The less expensive airline credit cards have annual fees of roughly $100, while the more prestigious airline cards charge nearly $500 per year. But for consumers who can take advantage of the benefits provided by an airline credit card, the annual fee may not seem like such a hefty cost. In many cases, the annual fees of most lower-tier airline credit cards can be recouped with two flights through the airline.
Before signing up, here are some features of airline credit cards you can use to determine whether or not one is right for you.
Free checked bags
As airlines impose fees to check bags, passengers may shell out more in order to travel with lots of luggage. Many airline credit cards help to alleviate the costs of checked bags by waiving the fee for the first and/or second checked bag(s).
For instance, the United MileagePlus Explorer Card will waive the cost of the first checked bag per United flight. United normally charges $25 for the first checked bag each way. With two round-trip bookings, you would save $100 in baggage checking fees, which already compensates for the card's $95 annual fee.
What to consider: Think about how much luggage you'll have during your travel to see if you'll take advantage of this perk.
Airport lounge passes
Airport lounges offer a place for travelers to relax or get work done before boarding their flights. You may also receive complimentary snacks and beverages while you watch TV or surf the Web.
Passes to airport lounges vary from airline to airline, but they usually cost about $50 for each one-time pass. Certain airline credit cards will offer one or two complimentary lounge passes per year. The higher-tier airline cards may even offer unlimited access to the lounges.
What to consider: The lounge passes alone can make up for the cost of the annual fees. However, it is also worth nothing that one-time lounge passes may be available through third parties. For example, you can find one-time passes to the American Airlines Admirals Club on eBay for roughly $20 each.
Free or discounted companion tickets
Like annual complimentary lounge passes, you might get free or discounted airfare for companions. The perk comes in handy if you ever travel with friends or family.
The Platinum Delta SkyMiles credit card from American Express offers a domestic economy class companion certificate every year. The value of that certificate is the same as the cost of your ticket. Given that the card has a $150 annual fee, it's not difficult to obtain greater value from the free companion ticket.
What to consider: This airline card benefit usually applies only to companions. So, don't get confused – it's not free airfare for yourself.
Premium travel privileges
While the masses often do not care for premium travel amenities such as priority check-in, security screening, boarding and baggage handling, frequent fliers may find great value in these privileges.
The fee for priority boarding is about $10. The costs of the other travel perks vary from airline to airline. For example, United Airlines charges up to $59 for the full suite of premium travel benefits – including check-in, access to security lanes, boarding and baggage handling for domestic flights – and up to $89 for international flights.
What to consider: Some of the perks may not be available at certain airports.
Frequent flier miles
Frequent flier miles can be earned on all airline credit cards, but it's important to note that frequent flier programs have different redemption policies. You'll find that the cost of an award flight will vary greatly depending on when and where you travel – in the same manner that the price of airfare changes based on location and season.
What to consider: If you're able to recoup the cost of an airline credit card's annual fee solely through the perks, consider the earned miles as additional bonuses.
Simon Zhen is a columnist and staff writer for MyBankTracker.com, where he covers banking, financial technology and savings rates.