Best Airline Credit Cards

Airline credit cards offer perks like free checked bags or airport lounge access while also making it easier to rack up points or miles and save money on flights. We analyzed 148 co-branded airline cards based on miles value, rewards rate, and other benefits to find the best cards for each major airline. Here are the best offers from our partners.

Airline credit cards offer perks like free checked bags or airport lounge access while also making it easier to rack up points or miles and save money on flights. We analyzed 148 co-branded airline cards based on miles value, rewards rate, and other benefits to find the best cards for each major airline. Here are the best offers from our partners.

By: Laura Mohammad

|

September 21, 2020

 

Best Airline Credit Cards of 2020

Good to Excellent

Credit Recommended (670-850)

CreditCards.com credit ranges are a variation of FICO® Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.
Apply Now

Rewards Rate

2X
Earn unlimited 2X miles on every purchase, every day.

At A Glance

Intro Bonus
100,000 miles

Earn 100,000 bonus miles when you spend $20,000 on purchases in the first 12 months from account opening, or still earn 50,000 miles if you spend $3000 on purchases in the first 3 months

Annual Fee
$95
Regular APR
17.24% - 24.49% variable

Good to Excellent

Credit Recommended (670-850)

CreditCards.com credit ranges are a variation of FICO® Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.
Apply Now

Rewards Rate

1.5X
Earn unlimited 1.5x Miles for every dollar spent on all purchases - with no annual fee.

At A Glance

Intro Bonus
Discover Match®

Unlimited Bonus: Only Discover will automatically match all the Miles you've earned at the end of your first year. For example, if you earn 35,000 Miles, you get 70,000 Miles. There's no signing up, no minimum spending or maximum rewards. Just a Miles-for-Miles match.

Annual Fee
$0
Regular APR
11.99% - 22.99% variable

Excellent

Credit Recommended (740-850)

CreditCards.com credit ranges are a variation of FICO® Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.
Apply Now

Rewards Rate

2X
Earn 2 AAdvantage® miles for each $1 spent at grocery stores, including grocery delivery services
2X
Earn 2 AAdvantage® miles for every $1 spent on eligible American Airlines purchases
1X
Earn 1 AAdvantage® mile for every $1 spent on other purchases

At A Glance

Intro Bonus
10,000 miles

Earn 10,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles and receive a $50 statement credit after making $500 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

Annual Fee
$0
Regular APR
15.99% - 24.99% (Variable)

Good to Excellent

Credit Recommended (670-850)

CreditCards.com credit ranges are a variation of FICO® Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.
Apply Now

Rewards Rate

2X
2 points per $1 spent on Southwest® purchases and Rapid Rewards® hotel and car rental partner purchases.
1X
1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases.

At A Glance

Intro Bonus
40,000 points

Earn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

Annual Fee
$69
Regular APR
15.99% - 22.99% variable

Excellent

Credit Recommended (740-850)

CreditCards.com credit ranges are a variation of FICO® Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.
Apply Now

Rewards Rate

2X
Earn 2 miles per $1 spent at restaurants and on hotel stays
2X
Earn 2 miles per $1 spent on purchases from United
2X
Earn 2 miles per $1 spent at restaurants and eligible delivery services including GrubHub, Caviar, Seamless and DoorDash
1X
1 mile per $1 spent on all other purchases

At A Glance

Intro Bonus
60,000 miles

60,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

Annual Fee
$95, waived first year
Regular APR
16.49% - 23.49% variable
See Rates & Fees, Terms Apply

Good to Excellent

Credit Recommended (670-850)

CreditCards.com credit ranges are a variation of FICO® Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.
Apply Now

Rewards Rate

4X
Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points on Restaurants worldwide, including takeout and delivery.
4X
Earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
3X
Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.

At A Glance

Intro Bonus
35,000 points

Earn 35,000 Membership Rewards® Points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 3 months.

Annual Fee
$250
Regular APR
See Pay Over Time APR

Good to Excellent

Credit Recommended (670-850)

CreditCards.com credit ranges are a variation of FICO® Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.
Apply Now

Rewards Rate

2X
2 points per $1 spent on Southwest® purchases and Rapid Rewards® hotel and car rental partner purchases.
1X
1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases.

At A Glance

Intro Bonus
40,000 points

Earn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

Annual Fee
$99
Regular APR
15.99% - 22.99% variable

Good to Excellent

Credit Recommended (670-850)

CreditCards.com credit ranges are a variation of FICO® Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.
Apply Now

Rewards Rate

2X
2 points per $1 spent on Southwest® purchases and Rapid Rewards® hotel and car rental partner purchases.
1X
1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases and your points never expire.

