Best premium airline credit cards: Get lounge access, earn elite status faster, enjoy more perks
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The three legacy U.S. airlines — American, Delta and United — offer multiple cobranded airline credit cards, and each of these airlines has one top-of-the-line premium consumer card with a wide range of benefits and perks.
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So which one of these premium airline credit cards is the best? To find out, let’s take a deep dive into each of these cards, looking at welcome bonuses, earning and redemptions, airline perks, annual fees and other benefits. In the end, you should be able to easily determine which card is right for you.
Best premium airline credit cards of 2020
- Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card: Best for earning elite status
- Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®: Best for lounge access
- United Club℠ Infinite Card: Best for travel and purchase protection
Related reading: The best airline credit cards of 2020
Comparison of the best premium airline credit cards of 2020
|Card name||Bonus||Bonus value||Rewards rate||Annual fee|
|Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card||Earn 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles and 40,000 Delta SkyMiles after spending $3,000 in the first three months of account opening.||$480*||Earn 3x miles on eligible Delta purchases and one mile per dollar on all other purchases.||$550 (see rates & 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 eligible American Airlines purchases and one mile per dollar everywhere else.||$450|
|United Club℠ Infinite Card||N/A||N/A||Earn 4x miles on United Airlines purchases, 2x miles on dining and travel, 1x mile on all other purchases||$450 (waived first year)|
*According to TPG’s monthly valuations and not provided by issuers
Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express
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. However, eligible card accounts approved between Dec. 1, 2019, and May 31, 2020, will receive a three-month extension to meet the spending requirements.
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 SkyMiles® Reserve Business American Express 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 $39 per person. But cardholders receive two complimentary one-time-use SkyClub guest passes and also get access to Amex Centurion Lounges and can 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 earns 3x SkyMiles on eligible Delta purchases and 1x miles on other purchases. 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. Also, cardholders will get a credit for a TSA PreCheck/Global Entry fee (up to $100 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: $550 (see rates and fees)
Why it’s best for earning elite status: The card comes with an MQMs boost — 15,000 MQMs after spending $30,000 on the card in a calendar year and an additional 15,000 MQMs after spending $60,000, $90,000 and $120,000 a 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.
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 that include waived award redeposit fees, four Regional Upgrade Certificates, 20,000 bonus SkyMiles and the ability to 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.
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 boarding pass or a pass from an eligible partner airline. 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. Eligible inflight purchases (food and beverage) will get 25% off and once every five years you’ll get a TSA PreCheck/Global Entry fee credit (up to $100). This card also grants you access to the AA reduced Mileage Awards, which provide discounts of 7,500 miles on award flights to 100+ airports. And if you’re working toward AA elite status, you can earn 10,000 bonus Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) during any calendar year in which you spend $40,000 or more on the card.
Annual fee: $450, although with most Admirals Clubs closed due to lack of demand and local regulations, Citi has offered customers whose accounts were open as of March 31, 2020, a one-time $225 statement credit upon account renewal.
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 for adding authorized users; 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).
Bonus: N/A. After launching with an attractive welcome bonus, the new United Club Infinite card switched to offering a waived first-year annual fee in lieu of a traditional points-based bonus.
Lounge access perk: The United Club Infinite 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 benefit does not include access to United Polaris lounges.
Benefits: You’ll earn 4x miles on eligible United purchases, 2x on all other travel and dining purchases and 1x 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 with a ticket purchased with the card. Also, when traveling with United, you’ll have priority baggage handling, check-in, boarding (Group 2) and security screening. The card also comes with the now-ubiquitous TSA PreCheck/Global Entry application fee credit (up to $100). 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.
Annual fee: $450, waived first year
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 prepaid nonrefundable 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. 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 because almost all 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 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 come with bigger annual fees, so before you apply for one, 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 to see if any of these cards’ premium annual fees are worth the perks you’ll receive. You definitely should apply if you 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.
Again, the more you travel, the more you can save with these cards. Lounge access and free checked bags can really add up over time, but you may not need the card benefits if you’re flying a lot with a single airline and earn elite status because 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 that 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 Infinite 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 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 Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card, which only has a $250 annual fee (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 Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card comes with both of those perks and only has a $99 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 card, Barclays AAdvantage Aviator Red card and United Business 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.
Travel credit cards aren’t the only ones with premium benefits, such as 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 Delta SkyMiles Gold Card, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles Platinum Card, please click here.
Featured photo by Kaspars Grinvalds/Shutterstock.
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.
- 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 up to two guests or immediate family members traveling with you
- 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 15.99% - 24.99%, based on your creditworthiness. Citi Flex Plan offers are made available at Citi's discretion.