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Update: The offer mentioned below for the Platinum Card from American Express has expired. View the current offer here.
You don’t have to be a super frequent flyer to get special treatment from the airlines. These days most major airlines are partnered with a credit card company and if you are one of their flyers/cardholders, you can reap special benefits that make your travel experience markedly more enjoyable and your experience earning and redeeming miles more lucrative. Here are the top ten perks you can enjoy courtesy of having an airline credit card:
1. Discounted Awards: Several airline credit cards allow their cardholders to redeem fewer miles for certain awards. Citi’s consumer (as opposed to business or corporate) American Airlines AAdvantage cards give members a 10% refund of their redeemed AAdvantage miles up to 10,000miles each year. In addition, American offers discounted award levels to their cardholders, who can book reduced-price awards within the 48 contiguous United States and Canada on American for 7,500 less than the airline normally charges. The destinations vary each quarter. Here are the details for fourth quarter awards which are valid for round trip travel from the U.S for travel from October 1, 2012, through December 31, 2012. U.S. Airways also offers award tickets with a 5,000-mile discount to US Airways Mastercard cardholders.
2. Companion Tickets: One of the most valuable benefits are companion tickets, whether free or discounted, you can save quite a bit. For instance, one of the main benefits of the British Airways Visa is the “Travel Together”companion ticket you get when you spend $30,000 within a calendar year. Delta Reserve Card cardholders receive a free Reserve Companion Certificate that entitles them to bring along a travel companion on a roundtrip first/business or economy companion ticket with the purchase of an adult roundtrip fare on published domestic routings within the 48 contiguous United States. Delta Platinum Amex cardholders also receive a complimentary companion ticket, however only in economy class. The Alaska Airlines Visa Signature provides a $99 companion fare (plus taxes, usually putting the total at around $110) within 1-2 weeks of their initial approval and then on every subsequent anniversary of card membership. The US Airways Premier World MasterCard provides the primary cardmember two $99 companion tickets each year for round-trip coach travel within and between the contiguous U.S. and Canada. With the Virgin America Visa, each year, the primary cardmember is eligible to receive a $150 Virgin America Companion Ticket Discount Code.
3. Free Checked Bags: Remember the good old days when you could check one or even two bags per person? Generally that’s not the case anymore- at least not domestically (unless you fly Southwest or JetBlue!). Paying for checked luggage is a fact of flying these days, and can get downright expensive. Elite status can often get you a free checked bag, but if you’re not a frequent flyer on a particular airline, there are several cards that offer the first checked bag for free and this benefit is usually extended to multiple companions in the same reservation as well. For instance, on Delta, the Delta Gold Amex, Delta Platinum Amex, and Delta Reserve Card allow cardmembers to check their first bag for free on all Delta and Delta Connection flights and the benefit applies to up to 9 people traveling in the cardmember’s reservation. Having the United Explorer means your first checked bag is free for you and a companion when you fly United, and if you opt for the United Club Card, you get two free checked bags each time. Among other cards, the Citi Platinum Select AAdvantage provides a free checked bag on American Airlines for the cardholder and up to four travel companions.
4. Priority Check-In and Boarding: While having elite status also confers both these benefits, many airline credit cards also offer priority check-in and boarding which can help expedite your time while on the ground. On United, the United Explorer offers priority boarding, while the United Club Card offers all of United’s Premier Access benefits including priority check-in, security, boarding and even baggage handling. On Delta, all the Delta American Express cards offer the cardmember and their travel companions priority boarding in Zone 1. On US Airways, the US Airways Mastercard offers Zone 2 boarding privileges, and on American, the Citi Platinum Select AAdvantage allows priority boarding on all flights. With flights being as packed as ever and overhead space at a premium, airlines are becoming more aggressive when it comes to gate checking bags especially in the later zones as the overhead bins get filled, so having one of these cards can ensure you won’t be stuck putting your bag at the back of the plane or having to gate-check it.
5. Spending Bonuses on the Airline: A common benefit of most airline cards is the ability to earn multiple miles when using them to purchase tickets on their co-branded airline. On American, all their cards including the the Citi Platinum Select AAdvantage offer 2 AAdvantage miles for every dollar you spend on eligible American Airlines purchases. Delta offers 2 miles per dollar on all Delta purchases when you use one of the Delta American Express cards. United and U.S. Airways also offer double miles when using any of their cards. The Virgin America Visa, the Virgin Atlantic Amex and the Alaska Airlines Visa each earn 3 points per dollar spent on their respective airlines. The British Airways Visa earns 2.5 Avios per dollar spent on BA, and the Southwest Plus Visa earns 2 miles per dollar spent on Southwest. However, while at first glance, this may seem like a great way to rack up the miles, the only reason I might not use an airline card to book to earn double or even triple miles is, if you have the Amex Premier Rewards Gold card you earn triple points on all airfare, and then you can transfer those American Express Membership Rewards points to any of 17 airline partners. I might also consider using the Chase Sapphire Preferred, which awards 2 points per dollar spent on travel, including airfare, and which I could then transfer to my choice of British Airways, United, Southwest or Korean Air.
