Whether your strategy revolves around welcome bonuses, everyday earn rates, or perks for cardholders, the best credit cards generally have the highest annual fees.
First year free is great, but it isn’t forever. We can use signup incentives to justify our new credit cards, but what about our keepers?
Luckily, the banks know they need to provide ongoing value to keep fee-paying cardholders on the hook year after year. Some cards have annual credits which offset the annual fee, either partially or entirely. This makes the decision to keep the card a lot easier.
In This Post
- American Express Platinum Card: $200 Travel Credit
- Big 5 Banks: Travel & Lifestyle Credits
- HSBC & National Bank: Travel Enhancement Credits
- US Credit Cards
- American Express Offers
American Express Platinum Card: $200 Travel Credit
The big kahuna of the Canadian credit card scene, the American Express Platinum Card, has some of the best benefits in the business.
You get 3 Membership Rewards points per dollar spent on dining, a complimentary Priority Pass membership with unlimited visits to airport lounges for you and one guest, automatic hotel status including Marriott Bonvoy Gold Elite and Hilton Honors Gold, and strong travel insurance.
I’d also venture that the Amex Platinum is the standard-bearer among Canadian credit cards as a status symbol. Whether or not that moves the needle for you, you can’t deny that the card is flashy, or that its exclusivity and branding have value.
To justify these perks, the card commands the steepest annual fee, at $699. However, once you’ve gotten over the sticker shock, you’ll notice that the card has a $200 annual travel credit.
This credit is extremely flexible and easy to use. You can apply it to any flight, hotel, car rental, or vacation package booked through American Express Travel Online or the Platinum Card Travel Service over the phone.
You have to use the credit when you make the booking – it can’t be applied later – but it won’t be reversed if your plans change and you have to cancel.
Because of its versatility, I’d consider this credit as good as cash. This brings the net annual fee down to $499.
That’s still a crazy high fee for a keeper card, but it’s actually lower than other top-tier cards. The TD Aeroplan Visa Infinite Privilege, the CIBC Aeroplan Visa Infinite Privilege, and the American Express Aeroplan Reserve Card all have higher net fees, at $599.
If you prefer the wide-ranging all-round travel benefits of the American Express Platinum Card over a slate of benefits that are more closely tied to Air Canada flights, the Amex Platinum is a clear winner.
Big 5 Banks: Travel & Lifestyle Credits
In a similar vein, the CIBC Aventura Visa Infinite Privilege also has a $200 annual travel credit, bringing the card’s annual fee down from $499 to a net cost of $299. However, it’s not quite as flexible as the Amex Platinum credit.
You have to book by calling the CIBC Rewards Centre, where you can book flights, hotels, car rentals, vacation packages, and cruises. Because CIBC’s travel agency is making the booking on your behalf, they have to use agency rates and agency booking portals.
That means it’s not always easy to attach your loyalty number to a flight or hotel booking. Unless you can find an agent who’s willing to book a different way, you won’t be able to enjoy your elite benefits, and you can’t use any lower members-only rates that you may find.
Also, if you book a refundable or postpaid rate, the credit won’t be applied to your account until after the travel dates. So while this one isn’t quite as good as cash, I’d count on it as a guaranteed annual fee reduction if you intend to use it for travel.
Likewise, BMO has annual credits on their new BMO eclipse Visa Infinite and BMO eclipse Visa Infinite Privilege products. Instead of a travel credit, they’re calling these a “lifestyle credit”. By all accounts, it’s easy to cash out against just about any purchase.
- With a $50 lifestyle credit, the BMO eclipse Visa Infinite annual fee comes down from $120 to $70
- With a $200 lifestyle credit, the BMO eclipse Visa Infinite Privilege annual fee comes down from $499 to $299
Despite these savings, you have to consider whether you even want to keep these cards long-term.
I treat CIBC Aventura points as a filler currency, with pockets of value but not a high priority for me. And BMO is doing themselves no favours by taking the already-lowest-valued bank rewards in Canada and devaluing them further.
(If you don’t decide to keep the CIBC or BMO cards, note that both of their credits are based on the calendar year rather than the membership year, allowing you to double-dip the credits during your first year if you so choose.)
