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

|

January 22, 2021

Best Airline Credit Cards of 2021

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

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
60,000 miles

Enjoy a one-time bonus of 60,000 miles once you spend $3,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $600 in travel

Annual Fee
$95
Regular APR
17.24% - 24.49% variable
American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp℠ Card

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)
Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card

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.
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Rewards Rate

1.25X
Earn unlimited 1.25X miles on every purchase, every day.

At A Glance

Intro Bonus
20,000 miles

Earn a bonus of 20,000 miles once you spend $500 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $200 in travel

Annual Fee
$0
Regular APR
15.49% - 25.49% variable
The Platinum Card® from American Express
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

10X
Earn 10x points on eligible purchases on your new Card at U.S. Gas Stations and U.S. Supermarkets, on up to $15,000 in combined purchases, during your first 6 months of Card Membership. That’s an additional 9 points on top of the 1 point you earn for these purchases.
5X
Earn 5X Membership Rewards® Points for flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel. Starting January 1, 2021, earn 5X points on up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year.
5X
5X Membership Rewards® Points on prepaid hotels booked on amextravel.com.

At A Glance

Intro Bonus
75,000 points

Earn 75,000 Membership Rewards® Points after you spend $5,000 on purchases on your new Card in your first 6 months of Card Membership.

Annual Fee
$550
Regular APR
See Pay Over Time APR
United Gateway℠ Card

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

3X
Earn 3 miles per $1 spent at grocery stores, on up to $1,500 per month through 9/30/2021
2X
Earn 2 miles per $1 spent on United Airlines purchases, at gas stations and on local transit and commuting
1X
Earn 1 mile per $1 spent on all other purchases

At A Glance

Intro Bonus
10,000 bonus miles

10,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open

Annual Fee
$0
Regular APR
16.49% - 23.49% variable
United℠ Explorer Card

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 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
40,000 miles

40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open

Annual Fee
$95, waived first year
Regular APR
16.49% - 23.49% variable
Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card

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

5X
Earn 5 points per $1 spent on Southwest® purchases. Earn between 12/1/2020 and 3/31/2021 on up to $2,000 spent per month.
2X
Earn 2 points per $1 spent on all other Southwest® purchases.
1X
1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases.

At A Glance

Intro Bonus
Up to 80,000 points

Earn up to 80,000 points. Earn 50,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months. Earn an additional 30,000 points after you spend $10,000 on purchases in the first 9 months.

Annual Fee
$69
Regular APR
15.99% - 22.99% variable
Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card

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 1.5 points per $1 spent on all purchases, with no annual fee and no foreign transaction fees and your points don't expire.

At A Glance

Intro Bonus
25,000 points

25,000 online bonus points after you make at least $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days of account opening - that can be a $250 statement credit toward travel purchases.

Annual Fee
$0
Regular APR
14.99% - 22.99% Variable APR on purchases and balance transfers
American Express® Gold Card
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
60,000 points

Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months.

Annual Fee
$250
Regular APR
See Pay Over Time APR
Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card
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

2X
New! Earn 2X Miles per dollar at restaurants, now worldwide.
2X
Earn 2X Miles per dollar spent on Delta purchases.
1X
Earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases.

At A Glance

Intro Bonus
10,000 miles

Earn 10,000 bonus miles after you spend $500 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months.

Annual Fee
$0
Regular APR
15.74% - 24.74% variable
Citi Premier® Card

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

3X
New! Earn 3 Points at Restaurants and Supermarkets
3X
Earn 3 Points at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
1X
Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases

At A Glance

Intro Bonus
60,000 points

Earn 60,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

Annual Fee
$95
Regular APR
15.99% - 23.99% variable
Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card

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

5X
Earn 5 points per $1 spent on Southwest® purchases. Earn between 12/1/2020 and 3/31/2021 on up to $2,000 spent per month.
2X
Earn 2 points per $1 spent on all other Southwest® purchases.
1X
1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases.

At A Glance

Intro Bonus
Up to 80,000 points

Earn up to 80,000 points. Earn 50,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months. Earn an additional 30,000 points after you spend $10,000 on purchases in the first 9 months.

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 year, 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 2021

Best Airline Rewards Credit Cards

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 60,000 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.

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.

Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card

Why it’s the best airline credit card for flat-rate travel rewards

Cardholders earn 1.25 miles per dollar on every purchase, every day. If you’re willing to put most of your spending on this card, you’ll see a steady stream of miles accrue.