At A Glance

Intro Bonus
40,000 points

Earn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

Annual Fee
$149
Regular APR
15.99% - 22.99% variable

Editorial disclosure: All reviews are prepared by CreditCards.com staff. Opinions expressed therein are solely those of the reviewer and have not been reviewed or approved by any advertiser. The information, including card rates and fees, presented in the review is accurate as of the date of the review. Check the data at the top of this page and the bank's website for the most current information.

 

All information about the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card has been collected independently by CreditCards.com and has not been reviewed by the issuer.


Comparing the Best Airline Credit Card Offers

Airline credit cards reward you for loyalty to a specific airline, and they can be more than worth your while. Earn rewards for airfare and in-flight purchases, and enjoy benefits such as free checked-in baggage.

It’s an unsettled world in terms of travel this summer, but card issuers are offering alternative categories and features to get your attention, as well as sign-up bonus extensions. Also, with travel picking up for some, there are ways to benefit from an airline card that rewards you for loyalty. We’ve compiled a list of the best airline credit cards for your needs, and this guide will walk you through how to select the right one for you.


best airline credit cards of 2020

Best Airline Rewards Credit Cards

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Why it’s the best airline credit card for sign-up bonus

The card’s 60,000-point sign-up bonus (for spending $4,000 in the first 3 months) is worth $750 toward travel when redeemed through the Chase Ultimate Rewards Program. Also, earn 2X points for worldwide travel and dining, with an additional 3X points on Lyft rides through March 2022 for a total of 5X points.

Card overview

Chase Ultimate Rewards points are currently valued at 2 cents per point* and you can transfer points to a number of airline and hotel partners on a 1:1 basis, which opens up a lot of 2020 travel possibilities. On the downside, the card’s $95 annual fee is not waived for the first year and you’ll miss out on the airline-specific perks offered by co-branded airline cards.

Best airline perk

Though it’s not an airline perk per se, the card comes with trip cancellation and interruption insurance, which could save you a ton should you need to cut a trip short or cancel because of an illness or severe weather.

Discover it® Miles

Why it’s the best airline credit card for first year bonus

This is about as close as you can get to making your own bonus: Not only will you earn unlimited 1.5X miles on every purchase, Discover will match all the miles earned in your first year – no need to shell out thousands in the first few months just to score a big sign-up bonus. Even better, the card charges no annual fee.

Card overview

This card offers great flexibility in how you can redeem miles. In addition to airfare, you can opt for cash back, book hotel rooms and rental cars or pay for taxis and public transportation, all without sacrificing rewards value. You also get a 0% intro APR for 14 months on new purchases (11.99% – 22.99% variable thereafter), making it a solid choice for paying off large expenses over time. Unfortunately, though, you can’t transfer miles to a frequent flyer program.

Best airline perk

It’s not exactly an airline perk, but the card’s lack of a foreign transaction fee should come in handy if you plan to travel abroad. Many cards charge a foreign transaction fee of at least 3% per purchase made overseas. Discover card international acceptance can be limited, however, so be sure to check if your card will be accepted where you’re traveling.

Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card

Why it’s the best airline credit card for airline transfer partners

The card recently added JetBlue to its already long list of international airline transfer partners, which has broadened its appeal considerably for domestic travel.

Card overview

This card offers unlimited 2X miles on every purchase and a sign-up bonus of 100,000 miles if you spend $20,000 on purchases in the 12 months or 50,000 miles if you spend $3,000 in your first 3 months (miles are currently valued at 1.4 cents per mile*). That means you can earn rewards on everyday purchases that you can use later in the year. Keep in mind, though, that Capital One’s airline transfer partners largely consist of international airlines rather than major U.S.-based carriers.

Best airline perk

While it’s not tied to a specific airline, the card could help you breeze through airport security thanks to its credit of up to $100 toward the cost of Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, a perk usually reserved for luxury travel cards.

Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card

Why it’s the best airline credit card for no annual fee

It’s a great fit if you want to earn rewards without breaking the bank. The card not only charges no annual fee – a rarity among airline cards – but also comes with a 10,000-mile welcome offer after you spend just $500 in the first 3 months.

Card overview

While it can’t compete with the value and travel perks offered by the Gold Delta SkyMiles card, the Delta SkyMiles Blue card still gets you 2X miles at restaurants worldwide, which can be helpful as you ease back into the wide world. Also, earn 2X miles on purchases made directly with Delta. SkyMiles are valued at 1.2 cents*.

Best airline perk

You’ll get 20% back in the form of a statement credit on eligible in-flight purchases of food, beverages and audio headsets on Delta flights.

Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card

Why it’s the best airline credit card for Delta Air Lines

The card comes with a 50,000-mile welcome offer after you spend just $2,000 in the first 3 months (offer expires 10/28/20). Plus, you’ll enjoy an array of travel benefits that can save you money and make flying less of a hassle.

Card overview

Here’s another airline card with offers beyond 2X miles on direct Delta purchases – earn 2X miles at restaurants worldwide and at U.S. supermarkets. Also, the card’s annual fee of $99 is waived for the first year and you receive a 20% savings in the form of a statement credit after you use your card on eligible Delta in-flight purchases of food, beverage and audio headsets. Delta SkyMiles are valued at 1.2 cents*.

Best airline perk

You’ll get the fee waived for your first checked bag and for the first checked bags of up to 8 companions traveling on the same reservation. This could save you up to $60 per person on a round-trip Delta flight.

Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®

Why it’s the best airline credit card for airline flight perks

Earn a $125 American Airlines Flight Discount after you spend $20,000 or more in purchases during your card membership year and renew your card. But you don’t have to be a big spender to enjoy this card’s perks. All cardholders are immediately eligible for preferred boarding on American Airlines flights.

Card overview

The reward categories with this card are sure to please any traveler: Earn 2X AAdvantage® miles per $1 spent at gas stations, restaurants and on eligible American Airlines purchases. And even if you don’t have much traveling planned in the near future, you don’t have to wait long to see your rewards stack up. After spending $2,500 in purchases within the first 3 months of opening your account, you’ll earn 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage bonus miles.

Best airline perk

You’re sure to become everyone’s favorite travel companion with this card. Not only do you get to check a bag for free on domestic American Airlines flights – so do up to four companions traveling on the same reservation.

United℠ Explorer Card

Why it’s the best airline credit card for United Airlines

You can earn 60,000 bonus miles when you spend $3,000 on eligible purchases within the first 3 months of when your account is opened.

Card overview

Here is an airline card that you might think about getting: The United Explorer Card is more versatile than some airline cards, since you’ll not only earn 2X miles on tickets purchased directly with United, but also on hotel and restaurant purchases (miles are valued at 1.3 cents*). The card also comes with a credit of up to $100 for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, which, if you fly frequently, should help lessen the blow of the card’s $95 annual fee (waived the first year).

Best airline perk

You get 2 one-time passes to the United Club lounge each year on your cardholder anniversary, allowing you to escape the chaos of the airport and enjoy free food and drinks, complimentary Wi-Fi and comfortable workspaces.

American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp℠ Card

Why it’s the best airline credit card for American Airlines

The AAdvantage MileUp Card lacks some of the perks you’ll get with other American Airlines cards, but since it charges no annual fee and offers everyday value via its 2X rewards rate at grocery stores and on eligible American Airlines purchases, it’s a great place to start.

Card overview

This card’s sign-up bonus of 10,000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles and a $50 statement credit can be yours with just $500 in spend in the first 3 months. Plus, American Airlines offers one of the largest travel networks in the world, and AAdvantage miles (valued at 1.4 cents*) can be transferred to dozens of airline, hotel and car rental partners. That said, redeeming AAdvantage miles can be complicated.

Best airline perk

You’ll get a 25% discount on food and beverage purchases on American Airlines flights, which will come in handy when travel opportunities pick up again. Unfortunately, this doesn’t cover other in-flight purchases like Wi-Fi.

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card

Why it’s the best airline credit card for Southwest Airlines

It offers the same sign-up bonus as the Rapid Rewards Premier and Priority cards – 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months – while charging a lower annual fee of $69.

Card overview

Like the other Southwest cards, this is a great card to consider as travel opportunities return: Along with the 2X points you’ll earn on Southwest purchases and Rapid Rewards partner hotel and car rental purchases, this card offers 3,000 bonus points each year after your account anniversary (points are valued at 1.5 cents*).

Best airline perk

Earn 125,000 points or buy 100 qualifying one-way tickets and you’ll be eligible for a Companion Pass, which allows you to have a companion fly for free (plus taxes and fees) for up to 2 years on every Southwest flight you buy with points or cash.

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card

Why it’s the best airline credit card for annual travel credit

The card’s annual 7,500-point anniversary bonus is the largest offered by a Southwest Rapid Rewards consumer card. Plus, you can apply the $75 credit you get each year toward airfare. This is a huge perk, as most travel credits only count toward incidentals.

