Best airline cards: Fall 2016

By

Best cash back card: Fall 2016

 

Best cash back card: Fall 2016

 

If you’re a frequent traveler, an airline credit card could help you turbocharge your rewards miles and quickly earn a free vacation.

The best airline cards complement cardholders’ frequent flier miles memberships with a bevy of rewards bonuses and travel-centric perks, such as priority boarding and premium travel credits. Some of the most coveted airline cards also let cardholders transfer miles to a wide variety of airline and hotel partners. 

To help you pick the right airline credit card for your travel habits, CreditCards.com evaluated some of the top-rated cards in the airline category and asked a panel of judges to rate the CreditCards.com staff’s top three picks.

Judges for Best Airline Cards of Fall 2016 were personal finance expert Holly Johnson (clubthrifty.com), travel expert Johnny Jet (johnnyjet.com), Money magazine staff writer Taylor Tepper, CreditCards.com Editor-in-Chief Daniel P. Ray and CreditCards.com senior industry analyst Matt Schulz.

All three of the best airline credit cards for fall 2016 (it was such a tight competition two cards tied for first place) offer solid sign-up bonuses, valuable travel rewards and broad airline alliances to help cardholders get to nearly any destination around the globe.

FIRST PLACE (TIE): The Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite MasterCard tied for first place this year thanks to its user-friendly rewards program, affordable terms and time-saving perks, such as priority boarding.  

 

No. 1 (TIE): CITI / AADVANTAGE PLATINUM SELECT CARD
Best card
  • 2 miles per dollar on American Airline purchases
  • 1 mile per dollar on general purchases
  • 30,000 bonus miles if you spend $1,000 in first 3 months
  • Earn 10% of your redeemed miles back per year
  • APR: 14.24-22.24% (variable)

Other features: 25% savings on in-flight purchases, first checked bag free, priority boarding privileges, no foreign-transaction fee

Editor's rating:
star-rating4.2/5
Read our review

 

No. 1 (TIE): CITI / AADVANTAGE PLATINUM SELECT CARD

Best card

  • 2 miles per dollar on American Airline purchases
  • 1 mile per dollar on general purchases
  • 30,000 bonus miles if you spend $1,000 in first 3 months
  • Earn 10% of your redeemed miles back per year
  • APR: 14.24-22.24% (variable)

Other features: 25% savings on in-flight purchases, first checked bag free, priority boarding privileges, no foreign-transaction fee

Editor's rating:
star-rating
4.2/5
Read our review

Judges praised the American Airlines card’s valuable rewards program, which starts with a sign-up bonus of 30,000 miles for spending at least $1,000 in the first three months, offers two AAdvantage miles for every dollar spent on American Airlines purchases,  and rewards cardholders with a 10 percent bonus at the end of each year.

With no annual fee for the first year, the lowest APR of our finalists and a yearly bonus of 10 percent of your redeemed miles back each year, the Citi AAdvantage card was the winner in my book.

— Matt Schulz
Industry Analyst, CreditCards.com 

Judges also liked that the Citi card offers a number of airport and in-flight travel benefits. 

“The Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard deserves the top spot among airline credit cards this year for several reasons,” says personal finance expert Holly Johnson. “First, the card itself offers meaningful perks – free checked bags for you and up to four guests on domestic flights, priority boarding and double points on American Airlines fares.” 

Cardholders also can book rewards-funded flights using an easy-to-navigate online portal and can “hold” rewards-funded flights for up to five days, she says.

 “While these details aren’t tied to the card itself, it’s equally important to gauge the value of related rewards programs when evaluating co-branded credit cards,” says Johnson.

American Airlines has also been known to cut rewards prices on select flights, giving cardholders more opportunities to save. “On some routes, you get some award booking discounts,” says travel expert Johnny Jet. Another way American Airlines credit card holders can save when redeeming miles: reduced mileage awards.

Since American Airlines is one of the world’s largest airlines and a member of the Oneworld alliance, cardholders should have little trouble booking a rewards flight around the world.

Judges also noted that the American Airlines card’s terms are somewhat less expensive than other airline cards.

For example, cardholders with excellent credit could qualify for an APR as low as 14.24 percent. Citi also waives the card’s $95 annual fee in the first year, and it doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees.

“This was a close contest,” says CreditCards.com senior industry analyst Matt Schulz. “However, with no annual fee for the first year, the lowest APR of our finalists and a yearly bonus of 10 percent of your redeemed miles back each year, the Citi AAdvantage card was the winner in my book.

“It’s not a perfect card. Other cards, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, give you more flexibility with your miles,” he says. “However, if you are a fan of American Airlines, this card can be a good choice for you.”

FIRST PLACE (TIE): Our judges saluted the British Airways Visa Signature card – which tied for first place – for its generous rewards rate and solid benefits for international travelers.

 

No. 1 (TIE): BRITISH AIRWAYS VISA SIGNATURE CARD
British Airways Visa Signature Card
  • 3 miles per dollar on British Airways purchases
  • 1 mile per dollar on general purchases
  • 50,000 bonus miles if you spend $3,000 in first 3 months
  • Free companion ticket each year you spend $30,000
  • APR: 16.24-23.24% (variable)

Other features: No foreign-transaction fee

Editor's rating:
star-rating
4.2/5
Read our review

 

No. 1 (TIE): BRITISH AIRWAYS VISA SIGNATURE CARD

British Airways Visa Signature Card

  • 3 miles per dollar on British Airways purchases
  • 1 mile per dollar on general purchases
  • 50,000 bonus miles if you spend $3,000 in first 3 months
  • Free companion ticket each year you spend $30,000
  • APR: 16.24-23.24% (variable)

Other features: No foreign-transaction fee

Editor's rating:
star-rating
4.2/5
Read our review

Judges highlighted the British Airways card’s well-above-average sign-up bonus of 50,000 bonus miles after spending at least $3,000 in the card’s first three months. 

