Credit Card Expert Roundup #52 - Biggest Credit Card Story of 2019
Now that 2019 is in the books and we are a few weeks into 2020, credit card experts have had the time to reflect on the past year. We saw several exciting changes take place in 2019, with the emergence of the Apple credit card, large sign-up bonuses offered during Q4, as well as the revamping of several mainstay offers from major issuers. To recap, Jason Steele asked a group of experts in the industry what they felt was the biggest headline of 2019 in what has become an annual question for our roundups:
"What was the biggest credit card story of 2019?"
Ed Pizzarello -Business traveler who oversees a venture capital portfolio of companies located around the United States
The biggest story in 2019 was the transformation of Capital One into a viable option for folks who love to travel. Previously not the greatest for earning points that could be used for travel, Capital One made two noticeable splashes. First, at the very tail end of 2019, Capital One rolled out a list of airline partners that instantly increased the value of many of the credit cards Capital One issues. Then, they threw down the gauntlet, increasing the sign-up bonus on their Spark Miles for Business and Spark Cash For Business credit cards to 200,000 points.
They ran this limited time offer multiple times in 2019, giving smart consumers the opportunity to earn roughly 300,000 Spark Miles hitting the sign-up bonus criteria. Along with that, Capital One has run multiple transfer bonuses, such as the current 20% bonus for transfers to AirFrance/KLM's Flying Blue program. With the sign-up bonus and transfer bonus, you could easily get a family of four round-trip flights to Europe without spending anything more than taxes and fees.
Sarah Silbert - Editor for Business Insider's Personal Finance Vertical
It didn't arrive until late 2019, but the updated American Express Green Card made a big impression when it was announced. The Green card's been around for decades, but only recently has it been a viable option for anyone looking to maximize their rewards. It now offers 3 points per dollar on travel and dining — the same bonus categories offered on the Chase Sapphire Reserve, but for a lower annual fee of $150. The annual statement credits do come with some caveats (up to $100 toward CLEAR membership still leaves you paying $79 out of pocket, for example), but it's still not difficult to offset the annual fee somewhat.
Especially since the launch of the Sapphire Reserve, card issuers have been in a heated competition to one-up each other when it comes to rewards and perks, and the new Green card is a good indication that this trend isn't about to slow down.
Ben Luthi - Credit card expert and personal finance writer
There are a lot of interesting things that happened this year in the credit card industry. A lot of credit card issuers dropped various insurance protections and Citi started allowing Citi Double Cash cardholders to convert cash back into ThankYou Rewards. I think the biggest story of the year, though, is the Apple Card. There was a lot of debate around the card when it was launched, from the design and feel of the card to its rewards program and other features. And, of course, there were the claims of gender bias in Goldman Sachs' underwriting.
What I find most intriguing about the card, though, is its forward-facing innovation. There's no number on the card at all, which — let's face it — really isn't necessary anymore and it eliminates the potential of fraud from someone getting your card information that way. But more importantly, the way the card's rewards program is set up, it encourages you to use Apple Pay when you can. It's not the only card that offers bonus rewards on mobile wallet purchases (the Wells Fargo Cash Wise Visa and U.S. Bank Altitude Reserve come to mind). Also, it's in Apple's best interest to channel as much volume through its mobile wallet as possible. But the more credit cards that offer this kind of benefit, the better, and, hopefully, the card's introduction will encourage other card issuers to add similar features.
Jason Steele - Journalist who specializes in covering credit cards
I think the biggest story was the rapid decline in credit card benefits. I’ve been covering the credit card industry since 2008, and writing about benefits was always easy, as travel insurance and shopping protections were rarely added or subtracted from existing products. But in a trend that stretches back to 2018, major card issuer like Citi, Discover, Barclays and Chase have made major changes to their benefits package. In fact, many premium credit cards no longer come with rental car insurance, which had been ubiquitous on cards at all price levels.
What I think is happening is that the industry is re-evaluating long-standing assumptions about benefits and cardholder behavior. Some benefits are being cut because they aren’t used, and some are being cut because they are being used too much, and are hurting profits. I think it will take a year or two until card issuers better understand consumer behavior and a new equilibrium is reached.
Dave Grossman - Runs the MilesTalk.com miles and points community
2019 has been a great year for users of rewards credit cards. Remember, late 2018 marked the beginning of American Express starting to take on Chase full-force by refreshing the American Express Gold card, offering not just a snazzy "Rose Gold" color, but 4X points on both groceries and dining. In 2019, Amex made a small but subtle change to improve the Gold Card further by adding non-US restaurants as well, making it a solid choice worldwide. Capital One then came out of nowhere by beginning to offer transferable points on their Venture and Spark products. With 15 airlines and the ability to earn at 2X on everything and then spend 1:1 on travel or 2:1.5 when transferring to airlines, these products got a lot of new attention.
While Citi made the most news for removing popular card benefits and taking a big bite out of their flagship Prestige card by removing the ability to use loyalty program elite benefits on 4th night free stays, they surprised everyone by beginning to allow users of the Double Cash card to convert accrued cash back, earned at 2%, straight into Thank You points, making it an easy way to earn 2X ThankYou points on everything, uncapped.
2019 was an exciting year indeed. I can't wait to see what 2020 brings!
Sara Rathner - NerdWallet's travel and credit card expert
Whenever Apple creates a new product, it gets everyone’s attention, and this year’s launch of the Apple Card is certainly no exception. It caused a lot of consumer excitement, but has also drawn its fair share of scrutiny, first because of its lackluster rewards, and more recently because of allegations of bias in the application process.
Still, the way the Apple Card functions, from application to use, definitely paves the way for how other credit card companies will operate in the future. Consumers rely on their phones for pretty much everything, so a mobile application process and digital card make a lot of sense, even though American consumers have been a bit slower to adopt digital wallets compared to consumers in other countries. Also, Daily Cash and the immediate availability of the card upon approval speak to younger consumers’ desire for instant gratification. Why wait more than a week for a new card, or until the end of a billing cycle to get your cash back?
Reviews of the Apple Card are mixed, but combining some of its features with a card that offers a generous sign-up bonus and more robust ongoing rewards would be huge.
Eric Rosenberg - Finance, travel and tech writer at Personal Profitability
The credit card story with the biggest impact for 2019 and beyond was a cascade of benefits changes from major credit card companies. While it may not have received many headlines, Citi removed most travel and purchase benefits from its cards this year, and it was a big signal from Citi about what it thinks its customers want and what it's willing to spend to keep customers at Citi. Apparently Citi doesn't think credit card benefits are very important, but I would disagree.
Some other credit card companies had mixed changes to benefits. American Express announced changes to benefits on a handful of cards including added trip delay insurance and, my favorite travel coverage, trip cancellation and interruption insurance. But it cut its extended warranty and purchase protection benefits and removed roadside assistance and travel accident insurance. This puts Amex and Chase jockeying for the best benefits around. If you have cards with Citi or American Express, or plan to get new ones, make sure to pay attention to the benefits and any recent or upcoming changes.