Top-level airline credit cards: Are they worth the price tag?

Airlines

Travelers at the United Airlines terminal arrive during a morning fog that has caused flight delays and cancellations at O'Hare International Airport on one of the busiest travel days of the year, Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012 in Chicago. (Chuck Berman / Chicago Tribune / November 21, 2012)

The three giant U.S. legacy airlines sponsor premium cards that feature additional benefits over their base cards. All charge yearly fees several times the fees for lower-level cards; all include the same lower-level cards' basic benefits, including one no-charge checked bag, no fees for foreign transactions, and some additional benefits. But their unique extra is access to airport lounge club programs.

American Airlines Citi Executive AAdvantage WorldElite MasterCard. The annual fee is $450 per year; the variable APR stands at 15.24 percent, and the first-year bonus is 30,000 miles after billing at least $1,000 during the first three months. Benefits include:

-- One no-charge checked bag per flight, for up to eight members of a travel party; dedicated check-in and screening lines, where offered; and dedicated concierge traveler-assistance program.

-- Discounts of 25 percent on some purchases from American Airlines, including in-flight food and beverages.

-- Two AAdvantage miles per dollar spent on AA tickets and one mile per dollar on other purchases and, with a yearly billing $40,000, an additional 10,000 miles that qualify toward elite status.

-- Access to American's Admirals Club airport lounge facilities; regularly $450 per year for one person, $775 for two, plus a $50 initiation fee.

Delta Reserve Credit Card (AmEx). The annual fee is $450 per year; the variable APR stands at 15.24 percent, and the first-year bonus is 30,000 miles after billing at least $1,000 during the first three months. Benefits include:

-- One no-charge checked bag per flight, priority boarding, and dedicated concierge personal assistance service.

-- Discounts of 20 percent on eligible in-flight purchases; also, one "free" economy class companion ticket per year.

-- Two SkyMiles per dollar spent on purchases from Delta; one mile per dollar on other purchases.

-- Access to Delta's Sky Club lounge facilities; regularly $450 per year for one person, $695 for two.

United Mileage Plus Club Card (Chase Visa). The annual fee is $395 per year for a primary and one other holder; the variable APR stands at 15.99 percent. Benefits include:

-- Two no-charge checked bags per flight, for the cardholder and one other person, priority check-in and screening lines, where offered; and dedicated concierge traveler-assistance program.

-- Two United miles per dollar spent on United tickets and one and a half miles per dollar on other purchases -- substantially more generous than the other lines' one mile per dollar.

-- Two unique "insurance" benefits: primary rental car collision coverage and trip cancellation coverage up to $10,000 for a limited number of covered reasons -- both a big competitive plus.

-- Access to United Club airport lounge facilities, regularly $500 per year for one person, $750 for two, plus a $50 initiation.

American Express Platinum card also plays in this league. Its annual fee is $450 for the primary holder, $175 extra for a second holder. Benefits include:

-- $200 yearly credit for fees paid to a preferred airline.

-- Concierge service.

-- Access to four airport lounge programs: Priority Pass, with more than 600 locations, worldwide; Delta Sky Clubs; AmEx's own Centurion lounges, with locations at Dallas-Ft. Worth and Los Angeles, and Airspace Lounges at Baltimore, Cleveland, and New York/JFK.

-- Ability to convert AmEx points into miles or points in the programs of 27 airlines, including Air Canada and Delta in North America, plus international lines that give access to award travel in all three major worldwide alliances.

-- Twofer list-price tickets in business class -- a benefit formerly worth more than now because discounted business-class tickets are so widely available.

Which card is "best?" On an overall basis, two cards outpoint the others:

-- The United card gives the best benefits.

-- AmEx Platinum gives most flexibility.

But, for most of you, the choice will be based on the airline you fly most frequently. Compared with lower-fee alternatives, the American, Delta, and AmEx Platinum cards make sense only if you value the airport club access at around $300 a year or more. The bar is a bit lower for United flyers, due to its card's high earning rate and unique insurance benefits.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through http://www.mybusinesstravel.com or http://www.amazon.com)

(c) 2014 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Featured Stories

Reporters and editors involved in creating and writing these cruise articles are in no way affiliated with any links that are placed on the pages. Read our full editorial policy.

Deal Watch

This Week's Hot Deals

Don't want to book online?

Call us at 1-866-381-5204