Card overview

If you want to do some rewards-funded traveling, you’ve got a lot of options on the credit card market. But if you want to earn travel rewards for all of your purchases, not just travel purchases, your options are fewer. Earning a flat, 1.25 miles per dollar spent is a great deal, especially when you’re not paying an annual fee.

Best airline perk

One feature you shouldn’t overlook is the ease of redemption. The fact that there are no blackout dates, expiration dates, mile limits or minimum redemption thresholds makes this card an easy choice for those who value flexibility. Even better, you can transfer your miles to 10+ travel partners.

The Platinum Card® from American Express

Why it’s the best airline credit card for luxury travel benefits

Aside from the ongoing rewards, there are tons of additional perks and benefits for cardholders. Those who value comfort when traveling will appreciate the annual credits: up to $200 for Uber and up to $100 in hotel credits with the Hotel Collection. Plus, cardholders get a $100 credit for Global Entry or $85 for TSA PreCheck® every four years.

Card overview

With The Platinum Card, you’ll earn 5X points on flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel, or hotels booked with amextravel.com. Starting January 1, 2021, earn 5X points on up to $500,000 spent on these purchases per calendar year. With rewards rates like these, you shouldn’t have a problem making up the value of the $550 annual fee if you travel very often and will use the credits. This introductory bonus makes this especially easy in your first year, offering 75,000 points to those who spend $5,000 in the first six months.

Best airline perk

One of the most coveted features of this card is access to the American Express Global Lounge collection, which includes the lavish Centurion Lounges, which provide amenities like spa services and high-speed Wi-Fi.

United Gateway℠ Card

Why it’s the best airline credit card for grocery and gas

Cardholders earn 3 miles per dollar at grocery stores (on up to $1,500 in spending per month, through 9/30/2021), as well as 2 points per dollar at gas stations and on local transit and commuting.

Card overview

If you’re in the market for a United credit card, you can find a higher ongoing rewards rate among other cards. However, this is a good choice for those who only travel occasionally and want to avoid paying an annual fee. In addition, the sign-up bonus is decent and easy enough to attain: 10,000 bonus miles if you spend $1,000 in the first 3 months.

Best airline perk

There’s no limit to the number of miles you can earn. Plus, there are no blackout dates or fuel surcharges.

United℠ Explorer Card

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

With the United Explorer Card, you can earn 40,000 bonus miles if you spend $2,000 in the first 3 months.

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.

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 – 50,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months and an additional 30,000 points after you spend $10,000 in the first 9 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*). For a limited time you can earn 5X points on all Southwest purchases on up to $2,000 spent per month (ends 3/31/21).

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.

Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card

Why it’s the best airline credit card for low APR

The ongoing APR is 14.99%-22.99% variable, which is competitive for a travel rewards card.

Card overview

With this card, travel rewards don’t have to be complicated. You earn a flat, unlimited 1.5 points per dollar on every purchase. Then, when it’s time to redeem your points, you won’t have to deal with restrictive policies that take away from the value. There are no blackout dates, points don’t expire, and you can redeem your points for any travel or dining purchase.

Best airline perk

You can redeem your points for a statement credit to cover any travel or dining purchase made within the last 12 months.

American Express® Gold Card

Why it’s the best airline credit card for dining rewards

Many travel credit cards offer rewards on dining, but the rate of 4 points per dollar offered by the American Express Gold Card is truly valuable for frequent restaurant-goers.

Card overview

Cardholders also earn four points per dollar at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 in purchases per calendar year, then 1 point per dollar), so you don’t miss out by eating at home. Also, flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com earn 3 points per dollar spent, which is also pretty great. The introductory bonus is worthy of some attention, too: 60,000 points if you spend $4,000 in the first six months.

Best airline perk

If you’re traveling more than 100 miles from home, the Global Assist® Hotline is available for 24/7 medical, legal, financial and other select emergency assistance and coordination services. So if you’re in a pinch and need medical or legal referrals, cash wires or missing luggage assistance, you get expert help for free.

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.

Citi Premier® Card

Why it’s the best airline credit card for everyday purchases

Like any good travel card, the Citi Premier® Card offers rewards on flights and hotels. What makes this card special is the opportunity to earn points at a boosted rate for your everyday purchases, too: Earn 3X points on restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations, air travel and hotels.

Card overview

Because of the unlimited rewards in several everyday purchase categories, this is a great card for long-term value. But you won’t have to wait long to reap your rewards– New cardholders can earn 60,000 ThankYou® points after spending $4,000 in the first three months.

