$450-Plus Annual Fee Almost as Likely as No Annual Fee With Airline Credit Cards
Citi is an advertising partner.
Airline-branded credit cards pack on the perks if you pay an annual fee — sometimes $500 or more — but they may leave you disappointed if you don’t, according to a new LendingTree analysis.
Credit cards from the big four U.S. airlines — American Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines — and more than a dozen others can include everything from priority boarding and free checked bags to trip cancellation and delay insurance. However, most of those won’t be available if you choose a card without an annual fee.
LendingTree reviewed 37 credit cards from 20 airlines and eight issuers to get the lay of the land on these popular cards. Our analysis specifically focused on cards branded with an airline’s logo rather than general-purpose travel cards whose perks aren’t tied to specific airlines. (Note: We only included consumer cards, not business cards.)
If you’re looking for an airline-branded credit card to help you save on your holiday travel or protect you in case your flight gets canceled, you have options. Just know you probably won’t get one for free — and you may have to dig to understand specific card offerings before applying.
- Airline-branded credit cards are almost as likely to have annual fees of $450 or higher than none. Five of the 31 airline cards with annual fees charge that much or more. However, those sky-high fees are the exception rather than the rule, as 23 of those 31 have annual fees of $99 or less. Just six of the cards reviewed have no annual fee in the first year and beyond.
- Don’t assume airline cards give you priority boarding, free checked bags or in-flight discounts. One of the best reasons to get an airline-branded card is to receive perks only the airline can give you. In all, 28 of the 37 cards reviewed have at least one of these three perks. However, you might find your card lacking if you don’t pay an annual fee.
- The most common sign-up bonus is 50,000 points or miles. Six of the 15 cards offered by the big four U.S. airlines — American, United, Delta and Southwest — have sign-up bonuses of that amount. Three branded cards from these four airlines offer 20,000 points or less. Perhaps surprisingly, however, the cards with the biggest bonuses don’t always have the highest annual fees.
- Trying to find the available perks before applying can be maddening. While it’s typically easy to find airline card sign-up bonuses, annual fees and interest rates, not everything is easy to track down. That’s especially true with travel protections such as auto rental insurance, trip delay or cancellation insurance and lost baggage reimbursement. For example, we found 17 cards that clearly indicate online that they offer auto rental insurance, but there may be more cards offering that perk since that information isn’t readily available from all issuers. Your best hope for finding that information might be to — cringe! — make a phone call.
Nearly 1 in 6 airline cards with annual fees charge $450 or higher
There are airline credit cards for every flavor of traveler; several airlines having three or four versions of cards is proof. If you have your heart set on an airline-branded credit card and don’t want to pay an annual fee, that’s possible. Of course, those no-fee cards won’t get the perks you would with a higher-fee card, but they’re available.
On the flip side, there are almost as many airline cards with annual fees of $450 or higher (five) as those with no annual fees (six). Three of the four biggest airlines in the U.S. by passengers have cards with annual fees of $500 or more, with only Southwest Airlines missing.
Highest annual fees from airline-branded credit cards from big 4 U.S. airlines
|Airline||Credit card||Annual fee|
|American Airlines||Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®||$595|
|Delta Airlines||Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card||$550|
|United Air Lines||United Club℠ Infinite Card||$525|
|Southwest Airlines||Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card||$149|
To see rates & fees for Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card please click here.
The perks with each of the three $500-plus cards will vary and are subject to change, but all three offer:
- a sign-up bonus of at least 60,000 miles
- Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®: Earn 70,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles after spending $7,000 within the first 3 months of account opening.
- Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card: Earn 60,000 bonus miles after you spend $5,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 6 months.
- United Club℠ Infinite Card: Earn 90,000 bonus miles after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.
- a free checked bag for the cardholder and at least one guest; priority boarding; a discount on in-flight purchases
- bonus points toward qualifying for elite status when meeting minimum spending thresholds
- some airport lounge access
- a statement credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck
- no foreign transaction fees
- insurance covering auto rental, trip delay or cancellation
That’s a lot, and at least a few of those things (priority boarding and status-qualification points, for example) aren’t available from general-purpose travel cards — even high-annual-fee cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve® or Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card.
That means if you fly regularly and are a loyal customer of that given airline, it can make sense for you to get that card. However, it might not be a great fit if you’re not a frequent flyer.
After all, $500 is a lot of money when living on a budget. If you are, many airlines have cards for you, too. Just don’t expect to get everything mentioned from those $500 cards when signing up.
Don’t assume you’ll get priority boarding, free checked bags or in-flight discounts
You definitely won’t get everything with a no-annual-fee airline card that you can get with a premium travel card, but there are a few standard things:
- Points or miles earned for spending: All 37 airline cards reviewed allow you to earn that airline’s points or miles through spending on the credit card.
- Sign-up bonuses: All 37 have miles or points sign-up bonuses you’d earn by spending certain amounts within certain time frames (typically $1,000 to $3,000 in 90 days or three months).
- Foreign-transaction-fee free: Of the 37 cards, 34 have no foreign transaction fees.
Beyond those three things, the offerings vary dramatically. Even some perks that might seem like they’d be standard with any airline card aren’t:
- In-flight discounts: More than half (20) offer a set percentage off at least some in-flight purchases, and another offers a free drink on each flight. The most common discount is 25%, provided by 13 cards.
