Premium Amex cards offer up to $250 in annual airline fee credits, but you have to select one airline. Here's how to make the best choice for you.
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- If you have a higher-end Amex card like the Platinum Card® from American Express or the Hilton Honors Aspire Card from American Express, you get an annual airline fee credit benefit.
- Depending on the card you have, this benefit can be worth between $100 and $250 toward checked bags, in-flight purchases, and airline lounge passes.
- The best airline choice for you will be one you plan to fly with this year - but not necessarily the carrier you travel with the most, especially if you have elite status or a co-branded airline credit card that waives baggage fees.
- I'm choosing Spirit Airlines because it's virtually impossible to avoid paying extra fees.
- See Business Insider's list of the best travel rewards credit cards »
If you have an American Express card that offers an airline fee credit, each January you're faced with a difficult choice: Which airline should you select?
Amex only lets you receive credit back for purchases with one designated airline, you see. This used to be an easier decision, because you could choose either Southwest or Delta, buy a gift card in an amount equal to your yearly fee credit, enjoy the statement credit, and be done. Unfortunately, that option is no longer available - Amex is only crediting back fees for actual ancillary purchases such as bag fees, lounge access, and in-flight food or drinks.
Spending $100 or more on incidental fees like checked baggage can be harder than you think - especially when you're limited to purchases with one airline. Here's how to make the best decision if you have a card like the Amex Platinum that offers this perk.
Keep in mind that we're focusing on the rewards and perks that make these credit cards great options, not things like interest rates and late fees, which will far outweigh the value of any points or miles. It's important to practice financial discipline when using credit cards by paying your balances in full each month, making payments on time, and only spending what you can afford to pay back.
Which Amex cards offer an airline fee credit?
American Express offers an airline fee credit on its most premium credit cards - you won't find it on any no-annual-fee cards, or on any card with an annual fee lower than $250, for that matter. Here are the Amex cards with this benefit:
- American Express® Gold Card ($250 annual fee) - up to $100 in airline fee credit each year
- Hilton Honors Aspire Card from American Express ($450 annual fee) - up to $250 in airline fee credit each year
- The Platinum Card from American Express ($550 annual fee) - up to $200 in airline fee credit each year
- The Business Platinum® Card from American Express ($595 annual fee) - up to $200 in airline fee credit each year
How the Amex airline fee credit works
With any of the four Amex cards that offer an annual airline fee credit, you simply have to make a qualifying purchase with your eligible card, and you'll be reimbursed up to the annual limit.
Qualifying purchases include:
- Checked bags
- Lounge day passes
- Ticket change fees
- On-board food or drinks
- Other similar incidental expenses
Here are the eligible airlines you can pick from:
- Alaska Airlines
- American Airlines
- Delta Air Lines
- Frontier Airlines
- Hawaiian Airlines
- JetBlue Airways
- Spirit Airlines
- Southwest Airlines
- United Airlines
You can change your airline once per calendar year in January. If you don't want to change your airline, just keep your selection as is and it will roll over to the following year.
What to consider when choosing a designated airline with Amex
It's easy to get carried away and just pick your favorite airline. But don't!
Why? If you're flying a lot, you're likely to have airline elite status or to carry a co-branded airline credit card. If you have either of these, your baggage fees could already be waived with the flying you plan. This may or may not be the case, so you really need to read the fine print on your loyalty program benefits as well as your co-branded card benefits.
For example, if you carry a co-branded card with American Airlines, baggage fees are only waived for flights within the United States. Flying to Costa Rica? You'll be paying baggage fees!
In-flight purchases are another consideration. I mostly fly with Alaska and Southwest. When I fly with Alaska Airlines, in-flight purchases made with the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card are discounted. I would lose the discount if I paid with an American Express card. That isn't the case on Southwest, where drinks cost the same no matter which card I use.
And on the subject of Southwest, it's actually really hard to pay ancillary fees on this airline. The airline doesn't sell food, and I can carry on one bag, plus check two additional bags for free. (However, you'll pay if you check a third bag, bring a pet on board, or have overweight bags.) If you picked Southwest as your designated airline with Amex and get stuck buying drinks to use your fee credit, just know that a $200 fee credit equates to 28 drinks - and you'll still have money left over!
On the other hand, if you fly Spirit, it's very hard not to pay ancillary fees, for which you can receive a credit. Spirit charges a fee virtually every time you turn around, from seat assignments to carry-on bag fees. Even its "$9 Fare Club" can qualify you for a fee credit from Amex.
Don't spend money you otherwise wouldn't
An ancillary fee credit isn't a reason to go nuts with the onboard menu if you wouldn't otherwise do so. What's more, if you don't think about airline fees as real money, it's easy to get in the habit of making purchases you otherwise wouldn't. So, make a commitment to yourself up front that you won't spend money via a fee credit that you wouldn't otherwise spend.
Based on your travel plans, go for the highest return
Once you analyze your spending, you'll want to consider your travel plans for the following year and what ancillary airline fees you expect to generate based on those plans. The airline you choose should be the one you expect to deliver the highest return, meaning the largest amount of money spent in ancillary fees for things like checked bags.
For me - surprisingly - that's Spirit. I've been avoiding the airline on principle because I hate paying ancillary fees, even if the "total package" cost ends up being less than other airlines. However, being able to apply my Amex fee airline credit toward Spirit flights changes the game for me. These add up to more than the actual fare in most cases, so I'll effectively be getting a big discount on flights I'd take on other airlines anyway.
Here's an example of how the breakdown might possibly work for a flight from Seattle to Las Vegas:
I'd receive a statement credit for the $74 in carry-on bag fees, and the total cost-even before the statement credit-is about $100 less than comparable flights on Alaska Airlines. So, I'm not spending extra money - this is a "real" credit, based on actual spending I'd have either way.
How to select your airline with Amex once you've decided
Once you've determined which airline makes the most sense for you, log into your Amex account online and navigate to the "Benefits" tab.
There, you'll see "Airline Fee Credit" along with how much of your allotted amount is still available for the remainder of the year. Click "Learn More," and you'll be presented with the option to change your selected airline.
You can come out ahead with the Amex ancillary fee credit if you have a solid plan going into the new year. The credit has definitely gotten harder to use, but it's still possible to get good value out of it.
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Please note: While the offers mentioned above are accurate at the time of publication, they're subject to change at any time and may have changed, or may no longer be available.