Biggest card upgrades and nerfs of 2015

Things change, and that’s especially true of credit cards. Attracting new customers, hanging onto current ones and keeping their own costs down is a balancing act that requires issuers to constantly adjust benefits and rewards.pile of credit cards

If you’re in the market for a card, it can help to look at its recent history to see if it seems to be going downhill, or increasing the value for cardholders. So we tracked 2015’s biggest upgrades and downgrades (often called “nerfs”).

We’ll start with the good news …

Biggest credit card upgrades of 2015

Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express (a CreditCardForum advertising partner) introduces new perks: Yes, this card increased its annual fee by $20 to $195 in the summer of 2015. But the new benefits that came with that fee put this change squarely in upgrade territory. The card added a $100 airline fee credit (which renews each calendar year), started giving double points on dining and eliminated foreign transaction fees.

Discover offers double cash back, new security feature: It’s been a good year for Discover cardholders, thanks to the issuer’s limited-time offer of double cash back for the first year for new cardholders. Discover also added a unique perk called “Freeze It,” which allows you to immediately and temporarily lock your account via an app if you can’t find your card. If you find your missing card in your car 10 minutes later, just use the app to unfreeze it.

Chase Freedom adds real-time redemption app: Instead of letting your rewards pile up while mulling over how to redeem them, Chase started offering an on-the-go way to use rewards this year. If you’re shopping or eating at a partner merchant (the list includes Starbucks, Lowe’s and Best Buy), you can use the app to generate an e-gift card with the rewards you want to redeem and immediately use it a check-out.

Starwood Preferred Guest card adds extra perks: This was another card that increased its annual fee (to $95) this year, but we’re counting this as an upgrade, due to the new perks added. These include waived foreign transaction fees, free in-room premium Internet and complimentary Boingo Wi-Fi membership.

American Express Platinum gives even more status, Wi-Fi perks: This card already gave elite status with Starwood and several rental card companies. It added Hilton HHonors Gold status this year. Perks of Gold status include late check-out, complimentary breakfast at some properties, room upgrades when available and more. As an added benefit, AmEx started extending 10 complimentary passes for Gogo in-flight Wi-Fi in February 2015.

… and now the bad news.

Biggest credit card nerfs of 2015

Barclaycard Arrival devalues rewards: This card downgraded its redemption bonus to 5 percent – in the past, you got 10 percent of your miles back with every redemption. In addition, the card ratcheted up its redemption minimum from 2,500 miles at a time to 10,000 miles at a time. These moves made many cardholders question whether they should keep the $89-per-year card.

American Express announces Membership Rewards program downgrades: Starting Jan. 1, 2016, you won’t be able to transfer your Membership Rewards (MR) points to Best Western anymore. That leaves the MR program with just three hotel transfer partners. Also, as of October 2015, the transfer ratio into British Airways became less favorable. It’s no longer 1:1, but now requires 1.25 MR points for 1 Avios.

Chase removes some ways to earn extra rewards: The 10 percent redemption bonus for Freedom cardholders who also have Chase checking accounts is going away Dec. 31, 2015. Same goes for the extra point per dollar on travel purchased via the Ultimate Rewards site. Chase also removed Amtrak as a transfer option for the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Ink Plus.

Discover nixes some travel protection benefits: The issuer dropped 24/7 travel assistance, baggage delay insurance and emergency roadside assistance from its benefits roster in August 2015. Our take was that this wasn’t a deal-breaker for Discover cardholders, as these benefits were minor and probably under-used, but it could make a difference in which card you use for travel purchases.

U.S. Bank Cash+ limits redemption bonus: This card has made several downgrades in the past few years, and, in 2015, it downgraded the redemption bonus. Before April 2015, cardholders could get a $25 cash bonus when redeeming at least $100 once per year. Now, that bonus is limited to once per lifetime of the account.

Should nerfs and upgrades influence your card choice?

Card rewards terms and benefits are subject to change at any time. So, even if you didn’t see your card on this list, it’s not guaranteed that its terms will remain static.

It’s also worth weighing whether a downgrade or upgrade hits a benefit you’ll actually use. If you’re using the card primarily for rewards, pay particular attention to any changes that affect the value of your miles and points.

Whenever a card changes its terms for the worse, consider it an opportunity to comparison shop – you may find another rewards card that better fits your needs.

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