Ask an Expert: Which Airline Credit Cards Offer the Best Loyalty Perks?

Figure out which perks are most important to you before you decide which airline-branded credit card should reside in your wallet.

Ask an Expert: Which Airline Credit Cards Offer the Best Loyalty Perks? Photo (cc) by cliff1066™

This post comes from Jason Bushey, who writes about personal finance and credit cards daily on Creditnet.

I recently received this question from a Money Talks News reader:

I’m trying to decide which airline card is best for me. I don’t currently have a brand that I’m 100 percent loyal to, though one of the most important things I’m considering are the loyalty perks associated with airline credit cards. Can you tell me which airline credit cards offer the best loyalty privileges? — Anthony K.

My response

Anthony poses a great question. Airline credit cards associated with one specific airline have their pros and cons. The biggest drawback is that they relegate rewards and bonus miles to one specific airline, which limits the number of flights you can earn miles on. The biggest benefits associated with these cards are without a doubt the bonus miles opportunities, in-flight perks and airport privileges these cards offer.

Bonus miles

Bonus miles offer two incentives for consumers:

  • To get them to apply for a specific airline card.
  • To encourage them to use it aggressively in the first months of card membership.

Currently, the airline card that combines the most bonus miles with the easiest spending threshold to obtain those miles is the US Airways Premier World MasterCard. This card includes 30,000 bonus miles after a cardholder’s first purchase, and another 10,000 bonus miles when a cardholder transfers a balance within 90 days of account opening (a good idea for cardholders carrying an existing balance, considering that the 0 percent introductory period applied to balance transfers on this card is 15 billing cycles).

This isn’t the biggest bonus miles offer on the market. That distinction goes to the British Airways Visa Signature Card, which offers 50,000 Avios points after $1,000 in purchases within the first three months of account opening. But it’s the easiest bonus to obtain, with the least amount of cardholder spending.

Airport perks

Next, there are the loyalty perks that begin before you even get on the plane. Several airline credit cards waive the fee for the first checked bag each way for a cardholder and any other passengers included on their reservation. Considering that the average fee for the first checked bag is $25, free checked bags can lead to serious savings.

For instance, the Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express offers cardholders who purchase their tickets directly from Delta up to nine free checked-bag waivers per round-trip flight. So not only can the cardholder save up to $50 per round trip on checked bags, so can other passengers included under the reservation. This is the best offer of any cards that offer free checked bags for cardholders.

Another loyalty perk that’s less common but certainly attractive for frequent fliers is airport lounge access. If you’ve ever wanted to know what goes on beyond those exclusive lounge doors, a co-branded airline card could be your ticket – even if just once or twice a year.

The best offer related to limited lounge access comes from the Chase United MileagePlus Explorer Credit Card, which includes two complimentary passes to the United Club per year. It’s probably not enough to sway consumers like Anthony one way or the other, but it is a nice bonus for those interested in killing time before a flight with a little lounge luxury.

Finally, there are priority boarding privileges. This is a staple of many airline credit cards, and gives loyal cardholders the opportunity to get on the airplane ahead of the masses. Numerous cards, including each of the aforementioned airline credit cards, include priority boarding for cardholders.

In-flight perks

In-flight loyalty benefits are another incentive for consumers to spend with their airline-branded credit card. For example, the Citi Platinum Select AAdvantage World MasterCard offers 25 percent in savings (in the form of statement credits) on eligible in-flight purchases, which include food, beverages and headset purchases.

This perk is less common but it’s one that motivates cardholders to get a little more comfy on their flight while using their card to earn miles for another trip down the line.

In conclusion

The first catch with airline-branded credit cards is that they often require an annual fee (though many choose to waive this fee the first year). The second catch is that these cards are generally reserved for consumers with good to excellent credit, so becoming a loyalty member isn’t available for everyone.

The cards we described above offer some of the best loyalty perks, although they’re certainly not the only available options for frequent fliers with good credit. My advice to consumers like Anthony is to determine which loyalty benefits are most important to them, ignore the ones that are not, and make sure that the card you apply for will help you save money in the long run.

Note: While we attempt to be completely objective when reporting on credit cards, this site may be compensated by issuers when a reader applies for a credit card through the links within credit card stories or on our credit card search page. Also note that any terms, rates or other features described in this article can change without notice. Always double-check everything with the issuer before applying for any credit card.

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