The Best Airline Credit Cards of 2014

The best airline credit cards can offer you great sign-up bonuses and the ability to earn air miles in your frequent flier program to put towards free flights. Some airline credit cards offer additional perks and benefits, like companion fares, priority boarding, and free bags.

These cards are great for specific purchases on one airline, but not so great for all other purchases. In many cases, the rewards rate for using an airline card on your favorite airline is the same as using a travel rewards card for the exact same purchase (2x points or miles per dollar spent).

The only difference is that the travel rewards card allows you to earn 2x points on all travel, plus dining purchases. In most cases, going with one of these cards is your best bet, unless you fly on only one airline and fly often. If you don’t fall into this category, think about getting a more flexible travel credit card first.

Here is the top travel credit card to consider (I share all the best airline cards just below):

Chase Sapphire Preferred®

Highlights:

The Simple Dollar’s Top Picks

Here are the 5 best airline credit cards for US consumers:

  1. The US Airways® Premier World MasterCard®
  2. The Hawaiian Airlines® World Elite MasterCard®
  3. The Frontier Airlines World MasterCard®
  4. Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card
  5. TrueBlue by JetBlue

While there are fewer airline cards to consider in comparison to overall rewards cards, choosing the top airline credit cards is difficult. The choice is much more individualized, as the best airline credit card depends on your preferences, location and choice of airline.

Earning rewards is less about the airline credit card itself and more about the combination of the card with the airline’s frequent flyer program.

The best airline credit cards compete with one another by offering unique card membership features. Listed below is a collection of standout features taken from all of the airline credit cards on the market:

  • Big signup bonuses
  • 2X miles or more for airline purchases
  • Yearly companion fares
  • Many travel perks
  • High flight availability or several travel partners
  • Opportunities to earn additional rewards

Consider This Before Getting An Airline Credit Card

Here are my basic rules for getting an airline credit card:

  1. You are loyal to one airline.
  2. You fly more than five times per year.
  3. You have no problem occasionally paying more for airfare.
  4. You will take advantage of companion fares.
  5. You own or plan on owning an all-around rewards credit card for purchases away from the airline. (This is very important.)
  6. You always pay your balance on time.

Make sure an airline credit card isn’t the only credit card you own.

Personally, I don’t think you should own an airline credit card without owning a top rewards card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred®. This card gets you the same rewards rate on travel as most of the airline credit cards, plus you get the 2X rate on dining as well.

Rewards aren’t the only thing that matters for airline credit cards.

I mentioned the importance of maximizing the value of an airline credit card, but there are other ways these cards offer value in addition to rewards. While rewards are still the most important factor, the perks and benefits from airline credit cards should not be overlooked.

The US Airways® Premier World MasterCard®

The The US Airways® Premier World MasterCard® gives you one of the best welcome packages of any credit card. You get a near-instant, massive signup bonus in addition to companion fares. All in all, signing up for this card can give you an estimated value of over $1,000!

Highlights

Highlights

Who Should Get It

For Who?

Best Way To Use It

Best Use

  • For an air miles credit card, the The US Airways® Premier World MasterCard® reaches a wide travel audience, especially given the recent merger with American.
  • This card is best for people who travel to a variety of destinations (given you always use this airline).
  • The perks are also good for families traveling with children because of the Zone 2 boarding, first-class check-in, and two companion fares.
  • You only want to use this card when you book a flight with the airline.
  • The card is worth owning if you’re booking a family trip and looking to save on short-term costs but still plan on consistently flying on the airline in the future.
  • The easy boarding and check-in travel perks are solid benefits you won’t find with every airline credit card.

The Hawaiian Airlines® World Elite MasterCard®

The The Hawaiian Airlines® World Elite MasterCard® is one of the newest airline credit cards on the market. In addition to the annual companion fare and generous signup bonus, you get a one-time 50% off companion discount.

This card is packed with benefits and bonuses, although the rewards rate is only 2X miles on direct purchases from Hawaiian Airlines. You also have the ability to share miles with friends and family online, which is a really convenient feature.

Highlights

Highlights

Who Should Get It

For Who?

Best Way To Use It

Best Use

  • It’s definitely the best card to own for people who travel to and from Hawaii often. Hawaiian Airlines also has several very convenient airline partners.
  • The card is good for people who are planning a vacation to Hawaii and want to continue traveling there on a consistent basis.
  • Use it to book flights for friends and family — you get companion fares and you can share miles across accounts.
  • You can also redeem your miles for upgrades or premium membership (flights to and from Hawaii aren’t exactly quick).

The Frontier Airlines World MasterCard®

The Frontier Airlines World MasterCard® is one of the best air miles credit cards due to the very high signup bonus and potential to earn even more bonus miles. If you’re located in Denver or you frequently take Frontier Airlines flights, this airline card is a must-own. All you have to do is spend $500 in the first 90 days (basically the cost of one flight) and you’ll get 40,000 bonus miles with the chance to earn an additional 10,000 miles if you transfer a balance.

