Best premium airline credit cards: Get lounge access, earn elite status faster and more

Jan 6, 2020

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The three legacy U.S. airlines — American, Delta and United — don’t each just have a single cobranded airline credit card. Rather, they offer multiple cards, and in the case of American, even cards from different banks. But each of these airlines has one single top-of-the-line premium consumer card offering a wide range of top-tier benefits and other perks.

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, looking at welcome bonuses, earning and redemptions, airline perks, annual fees and other benefits. And at the end, you should be able to easily determine which card is the right one for you.

In This Post

Best premium airline credit cards of 2020

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.

Comparison of the best premium airline credit cards of 2020

Card name Bonus Bonus value Rewards rate Annual fee
Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express Earn 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles and 40,000 Delta SkyMiles after spending $3,000 in the first three months of account opening. Terms apply. $480* Earn 2x miles on Delta purchases and one mile per dollar on all other purchases. Terms apply. $450 ($550 if application is received on or after 01/30/2020) (see rates and fees)
Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard® Earn 50,000 AAdvantage® bonus miles after spending $5,000 within the first three months of account opening. $700* Earn 2x miles on American Airlines purchases and one mile per dollar everywhere else. $450
United Club Card Earn 50,000 miles after spending $3,000 in the first three month from opening your account. $650* Earn 2x miles on United Airlines purchases and 1.5x miles everywhere else. $450

*According to TPG’s monthly valuations.

Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express

(Photo by Wyatt Smith / The Points Guy)
(Photo by Wyatt Smith / The Points Guy)

Bonus: Earn 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) and 40,000 Delta SkyMiles after spending $3,000 in the first three months of account opening. Because this is an American Express card, you won’t qualify for the intro offer if you currently have or have ever have had this card. But you are still eligible if you’ve had the Delta Reserve® for Business Credit Card because it is considered a different product.

Lounge access perk: With the Amex Delta Reserve card you’ll get access to Delta SkyClub lounges. You can bring up to two guests with you for $29 per person. However, this perk is changing on Jan. 30, 2020; after that date the SkyClub guest fee is increasing to $39 per person. But cardholders will receive two complimentary one-time use SkyClub guest passes and are also getting access to Amex Centurion Lounges, with the option to bring along up to two guests for $50 each. For entrance to either the SkyClub or Centurion lounges the cardholder and any guests will need a same-day Delta boarding pass.

Benefits: Currently, the card earn 2x SkyMiles on Delta purchases and other purchases earn 1x miles. You’ll also get the basic perks of most Delta credit cards, such as a free checked bag and priority boarding for the cardholder and up to eight companions. The card also comes with a range of coverages, including baggage insurance,  secondary rental car insurance, extended warranty, return protection and purchase protection. It also has no foreign transaction fees (see rates and fees). And eligible inflight purchases (food, beverages, headsets, etc.) will earn a 20% discount (as a statement credit) when you pay for them with the card.

Beginning on Jan. 30, 2020 the Amex Delta cards are getting revamped. First, the bonus rate on Delta purchases is increasing to 3x miles. Also, cardholders will get an up to $100 TSA PreCheck/Global Entry credit (every four years for Global Entry, every 4.5 years for TSA PreCheck) and complimentary upgrades. If you have Delta elite status, having this card will give you upgrade priority over others with the same level status or with a ticket in the same fare class.

Annual fee: $450 ($550 if application is received on or after Jan. 30, 2020) (see rates and fees)

Why it’s best for earning elite status: The current iteration of the card comes with an MQMs and Delta SkyMiles boost — 15,000 MQMs and 15,000 SkyMiles after spending $30,000 on the card in a calendar year and an addition 15,000 MQMs and 15,000 SkyMiles after spending $60,000 (in total) in a calendar year. You’ll also earn a Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQDs) waiver for Silver, Gold and Platinum status when you spend $25,000+ on the card in a calendar year. You could even earn an MQD waiver for Diamond Medallion status, but you’ll have to spend an outrageous $250,000+ in a calendar year.

However, starting Jan. 30, 2020, this benefit is changing. The MQD waiver isn’t changing, but you’ll no longer earn redeemable SkyMiles; instead you’ll be able to earn up to 60,000 MQMs per year. For each $30,000 you spend in a calendar year, you’ll earn 15,000 MQMs, up to $120,000. When you add in the 10,000 bonus MQMs you can earn as part of the welcome bonus, you can accumulate 70,000 MQMs the first year without taking a single flight. That’s only 5,000 MQMs shy of Platinum Medallion status, which comes with perks including waived award redeposit fees, four Regional Upgrade Certificates, 20,000 bonus SkyMiles and you can gift Silver Medallion status to someone else.

You’d have to spend a lot to take full advantage of the card’s MQMs boost, but it’s a nice option to have even if you can’t take full advantage of it because it can give you a bump to the next status tier.

