long time having the companion pass. And so the way that you earn the companion pass is you have to earn 135,000 total points with Southwest in a calendar year. And so the way that I hit that threshold years ago, is that I combined the introductory offers from a personal Southwest card and a business Southwest card to hit that threshold, along with just some of the other day to day spending that you do as you’re living life. Just reallocated that to the two cards that allowed us to hit the points threshold that we needed to earn companion pass. And it was fantastic because the earlier in the calendar year that you can do that, you not only get companion pass for that year, once you hit the points threshold, but then for the entire calendar year after that. And so if you’re able to hit the points threshold early in the calendar year, you almost get two years for the price of one. And so that’s really the reason that I added the Southwest Rapid Rewards priority credit card to my wallet. And if you end up flying Southwest a lot, let’s say you’re based in a city like Austin, where Southwest is the largest carrier, and they do a lot of point to point travel to non-hub cities, for example, like San Diego or San Jose.

And that’s where you end up traveling, then the Rapid Rewards priority credit card can be a useful addition to your wallet, because you’ll get three times the points for every dollar that you spend on Southwest purchases, you’ll get a status boost towards a list and a list preferred, which are Southwest status tiers. And you’ll get a few other perks and benefits as well, that you’ll probably appreciate if you’re flying Southwest consistently. So the annual fee on that’s $149. And again, the calculus that I made was, hey, if I’m going to get almost two years of free flights for my partner than the annual fee is well worth it. And so that, again, if you’ve never heard of the Southwest companion pass and you live in a city where Southwest has a decent amount of operations, I highly recommend you look into that. So our last category today are the hotel credit cards and Stephanie, I’ll let you kick us off here and talk us through the three that we’ve identified as the potential options for folks.

MC: Stephanie Knight 

The three that we want to share with you today are the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless, the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass card, and the World of Hyatt. And all of these three cards have an annual fee of $95 with a helpful intro offer and a status boost. Again, these are for the brand loyalists that you are staying there enough to be seeking to kind of raise your loyalty status within that hotel chain. And these cards can help you get there. So Marriott intro offer, three free night awards up to $150,000 total point value after you spend $3,000 on purchases in your first three months from your account opening. The Hilton Honors American Express Surpass card, giving you an intro offer of 130,000 total point value after you spend $2000 on purchases in your first three months after account opening. And World of Hyatt intro offer, 30,000 bonus points after you spend $3,000 on purchases in your first three months from account opening.

So I think that the hotel cards are a little bit of a double edged sword in the fact that if you are already staying all the time at one of these places, then you’re going to get status anyway. However, any of your purchases and any additional purchases you make within the properties, those are all going to get point boosts. But it probably makes the most sense if you’re staying somewhere and these boosts and these intro offers kind of actually help you get to that top top tier. At this point I’ve got Marriott lifetime platinum status. So it made sense for me earlier in my career to be able to use these cards. I still have a Marriott card, and I still appreciate the free night awards that it gives me, the bonus benefits that it gets me and yeah, I’ve got lifetime platinum, but then I can maintain titanium. I’m not Ambassador level anymore. But I can maintain titanium with the benefit of this card. And the extra benefits that that it’s kind of top status here gives me. But these are the ones I think airline and hotels, you need to think long and hard about because it is a commitment to that brand, that hotel.

And as Namaan said, for airlines, it’s true with hotels as well, you may not always get the full freedom of choice, as you think across both your professional and business travel based on where you want to travel to, based on connections and contractual agreements that your company has with certain airlines or hotel companies. However, I personally go with a branded card strategy across airlines and hotels and not the general cards. And Namaan, I know that you’re at the other end of the spectrum.

MC: Namaan Mian 

I am at the other end of the spectrum. And I feel like my nights in a hotel bed and the miles that I’m spending butt in seat on an airline are enough for me to earn the status that I want with these different chains. And I think you made the key point there ,Stephanie. If the card helps you get to the the top level status tier, or the status tier that would really make a difference in your experience, I can understand why that would be a valuable addition to your credit card portfolio. But for me, that’s just not the case right now. And so I would rather have the spending that I’m doing in my personal life earn me more brand agnostic points that I can then use where and when I want. And also give me some of the other perks that the Sapphire Reserve gives me as well. So I think that there’s a time and place for these branded cards, I think your strategy makes a lot of sense for where you’re at.

And I also think that my strategy makes a lot of sense for where I’m at. And I think that’s perhaps one of the key takeaways from this episode is that there’s no one size fits all strategy. Just like when we talk about case interviews, there’s no one size fits all approach. You know, there’s no one size fits all framework. The same is true here for travel strategy, as well. And one of the reasons we’re talking about this in early 2023 is Stephanie and I over the last month in our personal lives, we’ve been thinking about our travel strategy for the next year. Doing our Q1 travel planning, thinking about what our spend allocations going to look like. Thinking about if we need to adjust or optimize anything, as far as our travel credit cards are concerned.

And so we thought that we would bring that conversation out into the open and share it with you because we believe in being strategic in as many areas of life as possible. And travel is something that’s important to us and something that we spent a lot of time thinking about. And so we hope that this little conversation was helpful to you as you start to plan your 2023 travel and try to figure out what’s important to you, which which travel rewards mean the most to you, how you’re going to achieve those travel rewards. Not just so that you can add another status notch to your belt, but so that you can go live the life that you want. And so that you can enable yourself to get out there and see the world, hopefully in the most cost effective way possible.

MC: Stephanie Knight 

Thanks for joining us today. I know we’ve covered a lot of information here. But there’s so many good options out there to help you accelerate this game. To help you accelerate this process, make sure that you’re extracting the most value possible out of the travel that you’re already doing, and have that be a catalyst to help you do additional travel that you want to do. So I hope that you will check out the link in the show notes, that you will dive into more detail about all of the benefits of the different cards that we covered today. We were able to more than scratch the surface, but we certainly weren’t able to get to the the levels of depth of detail that exist about all the different elements and facets of these reward programs and benefits from these different cards. So I hope you’ll take a closer look. And then I hope you’ll join us next week as we hear from one of our coaches, someone who’s recently left the game, at least in terms of high volume of business travel, so that you can hear their reflections on their experience and the perspective on what’s working now. So we’ll see you then.

Filed Under: consulting travel, Strategy Simplified