Best Airline Credit Cards

Written by: Tracy Stewart | Edited by: Jeanine Skowronski | Reviewed by: Emily Sherman

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June 14, 2021

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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 credit 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 credit cards for each major airline. Here are the best offers from our partners.

Best Airline Credit Cards of 2021

Discover it® Miles
Our rating:3.7 Our writers, editors and industry experts score credit cards based on a variety of factors including card features, bonus offers and independent research. Credit card issuers have no say or influence on how we rate cards. The score seen here reflects the card's primary category rating. For more information, you can read about how we rate our cards.

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.

Rewards rate

1.5X
Automatically earn unlimited 1.5x Miles on every dollar of every purchase - 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
Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card
Our rating:3.6 Our writers, editors and industry experts score credit cards based on a variety of factors including card features, bonus offers and independent research. Credit card issuers have no say or influence on how we rate cards. The score seen here reflects the card's primary category rating. For more information, you can read about how we rate our cards.

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.

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
Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Our rating:3.7 Our writers, editors and industry experts score credit cards based on a variety of factors including card features, bonus offers and independent research. Credit card issuers have no say or influence on how we rate cards. The score seen here reflects the card's primary category rating. For more information, you can read about how we rate our cards.

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.

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
13.99% - 23.99% Variable APR on purchases and balance transfers
Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card
Our rating:3.9 Our writers, editors and industry experts score credit cards based on a variety of factors including card features, bonus offers and independent research. Credit card issuers have no say or influence on how we rate cards. The score seen here reflects the card's primary category rating. For more information, you can read about how we rate our cards.

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.

Rewards rate

2X
Earn 2 points per $1 spent on Southwest® purchases.
1X
Earn 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases.

At A Glance

Intro bonus
65,000 points Earn 65,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months.
Annual fee
$69
Regular APR
15.99% - 22.99% variable
American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp℠ Card
Our rating:3.2 Our writers, editors and industry experts score credit cards based on a variety of factors including card features, bonus offers and independent research. Credit card issuers have no say or influence on how we rate cards. The score seen here reflects the card's primary category rating. For more information, you can read about how we rate our cards.

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.

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)
Citi Premier® Card
Our rating:4.1 Our writers, editors and industry experts score credit cards based on a variety of factors including card features, bonus offers and independent research. Credit card issuers have no say or influence on how we rate cards. The score seen here reflects the card's primary category rating. For more information, you can read about how we rate our cards.

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.

Rewards rate

3X
Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
3X
Earn 3 Points per $1 spent 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
American Express® Gold Card
Our rating:4.5 Our writers, editors and industry experts score credit cards based on a variety of factors including card features, bonus offers and independent research. Credit card issuers have no say or influence on how we rate cards. The score seen here reflects the card's primary category rating. For more information, you can read about how we rate our cards.
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.

Rewards rate

4X
Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, 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
The Platinum Card® from American Express
Our rating:4.4 Our writers, editors and industry experts score credit cards based on a variety of factors including card features, bonus offers and independent research. Credit card issuers have no say or influence on how we rate cards. The score seen here reflects the card's primary category rating. For more information, you can read about how we rate our cards.
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.

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 with American Express Travel.

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℠ Explorer Card
Our rating:3.7 Our writers, editors and industry experts score credit cards based on a variety of factors including card features, bonus offers and independent research. Credit card issuers have no say or influence on how we rate cards. The score seen here reflects the card's primary category rating. For more information, you can read about how we rate our cards.

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.

Rewards rate

2X
Earn 2 miles per $1 spent at restaurants, on hotel stays, and on United purchases
2X
Earn 2 miles per $1 spent at restaurants and eligible delivery services
1X
1 mile per $1 spent on all other purchases

At A Glance

Intro bonus
Up to 65,000 Bonus Miles 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. Plus, an additional 25,000 bonus miles after you spend $10,000 in the first 6 months
Annual fee
$95, waived first year
Regular APR
16.49% - 23.49% variable

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


A guide to airline credit cards

Airline credit cards reward you for loyalty to a specific airline. They earn miles you can redeem for future flights and possibly other travel purchases. The best airline credit cards also entitle you to special perks, like a free checked bag, priority boarding or airport lounge access. We’ve compiled a list of the best airline credit cards on the market. This guide will walk you through how to select the right one for you.


best airline credit cards of 2021

Editor’s picks: Airline rewards credit card details

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card: Best general airline credit card

Why we picked it: You can really rack up travel rewards with this popular travel credit card from Capital One. The Venture Rewards Credit Card offers unlimited 2X miles on every purchase and a sign-up bonus of 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 $3,000 on purchases in the first three months (miles are currently valued at 1.7 cents per mile*). That means you can earn rewards on everyday purchases that you can use later in the year.

