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How to choose an airline credit card

A guide to sorting through the many co-branded credit cards offering frequent flyer rewards and benefits


Airline credit cards offer frequent flyer miles for award flights and benefits like priority boarding and a free checked bag. Depending on the annual fee, many also come with extra reward categories and perks like airport lounge access and credit toward elite status.

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Credit cards co-branded with airlines were among the first rewards credit cards ever offered, and they remain incredibly popular. Today, airline credit cards offer more than just frequent flyer miles that can be redeemed toward award flights. They can also offer a host of benefits, including priority boarding, credit toward elite status and free checked bags.

Nearly every carrier in the U.S. offers at least one co-branded card, as do many foreign airlines that have a large presence here. But it can be confusing to sort through the dozens of cards offered. Here’s how to choose the right airline credit card for you.

Should you have an airline card?

As popular as airline credit cards are, they aren’t for everyone. Those who don’t fly that often won’t receive much value from perks such as priority boarding or discounts on in-flight food and beverages. And while nearly every airline credit card offers free checked bags, this perk doesn’t do much for business travelers and others who tend to avoid checking bags.

Those who purchase highly discounted tickets from low-cost carriers may not see the tremendous value in earning frequent flyer miles. Nevertheless, the cards offered by these discount carriers can offer perks that eliminate the need to pay some of their ancillary fees.

Frequent travelers who already enjoy elite status may not gain additional benefits from an entry-level airline credit card. That’s because there’s a lot of overlap between the perks offered via elite status and those offered by airline credit cards. However, premium airline cards can offer next-level perks such as airport lounge access and credit toward higher levels of status.

Is the current sign up bonus generous?

As a baseline, nearly all airline credit cards offer a sign-up bonus, typically with enough miles for at least one round-trip, domestic award flight in economy class. Sometimes, there are limited-time offers that feature enough miles for several domestic flights, or even a foreign one.

If you’re interested in a particular card, do some research on the typical bonus offer for the card, as well as the highest-ever offer, to see if now’s a good time to apply or if it could be worth waiting for a more generous welcome offer to be announced.

How much can you earn in rewards?

Airline credit cards also offer miles (basically reward points) for spending. You can expect all cards to offer at least 2 miles for every dollar spent on airline purchases and 1 mile per dollar spent elsewhere. The most competitive cards now offer at least 3 miles per dollar spent on airline purchases, and reward bonus categories as well. For example, some of the newer airline credit cards now offer 2X miles for other travel purchases such as hotels, rental cars and restaurants. Others feature bonus miles for other everyday purchases such as gas or groceries.

How valuable are the rewards?

When choosing an airline credit card, you should take into account the quality of the airline’s frequent flyer programs, which can vary greatly. For example, some airlines now charge a vastly higher number of miles for award flights than they once did, especially for coveted international award tickets in business class. Others impose expensive fuel surcharges (now labeled as “carrier imposed charges”) that can add hundreds of dollars to your award charts.

So it makes sense to familiarize yourself with the frequent flyer program before applying for an airline credit card. A good way to learn the value of an airline’s miles is to search for specific flights and see how many miles you would need for an upcoming reservation, and if excessive surcharges are imposed.

Which airline do you fly most frequently?

Many airline travelers will choose a credit card that’s co-branded with the airline they use the most. This can make a lot of sense, as you can earn miles that are easier for you to use and enjoy perks more often when you fly a lot.

However, it can sometimes be a good idea to choose a card from an airline you don’t fly that often. For instance, you may want to earn miles that you can redeem for a special trip to a destination not served by the airline you normally use. Also, the airline that is most convenient for you to use may not have a great frequent flyer program, giving you little reason to earn more of its miles with your credit card.

Some travelers live in cities dominated by a single airline, and their credit card choice may be obvious. But others live near smaller airports without an airline hub, or airports with healthy competition, and they tend to book flights on numerous airlines. Those who live in urban hubs like New York City, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., enjoy extensive airline service to multiple airports.

