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Author: Barry Bridges | firstname.lastname@example.org
Comparing the 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.
A closer look at our top airline credit card picks
Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card
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 2 miles per dollar at restaurants worldwide and U.S. supermarkets) 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 60,000 Bonus Miles after you use your new card to make $2,000 in purchases within your first 3 months, plus an additional 10,000 bonus miles after your first anniversary of Card Membership. Offer expires 4/1/2020.
- 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
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 review and find out how to apply.
Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card
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.
- 15,000 bonus miles after spending $1,000 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 review and find out how to apply.
Summary of the top airline cards
|Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card
||Delta frequent flyers
||60,000 Bonus Miles after using your card to make $2,000 in purchases within your first 3 months; Earn an additional 10,000 bonus miles after your first anniversary of Card Membership
||4.3 / 5
|Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card
||40,000 miles for spending $2,000 within the first 90 days of opening your account
||4.7 / 5
|Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card
||No annual fee
||15,000 bonus miles after spending $1,000 in purchases in your first 3 months of Card Membership
||4.3 / 5
What is an airline rewards 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. Be careful when choosing your cards, though, as airline miles can expire. A recent Bankrate credit cards survey found that 50 percent of millennials have lost airline miles. 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.
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? Regardless of where you are or where you want to go, there’s probably an airline credit card out there for you.
Airline cards for beginner travelers
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 worldwie 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.
Airline cards for business
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.
Airline cards for luxury travelers
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.
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. 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 you fly Southwest more often than any other airline. 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.
Take full advantage of sign-up bonuses and know when your miles expire. Points can decline in value the longer you sit on them, and most 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 — all without giving up the flexibility to book award travel with multiple airlines.
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.
Can you transfer points between airlines?
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, not just American.
Make sure to read the terms and conditions for any airline rewards credit card you’re interested in so that you can find out about transfer policies. You can also try the airline’s website to check for any transfer or alliance partners.
How credit score affects your choice of 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.
How 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.
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.
How we rate the 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 have the information you need to make an informed choice. Each card we review is given a score on a 5-point scale, and we focus on particular attributes in the category of airline credit cards:
We evaluate the rate of the rewards you can earn with each card and their redemption value.
We factor in additional benefits, such as purchase protection or free checked bags, that enhance the travel experience and increase the overall value of the card.
We consider the annual cost of membership (if applicable) and determine whether the fee is justified by rewards, perks or introductory 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, personal loans, mortgages and other personal finance products since 2017. Before joining Bankrate, he was 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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