How Many Airline Credit Cards Are In Your Wallet?

By Robert McGarvey


The headline on Ron Lieber’s New York Times column grabbed me:  Why Airline Credit Cards Have an Enduring Appeal.  

That’s because – although I’ve consciously shed credit cards in recent years – I presently have two airline credit cards and often find myself eyeing a third.

The reason: as I move into a post loyalty world where I have status on no carrier, airline credit cards give me many things that I used to get when I had status.  With them in hand, I feel no pain at the loss of elite perks because I am buying what I need with the airline plastic.

Airlines, in their greedy rush to grab up non traditional revenues streams such as credit cards, have given us all a backdoor that lets us avoid scrambling for elite status but still enjoy all the perks.

Of course I at first balked at adding airline plastic to my wallet. Then a reasonable review of the perks persuaded me of my errors.

Lieber said that at first he too was skeptical about loud claims for successes of airline credit cards.  But then “I looked in my wallet. After years of fealty to my trusty Starwood Preferred Guest credit card, I, too, gave in last year and picked up cards from American Airlines and Delta.”

Me, when I lived in Jersey City I had only a Continental (United) card because at EWR that was plenty. In Phoenix, where I now live, no carrier has similar hegemony so I have the United card, supplemented by an American Airlines card, and I frequently eye the Southwestern card but have thus far resisted.

An irony in all this, and reported on by Lieber, is that we are in an era of skepticism about the value of airline miles.  When you can earn them doing just about anything and when carriers frequently make flight rewards seemingly forever out of reach, there are plenty of reasons to view miles with a jaundiced eye.

But the card issuers and airlines know that.  Yes, the cards accumulate miles on purchases.  But they do a lot more. Lieber quoted Brian Kelly, aka The Points Guy, on what really matters with airline cards: “As points [miles] become more confusing and devalued, people turn to perks — and they are easy to see and easy to value.”

Kelly continued: “The issuers are doubling down on perks, and it appears to be paying off.”

Talk about coincidence. This morning’s mail brought a thick envelope from United/Chase regarding changes in my card -the basic Explorer Card ($95 annual fee) – and there’s an avalanche of new perks, effective June 1.

Continuing benefits include: a free checked bag; 2 United Club passes annually; priority boarding; no foreign transaction fees; 2 miles per $1 spent on United purchases; 1 mile per $1 on other purchases.

I always buy United tickets on this card, which gives a mileage bonus. And I am in it because of the priority boarding which means that just about always overhead bin space is available.

New benefits include: 2 miles per $1 spent at restaurants; 2 miles per $1 spent on hotel accommodations; 25% back as inflight purchases (food, beverage, WiFi) on United; and reimbursement for Global Entry or TSA Pre.

Count me as loving the Global Entry reimbursement – I’ll sign up tout suite.  And I like the 25% refund on inflight purchases.

That $95 fee pays itself back lots of ways. Nope, I will not use the card anywhere except where there’s a direct United tie-in. But, in those cases, I now find it indispensable. 

Ditto for the $95  Barclays/American Airline Aviator card.  Its benefits aren’t quite as rich – no club passes, for instance, and no reimbursement for TSA Pre or Global Entry.

But the AA card offers priority boarding, free checked bag, 25% credit for inflight purchases, a 7500 miles discount on certain rewards trips, and trip cancellation/interruption coverage in at least some cases. There’s also a 2X mileage award for American Airlines purchases and 1X on other purchases.

I’ll be surprised if Barclays too doesn’t sweeten the pot with more perks for cardholders soon.  

Word of advice: if you have an airline card, check the perks. They may well have recently been upgraded (the reimbursement for Global Entry on the United card was news to me).

Do you need an airline card? My advice is – if you don’t have high level elite status with your primary airline – the $95 a basic card costs could well be money well spent. Check the benefits for your airline – the differences between the Chase and Barclays cards are big enough to matter for some travelers. All airline cards are not created equal.

And if you see $95 in benefits for the card you want, take the plunge.

Most cards also waive the first year fee and throw a basket of free miles at new cardholders (typically 40,000 or a little more).

To me, this is a no brainer.

But your math may well differ.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *