Comparing the Best Airline Credit Card Offers
Updated: August 14, 2018
Choosing a credit card can be difficult, and choosing the “right” one for your needs can be even more of a challenge. If you fly often, you’ll want to make sure the card you select helps you maximize your opportunity to earn airline status as you spend money on flights.
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.
The Best Airline Miles Credit Cards of 2018
After analyzing over 140 airline credit card offers, we've hand selected these 10 best credit cards for airline travel. The Chase Sapphire Preferred card is an excellent all-arounder that can be used on any airline. Among co-branded airline cards, the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard tops our list thanks to its generous sign-up bonus and premium perks.
|Credit Card||Best For||CreditCards.com Rating||Sign-Up Bonus||Required Spend|
|Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card||World travel||4.2 / 5||50,000 Points||$4,000 / 3 months|
|Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®||Non-airline rewards||4.3 / 5||50,000 Miles||$2,500 / 3 months|
|American Airlines AAdvantage MileUpSM Card||Mixed sign-up bonus||3.2 / 5||10,000 Miles + $500 Statement Credit||$500 / 3 months|
|Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express||Features||3.2 / 5||60,000 Miles||$3,000 / 4 months|
|Blue Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express||No annual fee||2.6 / 5||10,000 Miles||$500 / 3 months|
|Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card||Domestic travel||3.2 / 5||40,000 Points||$1,000 / 3 months|
|British Airways Visa Signature® Card||Large sign-up bonus||4.3 / 5||50,000 Avios||$3,000 / 3 months|
|Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card||Co-branded airline card||4.2 / 5||30,000 Miles||$1,000 / 90 days|
|Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card||Runner-up for domestic travel||3.2 / 5||40,000 Points||$1,000 / 3 months|
|Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®||Airline lounges||3.6 / 5||75,000 Miles||$7,500 / 3 months|
What makes an airline credit card the "best"?
You've seen our list of the 10 best airline cards, but which one should you choose? Each traveler is different, and which airline card is best for you depends on your individual needs. It all begins with which airline you fly on most often—to this end, we've attempted to include at least one option for each major carrier. If you find yourself flying on multiple different airways rather than sticking to a specific one, then a flexible card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred is the best option. However, if you are largely loyal to one airline, then a co-branded card will help you get the most rewards out of your flights while upgrading your experience.
Multiple criteria influenced how we picked the best card for each airline, but it ultimately comes down to two things: maximizing rewards and experience-enhancing perks. The best things any airline card can do for you is to help you save on airfare with free flights and make the airport/flying experience more tolerable (and, with the right perks, even enjoyable). Getting the most rewards comes down to how quickly and easily a card allows you to rack up miles—both from its sign-up bonus and from its ongoing rewards on purchases—and subsequently how easily you can redeem those miles. Perks can take many forms; some of the most common include free checked bags, elite status and priority boarding, airport lounge access, and discounts on in-flight purchases. For a full list of criteria and more detail on our review scores, see our ratings process for airline cards.
Why you can trust CreditCards.com
At CreditCards.com, we are not only credit card geeks but also frequent flyers and miles maximizers. In addition to spending hundreds of hours poring over credit cards, we spend a ton of time in the air, on many different airlines. We all have different favorite airlines and hold different statuses. When we analyze the various different options available, we consider which option is best for each major airline and travel preferences. Whether you are chasing elite status or are content with the basic perks, you can rest assured that CreditCards.com's top picks contains a diverse array of options to cover the most suitable airline cards for you.
Editor's opinion on the best airline credit cards
Best for world travel
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
Earn 50,000 points after a $4,000 spend within the first 3 months, and earn 2X points on worldwide travel and restaurants. That's in addition to no foreign transaction fees, baggage delay insurance and trip cancellation/trip interruption insurance.
Bottom line – We give the Chase Sapphire Preferred 4.9 stars for rewards flexibility, and for good reason. You get 1:1 point transfer with partners, a 25% bonus on travel rewards and this account can be married with other Chase cards. All in all, a great card for international travel.
Best for non-airline rewards
Citi®/AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®
In addition to 2X miles on American Airlines purchases, this card also gets you 2X miles on gas station and restaurant purchases, a rarity among airline cards. There's also a 50,000-mile sign-up bonus after a $2,500 spend within the first 3 months. And now, earn a $100 American Airlines flight discount after you spend $20,000 in purchases during your cardmembership year and renew your card.
