A new year means another year of airline credits from American Express credit cards. Unfortunately, using these credits isn’t as simple as it may seem – at least not without some help.
Top-of-the-line American Express cards like the American Express Gold Card, the Platinum Card from American Express, or co-branded offerings like the Hilton Aspire card come with a yearly airline credit of between $100 to $250, helping quickly offset sizeable annual fees on these cards. For years, cardholders had been able to purchase airline gift cards with these credits until it stopped working for both Delta and Southwest gift cards last year.
And while that complicate things, there are still some ways to squeeze plenty of value out of these credits. We’ve got some ideas.
All About Your Airline Credits
The airline credits you get from American Express cards are fairly straightforward … until they’re not.
The Amex Gold gets you $100 yearly, while the Amex Platinum clocks in at $200. The Hilton Aspire card’s annual credit is the largest, at $250. All of these credits reset each calendar year, not based on the month you opened your account. So you can use up the credits from Jan. 1 through Dec. 31 – just beware they don’t carry over. Use them or lose them
These credits aren’t as all-encompassing as the $300 you get from the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which kicks in automatically for any travel-related purchase. Only certain purchases on select airlines qualify. And you have to pick just one airline each year, though there are some reports that American Express will let you change mid-way through the year.
Thrifty Tip: Log in to your American Express account and head for the “benefits” tab to select your preferred airline.
So what airlines make the cut? All the big U.S. carriers are eligible.
- United Airlines
- Hawaiian Airlines
- Frontier Airlines
- Spirit Airlines
- American Airlines
- JetBlue Airways
- Southwest Airlines
- Delta Air Lines
- Alaska Airlines
And what purchases will trigger the credit? Well, a lot. But it’s important to stress that buying airfare outright generally won’t work – with some exceptions, as you’ll see.
Cabin upgrades, buying miles, and several other similar purchases also aren’t eligible. Because airlines have farmed out their connectivity to third-party companies, buying in-flight Wi-Fi generally won’t work, either.
In short, these credits are meant to cover incidental fees. And that leaves us with a handful of great ways to use them up every year. But keep reading for some workarounds that you can employ to use these credits to fly for free.
When you use frequent flyer miles, you’re not exactly flying for free. But these credits can change that.
Every award ticket gets hit with some cash fees and taxes. These vary widely, from the standard $5.60 on every one-way domestic flight in the U.S. to $1,000 or more on most business or first class flights departing London-Heathrow.
It may vary by airline, but you should be able to charge those fees to your American Express card and have the credit kick in to cover them. Just remember that you have to designate that airline before making the purchase through your Amex benefits.
Use Delta Pay with Miles to Trigger Your Credit
The gift card loophole might be dead, but there’s still a way to use your Amex airline credits toward airfare with Delta. And it involves Delta’s Pay with Miles feature, one of our favorite ways to use Delta SkyMiles.
We’ve tested this method repeatedly and can confirm it works. It goes like this:
Cardholders of one of Delta’s co-branded American Express card can use Pay with Miles, which allows you to put SkyMiles toward the cash price of your ticket. Every SkyMile is worth a cent, so a 5,000-mile deposit knocks $50 off the price. By applying some miles toward your purchase, you can then put the remainder on your Amex Gold, Platinum, or Hilton Aspire card – and the credit should kick in.
Our testing suggests that the final charge to your card (after using Pay with Miles) should be under $250 for this method to work. So if your plane tickets are $350, you’d want to apply at least 15,000 SkyMiles to knock the price down to $200. A few days later, the credit should kick in.
Just remember: You need to select Delta as your preferred airline before going this route.
Buy Cheap Flights on Southwest
Until last year, Southwest was one of the few remaining airlines from which you could buy a gift card with your airline credits. But when one loophole closes, another one opens.
There is plenty of research that buying airfare straight from Southwest will trigger your credit – so long as the charge is under $100. That could get tricky, and in most cases it would require buying one-way flights separately rather than a round-trip fare.
