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What to do if you have a premium airline credit card but you aren’t flying

May 19, 2020
9 min read
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Many top travel rewards cards have quickly adjusted to dramatic drops in travel and changes in spending patterns by adding bonus categories and temporary statement credits to align with what their cardholders need and want in this unusual moment.

For example, The Platinum Card® from American Express added up to $320 in new statement credit perks in categories such as streaming services and cellphone bills directly from U.S. service providers through December 2020. Chase made U.S. grocery stores a 5x points per dollar bonus category on several of its premium cards like the popular Chase Sapphire Reserve®. The Hilton and Marriott top-tier cobranded credit cards have temporarily expanded their built-in, several-hundred-dollars-per-year resort and hotel credits to also include dining charges made at any restaurant this summer.

But one type of high-end credit card has yet to respond as quickly or dramatically as some of the other premium cards.

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With one notable exception, high-end airline credit cards that convey access to airline lounges have yet to do much to appease consumers who are paying $450 to $550 per year to hold the cards. Normally, that annual fee is justified by those who frequently visit airline lounges such as United Clubs, Delta Sky Clubs, etc. But right now, 90% of travelers have yet to return to the sky, many airline lounges are closed and the ones that are open have limited operations and dining options consisting of offerings such as packaged snacks. It's a lot harder to justify $550 per year for that.

Here's a look at what you can do if you have a premium airline credit card that you opened primarily for airline lounge access and now find yourself grounded.

Related: What these 9 premium credit cards are doing for cardholders

Ask for available bonuses

Before you jump to downgrading or closing a credit card, see if your card issuer can do anything for you.

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This is not a case of any individual cardholder's travel patterns changing -- everyone's travel patterns have changed. As a result, we have started to see issuers offer statement credits and temporary new perks to make cards relevant in the currently altered travel environment.

For example, I called Chase when my United Club Card annual fee came due this month and was quickly offered a $100 statement credit when I expressed concern that I couldn't get the intended value from the card at this time. On top of that, I could use United miles to pay for the annual fee at a much-better-than-usual rate of 1.5 cents each, if I desire to do so.

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.

In this regard, the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard® has been the leader among premium airline credit cards thus far, as it has been pretty consistently offering a $225 statement credit to those with annual fees coming due.

There's no guarantee that your card issuer will have any special bonus to offer you, but it doesn't hurt to call and politely inquire, especially if your annual fee is renewing during this time when most of us aren't at the airport.

Related: From robots to plexiglass -- What to expect on your next trip to the airport

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Downgrade or close your card

The basic math surrounding the situation is that it is going to be hard to justify a $450 to $550 annual fee for an airline credit card if you aren't flying much in 2020. Take the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card card as an example. This card comes with a $550 annual fee (see rates and fees), and in return, the card provides the cardholder access to Delta Sky Clubs, complimentary access to American Express Centurion Lounges when flying Delta, an annual companion certificate (that is even valid for first class) and opportunities to charge your way to faster Delta elite status.

Normally, those are great perks for frequent Delta flyers. If you aren't sure that you'll fly Delta again in 2020, those benefits aren't worth very much at the moment. However, you don't have to just walk away from your account forever if you decide you aren't getting your money's worth right now.

Related: What it's like to fly in the US right now

Delta also has several other cards issued by America Express -- including the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card ($250 annual fee, see rates and fees), Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card ($0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $99 rates and fees) and even a no-annual-fee option, the Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card (see rates and fees).

If you wanted to keep your credit card account open, you could talk to American Express about downgrading your credit card to one of these lesser-fee cards.

Related: Best no-annual-fee credit cards of 2020

When I called Chase to inquire about options for my United Club Card that has a $450 fee due this month, one of the options I was given was indeed to downgrade to the much less expensive United Explorer Card. I was reminded that I could upgrade my account again in the future if or when my travel patterns picked up again. Several in the TPG Facebook Lounge reported being given the same option for their account, in what is usually described as a pretty "painless" transaction with Chase.

Related: When can you downgrade your credit card account

To get a feel for other cards that may be available with your preferred airline at a lower fee, you can simply call your card issuer and ask about a product change to a lower-annual-fee card. Alternatively, you can explore our best cards for flying United, best cards for flying American and best cards for flying Delta. In those articles, you will find premium-, mid- and budget-friendly credit card options for each of the airlines.

Maximize the other benefits

There's no doubt that premium airline credit cards are most useful when we are all flying, but there are some perks you can lean into while on the ground. These parks may make it worth holding on the cards for a bit longer, especially if the bank also has some statement credits available to you.

The companion certificates on the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card that were set to expire between March 1 and June 30, 2020, have had their expiration dates extended to Dec. 31, 2020. Remember, any MQMs (Delta's elite qualifying miles) you earn with that card this year will roll over to count toward next year, so the card gives you a jumpstart on earning Delta elite status in 2021.

Related: Why 2020 is the surprising year of the cobranded credit card

Bottom line

Thus far, we haven't seen as many temporary offerings from most of the premium airline credits rise to the level of what the Amex Platinum, The Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card and Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant® American Express® Card have done in terms of adding temporary benefits and credits. The $225 statement credit available to many with the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard® is a good start, but even then, cardholders are still on the hook for the other $225 worth of the annual fee.

Whether it's worth it to continue to hold onto a premium airline credit card will depend on when your card is up for renewal, what temporary perks or credits are added, your own budget and how long you anticipate remaining on the ground.

For many looking to trim expenses where they can, it will be prudent to explore downgraded cards with lower to no annual fees until things more closely resemble normal. For others who don't anticipate a return to the sky anytime soon, an outright cancellation may make sense. And for the third group that has more budget flexibility, that plans to return to the sky faster or that has enough credits and offers on the card to justify the expense, holding onto the card as-is will be the best option. Just like most everything else when it comes to travel and coronavirus, there is no one-size-fits-all response to the situation.

For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles Reserve card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles Platinum card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles Gold card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles Blue card, click here.

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