Who Should Get It

For Who?

Best Way To Use It

Best Use

  • The card is best for anyone who flies on Frontier Airlines often, which tends to be people based near Denver, Colorado.
  • Frontier also has flights to smaller airports and might be the only option for some — these people can really take full advantage of the card.
  • Book a flight right after you sign up so you can easily get your signup bonus.
  • This card is really only worth using on Frontier Airlines flights and purchases. Outside of that, you’re better off using another rewards credit card.

Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Card

For most people, the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Card will be the best second credit card to own. Now, it won’t be if you live in the East Coast (it will be theTrueBlue by JetBlue instead). If paired with a card like the Barclaycard Arrival™ Plus World Elite MasterCard®, you have a deadly rewards earning potential of 2X + 3X on everything you buy.

Highlights

Highlights

Who Should Get It

For Who?

Best Way To Use It

Best Use

  • Frequent Alaska Airlines flyers who don’t necessarily have an undying loyalty to the airline (miles can be redeemed with partners).
  • People who fly on Alaska Airlines just once per year. The companion fare saves you the cost of one flight ($500 these days!).
  • West Coast travelers.
  • Great for couples, newlyweds, or travel partners.
  • If you’re single, you can always dangle the companion fare as bait to a friend.
  • Sign up and fly with Alaska Airlines or redeem miles with their list of partners.
  • Keep the card active with Alaska Airline purchases. The rewards are great, at 3X miles.

TrueBlue by JetBlue

If you want pure airline miles rewards, the TrueBlue by JetBlue American Express card is unbeatable. For East Coast travelers, this is the best card to pair with a consistent rewards card or a cash back card.

Highlights

Highlights

Who Should Get It

For Who?

Best Way To Use It

Best Use

  • Loyal JetBlue customers and people who live on the East Coast, where JetBlue flights are prevalent.
  • It’s also best if you book flights to the same destination often because you know you’ll be getting full use of the card.
  • The solo traveler, as there’s no companion fare.

Other Top Airline Credit Cards

I’m aware we have some big airline cards that aren’t in the top five. Before I hear from the loyal Delta, United, and American flyers, let me first give these cards some credit then explain why they didn’t make the cut.

Gold Delta SkyMiles® Card from American Express

Why It’s Not The Best
  • The signup bonus is more difficult to achieve than the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Card and the The US Airways® Premier World MasterCard®.
  • The rewards earning potential is inferior to the JetBlue card and the Alaska Airlines card.
  • On a positive note, Delta is the largest airline in North America so flights are easier to come by in comparison.

Citi® Platinum Select® / AAdvantage® World MasterCard®

Why It’s Not The Best
  • The bonus requires more upfront spending than two of the top three airline cards.
  • Rewards earning is capped at double miles on American Airline purchases only.
  • There is no companion fare and you have to pay a $95 annual fee.

Research the 12 Best Airline Credit Cards

Below is a directory with the most popular airline credit cards available today. The directory is updated on a weekly basis to reflect any new changes, to add new cards, and to remove expired cards. The airline credit cards directory is a component of the rewards credit cards directory. This custom directory highlights the most important features for each airline card.

Airline Credit Card Directory

In order to rank and value each of these airline cards, certain features were analyzed based on overall importance to the prospective cardholder. The most heavily weighted features of an airline card are Signup Bonus, Rewards Rate, and Perks.

Based on these features and other data, we developed an Overall Rating and Airline Credit Card Rating for each card. These ratings provide an a ranking of how the card stacks up against all credit cards and against card within its own category.

Sort, filter, or search for what matters most to find the best airline credit card for you.

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Rating Methodology

After studying every airline credit card, I made the decision early on that the best airline credit card wouldn’t be based solely on the amount of rewards you can earn. While rewards are still the most important factor, the perks and benefits from airline credit cards should not be overlooked.

Sign-up bonuses, travel benefits, companion fares, and the actual airlines are all important to judging the quality of the card. You’re not getting an airline card for low interest rates — you’re getting it for miles and benefits — so APRs shouldn’t matter as much.

Signup Bonus

Signup Bonus is the amount of extra points the card offers to a new cardmember. Airlines tend to offer high Signup Bonuses, many of which range between 25,000 and 40,000 points. Depending on how you use airline points, that means that a 40,000 point bonus translates to at least $400 with that airline or its partners. In many cases, it can be significantly more.

Signup Bonus carries a high importance rating because the bonus can knock off a chunk of money on an upcoming flight.

Don’t wait until the last minute to act on a Signup Bonus, however. There are usually certain spending requirements you need to fulfill before you actually earn the points and can use them. It is common for credit card issuers to require you to spend $3,000 in the first three months you have the card before the Signup Bonus kicks in.

