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If you want to use travel rewards to save money on flights, an airline credit card is a must. You can choose between credit cards that earn airline miles, or cards that earn more flexible rewards points that you can transfer to various frequent flyer programs.
With an airline credit card, not only will you earn miles on every purchase you make, but you can also earn a welcome bonus that will jump-start your frequent flyer account balance. Depending on the card you choose, you can also get benefits like a free checked bag, priority boarding, or an airline companion ticket.
There isn’t simply one best airline credit card; the right option for you depends on what airline you fly, whether you’re a loyalist or want flexibility, how you want to use your miles, how much of an annual fee you’re comfortable paying, and several other factors.
That said, it is possible to find the best airline credit card for you by zeroing in on the benefits you want.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred earns Ultimate Rewards points that you can use to book travel directly through the Chase Travel Portal, which gives you access to virtually every airline. You can also transfer Chase points to various airline and hotel partners, including United, British Airways, JetBlue, and Marriott.
This card offers a very strong lineup of perks and rewards in exchange for a relatively moderate annual fee. You’ll earn 2x points on travel and dining, and travel includes everything from airfare to parking to hotels, while dining includes restaurants, delivery services, and even some bars. The Sapphire Preferred also offers one of the best sign-up bonuses among consumer credit cards, and you get some valuable coverage benefits as well, including trip delay insurance and primary car rental insurance.
If you apply for the Chase Sapphire Preferred and find that you’re a fan of earning and redeeming travel points, remember that you can always upgrade to its higher-end sibling, the Chase Sapphire Reserve, after your first year. The Reserve has a $550 annual fee, but it also earns 3x points on travel and dining (vs. 2x) and offers up to $300 in annual travel credits that apply to virtually any travel purchase.
$99, waived for first 12 months
15.99% – 24.99% variable
Good to Excellent
50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles after $2,500 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
The Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard® gets you a free checked bag on American Airlines domestic itineraries, along with preferred boarding and discounts on inflight purchases.
It also earns 2x miles on eligible American Airlines purchases and on restaurant and gas station spending (and 1 mile per dollar on everything else). We also like that the annual fee is $99, waived for first 12 months. If you spend $20,000 on the card in an account year and then renew your card, you’ll get a $125 American Airlines flight discount.
$95, waived the first year
16.49% to 23.49% Variable
Good to Excellent
40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open, plus 25,000 bonus miles after you spend $10,000 in the first 6 months
The United℠ Explorer Card offers the perks you’d expect from an airline credit card — a free checked bag (you need to pay for the United flight with your Explorer card to get this perk), priority boarding, discounts on inflight purchases, and bonus miles for purchases with the airline — but also some very valuable extras.
If you have this card (or any other United card), you get expanded access to United’s lowest-priced “saver” awards, which could help you save miles on an upcoming flight booking. The United℠ Explorer Card also offers two one-time United Club passes each anniversary year, and an application fee credit of up to $100 for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck.
15.99% – 22.99% Variable
Good to Excellent
Earn 40,000 points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months, plus 3X points on dining, including takeout and eligible delivery services, for the first year
This is another instance of a higher annual fee being warranted due to the value you get. Thanks to annual benefits like up to $75 in statement credits for travel on Southwest and four upgraded boardings where available, the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card could be well worth it if you’re a regular Southwest flyer.
The statement credit for up to $75 toward Southwest purchases each year effectively lowers the annual fee to $74 — lower than the annual fee for the next-cheapest Southwest consumer card, the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card ($99).
Plus, the Priority card offers a bonus of 7,500 Southwest Rapid Rewards points each year after your account anniversary (you can use these points to book award flights), and you’ll get 20% off inflight purchases. If you fly Southwest more than once or twice a year, this card can easily be worth the annual fee.
The points you earn from any of the Southwest credit cards can help you qualify for the coveted Southwest Companion Pass, which allows a designated companion to fly with you for next to free (just pay taxes and fees) on paid and award flights.
15.74% to 24.74%
Good to Excellent
50,000 bonus miles and and 5,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $2,000 in purchases (plus up to $100 back in statement credits for eligible purchases at US restaurants) in your first 3 months of card membership
You may wonder why we’re recommending a Delta credit card that increased its annual fee from $195 to $250 (See Rates). Even with the higher fee, the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card offers the best value among Delta credit cards — and the fee increase comes along with some improved benefits.
The Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card earns 3x miles on eligible hotel and Delta purchases, plus 2x miles at restaurants and US supermarkets. This makes the card a valuable option for everyday spending, not just for earning bonus miles on your Delta purchases. Plus, the card offers an application fee credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, which is worth up to $100. That benefit alone can make up for the increase in annual fee.
Other Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card benefits that make it a standout pick for Delta loyalists are a first checked bag for free on Delta flights, an annual companion certificate, and priority boarding.
15.99% – 23.99% variable
Good to Excellent
50,000 bonus miles after you make $2,000 or more in purchases within the first 90 days of your account opening
Alaska Airlines doesn’t have the largest route network among US carriers, but if you live in the Pacific Northwest or another area where the airline offers extensive service — or if you fly Alaska to Hawaii — this is a great card to have.
The Alaska Airlines Visa® Credit Card not only offers a companion fare as part of its sign-up bonus, but you can also get one each year on your account anniversary (also starting at $121). You can use this fare to bring someone along on an Alaska flight, with no blackout dates, and this benefit alone makes the card worth having if you frequently fly with this airline.
You also get the standard airline credit card benefits like a free checked bag, 20% off inflight purchases, and bonus miles on Alaska purchases — but in this case, it’s 3 miles per dollar spent on eligible Alaska purchases rather than the more standard 2x miles bonus on airline purchases available on other cards.
15.99%, 19.99% or 24.99% based on your creditworthiness.
40,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 on purchases in the first 90 days and paying the annual fee
The standout benefits of the JetBlue Plus Card are points earning — you get 6x points on JetBlue purchases, 2x points at restaurants and grocery stores, and 1 point per dollar on everything else — and a 5,000-point bonus each year after your account anniversary. Cardholders also get a free checked bag and 50% off inflight purchases.
Beyond that, the card offers an incentive for big spenders: If you spend $50,000 or more on purchases on the JetBlue Plus card in a calendar year, you’ll get JetBlue Mosaic status, which gets you free drinks on board, waived change and cancellation fees, two free checked bags, and more.
See Pay Over Time APR
75,000 points after you spend at least $5,000 in your first 6 months of card membership
With a $550 annual fee (See Rates), The Platinum Card® from American Express might not make sense if you only travel once or twice a year. However, if you’re on the road frequently, the card’s many premium benefits — from airport lounge access to up to $200 in airline fee credits each year** — make it a useful pick.
The Platinum Card® from American Express earns a spot on our list of the top airline rewards cards because it earns 5 points per dollar on flights booked directly with the airline or through Amex Travel (starting January 1, 2021, the 5x points will apply up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year). That’s one of the highest earning rates available on flight purchases. The Amex Membership Rewards points you earn let you book flights directly through Amex Travel, or you can transfer them to more than a dozen airline partners to book flight awards.
Personal Finance Insider draws on the advice and experience of its own credit card experts, but we know that research is an important part of the hunt for your next credit card. With that in mind, we’ve compared our top airline card recommendations with those from other authorities in this space.
We included a checkmark under each publication name if it recommended a given card in any of its top airline credit card coverage. For more information on why some of our recommendations differ, see our section on popular airline cards that just missed the cut.
Personal Finance Insider chose the top airline cards based on the value each card offers in relation to its annual fee. To make sure we were considering the best airline credit cards from every perspective, we also researched the recommendations and methodology of top airline card lists from other websites, including CreditCards.com, NerdWallet, The Points Guy, and Wirecutter.
In many cases, each publication had a different pick for the best credit card for a given airline — and in that situation, we arrived at our selection by returning to the question of which card offers the most value in return for its annual fee, excluding benefits that require spending extra money to unlock.
Note that we focused on credit card options for flying with major US airlines — including the “big three” of American, Delta, and United, as well as smaller popular carriers like Alaska, JetBlue, Southwest, and Hawaiian Airlines. If you frequently fly with another airline like Frontier, you may want to look into its co-branded credit card options.
