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Author: Bankrate Staff | Last Updated: January 29, 2019
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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.
The travel cards industry is home to some of the most lucrative and expensive rewards cards. At Bankrate, we score each card out of 100 against our matrix, which was devised to take into account various card attributes, such as the card’s annual fee, rewards value, sign-up bonus, and any extras or discounts. However, everyone is unique: Just because a card has a lucrative welcome offer doesn’t mean it is the right card for your regular spending habits. Wherever possible, we have identified where we think a card will suit a particular type of spender or traveler.
- Travel rewards value: Travel rewards are the main motivation for travelers. Our scoring method measures the rewards structure, how you earn them, and how to make the most of them.
- Annual fee: An annual fee can give the cardholder access to rewards and benefits and many cards waive the fee for the first year. We assess the annual fee against the benefits to determine if the fee is worth it, how to best use the card to make back the expense of the annual fee, and what type of user would most benefit.
- Foreign transaction fees: A foreign transaction fee is usually around 3% of every purchase you make abroad. We assess the foreign transaction fees for our recommended travel cards to help you avoid the unwanted surprise extra charges.
- Extras and Discounts: Advantages such as no checking fee for baggage and trip insurance are useful benefits for travelers.
Bankrate’s top picks for the best airline credit cards
Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®
The Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard offers cardholders similar rewards as the Executive World Elite card — including 2x AAdvantage miles on eligible American Airlines purchases, 2x AAdvantage miles on gas stations and restaurants and 1 mile per dollar on everything else. Plus, earn 50,000 bonus miles after spending $2,500 within the first three months of account opening.
- Decent sign-up bonus
- $99 annual fee waived the first year
- Preferred boarding on American Airlines flights
Read our full Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard review.
Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®
If you value staying rested and relaxed on the road, the main attraction of the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard is the Admirals Club access. You and your immediate family members, plus up to two additional guests, will have access to the club – a savings of $925 a year.
You’ll earn 2 miles per dollar spent on American Airlines and US Airways purchases and 1 mile per dollar on everything else. What makes up for this standard rewards rate is the 50,000-mile sign-up bonus for spending $5K within the first 3 months of account opening. And if you fly enough to get this sign-up bonus, you’ll earn enough more than enough in rewards to make up for the $450 annual fee.
- 50,000 bonus sign-up bonus (enough to cover a round-trip domestic flight)
- Admirals Club membership for you, your immediate family and two guests
- Free checked bag for you and up to eight companions
Read our full Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard review.
Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express
Delta enthusiast? Fly often? The Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express will help you maximize your mileage at a minimum cost. Card owners receive 2 miles for every $1 spent on Delta purchases and 1 mile per dollar on everything else. Even better, SkyMiles® members to earn 7 miles per dollar spent.
Cardholders receive a 30,000-mile sign-up bonus after spending $1,000 in the first 3 months – you’ll even get a $50 statement credit after making a Delta purchase within the first 3 months.
- $95 annual fee waived the first year
- No foreign transaction fees
- Domestic round-trip companion certificate after the first year
- Travel and auto protections included
- First checked bag free
Read our full Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express review.
Blue Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express
Looking for an introductory airline card? For Delta loyalists, the Blue Delta SkyMiles card is a great start. This card offers no annual fee and you’ll earn 10,000 bonus miles after spending $500 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership.
Blue Delta SkyMiles cardholders receive a 20% savings in the form of a statement credit using the Card on eligible Delta in-flight purchases of food, beverages, and audio headsets. They also get American Express benefits like purchase protection, extended warranty, flexible payment options and more.
- No annual fee
- No blackout dates
Read our full Blue Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express review.
Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card
Have friends, will travel. With the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature card, you’ll get unbeatable access to their airline transfer program and Famous Campion Fare™. Just spend $1,000 within the first 90 days of account opening and receive both 30,000 bonus miles and the Companion Fare offer (buy one ticket, get one for $0 base fare).
You’ll continue to get the companion fare each year from $121, including taxes and fees. Additional perks include a free checked bag for you and six guests, plus an earnings rate of 3 miles for every $1 spent on Alaska Airlines flights (1 mile per dollar spent on everything else).
- Access to the Famous Campion Fare™
- Free checked baggage for you and six guests
Read our full Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card review
What is an airline credit card?
