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Best Frequent Flier Cards with Travel Perks

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By Eva Norlyk Smith, Ph.D.
August 27, 2011

If earning rewards toward free airline tickets seems like so last year to you, new travel perks offered by some frequent flier cards may perk you up.

The latest trend to catch on in the always competitive travel rewards card segment is the introduction of tantalizing perks, such as free baggage, priority check-in and complimentary airport lounge access.

Delta and American Express began the trend with premium cards that also featured premium annual fees. However, as competition heats up, cards with great travel perks are becoming increasingly accessible to regular Joes like you and me, say experts.

In fact, even the standard-level credit cards affiliated with airlines now offer some kind of perk, says Ed Perkins, a travel columnist with SmarterTravel.com. For example, Perkins predicts that one free checked bag will soon become a standard benefit offered by frequent flier credit cards.

Best affordable frequent flier cards with travel perks
If you’re unwilling to shell out a sky-high annual fee in exchange for extra travel perks, don’t sweat. There are an increasing number of frequent flier cards that offer decent travel perks for those on a budget.

Some of the latest arrivals in this category include the United MileagePlus Explorer card and the Continental Airlines OnePass Plus card.

Both cards are issued by Chase, and the benefits are nearly identical (which isn’t surprising since United and Continental Airlines are merging).

For a $95 annual fee (waived the first year), cardholders and their companion get priority boarding privileges — which saves them from standing in long lines, heavy carry-ons in hand — and free checked baggage. Cardholders also get complimentary access to airport lounges that include quiet business meeting rooms, free snacks, beverages and Wi-Fi.

Access to the airport lounges is limited to two free passes a year. However, taking into account the modest annual fee, this may still be worth it to those who don’t travel a lot.

Both cards also come with up to 40,000 bonus miles, but not everyone will qualify for the full bonus. New cardholders currently earn 25,000 bonus miles after the first use of the card, 5,000 bonus miles if they add an authorized user (within 2 months) and 10,000 bonus miles if they spend $25,000 or more during the calendar year. Cardholders also earn two miles for every dollar spent on tickets purchased from United and Continental and one mile per dollar spent everywhere else.

Both cards, not surprisingly, offer benefits similar to the Gold and Platinum Delta Skymiles cards (which feature annual fees of $95 and $150, respectively). To stay competitive, Delta and American Express recently announced that they were adding priority boarding for both Gold and Platinum Delta Skymiles cardholders — a perk previously reserved for cardholders with Elite status.

Delta Skymiles cardholders also get a complimentary ticket per year (free for Platinum cardholders and with a $99 fee for Gold cardholders), which is an extra benefit not offered by the United and Continental cards. To get free lounge access on the Delta Skymiles cards, however, you have to earn your way to Elite status.

If premium perks such as complimentary lounge access are important to you, you can earn your way to Elite status through a combination of frequent travel and/or high spending. Elite status comes with extra privileges, such as complimentary upgrades to first class when seats are available, as well as other premium perks. For business travelers, those extra perks may be worth it, says Perkins.

“For people who fly a lot, the Elite status is way more important than the miles,” says Perkins. “With miles earnings, it’s often hard to get seats when you go to cash in your miles earnings. What really matters are all those Elite benefits, the chief of which is the complimentary first class upgrade, second is the free lounge access and third the express check-in and boarding privileges.”

An alternative to perk-heavy frequent flier cards
If your primary goal is simply to earn free trips, however, Perkins says that frequent flier cards with bells and whistle perks may not be your best option. Instead, you may be better off with a high-paying bank credit card like the Capital One Venture Card, which gives two miles in rewards earnings per dollar spent. With a cash-in value of 1 cent per mile, that’s the equivalent of 2 percent cash back on all your spending.

“If you don’t travel a lot and can’t earn miles from travel, a high-paying bank credit card like the Capital One Venture gives better benefits,” says Perkins. “You are basically earning a cash value on your purchases, and you don’t have to worry about seat availability. You can buy a ticket on any airline, and the card simply reimburses you for the ticket purchases using the rewards earned.”