Why you might want to rethink which airline you choose for your Amex credit this year

Jan 5, 2021

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Normally, the beginning of the year is when we clean out our closets, set resolutions, pack away the holiday decor and … pick our new American Express airline for the next 12 months. That’s because a number of Amex credit cards provide annual airline fee credits that reset each calendar year on Jan. 1, and you only have until Jan. 31 to select a new airline for the year.

While American Express was more lenient than normal last year and allowed airline fee selection changes beyond January, you want to set yourself up for success by choosing your airline early. But the airline you selected last year might not be the one you should stick with this year.

Here’s why you may want to change your airline selection for 2021 if you have a card such as The Platinum Card® from American Express (which has an annual airline fee credit up to $200), the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card (up to $250) or The Business Platinum Card® from American Express (up to $200).

The information for the Hilton Aspire Amex 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.

Related: Your guide to Amex airline fee credits

Some airlines make it easier to use credits from home

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

While Amex has added great temporary credits and offers to select cards, it hasn’t budged on making the airline fee credit more flexible. As usual, the credit is technically only valid on ancillary airline fees such as seat assignment fees, checked baggage fees, inflight purchases and more.

This year has just begun, but if we learned anything from 2020, it’s to expect the unexpected. And some airlines do make it a bit easier to spend the fee credit from home if you find you’re still not traveling much — if at all — at the end of the year.

American and United, for example, sell lounge passes you could use in the future. Spirit and Frontier sell annual memberships to discount clubs. And other airlines, such as Delta and United, even have a few off-label uses you may get lucky with.

Related: What triggers Amex airline fee credit

You might not want to choose your primary airline

Assuming travel will, eventually, start to return to normal later this year, choosing your primary airline for your Amex credit can be a solid plan. For me, that would be United Airlines, since I usually fly more than 50,000 miles per year with the airline.

But choosing the airline you fly the most can also have a downside. Because I fly my primary airline so much in a normal year, I have elite status that exempts me from many fees such as extra legroom seat charges and bags fees.

I can certainly still use the credit to offset onboard food and drink purchases, for example. But I’m not subject to a lengthy list of ancillary fees — especially now that airlines are generally more flexible with changes.

So, before you choose the airline you fly the most as your Amex airline for 2021, think through whether you typically end up paying enough fees to justify the selection. We will likely select United on at least one of our Amex airline fee credit cards, since those occasional fees and onboard meals do add up over the course of a year. But we may not select United on all of our cards.

Related: These airlines charge the most fees

Go where the fees are

(Summer Hull / The Points Guy)
Stretch seats on Frontier. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy.)

You might also want to consider selecting an ultra-low-cost carrier, such as Frontier or Spirit, for your credit because it’s very easy to rack up fees when flying with those carriers.

I typically only fly with Frontier once or twice per year, but (at least until I matched my status to Frontier) I was hit with extra fees each and every time thanks to the carrier’s a la carte fee structure. Seat assignments, bags and more all used to cost us extra, which makes it the perfect airline for the Amex fee credit.

The same principles apply to Spirit Airlines. This low-cost carrier would also be a great choice for travelers who fly occasionally with the airline, especially if you like to sit in the Big Front Seat. That additional seat assignment fee should work just fine for the Amex airline fee credit.

Spirit Big Front Seats (Photo by Javier Rodriguez / The Points Guy)
Spirit Big Front Seats. (Photo by Javier Rodriguez/The Points Guy.)

Bottom line

For many people, it’s exceedingly hard to predict what flights you will take and which airline fees you may face in 2021. And hopefully, Amex will continue to allow you to make changes to your airline beyond the usual Jan. 31 deadline.

But since that’s not guaranteed, now is the time to make an educated guess about which airline will help you get the most value from your airline fee credit.

Going with the airline you fly the most can make sense (especially if you use your Amex points at a fixed value when booking economy airfare with eligible cards), but you may decide to go in an entirely different direction. Picking a low-cost carrier you fly with just once or twice a year could be the perfect way to use up your Amex fee credits. Or, select an airline that makes it easier to use the credit from home. No matter what the year has in store, no one likes leaving valuable credits on the table.

Featured image by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy.

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