The Best Airline Credit Cards of 2014

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Part 2 of 4 from the best rewards credit cards series

Updated: March 27, 2014

In Part 2 of this series covering the top rewards credit cards, I focus on the best airline credit cards. I already covered the best all-around rewards credit cards in Part 1, and I analyze the best cash back cards and hotel credit cards in Part 3 and Part 4, respectively.

Things to Consider Before Getting an Airline Credit Card

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 Barclaycard Arrival(TM) World MasterCard® – Earn 2x on All Purchases. This card gets you the same rewards rate as most of the airline credit cards and you get the 2x rate on all purchases (not just airline purchases!).

Get an airline credit card if you fly often on one airline

If you’re interested in finding the top rewards cards, go straight to my post on the best rewards credit cards. If you’re looking to accumulate miles on a particular airline you fly a lot or plan on flying with a lot, you should get an airline credit card. In order to maximize the value of an airline credit card, you must spend enough on the airline of your choice to justify signing up for the card.

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; however, 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.

When selecting the top airline credit cards, I focused on rewards, bonuses, benefits, and the ability to use the card (based on flight availability). 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.

The 5 Best Airline Credit Cards for US Consumers

  1. 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 and choice of airline. I’ve presented a number of options here so you can find the card that’s best for you.

What makes these cards the best?

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 sign-up bonuses
  • 2x miles for airline purchases
  • Yearly companion fares
  • Many travel perks
  • Rewards earning potential of 3x and higher
  • High flight availability or several travel partners
  • Opportunities to earn additional rewards

No single card is the best at everything, which is why you need to take a holistic view to determine the top overall airline credit cards.

What You Need to Know About the Best Airline Credit Cards

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 standard rewards rate for most airline credit cards is 2x miles on every purchase you make from the airline and 1x miles on everything else. At 2x miles, the only rewards earning advantage you have with an airline card versus a 2x on all purchases rewards card is that you’re earning accelerated miles in your frequent flyer program. However, you will lose out on all other purchases.

My rules for getting an airline credit card:

  1. You are loyal to one airline.
  2. You fly more than four 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.

The Best Airline Credit Cards: A Deeper Look

I’m going to discuss each of the best air miles credit cards in detail to help you decide which card is right. Before picking the card with the biggest bonus or highest rewards rate, you should consider how many times you’ve flown on that airline in the past to make sure you will utilize the card properly.

US Airways Premier World MasterCard®

TSD_US_Airways_Premier_World_MasterCard_-1

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

Card Highlights:

  • 30,000 bonus miles when you make your first purchase. This is one of the easiest sign-up bonuses to get from any credit card in the industry.
  • Two companion fares at $99 each, plus taxes and fees.
  • First-class check-in and Zone 2 boarding on all US Airways flights.
  • You earn two miles per $1 spent on US Airways purchases but only one mile per $1 spent on everything else. The rewards are not spectacular.
  • The annual fee for the card is $89.
  • Keep your eye on this one because the future of the card is still up in the air after the American Airlines and US Airways merger.

Who’s it good for?

  • For an air miles credit card, 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.

What’s the best way to use it?

  • 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 that you won’t find with every airline credit card.

The Hawaiian Airlines® World Elite MasterCard®

hawaiian-airlines-credit-card-image

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 sign-up bonus, you get a one-time 50% off companion discount as well. This card is simply 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.

Card Highlights:

  • Earn 35,000 bonus miles when you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 90 days*.
  • Enjoy a complimentary 1st checked bag for the primary cardmember when you use your card to purchase eligible tickets directly from Hawaiian Airlines.
  • Receive a one-time 50% off a companion discount on roundtrip coach travel between Hawaii and North America on Hawaiian Airlines.
  • Earn 2x miles on direct purchases from Hawaiian Airlines and 1x miles on all other purchases.
  • No foreign transaction fees on purchases.
  • Get $100 off a companion ticket for roundtrip coach travel between Hawaii and North America on Hawaiian Airlines at each account anniversary.
  • Earn 5,000 annual bonus miles after $10,000 in annual spending.

Who’s it good for?

