Last year brought us a good number of changes in the credit card and award travel hobby. One of the most unfortunate is American Express essentially ending the ability to purchase airline gift cards with the Amex airline incidental fee credit offered by many of their cards.
Granted, this wasn’t exactly how American Express wanted you to use these credits. But for many people, it was the only way to get any tangible value. And if you have multiple premium cards, these changes might really change the metrics for whether these cards are still worth the fee.
Which Cards Offer the Amex Airline Incidental Fee Credit?
A good number of American Express cards offer an airline incidental fee credit. These include:
- The Platinum Card from American Express
- The Business Platinum Card from American Express
- American Express Gold Card
- Hilton Honors Aspire Card
Each you you must choose one airline. You’re restricted to the major U.S. carriers, and your options include:
- Alaska Airlines
- American Airlines
- Delta Air Lines
- Frontier Airlines
- Hawaiian Airlines
- Spirit Airlines
- Southwest Airlines (& AirTran Airways…what?)
- United Airlines
The fee credit is intended to be used for things like seat selection, baggage fees, and lounge access. Per American Express: “Airline tickets, upgrades, mileage points purchases, mileage points transfer fees, gift cards, duty free purchases, and award tickets are not deemed to be incidental fees.” But some of the latter have triggered the credit in the past. Lets dig into what still works to trigger the Amex airline incidental fee credit in 2020.
What Still Works to Trigger the Amex Airline Fee Credit in 2020
Officially, the uses for the Amex airline credit include incidental fees. Which is why it’s called an incidental fee credit. These can be anything from checked bag fees, seat assignment fees, to phone booking fees. You can also buy in-flight food, beverages, and headphones, and also lounge access. In essence, if it is an extra fee or additional amenity for your flight, it should qualify.
On the flip-side, here are the things that don’t qualify, per the terms:
- Ticket purchases
- Award taxes and fees
- Seat upgrades
- Gift cards
- Purchases of miles, either independently of part of a “boost”
But…these restrictions haven’t always been enforced. Early in 2019 I bought my latest round of Delta gift cards, and these still triggered the credit for the Hilton Honors Aspire. However, most reports are the e-gift cards have died since then.
Things that I know still trigger the credit, from my personal or others’ anecdotal experience:
- Airfare under $100 with some carriers (Alaska has worked; Southwest worked in December 2019 for a friend)
- Delta award taxes and fees (under $100)
- American award taxes and fees (Typically only if the $5.60 TSA fee, or a small multiple of $5.60)
- Southwest Early Bird check-in and award fees
There are other things that still work. I’ll point you in the direction of a great rundown of data points by carrier. What you definitely cannot do any more is buy e-gift cards.
My Amex Airline Incidental Fee Credit: A Hard Decision
My issue with the Amex airline fee credit in 2020 is that every avenue that I previously used to get any value out of the credit has died. Purchasing either American Airlines or Delta Air Lines gift cards has always been the way I have cashed out these credits. We basically never pay for any incidental expenses, as bag charges are pretty much always covered by either credit card or elite status benefits.
I don’t plan to pay for things like seat selection, early bird check in with Southwest, or lounge access. We don’t need any of this, at least not at cost. With a limited number of super cheap destinations on low cost carriers from California, I also don’t plan to use the credit for all the incidentals airlines like Spirit and Frontier charge.
So what does that leave me? Will it be impossible to use the Amex airline fee credit in 2020? I’m not sure.
The Three Options
I could stick with Delta and have $250 to spend toward lounge access, in-flight food, etc. This is way more than we will use, however, and even lounge access at $39 per visit is way more than I would ever pay. However, to receive this rate, I need to use my Delta Reserve card. So I guess the lounge option is moot. I do tend to fly Delta the most, and I will be just Silver this year, with a greater need for in-flight purchases.
I could go with United, as we could use United one-time lounge passes for $59. But I’m getting maybe 15-20% of actual value here, as I would never pay this much to access the lounge. Unless I pick up a new United card, we’ll also be without a way to obtain free checked bags. However, I really don’t anticipate flying United with checked luggage.
I could go with one of the airlines where cheap airfare still triggers the credit. But I’m hesitant. American Express has been getting good at clawing back anything they consider “gaming” of credits or offers. If they decide to scrutinize these purchases, especially if I try to “cash out” by booking a ticket and then canceling, it’ll be easy to claw back.
However, this last option is the only way to get decent tangible value from the Amex airline fee credit in 2020.
I’m still not sure what I’m going to do. I’ve always considered the Amex airline fee credit to be essentially worth face value. However, this assumed that you could buy gift cards and circumvent the restrictions that American Express had on the credit usage. Now that this isn’t an option, I’m at a crossroads as to what to do for 2020. The options that make the most sense are: Alaska, assuming I can use it airfare under $100, or Delta, assuming I use it for as much in-flight food an beverage as possible through the year. United is a safe bet, but it is one that provide little real value.
How do you plan to use your Amex airline incidental fee credit this year?