RBC, Scotiabank, and TD don’t offer annual credits. But between my rewards goals and personal history with those banks, I value their cards more highly as keepers.
If I’m going to use a card on a regular basis, I’d like it to be one that earns rewards that I actually want, at rates I like. Once you get rolling, you can create a positive feedback loop: I pay annual fees and spend on cards with good rewards, and in doing so I strengthen my relationship with banks that offer good rewards, making it easier to apply for more cards that earn good rewards in the future.
For me, it’s an easy choice to stick to my plans, and not chase a partial rebate for products that aren’t giving me incremental value every year over my other credit cards.
HSBC & National Bank: Travel Enhancement Credits
If the Big 5 are the vanilla nuclear family, and Amex is the cool cousin, HSBC and National Bank are the wacky aunt and uncle. They’ve got some gravitas, but it’s a bit of a puzzle to make sense of them.
Fortunately, they don’t skimp on gifts for their nieces and nephews. They do spoil us with annual credits, once we’ve figured out how to unwrap the excessive packaging.
Rather than a blanket travel credit that can be used for any booking, these two banks offer travel “enhancement” credits. They can’t be used for flights and hotels in the traditional sense – instead, they’re intended to be used to upgrade your travel experience.
Unfortunately, many of these upgrades are already covered by flying business class or having elite status, so let’s see if we can get value for them anyway.
The HSBC World Elite Mastercard offers a $100 annual travel enhancement credit for seat upgrades, baggage fees, and airport lounge passes. You can apply this credit yourself on the HSBC Rewards website – all you need to do is select an eligible expense made within the last 60 days.
HSBC seems to take a liberal interpretation of which travel expenses qualify for the credit. While they might not allow you to use it for a booking made directly with the hotel, you’d have better luck with an online travel agency. If the merchant sells regular bookings and eligible upgrades alike, the transaction on your statement won’t show a difference. 😉
I think this credit is versatile enough to classify as a cash rebate. It brings the credit card’s annual fee down from $149 to $49, or free if paired with a Premier banking rebate.
$49 per year is a fantastic price for a card with no foreign transaction fees, worldwide Mastercard acceptance, and emergency medical insurance on trips up to 31 days, not to mention earn rates and transfer partners that make it a daily driver candidate. As HSBC is known for strictly following the timelines on its repeat bonus clause, I’d say the HSBC World Elite Mastercard is very worthy of keeper consideration, as there’s more value in keeping it than in cancelling and reapplying.
As for the National Bank World Elite Mastercard, you’d get a travel enhancement credit worth up to $250 per year. It’s broken down into very specific types of expenses:
- $100 for airport parking
- $100 for baggage fees
- $50 for seat selection fees
Against an annual fee of $150, if you’re able to use all of the credits, you’d actually get paid to have the card! For a card that’s already worth keeping for award ticket insurance and emergency medical assistance on trips up to 60 days, eliminating the annual fee makes it a no-brainer.
However, National’s redemption process is quite byzantine. You need to submit an itemized invoice to the rewards department, showing a travel upgrade that was used (not purchased) on a past date.
At a certain point, you have to draw the line for how much effort you’re willing to put in. If it’s too much hassle to redeem the travel credit, or if it can only be used for expenses that don’t really add value for you, is it really worth it?
If you’re in the market for a keeper Mastercard for medical coverage, I think there’s a strong case to be made for paying $49 to HSBC instead of struggling to get your annual fees offset with National Bank.
US Credit Cards
This is where it gets fun. Annual credits are much, much more abundant on US cards than they are in Canada, with many cards providing more credits to cardholders than the cost of the annual fees.
