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The three legacy US airlines — American, Delta and United — don’t each just have a single co-branded airline credit card. Rather, they offer multiple card options, and in the case of American, even cards from different banks. But each of these airlines has one single top-of-the-line premium card offering exclusive benefits and other perks you won’t find on any other credit card, even non-airline cards.

So which one of these premium airline credit cards is the best? To find out, let’s take a deep dive into all the different aspects of each of these cards, comparing and contrasting them across criteria such as welcome bonuses, earning and redemptions, airline perks, annual fees and all the other benefits. And at the end, we’ll calculate an overall winner for top premium co-branded airline card on the market today.

In case you aren’t familiar with these premium airline cards, here they are in alphabetical order:

Delta Air Lines
Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express

 

United Airlines
United Club Card

 

In This Post

Bonuses

Nothing gets us more excited than a solid credit card welcome bonus, and right now all three of these cards are offering some juicy bonuses. Here’s a breakdown of the value you’ll get from each card, based not purely on the number of points but also on how much those points are worth based on TPG’s most recent monthly valuations.

Welcome Bonus Points Minimum Spend TPG Valuation Total Bonus Value
Delta Reserve 75,000 miles + 5,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) $5,000 in first 3 months  1.2 cents per point  $480 (plus MQMs)
United Club Card 50,000 miles $3,000 in first 3 months 1.5 cents per point  $750

The United Club Card card is the winner when it comes to welcome bonus points. The Delta Reserve comes in third although it comes with 5,000 bonus Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs), which are a little tricky to value. So for the basic non-elite Delta flyer, the value of the welcome bonus puts the Reserve card in third. The information for the United Club Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

1)

United Club Card

2)

Delta Reserve

Annual Fees

While everyone loves welcome bonuses, annual fees are another story. Here’s how these cards stack up against each other, including fees for adding authorized users:

Annual Fee Fee For Authorized Users Authorized User Benefits
Delta Reserve $450 (See Rates & Fees) $175 per user (See Rates & Fees) Delta Sky Club access
United Club Card $450 $0 per user None

All three of these premium co-branded cards have the same $450 annual fee, but the authorized user fees and benefits change things a bit. The United Club Card comes with no extra fee for additional cards, but also provides no extra benefits for those authorized cardholders. The Delta Reserve charges a significant $175 per additional cardmember, but those extra cards come with access to Delta Sky Clubs when you’re traveling on Delta.

1)

Delta Reserve

2)

United Club Card

Earning and Redeeming

lufthansa first class
Use United MileagePlus miles to redeem for high-end partner cabins like Lufthansa first class.

Co-branded airline cards usually aren’t the best choice for everyday purchases, as most of them only earn 2x miles on purchases made with the airline itself, with all other transactions worth only 1 mile per dollar spent. However, in this case, one of these cards is definitely a cut above the others, and that’s the United Club Card, which earns 1.5 miles per dollar on every purchase (and 2x on United purchases).

On top of that, United miles are the most valuable of these two airline currencies — the MileagePlus program has the most partners and is (arguably) the easiest currency of the three to redeem. So with the United Club Card, you’re earning more of the “best” type of miles.

1)

United Club Card

2)

Delta Reserve

Airline Perks

Delta SkyClub I deck
The Delta Sky Club deck at JFK can be accessed with the Delta Reserve card.

This is where these premium cards really shine, as each airline has made an effort to attach exclusive benefits to their top-tier offerings. Here’s a breakdown of the major airline perks on each card:

Delta Reserve

  • Delta Sky Club access
  • 15,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) and 15,000 bonus SkyMiles after $30,000 in purchases in a calendar year
  • Additional 15,000 MQMs and 15,000 bonus SkyMiles after $60,000 in purchases in a calendar year
  • Annual companion certificate valid in domestic first class, Comfort+ or economy
  • Access to Pay With Miles
  • Waiver of Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQD) requirement when spending $25,000 on the card in a calendar year ($250,000 for Diamond waiver starting in 2018)
  • First checked bag free for cardholder and up to 8 companions
  • 20% discount on in-flight purchases
  • Priority airport screening and Zone 1 boarding

United Club Card

  • United Club membership
  • Waived close-in award booking fees
  • Upgrades on domestic award tickets for United elite members
  • Access to additional low-level award space on United flights
  • Waiver of Premier Qualifying Dollars (PQD) requirement when spending $25,000 on the card in a calendar year (not available for Premier 1K status)
  • First and second checked bags free for cardholder and one companion
  • Premier Access including designated check-in lines, priority security lanes, priority boarding and priority baggage handling

It’s not easy to put a value on such a varied range of perks, and in most cases you’ll want to choose the card that aligns with the airline you fly the most. However, we can make a rough valuation of these benefits by breaking them down by category…

Club Benefits: The American and United cards come with actual lounge memberships, versus the Delta card which only gives access to the lounges. That’s a significant difference — with the Delta card you have to be flying on Delta that day to use the lounge, while on the other two you can be flying any airline and still get in. Also, you’ll have to pay for any guests at the Delta Sky Clubs, while both the AA and United card lounge memberships comes with guest access for immediate family members or up to two guests. United’s Club membership also provides access for you and a guest to Star Alliance business class lounges when traveling internationally on a Star Alliance airline in any class of service. That extra perk pushes United’s lounge benefit into first place.

