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The Best Airline Credit Card Perks and Benefits

It seems to be harder than ever to earn airline miles and elite status these days. But carrying an airline credit card can net you benefits that only frequent fliers once enjoyed, and help boost your mileage balance in the process.

While most major US airlines partner with credit card issuers to offer co-branded cards, it can be hard to know which one to choose and which benefits will best suit your needs. Here’s a look at the perks that some of the better credit cards currently on the market feature and why they are important considerations for your overall travel rewards strategy.

1. A Well-Timed Sign-Up Bonus

With the preponderance of airline cards currently out there, consumers can afford to be pickier about the ones they apply for. However, finding the right card is about more than choosing the one that simply earns you miles and perks with the airline you fly most. As card issuers compete for premium customers, they often offer limited-time sign-up bonuses that are much higher than the typical sign-up offers. If you are thinking of applying for a credit card linked to your favorite frequent-flier mileage program, it might be well worth waiting until the card issuer ups that bonus to a historic high.

 For example, the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard typically offers sign-up bonuses of between 30,000-60,000 miles, so better to apply when it’s at the higher end of that range. Likewise, the United MileagePlus Explorer Card from Chase offers bonuses of 40,000-70,000 miles. Why miss out on tens of thousands of miles by applying at the wrong time? Instead, do a little homework and find out how high bonuses on the cards you are considering have been in the past. Then be ready to apply when those cards raise their bonuses to a level that make them worthwhile to you.

2. Airline Ticket Bonuses

Every airline credit card should offer you multiple miles per dollar for purchasing airfare with the associated airline. However, some credit cards are more generous than others in this regard. Most of the co-branded cards from American Airlines, Delta and United offer a mere two miles per dollar spent on airfare from their respective airlines. However, some airline co-branded cards offer even more. For instance, the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Credit Card earns three miles for every dollar spent directly on Alaska Airlines purchases. That’s a 50% jump right there.

3. Airfare Statement Credits

Apart from simply earning bonus miles on airfare purchases, airlines and their associated credit card issuers try to entice customers to use their cards to purchase airfare with statement credits. On some applications, the Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express offers one statement credit of $50 to new cardholders who make a Delta purchase on their card within the first three months. Those who are accepted for a new Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express get a $100 statement credit for a Delta purchase within the first three months. JetBlue Plus Card holders, meanwhile, earn a $100 statement credit when they purchase a JetBlue Vacations package with their card.

4. Other Spending Bonuses

Some airline credit cards offer bonus miles on non-airline purchases as well. It’s rare, but depending on your spending habits, it could still be worth applying for one of these cards. The Virgin Atlantic World Elite Mastercard earns 1.5 miles per dollar on all purchases (and three miles per dollar on Virgin Atlantic purchases). Instead of the one point per dollar it earns on most non-airfare purchases, the JetBlue Plus Card earns two points per dollar specifically at restaurants and grocery stores.

5. Annual Spending Bonuses

Issuers want you to spend a lot on their cards, so to incentivize consumers, some airline credit cards offer bonus miles or perks if you hit a certain spending threshold on purchases within a calendar year. The JetBlue Plus Card confers automatic Mosaic elite status for cardholders who spend $50,000 or more in a calendar year. Every year you spend $30,000 on a British Airways Visa Signature Credit Card, you earn a “Travel Together” companion ticket good for two years where two people can fly for the same amount of miles as one person on an award ticket. The Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard earns 5,000 annual bonus miles for cardholders who spend $10,000 or more in an account year, while those with the business version of the card earn 40,000 bonus miles for spending $100,000 or more in a calendar year.

Other airline cards offer elite status-qualifying miles, which you can normally only earn by actually flying. The Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard, for example, earns 10,000 elite-qualifying miles on American Airlines if you make $40,000 or more in purchases on it in a calendar year. The Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card comes with 10,000 bonus miles and 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (elite miles) when you spend $25,000 or more in a calendar year, and an additional 10,000 of each when you spend a total of $50,000 in the same year.