Best airline credit cards
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If you don’t mind sticking with the same airline for all or most of your travel, a good airline credit card can help you cash in on your loyalty and earn special perks for repeat travelers.
Many airline cards offer free checked bags, priority boarding and free or sharply discounted companion tickets. Some airline cards also offer extra bonuses on everyday spending, making it easier to rack up miles when you aren’t traveling. But to get the most value from an airline card, you typically need to fly often in order to earn enough miles to recoup the card’s annual fee.
When comparing airline cards, watch out for restrictive redemption policies, stingy rewards seating and miles with a low redemption value. A good airline card should combine a high value rewards program with enough exclusive perks to make it worth your loyalty.
To help you pick the best airline card for your travel plans, 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.
Judges for the Best Airline Credit Card were personal finance expert Holly Johnson (clubthrifty.com), travel expert Johnny Jet (johnnyjet.com), personal finance writer Lisa Gerstner, CreditCards.com Editor-in-Chief Daniel P. Ray and CreditCards.com senior industry analyst Matt Schulz.
Winner: Alaska Airlines Visa Signature card
Other features: First checked bag free, no foreign transaction fee
With a strong airline partner network and generous perks for travelers flying in groups, the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature pulled ahead in this season’s best airline card contest.
For cardholders who live on the West Coast, the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature offers some of the most valuable travel benefits you can get on a mid-tier airline card – especially if you don’t fly by yourself.
Judges liked that Alaska Airlines miles are worth more than the average airline mile, making it easier to purchase a big trip with fewer miles.
“By the estimate of The Points Guy, each Alaska Airlines mile is worth 1.9 cents – higher than the estimated value of miles from other airlines in the U.S., and considerably better than the baseline penny-per-point value any traveler should seek when redeeming points or miles,” says personal finance writer Lisa Gerstner. As a result, cardholders who don’t fly often enough to amass a huge collection have a leg up when it’s time to redeem a free flight.
Frequent travelers also earn more miles when they fly Alaska Airlines or its newly acquired partner carrier, Virgin America, says Gerstner. “Cardholders earn a substantial three points per dollar on purchases made directly with Alaska Airlines or Virgin America, a stronger rate than the two points per dollar that many other cards offer for purchases with the airline.”
But what really sets the Alaska Airlines card apart from its competitors are its promotions for companion travelers, say judges. For example, every year cardholders are eligible for a steeply discounted companion fare of just $121 (including taxes and fees). “They give you a [discounted] companion ticket each year with no blackout dates,” says travel expert Johnny Jet. That’s a big deal for cardholders who were already planning to fly with a friend or family member.
Alaska Airlines also recently began offering an additional one-time free companion fare when you spend enough money to earn the card’s 30,000-mile sign-up bonus. “If you meet the same $1,000 spending minimum, you’ll nab a free companion ticket (you pay only taxes and fees) when you purchase a ticket at the regular fare,” says Gerstner.
Great for travelers who fly in groups
In addition, the Alaska Airlines card offers a number of other money-saving benefits – particularly for big families – making it a good value for cardholders looking to avoid airline fees and extra expenses. For example, it will waive the baggage fees for up to six companions flying on the same reservation. That perk alone could save a large family a substantial amount of money in fees – particularly since each checked bag typically costs $25. “I can see where the Alaska Airlines Card could be the top-of-wallet favorite for a family that frequents its Western United States destinations,” says CreditCards.com Editor-in-Chief, Daniel P. Ray. “Up to six people traveling on the same reservation all have a free checked bag each.”
Even smaller groups benefit from Alaska’s generous baggage policy, says Gerstner. “A couple traveling round-trip could avoid $100 in baggage fees, more than justifying the card’s $75 annual fee.”
More affordable than most
The Alaska card is also less expensive than many of its competitors, notes Gerstner. “With an annual fee of $75, the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature card folds in a host of enticing benefits for flyers at a lower price than similar cards from other airlines, which often charge about $95.”
In addition, the Alaska card’s sign-up bonus is more accessible than most, she says, making it a better deal for cardholders on a budget. “It’s nice that to earn 30,000 bonus miles, new cardholders need to spend only $1,000 in the first 90 days, compared with spending minimums of $2,000 or $3,000 to gather a pile of extra points in the first few months with many other cards,” says Gerstner.