Bottom line – The Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard comes in with a strong overall rank of 4.3 stars, in part because of its high rewards value, making it a competitive card all-around.
Best for no annual fee
American Airlines AAdvantage MileUpSM Card
This card allows you to earn not only 10,000 miles but also a $50 statement credit after you spend $500 within the first 3 months. In addition, you can earn 2X miles at grocery stores and on eligible American Airlines purchases and 1X mile per dollar on all other purchases.
Bottom line – While the sign-up bonus isn't the highest, there is no annual fee and the ongoing rewards at grocery stores are handy.
Best for features
Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express
This card's large 60,000-mile welcome offer after a $3,000 spend within the first 4 months is available for a limited time until 9/19/2018. There's no foreign transaction fee, there's priority boarding and the first checked bag is free.
Bottom line – The Gold Delta SkyMiles card has a lower annual fee of $95 that is waived the first year, which makes it surpass many airline cards with similar features. Add to that, the required spend on the welcome offer is very reasonable for the bonus that is given. We give this card a 5/5 for features, which include discounted Delta Sky Club access, ticket presales and VIP events, car purchase discounts and more.
Best for no annual fee
Blue Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express
While there's no free checked bag, this card offers a 20% in-flight discount, 10,000-mile welcome offer after a $500 spend within the first 3 months, and 2X miles on Delta purchases. Also, this card offers 2X miles at US restaurants, an unusual feature for an airline card.
Bottom line – The Blue Delta SkyMiles is one of the few airline cards with no annual fee, yet it still offers benefits such as car rental damage insurance and a global assist hotline. Its unusual feature of bonus miles earned at all eligible restaurants is another plus.
Best for domestic travel
Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card
This card's low annual fee of $69 is a surprise, given that it offers the same 40,000-point sign-up bonus of the Premier (after a $1,000 spend within the first 3 months). Also, it offers 3,000 points each cardmember anniversary. There's 2X points on Southwest purchases and purchases with Rapid Rewards hotel and car rental partners. Add to that, we value the 40,000 miles on each Southwest card at $640. (Also, check out the Southwest Priority, which delivers even more points, although with a higher annual fee.)
Bottom line – We rank the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus's annual fee as "excellent" and we give 4.4 stars for rewards flexibility. For the Southwest frequent flier who doesn't want to pay a premium annual fee, this card is a good choice.
Best for large sign-up bonus
British Airways Visa Signature®
Not only do you earn 50,000 Avios for your first $3,000 spend within the first 3 months of opening your account, you can earn another 25,000 Avios after a $10,000 spend the first year, plus another 25,000 Avios after a $20,000 spend the first year. British Airways purchases bring you 3X Avios.
Bottom line – The British Airways Visa Signature gets a whopping 5.0 stars from us for rewards value, and you can see why. Not only can you earn up to 100,000 Avios your first year, you can earn a companion ticket each year when you spend $30,000 in purchases. And, we found with a $1,325 monthly spend, the average yearly rewards value is $871.
Best co-branded airline card
Alaska Airlines Visa Signature®
With a sign-up bonus of 30,000 miles after a $1,000 spend within the first 90 days, this card competes nicely with similar cards, although the annual fee of $75 isn't waived the first year. However, you can get a free checked bag for you and up to 6 traveling companions on the same reservation. Earn 3X miles on Alaska Airlines purchases.
Bottom line – Giving this card 4.2 stars overall, we love the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature's famous companion fare starting at $121, which is offered each year, plus the introductory offer of a ticket just for taxes and fees after one ticket is purchased. This card is perfect for the West Coast traveler. Brand loyalty was never so good.
Runner-up for domestic travel
Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card
You'll earn 40,000 points after only a $1,000 spend within the first 3 months of opening your account and 2X points on Southwest, as well as Rapid Rewards hotel and car rental partners such as SPG, Marriott and Hertz. Also, earn 6,000 points each cardmember anniversary.
Bottom line – With an emphasis on domestic travel, this airline's 3,600 daily flights take you where you need to go. While there's no foreign transaction fee, the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier card includes first 2 checked bags free, lost luggage reimbursement and baggage delay insurance, ideal for the Southwest traveler on the go.