Card overview

While it shares the Rapid Rewards Plus card’s sign-up bonus and rewards rate, the Rapid Rewards Priority card’s annual bonus, travel credit and other perks should make up for its higher annual fee of $149. Also, already a strong domestic carrier, Southwest is increasingly adding flights abroad.

Best airline perk

Along with its annual credit and a chance to earn the coveted Southwest Companion Pass, the card gets you 4 upgraded boardings per year and a 20% discount on in-flight purchases, including drinks, Wi-Fi, messaging and movies.

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card

Why it’s the best airline credit card for annual bonus points

This card’s bonus point offer is a hard one to beat: You’ll earn a 6,000-point bonus every year after your account anniversary. The points don’t expire for the life of the account, and there are no blackout dates, so once you’re ready to travel again, the bonus will still be yours.

Card Overview

This card offers a generous sign-up bonus of 40,000 bonus points if you spend $1,000 in the first 3 months. These points can be used for booking future international flights, hotel stays, car rentals and you can also purchase gift cards. Keep in mind that you can only book rewards flights on Southwest, since Southwest doesn’t have any airline partners. So if you prefer another airline, that is something to consider.

Best airline perk

You’ll get valuable airline perks like no change fees and no booking fees. Plus, one-way rewards tickets are permitted, which is a great perk to keep in mind for when travel speeds back up.

British Airways Visa Signature® Card

Why it’s the best airline credit card for no foreign transaction fee

The British Airways Visa Signature’s no foreign transaction fee feature is a strong addition to its lineup as a card for overseas travel. Also, this feature comes in handy when you are making online purchases with companies that work with foreign banks.

Card overview

The sign-up bonus is one of the best out there, with 50,000 Avios after a $3,000 spend within the first 3 months, plus another 50,000 Avios after spending $20,000 within the first year. Also, earn 3 Avios per $1 spent on purchases with British Airways, Aer Lingus, Iberia, and Level, as well as 2X Avios on hotel accommodations (it’s 1X Avios on all other purchases).

Best airline perk

Every calendar year that you make $30,000 in purchases on your British Airways Visa card, you’ll earn a Travel Together Ticket good for two years.

CitiBusiness®/AAdvantage® Platinum Select® Mastercard®

Why it’s the best airline credit card for business travel

If you’re traveling for business, it can be important to stay comfortable and focused. You can pay for extra accommodations, or you can get a credit card that provides them for free or at a discount. With the Business AAdvantage card, your first checked bag is free on domestic American Airlines flights. Plus, you’ll enjoy preferred boarding, no foreign transaction fees and a 25% discount on in-flight wifi on American Airlines flights.

Card overview

You’ll earn 2X AAdvantage® miles on eligible American Airlines purchases, but it doesn’t end there. The same 2X rate applies to common business expenses like telecommunications merchants, cable and satellite providers, car rental merchants and at gas stations. All other purchases earn 1X AAdvantage mile per $1 spent.

Best airline perk

Having your first bag checked for free on domestic American Airlines flights can end up saving a lot of money over the course of a year. With this feature, you don’t have to choose between paying an extra fee or underpacking to save money.

Summary of The Best Airline Miles Credit Cards of 2020

Credit Card Best For Annual Fee Intro Bonus Required Spend For Intro Bonus
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card Sign-up bonus $95 60,000 points $4,000 in the first 3 months
Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card Annual bonus points $99 40,000 points $1,000 in first 3 months
United Explorer Card United and Global Entry/TSA PreCheck application credit $95, waived first year 60,000 miles $3,000 in the first 3 months
Capital One® Venture Rewards® Credit Card Airline transfer partners $95 100,000 miles Or 50,000 miles $20,000 in the first 12 months Or $3,000 in the first 3 months
Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card Delta and free checked baggage $99, waived first year 50,000 miles Offer expires 10/28/20 $2,000 in the first 3 months
Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card Annual travel credits $149 40,000 points $1,000 in first 3 months
American Airlines AAdvantage MileUpSM Card American Airlines $0 10,000 AAdvantage® miles and a $50 statement credit $500 in first 3 months
Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card No annual fee $0 10,000 miles $500 in the first 3 months
Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card Southwest and overall value $69 40,000 points $1,000 in first 3 months
Discover it® Miles First year bonus $0 Matches the miles you earned at the end of the first year N/A
British Airways Visa Signature® Card No foreign transaction fee $95 50,000 Avios $3,000 in first 3 months You can earn an additional 50,000 Avios for spending a total of $20,000 in the first 12 months
CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® Mastercard® Business travel $99, waived for first 12 months 65,000 AAdvantage® miles $4.000 in first 4 months
Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard® Best for airline flight perks $99, waived for first 12 months 50,000 AAdvantage® miles $2.500 in first 3 months

Criteria used: Rewards rates, rewards categories, airline alliance partners, other transfer partners, sign-up bonus, point values, redemption options, redemption flexibility, elite status, annual fee, travel credits, airport lounge access, miscellaneous travel benefits, rates and fees, customer service, credit needed, upgrade and downgrade options

Multiple criteria influenced how we picked the best card for each airline. We recognize that the best things any airline card can do for you are to help you save on airfare with free flights and make the airport/flying experience more tolerable (and, with the right perks, even enjoyable). For a full list of criteria and more detail on our review scores, see our ratings process for airline cards.