Pros: Cardholders get an up to $100 credit for Global Entry/TSA Precheck every four years. Capital One recently added JetBlue to its already long list of international airline transfer partners, which has broadened this card’s appeal considerably for domestic travel.

Cons: The current list of airline travel partners doesn’t include other large U.S. carriers. There’s a $95 annual fee, not waived the first year.

Who should apply? If you travel frequently, but don’t always fly the same carrier, this general purpose travel credit card might give you the most bang for your buck.

Read our Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card review.

Discover it® Miles: Best for airline miles flexibility

Why we picked it: This no annual fee travel credit card offers a competitive 1.5X miles back on general purchases, along with a lucrative bonus that matches the miles you earn at the end of your first year.

Pros: You’ll enjoy a wide range of travel redemption options, including airfare, hotels, car rentals, travel packages, taxis and public transportation – and can even redeem miles for cash back. (Discover it Miles are worth one cent each*, which is average for a travel credit card.)

Cons: On the flip side, you can’t transfer your miles to airline partners. The card’s value drops significantly after the first year match. Depending on your spending habits, you could earn more with the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, which offers 2X miles on general purchases, but charges a $95 annual fee.

Who should apply? This card is another option for anyone looking for a straightforward, general purpose travel rewards credit card.

Read our Discover it Miles review.

Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card: Best for less frequent travelers

Why we picked it: This straightforward travel rewards credit card lets you earn 1.25X miles on general purchases without paying an annual fee.

Pros: Cardholders can also earn 20,000 miles if they spend $500 in your first three months, which we estimate to be worth up to $200 in travel rewards. There’s no minimum to start redeeming rewards.

Cons: Capital One is thin on major U.S. airline partners. You could conceivably earn more with the Venture Rewards Credit Card, even though it charges a $95 annual fee. (Learn how to decide between the Capital One Venture cards.)

Who should apply? If you like the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, but can’t stomach its annual fee or aren’t quite sure if you’ll travel enough to justify the charge, consider this card a solid alternative.

Read our Capital One VentureOne review.

Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card: Best for no annual fee

Why we picked it: There’s a lot going for this travel card, including considerable rewards and few restrictions – and that’s with no annual fee. For example, earn 1.5 points on every dollar spent on all purchases. No annual fee means that you don’t have to track your earnings to make sure you’re getting your money’s worth.

Pros: You can earn 25,000 points after spending $1,000 within the first 90 days of opening your account. That comes to a $250 statement credit that you can use toward travel purchases. Also, there’s a 0% intro APR on purchases for 12 billing cycles, then it’s 13.99% to 23.99% variable. Bank of America points are worth one cent each.*

Cons: You won’t get a boost by redeeming points for travel through the Bank of America Travel center. If you redeem points for cash, your points are only worth 0.6 cents each.

Who should apply? If you’re committed to avoiding an annual fee, this general purpose travel card is one of your best options.

Read our Bank of America Travel Rewards credit card review.

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card: Best for Southwest airlines

Why we picked it: This card rewards in a big way for brand loyalty, making it worth your while should Southwest Airlines be a favorite choice for you. Earn 2 points for every $1 spent on Southwest purchases. As a cardmember, you’ll earn 3,000 points after each card anniversary, which is not a common perk outside of the Southwest lineup.

Pros: The sign-up bonus is also startlingly good: Earn 65,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first three months. (Southwest points are worth 1.5 cents each*.) You also get two free checked bags for every cardholder.

Cons: Unlike some airline credit cards, you only earn bonus points on Southwest purchases. Plus, Southwest doesn’t have airline partners, so the only rewards flights you can book are with Southwest.

Who should apply? Frequent Southwest flyers can earn Rapids Rewards points at a faster clip with the least expensive card in the carrier’s line-up. (Learn how to decide which Southwest credit card is right for you.)

Read our Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card review.

American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp℠ Card: Best for American Airlines

Why we picked it: 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.

Pros: 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.

