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- If you fly even just a couple times a year, it’s worth having an airline credit card.
- The perks and benefits that come with these cards, such as free checked bags, priority boarding, and lounge passes, that make flying easier and more enjoyable – and can save you money.
- We compared some of the most popular mainstream credit cards from the three big US airlines – American, United, and Delta.
- The Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express is worth an extra-close look right now, as it’s offering a welcome bonus of 60,000 miles after you spend $2,000 in the first three months (but only until October 30).
One of the best ways to earn a bunch of frequent flyer miles quickly is to open an airline credit card and earn the new card member bonus.
While a card that earns transferable points – like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card – typically has more valuable and flexible rewards than fixed program cards, airline cards win in two respects.
If you generally fly with one preferred airline and earn frequent flyer miles on that program when you travel, it can make sense to earn the same kind of miles from your credit card. Between the mileage earned from both, your miles will add up quicker.
Also, airline credit cards come with various perks specific to that airline that can save you a ton of time and money. Things like complimentary checked bags, priority boarding, and even day passes to airport lounges will have you feeling like you’re flying first class even when you’re in basic economy.
Each of the three major US airlines (American, Delta, and United) offer a few different credit cards, but among the most popular are the “mainstream” cards. These products have annual fees between $95 and $99 – often waived the first year – and feature benefits that appeal to everyone from casual fliers to road warriors.
While they all have similar features and benefits and all offer a great value to cardholders, we’ve compared them and found that one stands out above the rest. Read on to see which one it is.
Keep in mind that we’re focusing on earning rewards and perks, not things like interest rates and late fees, which can far outweigh the value of any rewards or benefits.
When you’re working to earn credit card rewards or take advantage of travel benefits, it’s important to practice financial discipline, like paying your balances off in full each month, making payments on time, and not spending more than you can afford to pay back – or spending more than you would otherwise. Basically, treat your credit card like a debit card.
First up is the Gold Delta SkyMiles Card from American Express.
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Welcome bonus: Earn 60,000 Delta miles after you make $2,000 in Delta purchases in the first three months. Plus, receive a $50 statement credit when you make a Delta purchase in the first three months. This offer is available until October 30, 2019.
Annual fee: $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95
Earning miles: 2 miles per dollar spent on Delta purchases, and 1 mile per dollar on everything else
Top benefits: Free checked bag on Delta flights, priority boarding, 20% off in-flight purchases, no foreign transaction fees
In addition to the welcome offer, the Gold Delta Amex card comes with a handful of incredibly useful – and valuable – perks.
If you have the card open, you get a free checked bag on Delta flights, as does each other person on your reservation. Delta normally charges $30 for the first checked bag on each flight – so $60 for a round-trip – meaning that for a family of four, the free checked bag benefit could save $240.
The card also offers priority boarding to everyone on the cardholder’s reservation. If you aren’t checking a bag, that can come in useful – by boarding a little earlier, you’ll get better access to the overhead compartments and won’t have to worry about space running out.
For those who travel periodically, but not often enough to justify investing in a lounge membership (or getting access to Delta Sky Club lounges through the Amex Platinum Card), the Gold Delta SkyMiles card also offers discounted day passes to Delta’s lounges: $29 per person. That can be a useful backup to have in case you ever find yourself with a long layover or a delay.
Other benefits include a 20% discount on in-flight purchases (in the form of a statement credit), such as food or drinks, and no foreign transaction fees.
While the Gold Delta card is a great option, you may also want to consider the Platinum version (the Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express). Although it has a higher annual fee -$195, not waived the first year – it offers a companion pass each year on your cardmember anniversary. You can learn more about the companion pass benefit and the Platinum SkyMiles card here.
Note that starting in 2020, Delta credit cards will be updated with new benefits including additional 2x bonus categories for earning miles (US supermarkets and restaurants) and a $100 Delta flight credit after you spend $10,000 on the card in a year. The Gold Delta Amex annual fee will also be increasing to $99.
Next is the United Explorer Card.
Welcome bonus: Earn 40,000 United miles after you spend $2,000 in the first three months. (While the card has occasionally offered higher targeted bonuses, those don’t always waive the $95 annual fee for the first year – this current public offer does.)
Annual fee: $0 introductory annual fee the first year, then $95
Earning miles: 2 miles per dollar spent on United purchases and at restaurants and on hotel stays, 1 mile per dollar on everything else
Top benefits: Free checked bag, priority boarding, two complimentary United Club lounge passes each year, up to a $100 application fee credit for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry, access to additional award space, no foreign transaction fees
The United Explorer Card from Chase is a solid option for United flyers. Like the other airlines’ sub-$100 cards, the United card offers a free checked bag for the cardholder. Up to two traveling companions booking at the same time can also get a free checked bag each. This is especially useful since United raised the price of a checked bag to $30.
Unlike the other airlines’ cards, though, you’ll have to actually buy the tickets with the United card in order to get the free checked bags – simply having the card open and tied to your account isn’t enough.
For those who don’t have luggage to check, the card offers priority boarding for everyone on your reservation – you’ll get this benefit even if you pay for the tickets with another card. By boarding earlier, you can make sure to snag overhead space for your carry-on.
One excellent perk with the United card is that you’ll get two complimentary passes to United Club lounges each year. If you get to the airport early or end up dealing with a delay, you can head to the lounge and enjoy free snacks, drinks, Wi-Fi, and more comfortable seating than what you’d find in the terminal.
