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Credit Cards That Get You Elite-Like Airline Benefits

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Maybe you failed to qualify for your airline’s elite status this year? Or perhaps you occasionally need to travel on carriers that you don’t hold elite status with? Don’t worry; TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Jason Steele is here to show you how the right credit card can offer you many of the same benefits that come along elite status.

I’m a very frequent traveler who hasn’t held elite status in years — instead, I use credit cards to replicate just about every elite status perk offered. So in today’s post, I want to run through the top credit cards that can offer you elite-like benefits so you can enjoy the conveniences of being elite without spending the time and money chasing status.

ALASKA AIRLINES

Earn a companion fare each year with the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card.
Earn a companion fare each year with the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card.

Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card

This card offers a first free checked bag for the primary cardholder and up to six companions traveling on the same ticket. While this isn’t as generous as the two free checked bags given to Alaska’s elites, it’s a step in the right direction. Plus, Alaska Airlines offers an even more valuable perk: a free coach companion fare (from $121, including taxes and fees) each cardmembership year. There’s a $75 annual fee for this card.

AMERICAN AIRLINES

Enjoy a free checked bag, priority boarding and more benefits with American co-branded credit cards from Amex and Barclaycard.
Enjoy a free checked bag, priority boarding and more with American co-branded credit cards from Amex, Barclaycard and Citi.

American Airlines Aviator Cards from Barclaycard

American offers Aviator cards through Barclaycard (formerly co-branded with US Airways) but they’re no longer open for applications. The Aviator Red and the Aviator Business offer a free checked bag to the primary cardholder and four companions, while the Aviator Silver offers the first bag free for up to eight companions. The Red, Silver and Business cards also offer priority boarding. For more information on the Barclaycard Aviator cards and the Citi AAdvantage cards, read Richard Kerr’s post, Choosing the Best Card for American Airlines Flyers.

Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite MasterCard and CitiBusiness / AAdvantage Platinum Select World MasterCard

These cards both offer one free checked bag on domestic itineraries for the primary cardholder and up to four others traveling on the same itinerary. Cardholders also receive group 1 priority boarding on domestic American Airlines flights. There’s a $95 annual fee for these cards that’s waived the first year, and no foreign transaction fees.

Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard

This card’s free checked-baggage benefit extends to the primary cardholder and up to eight others traveling on the same domestic reservation, and it also includes priority boarding. In addition, cardholders receive priority check-in and airport screening, where available. However, the biggest benefit is an Admiral’s Club lounge membership that includes the primary cardholder and his or her immediate family or two guests. There’s a $450 annual fee for this card, and no foreign transaction fees.

DELTA

You can earn Medallion Qualifying Miles (MQMs) toward status with select Delta credit cards.
You can earn Medallion Qualifying Miles (MQMs) toward status with select Delta credit cards.

Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express

One of the best benefits of being a Delta Medallion elite is getting checked-baggage fee waivers. This card offers a free checked bag for the primary cardholder and up to nine others traveling on the same itinerary. In addition, the Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card offers you priority boarding, and while it doesn’t include a Sky Club lounge membership (a Diamond Medallion benefit), it does feature reduced-price admission ($29 per person) for you and two guests. There’s a $95 annual fee for this card that is waived the first year, and no foreign transaction fees.

Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card 

This card offers the same benefits as the Gold Delta SkyMiles Card, including a free checked bag, priority boarding and reduced-fee admission to the Sky Club. Additionally, it includes an annual domestic economy-class companion certificate upon cardmembership renewal, and you can earn 5,000 Medallion Qualifying Miles (MQMs) after spending $1,000 on the card in the first three months. There’s a $195 annual fee and no foreign transaction fees.

Delta Reserve Credit Card from American Express

This card offers all the perks of the Gold and Platinum SkyMiles cards, but also features priority access at security checkpoints where available. In addition, it includes a Sky Club membership that’s valid for the primary cardholder, and discounted access for up to two guests. Other benefits include an annual domestic companion certificate valid for first-class and economy flights, upgrade priority over other elites in the same Medallion tier and 10,000 MQMs (and 10,000 bonus miles) after your first purchase. There’s a $450 annual fee and no foreign transaction fees.

