Rewards cards aren't just for earning cash and travel rewards anymore. Now, they've transformed into VIP passes, granting cardholders access to a wide variety of events, services and exclusive clubs. While some of these cards carry steep annual fees, cardholders who take full advantage of the wide variety of perks will find that the cards pay for themselves. Plus, you can't really put a price on feeling like a VIP, can you?
Here are a few of the cards that let you cut lines, get behind the velvet rope and experience things that non-cardholders can only dream of.
The Platinum Lifestyle: American Express Platinum Card
"When it comes to that type of thing, the one that has the best benefits is the AmEx Platinum Card," says Erik Larson of NextAdvisor.com, which reviews credit cards and other products and services.
The card has annual fee of $450, which the average consumers will likely balk at. But for frequent travelers, it can go a long way toward paying for itself. The card provides you with $200 a year to spend on airline fees ranging from checked bags to in-flight meals and drinks. It also grants you and your traveling companions complimentary access to the airport lounges of American Airlines, US Airways and Delta, which normally costs around $50 a visit.
Beyond the airport, there's also the Platinum Dining program, which can score you a reservation at a number of fine dining establishments that usually have long waiting lists. And you can also get access to a number of "By Invitation Only" events, including an Aston Martin driving experience at the Monticello Auto Club.
Meet the Mets: Citi ThankYou Cards
Citi already provides access to thousands of events through its Private Pass program, which grants cardholders pre-sale opportunities for select events. But the Citi ThankYou cards, which provide double rewards for restaurants and entertainment, take it to the next level. There's that Seinfeld performance later this month, and earlier this summer there was a youth baseball clinic with New York Mets third baseman David Wright. And there are upcoming events in Chicago and California.
The ThankYou and ThankYou Preferred cards have no annual fees. The Prestige Card, which is Citi's answer to the American Express Platinum Card, has a $400 annual fee. But like the AmEx Platinum card, it provides $200 for airline fees and access to airline lounges.
Citi isn't the only card offering these sorts of exclusive events to cardholders. MasterCard has its "Priceless Cities" program, which gets you early or exclusive access to events in select cities around the world (including Miami, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles here in the US).
Cut the Line: United MileagePlus
There are a lot of unpleasant things about air travel. Case in point: standing in the aisle while your fellow passengers try to cram their suitcases into the overhead compartment.
The United MileagePlus card lets you skip that unpleasant experience by providing complimentary priority boarding when you fly United. You'll get to board after the first-class and elite passengers, but before everyone else sitting in coach. In addition, you'll be able to check your first bag for free, and you'll get two complimentary passes to the United Club to use each year when you travel.
The MileagePlus Explorer card has a $0 introductory annual fee, and $95 after that. "It's certainly going to pay for itself if you fly the airline more than a couple times a year," says Larson.
The more high-end MileagePlus Club Card has a $395 annual fee, but carries more benefits -- you get unlimited access to the United Club whenever you travel and you can check first and second bags for free, among other travel benefits.
"The cheapest credit cards don't always make the most sense," he says.
A Signature Experience: Visa Signature Cards
Oh, it's not enough for you to cut the line when you're boarding the plane? Well, if you have a Visa Signature card, you can cut a lot of the people waiting in the security line, too.
The Signature family of cards gives you free access to CLEAR, a new program that lets you bypass the masses waiting in line for the TSA security check. It doesn't let you skip the security check altogether like the TSA PreCheck, but it does mean you can get to the airport later and not have to stand in a long line. CLEAR normally costs $179 a year, but having a Signature card gives you the first six months free; if and when your membership auto-renews to a paid subscription, you can get $60 off the price. Note that it's only available in select cities so far.
Signature has other benefits as well -- you can get access to "Signature Events," like a complimentary wine tasting in Napa Valley, as well as small discounts and free shipping at some retail websites. It also has a "concierge service" that will connect you with someone who can make reservations and recommendations when you travel. But Kelly says that the usefulness of that perk is limited.
"I rarely use them," he says. "It's essentially just someone at a computer with Google."
Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.