An airline credit card is a type of rewards card, often co-branded with a major issuer like American Express or Citi, that offers rewards and perks for people loyal to a specific airline. Typically, these cards earn airline miles for purchases made directly with the airline but can sometimes earn miles in other categories. Then, those miles are redeemed for award airfare with that specific airline.
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 and are especially useful for the travel-specific perks they offer, such as priority boarding, seating upgrades and companion fares. Owning an airline credit card while being a member of the airline's frequent flyer program can also help you get maximum value.
How do airline credit cards work?
Airline credit cards work just like regular credit cards—there are defined credit limits and interest rates that apply to your purchases. However, with airline credit cards, you earn travel rewards specific to an airline and can participate in that airline’s rewards program.
For example, Delta SkyMiles cards earn miles redeemable only for Delta flights, while Southwest Priority Rewards card rewards are used for Southwest airfare.
Most airline cards have higher rewards rates for purchases made directly with the airline, but that doesn't mean they can't be used elsewhere. Many cards earn miles on everyday purchases, including groceries, gas, dining and other categories.
You might even think of an airline credit card as sort of a VIP airport pass. The best airline rewards cards routinely include perks such as access to airport lounges, priority boarding, free checked bags and more.
Airline credit cards vs. travel credit cards
Both airline credit cards and travel credit cards typically reward you with points or miles. But there are a few key differences.
Airline credit cards are tied to a specific airline like American Airlines, Delta, Southwest or United. These co-branded credit cards reward your loyalty with exclusive perks you won’t find with general travel cards. These may include free checked bags, priority boarding, companion tickets and even accelerated elite status. Unfortunately, redemption options usually aren’t as flexible with airline credit cards, which can typically only be redeemed for plane tickets with that specific airline.
In contrast, travel credit cards are not tied to specific airlines. Although you won’t earn the exclusive perks, travel rewards cards are more versatile and let you earn and redeem in a variety of travel-related ways. This includes different airlines, hotels and car rentals. Depending on the travel credit card, you might also be able to redeem your points or miles for cash, gift cards and merchandise, though the value may not be as high as when you redeem for travel.