Still, it’s an elegant way to use up these credits for flights on Southwest. Once again, be sure to pick the airline by logging into your American Express before you check out.
Airlines charge you an arm and a leg if you need to change your flight – unless if you’re flying Southwest. But these credits can save you big time.
Delta, American, and United each charge $200 for changes to any domestic ticket – and more for international travel. JetBlue and Alaska also charge some sizable change fees. And that’s before you start counting any difference in fares.
Budget carriers typically have more modest change fees, but they can still add up fast. So if you need some extra flexibility, consider leaving your airline credits unspent. They could come in handy if your plans change and you need to pay to change your flights.
Buy Delta SkyMiles Select
Looking for a fun way to use some of your credits? Enter Delta SkyMiles Select.
This is Delta’s brand new subscription service. For $59 per year, you get priority boarding, a luggage tag, and eight free drink vouchers. And our own testing shows that these Amex airline credits will cover the cost of signing up.
While it might not be the most cost-effective way to use these credits, it’s an easy one.
Seat Selection Fees
Whether you’re flying on a budget airline or on a basic economy fare, paying to pick your seat on the plane is the new normal.
These big airlines charge between $9 and $29 for a seat assignment on domestic flights. That means you can use your American Express airline credits to pick your seat on dozens of flights each year.
Just pay for your seat on your designated airline with your American Express card, and the credit should kick in to cover the cost.
Lounge Day Passes
There are a handful of ways to get into airport lounges when traveling, including some of the premier American Express credit cards that we’re discussing here. The American Express Platinum card opens more lounge doors than any other credit card.
But if you don’t have one of these cards – or you’re at an airport with precious few lounge options – there’s another way to get into some airline lounges.
United and American Airlines both sell single-visit day passes at some lounges for $59 each if you’re flying with them that day. While that may be steep, it could easily be worth it to survive a long layover.
And if you’ve designated that airline on your American Express benefits, simply pay the lounge fee with your card – it will get wiped out.
It’s a bit more complicated with Delta and SkyClubs, as the airline stopped selling day passes in late 2018. But if you’ve got a co-branded Delta American Express SkyMiles card like the Gold or Platinum cards, you can still buy your way in for $29. Come Jan. 30, that changes – Delta SkyMiles Gold cardholders can no longer buy day passes, while SkyMiles Platinum cardholders will have to pay $39.
With the American Express Platinum Card, you can get in free when flying Delta that day – but guests cost another $29 each. So you use these airline credits to cover Sky Club access for your friends and family – if you’re feeling generous.
Buy Your Cuban Tourist Card
It’s time to get creative.
There’s certainly a lot to know before you travel to Cuba. But as long as you follow the rules, you shouldn’t run into any issues. And regardless of which airline or city you are flying to Havana (HAV) from, you will be required to purchase a Cuban travel visa (also known as a tourist card). Think of this as your ticket to enter Cuba, which can be purchased directly from your airline either at check-in or at the gate of your flight departing for Havana.
These tourist cards cost $50 to $100 depending on the airline. On a recent trip to Cuba, we purchased our tourist cards through Delta using our Platinum Card from American Express. Delta charges $50 for the tourist card. And since Delta is our selected airline, it was automatically reimbursed five business days later.
It isn’t clear whether this will work for all other airlines flying to Havana, but we’d be shocked if it didn’t.
We saved the worst for last.
This is the quintessential airline fee that these credits were designed to cover. And with checked bags up to $30 each way on all major U.S. airlines, it’s not a bad way to save some money.
But there are better ways. Namely, most major U.S. airlines have a co-branded credit card that offers free checked baggage on every flight. And many don’t even require you to pay for your flight with that card to get the benefit.
So while you could use your American Express card to wipe out checked baggage fees, there are simply better options to get a bag for free.
It’s gotten harder and harder to use these annual airline credits each year. But this list should show you that it’s still fairly easy to maximize these credits.