Credit Cards That Get You Elite-Like Airline Benefits
Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here.
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 Visa Signature credit 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 coach companion fare (from $121, including taxes and fees) each cardmembership year. Even better, now you can sign up for the card and get the companion fare for just the price of the taxes and fees — so as low as $22 (after spending $1,000 within the first 90 days of account opening). There's a $75 annual fee for this card, and no foreign transaction fees.
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, with the exception of the Aviator Red card. 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.
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 Admirals Club lounge membership that includes the primary cardholder and his or her immediate family or two guests — and authorized users get membership, too. There's a $450 annual fee for this card, and no foreign transaction fees.
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 eight others traveling on the same itinerary. In addition, the 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 up to two guests. You can currently earn 30,000 bonus miles after spending $1,000 in the first three months. There's a $95 annual fee for this card that's waived the first year, and no foreign transaction fees.
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, and there are no foreign transaction fees.
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 which is waived for 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 on the same reservation. 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, plus the headline benefit of United Club membership. Cardholders also receive a waiver of the $75 charge for close-in award booking, which is offered to all Premier elites. And like with 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.
Related: The best airline credit cards
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, the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard and the Citi Prestige Card. 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 Credit 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. 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!