Best for airline lounges
Citi®/AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®
With this card, you can earn 75,000 miles after a $7,500 spend within the first 3 months, which is a sizeable spend. You earn 2X miles on American Airline purchases.
Bottom line – If you are a frequent flyer on American Airlines and love to be well treated, including access to the Admiral Club lounges (as well as your traveling guests), this is the card for you. The Citi/AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard received 4.8 stars from us for flight options, as well as 5.0 stars for features, which include $100 credit for TSA Pre-Check every 5 years, priority check-in and priority boarding.
What are airline credit cards and how do they work?
First, let’s briefly discuss frequent flyer programs offered by airlines, because the whole point of an airline co-branded credit card is to accelerate your mileage accrual with your carrier of choice. Frequent flyer loyalty programs are very straightforward: they allow airlines to incentivize travelers like you to keep your business with that airline by offering you credit for every mile you fly with that airline. Once you accumulate enough miles, you can then redeem them for free travel with that airline in the future.
The concept is simple enough, but every airline differs in its program management, accrual schedule, and redemption availability for award flights. For instance, just because you fly 1,504 miles from San Francisco to Austin doesn’t mean that you have now earned enough miles for another trip; rather, the 1,500-odd miles you just flew have earned you a mere fraction of what you’ll need to book an award flight.
Credit cards offered directly through an airline give you the chance to multiply your mileage earnings: The same flight between Austin and San Francisco might now earn you three times as many miles. Let’s say you paid $200 for that one-way flight using a co-branded credit card from the airline operating your flight. You could earn the 1,504 miles from the actual distance traveled, as well as an additional 2 miles per dollar spent on the card, for a total earning of 1,904 miles. Not too bad for an expense you had to incur anyway!
In addition, most airline credit cards offer generous rewards and perks such free checked bags, or airport lounge access, as well as accelerated progress toward elite status. Furthermore, many cards offer a sizable sign-up bonus of mileage points when you first open your account, which usually can get you far toward an international round-trip ticket or a couple of domestic round-trip flights.
A good airline card should combine a high value rewards program with enough exclusive perks to make it worth your loyalty. When comparing airline cards, keep an eye on the fine print for restrictive redemption policies, stingy rewards, or miles with a low redemption value.
Many airline cards offer free checked bags, priority boarding and free or sharply discounted companion tickets that reward card-carrying travelers for their loyalty to the carrier. Some even offer additional bonuses for your everyday spending, making it easier to rack up miles when you aren’t traveling.
To get the most value from an airline card, you typically need to fly often with your airline of choice to earn enough miles to recoup the card’s annual fee.
To summarize, an airline credit card will be a great fit for you if:
- You spend a significant amount of money specifically on air travel every year. If you don’t travel often, or if the destinations you frequent aren’t offered through your airline and associated partners of choice, you might want to consider getting a generic travel credit card that allows you to transfer points to your travel program of choice. The Chase Sapphire Preferred is one of the most popular cards in this category.
- You have good or excellent credit. You will want to have a FICO credit score of at least 670 before applying for an airline rewards credit card, which typically requires great credit. You can use the free credit check tool at CreditCards.com to check your credit score at any time without triggering a credit score hit.
- You are able to pay off your balance each month. Interest charges are no joke, and can quickly cost you far more than your rewards are worth. Ideally, you should be debt-free and always avoid carrying a balance on any credit card you hold.
How to choose the right airline card and maximize rewards
U.S. News surveyed 1,255 airline credit card holders regarding how they use their airline credit cards and rewards program. The survey found that most cardholders use their earned rewards to take free flights, and a lot of people utilize loyalty perks such as free checked bags and priority boarding. Over 50 percent of cardholders earned more than $200 in rewards within the last 12 months of the date the survey was conducted. And around one-fifth, or 20 percent, of airline credit card holders carry a balance month to month, earning less in airline loyalty rewards than they pay in annual credit card fees.
This section contains a list of important criteria that you should to evaluate when choosing an airline card, as well as a list of tips for maximizing your rewards:
- Make sure you choose the rewards program that best fits your lifestyle
- Calculate the earning potential of your spend
- Don’t forget to earn your sign-up bonuses!
