Al Maha Resort/Facebook
- Targeted upgrade offers are proliferating in the world of travel rewards credit cards. They come with an opportunity to earn a sign-up-style bonus without a new pull on your credit
- Weigh the annual fee for the upgraded card against your current fee and see if you’ll get enough benefits to make it worth accepting.
- I decided to upgrade to the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card after evaluating perks like statement credits and an annual free night certificate.
- I was able to put the free night certificate to use at the luxury Al Maha resort outside Dubai. That benefit alone far outweighed the card’s $450 annual fee.
Credit card sign-up bonuses are the single fastest way to rack up large sums of points and miles, and generally speaking, credit card issuers reserve these offers for when you open a new credit card. But there are exceptions to this rule, and lately, they’ve been cropping up more and more. They usually happen in targeted ways, with the credit card company offering a bonus to entice users to switch to a card with a higher annual fee.
Earlier this year, for instance, I received an upgrade offer to upgrade my $95-per-year Marriott Bonvoy Amex (now closed for new applications) to the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant American Express Card, which carries a $450 annual fee.
Here are the factors I weighed to make my decision — the ones you should think about if you receive a similar offer.
Keep in mind that we’re focusing on the rewards and perks that make these credit cards great options, not things like interest rates and late fees, which can far outweigh the value of any rewards.
When you’re working to earn credit card rewards, it’s important to practice financial discipline, like paying your balances off in full each month, making payments on time, and not spending more than you can afford to pay back. Basically, treat your credit card like a debit card.
1. Can you comfortably meet the minimum spend requirement?
Like credit card sign-up bonuses, upgrade offers generally come with minimum spending requirements. These are thresholds you’ll need to hit within a certain amount of time in order to snag the points, miles, or cash back on offer.
In my case, I had three months to put $5,000 on the Bonvoy Brilliant card, which is no small chunk of change. I knew I could do it thanks to some big expenses coming up, but if you can’t realistically meet the requirement to earn the bonus, there’s no reason to accept the offer. After all, most companies will let you upgrade without a bonus at any time after the first year of account opening.
Even if you can comfortably meet the minimum spending requirement, consider that every dollar you put on your new card is a dollar you can’t put on a different card. If you need to be earning different points or miles for a specific redemption coming up, it might not be worth it for you to stray from that course.
2. Is the upgrade bonus big enough to be worth it?
How many points or miles will you receive if you meet the minimum spend requirement? And how does the value of that bonus compare to your increase in annual fee?
In my case, the prize for upgrading to the Bonvoy Brilliant Amex was 100,000 Marriott points, enough for two or more nights in properties that fall into Categories 1-6, or one night and change at a Category 7 or 8 hotel.
A bonus of that size would be enough to convince some people to accept the offer — especially if they could do it in an upgrade situation, which doesn’t impact your credit the way taking out a new card does. After all, for 85,000 points, you could score a night at Al Maha, a luxury resort in the desert near Dubai that includes meals and activities and often goes for more than $1,700 per night.
I’m pretty strict about only carrying cards that will continue to bring me value beyond the initial bonus, though, so I dug deeper.
3. What is the card’s earning potential?
You’ll want to look at how your current card and the card you’re considering upgrading to stack up when it comes to rewarding you for your spend.
Do they have different bonus categories, which will bring you extra points for each dollar you spend? Take the American Express® Gold Card and the Platinum Card® from American Express, for example. The Gold card offers 4x points at restaurants worldwide and US supermarkets (on up to $25,000 spent at US supermarkets per year, then 1x), while the Platinum offers 5x points on flights booked directly with airlines.
If they don’t offer different bonus categories, will you earn more points per dollar with the premium card than you would with the card you currently have? Take United’s credit cards: The premium United Club Card, which carries a $450 annual fee, earns 1.5 miles on non-United purchases, versus 1 mile per dollar on those same purchases using the United Explorer Card, with a $95 annual fee that’s waived the first year.
Once you’ve done your research, think about how many extra points you’ll earn with an upgraded card and try to assign a value to them that you can compare against the increase annual fee. Travel website The Points Guy assigns values (in cents) to the major loyalty currencies — it’s worth checking the valuations out if you don’t have a specific number in mind.
I tend to use my Marriott cards on Marriott purchases only, and use cards with greater returns in other categories. So I looked at earning on Marriott purchases most closely when assessing my two options. Both cards earn 6 points per dollar on Marriott spend. This was one feature of the Brilliant that didn’t much impress me.
4. Does the card offer elite status or qualification help?
Another thing to consider, especially when dealing with hotel credit cards, is whether a card will grant you elite status— or get you closer to hitting the threshold. While airline credit cards won’t get you status directly, premium cards such as the Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express, will put you on your way. With that card in particular, you can pick up 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $25,000 or more in eligible purchases in a calendar year, as well as 10,000 more if you spend $50,000 in a calendar year.
Hotel cards, on the other hand, often do bestow elite status outright, making holders eligible for upgrades, late checkout, free breakfast and more. Make sure to factor those perks into your decision-making, since they can save you money.
Unlike the Hilton Honors Aspire Card from American Express, which confers top-tier Hilton Diamond status to its holders, the Bonvoy Brilliant taps out at Gold Elite — three levels below top-of-the-pack Ambassador Elite. This fact also didn’t impress me, since I already had Marriott Gold status through my Amex Platinum.
5. Premium card statement credits
Oftentimes, premium cards will come with some type of credit to help offset the annual fee, and if it’s a credit you can use, you can basically subtract it from the fee when you’re doing your comparison math. The Chase Sapphire Reserve, for instance, offers a $300 annual statement credit for travel purchases, a broad category that makes it incredibly easy to use.
Unsurprisingly, the credit Amex offers with the Bonvoy Brilliant is a Marriott credit, valid on room rates and on-property charges such as dining. It’s worth $300, and if that’s money you’d spend on Marriott purchases anyway, it’s as good as getting cash back. Since I easily hit the $300 mark yearly thanks to work travel, I knew that in my mind I could sink that $450 price tag to $150, effectively making the difference in fees between my two card options just $55.
Read more: The best rewards credit cards available now
6. Other perks
Premium credit cards are loaded with perks that often go a long way in offsetting the annual fee. Whether it’s lounge access, additional statement credits or, in the case of many hotel credit cards, free night certificates, the extra benefits can help make an upgrade offer worth it.
In my case, my decision came down to the free night certificate that comes with the Bonvoy Brilliant once a year at your cardmember anniversary. The card I had offered a certificate, but it was capped at a Category 5, meaning it could only be used for rooms that were 35,000 points or less. Experiences trying to use these certificates had shown me that in many cases, they weren’t that useful for booking prime downtown locations. The Brilliant’s certificate, on the other hand, taps out at Category 6, or 50,000 points, opening up a slew of additional — and generally nicer — options.
In the end, assuming I could use the Marriott statement credit each year, I was looking at forking over an additional $55 per year in annual fees for a certificate that could get me a much nicer room, and one that was well over $55 more expensive. I took the offer, used my bonus points on a night at Al Maha, and haven’t looked back since!
Click here to learn more about the Bonvoy Brilliant American Express card from our partner The Points Guy.
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email@example.com (Carly Helfand)