Editorial Policy

Airline Rewards Cards Offer More than Miles

Eva Norlyk Smith Ph.D.

December 10, 2012

QHi Eva,

When I was at the airport last week, I noticed that people with the airline’s credit card got to board early. Is this a common benefit of rewards cards? And are there other benefits to reward cards that make traveling easier? My sister says she doesn’t have to pay to check her bags because of her credit card. I never thought I’d want a rewards card, but this all sounds pretty nice. — Alec

AHi Alec,

You’re not the first one to eye all those rewards card passengers in the priority boarding line and wonder how you might be one of them next time you fly. My husband  had the same “aha” moment a few years back, when we were stuck in a very long and very slow boarding line in Copenhagen, Denmark, with nothing to do but to watch passengers in the priority boarding line breeze past us.Ask Eva

As he also learned  getting in that priority boarding line can be as easy as getting an airline rewards card. Pretty much all airline rewards cards offer priority boarding to anyone who has that airline’s rewards card, although as we shall see below, “priority” doesn’t always mean “first in line.”

Plus, as your sister rightly notes, most airline rewards cards also let you check your first bag for free — and even let anyone traveling with you (typically up to four accompanying passengers) check theirs for free, too. At a value of $50 per round-trip flight, for a couple, that’s a savings of $100 per flight. For a family of four, it adds up to a savings of $200 per flight. Many airline rewards cards also come with complimentary lounge access, typically up to two times a year.

It doesn’t stop there, however. For frequent fliers who reach elite status with an airline, there are plenty of other perks and bonuses, including priority check-in, complimentary seat upgrades to business or first class when seats are available and, for higher elite levels, priority baggage handling.

The most eye-popping benefits are the sign-up bonuses that often come with airline cards. These typically range from 30,000 bonus miles to as much as 50,000 miles, enough for a free domestic round-trip ticket. Because this is a one-time bonus, however, you don’t want to let it determine your choice of rewards card. Instead, look at the cards offered by the airlines serving the routes you most frequently fly.

As always, it’s important to consider the cons as well. Nearly all airline rewards cards come with an annual fee, typically around $75 to $95, but fees can run as high as $150 or even $450 for premium cards. The fee is often waived the first year, making it easy to forget that it’s there, but you need to make sure the perks are worth that annual fee. The free-checked-baggage perk can quickly earn you back the fee if you travel frequently. If you don’t, the choice is more difficult.

There’s also a price of admission: To get those nice bonus miles, airline rewards card typically require you to charge a minimum to the card within the first year. The spending requirements vary, so read the terms carefully. For some cards, such as the US Airways Premium World MasterCard, all you have to do is make one purchase to get the bonus rewards miles. For others, such as the Citi AAdvantage Visa Signature card, you have to spend $3,000 within three months. But even within the same card, you can find different offers, so it pays to shop around.

Lastly, getting priority boarding doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be the very first in line. For most airlines, the boarding order begins with pre-boarding for people needing extra time or assistance and continues with first-class and business-class passengers. Then come the frequent fliers in the elite category, and only then come the rest of the rewards card holders.

The popularity of the airline’s frequent flier program also determines just how many people are in that priority boarding line with you. Some airline rewards programs, such as  the Delta SkyMiles program, have been so widely advertised that those SkyMiles priority boarding lines are getting longer and longer. Following the law of diminishing returns, if everyone else is enjoying priority boarding, it’s not so priority after all. However, for most airlines, priority boarding continues to be a great benefit, and if you have the money and like to travel in style, that perk alone is worth the cost of the annual fee.

Got a question for Eva? Send her an email.