What Rewards Credit Card Offers Looked Like 30 Years Ago

Diners Club Club Rewards launched in 1985, and the very first airline co-brand launched in 1986.

Very quickly the major airline frequent flyer programs were up and running with credit cards.

It’s easy to think back on the good old days, and to be sure awards cost far fewer miles back then. But airlines printed far fewer miles, too. In fact it was 14 years ago before I saw a 20,000 mile signup offer for a United credit card.

I thought it would be useful perspective to look back on airline credit card rewards 30 years ago, when they just got started.

  • American: they offered both a MasterCard and Visa from Citibank, each with $50 annual fees (waived for the first 6 months). Signup bonus was 5000 miles: 2500 on approval and 2500 with first purchase.

  • Continental: had the very first card from Marine Midland Bank. It had a $26 annual fee (waived for 6 months). Signup bonus was also 5000 miles: 2500 on approval and 2500 with first purchase.

  • United: First Chicago issued the Mileage Plus First Card Visa with a $45 annual fee (waived for a year). Instead of miles you received a signup bonus of a $25 travel certificate to use on United or Westin, Hilton, or Hertz all commonly owned at the time. The card also came with an upgrade certificate from each of the four travel companies.

United’s livery of my youth. By Torsten Maiwald, GFDL 1.2, via Wikimedia Commons

Delta had not yet come out with its co-brand American Express card in 1987.

While award tickets have gone up in price, they haven’t gone up 10-fold over the last 30 years the way that signup bonuses have, so maybe award chart devaluation isn’t so bad after all.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. What a fun comment. Maybe devaluations aren’t so bad because signup bonuses haven’t gone up. You get signup bonuses once. You earn miles mostly from flying. It’s all the a-holes who take advantage of the system that blow it for everyone else.

  2. Ryan is spot-on. The credit card/airline miles game has been gutted big-time in the past 30 years. You could get 2 AA business/first class seats from the East Coast to Hawaii pre-9/11 for 100K miles. It’s tough to determine who’s avarice was the greater, those in the airline boardrooms, or the DYKWIA’s who credit card-churned their way to lifetime top-tier elite status and then blew their own horns about it, forcing the airlines to shut this off.

  3. Miles earning has gone down despite the fact you’re still flying the same distance and for the same amount of time, and redemptions have been devaluated. CC offers have been good for MSers, but bad for the customers who take part in loyalty programs because of actual flying (you know, the people who the programs were intended for in the first place).

  4. @Ryan I agree with Antonio. You can’t blame churners for “a mile is no longer a mile!” But I agree that credit cards have flooded the market big time. If ya can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

  5. Back in the day, the way to earn award tickets was — surprise — by flying! You often got a minimum of 1000 miles per segment, and there was sometimes triple miles!

    Credit cards miles were an afterthought.

    And then the world changed.

    Overall, while award levels have certainly gone up, there is no doubt that anyone “playing this game” is better off than they were 25 years ago — unless you were a VERY frequent flyer. And even then you rarely had access to partner airline awards.

  6. What I miss most from the “good ol’ days” is the additional items you received with your flight award. Back in the 90’s I got a Continental award to Hawaii and it came with a 3 day hotel stay and a rental car. 2 tickets? Twice as many hotel and car days. That was sweet, but it took me 5 yrs. to accumulate the miles. I’ve now been able to fly around the world in First Class and earn enough miles to do that regularly. If the airlines would free up more premium seats I’d feel like now would be the “good ol’ days” 10 years from now.

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