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Airline credit cards are among the most rewarding travel credit cards available. In addition to allowing you to earn frequent-flier miles you can redeem for award travel, many airline credit cards also offer valuable time- and money-saving benefits. These perks might include free checked bags, priority boarding and even companion travel certificates.
If you have been thinking about applying for an airline credit card, it pays to consider which cards will earn you miles with the airlines you actually fly, but also which ones include perks you will be able to maximize year after year. Whether you are a frequent flier or just an occasional traveler, these are some of the most important benefits to look for in an airline credit card.
A High Welcome Offer
Many airline credit cards provide what are known as welcome offers or sign-up bonuses. These introductory deals are sometimes worth tens of thousands of points or miles that new cardholders can earn by making a certain number of purchases within a set period of time. For example, the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard® from our partner is currently offering new cardholders up to 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage bonus miles after they use their card to make $2,500 in eligible purchases during their first 3 months with the card. That is usually enough miles for two round-trip tickets on a domestic economy flight within the contiguous U.S. (plus taxes and fees), or nearly enough to fly to Europe one-way in business class.
Some airline credit cards also waive their annual fees for the first year. To use the same example, the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard® has a $99 annual fee, but it is currently waived for 12 months. That means new cardholders can open an account and enjoy the card and its benefits for the first year without having to pay an annual fee to do so.
In general, look for the most generous welcome offer you'd be able to meet without having to spend more than you already do. That means not stretching your finances to meet the spending requirement by making purchases you would not under other circumstances. If you do build up a balance, try to pay it off on time and in full every month. Otherwise, you might incur interest payments and late fees that wipe out any value you receive from the miles you earn with your new card.
Bonus Earning Categories
Many airline credit cards earn 1 mile or point per dollar on most everyday purchases. However, a lot of them now earn multiple points or miles per dollar both on airfare with the partner airline and on purchases in specific merchant categories, such as grocery stores or gas stations. For instance, the United℠ Explorer Card earns 1 United MileagePlus mile per dollar on most purchases, but earns 2 miles per dollar on selected United purchases (including tickets, but also things like in-flight food and beverages), at restaurants and on hotel accommodations purchased directly with the hotel. Look for an airline credit card that offers bonus opportunities on the kinds of things you tend to spend the most money on to supercharge your earning even more.
Some airline credit cards reward you for hanging on to your card (and paying the annual fee) each year with things like bonus miles or companion travel certificates. Perks like these can be worth hundreds of dollars and make it worthwhile to keep a card year after year. Every year after their account anniversary, the JetBlue Plus Card rewards cardholders with both 5,000 bonus points and a $100 statement credit after purchasing a JetBlue Vacations Package of $100 or more. For its part, upon renewal, the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card gives cardholders a companion certificate to use toward one domestic round-trip itinerary in Main Cabin (plus taxes) each year. Terms apply.
Many airline credit cards advertise day-of-travel perks that can add up to hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars in value each year depending on how often you use them. For example, the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card allows cardholders to check a bag for themselves and up to eight companions on the same reservation when traveling on Delta, which is worth $30 per bag in each direction. If you maxed it out with nine people on a round-trip reservation, that would equal $540 in value. Plus, cardholders and up to eight companions on the same reservation receive priority boarding in the Main Cabin 1 group on Delta flights ahead of many other travelers in coach. Finally, cardholders receive 20% back in the form of a statement credit for eligible Delta in-flight purchases of food, beverages and audio headsets. Depending on how much you buy on board, this can save you a lot of money. Terms apply.
At the higher end (and with much higher annual fees), several airlines offer credit cards whose benefits include access or membership to their airport lounges. Folks with the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard® from our partner get Admirals Club membership and can bring their immediate family or up to two guests in with them when flying on an eligible same-day flight. For its part, the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card gets cardholders into Delta's Sky Clubs and American Express Centurion Lounges when traveling on a same-day Delta-marketed or Delta-operated flight.
Some cards offer a perk that's not specific to their partner airline, but is still worth exploring. The UnitedSM Explorer Card and the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card, for example, offer cardholders a statement credit worth up to $100 for either a Global Entry or TSA Precheck application fee every four years (4.5 years for TSA Precheck with the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card). Participating in either program can save you precious time at the airport by allowing you to access expedited security screening lanes and, in the case of Global Entry, faster processing at customs and immigration when entering the U.S.
Travel Protections and Savings
If you are a frequent international traveler, try to pick an airline credit card that waives foreign transaction fees. These pesky charges usually amount to between 1% to 3% of any charges you make while abroad and can really add up over the course of a trip. Among the airline cards that waive foreign transaction fees are the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard® and the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card.
Beyond simply saving you money, though, some of the best airline credit cards offer comprehensive protections when you use them to pay for a trip. Among the best of them, the United℠ Explorer Card includes lost luggage reimbursement of up to $3,000 per passenger if your bag is lost or stolen, and baggage delay coverage of up to $100 per day for three days if your bag is delayed six hours or more and you have to purchase essential things like replacement clothing or toiletries. Even more impressive, the card offers reimbursement of up to $1,500 per person and $6,000 per trip on non-refundable, prepaid fare costs if you have to cancel or interrupt your plans due to covered situations like sickness or injury. It also offers primary insurance on rental cars, so you don't have to purchase a policy through the rental agency or rely on your own personal car insurance to cover you when things go wrong on the road.
Find the Right Airline Card for You
Airline credit cards are great for racking up frequent-flier miles to redeem for award tickets. But many come with other great value-added perks like free checked bags, priority boarding and travel protections that can save you time, money and hassles both up in the air and on the ground. If you are thinking about opening an airline credit card, make sure you get one with a welcome offer and earning potential that fits your spending habits, and with travel benefits you will be able to maximize on an airline you fly frequently. For more information on travel credit cards and to see current offers, you can pull up personalized options through Experian CreditMatchTM.
All information about the United℠ Explorer Card has been collected independently by Experian and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card.