- Priority boarding: Just less than half (18) offer priority boarding, with all but one of those coming with an annual fee. Three others come with free upgraded boardings or free early-bird check-ins a set number of times a year.
- Free checked bags: About a third (13) offer one or more free checked bags for you (and sometimes a companion), while one other offers 50% off the first bag. All come with an annual fee, though three waive it for the first year.
When you narrow the focus to the big four U.S. airlines (remember, that’s American, Delta, United and Southwest), those offerings become more common:
- In-flight discounts: All 15 cards offer this, with 11 at 25% off various purchases and four at 20%.
- Priority boarding: Nine of 15 offer priority boarding at all times, while three offer upgraded boardings or early-bird check-ins at least once a year.
- Free checked bags: Nine of 15 offer at least one free checked bag for at least the cardholder. Three of the cards don’t offer it because the airline — Southwest — doesn’t charge for the first two checked bags anyway, as long as they don’t exceed weight and dimension restrictions.
As you might imagine, your chances of getting one of these perks improve when you pay an annual fee.
Most common sign-up bonus is 50,000 points or miles
While the types of perks offered with airline-branded cards can vary widely, one is present across every one reviewed: sign-up bonuses.
The most common bonus is 50,000 points or miles offered by nine cards, including two that waive their annual fee for the first year. Among cards that don’t charge an annual fee in the first year and beyond, the biggest sign-up bonus is 20,000 points and miles, while the other five offer 10,000 points and miles.
Perhaps surprisingly, the cards with the highest sign-up bonuses aren’t always the ones with the highest annual fees. Of the six cards offering sign-up bonuses of 75,000 points or more, only one has an annual fee of higher than $95.
That’s because sign-up bonuses, while a hugely important driver for most credit card applications, aren’t the only perk super important to the high-end frequent travelers those cards are geared toward. They’re still a big deal, but so are things like lounge access, priority boarding, TSA PreCheck credits and travel insurance. The bigger the annual fee, the more perks you’ll likely receive.
Trying to find available perks before applying can be maddening
It’s not always easy to find what perks come with your card. Sure, it’s generally easy to know the sign-up bonus offer, the annual fee and whether the card charges a foreign transaction fee. Websites, emails and snail-mail pitches put those in big, bold fonts to catch your eye and entice you to sign up. Other perks, however, aren’t as easy to track down before signing up.
This is particularly true with the various types of insurance offered with a credit card. That includes things that can potentially be of great use to travelers, such as:
- Lost baggage reimbursement, including if the bags are damaged but not lost
- Trip delay insurance if your trip is delayed over a set amount of hours or requires an unplanned overnight stay
- Trip cancellation or interruption insurance to protect you in case of severe weather and other situations
- Primary or secondary auto rental insurance
Not all cards offer these things. In fact, most don’t. Auto rental insurance and baggage reimbursement are offered by at least 17 of the 37 cards we reviewed, though the offerings can vary by card.
For example, some rental car insurance is primary coverage, and some is secondary. That’s a significant distinction. With secondary insurance, you first file a claim with your primary insurer after the incident, and the secondary insurer may cover some of the costs your primary insurer didn’t. With primary insurance, you go directly through them without involving another issuer.
If you already have the card and want to find its Guide to Benefits, log in to the issuers’ app or website and look for it there. If you can’t find it, reach out for help.
If you’re considering applying for the card and want to know more, search the issuer’s website for “Guide to Benefits.” Just remember that those guides will vary by card, so just because you’ve found one guide from that issuer doesn’t mean you’ve found the one applicable to you.
You can also Google “[card name] Guide to Benefits,” but there’s no guarantee of success. Some cards’ benefit guides will be available, but others won’t — and there’s also a chance that a version you find online might be outdated.
Pay attention to the card name (but there’s more to it)
The name of the card itself may hint at what perks are available to its cardholders. For example, a card with Visa Signature or World Elite Mastercard in its name may indicate that it includes more perks than some lower-end cards. Googling “Visa Signature card benefits” or “Mastercard World Elite benefits” can lead you to pages with lists of possible benefits available from cards with these names. However, it’s important to understand that not all cards with those names offer all the possible perks associated with them, so reaching out and asking specifically about your card is still probably your best choice.
That advice doesn’t just apply to travel perks. It could also apply to identity theft protections, exclusive events or pre-sale access and other unique offerings.
Not all the perks your card offers will matter to you. There are many you’ll never know about, which can be fine. However, chances are that your card — airline or otherwise — may have a perk or two that you don’t know about that you would find useful. That means it can be worth your time to do a little homework and maybe make a phone call or two to learn about what’s available. If you don’t, you could miss out on some helpful tools or spend more money than necessary. With how expensive life is today, that’s the last thing any of us should do.
LendingTree reviewed offers for 37 airline-branded consumer credit cards available in the U.S. Cards from 20 airlines and eight issuers were included. We reviewed basic terms and conditions, including APRs and annual fees, and evaluated the cards’ rewards programs and other offerings such as travel protections.
All offers were reviewed online on financial institutions’ public websites. Credit card offer data is accurate as of September 18, 2023.
To see rates & fees for Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card please click here.