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Author: Barry Bridges | firstname.lastname@example.org
Get ready for takeoff with Bankrate’s best airline credit cards
Airline credit cards can help frequent flyers make the most of their travels. The best airline cards not only help you save money but also make your travel experience more enjoyable, convenient and maybe even a little luxurious.
From bonus miles on airline purchases to discounts while you’re in the air, a top-rated airline credit card is a must-have for the savvy traveler. You can trust Bankrate to help you choose the right one for you and figure out how to use the card to its maximum value.
Compare Bankrate’s top-ranked airline credit cards
A closer look at our top airline credit card picks
Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard® (not currently available)
Best for American Airlines frequent flyers
This card offers several attributes that American Airlines brand loyalists will find attractive. The generous rewards rate on eligible American Airlines purchases, and at gas stations and restaurants, should make it easy to earn the sign-up bonus, especially for frequent flyers who use the card strategically. If you spend $20,000 or more in your first year and renew your card, you can look forward to another reward: a $125 American Airlines Flight Discount.
Annual fee: $99, waived for first 12 months
- Earn 2 AAdvantage® miles per $1 on eligible American Airlines purchases, as well as 2 miles per $1 at gas stations and restaurants.
- Earn 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles after spending $2,500 within the first 3 months.
- Get your first checked bag for free on domestic American Airlines itineraries for you and up to four companions traveling with you on the same reservation
- Preferred boarding on American Airlines flights.
Read our full review and find out how to apply.
The information about the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard® has been collected independently by Bankrate.com. The card details have not been reviewed or approved by the card issuer.
Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card
Best welcome offer
This card’s intro bonus offers a generous reward (35,000 Bonus Miles) for a relatively modest effort (a spending requirement of just $1,000 in the first 3 months). You can find a card with a larger welcome offer, but don’t be surprised if you have to spend a lot more to earn it. The rewards program and travel perks also help make this card an attractive option for frequent Delta Air Lines travelers.
Annual fee: $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $99
- Earn 35,000 Bonus Miles after you make $1,000 in purchases within your first 3 months.
- Spend $10,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year and receive a $100 Delta Flight.
- Main Cabin 1 Priority Boarding on Delta flights so you can stow your carry-on bag and settle in sooner.
- 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 review and find out how to apply.
Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card (not currently available)
Best companion discount
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.
Annual fee: $75
- 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 review and find out how to apply.
The information about the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card has been collected independently by Bankrate.com. The card details have not been reviewed or approved by the card issuer.
Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card
Best airline card with no annual fee
For Delta loyalists who want a no annual fee option to help them rack up more SkyMiles, the Delta SkyMiles Blue American Express Card might be a great fit. You’ll earn 2x miles at restaurants worldwide 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.
Annual fee: $0
- 10,000 bonus miles after spending $500 within the first 3 months
- 20 percent savings in the form of a statement credit for eligible in-flight purchases
- No blackout dates on Delta flights
- Purchase protection, extended warranty on eligible purchases and other American Express benefits
Read our full review and find out how to apply.
What is an airline credit card?
An airline card is a credit card, often co-branded with a major issuer like American Express 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.
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.
How to choose the right card for your lifestyle
Airline credit cards are great 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. Here’s how:
Decide whether you want brand-specific perks
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.
Airline credit cards vs. travel credit cards
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 usually aren’t as flexible as with a travel rewards card.
For example, 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.
Know what kind of traveler you are
If you want to take full advantage of an airline card, you’ll want to first take stock of your travel preferences and needs. Do you use a certain airline for certain trips, or would you prefer earning points on all purchases made to redeem for travel? Consider the following guidelines on airline cards for specific types of travelers:
The travel beginner
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. Consider a card like the Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card. 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 restaurants worldwide 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, flying with their airline partners and more. You will also be able to redeem your miles with multiple airlines.
The business traveler
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.
The luxury traveler
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.
Card Tricks: Which trusted traveler security program should you choose?
Expedited security programs such as TSA PreCheck, Global Entry and CLEAR can greatly reduce your wait time at the airport. Question is, which one works best for you? Here’s some advice from Bankrate on how to choose:
More programs and more resources
- NEXUS — Expedited entry into the U.S. from Canada
- SENTRI — Expedited entry into the U.S. from Canada and Mexico
How to maximize the value of your airline miles
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. You still have several ways to make the most of them.
- Pair airline cards with general travel cards. Let’s say you have the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card. Because Southwest is a Chase travel partner, you can transfer your Ultimate Rewards points at a 1:1 ratio. This 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.
- Take full advantage of sign-up bonuses. A sign-up bonus or welcome offer from a new airline card could be worth several hundred dollars, or more, in travel costs. Keep track of your progress toward the spending requirement and start thinking about how you might use those bonus miles once you’ve earned them.