Limited airline network
Cardholders who fly widely, though, may have a harder time finding the right Alaska Airlines or Virgin America flight. Alaska Airlines and Virgin America have a more limited flight network than many of their competitors. Alaska Airlines flights, for example, are mostly concentrated in the Western half of the United States, while Virgin America favors big cities.
However, Alaska partners with a wide range of domestic and international airlines, so cardholders shouldn’t have too hard a time redeeming their miles for a different airline’s flight. “Alaska Airlines and Virgin America have smaller footprints than such airlines as American or Delta. But you can use your miles with a number of airline partners, including American Airlines, British Airways and Icelandair,” says Gerstner.
Second place: British Airways Visa Signature card
Other features: No foreign transaction fee
The British Airways Visa Signature card won second place in the best airline card contest.
Ideal for international travelers and power card users, the British Airways Visa Signature card has earned a reputation in travel card circles for its unusually generous sign-up bonus – particularly for big spenders – and extensive network of partner airlines.
Big rewards for heavy spenders
The British Airways card – which costs $95 a year to own – offers 50,000 bonus Avios when you spend $3,000 in the card’s first three months and an additional 25,000 Avios if you spend $10,000 before your first year anniversary. Cardholders who manage to spend $30,000 before the end of each year are also eligible for an annual companion ticket.
In addition, cardholders earn a solid 3 Avios for every dollar they spend on British Airways purchases and 1 Avios for every dollar spent on other purchases.
According to estimates by The Points Guy, Avios are worth 1.5 cents a piece – well above the average redemption rate of 1 cent a piece for most rewards credit cards. That makes everyday spending on the British Airways card a better value than it appears.
Worldwide travel network
British Airways also has an extensive partner network, making it easy to find a flight almost anywhere in the world. “If you spin a globe and randomly stop it on a spot, chances are the British Airways Visa Signature Card will get you there with a points-fueled discount,” says CreditCards.com Editor-in-Chief Daniel P. Ray.
For example, British Airways is part of the One World Alliance, which includes American Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Iberia, Japan Airlines, Latam Airlines, Qantas, Qatar Airways and more.
However, British Airways has also earned a reputation for adding hefty fuel surcharges to international flights, cutting into the card’s value and forcing cardholders to sometimes pay hefty sums for flights that were supposed to be paid for with rewards.
“While the British Airways card offers a big sign-up bonus, travelers frequently complain about the big surcharges they face for flights to Europe,” says personal finance expert Holly Johnson. “Redeeming BA miles seems to work best for short haul flights around the U.S. and the Caribbean, but not everyone has travel plans that work this way.”
“Many people also complain about award availability on both American AAdvantage and British Airways,” she adds, “which is an ongoing problem within the airline loyalty industry.
A great value once you learn the ropes
Cardholders who are willing to work around the surcharges and use partner carriers for lengthier flights should still be able to carve out a substantial amount of value, though, says Ray.
“There can be a high learning curve with this card. You need to learn its network of partners and how to reduce or avoid the dreaded ‘carrier surcharges,’ but once you do, you’ll be able to sort the program’s money-saving features from its pricey ones,” he says.
Third place: Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard
Other features: 25% savings on in-flight purchases, first checked bag free, preferred boarding privileges, no foreign transaction fee
A close third, the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard placed third in the best airline card contest.
Although not as generous as some of its competitors, the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard offers enough free perks and valuable rewards for frequent travelers that it’s earned top-of-the-wallet status for some domestic and international travelers.
Valuable rewards points
At first glance, the Citi AAdvantage card doesn’t offer nearly as many rewards as other airline credit cards. For example, cardholders earn just two miles for every dollar spent on American Airlines purchases and one mile for every dollar spent on anything else.
But according to personal finance expert Holly Johnson, American Airlines’ generous redemption policy makes it possible to get a substantial amount of value out of fewer miles – particularly if you use your miles for discounted flights.
“It costs a minimum of 12,500 points per leg to travel to the Caribbean during off-peak times, and only 15,000 at SAAver level otherwise, which makes it easy to stretch your miles further,” says Johnson. “American also offers one of the most generous off-season booking options to Europe, with off-peak flights costing just 45,000 miles plus taxes and fees.”