Here’s a small sample of cards whose annual net costs are lower than they appear (all numbers in US dollars, with some credits distributed in chunks throughout the year):
- American Express US Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant Card: $450 annual fee, offset by $300 Marriott property credit + anniversary Free Night Award worth 50,000 Bonvoy points (worth $300 as per our points valuations)
- American Express US Hilton Honors Aspire Card: $450 annual fee, offset by $250 Hilton property credit + $250 airline fee credit
- American Express US Platinum Card: $550 fee, offset by $200 Uber credit + $200 airline fee credit + $100 Saks credit + temporary $180 PayPal credit for 2021
- American Express US Gold Card: $250 fee, offset by $120 Uber credit + $120 dining credit at participating restaurants
- Chase Sapphire Reserve: $550 fee, offset by $300 travel credit + temporary $60 DoorDash credit for 2021
Of course, many of these rebates are only valuable if they suit your lifestyle. There’s no point having the Hilton Aspire card if you don’t have cash expenses at their properties and with eligible US airlines. But for those who’d benefit, it’s wild to see cards at the most premium tier practically paying you to be a cardholder.
Also, aside from hotels, many of the credits are difficult to use outside of the US. While the Amex US Gold Card offers an excellent 4x earning rate on restaurants around the world, you’d likely have to live in or frequently travel to the US to properly offset the annual fee with cash credits.
Additionally, the airline credits are only for incidental fees, not unlike HSBC and National Bank’s enhancement credits. There are a few ways to cash them out for other travel purchases, but Amex US is very good at closing those loopholes.
Keeper cards are a much bigger part of the Miles & Points strategy for Americans. In the US, repeat welcome bonuses are harder to come by, and it’s more important to maintain good relationships with credit card issuers by putting regular spend on your cards.
I think it’s worthwhile for Canadians to take note, as keeper cards and relationship-building are taking on a higher importance here as well. Hopefully we’ll see our banks follow suit and offer more credits as they try not only to gain our business, but also to retain it in a competitive marketplace.
American Express Offers
Throughout the year, American Express dangles special offers for its cardholders to earn extra rewards points or cash rebates. They’re more prevalent south of the border, but our offers in Canada are nothing to scoff at either.
I try not to count my chickens before they hatch, but some offers are predictable. For example, I’d say that Shop Small is good for a reliable $50 rebate per credit card, at least once each year when the promotion comes around.
If you play your cards right (pardon the pun), you can even get your entire annual fee rebated on premium cards. For Amex Platinum cardholders who got lucky with the timing of their $699 annual fee, the net cost of having the card this year was $0!
- $200 annual travel credit
- $250 grocery credit (Summer 2020)
- $50 Shop Small credits (Fall 2020)
- $200 grocery credit (Winter 2021)
- Total: $700
Similarly, I was able to achieve the same with my American Express Business Platinum Card, despite squandering most of my FedEx credits last summer (and probably this time around as well). It’s always a fun day when you scratch that final dollar off your $499 annual fee!
- $250 Dell credit
- 4 x $40 mobile credits
- 1 x $45 FedEx credit
- 3 x $20 Metrotown gift card credits
- $50 Shop Small credits
- Total: $565
I think we can expect to continue to see offers like these, although perhaps not quite as generously on a regular basis.
They’ve really risen to prominence through the pandemic as an austerity measure of sorts, with credit card issuers putting their efforts into retaining existing clients rather than acquiring new ones. Even as the world returns to normal, I think we’ll see a balanced mix of incentives for both new and existing cardholders.
More and more, we’re seeing that some banks are less likely to give repeat welcome bonuses, and that they’re more likely to approve you for new cards if you don’t cancel your old ones too soon.
If you can anticipate enough useful offers to offset your annual fee, it might be worth hanging onto a premium card beyond the first year to create a win-win situation for you and the issuer.
The more credit cards I have, the more I see the appeal of keeping cards long-term. When the time comes to renew my cards and pay the next year’s fee, I always ask myself if I’m getting enough value to justify keeping it.
In many cases, earn rates and perks alone are enough to justify the costs, but it’s not always easy to measure their value against other cards. With annual credits, you’ll get peace of mind and cost certainty.
There are countless other ways to offset costs, like hotel vouchers, companion fares, referral bonuses, bank account rebates, or even simply by asking. All of these are effective (and not mutually exclusive), but they can be highly variable, and along with signup bonuses they aren’t necessarily sustainable.
Therefore, I try to maximize my use of annual credits because they’re simple, and I know I can count on their value year after year.