When you spend $25,000 in a calendar year, you’ll also get a PQD waiver – PQDs, or “Premier Qualifying Dollars,” count toward earning elite status with the airline. When that requirement is waived, you’ll earn status just based on how much you’ve flown, rather than a combination of how much you’ve flown and how much you’ve spent that year.
The card earns 2 miles per dollar spent on all United purchases, and it also earns 2x miles on all dining and hotel spending. It will continue earning 1x mile on everything else. There are no foreign transaction fees.
Other features include a fee credit to cover the cost of enrolling in Global Entry/TSA PreCheck, and a 25% discount on all in-flight United purchases.
One unique – but unpublished – perk of the card is that having it helps you access additional United award space. That means that you’ll have an easier time finding the flights you want when it’s time to actually use your miles.
Finally there’s American Airlines: the Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard.
Welcome bonus: Earn 50,000 American Airlines miles after you spend $2,500 in the first three months.
Annual fee: $99; waived for the first 12 months
Earning miles: 2 miles per dollar spent on American Airlines purchases, at gas stations, and restaurants, 1 mile per dollar on everything else
Top benefits: Free checked bag on domestic flights, preferred boarding, 25% off in-flight food and beverages, no foreign transaction fees
50,000 miles (or at least 52,500, when you factor in the miles you’ll earn for completing the minimum spending requirement) can get you far on American Airlines – as long as you can find “SAAver” availability. Based on American Airlines’ award chart, it’s nearly enough miles for a round-trip flight to Europe or South America during peak season, a one-way ticket to Europe in business class, or at least two domestic round-trips (or more, depending on the distance).
The Citi/AAdvantage Platinum card earns 2 miles per dollar spent on American Airlines purchases, and Citi also recently added a few new bonus categories – new card members will earn 2x miles on restaurants and at gas stations, too. You’ll earn 1 mile per dollar on everything else.
The card comes with a suite of useful benefits for American Airlines flyers.
You and up to four companions traveling on the same reservation each get a free checked bag on domestic flights (since American Airlines is a full-service carrier, most international flights include the first checked bag for free). Because the first checked bag is usually $25 each way, this benefit can save you $50 on a round-trip itinerary.
In addition, you and everyone on your reservation get preferred boarding – joining an earlier boarding zone. That gives you more time to settle in – and earlier access to the overhead bins, so that you can make sure you’ll have room to store your bag.
A small, but useful new perk: When you spend $20,000 or more on the card in a card membership year, you’ll get a $125 discount on your next American Airlines flight (that’s in addition to the miles you’ll earn on those purchases).
The card also offers a 25% discount on in-flight purchases, such as food and drinks, and access to discounted mileage award flights.
How do the cards stack up?
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Each card has strengths and weaknesses. Let’s look at each:
- Free first checked bag for you and any traveling companions, regardless of whether or not you use the card to buy your tickets
- Priority boarding
- Discounted day passes for Delta Sky Club lounges – though this benefit will be discontinued in 2020
- Discounts on in-flight purchases
- No bonus earning categories (besides Delta purchases), but this is changing in 2020, when the card will offer 2x miles on US supermarket purchases and at restaurants
- No extras (like a discount on flights, extra points, or help toward elite status) if you spend a lot on the card in a year, but in 2020 the card will add a $100 Delta flight credit when you spend $10,000 in a calendar year
United Airlines: the Explorer Card from Chase
- 2x miles on dining and hotels, as well as on United purchases
- Two complimentary United Club lounge passes each year
- Priority boarding for you and your travel companions
- Discount on in-flight purchases, Global Entry/TSA PreCheck credit
- Access to additional saver-level award seats
- To get the first checked bag free, you’ll have to use the card to buy your tickets
- The free checked bag is only extended to up to two traveling companions – that’s not helpful if you’re traveling with a family of four
American Airlines: the Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select
- 2x points on dining and gas – not just on airline purchases
- Offers a solid sign-up bonus
- Free first checked bag for you and up to four traveling companions, regardless of whether or not you use the card to buy your tickets
- Priority boarding
- $100 discount on an American Airlines flight if you spend $20,000 in a year
- Discount on in-flight purchases
- No lounge passes or discounts
- No spending bonus that counts toward elite status
So, which is best?
The best card is the one for whichever airline you find the most useful. Although there are some differences between them, each of these cards comes with a version of free checked bags and priority boarding, which are the most valuable reasons to have the cards. Plus, they help you earn more miles – and quickly.
However, if you’re ambivalent about your choice of airline, the Citi/AAdvantage card for American Airlines is probably the most appealing card right now.
Between 2x miles on several categories and a solid sign-up bonus, this card represents a great value. However, keep in mind that it’s always possible that the sign-up bonus increases at some point in the future, although there’s no guarantee.
However, starting on January 30, 2020, the Gold Delta Amex will give the Citi AAdvantage card a run for its money thanks to the introduction of new bonus categories and perks. But it could be worth applying before those new benefits take effect in order to lock in the higher welcome bonus available now.
As benefits continue to be added and removed – and, crucially, as sign-up bonuses and welcome offers fluctuate – this evaluation could always change. One way or another, an airline card is a must-have and represents significant value for anyone who flies even just a few times a year.
This content is not provided by the card issuers. Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed here are those of the authors’ alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any issuer.