Rewards Rate

The next high importance feature is Rewards Rate, which is the actual rate at which your purchases on the card earn you airline points. It is common to see an airline card earn 2% in points for travel-related spending with that airline or its partners. Airline cards also usually have a base rate. This base rate is typically 1% and applies to all other purchases you make with that card.

If you travel often, but are not loyal to one airline, you can get a higher Rewards Rate in more spending categories by picking up one of the best travel credit cards. The main difference is that the best travel cards generally give you better rewards in more categories, and offer you more flexibility for redeeming points with different airline carriers.

Benefits

Benefits refers to other perks or programs that make the airline card stand out. Many airline cards offer priority check-in, free checked bags, seat upgrades, or lounge access. With the state of travel these days, the extra Benefits you receive as an airline credit card holder will be the deciding factor when Rewards Rate or Signup Bonus features are similar between comparable cards. This is why Benefits carries a high importance rating.

Redemption Options

For airline credit cards, Redemption Options can dramatically impact how much flexibility you have for where you redeem points on travel. Airline credit card points are always redeemable for flights or other perks with the specific airline. Traditionally, this has been your only option. However, airlines have developed their own partner networks, and in many cases you can “transfer” your points from one airline to another within the same network. For instance US Airways Dividend Miles can be exchanged for British Airways Avios through the oneworld network.

The result is that you are not as constrained in your airline options. The largest airline networks are oneworld and Star Alliance. Other airlines create their own partner networks and join forces with hotels and rental car companies to try and give the customer more options for redeeming points.

Rewards Categories

Rewards Categories are the spending categories in which your credit card earns greater than 1%. Rewards Categories carry a low importance rating for airline cards and are not factored in to our ratings as much. The main reason is that when airlines issue credit cards, they usually issue higher rewards for travel booked on their airline and a 1% base rate for all other purchases. In contrast, some of the best travel credit cards have enhanced rewards in spending categories like dining or hotels, which helps you capitalize on other spending to rack up rewards you can use for travel.

Two of the best travel cards offer different Rewards Categories. The Chase Sapphire Preferred® offers 2% rewards on travel booked through the Ultimate Rewards platforms and 2% for dining out. That card earns 1% on all other purchases. The Barclaycard Arrival™ World MasterCard® has the same structure — 2% rewards on travel booked through Barclaycard and 2% on dining. Both of these cards are talked about in more detail in my colleague’s post on the best travel credit cards.

APR

The APR on airline cards also carry low importance. I never recommend signing up for a credit card if you plan on carrying a balance, as you should pay off your balance each month. If you plan to carry a balance on a credit card, look for low APR cards or a balance transfer card to avoid interest during the grace period. Interest charges destroy the value of any points you may accumulate, so it never makes sense to have any type of rewards card if you plan to carry a balance.

Using An Airline Card Strategically

Business travelers who are on the road (technically, in the air) 80% of the time know the value of a good airline card. For them, there’s no problem relying on one airline or a partner network because the points are king. They know how to max out points by taking inconvenient flights, standbys, or extra flights.

But what about you? Personally, I fly whatever airline gets me there the quickest (#1), has the best times (#2), and is the cheapest (#3). I find it very difficult to be loyal to one airline, but I can certainly see the advantages for many people.

For those of you who see the value of owning an airline credit card, I’m going to outline some key things to be aware of.

Airline Rewards Programs

Significant Rewards Rate and Rewards Category Differences

The reason I always say that you should never own an airline card as your first card is because you miss out on additional rewards when using it to make everyday purchases. At a minimum, you’re cutting your rewards in half, and probably more.

If you do the math, the difference is pretty significant between settling on 1% versus 2% on all purchases (assuming an airline point is worth $0.01).

Say you’re a busy professional and you spend $1,000 per month over the course of two years dining out. Assume every airline credit card has a rewards rate of 1% or 1X miles on all purchases away from the airline. At that rate, you’ll accumulate $240 worth of rewards after two years in this category.

Now, let’s say you make the same purchases with a 2X rewards card. That card will get you $480 worth of rewards.

That’s probably a free flight just for using the right card!

Airline Loyalty Programs

When you own an airline credit card, you’re attached to that airline’s rewards program. Your rewards are not tied to a superb travel rewards program, which gives you flexibility to book any airline or hotel. With a card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred®, your points are tied to the Chase Ultimate Rewards platform that has tons of flexibility. You also have the option to transfer your Ultimate Rewards points on a 1:1 basis to several frequent flyer programs if needed.

Some airline rewards programs have a sketchy history and people aren’t exactly happy with them. There are hundreds and possibly thousands of court cases filed each year against airline loyalty programs.