- Know the redemption value of the miles you earn
- Weigh the above perks against the annual fee
- Be aware of additional bonus benefits associated with the card
1. Pick the right rewards program for you
If you don’t mind sticking with the same airline for all or most of your travel, or if you already have status and loyalty toward a particular carrier, signing up for that airline’s credit card will allow you to cash in on your loyalty, and earn special perks for repeat travels. Some of these perks can be work a good deal more cash than just, say, casual food and drinks here or there: Airport lounge access can be worth upward of $50 per day, for instance, and free checked bags can make the savings add up very rapidly.
It’s also helpful to remember that the airline that will bring you the most value offers nonstop and/or connecting flights to the destinations you most frequently visit - in other words, if you live in Houston, you’ll most likely want to consider United because George Bush International Airport is one of United’s hub airports. If you live in Atlanta, it makes a lot of sense to make Atlanta-based Delta your carrier of choice.
2. Calculate your earning potential
Airline credit cards incentivize brand loyalty by offering you higher rewards for spending with them or their business partners. Knowing your spending habits will help you determine which card offers the best earning potential based on where you spend the most money. If you plan to sign up for a single credit card and put the bulk of your expenditures on this card, an airline-specific travel card may not give you the best return on your investment – you might want to sign up for a generic travel credit card instead.
3. Make sure you hit the spend required to earn your sign-up bonus
The biggest boost to your mileage stash often happens right in the beginning, when you first sign up for the credit card. Card issuers now offer generous sign-up bonuses that can be worth several hundred or even more than a thousand dollars in travel value – but only after you meet certain spending requirements: usually several thousand dollars over three months. The rules are pretty strict around the requirements, so plan ahead to make sure you don’t accidentally mess up.
Check our rewards chart to see what our top recommended credit cards currently offer by way of sign-up bonuses.
4. Know the redemption value of your earned miles
Airline credit cards may offer an equivalent cash value of from 1 to 5 cents per mile you earn, but it's difficult to consistently quantify the value because award flights and availability are dynamic - always changing based on demand, flight prices, routes and other factors.
Some airlines like Southwest do not publish a fixed award chart; instead, the cost of an award flight fluctuates to match the cash sticker price of the paid fare equivalent. On the other hand, airlines like American and United have fixed-rate award charts that make it easier to understand how far your miles will get you.
5. Weigh your perks against the annual fee
Are you getting $95, $195, or $450 worth out of your airline credit card each year? Calculate the potential earnings against your annual fee. For example, although $195 a year for may sound astronomical to pay for the privilege of holding a credit card, the benefits of premium lounge access and the savings in checked bag fees may easily offset that $195 fee.
6. Know about additional bonus benefits that may come with your card
In the interest of staying competitive, airline credit cards may offer additional perks that aren’t directly correlated to plane tickets. These may include:
- No foreign transaction fees
- Trip cancellation insurance
- Auto rental insurance
- Lost baggage protection
- Roadside assistance
- Extended warranties
- Extended return periods
- Concierge services
Airline credit card perks that are on the premium side may include:
- Discounts on inflight purchases
- Companion tickets
- Access to airport lounges with free snacks, drinks and Wi-Fi
How much are airline miles worth?
It’s important to understand that every person will realize a different value from their airline redemptions, because their individual needs differ. For instance, checked bags and flight cancellation flexibility is very important for families with young children, but may not matter at all to a single young professional who travels frequently both for work as well as for leisure.
At the end of the day, the most data-driven way of valuation is to look at the fair market price tag of the ticket, when converted to points. Many airlines offer the opportunity to purchase additional miles at a promotional rate, and our partner website ThePointsGuy.com offers a monthly valuation to help guide your calculations.
As a general rule, The Points Guy suggests that you should make sure you’re earning the equivalent of 1 cent or more per mile in value from your airline miles. You can calculate this by combining of how much you would have to pay to buy the points if given the opportunity, and the overall value you would get from redeeming them in lieu of cash fare.
The value math is pretty straightforward, according to Tim Winship, editor-at-large for SmarterTravel.com and founder of FrequentFlier.com. “Miles earned in an airline program and redeemed for flights are generally worth between 1.5 and 2 cents apiece,” he explained. “However, when those miles are redeemed for consumer goods or hotel stays, they're typically worth far less than a penny apiece.”
Ultimately, what and how much you can get with your airline card's miles will vary based on each individual airline’s redemption and valuations. To get the most value of your hard-earned airline rewards, it’s usually best to use miles and points for what they were designed for: travel.
Here are a few examples of what your miles are worth with some popular airlines and their co-branded credit card sign-up bonuses.
