Wide body traveler seeks credit card for first-class seats
Cathleen McCarthy is a journalist whose articles on travel, commerce and consumer topics have appeared in dozens of publications. She writes "Cashing In," a weekly column about credit card rewards programs, for CreditCards.com
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Dear Cashing In,
am what you might call a vertically challenged, horizontally blessed person.
When I board a plane in coach and eye a middle seat, men involuntarily flinch
and women look away. My new job will call on me to fly more, so I think that I and
the rest of the traveling public would appreciate it if I upgraded as often as
possible to first class. Please help me find the frequent flier rewards card
I'll get the (pun intended) widest use out of, please. Is a generic card like
that Alec Baldwin Capital One card good? Do all airlines charge the same for
first-class upgrades? Or am I better off sticking with one airline's card, at
the airline where it's easiest to get the seat upgrade? -- Y.D. Artoosh
Congratulations on your
new job -- and nice to see you have a sense of humor about this dilemma. Let's
see what we can do to line you up with a credit card -- and possibly an airline
-- that will help you charge your way to the roomy seats up front.
Before we examine
credit card options, you should know that if you're going to put in serious flight
time, you should put some thought into which airline you'll be using first. A
generic rewards card, such as the Capital One Venture card that Alec Baldwin's
been promoting, is fine if you're going to be changing airlines constantly and
just want to accrue some miles to spend.
If you can narrow it
to one airline or a network with a shared loyalty program, you're more likely
to multiply your miles faster and qualify for elite status, which is key to
Elite members of
Delta, American and US Airways can request upgrades when booking flights, using
an automated booking process, but preference is given to elite members,
starting with the highest tiers. Delta's website states that all Medallion
(elite) members are "entitled to unlimited complimentary upgrades, subject to
availability, on most published economy fares" in North America (excluding
Hawaii), Central and South America, the Caribbean and Mexico. However, the
availability part can get you.
On United, you now have
to make it to second-tier elite status (by flying at least 50,000 miles per
year) to make that request. Base-level elites (who fly 25,000 miles minimum
annually) have to wait until check-in to request upgrades. Good luck with that
if you're counting on extra leg (and seat) room on a long flight.
You can get around
this, however, if you're willing to pay. Most airlines allow you to buy upgrades with a combination
of miles and cash, but that can get expensive and policies vary. A seat upgrade
can cost $350 and up to 30,000 miles each way, enough to book a round-trip
domestic fare. Delta requires you to buy a more expensive economy fare in order
to upgrade, but doesn't charge extra cash to do it, just 25,000 miles each way.
Again, these policies
are dictated by airlines, not credit cards, and upgrade policies are not
created equal. Since seat upgrades are your primary concern, you should take
that into account when you choose the airline you want to build loyalty in. Then, you can focus
on credit cards.
Most airline cards deliver the same miles-per-dollar reward
for similar annual fees. The Delta Gold SkyMiles card, American AAdvantage Visa
and the Mileage Plus Explorer all charge a $95 fee, waived the first year, and
offer two miles per dollar spent on the affiliated airline and one mile per
dollar spent on anything else. Delta Gold and AAdvantage Visa offer a 30,000
mile sign-up bonus; Explorer offers up to 40,000. Each throws in various perks
associated with elite status, such as first bag checked free and a couple airport
lounge passes per year, but no seat upgrades.
If your flights are
going to be spread out over different airlines or you don't think you'll be
flying enough to qualify for elite status, you may prefer a more generic travel
rewards card, such as the Capital One Venture Rewards which charges a $59 annual fee
(waived the first year) and earns two miles per dollar spent, on top of a
10,000-mile sign-up bonus after the first $1,000 spent.
Good luck with the
new job and finding a comfortable way to fly.
See related: Credit card bonuses playing hard to get
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