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Many travelers often bypass airline lounges without a second thought, thinking they can only be accessed by purchasing a day pass or by holding elite status on a particular airline. Most of the time, this is true.
However, the past year has witnessed an interesting surge in upscale, high-end branded credit card offerings by the major US banks. Some of these cards offer instant, unlimited lounge access to any US cardholder, regardless of how often they fly with an airline, whether they have elite status, and in some cases, regardless of whether they’re even flying on the airline.
Most of these new cards hit the market with expectedly high annual fees in the range of $400-500, which at first glance seems like a high annual fee for the simple privilege of holding a credit card.
On that note, as many of our readers know – when evaluating airline/hotel rewards and credit cards, we often stress that in most cases, annual fees are not worth the price.
However, with these cards it’s different. Believe it or not, most of these $400-500 annual fee cards pack enough benefit that they can actually be worth the hefty price tag.
Today, we review a few of our top choices, and demonstrate how they can be worth the $400-500 fee upfront. These cards are by no means the only ones in the growing high-annual fee, upscale range. They are simply our top picks, both for value and the quality of lounge access they offer.


Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard
We continually rate AAdvantage with American Airlines as our favorite elite status program in the US market, and even profiled American Airlines’ Platinum Challenge (our fastest recommended shortcut in the industry to elite status) in a recent article.
Regardless of your status in American’s AAdvantage program, this card can give you a taste of elite status just by signing up.
This card carries a $450 annual fee. Upon enrollment, cardholders receive:
  • Admirals Club Membership – The card’s biggest perk, you and your immediate family or up to two traveling guests are permitted unlimited, unrestricted Admirals Club access worldwide for as long as you remain a cardholder.
  • 50,000 AAdvantage miles after $5000 in purchases within the first three months – OR – 75,000 AAdvantage miles after $7500 in purchases within the first three months. Note: This bonus has gone as high as 100,000 miles in the past. 75,000 miles is the highest offer at time of publication.
  • One free checked bag on all American Airlines/US Airways flights within the US
  • Priority check-in and priority security screening



Our Take: Permanent Admirals Club membership (for you and 2 guests) certainly begins to offset this high $450 annual fee.

But the real benefit is in how effortlessly you can access Admirals Clubs. Believe it or not, this card actually grants cardholders easier access to Admirals Clubs than an individual holding elite status on the airline!
Here’s how: Platinum or Executive Platinum status holders with American Airlines (the two highest levels of status on the airline) are only permitted to access Admirals Clubs on same-day, international travel.
But an AAdvantage Executive Mastercard holder only needs to show their credit card and a form of ID when checking into the lounge and they’re in. In fact, they don’t even need to show their boarding pass! Remarkably, you don’t even need to be traveling with American that day to enjoy an Admirals Club.
This card is basically the golden ticket for lounge access with American Airlines. As long as an airport has an Admirals Club, you’re in.
The 50,000 AAdvantage mile signup bonus also helps offset the high annual fee. This is enough for one roundtrip from the the US to Europe at off-peak times (or one way in First Class). Depending upon your destination, this could be a flight valued at $800 or much more.
Priority security screening is also a welcome addition. Usually in the US, travelers can only skip past long lines at security by holding elite status or by enrollment in the TSA Pre-Check program.
If you place a high premium on frequent lounge access with American, this card is a must.


Chase United Mileage Plus Club Card
If you value United Club access in the US or fly Star Alliance airlines on a frequent basis, this may be the card for you. For a limited time, you simply won’t find a better discount on airline lounge access anywhere.
While we don’t rate United Clubs at the top for airline lounges, they still provide a nice place to getaway from the crowds and long lines of the airport and are well-appointed, comfortable hideaways to relax for a drink. Some of their larger lounges at their hub airports – like Chicago (ORD) and the recently renovated club at Los Angeles (LAX), are worth a look.
In the past this card did not waive its annual fee for the first year nor did it offer a signup bonus, essentially making it a card that offered you United Club access and not much else of note. For lack of value, it would not have made our list of top selections.
Thankfully, that has changed. The card carries a $450 annual fee, but Chase is currently offering the card with the fee waived for the first year – a first for this card.
Note: This offer is not open online via direct link. You will not see this offer unless you are a United Mileage Plus member and signed into your Mileage Plus account on the website. From here, you will see various ads for United-branded credit cards. Like many ads and offers, your success may vary. If the offer does not present itself, log out of your account and log in again. You do not have to be an elite member with United to apply for this offer.
Upon enrollment, the card offers:
  • United Club membership, providing access for you and your immediate family or up to two traveling guests
  • Star Alliance lounge access when flying on a Star Alliance carrier
  • Two free checked bags for the cardholder and one traveling companion – a nice perk for sports-heavy travelers requiring a lot of luggage – skiing, tennis, golf, climbing, etc.
  • Priority check-in and priority security screening
  • Hertz President’s Circle Membership – Entitles the cardholder to two levels of upgrades on rentals – handy for those with travel requiring frequent rental cars



Our Take: This is an offer you’ll want to jump on immediately. With the annual fee waived for the first year, you’re essentially getting United Club access (and some Star Alliance Club access) free for one year. Even if you do just a small amount of domestic travel within the US, this is a no-brainer.
Like the AAdvantage Executive Card above, you’ll be able to access United Clubs on a whim, on a far easier basis than elite members, even when you’re not flying United. All you need is your card and a form of ID.
We’ve never before seen an airline-branded credit card offer unrestricted access at zero cost and, our guess is we won’t see it for long. With no annual fee for the first year, there’s basically zero risk in applying for and holding the card. Lounge access couldn’t possibly get any easier or more affordable.
Citi Prestige Card
An interesting product from Citi, and their most upscale travel-oriented card to date. Unlike the cards above, this isn’t specifically tied to an airline, but part of Citi’s own rewards program – Thank You Points. These can be applied as cash to free travel or transferred as points to a number of hotel/airline partners.
The card comes with a $450 annual fee that is not waived for the first year, but the stunning array of benefits more than make up for it.
Upon enrollment, cardholders receive:
  • 50,000 Thank You Points after $3,000 in purchases within the first three months. (Worth approximately $800 in redeemable airfare credit)
  • American Airlines Admirals Club access for you and you and your immediate family or up to two traveling guests. Note: ‘Access’ is not the same as ‘membership’. Unlike the cards above, you will need a same day boarding pass to access Admirals Clubs when traveling
  • Priority Pass Select lounge access for you and you and your immediate family or up to two traveling guests (Reviewed here)
  • Annual $250 Air Travel Credit – This can be applied, per Citi, “to flight-related expenses charged to your card, including airline tickets, baggage fees, upgrades, and more”
Our Take: While we’ve covered the benefits of Admirals Club access above, the most interesting feature of the card is its $250 air travel credit. This can essentially be applied to ANY travel expense. Considering any traveler is going to spend $250 on airfare in a given year, this essentially knocks the card’s annual fee down to $200.
Worldwide Priority Pass Select access is also a nice touch for the card, particularly for travel outside the US. In airports without Admirals Clubs, a second chain of lounges can be a nice backup plan.
The entry of high-end credit cards offering immediate/unrestricted airline lounge access, and perks on par with elite status, into the US market makes for a refreshing change from the standard “apply for credit card, get a large chunk of miles” offerings.
Perhaps sensing the competition, more banks are getting in on the act and unveiling similar products – all of which points to an exciting time for travelers in the next year as they’re given more and better choices.
As always, great offers such as these are not likely to stick around for long. If any of these appeal to your travel needs in the near future, don’t hesitate. Our advice is to apply as soon as possible.Note: Lounge photos courtesy of Flickr.

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