What can you get with 30,000 SkyMiles?
While Delta offers a variety of redemption options for your SkyMiles – including merchandise and gift cards – your best option, by far, is redeeming SkyMiles for airfare on Delta or with one of Delta’s 19 SkyTeam alliance partners. The number of required miles is closely linked to the cost of the fare, and you will find a good value with most flights and fare levels. We value SkyMiles at 1.35 cents per miles on average, so 70,000 miles can get you around $945 worth of airfare on Delta.
Delta SkyMiles redemption options
|Redemption Option||Average Mile Value||Value of 30,000-Mile Intro Bonus|
|Flight upgrades||2.2 cents||$660|
|Delta Sky Club membership||1.1 cents||$330|
|Car rentals||0.6 cents||$180|
|Gift cards||0.3-0.5 cents||$90-$150|
|Charity donation||1.35 cents||$405|
Best ways to spend 40,000 MileagePlus miles
You can go a long way with 40,000 miles on United. Not only can you use them to travel all around the world on United flights, but you can use them for flights on one of United’s Star Alliance partners (28 partners in total) for a good value. MileagePlus miles are very valuable – worth 1.52 cents per mile by our estimates – but the value can vary depending on how you use them.
As you can see from our redemption chart below, you have many redemption options beside airfare, but most other options have a very poor value:
United MileagePlus redemption options
|Redemption Option||Average Mile Value||Value of 40,000-Mile Sign-up Bonus|
|Saver airfare – economy||2.3 cents||$920|
|Saver airfare – business/first class||3.5 cents||$1,400|
|Everyday airfare – economy||1 cent||$400|
|Everyday airfare – business/first class||1.2 cents||$480|
|Car rentals||0.9 cents||$360|
|Magazine subscription||2.2 cents||$880|
|Newspaper subscription||2.5 cents||$1,000|
|TSA PreCheck||1 cent||$400|
|In-flight Wi-Fi||0.7 cents||$280|
|United Club membership||0.8 cents||$320|
|Charity donation||1.52 cents||$608|
|Membership fee reimbursement||0.8 cents||$320|
When it comes to United, it’s all about Saver awards. You can get more than 2 cents of value out your miles with an economy-level Saver fare. And Business class Saver fares offer an exceptional value at 3.5 cents per mile on average. In fact, the pricing on Business class Saver awards is so reasonable that cardholders who normally couldn’t afford business class could easily rack up enough United Miles to fund a round-trip ticket to Europe or Asia in business class.
That said, business-class flights across the Atlantic start at 60,000 miles for a one-way ticket, so you’ll have to save up a few more miles to afford a round-trip fare.
Best way to use the Southwest Rapid Rewards cards’ sign-up bonus
While the Southwest cards offer a few different redemption options, airfare is by far the best option. Southwest has three fare tiers: Wanna Get Away, Anytime and Business Select, with Wanna Get Away fares providing the best value.
The value per point varies by flight, but averages around 1.6 cents per point for a Wanna Get Away fare. You can get even higher values if you are flexible, shop carefully for your ticket and buy your ticket far in advance while the best-priced fares are still available. Business Select fares have a very poor value – less than 1 cent per point on average. Note, the points cover the base fare and do not include taxes and fees.
Through the More Rewards site, you have more redemption options, including gift cards, cruises, car rentals, hotels and merchandise. These have a poor value – hotels are by far the worst at a mere 0.2 cents per point. Your best option on the More Rewards site is gift cards, which are worth 1 cent per point when you buy them in $100 increments or larger. However, if you want to get the most out of your bonus points, you should stick to redeeming them for airfare.
Southwest Rapid Rewards redemption options
|Redemption Option||Average Point Value||Value of 50,000-Point Sign-up Bonus|
|Wanna Get Away fare||1.6 cents||$800|
|Anytime fare||1.1 cents||$550|
|Business Select fare||0.9 cents||$450|
|$100 gift card||1 cent||$500|
|$50 gift card||0.83 cents||$415|
|Car rental||0.7 cents||$350|
How many miles do you need for a free flight?
The number of miles you will need for a free flight will vary based on the airline, as well as your origin and destination airports. Miles are not equal – the value depends on the airline, the trip, the date and the type of seat.
You can also 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.
