Comparing co-branded airline credit cards

Hard at work on the second edition of The Free-quent Flyer's Manifesto and re-reading Chapter 4, it occurred to me that it might be useful to give a side-by-side breakdown of the similarities and differences between the co-branded credit cards of the principal US airlines.

In the second edition I'm adding Alaska Airlines to the list of traditional airlines given detailed treatment, along with Delta, US Airways, American Airlines, and United. Why? Alaska's route map makes them far from a regional carrier; their partnerships with American and Delta make their Mileage Plan program more flexible than miles with either AAdvantage or Skymiles alone; and their co-branded Bank of America credit card has a number of lucrative features.

What kinds of co-branded credit cards exist?

For all the traditional carriers except US Airways and Alaska Airlines, there are two kinds of co-branded credit cards: an "entry-level" card that offers some combination of a free checked bag, priority boarding, annual companion tickets, and sometimes a bonus for meeting a high annual spend target; and a "club-level" card that gives lounge access, plus some combination of the above. This basic picture is made a little more complicated by the fact that Delta also splits its "entry-level" cards into a Gold and Platinum American Express: the Gold has a lower annual fee, but substantially fewer benefits. Note: do not confuse the American Express Platinum cards with American Express Delta Platinum cards. The names are similar; the products are completely different.

US Airways and Alaska Airlines both have entry-level cards, but no club cards. Here's a side-by-side comparison of the entry-level cards available from each airline:

Take note of the following differences between these cards:

  • The annual fee on all these cards is waived the first year of card membership, except for the $150 annual fee for the American Express Delta Platinum card (although signup bonuses sometimes include statement credits of up to $100).
  • All the cards offer 1 mile per dollar spent on purchases, and 2 miles per dollar spent on purchases with the airline, except the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature, which offers 3 miles per dollar spent on Alaska.
  • The US Airways and Alaska Airlines companion tickets are available during your first, fee-free year, and every subsequent year. The Delta Platinum companion ticket is only earned the second year of card membership, after paying the $150 annual fee a second time.
  • The MileagePlus Explorer card offers 10,000 redeemable United miles after spending $25,000 on the card; the Delta Platinum card awards both redeemable and Medallion Qualifying Miles for high spend on the card.

Here is a comparison of the Club-level cards from United, American Airlines, and Delta:

Note that unlike the AAdvantage and United cards, the American Express Delta Reserve card does not technically give you a Sky Club membership; rather, it gives you Sky Club access, but only while you're flying on a Delta-issued or Delta-operated ticket.

Who should sign up for a co-branded credit card?

n my view, there are four reasons to sign up for a co-branded airline credit card, rather than a card that offers double or triple flexible points on airline purchases, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or American Express Premier Rewards Gold cards:

    1. High signup bonuses. These cards periodically feature very high signup bonuses, high enough to justify applying for a card even if you have never set foot on the airline before. For example, the Citi AAdvantage ard offers up to 50,000 AAdvantage miles (my lifetime American Airlines miles flown are about 11,000), American Express Delta Gold occasionally offers 70,000 Skymiles, and I signed up for the United MileagePlus Explorer card when it was offering 65,000 miles. Since the annual fees on these cards are waived the first year, these are incredible offers of $1,000 or more in value for the cost of a hard inquiry on your credit report.
    2. You're a Delta frequent flyer. The American Express Delta Platinum and Reserve cards give you the opportunity to "mileage run from home" and earn 20,000 or 30,000 Medallion Qualification Miles per year through high spend bonuses. This is a no-brainer, especially if this is the difference between Silver Medallion and Gold Medallion status, since that's when the Medallion mileage bonus rises from 25% to 100%.
    3. You only fly occasionally, or fly a secondary airline, and check bags. If you have a preferred airline, where you receive free checked bags because of your elite status, but occasionally have to fly another airline because the fares are substantially cheaper, then you may save money on checked bag fees by carrying a Delta, United, or American co-branded credit card. Here in New England, I fly Delta whenever possible (because I receive unlimited complimentary Medallion upgrades to First Class, and I prefer Delta's in-flight product, even in Economy), but sometimes United flights are so much cheaper that I can't justify paying the premium to fly Delta. In these cases, it's helpful to carry the MileagePlus Explorer card in order to check bags for free.
    4. You pay for a lounge membership. In almost all cases, you're better off receiving your lounge access by paying the annual fee for a Club-level card, and also receiving the benefits of the co-branded card, like the United Club card's high earning rate and the elite-qualifying miles generated by high spend on the AAdvantage Executive and Delta Reserve cards.