Generous sign-up bonus
American Airlines offers new cardholders a solid 60,000-mile bonus when they spend $3,000 in the card’s first three months. Johnson notes that “A round-trip domestic flight within the U.S. costs just 25,000 American AAdvantage miles, which means the sign-up bonus alone can be good for at least two round-trip flights.”
Good airline perks
In addition, American offers a number of exclusive perks that make flying easier and less expensive. For example, it waives the baggage fees for up to four passengers on the same reservation, potentially saving families and groups of traveling friends up to $100 in fees.
It also offers preferred boarding, discounted in-flight food and beverage purchases and a 10 percent redemption bonus.
“While I typically prefer a general-purpose card for my air travel, the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard is also a good choice,” says CreditCards.com senior industry analyst Matt Schulz. “It's got a strong sign-up bonus, gives you a free checked bag for you and four of your travel companions and also gives you preferred boarding on American flights. That all adds up to a pretty good deal.”
Meet the Judges
Lisa Gerstner, contributing editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance
Favorite airline card: Alaska Airlines Visa Signature card
“With an annual fee of $75, the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature card folds in a host of enticing benefits for flyers at a lower price than similar cards from other airlines, which often charge about $95.”
Johnny Jet, travel expert
Favorite airline card: Alaska Airlines Visa Signature card
“They give you a [discounted] companion ticket each year with no blackout dates. Also, Alaska’s miles are worth more than American’s.”
Holly Johnson, personal finance expert
Favorite airline card: Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard
“While all three cards on the list are strong options for someone trying to rack up airline miles, the Citi AAdvantage card pulls out ahead in terms of value.”
Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com
Favorite airline card: Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard
“It's got a strong sign-up bonus, gives you a free checked bag for you and four of your travel companions and also gives you preferred boarding on American flights. That all adds up to a pretty good deal.”
Daniel Ray, Editor-in-Chief at CreditCards.com
Favorite airline card: British Airways Visa Signature card
“There can be a high learning curve with this card. You need to learn its network of partners and how to reduce or avoid the dreaded ‘carrier surcharges,’ but once you do, you’ll be able to sort the program’s money-saving features from its pricey ones.”
How we choose our best cards
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, we consulted credit card and personal finance experts and nominated the top three cards as finalists. We also rated cards through our credit card reviews program.
For each review, we rank the cards using a weighted scoring system that assesses the cards’ most relevant attributes. Each card attribute is ranked on a scale of 1 to 5. For airline credit cards, we evaluated a number of common airline card features, including:
- Estimated rewards value (47 percent): Because card applicants typically place a high value on rewards earnings, we assign the greatest weight to the amount of earnings cardholders take home. We use a formula to calculate the estimated yearly value, assuming cardholders spend $1,325 per month, averaged over three years. The formula includes an average rewards rate, sign-up bonus and annual fee. We then assign a score depending on how the estimated rewards value compares to other cards.
- Rewards flexibility (40 percent): How easy it is to redeem your miles makes a big difference in how likely you are to use them. We focus heavily on the flexibility of card redemption options and assign a substantial amount of weight to that category. Using a scale of 1 to 5, we rate factors such as expiration dates, how easy miles are to earn and redeem, whether there are limits on how many miles a cardholder can earn, minimum redemption thresholds and whether cardholders can transfer their miles to other travel partners.
- Features (10 percent): We also consider the quantity, uniqueness and value of the features for each card and rate them on a scale of 1 to 5.
- Annual percentage rate (APR) (3 percent): Because travel cardholders generally don’t want to carry a balance, we assign less weight to the card’s APR. We assign a score depending on how the average APR and the introductory APR compares to other rewards cards.
After three cards were chosen as finalists for the best airline card contest, a panel of five judges – including credit card and personal finance experts and two members of the CreditCards.com staff – were asked to independently judge the finalists and rank them in order of preference. The card with the best average rank was chosen as the winner.
See related: To get the best frequent flyer card, know your hubs, Airline cards get you free checked bags. with exceptions, Should you use your card issuer's travel portal?, Earn holiday bonus miles on airline shopping portals
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.