It goes without saying but individuals who travel frequently for business or pleasure may benefit greatly from a travel card. Travelers can rack up frequent flier miles, discounts on car rentals and hotels, and receive other incentives when traveling, like lounge access or status benefits. These cards can also be a boon for those who travel overseas. Good travel rewards cards offer no foreign transaction fees, a perk that can keep you from racking up extra charges every time you swipe your card abroad. Foreign transaction fees are charges levied by the credit card issuer for transactions you make outside the U.S. and are usually around 3%.
Airline and travel cards are typically offered to individuals with good to excellent credit. You may not qualify if your credit is subpar. If your credit standing isn’t great, you should work on improving your score first before applying for a travel rewards card.
These cards offer the ability to earn miles for everyday purchases. Some even offer bonus miles and perks on hotel stays, saving you cash every time you’re away from home. That’s a plus. But many airline credit cards come with annual fees, and some are high enough that they can put a dent in the overall rewards you receive. This is especially true if you aren’t spending enough to earn bonuses or don’t pay off your balance each month, negating your rewards with interest payments.
Make sure to pay your bill in full and on time. A travel rewards card can be a great way to save money and enjoy other benefits just for spending the way you normally would. Anyone who typically carries a balance will likely fare better with a low-interest credit card over a travel rewards card as the value of any rewards is far likely to be outweighed by the interest charges accrued on your debt.
Are you interested in a co-branded credit card so you can get points or miles with a specific frequent flyer or hotel rewards program this coming year? Read more about our top choices for each of those categories.
How to choose an airline credit card
For credit card pros and newbies alike, choosing the right airline credit card can seem overwhelming. With so many options and factors to consider before applying, simplify your strategy into a three-step process:
- Decide if you want an airline-branded card or a card with transferable points/miles. Let’s say you live in a Delta hub city and travel weekly on business. In this scenario, you’ll likely benefit greatly from a premium Delta-branded card like the Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express. You’ll get a status boost and free checked bag when you fly, and enjoy a hefty intro bonus you won’t have trouble redeeming. If you don’t live in a hub city nor do you have a favorite airline, status upgrades probably aren’t as valuable, considering you’ll take advantage of them less often. Instead, you’d get better use out of a airline card with transferable miles, like the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card. You won’t get all the in-flight perks, but you’ll be able to redeem miles for flights on any airline.
- Consider how often you fly. If you’re flying quite frequently, you’ll be banking so many miles that you’ll have no problem overcoming an annual fee. If you fly only every once in a while, an annual fee may knock certain cards out of contention. Luckily, many airlines have several branded cards, each with varying annual fees and reward structures. Do the math on whether you’ll be able to make up for the annual fee before applying for an airline card.
- Consider how your new card will work with the other cards in your wallet. If you’ve already got a general rewards credit card that offers points on flights, will you really make use of another rewards card with transferable points? Perhaps you’d be better off getting a branded airline card that you’ll use strictly for purchasing flights and leaving the rewards card you already have for other purchases. It’s a balance of annual fees and maximizing the rewards you earn across your budget.
What about benefits and perks?
The best travel rewards cards will offer generous rewards rates and flexible redemption. There aren’t any blackout dates or restrictions on when and where you can use your points and miles.
Top-shelf airline cards often include a ton of travel-centric extras like annual flight credits, insurances, lounge access, and bonuses or discounts. These cards are often designed for frequent travelers valuing luxuries (like upgrades and lounge access) and business travelers who clock a lot of miles every year.
Make sure to check out how your points or miles are redeemed to ensure that they work best for your travel habits.
Airline credit cards vs. flexible travel rewards cards
Each card has its own redemption program. Some issuers prefer that you book your rewards travel through their online Web portal, or by calling a rewards representative to book the travel for you. Other cards require you to book the travel first and then apply the redemption towards the cost of the trip as a statement credit. Still, other cards require enough rewards to pay for an entire trip while some let you use your rewards for partial payment.
Before applying for a travel rewards card, consider carefully the type of spender you are and how much travel you’re likely to do. If you rarely take a plane, a premium travel rewards airline card is likely not worth the high cost of ownership for you. But if you fly at least several times a year and typically with luggage, an airline card with a free checked baggage perk could save you hundreds of dollars a year.
Also be sure to check out booking sites like Priceline and Expedia. As people are planning their travel for 2019, they are often running some pretty lucrative promotions when it might make sense to book through them instead of through another travel portal or directly with an airline or hotel.
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!