What are airline credit cards and how do they work?

Airline credit cards are typically products that align with airlines to bring you rewards specific to that brand, although there has been a movement in the last year to offer boosted general rewards as well, which you’ll want to consider for the time being. Called co-branded cards, these products reward you for loyalty to that brand through in-flight purchases and tickets, as well as brand-specific benefits.

Keep in mind that you’ll want to pick a card partnering with an airline you’ll actually use, or there’s no point in earning all those miles. For example, American Airlines has a hub in Charlotte, while United has a hub in Houston, and Delta is based out of Atlanta. Where you live and go should factor into your decision.

In addition to co-branded cards, there are credit cards that solely present the bank brand but still partner with airlines for redeeming points or miles, such as Venture Rewards and Sapphire Preferred.

“Airline cards are especially valuable when you’re loyal to a particular carrier,” says Ted Rossman, CreditCards.com’s industry analyst. “The miles you earn through a sign-up bonus and your ongoing spending can quickly earn you a free trip. Plus, airline cards often offer additional perks such as free checked bags and priority boarding. Many of them charge annual fees, but they can be recouped quickly. For example, a $95 annual fee equals roughly three checked bags. A family could come out ahead after just one flight.”

Is an airline credit card right for you?

There are a few points that make an airline credit card a good option for you, and there are times when it’s not the best card for a consumer. Here are 5 things to look at.

  1. You plan to regularly fly with the same airline – If you live near a hub of the airline partnering with the card you are eyeing, that might be a good card for you. Also, if you find yourself often turning to a specific airline for your travel needs, this card might be the right choice.
  2. You will use the card’s perks – You’ll want to look at the travel features beyond just the miles offered. TSA PreCheck, free first checked bags, lounge access, cancellation insurance: These are a few of the features strong airline cards may offer.
  3. The perks outweigh the annual fee – There’s often an annual fee with airline cards, so you’ll need to assess whether the rewards and the perks make the card worthwhile once the annual fee has been charged.
  4. You can pay the full balance each month – If you get any type of rewards card, airline cards included, it’s important to make sure you can pay your balance in full each month, because otherwise, the point, miles or cash back are basically wasted. But keep in mind that if you are struggling right now due to COVID-19, many issuers are offering relief.

Is an airline credit card worth it?

Simply put, yes. Organized budgets and travel-happy cardholders will find airline credit cards pack plenty of value into their rewards programs, enough so to override the annual fee. That being said, other rewards cards such as general travel cards and cash back options have their own way of earning that may better suit your lifestyle.

General travel rewards cards require less loyalty than their airline counterparts, allowing cardholders to earn points or miles on everyday spending (or in select categories). Points and miles can be redeemed for vacation purchases, such as hotel stays, flights or cruises, but also can be used for gift cards and other premium offers that an airline card might not provide. The added flexibility might be attractive to those who don’t want to tie themselves too tightly to one airline, but are still looking to have their travel rewarded.

Cash back cards are typically the simplest of any rewards card: Spending in a fitting category will get you rewarded with a percentage of money back every time you swipe. Some cash back cards award for travel expenses, but these are traditionally more useful for widespread earning or to help you earn in other categories. For example, the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express gives 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets (up to $6,000 annually, then it’s 1%) and select U.S. streaming subscriptions, 3% cash back at U.S. gas stations and on transit expenses, and 1% cash back on all other purchases. And cardholders don’t need to worry about redemption options; no matter the category you earn in, your rewards come in cash or a cash statement.