  • 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 want are planning a Hawaii vacation and want to start traveling to Hawaii on a consistent basis.

What’s the best way to use it?

  • 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®

Barclays-Frontier-Airlines

The Frontier Airlines World MasterCard® is one of the best air miles credit cards due to the very high sign-up 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.

Card Highlights:

  • Earn 40,000 bonus miles after spending $500 in purchases in the first 90 days
  • Earn up to 10,000 bonus miles on balance transfers (1 mile per $1 transferred) in the first 90 days.
  • Earn DOUBLE miles on purchases at FlyFrontier.com and 1 mile per $1 on all other purchases
  • No blackout dates! Book any roundtrip award flight on Frontier starting at 20,000 miles (subject to fees/taxes from $5)
  • Cardmember Exclusive! Redeem roundtrip companion award tickets for 5,000 less miles (from 15,000 miles plus taxes/fees from $5)
  • 0% Introductory APR on purchases and balance transfers for the first 12 months after account opening. After that, a variable APR, currently 15.99% or 24.99% based on your creditworthiness
  • $69 Annual Fee

Who’s it good for?

  • 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.

What’s the best way to use it?

  • You’ll want to sign up for the card and be sure you book a flight right away to easily get your sign-up 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

Alaska Airlines Visa Signature®

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 on the East Coast (it will be the TrueBlue by JetBlue instead). If paired with the Barclaycard Arrival(TM) World MasterCard® – Earn 2x on All Purchases, you have a deadly rewards earning potential of 2x + 3x on everything you buy.

Card Highlights:

  • The companion fare is a major additional benefit of this card. For a $99 plus tax and fees base fare, you get to bring a travel partner with you each year.
  • You immediately receive 25,000 miles without making a purchase.
  • You earn 3x miles for every dollar spent on Alaska Airlines and 1x miles on everything else.
  • Alaska Airlines has a lot more airline partners (Delta, American, and more) than say, JetBlue, so redeeming for specific flights is easier.
  • The annual fee is $75 for the Visa Signature version of the card.

Who’s it good for?

  • 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.

What’s the best way to use it?

  • 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

TrueBlue® by JetBlue

If you want 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, like the Barclaycard Arrival(TM) World MasterCard® – Earn 2x on All Purchases.

Card Highlights:

  • If you book a flight on the JetBlue website, you can earn six points for every dollar spent.
  • You can earn up to eight points per $1 spent.
  • TrueBlue rewards members earn three points on flights and another three points for booking on the JetBlue website. The additional two points comes from purchasing something while on the airline.
  • When you sign up for the card, 20,000 bonus points are released after spending $1,000 in the first three months.
  • You can earn more bonuses based on the number of flights you book in a year as well.
  • The only downside of owning this card is that JetBlue has limited flight routes.
  • JetBlue doesn’t have many airline partners so you won’t be able to redeem many flights outside of their routes.
  • The annual fee is just $40 and free for the first year.

Who’s it good for?

  • 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 because there’s no companion fare.

What’s the best way to use it?

The Other Top Airline Credit Cards

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

Gold Delta SkyMiles® Card from American Express

  • Earn 30K bonus miles after you make $1K in purchases on your new card within the first three months.
  • Check your first bag free on every Delta flight.
  • The annual fee is $0 for the first year, then $95 after.

Why it didn’t make the cut

  • The sign-up bonus is more difficult to achieve than the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Card and 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.
  • Overall, this is pretty strong card, but it’s just not the best.

Citi® Platinum Select® / AAdvantage® World MasterCard®

  • Earn 30,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles after $1,000 in purchases in the first 3 months of card membership.
  • Your first eligible checked bag is free.
  • Group 1 boarding and 25% savings on eligible in-flight purchases.
  • $100 American Airlines Flight Discount every card membership year with qualifying purchases and card membership renewal.
  • Double AAdvantage® miles on eligible American Airlines purchases.
  • Earn 10% of your redeemed AAdvantage® miles back — up to 10,000 AAdvantage® miles each calendar year.

Why it didn’t make the cut

  • 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.

