Ranked: Top 3 Perks of Airline Credit Cards Even if You're Not 'Elite' (2024)

If you want to do more traveling in 2024 and beyond, you might want to get up to speed on the new landscape of airline credit cards. A big debate in the past few years in the frequent flyer community has focused on whether it's worth it to try to get elite status with airlines.

Personally, I do not have elite status with any airlines. Based on my research, it takes a lot of flying (and/or a lot of credit card spending) to earn this status. Most air travelers might not feel like it's worth booking lots of flights just to earn a few elite status perks.

If having elite status with airlines is fun, comforting, and meaningful to you, then go for it! But don't feel as if elite status is the only way to get extra value and perks from your frequent flyer experience. You can also create your own little DIY elite status perks by choosing the right airline credit card.

Here are a few of the best airline credit card perks that can help you feel more "elite," even if you don't actually have elite status.

1. Free checked bag

Airlines have recently been raising their fees for checked bags. You can avoid these extra costs by getting a free checked bag with some of the best airline credit cards. Several major airline credit cards now give you a free checked bag, including:

  • Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®
  • Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card
  • United℠ Explorer Card

Checking your bag makes for a more relaxing journey. You don't have to drag your carry-on bag through the airport or fight for space in the overhead bin. And you can stow your personal item or laptop bag overhead, which leaves more leg room under the seat in front of you -- it's almost like being in business class!

2. Free airport lounge access

Many airline loyalty programs have cut back on free lounge access perks in the past few years, as airport lounges have gotten crowded. But getting to sit in a nice, quiet environment, away from the noise and bustle of the airport terminal, can be a valuable perk -- especially if you want to enjoy free food and drinks and get some work done.

Getting airport lounge access might be worth the effort, even if it means applying for a new credit card. If you want free unlimited lounge access, you can sign up for a premium travel rewards credit card like The Platinum Card® from American Express (which gives you access to over 1,400 airport lounges; terms apply). Another option is the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card (with free access for you and two guests to over 1,300 lounges).

Do you want a lower-fee airline credit card that still gives you some lounge access? The United℠ Explorer Card gives you two free day passes per year to United Club lounges, and its annual fee is only $95 ($0 for the first year). If you're not a super-frequent flyer or heavy user of airport lounges, this could be a good solution to give you a taste of the lounge lifestyle.

3. Discounts on in-flight purchases

Some airline credit cards also give you helpful discounts on in-flight purchases like food and beverages. This can make those in-flight co*cktails and snacks feel much more affordable, and give you extra value from your credit card experience. For example:

  • The Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard® offers a 25% savings on American Airlines in-flight food and beverages when you pay with your card.
  • The Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card offers a 20% savings (statement credit) when you use your card for eligible in-flight purchases on Delta-operated flights (which can include food and beverages). Terms apply.

Are discounted drinks as good of a deal as free upgrades to business class (which you can sometimes earn with the right level of elite status)? Well, no. But it can make your flight feel a little more comfortable and give you a touch of that "elite" feeling, even if you're sitting in economy class.

Bottom line

Earning airline elite status is not a big priority for me, even though I'm going full throttle on travel rewards credit cards. It's true that elite airline status can help you earn more frequent flyer miles faster, get free upgrades, and a few other high-value perks. But if you want to enjoy a better air travel experience, you can create a few fun little perks of your own, without hustling to earn elite status. Check out the best travel credit cards to see which perks are most meaningful to you -- and happy flying!

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Ranked: Top 3 Perks of Airline Credit Cards Even if You're Not 'Elite' (2024)
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