A closer look: Airline vs. travel vs. cash back

Before figuring out the right type of rewards card for you, take a look at the general advantages and disadvantages of each:

Airline credit cards

Pros:
  • Best value for redeeming flights
  • In-flight discounts
  • Airport perks (lounge access, TSA PreCheck or Global Entry, etc.)
  • Free checked bags
  • Priority boarding
Cons:
  • Limited redemption flexibility
  • Often feature annual fees
  • May be tied to one airline

General travel credit cards

Pros:
  • Might earn points or miles on everyday purchases
  • Additional travel redemption options (hotels, rental cars, etc.)
  • Introductory offers/sign-up bonuses allow for expedited earning
  • Flexibility when redeeming points
  • Sometimes still feature travel perks (Airport lounge access, free checked bag, etc.)
Cons:
  • Most require a high credit score
  • Most valuable options feature hefty annual fees

Cash back credit cards

Pros:
  • Easy-to-track earnings. No need to keep watch on accumulating points/miles
  • Many feature no annual fee
  • Heightened rewards outside of travel purchases
  • Straightforward rewards value
  • Intro 0% APR offers and sign-up bonuses
Cons:
  • Limited total value compared to airline or travel rewards
  • High regular APRs
  • Possible potential caps on how much you can earn in a quarter/year
  • More lucrative cards require attention (rotating categories, quarterly enrollment, etc.)

The bottom line

While all options provide ways for cardholders to get rewarded for spending, making the best choice for you depends on your lifestyle and finances.

Those with a longstanding loyalty to an airline or an opportunity provided by proximity to an airline’s hub would find the most benefit out of airline cards. Although they’re limited in where they create value, there’s no better way to save for committed, consistent flyers. Frequent flyers who appreciate flexibility and want the freedom to book with multiple providers will want to look to a travel rewards card. Even once-in-a-while vacationers can benefit from a travel card; a variety of redemption options and earning outside of travel expenses make for well-rounded rewards.

Cash back cards are the best fit for those looking to earn across all purchases or those looking for simplicity in their rewards. While the easy-to-understand rewards make these a common choice for those early in their credit-building journey, the most valuable cash back cards with specialized categories can provide ways for you to earn extra at the grocery store, your favorite restaurant or streaming at home. They may not get you on a flight for less, but savvy strategizing with cash back cards can provide some serious value.

How to compare 2 different airline cards

With all those great choices, picking the right airline card can seem overwhelming. Well, we do the heavy lifting to help you make the right decision. Here are the factors you should consider when choosing between 2 airline credit cards. As an example, we’ll compare the AAdvantage MileUp card and the United Explorer card as we go.

Sign-up bonus

Consider which card’s sign up bonus is more lucrative and attainable. While the United Explorer card offers a giant bonus, it requires a giant amount of spending. The MileUp card, on the other hand, offers a smaller bonus, but only requires you to spend $500 in the first 3 months.

If two cards have the same required spend, the one with the higher bonus might be favorable, but you’ll also need to check point valuations, as one airline’s points or miles might be worth more than the other’s. In the case of the MileUp card versus the United Explorer, it’s close: AAdvantage miles are valued at 1.4 cents* while United MileagePlus miles are valued at 1.3 cents*.

Ongoing rewards

Some airline credit cards offer rewards outside of the realm of airline royalty, making them competitive with general-purpose travel cards. However, you’ll want to be sure a card’s bonus categories line up with your spending habits.

The United Explorer card, for example, offers 2X miles on hotel and restaurant purchases while the MileUp card offers a 2X rewards rate on grocery store purchases. If you plan to eat takeout often or plan to stay in hotels down the road, the United Explorer card is the obvious choice, but if you’re more of a home cook, you may get more long-term value out of the MileUp card, even though its sign-up bonus pales in comparison to that of the United Explorer.

Benefits

Airline cards can offer a number of useful perks that reduce the stress of flying, and if you make use of them they can really help justify a card’s higher annual fee. If you don’t do a ton of traveling, though, they may not be worth it. Ask yourself if you’ll make use of perks like airport lounge access and discounted in-flight purchases; if all you really care about is discounted airfare, you can likely save money with a lower annual fee card.

The United Explorer card, for example, charges a $95 fee annual fee (waived the first year), but gets you perks like lounge access, a free first checked bag, priority boarding and a credit of up to $100 for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck. In stark contrast, the no-annual-fee MileUp card’s best offering is a 25% discount on food and beverage purchases on American Airlines flights.

Annual Fee

Depending on the benefits a card offers and whether you’ll make use of them, it may be worth paying an annual fee. To decide, consider the net cost of the card along with the added value of the credits, benefits and rewards you receive. Keep in mind, too, that many airline cards, including the United Explorer card, offer to waive the fee for the first year. Others, such as the MileUp card, have no annual fee at all.

With no sign-up bonus in play in the second year, things level off considerably, so your choice will come down to your spending habits and the value you place on travel perks and other card benefits.