HAWAIIAN AIRLINES

Hawaiian Airlines is adding flights to Asia. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Hawaiian Airlines is adding flights to Asia. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Hawaiian Airlines World Elite MasterCard

Holders of this card receive a free checked bag (travel companions aren’t included). The card comes with an $89 annual fee.

UNITED

Chase offers a handful of credit cards that include United benefits.
Chase offers a handful of credit cards that include United benefits.

United MileagePlus Explorer Card and United MileagePlus Explorer Business Card

These cards both offer a free checked bag for the primary cardholder and one companion traveling on the same reservation, and two United Club lounge day passes each year. Cardholders also enjoy priority boarding privileges for all travelers on their reservation, and just like United Premier elites, cardholders have access to any unsold seat as an award, albeit at the MileagePlus standard award level. Cardholders even receive additional Saver level award space for domestic flights, which is a published benefit for Premier elites, but an unpublished benefit of this card. There’s a $95 annual fee for these cards that’s waived the first year, and no foreign transaction fees.

United MileagePlus Club Card

This card probably offers more elite-like benefits than any other card. First, cardholders receive two free checked bags for themselves and a companion. In comparison, MileagePlus Premier Silver elites only receive one free checked bag for themselves, while Gold elites receive two free checked bags. Cardholders also receive priority check-in, security screening (where available), boarding and baggage handling. Cardholders also receive a waiver of the $75 charge for close-in award booking, which is offered to all Premier elites. And like the United Explorer cards, you can expect to receive the unpublished benefit of additional Saver award space in economy class. There is a $450 annual fee for this card and no foreign transaction fees.

VIRGIN AMERICA

Virgin America will offer double Elevate points until November 19.
Virgin America will offer double Elevate points until November 19.

Virgin America Visa Signature Card and Virgin America Premium Visa Signature Card 

These cards offer customers a single free checked bag for themselves and a single companion when they book a flight with either card. In addition, the Premium version includes priority boarding and a waiver of change and cancellation fees for refundable Virgin America flights. There’s a $49 annual fee for the standard card and a $149 fee for the Premium version.

OTHER TIPS FOR ENJOYING ELITE-LIKE TRAVEL BENEFITS

1. Get Global Entry, PreCheck and/or CLEAR — While elite status will often let you skip the line for standard TSA screening, you can enjoy both a shorter line and a much less intrusive experience by signing up for Global Entry, which includes TSA PreCheck. Thankfully, there are several credit cards that offer a $100 credit toward the Global Entry application fee, such as the Platinum Card from American Express, Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard and Citi Prestige. For more information, read Richard Kerr’s post, How to Get a $100 Global Entry Application Fee Credit. You can also combine your PreCheck access with expedited verification of identity using the CLEAR program (where available) to receive the ultimate in priority screening.

2. Buy elite-like benefits a la carte — Some airlines offer elite status benefits for a fee. For example, United allows you to purchase Premier Access on a flight-by-flight basis. You can be reimbursed for these and other fees using credit cards that offer credits for airline incidentals. In addition, you can pay for these charges using miles from your Capital One Venture Rewards Card or Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard.

3. Book business and first-class awards — Other than a chance to be upgraded, having elite status is mostly a series of benefits that simulate the experience of having a reservation in a premium class of service. But if you hold a ticket in business or first class, there are very few, if any, additional benefits to holding elite status. Redeeming awards in business or first class usually costs about twice the miles as economy class, and often less. In contrast, paying for a business or first-class ticket often costs several times the price of lowest economy-class fare. Plus, travelers often receive buy-up offers at check-in for a much more reasonable price. For more ideas, read my post on Strategies for Travel Without Airline Elite Status.

What’s your favorite card that offers elite-like airline perks? Share in the comments below!

Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ MasterCard®

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  • Earn 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles after spending $5,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening*
  • Admirals Club® membership for you with guest privileges*
  • Complimentary Admirals Club® lounge access for authorized users
  • Earn 10,000 AAdvantage® Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) after you spend $40,000 in purchases within the year*
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases*
  • Earn 2 AAdvantage® miles for every $1 spent on eligible American Airlines purchases and 1 AAdvantage® mile for every $1 spent on other purchases*
  • First checked bag is free on domestic American Airlines itineraries for you and up to eight companions traveling with you on the same reservation*
Intro APR Regular APR Annual Fee Foreign Transaction Fee Credit Rating
N/A 15.49% (Variable) $450 0% Excellent Credit