Little-known perks of airline rewards credit cards
People usually sign up for airline credit cards so they can pile on frequent-flier miles. But they can do a lot more than that. Airline travel rewards cards offer a variety of other perks that get little attention.
For example, you can get free checked bags with a lot of airline cards. You'll also get priority boarding. Those perks alone can make up for the card's annual fee, and that's just the beginning.
Here are some of the best little-known perks of airline rewards cards.
Discounted award tickets
Some airline credit cards will effectively boost the value of your frequent-flier miles.
Citi's consumer American Airlines AAdvantage credit cards give members a 10 percent refund on up to 10,000 frequent-flier miles per year. American also lets Citi American Airlines credit card holders book some flights with fewer miles than other customers. The destinations, which vary each quarter, can be found on the carrier's website.
US Airways also allows Dividend Miles members who have certain US Airways MasterCard credit cards to book a round-trip ticket with 5,000 fewer miles than normal. So instead of 25,000 miles for a domestic coach round-trip ticket, you'd only need to redeem 20,000 miles. The discount also works for "open-jaw" flights to multiple cities.
Receiving companion tickets is one of the most valuable perks with airline credit cards. It allows you to occasionally buy two tickets for the price of one.
Here's how it works. Say you have a British Airways Visa credit card. If you spend $30,000 within a calendar year, you'll receive a "Travel Together" companion ticket from the airline. The next time you redeem frequent-flier miles for a flight, you can use the companion ticket to buy another seat. You don't need to redeem anymore miles, though you still must pay taxes and fees on both tickets. This perk can be worth a huge amount of money if you redeem for a business or first-class ticket.
Companion tickets have different names. Delta gives its Delta Reserve cardholders something called a Reserve Companion Certificate. It entitles a cardholder to bring along a travel companion when he buys a domestic round-trip ticket in first, business or economy. Delta Platinum American Express cardholders receive a complimentary economy companion ticket with the same terms.
The Alaska Airlines Visa gives cardholders an annual $99 companion fare for economy tickets. So when they buy one ticket at a published fare price, they can get a second ticket for $99 plus taxes. The US Airways Premier World MasterCard gives its members two $99 companion tickets each year for round-trip coach travel within and between the contiguous U.S. and Canada. And the primary cardholder of a Virgin America Visa is eligible to receive a $150 Virgin America Companion Ticket Discount Code each year.
A lot of airline credit cards will let you in to their exclusive airport lounges. You can get full lounge access with some cards and discounted access with others.
For example, the United Club card gives cardholders and a travel companion access to its lounges. Cardholders also can get into Star Alliance lounges.
The American Citi Executive AAdvantage card comes with Admirals Club membership privileges for the primary cardholder and immediate family or up to two travel companions. The Delta Reserve card also allows complimentary access to Delta Sky Clubs.
With the American Express Platinum card, cardholders gain access to Delta Sky Clubs, American Airlines Admirals Clubs, US Airways Lounges and more than 600 independent Priority Pass lounges, including Alaska Airlines Board Rooms. All of that lounge access makes the card's $450 annual fee a bit easier to swallow.
Elite status is the ultimate insider's perk for travelers. Elites get better service through special customer service reps, and they stand in shorter lines at the airport. A lot of fees are waived for elites, and they sometimes get bumped from coach to first class.
Airlines grant this status to their most loyal customers, though you can also get it by picking the right credit card.
While most airline credit cards don't offer elite status outright, several make it easier for cardholders to qualify. The Delta Reserve card will send you 10,000 elite-qualifying miles with the first purchase, and you'll get 15,000 more if you use the card to spend $30,000 within the calendar year. That's enough for Silver Medallion status on Delta.
The only American Airlines credit card that earns elite status is the Citi Executive AAdvantage card, which awards 10,000 elite-qualifying miles after $40,000 in purchases each calendar year. The US Airways MasterCard offers 10,000 Preferred Qualifying Miles after cardholders hit $25,000 in spending each year, which is nearly halfway to silver status.
One of the most onerous travel experiences can be getting off a long-haul flight and then having to stand in line for hours at customs and immigration. That's why many fliers apply for Global Entry, a service that helps fliers speed through customs using electronic kiosks.
Global Entry costs $100 every five years. But American Express Platinum cardholders can get it for free. If they use their cards to pay for their Global Entry application, American Express will send them a statement credit for the $100 fee.
Visa signature perks
Many airline credit cards are also Visa Signature cards, which come with a host of perks. Examples of Visa Signature rewards cards include the British Airways Visa, the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier Card, Bank of America's Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines cards, and the Citi Platinum Select American AAdvantage Visa.
One of the most valuable set of perks these cards carry is the ability to book hotel rooms through the Visa Signature Hotels service. The service can get discounts on room rates, room upgrades, breakfast, early check-in and late check-out, dining and spa credits, and more.
Visa Signature also throws various exclusive events throughout the country where cardholders can buy tickets in advance and get into special events with celebrities. And Visa Signature has partnerships with dozens of Sonoma wineries that offer cardholders perks including free wine tastings and wine purchase discounts.
With some cards, you can even get discounts while onboard. Delta, for example, offers Gold, Platinum and Reserve cardholders a 20 percent credit on their statement when they use their Delta SkyMiles card to buy food, alcoholic drinks, movies, headphones and other items on a Delta-operated flight.
American Airlines gives Citi Platinum Select AAdvantage cardholders a 25 percent discount (as a statement credit) on in-flight food, beverages and headset purchases made with their card.
The biggest credit card mileage bonuses are usually awarded when consumers apply for and receive a new card. But several cards also offer anniversary bonuses.
The Southwest Rapid Rewards Visa offers 3,000 bonus points (worth $50 in Wanna Getaway? fares) every year on the anniversary of the account opening. The Bank of Hawaii and Bank of America versions of the Hawaiian Airlines Visa both offer 2,000 miles on account anniversaries.
The Virgin Atlantic American Express gives cardholders up to 15,000 bonus miles on every anniversary if they spend at least $25,000 that year. The US Airways MasterCard gives cardholders 10,000 bonus miles each year on the account anniversary with no spending requirements.