Card Value Comparison: Year 1

Note: Bonus category earnings in the tables below are based on average monthly household spending+. Total earned assumes rewards are redeemed for travel.

Card Sign-up bonus Bonus category spending Other spending Annual fee Total earned at end of first year
United Explorer 60k miles (with $3k spend in 3 months)*1.3 cents=$780 2X*$288 (dining)*12 months=$90 1X*$500*12 months=$78 $95 (waived first year) $948
AAdvantage MileUp 10k miles (with $500 spend in 3 months)*1.4 cents=$140 2X*$372 (groceries)*12 months=$125 1X*$500*12 months=$84 $0 $349

Card Value Comparison: Year 2

Card Bonus category spending Other spending Annual fee Total earned at end of second year
United Explorer 2X*$288 (dining)*12 months=$90 1X*$500*12 months=$78 $95 (waived first year) $73
AAdvantage MileUp 2X*$372 (groceries)*12 months=$125 1X*$500*12 months=$84 $0 $209

+Average dining and grocery spending courtesy Bureau of Labor & Statistics

How to earn airline miles

It may seem straightforward – spend on your card, get miles, redeem, rinse and repeat. But there’s more to it than you’d think. You’ll want to time your purchases, time which card you use, and more.

Time your purchases

This is a big one. You’ll want to make sure, for example, that you spend the required amount before the sign-up bonus deadline hits. Typically, you have 3 months to spend a set amount in order to receive the sign-up bonus. Also, you may consider making a big purchase (that you can pay back in full) before a planned trip to top off your points. For example, you might plan to earn miles that you can use once the situation with COVID-19 improves.

When do you get your miles?

Once you’ve earned your miles, you would think you would get them almost immediately, because you’ve met the requirements, but not necessarily so. For example, Chase says it will take 6-8 weeks before your sign-up bonus points are posted, but it can be less. That brings us back to making sure you time when you make your purchase, and ensuring that those miles will post before the big trip. Trying to earn miles to visit family in the next few months? Make sure you spend enough in time to get those rewards back in order to redeem them.

Choose what you redeem for carefully

Now that you’re on your way to earning points or miles, you may think the easy part is ahead. But not so fast.

Miles’ values vary not only between airlines but also between types of redemptions. For example, with the Delta SkyMiles, flights are valued at 1.2 cents, while upgrades are valued at an incredible 2.2 cents, while merchandise is only 0.4 cents. And programs such as AAdvantage allows you to redeem miles for everything from flights and upgrades to gift cards. But while the value of miles is strong for flight awards and upgrades (Business/First MileSAAver trades at a whopping 3.8 cents), that isn’t always the case for other redemptions.

Choose how often you redeem

You may be required to have a minimum before you can redeem, so check for that.

To maximize your redemption, you need a plan. And part of that plan is to redeem your miles as soon as you can while still reaching your goal. That’s because points can lose their value over time. For example, Qatar Airlines’ Qmiles were worth 1.1 cents in December 2017, according to our points valuation, and are now worth 0.8 cents. Also, the miles can even expire if you don’t pay attention to the rules.

Leverage your airline’s partners

Another note about paying attention to the rules: Played right, you can maximize the use of your miles. For example, British Airways is notorious for charging an incredibly high number of Avios (points) for redeeming seats in first and business class. Instead, you can check partners such as American Airlines to see if you can find a better deal.

You can do your own check to see how many miles you need from the airline’s website: Just look under the reservations page, and search for the section that mentions award flights. Most will offer a chart showing the regions to which they travel – usually broken down by continents – as well as a schedule showing how many miles it takes to get from one region to another.

Most popular airline rewards programs

Delta SkyMiles

While the SkyMiles program is forever moving the finish line with ever-changing point values and rules, there are no blackout dates and there are a number of redemption options.

The average point value is 1.2 cents, according to The Points Guy, and rewards don’t expire. There are more than 20 airline partners, so you can go pretty much anywhere in the world. It’s a good program for loyal Delta flyers and international travelers.

United MileagePlus

The United program award tickets are one-way, which actually opens up your options. You can have a different class each direction; or you can travel out with a Saver ticket when your plans are flexible, and with an Everyday ticket on the return with firmed up plans.

You can use miles to request upgrades to a premium cabin, which allows you to benefit from free alcoholic beverages, as well as priority check-in, security line access, boarding, and baggage handling.

Southwest Rapid Rewards

With this loyalty program of Southwest Airlines, flight options are primarily limited to domestic destinations, but the rewards are strong. This program is particularly great for families with loads of luggage. Booking is flexible and there aren’t a ton of hidden fees.