For instance, the lowest one-way domestic fares on American Airlines will cost you 12,500 AAdvantage miles within the continental U.S., although the same flight will only cost you 4,500 Avios when booked through OneWorld partner carrier British Airways.
While you want to make sure your credit card miles are worth at least one cent per mile, credit card miles can actually be worth five cents or more apiece. Frequent flyer miles are worth more per mile when redeemed for long-haul flights, or for business or first-class seats.
How do I redeem airline miles?
In this section, we’ll show you how you can redeem your miles. While it is possible to redeem your miles for gift cards, we very rarely suggest doing so as this is one of the least valuable redemptions out there. Instead, since you’ve focused on building up brand loyalty to a single airline and its partners, it’s best to stick with redeeming your miles for travel purchases through that brand.
Once you have your frequent flyer account set up, your airline co-branded credit card in hand, and some miles in your stash, it’s time to book your next vacation for free!
- You’ll start by heading directly to your airline’s website.
Redeeming your miles for flights is usually quite straightforward. On your airline website’s reservations page, there usually will be an option for you to select “book awards flights” or “use miles.” For instance, on the United.com website, the page looks like this, with a little checkbox to search for award travel below the ticket quantity field:
The Delta.com website offers a toggle with options for paying by “money” or “miles” right above the “find flights” button:
The American Airlines website offers the option of “redeeming miles” in the top right corner of the booking form:
Finally, Southwest also offers the option to select between booking with dollars or booking with points, directly at the top right of the reservations widget:
- Enter your rewards number, and search for the flight you want to take
- Your search results will show the number of miles needed to book the flight, as well as any additional cost per ticket (most flights will include taxes and fees which, by law, cannot be discounted). Also, airlines often charge a fee for booking tickets last-minute, so you’ll want to plan ahead by at least a few weeks whenever possible.
- Book your ticket!
There may be other considerations as you book. Airlines typically only offer a certain number of award seats per flight, so your itinerary options will be more limited than if you were paying cash for your ticket. Furthermore, blackout dates may apply during peak travel times such as holidays or summer break, so you will want to check early and often for available flights as soon as you know the dates you want to travel.
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, even if it’s a place with similar currency and value such as between the United States and Canada.
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 are a classic example. The two airlines 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 three months old. Again coming back to the analogy of currency, this is akin to having two bank accounts within the same country. It doesn’t matter where your money sits, so long as no cross-conversion is required.
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.
You might be wondering, “Why would anyone bother to do that?” There are a number of reasons that make sense: The most obvious one has to do with differing value.
British Airways is notorious for charging an incredibly high number of points for redeeming seats in first and business class. A first-class seat on Cathay Pacific between Boston and Hong Kong, for example, will cost an astronomic 200,000 Avios. In comparison, partner carrier American Airlines requires just 67,500 AAdvantage miles for that exact same flight.
On the other hand, an American Airlines economy flight from Chicago to Washington, D.C. will cost 12,500 AAdvantage miles each way, while that same flight costs only 4,500 Avios. So you might begin to see some of the considerations award travelers must keep in mind when deciding which airline to fly with, as well as which points or miles to use.
Earlier, we mentioned that 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 between carriers, because there is no financial benefit to them for doing so. Instead, you will have to look for co-shared flights directly through the airline with which you hold mileage accounts. You can book these co-share flights through the website or by calling in to the airline’s agents.
These are the three major alliances and their partner airlines:
OneWorld includes 13 carriers:
- American Airlines
- British Airways
- Cathay Pacific Airways
- Japan Airlines
- LATAM Airlines
- Malaysia Airlines
- Qatar Airways
- Royal Jordanian
- S7 Airlines
- SriLankan Airlines
Skyteam includes 20 partner airlines:
- China Airlines
- China Eastern
- China Southern
- Czech Airlines
- Garuda Indonesia
- Kenya Airways
- Korean Air
- Vietnam Airlines
Star Alliance includes 27 partner airlines
- Air Canada
- Air China
- Air India
- Air New Zealand
- Asiana Airlines
- Brussels Airlines
- Copa Airlines
- Croatia Airlines
- Eva Air
- Polish Airlines
- Shenzhen Airlines
- Singapore Airlines
- South African Airways
- Swiss Air
- Turkish Airlines
Airline vs. travel rewards cards
If you’re wondering how a card like the Gold Delta SkyMiles card compares against or differs from the Chase Sapphire Reserve or the American Express Platinum, you’ve come to the right place for clarification.