All things being equal, consumers are better off picking the British Airways Visa Signature. You’ll earn a choice sign-up bonus, valuable rewards and a travel companion ticket if you spend $2,500 a month a year.

— Taylor Tepper
Staff Writer, Money Magazine 

Judges also noted that the British Airways card awards more points on airline purchases – three points per dollar – than many of its competitors.

The British Airways card also offers a number of valuable perks, including a free companion ticket every year you spend at least $30,000 on your card and no foreign transaction fees. 

“The best airline-specific credit card is the one from the airline that you fly regularly,” says Taylor Tepper, a staff writer at Money Magazine. “But all things being equal, consumers are better off picking the British Airways Visa Signature. You’ll earn a choice sign-up bonus, valuable rewards and a travel companion ticket if you spend $2,500 a month a year.” 

British Airways also is a member of the Oneworld alliance, so you’ll be able to transfer your miles to American Airlines or other domestic airline partners, such as Hawaiian Air, notes Tepper.

The British Airways card has received some criticism for trimming its rewards program in recent years, but “Ultimately, the British Airways Visa Signature card is the one I’d add to my card portfolio,” says CreditCards.com Editor-in-Chief Daniel P. Ray. “Despite its $95 annual fee and recent devaluation, it has the flexibility to earn a place in the wallet of an aspiring globetrotter. 

“The generous earning scheme helps you build points rapidly, and the multiple partnerships let you spend them around the world.”

SECOND PLACE: The United Mileage Plus Explorer card finished second in our almost-too-close-to-call competition, with judges citing the United card’s substantial sign-up bonus, ample rewards and globe-spanning travel network. 

 

No. 3: THE UNITED MILEAGE PLUS CARD
Best card
  • 2 miles per dollar on United Airlines purchases
  • 1 mile per dollar on general purchases
  • 30,000 bonus miles if you spend $1,000 in first 3 months
  • 5,000 bonus miles if you add authorized user and make purchase in first 3 months
  • 10,000 bonus miles each year you spend $25,000
  • APR: 16.24-23.24% (variable)

Other features: Free checked bag, priority boarding privileges, 2 one-time passes to the United Club, no foreign-transaction fee

Editor's rating:
star-rating
4.3/5
Read our review

 

No. 3: THE UNITED MILEAGE PLUS CARD

Best card

  • 2 miles per dollar on United Airlines purchases
  • 1 mile per dollar on general purchases
  • 30,000 bonus miles if you spend $1,000 in first 3 months
  • 5,000 bonus miles if you add authorized user and make purchase in first 3 months
  • 10,000 bonus miles each year you spend $25,000
  • APR: 16.24-23.24% (variable)

Other features: Free checked bag, priority boarding privileges, 2 one-time passes to the United Club, no foreign-transaction fee

Editor's rating:
 alt=
4.3/5
Read our review

The United Mileage Plus card, like the Citi AAdvantage Visa card, has a 30,000 sign-up bonus after spending at least $1,000 in the first three months and a rewards rate of two miles for every dollar spent on tickets purchased from United and one mile for every dollar in general purchases. The United card’s $95 annual fee also is waived the first year.

The United card’s premium travel-centric perks include priority boarding, no foreign transaction fees and two annual passes to a United Club airport lounge. The United Mileage card also waives first checked baggage fees and awards an extra 10,000 miles every year that cardholders spend at least $25,000.

As one of the world’s largest airlines, United’s flights, coupled with those of members of the Star Alliance, mean cardholders should have no trouble booking a round-trip to nearly anywhere in the U.S. and spanning the globe.

As with any airline card, it’s smart to check an airline’s flights and global footprint through alliances before you sign up. To get enough value from an airline card to make it worth the annual fee, you should plan to travel on that air carrier relatively frequently.

 “This was a tough call, since all three cards’ benefits are relatively close,” “Geography may tip the balance for you: If you live near or often fly to one of American Airlines’ hubs, its card may serve you better, and the same applies if you often traverse United’s hubs,” says Ray.

This is the first year that CreditCards.com has held a contest for best cards in their class. To help choose the best cards for each category, the CreditCards.com staff consulted credit card and personal finance experts and nominated the top three cards as finalists. CreditCards.com staff also rated cards through its credit card reviews program.

A panel of five judges -- including personal finance experts and two members of the CreditCards.com staff -- were asked to independently judge the three finalists and rank them in order of preference. The card with the best average rank was chosen as the winner. 

See related: Compare best sign-up bonus cards, Understanding how airline rewards programs work, Calculate your rewards card's value: 8-point checklist, Travel rewards cards: how to avoid pitfalls

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT


Follow Us


About this Award

CreditCards.com’s Best Credit Cards awards program brings together prominent industry experts and journalists to choose the best credit card within a monthly category. Our editorial staff nominates cards based on a set of objective criteria. CreditCards.com is not compensated for any of the nominations or awards.



ADVERTISEMENT

Meet the judges