Continental Boosts Value of Frequent Flyer Credit Cards

New rewards credit cards are nothing new. But when I heard that Continental planned to unveil a new OnePass-affiliated card, I was intrigued and perplexed in equal parts. With Continental's merger with United all but certain, this seemed like quixotic timing for a significant new product launch.

More on the timing later. But first, what's new here?

In brief, Continental is replacing its previous entry-level World MasterCard with the new OnePass Plus card, and adding new benefits to its higher-priced Presidential Plus card.

Both cards feature special perks at more than 650 hotels, including "daily complimentary breakfast for two, early check-in and late check-out, complimentary room upgrades, and a special amenity such as a spa treatment, green fees, or welcome gift."

Also common to the two cards is the ability of cardholders to redeem Continental miles for hotel stays and car rentals.

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Beginning next year, cardholders who are elite OnePass members will be eligible for upgrades when traveling on award tickets, just as they would be when flying on paid tickets.

And instead of the typical secondary Collision Damage Waiver coverage, the new cards feature primary CDW coverage.

In addition to the above, Plus cardholders receive the following: 25,000 bonus miles after the first purchase; two airport lounge day passes; first checked bag fee waived on Continental flights; 10,000 bonus miles after charging $25,000.

And the Presidential card comes with the following: Continental lounge membership (normally $450) with access to United and US Airways lounges; first and second checked bag fees waived; Hyatt Platinum elite status; 1,000 Flex elite-qualifying miles per $5,000 in purchases; priority check-in, boarding, and express security screening.

The annual fee for the Plus card is $85, waived for the first year. For the Presidential Plus card, the annual fee is a hefty $399, but there's a $95 statement credit after the first purchase that effectively reduces the fee to $304.

We've seen most of these perks before, from other airlines' cards. But the combinations are unique to the new Continental cards, and deliver good value for travelers who actually utilize the benefits. Complimentary hotel breakfasts, lounge memberships and day passes, and bag-fee waivers represent real savings that can easily offset the cards' annual fees.

Here Today, Where Tomorrow?

Assuming the United-Continental merger is ultimately approved and implemented, a choice will have to be made between the cards affiliated with the two airlines' programs. Or there's the option of designing an entirely new card that's a hybrid of the current cards.

So what does the future hold for cardholders in the Continental and United programs?

The day before the new cards launched, I spoke to David Gold, senior vice president of Chase Card Services, which issues both the Continental and United cards. I asked him about the timing of the launch, and whether there was a plan in place for consolidating the Continental and United cards when the merger is finalized.

He pointed out that the redesign of the cards had begun prior to the merger process. As to which cards might survive the merger, he would only say that it was an "open question," suggesting that no decision had yet been made.

Whichever way it plays out, there's clearly a strong emphasis—both by the airlines and by their common card issuer, Chase—on fielding credit card products that are not just competitive, but are category leaders.

That should be good news for Continental and United customers. And more broadly, the additional competitive heat should keep other airlines and card issuers focused on adding more value to their cards.

Reader Reality Check

These cards aren't cheap, especially considering that no-annual-fee cards are ubiquitous. Can you justify the extra expense to earn miles and travel perks?

Read comments or add your own insight!
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