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Survey: Which airline cards pack the most perks?

Allie Johnson

September 19, 2013

If you fly regularly, you might want to think about your airline rewards card perks: Do they help you travel with less stress, save money and earn free trips?

CreditCardGuide.com reviewed 23 airline rewards cards from six major U.S. carriers to uncover the most — and least — common perks (see chart below). We also asked rewards and travel experts which perks to pursue.

“It depends on what you need when you travel — is it discount awards, a companion ticket, access to a club lounge?” says Eric Rosen, managing editor at ThePointsGuy.com. “What is most valuable to you will be different than for someone else.”

Perks vary widely

All the cards in the survey offered at least a few extra benefits, but there's no standard set of perks. Here are the major findings:

  • A sign-up bonus is the most common perk. All the cards surveyed offered one, and bonuses ranged from 5,000 miles on the basic Delta SkyMiles card to 40,000 miles on the Frontier Airlines World MasterCard with an annual fee (the no-annual-fee version offers only 10,000 miles). The average sign-up bonus across all the cards surveyed was 24,500 miles. The catch: all cards have spending requirements you have to meet to earn the bonus. They range from making one purchase to spending $1,000 on the card in the first three months.
  • Priority check-in is the rarest perk. Only six cards in the survey offered priority check-in, which allows cardholders to bypass long check-in lines and get to the gate faster. “But with online check-in and kiosks, unless you're checking bags or flying internationally, it's not a huge perk,” Rosen says.
  • Boarding perks are not a given. Of the cards surveyed, just over half offer cardholders special boarding privileges.What those privileges are worth can get somewhat murky, however, as airlines all have their own unique boarding pecking orders. “Zone 1” or “Group 1” won't necessarily get you on the plane first. Most of the cards that offer some form of boarding perk allow cardholders to board the plane at the beginning of the general boarding process. However, all United cards surveyed — as well as the Citi Executive card — go a step further and let cardholders get on the plane before general boarding. Priority boarding is one of the best perks, Rosen says, as “you can get to your seat early and score some of that coveted overhead space.”
  • Expect to pay an annual fee. Out of 23 cards surveyed, 22 charged annual fees, starting at $50, with many over $100. The average annual fee: $137. However, seven of the cards surveyed waive the annual fee for the first year.
  • Perks can be pricy. The two cards in the survey with the most perks also came with the highest annual fees: $395 for the United MileagePlus Club card and a whopping $450 for the Citi Executive card. Want airline perks without a sky-high fee? The cards that give you the most for less than $100 a year are the United Explorer cards (personal and business).
  • Friends don't (usually) fly free. If you crave company when you travel, companion tickets might seem like a great deal. Five of the cards surveyed offer some form of companion ticket. Just don't expect them for free: Delta was the only airline in the survey to offer free (after taxes and fees, anyway) companion tickets. Other cards offer discounted companion tickets for $99 or $149. Gary Leff, co-founder of Milepoint.com, says that, with a few exceptions most offers of companion tickets are worth very little. “They're incredibly restrictive and come with lots of fees,” he says. (Story continues below.)

Compare airline cards

Searching for a new airline rewards card? Use our interactive chart to compare the perks. Simply select your airline and mouse over the check marks for more details. For more details about the sign-up bonus, mouse over the “Initial sign-up bonus” field.

Airline card benefit trends

Card issuers and airlines are now using perks as a way to set cardholders apart and treat them almost like entry-level elite frequent flier program members — those who fly about 25,000 miles a year, Leff says.

So, getting a card just for these perks “can really be worth it for someone who flies an airline regularly but not enough to get elite status,” Leff says.

Rosen adds that some card issuers are now offering spending threshold bonuses — if you spend a certain amount within a year, you earn extra rewards, such as bonus miles or a companion pass. For example, in our survey, the Citi Business/Aadvantage World MasterCard offers a $99 companion ticket to cardholders who spend $30,000 in a year.

Also, many issuers are offering bigger sign-up bonuses, Rosen.

A sign-up bonus can be a great reason to open a card, Leff says, and perks can be a good reason to keep it and use it.

“Often the cards that have really good perks are worth keeping and paying the fee on,” Leff says.

Which perks are worth it?

When shopping for an airline rewards card, make sure its tantalizing perks actually fit your travel habits. These six tips will help with your decision.

1. Find the dollar value of perks. Look at the annual fee. Then think about your travel and spending habits, and add up the dollar value of quantifiable perks such as free checked bags, onboard purchase discounts and waived foreign transaction fees. If these things are worth more than the annual fee, you're getting a good deal.

“A cheap flight can easily become an extra $50 to $100 with a couple of checked bags,” says Clint Johnston, who runs the website Triphackr.com.

Foreign transaction fees, Johnston says, can also “add up to a big bill.” These are fees (generally 3 percent) tacked on to purchases made in other countries. So cards that waive them (seven of the ones in our survey) are quite valuable.

2. Decide how much you value other “priceless” perks. Some perks — such as priority boarding — don't have a dollar value, but can make flying much easier for you, Leff says. Only you can decide: Is snagging overhead space and getting settled into your seat worth paying an annual fee? Estimate the number of times you'll fly in the next year, and divide that into the annual fee to determine the cost per trip. If you have a card with a $95 annual fee, and you fly seven times per year, you'll be paying $13 per trip to smooth out travel hassels.

3. Look at how you travel. Do you have a large family that vacations often and always checks bags? Or do you often have long layovers and crave the serenity of an airport lounge?

“Take stock of what you actually need and use when you travel,” Rosen says.

4. Scrutinize the perks. Some perks are better than others, so it pays to look at specifics. For example, most airline cards offer insurance coverage for rental cars, but it's usually secondary coverage, meaning it picks up only what your own auto insurance doesn't cover. However, the United MileagePlus Explorer card offers primary coverage on rental cars, Leff says.

“You turn it over to the card and your insurer doesn't even need to know [if you get in an accident],” says Leff.

5. Don't get sucked in by perks you won't use. You might fancy yourself sipping champagne in a club lounge, but if you're usually dashing across the airport to make a connecting flight, will you really use it? If not, stay away, Rosen says, noting that perk tends to be offered on higher-end, expensive cards.

6. Plan to make the most of your perks. Thinking ahead — for example, figuring out how you'll use your bonus miles — is key to getting the most bang for your buck on the mileage bonuses that often come with airline cards.

“With a little strategic planning, you can pull a huge amount of value from your cards,” Rosen says.