Cons: Redeeming AAdvantage miles can be complicated; you’ll have to navigate blackout dates and award seats are limited.

Who should apply? This is a great starter airline credit card for people who fly American Airlines.

Read our American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp Card review.

Citi Premier® Card: Best for JetBlue

Why we picked it: You can redeem your Citi ThankYou travel points that you earn with the Citi Premier Card for partner points, such as TrueBlue/JetBlue and a number of international brands like Etihad Guest Miles and Flying Blue (Air France, KLM). Typically you’ll get a 1:1 match, meaning that 1,000 ThankYou Points equals 1,000 JetBlue TrueBlue points.

Pros: The sign-up bonus is top-notch: Earn 60,000 points after you spend $4,000 within the first three months of card membership. There’s flexibility in earning with this card as well: You earn 3X points at restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations, air travel and hotels.

Cons: There’s a $95 annual fee that isn’t waived, although if you use this card often, you will more than recoup on that charge. Most of Citi’s transfer partners are based overseas. You’ll have to book travel through Citi.

Who should apply? This card lets you earn rewards on a combination of travel purchases and everyday expenses, so it’s a great alternative if you’re unsure of what type of rewards credit card to opt for.

Read our Citi Premier Card review.

American Express® Gold Card: Best for dining rewards

Why we picked it: As a result of the pandemic, travel and airline cards have expanded options for earning rewards on everyday spending, and American Express Gold has jumped on the bandwagon. Notably, earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points on restaurants, including takeout and delivery, 4X points on Uber Eats purchases and 4X points at U.S. supermarkets (up to $25,000 spent per calendar year, then it’s 1X point).

Pros: Although there is a $250 annual fee, there are a number of surprising little perks that add up. For example, earn up to a total of $10 in statement credits monthly at Grubhub, Seamless, The Cheesecake Factory, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Boxed and participating Shake Shack locations (enrollment required). You can save up to $120 annually. This is in addition to 60,000 points after you spend $4,000 in the first six months. American Express Membership Rewards are worth 2 cents each*.

Cons: The $250 annual fee is quite steep, so you’ll want to be sure you travel or dine out enough to recoup that cost. Redeeming credits can be a bit complicated, as can redeeming rewards (You can generally get the most value out of your points if you transfer them to an Amex airline or hotel loyalty partner).

Who should apply? Traveling foodies won’t be able to beat the return rate on their restaurant spending with a different card, provided they spend enough to justify the high annual fee.

Read our American Express Gold Card review.

The Platinum Card® from American Express: Best for luxury airline travel benefits

Why we picked it: This premium American Express credit card comes with a ton of swanky benefits for big spenders, including access to the entire American Express global lounge collection, and to The Centurion Lounge for the primary cardholder and two guests.

Pros: Get Uber VIP status and up to $200 in Uber savings on rides or eats orders in the U.S. each year, for example (Uber Cash and Uber VIP status is available to basic card members and additional Centurion cards only). But that’s not all. Get complimentary access to the Global Lounge Collection and up to $100 in statement credits annually for purchases at Saks Fifth Avenue on your Platinum Card (enrollment required). And with rewards galore, the earnings don’t stop with this card. Earn 75,000 points after a $5,000 spend in the first six months; earn 10X points at U.S. gas stations and U.S. supermarkets on up to $15,000 in combined eligible purchases your first 6 months; and earn 5X points on prepaid hotels booked on amextravel.com.

Cons: As with the Amex Gold, redeeming some of your credits can get complicated. For instance, your Saks credit is divided in two: You’re eligible for one $50 credit from January through June and another $50 credit from July through December (enrollment required). The steep $550 annual fee will price this card out of many people’s wallets.

Who should apply? Big spenders who like to travel in style will enjoy the luxury perks associated with this premium travel credit card.

Read The Platinum Card from American Express review.

United℠ Explorer Card: Best for United Airlines

Why we picked it: 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*).

Pros: The card also comes with a credit of up to $100 for Global Entry or TSA Precheck every four years, which, if you fly frequently, should help lessen the blow of the card’s $95 annual fee (waived the first year). With the United Explorer Card, you can earn 40,000 bonus miles if you spend $2,000 in the first three months plus an additional 25,000 bonus miles after you spend $10,000 in the first six months.

Cons: Saver awards, which offer the best deals, have a limited availability. The value of your miles drops when you’re not redeeming for airfare.

