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Getting carded: elite benefits are available with some — but not all –airline credit cards. Photo:

By Mark Chesnut

The writing on the wall indicates that it may become harder for many travelers to reach elite level status with their preferred airlines, thanks to new status thresholds and, at some carriers, changes that will base mileage accrual on the fare paid rather than the mileage flown.

So how do you keep those precious elite perks from slipping away when your frequent flyer account falls short? The answer may lie with an airline-branded credit card, which can offer benefits including priority check-in and boarding, as well as discounted — or free — airline club access. It’s not quite as good as being full-fledged gold or platinum, to be sure, but it’s a lot better than being the last one to board the plane. Here are the cards with the richest perks.

American Airlines
The Citi Executive Aadvantage Card, American Airlines’ newest credit card option, is pricey — with an annual fee of $450 — but it does include free Admirals Club access. You’ll also be able to check the first bag for free, and take part in what the airline calls an “enhanced airport experience,” with dedicated check-in areas, special airport screening lanes (at some airports) and priority boarding.

Delta Air Lines
The Gold Delta SkyMiles card from American Express offers “first bag free” privileges, as well as priority boarding and 20 percent savings on in-flight food, beverage and some entertainment purchases. The first year’s annual fee of $95 is waived for new applicants.

LAN Airlines
Most non-U.S. airlines don’t offer much in the way of branded credit cards with elite perks for passengers based in the United States. One of the exceptions is LAN Airlines, the largest carrier in South America. The LANPASS Visa Signature Card rewards cardholders with three one-way upgrade coupons per year. The first year’s fee is waived; after that, the card costs $75 annually.

The United MileagePlus Explorer Card entitles travelers to check their first bag free, participate in priority boarding, and receive two passes per year for free access to the recently redubbed United Club. The first year’s fee is waived for the card; the regular annual fee is $95.  The Continental-branded Presidential Plus Card, meanwhile, provides cardholders with full United Club membership, first and second checked bags free, and priority check-in and boarding. The annual fee is $395.

US Airways
The Premier World MasterCard provides first-class check-in privileges, zone 2 boarding on every flight and one free US Airways Club pass per year. The annual fee is $89.

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Mark Chesnut is a freelance writer, editor and publisher of, which focuses on travel to Latin America. He loves being the first one on the plane — and always puts it wheels first.

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Mark Chesnut
Mark Chesnut is a travel writer, editor and photographer. He's written for Fodor's, the Huffington Post, the Miami Herald, Travel Weekly, various inflight magazines and the New York Times best-seller "1,000 Places To See Before You Die." He also operates a travel blog,, which focuses on travel to Latin America. Find more from Mark on Twitter @munderamedia and Instagram @mundera

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