- Flickr/Delta News Hub
- We compared premium airline credit cards for the largest US carriers: Delta, United, and American. We looked at annual fees, spending bonuses, airline miles, and hotel and airport perks to see which card offered the best benefits. There were a lot of similarities, but one airline credit card stood out above the rest.
If you’ve ever walked past the first-class cabin on your way to a middle seat in coach and thought to yourself that there has to be a better way, well, maybe there is.
JPMorgan Chase brought the allure of premium credit cards to a new level when it introduced the Chase Sapphire Reserve card last year, making a $450 annual fee seem reasonable – if not a downright steal – thanks to generous travel credits and a six-figure sign-on points bonus.
But the popular credit card leaves one thing to be desired: airline-specific loyalty rewards. Though Chase’s Ultimate Rewards points can be redeemed on many airlines, perks such as priority boarding and free checked bags aren’t included.
If you’re a frequent traveler – or even just a beleaguered one craving a more luxurious vacation experience – paying the annual fee for a premium airline credit card allows you to buy the benefits of elite status so you can save time (and maybe money), maximize your trip value, rack up miles, and restore some peace of mind.
To help figure out which airline credit card is best, we compared the top-tier offerings from the three largest US carriers: Delta, United, and American.
Before we dive in, please note all the usual credit-card disclaimers apply: Don’t spend more than you can afford to pay in full each month. Credit-card interest is expensive and a waste of money. And so on.
Scroll through to see how each card stacks up when it comes to annual fees, spending bonuses, airline miles, and hotel and airport perks – and which one emerged victorious in our matchup.
No matter which premium airline credit card you pick, you’ll pay $450 for the plastic.
- Delta News Hub/Flickr
Each of the airline credit cards we compared – the Delta Reserve American Express Credit Card, the United MileagePlus Club Card from Chase, and the Citi/AAdvantage Executive Card – has a $450 annual fee and no foreign transaction fees.
None of the credit cards have blackout dates for travel, a cap on the amount of rewards cardholders can earn, or an expiration date for airline miles.
Citi/AAdvantage Executive cardholders receive a statement credit of $100 for Global Entry, which you should definitely sign up for if you haven’t already.
The Delta Reserve American Express is the only card to offer one free companion pass each year, which could very well justify the annual fee, depending on the value of the ticket price.
Best for fees: Delta Reserve American Express Credit Card
Bonus offers change regularly, but they should play a role in your decision-making process.
- Sergi Alexander/Getty Images for Haute Living
Credit-card sign-on bonuses have been gigantic lately, but only two of the three cards we looked at offered a sign-on bonus of any consequence.
United is offering a measly $100 statement credit after your first purchase. Delta has the biggest bonus per spending amount required, at 40,000 miles for spending $3,000 in the first three months. American has a bigger bonus at 75,000 miles, but you’ll have to spend more to get it: $7,500 in the first three months.
Best bonus offer (currently): Delta Reserve American Express Credit Card
All of the cards will give you a first-class airport experience, even if you’re flying economy.
- Delta News Hub/Flickr
Paying the $450 fee for any of these cards could essentially wipe out the typical frustrations of flying.
To enjoy the perks below, your card may need to be open for a certain number of days before your trip, and you may have to purchase your airfare using the card. Make sure to read the fine print so you aren’t disappointed when you arrive at the airport.
Priority treatment, from check-in to boarding
Regardless of where your seat is on the plane, all three cards offer priority check-in, priority security lanes, priority boarding, and priority baggage handling. That means you can breeze through the airport like a first-class flyer, even if you’re paying economy prices.
Check your bags free
United cardholders and one companion can check two bags free, while Delta and American limit free checked bags to one for each passenger on the reservation, up to eight travel companions. If your travel crew is large, you’ll get more free checked bags with Delta or American, but United is better if you tend to travel with only one other person.
Relax in the lounge before your flight
Complimentary lounge membership is included with premium airline credit cards, which comes in handy if you arrived early at the airport only to realize security is easier with your new card and now you have a couple of hours to spare before your flight. Both Delta and United offer about 50 lounges worldwide, while American has 90.
Delta Sky Club access is free only for the cardholder, but discounted passes can be purchased for up to two guests. American cardholders and guests enjoy the full benefits of an Admirals Club membership, including partner lounge access.
United cardholders gain entry to all United Club locations and participating Star Alliance lounges worldwide. It’s unclear whether you also get access to the secret, invitation-only restaurant located in Newark Liberty International Airport’s Terminal C, but one can hope.
Best airport perks: Citi/AAdvantage Executive Card (but just barely)
You can qualify for frequent-flyer status much more quickly with a premium airline credit card.
- REUTERS/Larry Downing
Though cardholders get many premium perks, airlines still reserve the best benefits for frequent flyers.
The good news is, an airline credit card can help you climb through the ranks of elite status faster by racking up bonus miles, especially if you aren’t truly a frequent flyer. Once you qualify for status, being a cardholder can land your name higher on the upgrade list as well.
Delta rankled loyal cardholders recently when it upped the annual spending required to leapfrog into its prized Diamond Medallion frequent-flyer status, Business Insider’s Benjamin Zhang reported. Previously, cardholders had to spend only $25,000 a year for the privilege. Starting in 2018, they’ll have to spend $250,000.
Still, Delta offers cardholders 15,000 bonus miles and 15,000 MQMs after they spend $30,000 each calendar year. American cardholders who spend $40,000 annually earn 10,000 Elite Qualifying Miles.
Best elite qualifying program: Delta Reserve American Express Credit Card
Earning double miles for airline purchases made with the card is a given.
- Joe Raedle / Staff / Getty Images
Once you’ve used your sign-on bonus miles, you’ll continue to earn airline miles for everything you buy with the card.
All three cards award double miles for purchases made with the airline. For all other purchases, United offers 1 1/2 miles per dollar spent, while Delta and American offer 1 mile per dollar. If you expect to spend $30,000 or so on the card each year, then Delta’s 15,000 bonus miles match United’s 1 1/2 miles per dollar spent.
Delta and American also offer discounts for purchases made in-flight – 20% and 25% off, respectively. While we’re always happy to take free money, saving a few dollars on an overpriced fruit plate isn’t going to move the needle much, so we didn’t factor into our comparison here.
Best airline miles rewards structure: United MileagePlus Club Card from Chase
Other benefits, like hotel and rental-car perks, are the icing on the cake.
The luxe travel benefits don’t have to end at the airport.
United cardholders can enjoy additional perks, like free daily breakfast for two, complimentary Wi-Fi, room upgrades, and early check-in or late check-out at more than 900 hotels included in the Luxury Hotel & Resorts Collection. Card members are also eligible for Discoverist status in the World of Hyatt global loyalty program, and Hertz President’s Circle.
Because Delta’s card is offered in partnership with American Express, it includes many benefits outside the world of travel, such as AmEx presale tickets and preferred seating at entertainment and sporting events, free ShopRunner membership, extended warranty, purchase protection, return protection, and roadside assistance. AmEx travel benefits including the Global Assist hotline and personalized travel service are included as well.
Best non-flight perks: Delta Reserve American Express Credit Card
The best airline credit card is the Delta Reserve American Express Credit Card.
- Flickr/Tomas Del Coro
The free companion ticket, sign-on bonus, ongoing bonus miles, and non-flight-related perks really set the Delta Reserve American Express Credit Card apart from the rest.
Still, to make an airline credit card worth it, you have to fly that airline regularly. If you live near a United or American hub, you’ll get more mileage from one of those cards instead.