Who should apply? Frequent United flyers can earn rewards swiftly and take advantage of ancillary airline perks, like a free checked bag, with this top-notch airline credit card.

Read our United Explorer Card review.

Comparing the best airline miles credit cards

Credit cardBest ForAnnual feeIntro bonusRequired spend for intro bonus
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit CardGeneral airline credit card$95100,000 miles or still earn 50,000 miles if you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months $20,000 in the first 12 months
Discover it® MilesAirline miles flexibility$0Matches the miles you earned at the end of the first yearN/A
Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit CardLess frequent travelers$020,000 miles$500 in the first 3 months
Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit cardNo annual fee$025,000 points$1,000 in the first 90 days
Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit CardSouthwest Airlines$6965,000 points$2,000 in first 3 months
American Airlines AAdvantage MileUpSM CardAmerican Airlines$010,000 AAdvantage® miles and a $50 statement credit$500 in first 3 months
Citi Premier® CardJetBlue/TrueBlue$9560,000 points$4,000 in the first 3 months
American Express® Gold CardDining rewards$25060,000 points$4,000 in the first 6 months
The Platinum Card® from American ExpressLuxury airline travel benefits$55075,000 points$5,000 in first 6 months
UnitedSM Explorer CardUnited and Global Entry/TSA PreCheck application credit$95, waived first year40,000 miles Plus, an additional 25,000 bonus miles $2,000 in the first 3 months $10,000 in the first 6 months for additional 25,000 bonus miles

How we picked the best airline credit cards

Research methodology: We analyzed 148 airline credit cards to identify the best ones currently on the market. The major factors we considered in making our Editor’s picks include:

  • Rewards rates: The best airline credit cards offer at least 2X points on purchases with their specific carrier. General purpose travel credit cards might offer between 1.25X to 2X miles on all purchases.
  • Rewards value: Not all miles are created equal. We looked at how much each mile was worth when redeemed for airfare. We also considered how much each mile was worth across additional redemption options, when available.
  • Ancillary airline perks: The best airline credit cards offer extra benefits, like a free checked bag, priority boarding, automatic elite status, airport lounge access or more. Many offer travel credits for items like Global Entry or TSA Precheck. We weighted cards more heavily if they offered these types of benefits.
  • Rates and Fees: Many airline credit cards charge annual fees and, as a rewards credit card, they tend to carry higher APRs than low interest counterparts. However, we still considered if these costs were reasonable relative to the category and the benefits each card carried.

Full 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. For 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. 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.

“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.”

In addition to co-branded cards, there are general purpose travel credit cards that partner with airlines for redeeming points or miles, such as Venture Rewards and Sapphire Preferred.

Are airline credit cards worth it?

If you travel frequently and tend to fly the same carrier each time, a good airline credit card could help you earn loyalty points (and, by extension, award flights) faster. They could also entitle you to benefits that make flying more enjoyable or cost-effective, like priority boarding, a free checked bag, elite status and upgrades, when available.

While travel restrictions are starting to lift, you still may be traveling less as a result of a pandemic. It’s important to carefully consider how often you plan to fly within the next year or so before deciding on whether to get an airline credit card.

Of course, if the card has no annual fee, we say it’s a no-brainer. While you’re waiting around for more destinations to fully open up, you may as well be accumulating points or miles to fund your future getaways. If the card has an annual fee, you have more to think about, but the logic is the same. As always with an annual fee card, you should make sure that your estimated yearly rewards value is greater than the cost of the annual fee. If that’s the case and you’re OK with delayed gratification, there’s no reason not to start earning points and miles while you wait for travel restrictions to be lifted. (Learn how to determine when an annual fee is worth it.)

What is the difference between an airline credit card and a general travel credit card?

There can be clear differences between an airline card and a general-purpose travel card, such as:

  • Airline cards reward for loyalty, while general-purpose travel cards often partner with multiple airline brands.
  • General-purpose travel cards are more likely to reward for a variety of categories, and sometimes for all purchases, although some airline cards are starting to reward for everyday categories, such as groceries.
  • An airline card may give boosted rewards to in-flight purchases.
  • General travel cards often reward for benefits such as Global Entry or TSA Precheck credits, while airline cards might reward for benefits such as free first checked bag and seating upgrades.