APPLY HERE: Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express

Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®

Bonus: Earn 50,000 AAdvantage® bonus miles after spending $5,000 within the first three months of account opening. You aren’t eligible for the welcome bonus on this card if you have received a new account bonus for a Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive card in the past 48 months.

Lounge access perk: The cardholder and immediate family members (spouse or domestic partner and children under 18 years of age) or up to two guests get access to Admirals Club lounges and partner airport lounges. For entry, you (and any guests) will need a same-day American Airlines or eligible partner airline boarding pass. Also, the lounge access privileges don’t extend to Arrivals Lounges, International First Class Lounges or Flagship Lounges.

Benefits: The Citi AAdvantage Executive card earns 2x miles on eligible American Airlines purchases and one mile per dollar on everything else. The cardholder (and up to eight guests) will receive a free checked bag, priority check-in (where available), priority airport screening (where available) and priority boarding. Once every five years you’ll get a TSA PreCheck/Global Entry fee credit (up to $100) and eligible inflight purchases (food and beverage) will get 25% off. This card also grants you access to the AA reduced Mileage Awards, which features a list of 100+ airports where you can get discounts of 7,500 miles on award flights. And if you’re working toward AA elite status you can earn 10,000 bonus Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) during any calendar year that you spend $40,000 or more on the card.

Annual fee: $450

Why it’s the best for lounge access: What makes this card’s lounge access so valuable is that it extends to authorized users and you can add up to 10 authorized users to your account for free. Authorized user accounts only have access to American Airlines Admirals Club lounges, not partner airline lounges, but they can bring immediate family or up to two guests traveling with them along for free.

This is one of the best credit cards to add authorized users to, since you can add up to 10 of them for free. This is a much better deal than the Delta Reserve, which charges $175 per authorized user (see rates and fees).

APPLY HERE: Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®

United Club Card

(Photo by Zach Griff / The Points Guy)
United Club lounge, Honolulu. (Photo by Zach Griff / The Points Guy)

Bonus: Earn 50,000 miles after spending $3,000 in the first three month from opening your account. This is a Chase credit card, so it’s subject to the 5/24 rule, which means you won’t be approved if you’ve opened five or more cards from any bank in the past 24 months. However, business credit cards from most banks don’t appear on your personal credit report and so they won’t add to your 5/24 count (however, Capital One and Discover business cards will add to your 5/24 count).

Lounge access perk: The United Club card comes with a United Club membership, which can cost up to $650 per year. When you have a same-day United (or eligible partner airline) boarding pass, you and up to two guests (or one guest and dependent children under 21) can access any United Club lounge. This benefits does not include access to United Polaris lounges.

Benefits: You’ll earn 2x miles on eligible United purchases and 1.5x miles everywhere else. This card also has a beefed-up checked bag perk, with the primary cardholder and one companion receiving two free checked bags when the ticket is purchased with the card. Also, when traveling with United, you’ll have priority baggage handling, check-in, boarding (Group 2) and security screening. Cardmembers can receive Hertz Gold Plus Rewards Presidents Circle status, which comes with confirmed one-car-class upgrades, valet (where available, up to four times per year) and 1.5x points per dollar.

Two other excellent reasons to have a United credit card is that it will unlock access to an increased number of economy Saver awards and if you have United elite status, paired with a United card, you’ll be eligible for complimentary upgrades on award tickets. The card even comes with extra perks at 1,000+ hotels and resorts when you book through the Chase’s Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection. Finally, when using the card outside of the U.S. you won’t pay any foreign transaction fees.

Annual fee: $450

Why it’s the best for travel and purchase protections: As credit card benefits change, excellent travel protections and purchase coverages are found on fewer and fewer cards. But the United Club card has maintained a wide array of built-in coverages. With the card you’ll have access to the following insurances…

Trip delay

If your travel is delayed 12+ hours or requires an overnight stay you can be reimbursed for eligible expenses incurred as a result of the delay, up to $500 per ticket. Eligible expenses include things like lodging, transportation, meals, and toiletries.

Baggage delay

If your baggage is delayed for six or more hours you can be reimbursed for essential purchases (clothing, toiletries, etc.) up to $100 a day for three days.

Lost luggage

Checked or carry-on luggage (for you or immediate family) is covered against loss or damage for up to $3,000 per passenger.

Trip cancellation/trip interruption

You can be reimbursed for pre-paid non-refundable travel expenses (tours, hotels, fares) up to $10,000 per person and $20,000 per trip if your trip is canceled or cut short for a covered incident. Eligible incidents include (but are not limited to) sickness and severe weather.

Rental car insurance

When you pay for your entire rental with the card you’ll get primary rental car insurance. You’ll be covered (up to the value of the vehicle) for collision damage and theft.

Purchase protection

Purchases made in the past 120 days are covered for damage or theft for up to $10,000 per claim and $50,000 per year.

Price protection

If a purchase you made in the U.S. is advertised for less (in print or online) within 90 days you can be reimbursed for the difference, up to $500 per item and $2,500 per year. This is one of the few remaining cards with price protection.