Airline miles and credit cards aren’t overly stable. The bottom line: Airlines can do anything they want with your loyalty program. You never really know what’s going to happen next in the airline industry. In the past few years, we’ve seen bankruptcy, rewards program changes, airline mergers, and random worker strikes.

It happened when Northwest merged with Delta and the Northwest Airlines frequent flyers took the brunt of the merger. Their miles transferred over but expired after a shorter time period. The WorldPerks® Visa Card was eliminated.

Given all of these warning signs I outline here, I think the airlines have learned from the previous backlash and most programs will be safe moving forward. It’s just something you should be aware of before tying yourself to an airline credit card.

Strategies to Maximize Airline Rewards

Now that I outlined why airline cards aren’t always optimal (several times) as your main credit card, let’s take a look at some strategies for using an airline credit card to supplement your main card.

Personal Rewards Card + Airline Card

My favorite strategy right now is to use the Chase Sapphire Preferred® as my main card for everyday spending. As part of the Ultimate Rewards program, you have the freedom to fly any airline and still rack up 2X points on travel.

When you redeem the points through Ultimate Rewards, they’re worth 25% more. Also, you can transfer these points to any of their airline partner’s frequent flyer programs on a 1:1 basis. Here are your options:

  • British Airways Executive Club
  • Korean Air SKYPASS
  • United MileagePlus®
  • Virgin Atlantic Flying Club
  • Amtrak Guest Rewards®
  • Hyatt Gold Passport®
  • Priority Club® Rewards
  • Marriott Rewards®
  • The Ritz-Carlton Rewards®

You can get a top airline card and the best rewards card by combining the The US Airways® Premier World MasterCard® and the Chase Sapphire Preferred®. Even though US Airways is not listed as a transfer partner of the Chase Ultimate Rewards program, don’t fret. You can use the power of the oneworld airline alliance program to transfer points to US Airways through British Airways.

British Airways is a Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partner AND part of the oneworld alliance. Remember, US Airways merged with American Airlines in late 2013. US Airways was brought over to the oneworld alliance from Star Alliance through this merger. What this all means is that you can transfer your Chase Ultimate Rewards points to British Airways Avios on a 1:1 basis, then transfer your Avios to American/US Airways.

With this small extra step, you you can boost your rewards with two of the best credit cards around.

Hotel Card + Airline Card

When traveling often, it pays to grab rewards points not only on your airfare but also on your hotel stays. Keep in mind, you should still try to own one of the consistent rewards cards I mentioned earlier. One of my favorite hotel cards is the Starwood Preferred Guest from American Express. For a detailed analysis of this card, check out the best hotel credit cards post.

With this card, you earn Starpoints redeemable at any of the 1,180 Starwood properties. Top Starwood brands include Westin, Sheraton, and W Hotels. Starpoints transfer 1:1 to many airlines, including British Airways and American, so transferring points to US Airways is also no problem.

The important thing to note is that unlike other American Express cards, the Starwood Preferred Guest card earns Starwood Starpoints and NOT American Express Membership Rewards® points. Because of this, a great strategy is to pair this card with a non-AMEX airline card like a Visa or MasterCard.

I don’t recommend pairing with another AMEX card because, although you can transfer Membership Rewards® points to Starwood, the transfer rate is awful (around 3:1) so it doesn’t make any sense. If you paired this Starwood card with the The US Airways® Premier World MasterCard®, you would have a great go-to AMEX card along with a MasterCard for those rare times when a business doesn’t accept AMEX. While rare, this does happen more overseas than in the U.S.

Business Card + Airline Card

On The Simple Dollar, we also wrote about the best business credit cards, which would pair well with an airline card if you have a small business or do any freelance work. I highly recommend looking at business cards because they offer more lucrative rewards than personal cards do.

For instance, the Chase Ink Bold® card gets 5X points on cable, landline, and cell phone services. It also adds 2X points on gas and hotels (up to the first $50,000 per year). Gas is a large expense for families, who can benefit from earning 2X rewards on this category instead of a category like dining out.

I generally recommend keeping your personal and business expenses separate, but if you have a good system to track and account for which expenses go where, you can maximize your rewards by using both a business card and an airline card.

The Chase Ink Bold® functions very much like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® in terms of the Ultimate Rewards point transfer (1:1) to partners, and in terms of point redemption for travel. Ultimate Rewards points earned with your Chase Ink Bold® card are worth 25% more when redeemed for travel through the Ultimate Rewards portal.

So, if you have a small business or are looking for a creative way to earn more points, consider using a business credit card before selecting an airline card as your main credit card. If you still want an airline card, make sure you understand how points transfer between your cards so you don’t get hung out to dry when you try to combine your business and airline points.

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About this resource:

Created on: January 03, 2014

Updated on: October 23, 2014

Edited by: Sarah Ban, Michael Gardon

Research by: Mike Jelinek, Montana Thomas

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