Favorite Airline Credit Card Perks

Before I got a co-branded airline card (the Citi Platinum Select/AAdvantage World MasterCard) several months ago, I avoided this type of credit card. The concept of “loyalty” (faithfully giving your money to one company because you have less of an incentive to shop around) just didn’t mesh with my bargain-hunting tendencies.

Yet, after living in an American Airlines hub for a few years, I felt foolish for not getting double miles when buying my tickets — especially my expensive tickets home for the holidays. Plus, the 30,000 miles American was offering as a sign-up bonus at the time gave my rewards balance a nice boost.

One thing has surprised me, though: While the extra miles are the reason I justified getting the card, it’s the travel comforts that now have me attached: The free checked bags, the early boarding and the rental car coverage. Travel has become so unpleasant these days that paltry pleasures count for a lot: The ability to avoid cramming two weeks of clothes into a tiny carry-on, for example. Or the opportunity to board the plane before the aisles become choked with people ready to duke it out for overhead space. Or the power to say “No thanks, I’m covered ” before the agent at the rental car counter can launch into the insurance sales pitch.airline credit card

In a way, I guess I’ve been bribed by the airline. Over the past several years, carriers have been nickel-and-diming passengers for travel comforts, from checked bags to early boarding — and signing up for a co-branded airline credit card is one way to get them back. I know I’ve been tricked into loyalty by assigning value to things that used to be free, but I don’t think I can ever go back to the way things were.

Thinking of signing up for an airline card to make flying less awful? Although the travel perks offered vary widely by card and issuer, here are some of the benefits that you can expect. You can also compare cards using our chart below.

The sign-up bonus

This isn’t a travel-related perk, per se, as it doesn’t make flying any less unpleasant. However, because it’s the thing that gets a lot of people to add a new card to their wallets, it’s worth mentioning up front. With co-branded airline cards, you can expect anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 miles or points, typically after reaching a certain spending threshold in the first few months after opening the card. Yet if you have good enough credit, you might be eligible for a targeted offer of as many as 100,000 miles. Such mega-promotions can be tough to snag, however. Not only do you need excellent credit to qualify, but the minimum spending thresholds can be quite high.

Free bags

This perk is pretty much a given across the board, with everything from the Gold Delta SkyMiles card ($95 annual fee) to the United MileagePlus Club card ($395 annual fee) offering it. A couple of the bargain cards (the Citi Gold AAdvantage card and the regular Delta SkyMiles card, for example) don’t offer this perk, but your annual fee will be lower ($50 for the Citi Gold AAdvantage and $55 for the Delta SkyMiles). A notable exception is the Rapid Rewards Premier card, though, since Southwest Airlines doesn’t charge fees for the first two checked bags. US Airways also does not offer the perk on its cards, even though it does charge for the first bag.

For the most part, only your first checked bag gets a free ride, but some airline cards throw in a second bag. Some let only one traveling companion to check a bag for free, while some allow several of your travel buddies to do so. It’s all about the fine print. Check out the difference in the baggage perks for the Citi Executive/AAdvantage World Elite MasterCard and the similarly priced United MileagePlus Club card:

Citi Executive/AAdvantage World Elite MasterCard:

American Airlines free checked bags

United MileagePlus Club card:

United club card free checked bags

Early boarding

Like free bags, this is a pretty common perk. Here’s the catch: Airlines all speak different languages when it comes to “early boarding” — and that can make it hard to compare this benefit.

For example, Delta gives you Zone 1 boarding if you book the flight with its Gold card, while the United MileagePlus Explorer card gives you Group 2. However, they both amount to the same thing: You get to board with some of the lower-level frequent fliers and before general boarding.

Rental car coverage and other travel insurance coverage

This is another common benefit, and travel-related cards will offer you anything from rental car insurance, to lost baggage coverage, to trip delay coverage. This is a category where you really need to check the fine print. When it comes to rental car insurance, for example, there’s a big difference between “secondary” and “primary” coverage. Secondary coverage kicks in only after your regular car insurance pays out, while primary coverage kicks in before (meaning your regular auto insurance provider doesn’t need to get involved). Another way of referring to “secondary coverage” is “coverage in excess of” other insurance — see the Citi Platinum Select AAdvantage card’s terms and conditions, for example:

rental car insurance

Lounge access

Free Wi-Fi, comfy chairs and snacks can make a long layover tolerable. However, free access to the airline’s lounges is generally available only to those who spring for the cards with high annual fees — we’re talking your United MileagePlus Club cards, your Citi Executive cards and your Delta Reserve cards. All offer complimentary access, and all cost around $400. Still, if you have a less-swanky card, you might still get in. United’s MileagePlus Explorer card gives you two free passes each year.

Speaking of lounge access, you might ask, why not get the AmEx Platinum, which gives access to the Delta Sky Club, American’s Admirals Club and US Airways Club lounges? Its annual fee is $450, roughly the same price as the airline cards that give access only to their own lounges. Well, as you may have heard, American and US Airways (and their lounges) have merged. And AmEx Platinum cardholders haven’t been invited to the party — their free access to the Admirals Club and US Airways Club will end on March 22, 2014.

Here’s the promised chart comparing perks across popular airline cards. Keep in mind that you have to use the card to book the flight in order to get the travel benefits. For all these perks, check the fine print — and know that they’re subject to change.

Compare airline rewards card travel perks
(From CreditCardForum advertising partners)
BaggageBoardingLoungeAnnual feeSign-up bonus
Gold Delta SkyMilesFirst bag for cardholder and
8 companions
Zone 1Day pass for $25Enjoy a $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95.Limited Time Offer: Earn 60,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card within your first 4 months. Offer expires on 7/5/2017. See rates & fees.
British Airways Visa Signature (This offer is temporarily unavailable on CreditCardForum. The following information is for reference only)N/A (*1 bag flies free with economy ticket on most British Airways routes)N/AN/A$9550,000 Avios after spending $2,000 in first 3 months
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A couple of slight errors here:

Delta’s Zone 1 isn’t technically part of general boarding. It is reserved for Skymiles Silver Medallions, those who have the Gold, Platinum and Reserve Delta Amex, or those who purchased priority boarding. Zone 1 boards in the Sky Priority lane, as well.

Southwest uses a point system, rather than miles.

It might also be worth noting that all Delta cards give a 20% statement credit for onboard purchases (excluding gogo wifi), and also that the Reserve card only offers free lounge access if you’re traveling with Delta.

Forest, thanks so much for calling our attention to those details! We’ve updated the story accordingly. Thanks for looking out.