Best Airline Credit Cards of 2016

Your best option might not be an airline credit card at all

The best airline credit cards help you earn free flights, seat upgrades, and more. If you travel consistently on the same airline, the right airline card can be one of the most important cards in your wallet. Those of you traveling on a variety of airlines will want to consider another card, like the two below.

Our favorite travel credit card works with many airlines and allow you to earn rewards on more than just flying.

For most people, an airline credit card isn’t your best option for everyday spending. That’s why I suggest people look at a good general travel rewards credit card first. If you don’t have one of these already, don’t get an airline card yet. The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card allows you to earn more miles than traditional airline credit cards on average, but with the ability to transfer to popular frequent flyer programs at a 1:1 ratio. It’s our favorite travel card.

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card allows you to earn more miles than traditional airline credit cards on average, but with the ability to transfer to popular frequent flyer programs at a 1:1 ratio. It’s our favorite travel card and has been for several years now.

Highlights:

If you’re not traveling ALL the time I’d add on the Chase Freedom® card before adding an airline card. The Freedom® has no annual fee, and its points are transferrable to the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, so you can add them together and maximize the travel benefits.

With this strategy, you’ll earn 2 points per dollar spent on travel and dining with the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, which is considerably more than almost all airline cards offer. Once you rack up the miles, you can then transfer to popular frequent flyer programs such as Southwest Airlines, United MileagePlus Explorer, and British Airways at a 1:1 ratio.

Now, if you travel one airline all the time, it makes sense to strategically use airline miles and travel credit cards this year, because the cost of an average domestic flight is still relatively high. After all, the right airline credit card can help you earn airline miles that can help you save hundreds or thousands of dollars on both international and domestic flights.

After you get used to putting your spending on a flexible travel credit card and start racking up rewards, it makes sense to get an airline credit card that help you earn miles with the airline you fly most often. Keep reading for our top picks.

Discover it® MilesApply Nowon Discover's secure website

One other travel card that’s worth mentioning is the Discover it® Miles because it offers 1.5x miles for every purchase. You also will get reimbursed in the form of a statement credit for up to $30 on Wi-Fi purchases each year in the form of automatic credits to your statement. The only downfall is that Discover isn’t as widely accepted, but the rewards definitely outweigh the benefits.

The Simple Dollar’s Picks for Best Airline Credit Cards

Alright, let’s take a look at the airline cards. We view airlines cards as secondary credit card rewards options so I’ll to show you a variety of cards, from the major airlines on down to smaller regionals. My goal was to show you some of the top benefits to compare the best miles credit card options and decide if an airlines card is really right for you.

Here are the 6 best airline credit cards:

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 miles 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

What to Consider 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® Card. This card gets you the same rewards rate on travel as most of the best miles 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 Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express

Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit CardApply Nowon American Express's secure website

The Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express gives you the flexibility of flying and saving with the largest airline in North America. You can get 30,000 bonus miles after you make $1,000 in purchases on your new Card within your first 3 months and a consistent rewards earning potential, this card is a great option for frequent travelers.

One of the best features of this card is the Crossover Rewards program Delta has with Starwood hotels. When you register for this program you can double dip on points by earning Delta Skymiles and Starpoints when you book a Delta flight. The same is true when you book a Starwood Hotels stay. If you travel frequently, it could really pay to pair the Gold Delta Skymiles® Credit Card from American Express with the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express, one of my picks for best hotel credit cards.

Highlights

Highlights

Who Should Get It

For Who?

Best Way To Use It

Best Use

  • Travelers looking to fly the largest North American airline because they want the most flexibility for where and how they fly.
  • Frequent guests at Starwood Hotels because you can double dip on Skymiles
  • The card is good for anyone close to a Delta hub like Atlanta or Minneapolis, or frequent international travelers.
  • This card is best for people who travel frequently with checked baggage, as this card offers one free checked bag per person.
  • The perks are also good for those who make frequent purchases on in-flight amenities, such as food, drinks, and entertainment and seat upgrades.
  • You only want to use this card when you book a flight with the airline, or to take advantage of any promotional point purchases with partners.
  • Pair this card with the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express. Use each card when you travel on Delta and stay at Starwood Hotels. Link your rewards program accounts via Cross Rewards. This allows you to earn points on both platforms when you fly Delta or stay at a Starwood property.
  • The easy boarding, bag check, and check-in travel perks are solid benefits you won’t find with every airline credit card.

Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card

Southwest is one of the most beloved airlines. Their stock ticker symbol is even LUV. The Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card is packed with great perks to help you move about the country in style. Earn 50,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. You’ll earn 2 points/$1 spent on Southwest Airlines® purchases and participating Hotel and Car Rental partners. 1 point/$1 spent on all other purchases. You can receive 6,000 points that are awarded after the anniversary date, which is the enrollment date. The points are awarded that same date each twelve months thereafter. This card has 0 foreign transaction fees, but it does carry a $99 annual fee that is not waived in the first year.

Highlights

Highlights

Who Should Get It

For Who?

Best Way To Use It

Best Use

  • Book all your Southwest airfare on the card
  • Get the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, monitor Southwest airline flight deals, and when the time is right, transfer your Ultimate Rewards points to Southwest to pay for your flight.

