Best airline credit cards: Summer 2017

Kelly Dilworth
Personal Finance Writer
Specializing in new trends in credit

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Whether you fly frequently for business or pleasure or travel only a few times a year, a good airline card can help you stockpile miles to quickly earn a free vacation.

All three of our best airline cards for summer 2017 offer big sign-up bonuses and shower cardholders with an array of travel perks.

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

In this second competition for best airline card we had our first three-way tie in a best cards category. To break that tie and pick clear winners, we brought in an additional judge.

Judges for Best Airline Credit Card were travel expert Johnny Jet (johnnyjet.com), personal finance expert Holly Johnson (clubthrifty.com), personal finance writer Lisa Gerstner, millennial money expert Stefanie O’Connell, CreditCards.com Editor-in-Chief Daniel P. Ray and CreditCards.com senior industry analyst Matt Schulz.

First Place: United MileagePlus Explorer card

The United MileagePlus Explorer card, with its generous sign-up bonus and money-saving travel perks, won first place in our airline card contest. 

The United MileagePlus Explorer’s sign-up bonus lets card holders earn 40,000 bonus miles after spending $2,000 in the card’s first three months. 

The United MileagePlus Explorer card is packed with perks that can help even a not-so-frequent flier easily overcome the $95 annual fee.

In addition, “The United MileagePlus Explorer card is packed with perks that can help even a not-so-frequent flyer easily overcome the $95 annual fee,” says personal finance journalist Lisa Gerstner. 

A couple of examples:

“The cardholder and one traveling companion get a free checked bag on each flight,” she says.  “Given that United charges a checked bag fee of $25 per flight, you and a friend or family member on the same reservation could save a total $100 on just one round-trip flight.”

Once you earn enough miles to purchase a free trip, you also won’t have much trouble picking a rewards-funded flight. United flies all over the United States and to numerous destinations abroad, and United is also a member of the Star Alliance.

“For those of us who are regular flyers, keeping it mostly domestic, but don’t fly every day, the United MileagePlus Explorer card strikes an excellent bargain,” says CreditCards.com Editor-in-Chief Daniel P. Ray. “Anytime you go with a single-airline card, you give up some flexibility, but United’s card makes up for it with an outstanding sign-up bonus and perks everyone can use.”

Judges also like that you won’t have to hurry to use up your points if you want to save them for a bigger trip. Unlike many airline miles, United Miles don’t expire as long as your account is open and in good standing, says Gerstner.

“It’s easy to overlook details such as expiration dates, earning limits and fees when a travel card puts premium perks and big bonuses front and center,” she says. But United’s terms are relatively consumer friendly. “Plus, like any travel card worth its salt, United MileagePlus Explorer charges no foreign transaction fee on purchases you make abroad.”

Second Place: Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select card

Our judges said the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select, which finished second in best airline card contest, is a good card for value seekers who want to earn a big sign-up bonus but don’t want to pay an annual fee in the first year.

Millennial money expert Stefanie O’Connell said of the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select: “Not only is this card currently offering an elevated sign-up bonus of 60,000 miles for $3,000 of spending in the first three months, but the annual fee is also waived for the first year, making Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select Mastercard an excellent value for new cardholders who prioritize travel rewards.” (Note: The bonus has decreased to 30,000 miles since this story was written.)

The Citi AAdvantage card also helps you make up for the card’s $95 annual fee after the first year by waiving baggage fees for you and up to four companions. If you have a big family, that’s a big savings by itself. 

“My favorite of the three is the Citi AAdvantage card,” says CreditCards.com senior industry analyst Matt Schulz. “It’s got a strong sign-up bonus, it gives you 10 percent of your redeemed miles back each year, and there’s no annual fee for the first year. That makes it a good deal, especially if you’re someone who flies American regularly.”

Judges also like that American Airlines flies all over the United States and the world. You can also transfer your miles to a wide variety of international airlines. The card also doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee.

“The American AAdvantage program offers superior redemption options for consumers, including inexpensive off-peak rewards,” says personal finance expert Holly Johnson. “Consumers who sign up for this card can fly round-trip to Europe for 45,000 American AAdvantage miles, which is attainable with a single sign-up bonus.”

Third Place: British Airways Visa Signature card

The British Airways Visa Signature card, with its generous spending bonus and tiered sign-up bonus that amply rewards moderate to heavy spenders, won third place in our travel card contest. 

Our judges said for big spenders who travel frequently abroad, the British Airways Visa Signature card is hard to beat. Unlike most airline cards, the British Airways Visa Signature card offers a tiered sign-up bonus.

Here’s how it works: If you spend $3,000 in the card’s first three months, you’ll earn 50,000 bonus points. If you spend another $10,000 before the end of the year, you’ll get an extra 25,000 bonus points.   

British Airways points, known as Avios, also tend to be worth more than average and can be transferred to a wide variety of partner airlines. “Their miles go a lot further, especially for short haul travel,” says travel expert Johnny Jet.

The $95 annual fee British Airways Visa Signature card also offers a number of traveler-friendly perks, including no foreign transaction fees and a free companion ticket each year you spend at least $30,000.

“If I were a truly frequent flyer, I’d go for the British Airways Visa Signature card in a heartbeat,” says Ray. “Its very good rewards rate and lavish sign-up bonus make it a go-to card for the savvy traveler.” A downside? “Its thicket of rules give it a steep learning curve, and its high spending requirements make it a card only for those with a deep wallet.”

How to pick an airline card
When picking an airline card, be sure to select a card that aligns with your lifestyle and travel preferences. Airline cards tend to be more restrictive than general travel cards and offer fewer opportunities for earning points. To choose the best airline card for your travel plans, look closely at an airline’s travel destinations and card rewards rules and think carefully about how often you plan to use that card.

Some airline cards offer outstanding benefits to frequent flyers, but don’t offer nearly as much value to occasional travelers. Other cards make up for stingier spending bonuses with outstanding introductory offers that reward you with an easy free trip. To get the most benefit from an airline card, choose an airline you plan to use for every flight and use your card for all your airline expenses.

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

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

See relatedCharged Up! podcast: How to finance world travelTo get the best frequent flyer card, know your hubsCredit cards compete to make you feel like a VIP5 questions to ask before making a big purchase for rewards


All best credit card stories 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 story is accurate as of the date of the story. Check the credit card terms and conditions link on the issuing bank’s website for the most current information.




About this Award

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