Return protection

If a merchant won’t accept a return you can be reimbursed up to $500 per item and $1,000 per year. This only applies to purchases made within the past 90 days.

Extended warranty

The extended warranty coverage applies to eligible U.S. manufacturer’s warranties of three years or less and you’ll get an additional year of coverage.

How to choose the right premium airline credit card for you

Picking the right premium airline credit card is much easier than choosing the best rewards credit card. This is because the vast majority of the value you’ll get from any of these cards will only apply when you’re traveling with that specific airline. For example, as airport lounges struggle with overcrowding we’re seeing more entry restrictions implemented and the lounge access benefits for each of these premium airline cards only applies when you are traveling with that specific airline.

So for most, it makes sense to apply for the cobranded card of the airline you’ll actually be flying with in the next year or one that operates a hub from your home airport. But all of these cards comes with bigger annual fees, so before you apply you’ll want to make sure it’s worth it for you.

Are premium airline credit cards worth the annual fee?

You’ll have to crunch the numbers a bit to see if any of these card’s premium annual fees are worth the perks you’ll receive. One group of people that should apply are those who would otherwise be purchasing a lounge membership. The annual fee for each of these cards is less than paying for the corresponding lounge access you’ll get with the card. But beyond that it depends on a lot of factors.

Again, the more you travel the more you can save with these cards. Lounges access and free checked bags can really add up over time, but there’s a catch 22. If you’re flying a lot with a single airline and earn elite status some of the card benefits become redundant. After all, you don’t need a card with a free checked bag if you get it already with elite status. And with elite status some lounge access benefits can even become unnecessary. For example, if you have United Premier Gold status (or higher) you’ll have Star Alliance Gold status, which gets you access to United Club lounges (and other Star Alliance lounges) when traveling with a Star Alliance airline internationally.

You could also find value in these cards by using their perks as a substitute for earning elite status on airline you only fly occasionally. I don’t live in a Delta hub, but I always have a Delta credit card so when I do fly with them I’ll get a free checked bag and priority boarding. These basic perks can be especially helpful when flying in Basic Economy. But depending on which perks you value the most, you might be able to get them on a card with a lower annual fee.

Lower-cost alternative airline cards

The United Club card is a great choice if you have United elite status because with it you’ll be able to receive complimentary upgrades on award flights. But, both the United℠ Explorer Card and the United℠ Explorer Business Card have the same perk and both only have a $95 annual fee (the United Explorer card’s fee is even waived the first year).

With Delta, you could boost your elite status with the Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express which only has a $195 ($250 if application is received on or after Jan. 30, 2020) (see rates and fees). When you spend $25,000 on the card in a calendar year you’ll earn 10,000 MQMs and after hitting $50,000 in spending in the same timeframe you’ll earn an additional 10,000 MQMs.

It’s not as generous of an elite status boost as what you’ll get with the Delta Reserve card, but it might be enough for your needs. And if you only want priority boarding and a free checked bag with Delta, the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express comes with both of those perks and only has a $95 annual fee (see rates and fees), which is waived the first year.

If you want American Airlines benefits, such as a free checked bag, priority boarding and access to the AA Reduced Mileage awards, you’ve got options.There are plenty of American Airlines credit cards to choose from. Both the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard® and the Barclaycard AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard® will get you all three of those perks in addition to a nice intro bonus.

The information for the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select, Barclays AAdvantage Aviator Red 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.

Bottom line

Travel credit cards aren’t the only ones that come with premium benefits, like airport lounge access. Each of the three legacy U.S. airlines also has a premium card option and while these airline cards do have bigger annual fees, they also have bigger benefits. Whether or not the card makes sense for you will depend on your travel habits and how often you fly with each airline.

For rates and fees of the Delta Reserve, please click here.  
For rates and fees of the Gold Delta SkyMiles Card, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Platinum Delta SkyMiles Card from American Express, please click here.

Featured photo by Kaspars Grinvalds/Shutterstock.

Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®

Based on TPG’s most recent valuations, the 50,000 miles are worth $700. In addition, you can earn 10,000 Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) toward elite status after spending $40,000 in a calendar year. As of July 23, 2017 this is the only card that offers Admirals Club lounge access so if you are an AA flyer this card might make sense for you.  Aside from lounge access the primary cardholder will receive a Global Entry application fee credit every 5 years, first checked bag free for up to 8 travel companions on domestic itineraries and a 25% discount on eligible in-flight purchases on American Airlines flights.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • 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 and access for guests traveling with you
  • 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 8 companions traveling with you on the same reservation
  • The standard variable APR for Citi Flex Plan is 17.24% - 25.24%, based on your creditworthiness. Citi Flex Plan offers are made available at Citi's discretion.
Intro APR on Purchases
N/A
Regular APR
17.24% - 25.24% (Variable)
Annual Fee
$450
Balance Transfer Fee
3% of each balance transfer; $5 minimum.
Recommended Credit
Excellent

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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