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Author: Madison Blancaflor
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Airline credit cards can help frequent fliers make the most of their travels
Frequent fliers can take advantage of the perks that come with airline credit cards to help make your trips more worthwhile. From bonus miles on airline purchases to discounts while you’re in the air, it makes a lot of sense for savvy travelers to have their favorite airline’s co-branded credit card in their wallet.
In this article:
Why you should trust Bankrate
Our review criteria
Bankrate’s team of experts have many years of experience providing advice for every stage of your financial life. Whether you’re looking for help choosing a credit card for general travel rewards or a specific trip in 2019, the crew here at Bankrate can help you with thoughtful and well-researched commentary. Finding the right travel credit card can be complicated because there are so many different types of travel rewards cards to choose from. From points and miles to co-branded airline or hotel cards, we cut through the noise to give you the information you will need to make an informed choice.
We’ve tailored this category’s Bankrate Scoring criteria to highlight the features most relevant to frequent flyers looking to maximize the value from their airline loyalty:
- Rewards Rate: With most airline cards rewarding a multiple on every dollar spent on their travel bookings, we weight the rate of this bonus, its redemption value, and its earnings on everyday purchases to determine which co-branded cards offer the greatest expected return.
- Perks: After we crunch the numbers on rewards rates, we factor in additional benefits, such as purchase protection or free checked bags, that enhance the travelling experience and increase the overall value of the card.
- Annual Fee: After calculating each offering’s travel value, we consider the annual cost of membership (if applicable) and determine whether the fee is justified by rewards, perks, or any introductory bonuses tied to opening an account.
Bankrate’s top picks for the best airline credit cards
Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express
If you fly often with Delta, this card would be a great addition to your wallet. Cardholders earn 2 miles for every dollar spent on eligible purchases made directly with Delta and one mile for every eligible dollar spent on purchases. SkyMiles® members can earn an additional 5x miles on tickets, so this is a way to earn even more miles on every trip.
- Earn 30,000 Bonus Miles after you use your new card to make $1,000 in purchases within your first 3 months.
- Main Cabin 1 Priority Boarding
- Check your first bag free on Delta flights, a savings of up to $240 per round trip for a family of four
Read our full Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express review.
Blue Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express
For Delta loyalists who want a no annual fee option to help them rack up more SkyMiles, the Blue Delta SkyMiles card might be a great fit. You’ll earn 2x miles at U.S. restaurants and on directly-made Delta purchases, plus 1x miles on all other purchases. While you aren’t getting the same perks that come with higher-tier Delta cards, this card is a great option for those who are newer to the points and miles game.
- 10,000 bonus miles after spending $500 within the first 3 months
- 20% savings in the form of a statement credit for eligible in-flight purchases
- No annual fee
Read our full Blue Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Expressreview.
Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card
With the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card, you’ll earn unlimited 3 miles for every dollar spent on eligible Alaska Airlines purchases, plus 1 mile on every dollar spent on all other purchases. After spending $2,000 within the first 90 days of account opening, you’ll also receive a 40,0000- bonus miles and their Famous Companion Fare™ from $121 ($99 fare plus taxes and fees from $22). For those who frequent travel with friends or family members, you can easily save hundreds of dollars with the Companion Fare™ perk alone.
- 40,000 bonus miles after spending $2,000 within the first 90 days of account opening
- Free checked baggage for you and 6 guests on the same reservation
- Cardholders are automatically enrolled in the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan Dining Rewards program, which earns up to 5x miles at more than 11,000 restaurants nationwide
Read our full Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card review.
CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Mastercard®
With American Airlines perks, a great sign-up bonus and access to the Oneworld Alliance, you can find a lot of value with this card. You’ll earn 2x miles on eligible American Airlines purchases, at telecommunications merchants, cable and satellite providers, car rental merchants and gas stations; plus 1x miles on all other purchases. The card also comes with standard travel protections like travel accident insurance, travel and emergency insurance and car rental insurance
- Earn 60,000 Aadvantage® miles after spending $3,000 within the first 3 months of account opening
- Earn an American Airlines Companion Certificate for domestic main cabin travel after you spend $30,000 or more each year of card membership and renew your card (fees apply)
- First checked bag free on domestic flights
Read our full CitiBusiness / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Mastercard review.
What is an airline credit card?
An airline card is a credit card, often co-branded with a major issuer like Amex or Citi, that offers rewards and perks for those loyal to a specific airline. Typically, these cards offer bonus miles for purchases made directly with the airline, and potentially for other categories as well. You can then redeem those miles for award airfare with the airline.
Many major airlines have other airline partners, and you can transfer points between the programs. Some are also members of international airline alliances. American Airlines, for example, is a member of the Oneworld Alliance. You can redeem your rewards earned with American Airlines for flights with any of the airlines in the alliance, not just American.
You can use airline credit cards just like a more general rewards credit card, but that may not be the best strategy for maximizing rewards. Airline cards provide the most value when used strategically with other cards.
