Are airline-rewards credit cards really worth having? And which ones are best for frequent fliers?
Credit: Matt Johnstone

Question submitted by Mark Massey, Houston, Tex.

Trip Doctor’s Answer

Never before have consumers had so many options, with 20-odd airline-specific cards and two dozen generic travel-rewards cards currently on the market. As airlines continue to unbundle their tickets, these cards are proving ever more valuable. While other passengers are nickeled-and-dimed for everything from checked luggage to seat assignments, airline-card holders enjoy a range of perks, which might include expedited check-in, priority boarding, lounge admission, and free checked bags. (Here we should distinguish between standard cards, which have annual fees of $40–$95, and exclusive premium cards, which charge up to $450 a year but provide more benefits.) With so many carriers now touting branded cards, there’s a lot to choose from—so first, identify your needs and travel patterns:

The Status Seeker: Want premier status, without all the flying? American Express Delta Platinum ($150) members can earn up to 20,000 elite qualifying miles and are granted priority boarding. Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier Card from Chase ($99) lets you earn up to 15,000 tier-qualifying points a year on purchases.

The Family Traveler: Seek out companion-ticket deals and complimentary bag-check for family members. The Gold Delta SkyMiles American Express ($95) lets up to nine passengers check a bag for free, and provides a 20 percent discount on some in-flight purchases. (Note: American Express is the parent company of Travel + Leisure.) With Alaska Airlines Visa Signature ($75), you can buy one companion ticket each year, from $110.

The Overseas Traveler: Look for a card with no foreign-transaction fees, such as British Airways Visa Signature ($95). The Platinum Card by American Express ($450) also waives these fees, and will reimburse the $100 application fee for GlobalEntry, which gets you expedited passage through U.S. immigration.

The Constant Connector: Get a card offering lounge access. The Citi Executive AAdvantage World Elite MasterCard ($450) includes Admirals Club membership (a $500 value). The Chase United Airlines MileagePlus Explorer Visa ($95) comes with two one-time United Club passes per year.

But don’t just settle for the advertised offer. “See if they’ll waive the first year’s fee,” advises George Hobica, founder of “Instead of one mile per dollar spent, ask for two. And try for a bigger sign-up bonus—25,000 miles is standard, but I’d ask for 50,000, the typical cost of an anytime reward seat.” You may be surprised: these days, card reps tend to be more consumer-friendly than the airlines themselves.

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