British Airways Visa Signature® Card

  • You will get 50,000 bonus Avios after you make $2,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Pay no foreign transaction fees when you travel abroad
  • In addition to the bonus Avios, you will also get 2.5 Avios for every $1 spent on British Airways purchases and 1.25 Avios for every $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Every calendar year you make $30,000 in purchases on your British Airways Visa Card, you’ll earn a Travel Together Ticket good for two years
  • Smart Chip Technology allows you to use your card for chip-based purchases in Europe & beyond while still giving you the ability to use your card as you do today at home

Why it didn’t make the cut

  • This is a great airline card, but I’m working under the assumption that most of the readers here are based in the U.S. and predominantly flying domestic.

If you do fly internationally often, put this card at the top of your list. The rewards are on the higher end of the industry. This is also one of the only airline credit cards where you earn more than 1x miles on purchases away from the airline.

United MileagePlus® Explorer Card

  • Start with 30,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 in the first 3 months
  • Check your first bag for free – save up to $100 per round-trip
  • Enjoy priority boarding privileges and visit the United Club with two one-time-use passes every year
  • No foreign transaction fees!
  • Earn double miles on United ticket purchases, and 1 mile per $1 on all other purchases
  • Your miles don’t expire as long as you’re a Cardmember, with no limit to the number of miles you can earn
  • Use your miles for any seat, any time, on any United flight
  • $0 intro annual fee for the first year, then $95

Why it didn’t make the cut

  • The United card is very comparable to the American and Delta cards.
  • The bonus is very similar and you get the “first-bag free” perk in addition to priority boarding.
  • The rewards for this card are average in the industry, but it’s worth getting if you always fly United.

How I chose these 3 airline credit cards as the best

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. Sign-up bonuses, travel benefits, companion fares, and the actual airlines are all important to judging the quality of the card.

My criteria for selecting the top airline credit cards:

  1. Rewards rate
  2. Sign-up bonus
  3. Companion fares
  4. Travel benefits or perks
  5. Airline compatibility
  6. Reward redemption

Beyond this criteria, I analyzed the flight routes for every airline and the frequent flyer programs in North America.

On most credit card sites, you’ll find a bunch of data that doesn’t matter — this data is for people who don’t pay off their balance each month.

Some of this data includes:

  • Standard APR
  • Introductory APR
  • Penalty APR
  • Cash advance APR
  • Balance transfer rates

Once I came to my conclusion, I realized it would be difficult for me to recommend any airline credit card to anyone who doesn’t own the best rewards credit card.

Combine 2 Credit Cards to Maximize Rewards

TSD_Barclaycard_Arrival_World_MasterCard_Earn_2x_on_All_Purchases  +  TSD_US_Airways_Premier_World_MasterCard_-1 = Maximum rewards!

The best strategy is to pair your airline card with the Barclaycard Arrival(TM) World MasterCard® – Earn 2x on All Purchases. I chose the US Airways card here because of the domestic flight availability.

The Choice for Best Airline Credit Card is Situational

I fly whatever airline gets me there the quickest (#1), has the best times (#2), and is the cheapest (#3). I find it impossible to be loyal to one airline so I’m not sure I’ll ever own an airline credit card, but I can certainly see the advantages for many people.

1x on all purchases vs. 2x on all purchases

The one thing I know is that you should not use an airline credit card to make all of your purchases. You’re missing out on significant savings that you could be getting from a 2x card since just about every airline card only offers you 1x on purchases away from the airline.

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 spend $4,000 per month over the course of two years on your regular purchases. 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 $960 worth of rewards after two years.

Now, let’s say you make the same purchases with a 2x rewards card. That card will get you $1,920 worth of rewards.

That’s nearly $1,000 more just for using the right card!

Airline Loyalty Programs

When you own an airline credit card, you’re attached to the airline rewards program. Your rewards are not tied to the credit card like they are with a regular rewards credit card. 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.

The recent American Airlines and US Airways merger has been worrisome for frequent flyers of both airlines. The topic has even been addressed by both CEOs to calm everyone.

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.

Written by Mike Jelinek
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