What alliance does the airline belong to?

Some airlines have an extensive list of partners, and earning miles with that airline can unlock desirable awards on other carriers. So one way to choose which airline’s credit card you should use is to compare the alliances they belong to. There are three major worldwide airline alliances, and each of the three major legacy carriers belongs to one of them.

American Airlines is one of 13 members of the oneworld alliance, which includes airlines such as Alaska, British Airways, Japan Airlines, Qantas and Qatar. Delta is a member of SkyTeam, which includes 18 airlines such as Air France, KLM, Korean Air and China Airlines. United is one of 26 carriers in the Star Alliance, which includes Air Canada, Air China, Lufthansa, Singapore and Turkish.

If there’s a particular airline you’re hoping to redeem your miles on, then you can typically earn miles with any airline in the same alliance. Keep in mind that some airlines have additional partners that aren’t part of any alliance.

Some foreign airlines offer credit cards to U.S. residents, including British Airways, Air France/KLM, Air Canada and Lufthansa. You can earn miles from these cards and redeem them for domestic flights on their partner carriers. For example, rewards earned from Chase’s British Airways Visa Signature Card can be redeemed on flights operated by American Airlines, British Airways’ oneworld partner.

Will you take advantage of additional perks?

The next way to choose an airline credit card is to examine the perks offered. A free checked bag may be a common perk, but while some cards offer this benefit for up to nine people traveling on the same reservation, others only offer it to the cardholder and a single companion. Many cards offer perks such as priority boarding, airport lounge passes or memberships and discounts on in-flight purchases.

One of the most valuable potential perks is credit toward elite status. This benefit is usually only earned by purchasing tickets and flying with the airline, but some cards offer credit toward status. These credits are usually awarded to higher spenders, but can be the key to reaching the next level of status, where valuable benefits like first class upgrades come into play.

How much are you willing to spend on an annual fee?

Ultra-premium airline credit cards offer comprehensive perks, but they come at a steep cost: annual fees in the $450 to $695 range. If you’re paying that kind of fee, make sure you’re getting your money’s worth. Top-tier airline credit cards will always offer airport lounge access, for example, but differ in the number of guests permitted.

Some airlines offer no-fee cards with very few perks and minimal chances to earn bonus miles. More common are the mid-level cards with annual fees of just under $100. These cards generally offer free checked bags, priority boarding and discounts on in-flight purchases.

What if your airline offers multiple credit cards?

Once you’ve decided which airline you’d like to get a credit card from, you could still be faced with a choice of several cards. For example:

  • American Express offers four versions of its Delta SkyMiles credit card for consumers and three versions for small business users.
  • Chase offers four versions of its United MileagePlus cards for consumers and three business cards.
  • Citi features three versions of its American Airlines AAdvantage card for consumers and one for small business owners.
  • Barclays offers one version of its American Airlines Aviator cards for consumers and one for small business owners.
  • Chase offers three consumer versions of its Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards cards, and two versions for small business owners.

Choosing a credit card from within a single airline is simply a matter of weighing the features offered against the cost of the annual fee. Take a look at the welcome bonus, the miles earned from spending and the value of the perks offered. In most cases, you’ll find that the value of these three components exceeds the cost of an airline credit card with an annual fee in the $100 range, making the no-fee cards a poor choice. But only the most-frequent flyers who value airport lounge membership will be in the market for the cards with annual fees in the $450 to $695 range.

Thankfully, newer airline credit cards are being introduced with annual fees in between the conventional $100 and $550, with enticing benefits and rewards. For example, the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card from Chase has an annual fee of $149, and the United Quest℠ Card from Chase and Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card both have a $250 annual fee.

Bottom line

Everyone knows having an airline credit card can help you earn award flights. But what’s less appreciated is that these cards offer numerous perks that can really make your travel experience more enjoyable and affordable. By taking some time to compare the costs and benefits of the airline credit cards offered, you can choose the ideal one for your needs.

Editorial Disclaimer

The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

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