Pros and cons of an airline credit card

Pros: When does an airline credit card make sense?

  • You’re loyal to a brand. If you often use a specific airline, an airline card can deliver boosted rewards and superior redemptions.
  • You’ll travel often. Want to earn lots of points or miles? You’ll earn more if you’re often traveling with your favorite airline.
  • You’ll use the card often. Many airline cards have an annual fee, so you’ll need to plan on using your card enough to recoup the cost of that fee.
  • You don’t mind keeping up with rules. The rules of an airline rewards program can be tough to navigate, so make sure you are prepared to follow them.

Cons: When does an airline credit card not make sense?

  • You make travel plans at the last minute. Airline rewards programs often have blackout dates and seating restrictions, so airline cards may not suit the procrastinator.
  • You plan to carry a balance. If you carry a balance to the next month, you will incur interest charges, negating the benefits of rewards. If you are prone to carrying a balance, consider a top low interest credit card instead.
  • You don’t live near an airline hub. If you live in a midsize city, the airline of your choice may not fly there, making it more difficult to earn rewards.
  • You are an occasional traveler. If there are only airline rewards offered, it may be difficult to earn enough rewards to make the card worth your while.

How to compare two different airline cards

With all those great choices, picking the right airline card can seem overwhelming. Well, we’ve done the heavy lifting to help you make the right decision. Here are the factors you should consider when choosing between two 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 more 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 loyalty, making them competitive with general-purpose travel cards or even some rewards credit 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 ExplorerUp to 65k miles (40k miles with $2k spend in first 3 months and 25k miles with 10k spend in first 6 months)*1.3 cents=$8452X*$288 (dining)*12 months=$901X*$500*12 months=$78$95 (waived first year)$1013
AAdvantage MileUp10k miles ($50 statement credit, with $500 spend in first 3 months)*1.4 cents=$1902X*$372 (groceries)*12 months=$1251X*$500*12 months=$84$0$399

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

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 1.1 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. The average point value is 1.3 cents each*.

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. Southwest Rapid Rewards are, on average, worth 1.5 cents a piece*.

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. American Advantage points are worth, on average, 1.4 cents each*.

British Airways Executive Club

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. Avios points are, on average, worth 1.5 cents each*.

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 RewardsNoEarn 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

How to choose an airline credit card

Consider how frequently you fly.

Simply put, if you don’t fly more than a couple of times a year, you probably don’t need an airline credit card. While some airline credit cards let you earn miles on everyday purchases, like gas or groceries, you generally get the most bang for your buck by redeeming for free flights. And while many cards have moved away from blackout or expiration dates on miles, you’re not likely to recoup the annual fee associated with most of these cards if you’re not cashing in your rewards each year or taking advantage of the ancillary perks a card entitles you to. If your spending tends to vary, consider a general rewards credit card or a cash back credit card instead.

Identify your carrier of choice.

If you do fly frequently, consider next whether you tend to do so on the same carrier. (That’s generally dictated by whether you live near an airline hub or a major airport serviced by carriers with a large flight network.) If so, that brand’s airline credit card could help you earn award flights more quickly, qualify for elite status and receive perks that let you travel in style. If you’re more likely to fly on a variety of carriers throughout the year or you like to comparison-shop for deals across travel providers, consider a general purpose travel credit card. (We’re partial to the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, which offers 2X miles on general purchases and lets you redeem rewards as statement credits for a wide variety of travel expenses.)

Account for a card’s transfer partners.

Many general purpose travel credit cards let you transfer your points to partnering airlines. Review their list of current partners to see if they’re in line with your travel habits. Transferring points is often a great way to get a bit more bang for your buck. Learn other ways to maximize credit card rewards.

Ask yourself if you check a bag.

Most airline’s charge $30 for a first checked bag and $40 for a second, so if you frequently travel with a suitcase, an airline credit card that lets you skip that charge can save you money or, at least, cover a card’s annual fee before you factor in the rewards.

Decide if you’re looking for lounge access.

Some premium travel rewards credit cards offer access to a large number of airport lounges, irrespective of brand. The Platinum Card from American Express, for example, grants cardholders access to the American Express Global Lounge Collection®, which includes more than 1,300 airport lounges around the world. The Chase Sapphire Reserve, meanwhile, comes with complimentary access to Priority Pass lounges in more than 1,200 locations around the world.


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


Frequently Asked Questions