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Best airline credit cards: Top picks

By Mitch Strohm · Bankrate.com
Sunday, January 22, 2017
Posted: 3 pm ET

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Best airline credit cards

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The best airline credit cards offer generous rewards and travel-related perks, like free flights, seat upgrades and priority boarding.

Complementing frequent flier programs, these cards are typically most useful if you often use the same airline for travel.

But while your travel habits will determine the best airline credit card for your wallet, some cards offer broader options for using your accumulated reward miles than others.

CARD SEARCH: Compare Travel and Airline Credit Cards.

CreditCards.com recently rounded up the best cards for its annual airline credit card competition, and the finalists were then rated by a panel of judges to narrow down the top three.

Out of the three cards on the list, two tied for the top spot. These cards all offer outstanding sign-up bonuses, enticing travel rewards and broad airline alliances.

The best airline credit cards
Credit Card Rate Reward
Citi® AAdvantage® Platinum Select® Card 16.24 percent to 24.24 percent variable Two airline miles per $1 spent on American Airlines purchases
British Airways Visa Signature® card 16.49 percent to 23.49 percent variable Three miles per $1 spent on British Airways purchases
United MileagePlus® Explorer Card 16.49 percent to 23.49 percent variable Two miles per $1 spent on United Airlines purchases

Here are the three best airline credit cards, according to CreditCards.com:

1. Citi® AAdvantage® Platinum Select® Card

The Citi® AAdvantage® Platinum Select® Card earns high marks in CreditCards.com's competition for its outstanding rewards program and generous sign-up bonus. It also offers a number of airport and in-flight perks. This card ties with the British Airways Visa Signature® Card for first place in the competition.

Highlights:

  • The Citi® AAdvantage® Platinum Select® offers two airline miles per $1 spend on American Airline purchases and one mile per $1 spent on general purchases.
  • For spending $1,000 within the first three months of opening the account, this card offers 50,000 American Airline AAdvantage® bonus miles.
  • Cardholders have the ability to earn back 10 percent of redeemed AAdvantage® miles per calendar year, up to 10,000 AAdvanage® miles with this card.
  • The Citi® AAdvantage® Platinum Select® comes with perks like priority boarding, 25 percent savings on in-flight purchases, and free checked bags for you and up to four people.

Fees and APR:

  • There's annual fee of $95 with the Citi® AAdvantage® Platinum Select®. It's waived for the first 12 months of opening an account.
  • This card has no foreign transaction fees.
  • This card comes with a variable APR of 16.24% to 24.24%.

Who should get this card:

  • The Citi® AAdvantage® Platinum Select® is best for travelers who frequently fly American Airlines and take advantage of the generous rewards through the AAdvantage® program.
  • No foreign transaction fees and a big sign-up bonus make this a great card for those who frequently travel abroad.

Disadvantages:

  • While an advantage for some, cardholders are limited to American Airlines and its code-share partner airlines when redeeming miles through this card. Other cards may offer more flexibility with miles or better travel options for your airline of choice.
  • After the first year, this card's $95 annual fee can eat into rewards.

Bottom line:

Generous rewards, an outstanding sign-up bonus opportunity and convenient travel perks make the Citi® AAdvantage® Platinum Select® a solid choice, especially for those who frequently fly American Airlines and its partners.

2. British Airways Visa Signature® card

The British Airways Visa Signature® card ties for first place with the Citi® AAdvantage® Platinum Select® in CreditCards.com's best airline credit card competition. The card offers substantial rewards, an outstanding sign-up bonus and convenient travel perks.

Highlights:

  • The British Airways Visa Signature® card offers three miles per $1 spent on British Airways purchases, more than some of its competitors. It offers one mile per $1 spent on general purchases.
  • This card offers the ability to earn 50,000 bonus Avios (miles) after spending $3,000 on purchases within the first three months of opening the account.
  • Cardholders who spend more than $30,000 a year can earn a companion ticket on a flight that they purchase with Avios points. Applicable taxes and fees apply to the companion ticket.

Fees:

  • The British Airways Visa Signature® credit card has a variable APR of 16.49 percent to 23.49 percent.
  • This card has a $95 annual fee, same as the Citi® AAdvantage® Platinum Select® card.
  • There are no foreign transactions fees with this card, making it a good option for those who travel internationally.

Who should get this card:

  • The British Airways Visa Signature® credit card is ideal for travelers who would like generous rewards and flight options associated with British Airways and its code-share partners.
  • With no foreign transaction fees and several airline options, this card is also good for the cardholder who frequently travels abroad.

Disadvantages:

  • British Airways Visa Signature® cardholders are limited to redeeming flights through British Airways and its partners. That may be an advantage to some, but American Airlines is the only domestic airline in the network.
  • There's a $95 annual fee with this card. If you don't use the card enough to make up for that fee, you may not find it beneficial from a financial standpoint.

Bottom line:

Useful travel perks and the ability to build miles quickly make the British Airways Visa Signature® credit card a good all-around choice, especially for those who use British Airways and its partner airlines.

3. United MileagePlus® Explorer Card

The United MileagePlus® Explorer Card ranks a close third to the British Airways Visa Signature® and the Citi® AAdvantage® Platinum Select® in CreditCards.com's best airline credit card competition. Its hefty rewards, large travel network and generous bonus opportunities make it a great choice, especially for United customers.

Highlights:

  • The United MileagePlus® Explorer card offers two miles per $1 spent on United Airlines purchases. It offers one mile per $1 spent on all other purchases.
  • New United MileagePlus® Explorer cardholders have the opportunity to earn 30,000 bonus miles for spending $1,000 in the first three months of opening an account.
  • Each calendar year, cardholders are eligible to receive a 10,000-mile bonus after reaching $25,000 in purchases on the card.
  • This card offers travel and purchases coverage.
  • The United MileagePlus® Explorer Card comes with convenient perks like priority boarding, privileges at luxury hotels and resorts and two passes per year to the United Club.
  • Earned miles on this card can be used to book rewards flights on Star Alliance partners, extending travel options for cardholders.

Fees:

  • The United MileagePlus® Explorer card comes with a variable APR of 16.49 percent to 23.49 percent, on par with competing cards on this list.
  • This card comes with an annual fee of $95. The fee is waived for the first year.

Who should get this card:

  • The United MileagePlus® Explorer card is best for those who often fly United Airlines or through its partners in the Star Alliance.
  • Bonus opportunities, great travel perks and generous rewards make this an ideal card for heavy travelers.

Disadvantages:

  • The United MileagePlus® Explorer card comes with a $95 annual fee. After a one-year, no-fee intro period, the annual fee could eat into rewards if the card isn't used enough.
  • Cardholders are limited to flying United and its Star Alliance partners. While that's a relatively large network, you might be better off with another card if you prefer a different, choice of airlines.

Bottom line:

For United customers, the United MileagePlus® Explorer card is a solid option. But if you're looking for different airline options or higher rewards, you may want to opt for the British Airways Visa Signature® or the Citi® AAdvantage® Platinum Select® card, depending on your travel preferences.

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