Airline credit cards vs. flexible travel rewards
The one downside to airline credit cards is the lack of flexibility. Most airline cards only offer worthwhile rewards on brand-specific purchases. Plus, your redemption options aren’t as flexible as with a more general rewards card. A card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card allows you to earn 2x points on a number of different travel and dining purchases, and you aren’t limited to redeeming points within a certain list of airlines.
Perks of having an airline credit card
Beyond offering a way to rack up miles, airline cards typically offer brand-specific benefits and perks that general travel cards do not. Common perks that come with an airline credit card include:
- Preferred boarding
- Discounts on in-flight purchases
- First checked bag free
- Lounge access
If you’re willing to pay a higher annual fee, some top-tier airline cards will offer elite status (or at least an easier path to elite status) or anniversary bonus miles. Elite status with an airline can help you score flight upgrades, priority boarding (which is better than preferred boarding) and more.
Should I get an airline credit card?
Airline credit cards are great cards for those who book flights at least a few times a year, especially if you fly with the same airline each time. However, you don’t have to be loyal to just one airline to enjoy the benefits of an airline credit card. Whether you’re a travel newbie or a frequent luxury traveler, there is an airline card out there that can help you upgrade your flight experience.
When you’re first getting into points and miles, flexibility is a hot commodity. You want the ability to earn rewards across multiple categories and redeem for more than just one airline. I would recommend a card like the Blue Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from Amex. You won’t have to pay an annual fee, and Delta offers various ways to rack up miles. The card itself will earn 2x miles on U.S. restaurants and directly-made Delta purchases (plus 1x miles on all other purchases), but you can also earn Delta SkyMiles when you stay with Airbnb, by shopping through the Delta portal, dining at a participating SkyMiles Dining location, fly with their airline partners and more. You will also be able to redeem your miles with multiple airlines.
Frequent business travelers
If you’re flying the same routes on the same airline often, you should definitely be taking advantage of the perks an airline card can get you. A business credit card that offers an elite-qualifying dollar waiver is an excellent option in this case. These cards help you reach elite status faster, and elite status comes with exclusive perks like Priority Boarding and automatic upgrades when available. Delta, United and Southwest all have business credit card options that waive certain elite status requirements by hitting certain spend requirements.
Top-tier airline credit cards offer incredible perks that help luxury travelers upgrade their overall travel experience. While they also typically come with a larger annual fee, the value of the benefits that usually come with these cards make the fee worth it if you are flying often.
How can I get an airline card with bad credit?
Airline credit cards generally require good to excellent credit (670-850) in order to be approved. However, you can always work to increase your score over time so you can eventually be approved for an airline card.
There is no shortcut to getting a better credit score, but there are tried and true methods to raising your score — if you are patient.
- Get a credit-builder credit card. This is the fastest way to build your credit, provided you use the card properly. Your score can improve in months with good credit behavior.
- Make consistent and on-time payments. Payment history is one of the top factors considered when determining your credit score. The longer you go without a missed or late payment, the more trustworthy you are seen by creditors.
- Lower your credit utilization ratio. You do not want to have a large percentage of your available credit line in use. If you are struggling with credit card debt, it’s a good idea to pay off that debt before you start digging into the points and miles game.
- Only open new lines of credit when you need them. When you apply for a new credit card, a car loan, a mortgage and other types of credit, a hard inquiry is pulled on your report. While the negative effects of a hard inquiry are normally short-lived, applying for multiple credit cards in a short period of time can make it harder for you to get approved.
You can also take advantage of new programs that can help you boost your score, such as Experian Boost and UltraFICO.
Once you’re approved for an airline credit card, make sure you are paying off your bill in full each month. Rewards credit cards — including airline cards — typically come with higher interest rates. If you aren’t paying off your bill each month, you’re potentially undoing all of the work you just put in to raise your score while also eliminating the benefits of the rewards you’ll earn with the card.
Are airline miles worth it?
Many major airlines are devaluing the worth of their miles by introducing dynamic award pricing and making it harder to hit elite status. However, that doesn’t mean it’s time to give up on earning airline miles. It’s just more important for savvy travelers to have pockets of points or miles with multiple loyalty programs. Loyalty to just one airline might not reap many benefits, but knowing how to play the field can help you save no matter which airline you fly. This is where credit card pairing can come in handy.
For example, let’s say you have the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card because that is the airline you fly with most often. Because Southwest is a Chase travel partner, you can transfer your Ultimate Rewards points at a 1:1 ratio. That way, you can rack up points to use for Southwest flights between both cards, but you aren’t stuck redeeming with Southwest if you find a better award price for your Ultimate Rewards points elsewhere.
If you’re willing to put in the work to maximize the value of your airline miles, you can save hundreds of dollars on flights and receive additional benefits that makes flying more enjoyable — all without giving up the flexibility to book award travel with multiple airlines.
Reviews and further reading
If you still feel like you need to do more research to find the right credit card to fund your 2019 vacation, we have plenty for you. Check out our reviews section (below) to browse through our reviews of every single major travel card on the market, and then some. Feel free to shoot us an email or message on social if you have any questions!