There are three general-use travel programs offered by major credit card companies that offer travelers a wide range of flexibility in redemption options:
Chase Ultimate Rewards
- Chase Sapphire Reserve
- Chase Sapphire Preferred
- Chase Ink
American Express Membership Rewards
- American Express Premier Rewards Gold
- American Express Platinum
Citi ThankYou Rewards
These programs are owned directly by the credit card company issuing the cards, and the points earned within these programs allow you to transfer points directly into any and all of their airline frequent flyer or hotel member programs, usually at a 1:1 ratio. Therefore, general-use travel credit cards are fantastic for infrequent travelers, and other travelers for whom the ability to transfer points into whichever airline is offering the best redemption opportunity is of serious appeal.
Airline credit cards differ in their focus on loyalty to a single brand. With the Citi AAdvantage cards, for example, you earn a certain amount on every dollar you spend, but you earn bonus miles for every dollar spent on American Airlines purchases.
When choosing between an airline co-branded card and general-purpose travel credit cards, keep in mind that airline cards will be most beneficial for travelers who fly often with a single airline, and have built up brand loyalty. Here are some of the other differences, listed in one handy chart:
Airline co-branded cards vs. general-purpose travel cards
|Airline co-branded cards||General-purpose travel cards|
|Build credit||Build credit|
|Typically an annual fee||Sometimes no annual fee|
|Generous rewards for brand loyalty||Rewards for most spending|
|Partnerships with other brands||Fly any airline|
|Sign-up bonus, ongoing rewards||Sign-up bonus, ongoing rewards|
|Often free first checked bag||No blackout dates|
|No foreign transaction fee||No foreign transaction fee|
To further break down these differences, an airline card may look like more cost upfront, because you typically have to pay an annual fee. However, the benefits are significant as long as you continue to travel with that airline, because the perks add up: a free checked bag can save you up to $75-100 on each flight you book, while soft rewards long-term often include accelerators for racking up miles and status, as well as elite access to airline lounges and similar VIP treatment.
The miles you earn through an airline’s co-branded card are awarded by the airline to incentivize you to redeem them for future flights with that carrier. In comparison, generic points or miles earned through a general travel rewards credit card are more of a cash-back substitute than a loyalty reward.
Generic travel reward benefits are often called "miles," but they're really more like cash-equivalent points that you can spend on flights, as well as hotels and car rentals.
The Capital One Venture card is a well-known example of this type of general travel-focused credit card, because it is not tied to a specific airline carrier. The popular “two miles per dollar spent” slogan simply means you earn two points per dollar which can be transferred to a variety of partners.
If you rarely fly, and buying the cheapest flight is your typical priority, a general travel credit card may be a better fit for you. As a rule of thumb, the cheaper the flight, the more bang you'll get for your generic miles -- the exact opposite of using frequent flyer miles.
The process for purchasing flights, or hotel stays or car rentals, with generic miles is as simple as charging something online using a credit card. You purchase your flight through your credit card portal online, using your stash of banked points or miles to defray the total cost.
If, on the other hand, you fly often and are interested in building brand loyalty and elite status with an airline carrier such as United, Delta or American Airlines, your best bet is to opt for a credit card with one of these airlines. Many of the major carriers are part of airline alliances that allow you to carry over the same status you enjoy with your primary airline, so that even when you fly on partner airlines, you will enjoy the same perks and rewards for your paid travel that you have with your airline of choice.
Check out our reviews
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.
Katherine Fan is a journalist at The Points Guy. Having graduated from the University of Texas with degrees in photojournalism and ethnic studies, Katherine has extensive experience in photography as well as travel. You can reach her at email@example.com.
Griffin Miller is a personal finance writer at Bankrate, specializing in credit cards. He frequently contributes research, guides, and advice to CreditCards.com. You can reach Griffin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We encourage an active and insightful conversation among our users. Please help us keep
our community civil and respectful. For your safety, we ask that you do not disclose confidential or personal
information such as your bank account number, phone number, or email address. Keep in mind that anything you
post may be disclosed, published, transmitted or reused.
The comments posted below are not provided, reviewed or approved by the card issuers or
advertisers. Additionally, the card issuer or advertiser does not assume responsibility to ensure that all posts
and/or questions are answered.