- Don’t let unused miles expire or get stale. Airline miles can decline in value over time, and some loyalty program miles expire after 18-36 months of inactivity. 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.
- Explore transfer partners. 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 partners. You can redeem your rewards earned with American Airlines for flights with any of the airlines in the alliance. Make sure to read the terms and conditions for any airline rewards credit card you’re interested in to find out about transfer policies.
The information about the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card has been collected independently by Bankrate.com. The card details have not been reviewed or approved by the card issuer.
How credit score affects your choice of airline cards
Airline credit cards generally require good to excellent credit (670-850) in order to be approved. So no need to prematurely fret if you’re on the lower end of that spectrum. You can still qualify for a top-tier airline credit card with a lower credit score — just know that this means you probably won’t be approved for the lowest interest rates or highest lines of credit. However, you can always work to increase your score over time so you can eventually be approved for an airline card.
Five ways to build up your credit score
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 secured or 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 don’t 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.
- Open new lines of credit only 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.
- Compensate for a thin credit profile. You can also take advantage of programs such as Experian Boost and UltraFICO. These programs measure good financial habits that might not be reflected by traditional credit scoring models, including reliable payment history for utilities.
Frequently asked questions about airline rewards programs
Do airline miles expire?
The answer depends on your loyalty program. As of this writing, airlines with no-expiration policies include Delta, JetBlue, Southwest and United. With most airline loyalty programs, however, miles can expire after 18 to 36 months of account inactivity.
Note the word “inactivity.” For example, you might be able to prolong the life of your unused miles if you make purchases using the program’s online shopping portal or otherwise keep your account active.
Some loyalty programs might offer the chance to buy back miles that you’ve lost to expiration, but be prepared to pay more for them than the value of unexpired miles.
No matter your loyalty program, it’s best to follow three rules of thumb on airline miles:
- Check the terms and conditions periodically.
- Watch for emails about impending changes.
- Use them so you know you won’t lose them.
Expired rewards from loyalty programs represent money left on the table. A Bankrate Credit Cards survey found that nearly half of U.S. adults who take part in airline and hotel rewards programs have let points or miles expire.
‘How many miles would I need for a free flight?’
Your mileage may vary, if you’ll pardon the joke. Airline reward programs differ greatly in the number of miles required to earn what are commonly called “award flights” or “reward flights.” Some programs have fixed prices in miles while others determine prices based on the cash value of tickets. To further complicate matters, not every program has a published chart that explains the number of miles you need for an award flight.
However, you can look to an example from American Airlines AAdvantage® to get a general idea.
Here’s the specific wording on the AAdvantage flight award chart: “If your plans are flexible, MileSAAver awards are available for as low as 7,500 miles each way plus any applicable taxes and carrier-imposed fees.”
The hypothetical 7,500-MileSAAver flight has several conditions including:
- Traveling within the contiguous 48 U.S. states and Canada
- Less than or equal to 500 miles
- Valid only on non-stop flights
- Main Cabin seating
With that 7,500-MileSAAver figure as the baseline, award flights of greater length and different seating class get increasingly expensive.
So, depending on the rewards program and other factors, a free flight is likely to cost several thousand miles. Fortunately, an airline credit card with a lucrative sign-up bonus and generous rewards program could make it much easier to earn the miles you need.
‘Should I purchase airline miles?’
In most cases, buying airline miles doesn’t make financial sense. Redeeming miles earned through a loyalty program is typically much less expensive. The sale price of miles could be two to three times greater than their redemption value.
Possible exceptions include:
- When the airline is running a promotion selling miles at a deep discount
- When you need a small number of miles to earn a high-value award flight
If you want to compare sale price versus estimated value, check The Points Guy’s valuation guide to points and miles.
How we chose our list of best airline credit cards
Finding the right airline credit card can be complicated, but Bankrate’s independent research helps clear the air so that you can make an informed choice. We review cards from our partners using a 5-star system, and our analysis in the category of airline credit cards focuses on:
We evaluate each card’s rewards program on its rewards rate (mile per $1 spent and inclusion of non-airline spending categories), as well as the ease of redemption.
We factor in additional benefits, such as priority boarding or free checked bags, that enhance the travel experience and increase the card’s overall value.
We consider the annual cost of owning the card (if applicable) and determine whether the fee is justified by rewards, perks or sign-up bonuses.
More information on airline credit cards
Learn more about airline credit cards using educational resources from Bankrate:
Senior Editor Barry Bridges has been writing about credit cards, loans, mortgages and other personal finance products for Bankrate since 2018. His work has also appeared on websites including Nasdaq.com, Zillow.com and The Simple Dollar. He was previously an award-winning newspaper journalist in his native North Carolina. Send your questions about credit cards (and fantasy baseball) to email@example.com.
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