NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Gone are the days when your airline-branded credit card simply netted you a slew of frequent flier miles and a free bag of peanuts.

In an effort to attract high-end travelers and the credit elite, issuers and airlines are including perks like priority boarding, skipped baggage fees and access to their first-class airport lounges, among other things. Both American Airlines (Stock Quote: AMR) and United Airlines (Stock Quote: UAL) debuted new cards this year, while Continental and Delta (Stock Quote: DAL) beefed up the rewards associated with their existing offerings.

How do these cards stack up to one another? MainStreet breaks down everything you need to know about the elite cards associated with the major airlines to help you decide which one is right for you, and takes a look at some alternatives for the everyman.

Continental Presidential Plus Master Card from Chase

If you want full-time access to the United Club, you might consider springing for an elite card offered by Continental, which merged with United last year.  Its Presidential Plus card entitles cardholders to premier access check-in and security screening, as well as priority boarding. Your first and second checked bags, which are both free, will also be among the first delivered at the baggage claim when you’re holding on to this particular piece of plastic.

The card’s rewards are fairly standard, at two miles per $1 spent on tickets purchased directly from Continental and on eligible car and hotel purchases with one mile per dollar on everything else. Like other elite airline cards, Continental boasts that cardholders are entitled to special upgrades on tickets and at partnering hotels.

The card carries a $395 fee, but Chase is currently offering a $95 statement credit upon first use, so at least you can bypass a bit of that your first year. It also ditched the foreign transaction fee associated with the card back in February. The card’s annual percentage rate is around 14.24%.

Everyman alternative: Continental’s OnePass Plus, also from Chase, offers virtually identical terms and conditions as the United MileagePlus Explorer, with priority boarding, free first checked bag and a $95 annual fee.
Delta Sky Miles Reserve from American Express

Delta Sky Miles Reserve gives cardholders and two traveling companions unlimited access to Delta’s Sky Club. It also entitles them to priority boarding and 20% savings on in-flight food, beverage and entertainment purchases. Foreign transaction fees are waived.

Unlike Continental, the Sky Miles Amex only lets cardholders check one bag for free (though you can extend this benefit for up to nine people on your flight reservation). The card also carries a higher $450 annual fee and a 15.24% to 19.24% annual percentage rate. The rewards program features the standard double miles on Delta purchases and one mile for all other eligible dollars spent. However, cardholders do receive a complimentary First Class companion ticket each year upon renewal.

Everyman alternative: This month, Delta added priority boarding and a first-checked-bag-for-free policy to its Gold Sky Miles Card, which carries a much lower $95 annual fee.

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Citi Executive/ AAdvantage World Elite MasterCard

Citi’s new offering grants cardholders and their immediate family unlimited access to American Airline’s Admiral Lounge, entitles them to priority check-in, screening and boarding privileges and lets them (and up to eight travel companions) check their first bag for free. The card also does not incur foreign transaction fees.

The rewards program is also pretty standard, with cardholders earning two miles for every dollar spent on American Airline purchases and one mile for every dollar spent elsewhere. Its $450 annual fee is comparable to Delta’s, as is its 15.24% APR. Miles earned through the cards do not expire.

Everyman alternative: Citi currently doesn’t have a lower-tier card that features priority boarding or skipped baggage fees, but frequent American Airlines fliers can take advantage of some decent sign-on bonuses for the Citi Gold AAdvantage Visa Signature card, which carries a $50 annual fee, or the Citi Select AAdvantage American Express card, which carries an $85 annual fee.

United MileagePlus Explorer from Visa Signature

United’s MileagePlus Explorer, launched back in July, entitles cardholders to priority boarding and lets the cardholder and a travel companion check their first bags for free (a savings of up to $50 per round trip per passenger checking one standard bag). Granted, the card’s other luxury perks pale in comparison to the aforementioned offerings  – cardholders only get two passes per year to the United Club and the card does carry a 3% foreign transaction fee – but this is in exchange for a much lower $95 annual fee.    
Also, United sweetened the deal when it announced last week that cardholders will be eligible for Complimentary Premier Upgrades on select economy-class rewards tickets in 2011.

In terms of straight rewards, cardholders earn two miles for each $1 spent on airline tickets purchased from United and Continental and one mile per $1 for everything else.

Everyman alternative: You’re looking at it. Between its $95 annual fee, which Chase is currently waiving for the first year, and the 14.24% annual percentage rate, this United Card is a nice alternative for moderate travelers who want to skip out on the hassles commonly associated with flying without paying too much for the credit card.

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