Basic frequent flier perks shrink as airlines push top-tier programs

Question for the expert Dear Cashing In,
I've been checking out the benefits offered by airline credit cards. Is there any reason to bother trying to achieve elite status at an airline the old-fashioned way when I can get the same benefits by signing up for a credit card that costs me less than $100 a year? -- Tammy

Answer for the expert Dear Tammy,
There are a few things you can get via base-level elite status that credit cards don't offer, but perks at that level are diminishing. This is partly because the number of passengers qualifying for base-level elite -- 25,000 elite-qualifying miles (EQMs) in a year -- is growing so quickly, especially now that airlines are consolidating. Airline executives say it's not unusual to have 10 percent of the passengers on a major carrier holding base-level elite status.

Airlines are now more interested in luring us to second-level elite status (50,000 EQMs), so they're taking some goodies away from base-level elite members. If you don't fly enough on one airline to easily achieve base-level status (and, increasingly, even if you do), you may indeed find the flier perks you desire in a credit card.

Here's how the usual frequent flier perks break down -- and how many of them you can get via co-branded credit cards with modest fees.

Airport lounge access. You get two airport lounge passes each year with the United Explorer card ($95 annual fee, waived the first year). That's two more than you get with Silver status. Gold membership, on the other hand, gets you and a friend unlimited access to the United lounges. Delta SkyMiles base-level elites get lounge access only if they're holding business or first-class tickets; standard co-branded credit cards don't help there. American AAdvantage credit cards also do not offer lounge passes and you have to be a second-tier elite (50,000 elite qualifying miles per year) to access the oneworld lounges.

Free checked bags. Generally speaking, any co-branded airline credit card will get you your first checked bag free. If you absolutely must travel with your own golf clubs or have some other compelling need to check a second bag, second-level elite status may be required to get that free. Delta and United both stopped giving base-level customers a free second checked bag in March.

Expedited boarding. Base-level elite members of Delta's SkyMiles don't get priority boarding. Delta Gold American Express cardholders do. United's base-level elites get priority boarding -- and so do United Explorer cardholders. American AAdvantage Visa card also comes with priority boarding privileges. All three cards charge a $95 annual fee, waived the first year.

Premium seating. If seat upgrades are at that top of your priority list, you may not have much luck scoring them via credit card. Base-level elite status no longer guarantees an edge here either. When United merged with Continental this year, it stopped allowing base-level members to claim Economy Plus seats at booking. Now Silvers have to wait for check-in to claim those seats, which sharply reduced their availability. American Airlines doesn't offer extra-legroom "economy plus" seats, but they're adding them -- and offering them free access to base-level elites through 2013. Premium seating is not among the perks that come with a Citi AAdvantage card. Increasingly, non-elite members have to pay for the more desirable seats in coach, such as exit rows and sometimes even aisle seats, while elites get them free.

See related: Want elite miles from your card? Be sure to shop around, How to maximize your 'mileage run' to elite flier status, Want to be elite? Know that all miles aren't created equal

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Updated: 02-17-2019