A second look at US Bank’s Altitude Reserve

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Altitude Reserve

When US Bank first unveiled their Altitude Reserve card, I argued that the main reason to get the US Bank Altitude Reserve card is for the signup bonus.  It’s certainly an interesting card with it’s 3X earning on travel and mobile wallet.  And with 1.5 cents per point value towards travel, those 3X points are worth an excellent 4.5% back.  For an ultra-premium card it’s not even that expensive.  You do have to pay $400 up front but then US Bank reimburses $325 in travel charges per year.

That’s all great, but I was turned off by the card’s limited options for getting 1.5 cents per point value.  To do so you had to book travel through US Bank’s travel portal which would not always show the flights you want, or the best prices.  And for those who care about hotel elite status, booking through US Bank’s portal meant giving up on earning elite credits and often giving up elite recognition at hotels.

Those negatives changed recently when US Bank introduced the ability to redeem points for travel via “Real Time Rewards”.  Now it’s possible to get 1.5 cents per point value when booking travel directly with airlines, hotels, etc.  That’s huge!  See: US Bank makes Real-Time Mobile Rewards awesome. Are you listening Chase? Amex? Citi?

Suddenly I’m asking myself again whether or not the Altitude Reserve is a keeper…

Is Altitude Reserve a great travel card?

The card unquestionably earns respectable rewards for travel spend: 3X points worth 4.5% towards travel.  But a great travel card also gives you great travel perks and great travel insurance.

On the travel perks side, the Altitude Reserve is a bit of a dud.  It does offer 12 free Gogo wifi passes per year — that’s very good.  And it offers Global Entry reimbursement which is necessary to compete a all in this space.  But for lounge access it offers only 4 free Priority Pass visits per year.  That’s pathetic.  And it doesn’t offer any other significant elite-like perks that we’ve come to expect from ultra-premium travel cards.

As far as travel insurance goes… it’s not very impressive either.  I recently updated my “Ultra-Premium Credit Card Travel Insurance” guide to include the Altitude Reserve.  It doesn’t fair well compared to the Chase Sapphire Reserve or Citi Prestige.  The Altitude requires paying in full for coverage (the Reserve and Prestige do not — except for rental car coverage).  And, except for rental car coverage which is quite good, the Altitude’s coverage falls shy of the Reserve and Prestige in almost every category.

So, no.  The Altitude Reserve is not a great travel card.

Is Altitude Reserve a great “almost everywhere else” card?

To the extent that it’s possible to pay almost everywhere with your smart phone (and therefore earn 3X with the Altitude Reserve), it’s hard to beat the Altitude’s rewards.  Now that travel rewards are almost as good as cash, I think that it is reasonable now to say that you really do get 4.5% back towards travel when using the card for mobile wallet charges.

When you compare the Altitude Reserve to a no-fee 2% cash back card, you would have to spend $3,000 per year on mobile wallet and travel purchases to break even and fully cover the after-travel-credit $75 annual fee ($400 annual fee – $325 travel credit).  That’s only $58 per week.  With a modest mobile/travel spend of $100 per week, you’re suddenly way ahead.

If you have a a Samsung smart phone, then you can use mobile payments almost everywhere thanks to Samsung’s LoopPay technology (see: Altitude Reserve to offer 3X for Samsung Pay LoopPay purchases).  The rest of us are limited to those merchants who specifically accept Apple Pay or Android Pay.  That includes many big box stores and most merchants who use Square Readers.

That said, most online merchants do not accept mobile wallet payments.  Until they do, the Altitude Reserve cannot truly be considered a great “everywhere else” card.

Not good for manufactured spend

If US Bank was friendly to those who like to manufacture spend through gift card purchases, this card would absolutely be a no-brainer.  Unfortunately, they’re known to shut down accounts with even modest gift card purchases.

I’m on the fence

I originally signed up for the Altitude Reserve in May 2017 so I have a few more months to decide whether to keep the card for another year.  While I’m super enthused about the new options for redeeming points, my spend habits don’t tend towards places that accept mobile wallet payments.  Plus, even at places that do accept it, I often have other options for earning a high multiple (e.g. Sapphire Reserve 3X at restaurants; CNB Crystal Visa Infinite 3X at grocery stores and gas stations, etc.).  I’d prefer to earn 3X Altitude Reserve over 3X CNB points, but the math is not as compelling as when comparing to a 2% card as I did above.

My plan is to wait and see how much I actually use the card over the next couple of months.  I’ll use it wherever Apple Pay is accepted (unless I can get 3X with my Sapphire Reserve card).  And, in May, I’ll calculate how much more I’ve earned with the Altitude card compared to the card’s I would have used otherwise.  If it looks like the Altitude will more than pay for itself, then I’ll keep the card.

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