To keep things simple, we limited our list of the best airline credit cards to one definitive pick per airline, plus a few top options that aren’t affiliated with a particular airline. However, if you’re open to doing some deeper comparison-shopping, these cards are also worth a look.
- New United Quest℠ Card — The newest card in United’s credit card lineup, this is a great pick if you fly United often, because it comes with a first and second free checked bag and up to $125 annually in credits for United purchases.
- Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card — While the Venture card is another solid option for earning miles that you can redeem with a variety of airline partners, the partners themselves aren’t necessarily the most convenient for US travelers, and the transfer ratios can get a bit confusing.
- Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card— This card has a lower annual fee (See Rates) than the Platinum Delta Amex, but also fewer benefits that can save Delta flyers money.
- AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard — The AAdvantage Aviator stands out for offering a generous sign-up bonus that only requires making one purchase in the first three months. It falls short of the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard® when it comes to bonus categories for earning miles, though.
- Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®
— With a $450 annual fee, it doesn’t necessarily make sense for all American Airlines flyers, but if you want access to American’s Admirals Club airport lounges, this card fits the bill, offering Admirals Club membership along with the usual perks like a free checked bag and priority boarding.
- Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card — If you want to earn Delta miles on your spending without paying an annual fee (See Rates), give this card a look. It earns 2x miles at worldwide restaurants and offers 20% off inflight Delta purchases.
What credit card offers the best airline miles?
There isn’t one “best” airline credit card or one type of airline mile that’s categorically better than the others, because it depends on which airline is most convenient for you.
For example, if your home airport is small, you could have limited options when it comes to which airline you fly, so you’ll likely want to earn whatever miles you need to fly from your hometown.
If you live near a large airport where your airline choices are plentiful and you have more options for loyalty, you may want to investigate how much different airline miles are worth. We recommend checking out Insider’s 2021 guide to points and miles valuations, which attach a value (in cents) to the major airline currencies based on the types of award flights you can book through each.
You’ll see that Delta miles are generally worth less than Alaska miles, but keep in mind all points and miles are only valuable if you can use them — so if you don’t travel to destinations served by Alaska or its airline partners, earning its miles probably isn’t your best bet.
Is an airline credit card worth it?
If you’re loyal to a particular airline, it could make sense to apply for one of its co-branded cards. For instance, United offers the United℠ Explorer Card, which gets you benefits like a free checked bag and priority boarding on United.
If you aren’t loyal to a particular airline and you simply book with whichever carrier is offering the cheapest airfare, an airline co-branded card may not be the best option. You could consider a travel rewards card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card or The Platinum Card® from American Express instead. This way, you’ll earn points that can be used to book airfare through Chase and Amex, respectively, as well as through specific airline transfer partners affiliated with the two programs.
How do airline credit cards work?
Airline credit cards that earn you miles in a particular frequent flyer program require you to add your frequent flyer number to your card account. You’re usually asked to do this during the credit card application process. Then, you’ll earn miles on all your eligible credit card spending, and those earnings will be reflected in your frequent flyer account.
You’ll be able to access the miles you earned from your credit card directly through your frequent flyer account and use them to book award flights.
What’s the difference between airline credit cards and travel rewards credit cards?
Airline credit cards earn you miles in a specific frequent flyer program, such as JetBlue TrueBlue or United MileagePlus. These airline co-branded cards are best for travelers who are loyal to one airline, because your main option for using miles will be for flights on that airline or its partners.
Travel rewards cards, on the other hand, earn transferable points — rewards that you can transfer to a variety of airline and/or hotel partners. With travel rewards cards, you aren’t locked into using your points with only one airline, but you also won’t get airline-specific benefits like a free checked bag or priority boarding.
Do airline miles expire?
Many airline miles expire, but there are some notable exceptions. Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, and United miles never expire, but with other programs like American Airlines AAdvantage, miles do expire if you don’t have any qualifying activity within a certain period (18 months, in the AAdvantage program). Keep in mind that earning miles from using a co-branded airline credit card counts as qualifying activity and can prevent your miles from expiring.
This post was reviewed and updated on April 30, 2021.
Sarah Silbert is the senior reviews editor at Personal Finance Insider. She’s covered personal finance and credit card rewards for six years, and she’s a Certified Educator in Personal Finance (CEPF).
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