While there are no blackout dates and one-way trips are permitted, it’s not the largest of airlines, with only about 100 destinations, and only about 10 countries.

American Airlines AAdvantage

With about 350 destinations to more than 50 countries, American Airlines, with regional carrier American Eagle, is one of the largest airlines in the world, ideal for world travelers. The airline partners with OneWorld Alliance carriers as well as other partners.

While there’s the MileSAAver awards, which means you can book award flights at a low number of miles, there are downsides, such as some quirky rules and the need for flexibility when booking.

British Airways Executive Club

Another OneWorld partner, British Airways can eat up your miles, called Avios, but the experience is superior.

There is a feature called Reward Flight Savers, advertised as the best value reward flights, which is available on return flights in Europe and southern Africa. Like other loyalty programs, you can use Avios to upgrade, for a hotel stay or getting a rental car.

Virgin Atlantic Flying Club

Flying to roughly a dozen countries, Virgin Atlantic is a 35-year-old British airline with a number of stops in the U.S. Flying Club, Virgin Atlantic’s loyalty program, offers dozens of partners, including Delta. You can redeem on Delta for as little at 20,000 miles for East Coast flights during the off-season.

Other partners include KLM, Air France and other international airlines, as well as hotels such as Hilton and IHG. The points valuation for this program is a generous 1.5 cents, according to TPG. You can also convert points into miles through some of the top card issuer programs, such as Citi ThankYou and Chase Ultimate Rewards.

Do airline miles expire?

When it comes to airline rewards, few things are more frustrating than seeing your hard-earned points and miles expire before you’ve had a chance to use them. Unfortunately, only a few airline rewards programs offer miles that never expire, with the vast majority requiring you to either earn or redeem miles within 1-2 years or risk forfeiting the miles in your account. In some cases, you can have expired miles restored to your account, but don’t be surprised if you’re asked to pay a reinstatement fee.

Here’s how airline point and mile expiration breaks down with some of the most popular airline rewards programs:

Airline / rewards program Do miles expire? How to keep miles from expiring
Alaksa Airlines Yes, after 24 months of no activity Earn or redeem miles at least once every 24 months
American Airlines AAdvantage Yes, after 18 months of no activity Earn or redeem miles at least once every 18 months
British Airways / Avios Yes, after 36 months of no activity Earn or redeem Avios at least once every 36 months
Cathay Pacific / Asia Miles Yes, after 36 months after earning No way to keep from expiring
Delta No N/A
Etihad Yes, after 24 months after earning No way to keep from expiring
Air France / KLM (Flying Blue) Yes, after 24 months of no activity Earn or redeem miles at least once every 24 months
JetBlue No N/A
Qantas Yes, after 18 months of no activity Earn or redeem miles at least once every 18 months
Southwest Rapid Rewards Yes, after 24 months with no earning activity Earn points at least once every 24 months
United MileagePlus No N/A
Virgin Atlantic Flying Club Yes, after 36 months of no activity Earn or redeem miles at least once every 36 months

Can you transfer miles between airlines?

A lot of people consider airline miles to be comparable to cash. However, airline miles are a little bit more like currency from different countries: Many places will not allow you to pay with money from another country.

Similarly, you can’t transfer points between frequent flyer programs in most cases, even if the airlines are partners. Partnerships such as OneWorld, Star Alliance, and SkyTeam typically allow you to earn miles when you fly on one airline, and redeem those miles you earn for flights on a carrier within the same network. However, most of those airlines won’t allow you to transfer miles directly from one carrier to another, because there is no financial benefit to them for doing so.

But there are some exceptions to the rule. British Airways and Iberia share the Avios frequent flyer program. So while your points in each program remain separate and distinct, you can transfer them freely between the two so long as both accounts are at least 3 months old.

Just because you can’t transfer points back and forth, however, doesn’t mean that you are stuck with a single carrier for life. Most airlines within the major alliances will allow you to use your mileage stash with that brand to book award flights on partner airlines.

For example, an American Airlines frequent flyer can use AAdvantage miles to book a flight on British Airways, and the cost of that ticket will be based on the American Airlines mileage award chart. So even though that traveler will physically fly on a British Airways flight, the passenger is subject to all of American’s ticketing rules; responsible for paying any change or redeposit fees to American; and must contact American – not British Airways – with any problems or issues that may arise before departure.

Related Travel and Rewards Card Categories:

If you’re interested in learning more about airline credit cards, check out our reviews section where we go into detail about our top picks and several others. Additionally, consider our top picks from the following categories to use on your air travel:


* All points and miles valuations have been provided by The Points Guy


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