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Two New Airline Credit Cards With Major Perks

Ed Perkins on Travel
by , SmarterTravel Staff
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Credit Card: Fan of Cards (Photo: iStockphoto/Stefan Klein)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on July 26, 2011. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, American, American AAdvantage, Continental OnePass, credit card, Ed Perkins, Ed Perkins, Ed Perkins on Travel, mileage earning, United, United Mileage Plus.

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American and United both announced new credit cards that earn mileage in the sponsoring line's frequent flyer program. Both add a bunch of additional benefits, as well, and both will be welcome additions to the smorgasbord of card options available to frequent flyers.

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The new American "Executive AAdvantage World Elite MasterCard" from Citi is the more up-market card. It includes a waiver of the first-bag checking fee for the cardholder and up to eight traveling companions, priority check-in and security screening, concierge service, and no-fee unlimited access to American's Admirals Club airport lounges. Also, as is now typical, it adds big mileage bonuses for new enrollments and heavy use. The annual fee is a stiff $450.

Although several cards these days include waived baggage check fees, American's new card offers three features that are still rare:

  • The really big deal here is access to Admirals Club. Unless you're a very high-ranking frequent flyer, the card's annual fee is less than the regular membership fees for the Club.
  • Also big—no surcharge on foreign charges.
  • And—a first among airline cards—later this year, you'll be able to get a card with chip-and-pin compatibility that avoids severe problems with some foreign purchase transactions.

Clearly, this card is aimed to match the similar premium-level United and Continental cards offered by Chase that provide access to those lines' lounge club systems. It also takes on the AmEx Platinum Card, which offers more limited access to lounge club systems on several airlines. Currently, the Platinum Card list includes American, but I'd expect that to disappear soon. All these cards are priced in the range of $375 to $450 a year. And the choice among them would obviously depend on which of the airlines you use most frequently.

The new United "Mileage Plus Explorer Card" from Chase is a bit more mainstream, but its annual fee of $95, waived for the first year, is a lot less than American's card. Still, its benefits are significant when you use the card:

  • The first-bag checking fee is waived for you and one traveling companion.
  • You get two one-day passes to United's Red Carpet Room airport lounge club each year.
  • You have access to priority boarding.
  • Your miles will never expire.
  • And you get a similar laundry list of enrollment and heavy-use bonuses.

The Continental OnePass Plus Card provides essentially the same benefit set. Sometime next year, after the complete merger of the two lines' frequent flyer programs, separate Continental cards will disappear, but travelers with those card will retain all the accrued mileage and other benefits. Meanwhile, Continental and United are rapidly rationalizing various program details.

Unlike the new American card, however, the new United card does not waive foreign transaction fees and, at least so far, has not announced plans to issue chip-and-pin cards. I find these omissions a bit puzzling: Clearly travelers who get airline cards are much more likely to travel overseas than the general population, and you'd think that those features would be a big draw. If you already have an older United card but like the new card's features, notify Chase that you'd like to switch.

If you're an ordinary day-to-day traveler, probably the most useful benefit is the waived fee for checking in your first bag. That benefit is already available on Delta through its several American Express cards and, I suspect, will be adopted by other airlines within a year or so. It's worth about $50 on each round trip you take with checked baggage, so you'll offset the annual fee with just two round trips each year.

As to chip-and-pin, Chase seems to be moving a bit less glacially than other banks; its JP Morgan Select card, annual fee $95, currently offers that capability, as do a very few cards from other banks. I still don't get why a simple-to-implement chip-and-pin option has remained so elusive, but presumably the big U.S. banks will slowly get with the program.

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