Best airline perk

If you redeem your points for air travel through the ThankYou Travel Center, you get a 25% boost in value (valid through 4/10/21). Plus, there are no blackout dates, point limits or expiration dates.

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.

Summary of the Best Airline Miles Credit Cards of 2021

Credit CardBest ForAnnual FeeIntro BonusRequired Spend For Intro Bonus
Discover it® MilesFirst year bonus$0Matches the miles you earned at the end of the first yearN/A
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit CardAirline transfer partners$9560,000 miles$3,000 in the first 3 months
American Airlines AAdvantage MileUpSM CardAmerican Airlines$010,000 AAdvantage® miles and a $50 statement credit$500 in first 3 months
Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit CardFlat-rate travel rewards$020,000 miles$500 in the first 3 months
The Platinum Card® from American ExpressLuxury travel benefits$55075,000 points$5,000 in first 6 months
United GatewaySMGrocery and gas$010,000 bonus miles$1,000 in first 3 months
UnitedSM Explorer CardUnited and Global Entry/TSA PreCheck application credit$95, waived first year40,000 miles$2,000 in the first 3 months
Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit CardSouthwest and overall value$6950,000 points$2,000 in first 3 months Plus earn an additional 30,000 points if you spend $10,000 in the first 9 months
Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit cardLow APR$025,000 points$1,000 in the first 90 days
American Express® Gold CardDining rewards$25060,000 miles$4,000 in the first 6 months
Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express CardNo annual fee$010,000 miles$500 in the first 3 months
Citi Premier® CardEveryday purchases$9560,000 points$4,000 in the first 3 months
Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit CardAnnual travel credits$14950,000 points$2,000 in first 3 months Plus earn an additional 30,000 points if you spend $10,000 in the first 9 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 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. Airline cards can offer in-flight discounts, airport perks, such as lounge access, free checked bags and priority boarding.

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.

These cards will also sometimes feature travel perks like airline lounge access, although hefty annual fees and required good to excellent credit may be a thing.

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.

Many feature no annual fee, rewards usually go beyond travel purchases, and a straightforward rewards value can be had. However, there can be high regular APRs, and there can be caps on your earnings in a quarter or year.

Is an airline credit card right for you?

Airline cards have their own special advantages, though, including generous rewards for loyalty. Here are 4 reasons why an airline card might be right for you.

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.

You will use the card’s perks

You’ll want to look at the travel features beyond just the miles offered. TSA PreCheck fee credit, free first checked bags, lounge access, cancellation insurance: These are a few of the features strong airline cards may offer.

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.

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 points, miles or cash back are basically wasted.

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 larger bonus, it requires a larger 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.

CardSign-up bonusBonus category spendingOther spendingAnnual feeTotal earned at end of first year
United Explorer40k miles (with $2k spend in 3 months)*1.3 cents=$5202X*$288 (dining)*12 months=$901X*$500*12 months=$78$95 (waived first year)$688
AAdvantage MileUp10k miles (with $500 spend in 3 months)*1.4 cents=$1402X*$372 (groceries)*12 months=$1251X*$500*12 months=$84$0$349

Card Value Comparison: Year 2

CardBonus category spendingOther spendingAnnual feeTotal earned at end of second year
United Explorer2X*$288 (dining)*12 months=$901X*$500*12 months=$78$95$73
AAdvantage MileUp2X*$372 (groceries)*12 months=$1251X*$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 allow 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.

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 programDo miles expire?How to keep miles from expiring
Alaska AirlinesYes, after 24 months of no activityEarn or redeem miles at least once every 24 months
American Airlines AAdvantageYes, after 18 months of no activityEarn or redeem miles at least once every 18 months
British Airways / AviosYes, after 36 months of no activityEarn or redeem Avios at least once every 36 months
Cathay Pacific / Asia MilesYes, after 36 months after earningNo way to keep from expiring
DeltaNoN/A
EtihadYes, after 24 months after earningNo way to keep from expiring
Air France / KLM (Flying Blue)Yes, after 24 months of no activityEarn or redeem miles at least once every 24 months
JetBlueNoN/A
QantasYes, after 18 months of no activityEarn or redeem miles at least once every 18 months
Southwest Rapid RewardsYes, after 24 months with no earning activityEarn points at least once every 24 months
United MileagePlusNoN/A
Virgin Atlantic Flying ClubYes, after 36 months of no activityEarn 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:

Research methodology

Airline credit cards analyzed: 148

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.


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


Frequently Asked Questions