United Club LAX Review
Bring family members or up to two guests into the United Club at LAX with the United Club Card.

Elite Status: The United card comes with the same standard PQD waiver as the lower-fee United MileagePlus Explorer Card, as does the Delta Reserve. But the premium AA card comes with no EQD waiver option at all — that benefit is reserved for the AAdvantage Aviator cards issued by Barclaycard.

Checked Bags: United’s premium card only allows baggage waivers for one companion traveling on the same reservation, while both AA and Delta offer it for up to eight companions. But United leapfrogs them both by providing both a first and second free checked bag, which means even if you’re traveling with three other people, you can still all get a free checked bag by doubling up bags on the first two people. Given that flexibility, United comes out on top for baggage fee waivers.

Miscellaneous Perks: The Delta Reserve comes with an annual domestic companion certificate (but only starting at your first renewal) and access to Pay With Miles, while the United Club Card waives close-in award booking fees and provides upgrades on domestic award tickets for United elites. Finally, these cards have several airline benefits that can also be found on the cheaper co-branded cards, such as access to expanded United award space with the United MileagePlus Explorer Card, reduced mileage awards on several other AA cards and in-flight discounts on both the American and Delta lower-cost offerings. These miscellaneous perks are really dependent on which airline you focus on, but if we had to pick an order of finish for them, it’d arguably be a tie between the premium United and Delta cards, with AA bringing up the rear.

So overall, when it comes to airline perks, our winner is the United Club Card with the edge in lounge membership and baggage waivers, with Delta second

1)

United Club Card

2)

Delta Reserve

Other Benefits

Finally, let’s take a look at the remaining benefits on each of these cards that aren’t tied specifically to the co-branded airline:

Delta Reserve

  • Amex Concierge service
  • Free Shoprunner membership
  • Secondary rental car coverage
  • Baggage loss or damage coverage up to $500 for checked bags and $1,250 for carry-ons per passenger
  • Purchase protection coverage within 90 days of purchase, up to $10,000 per item and $50,000 per year
  • Return protection coverage up to $300 per item and $1,000 per year
  • Extended warranty up to an additional year
  • Roadside assistance
  • No foreign transaction fees (See Rates & Fees)
  • Business version of the card available

United Club Card

  • Access to the Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection
  • Primary rental car coverage
  • Baggage loss or damage coverage up to $3,000 per passenger
  • Baggage delay compensation up to $100 per day for 3 days if bags are more than 6 hours late
  • Trip delay coverage up to $500 per ticket for delays of 12+ hours
  • Purchase protection coverage within 120 days of purchase, up to $10,000 per item and $50,000 per year
  • Return protection coverage up to $500 per item and $1,000 year
  • Extended warranty up to an additional year
  • Roadside assistance
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • Business version of the card available

When it comes to travel insurance and purchase protection coverage, the Delta Reserve is definitely thinner than the other two, with no trip delay or baggage delay coverage and lower limits on baggage damage and loss claims.

For non-insurance perks, the premium United card provides access to the Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection, while AA’s premium offering gives elite status at a trio of rental car companies. The one thing missing from American’s lineup is a business version of its premium card, which both Delta and United offer.

Again, it’s tough to put a firm value on perks like these, but we’ll call it  with United at the top with Delta bringing up the rear.

1)

United Club Card

2)

Delta Reserve

The Winner

And now, the big moment… let’s add up all the first-,  and second-place finishes, assign points for each score so that the lowest point total wins and see who comes out on top:

Bonus Annual Fee Earning and Redeeming Airline Perks Other Benefits OVERALL TOTAL

 

United Club Card

(7 points)Delta Reserve (13 points)

The winner is the United Club Card, but it was very close.

Of course, if you’re a Delta flyer, then the calculation may be drastically different for you — the MQM Miles Boost might be exceptionally important to you, or Delta Sky Club access could be a major priority. As always, the credit card to choose is the one that works best for you. But if you’re just in the market for a premium co-branded airline credit card and don’t have a particular one in mind, now you’ve got a lot more info to help you make your decision.

This post has been updated to clarify that Delta Reserve authorized users only get Delta Sky Club access when flying on Delta.

For rates and fees of the Delta Reserve, please click here.  

Featured images by Valentin Hintikka/Aeroprints.com/skinnylawyer via Wikimedia Commons.

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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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