Update: Beginning March 22, 2014, American Express Card Members will no longer have access to American Airlines Admiral Club and US Airways Club airport lounges through Airport Club Access / Airport Lounge Program. This means that Card Members will no longer be able to gain complimentary access to the American Airlines airport lounges (known as Admirals Club lounges) or the US Airways Club airport lounges as a benefit of their Platinum Card Membership.
6. Lounge Access: Some airline credit cards offer full lounge access benefits while others offer discounted access for cardholders. On Delta, the Delta Reserve Card allows complimentary full access to Delta’s Sky Club’s whereas the Delta Gold Amex and Delta Platinum Amex offer discounted access for $25 (instead of $50) per entrance. On United, United Club Card allows cardholders and a travel companion receive membership to the United Club, and access to the airline’s 50+ lounges, as well as affiliated Star Alliance member lounges around the world. The United Explorer offers two passes for cardholders each year. With American, the Citi Executive AAdvantage Card provides full Admirals Club membership privileges for the cardholder and immediate family or up two travel companions. However, when it comes to lounge access, my personal favorite is the American Express Platinum since it get me access to all the Delta Sky Clubs, American Admiral Clubs, U.S. Airways Lounges and a over 400 independent lounges with Priority Pass including the Alaska Airlines Board Rooms.
7. Elite Status for Spending Thresholds: While most cards don’t offer elite status outright, depending on spending, you can earn most if not all the required elite miles to attain elite status. The Delta Reserve card comes with 10,000 Medallion qualifying miles with the first purchase, and 15,000 MQM’s if a member hits $30,000 in spend within the calendar year – that’s enough for Silver Medallion status on Delta – plus an additional 15,000 MQM’s if they hit $60,000 in spend during the same calendar year. The Delta Platinum Amex offers 10,000 MQM’s for $25,000 in spend, and another 10,000 MQM’s for $50,000 in spending, for a total of 20,000 MQM’s. On American, the only card that helps toward elite status is the Citi Executive AAdvantage Card which yields 10,000 elite qualifying miles after $40,000 in purchases each calendar year – just under halfway to Gold status. The US Airways Mastercard offers 10,000 Preferred Qualifying Miles after cardmembers hit $25,000 in spending each year, almost halfway to silver status.
8. Upgrade Benefits: Complimentary elite upgrades can be harder and harder to come by, even with top-tier status these days. On Delta, the upgrade order is ranked by elite status such as Silver, Gold, Platinum, or Diamond Medallion then by fare class. For example, let’s say there are 5 Diamond Medallions on the flight all in T (the lowest paid) fare class, who gets the upgrade? While normally, it would go by date of purchase, but anyone holding the Delta Reserve would get the upgrade before non Reserve cardholders within their fare class before the date of purchase factor comes into play. So while, not a substantial benefit, I know I’ve been #1 on the upgrade list after all upgrades cleared, so had I had the Delta Reserve card, there’s a very good chance I would not have missed those upgrades. Delta seems to be the only airline that has a credit card come into play when it comes to upgrade order.
9. On-Board Discounts: While not all the airline cards offer it, Delta and American provide onboard discounts to cardholders. Delta offers Gold, Platinum and Reserve cardholders a 20% credit on their statement when they use their Delta SkyMiles Credit Card to purchase food, alcoholic beverages, movies, TV shows, video games, and audio headsets on Delta-operated flights. American Airlines also offers this perk to their Citi Platinum Select AAdvantage cardmembers, who receive a 25% savings (as a statement credit) on in-flight purchases of food, beverages, and headsets on flights operated by American Airlines when purchased with their card.
10. Cardmember Mileage Bonuses: Another perk with some of the airline credit cards is anniversary mileage bonuses. US Airways Mastercard holders receive a 10,000-mile bonus each year on the account opening anniversary. The Southwest Rapid Rewards Visa is another card that provides an anniversary bonus. The airline offers 3,000 bonus points every year on the cardmember anniversary, which can be redeemed for a $50 Wanna Get Away Fare. The Bank of Hawaii and Bank of America Hawaiian Airlines Visa each offer 2,000 miles on account anniversaries, and the Virgin Atlantic Amex awards cardholders with up to 15,000 bonus miles on every cardmembership anniversary (upon spending $25,000 annually).