The JetBlue Card

The JetBlue CardApply Nowon Barclaycard's secure website

The The JetBlue Card is a fairly new arrival on the airline loyalty credit card scene, but it’s already making a big splash. This is partly because of the excellent awards structure this card offers, but also because it doesn’t charge an annual fee. With this card, you’ll earn an amazing 3x points on purchases made with the airline, plus 2x points per dollar spent at grocery stores and restaurants.
The fact that this card doesn’t charge an annual fee really sets it apart. Among airline credit cards, not charging an annual fee is almost unheard of. Plus, you’ll get no foreign transaction fees and the ability to book with no blackout dates. If you fly with JetBlue often anyway, this card is a true no-brainer.

Highlights

Highlights

Who Should Get It

For Who?

Best Way To Use It

Best Use

  • You love JetBlue, and travel it often.
  • You don’t want to pay an annual fee.
  • You need a card with no foreign transaction fees.
  • Book all your JetBlue airfare on the card to earn 3x points.
  • Meet the minimum spending requirement quickly to earn the signup bonus

British Airways Visa Signature® Card

The British Airways Visa Signature® Card has the biggest sign up bonus in the industry, and it is worth considering even though British Airways is not a major U.S. carrier. You’ll get 50,000 “Avios” when you spend $2,000 in the first 3 months of card membership. You’ll get 3 Avios for each $1 you spend at British Airways, and 1 Avios for all other purchases.

Now pay attention all you big wig travelers. I normally don’t recommend putting your everyday spend on an airline card, except for the situation. If you are looking to take the trip of a lifetime, you could spend $30,000 or more in a calendar year on your British Airways Visa Signature® Card. When you do this, you are eligible to earn a Travel Together Ticket. You redeem avios for one rewards seat for yourself, and you get a second ticket for a companion traveler in the same cabin. Yes – even first class. Depending on where you want to go, you could earn several thousand dollars in savings!

  • Frequent international travelers
  • People planning to take the trip of a lifetime and can max out the Travel Together Ticket
  • People who want the most flexible mileage program in the industry
  • Spend $30,000 on the card in a calendar year, then use the Travel Together Ticket for first class airfare anywhere in the world!
  • Accumulate avios and transfer them to other oneworld partners
  • Pair with Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and transfer Ultimate Rewards points to BA avios when you want to fly

United MileagePlus® Explorer Card

Love it or hate it, United is one of the biggest airlines in the world, and is a good option if you need flexibility for getting around the country. The United MileagePlus® Explorer Card starts with 30,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.

Free first checked bag, 2 1-time United Club passes and priority boarding will make your life easier while getting around busy United hubs like Chicago’s O’Hare airport.

  • You fly United often, or have the ability to do so.
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card customers
  • You are looking for an airline big enough to get you where you want to go all over the world
  • Grab the sign up bonus when you add the first authorized user to your account
  • Pair this card with Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and transfer Ultimate Rewards points to United when you feel like flying for free

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 eligible purchases made directly from Hawaiian Airlines. You also have the ability to share miles with friends and family online, which is a really convenient feature.

Another Option: Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express

If you’re looking for another way to rack up airline miles or simply add to your point balances, you should also consider the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express. While this card is mostly geared to people who want to earn hotel points in the Starwood Preferred Guest program, the points you earn also transfer to some of the most sought after frequent flyer programs in the world. This table shows how starpoints transfer to each partner airline:

Frequent Flyer ProgramExchange Ratio (Starpoints:Miles)
Aeromexico Club Premier1:1
Aeroplan/Air Canada1:1
Air Berlin1:1
Air China Companion1:1
Air New Zealand & Air Points65:1
Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan1:1
Alitalia MileMiglia1:1
ANA Mileage Club1:1
American Airlines AAdvantage1:1
Asia Miles1:1
Asiana Airlines1:1
British Airways Executive Club1:1
China Eastern Airlines1:1
China Southern Airlines Sky Pearl Club1:1
Delta Air Lines Skymiles1:1
Emirates Skywards1:1
Etihad Airways1:1
Flying Blue1:1
Gol Smiles2:1
Hainan Airlines1:1
Hawaiian Airlines1:1
Japan Airlines Mileage Bank1:1
Jet Airways1:1
Korean Air1:1
LAN Airlines1:1.5
Miles and More1:1
Qatar Airways1:1
Saudi Arabian Airlines1:1
Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer1:1
Thai Airways International Royal Orchid Plus1:1
United Mileage Plus2:1
Virgin Atlantic Flying Club1:1
Virgin Australia1:1

If you’re interesting in signing up for the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express, here’s what you should know:

Highlights

Highlights

Who Should Get It

For Who?

Best Way To Use It

Best Use

  • You want to earn points good for a wide range of airlines
  • You want points that can also be used for hotel stays
  • You are interested in both international and domestic travel
  • Grab the sign up bonus, and add another card holder
  • Pair this card with other airline credit cards to bulk up your balances

Research the Best Airline Credit Cards

Below is a directory with the most popular airline miles 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.

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 miles credit cards 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 50,000 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 American Airlines 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® Card offers 2x miles 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 — 2x miles on travel booked through Barclaycard and 2x miles 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.

Best Airline Cards: Summed Up

Airline Credit Cards Who Should Get It
1 Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express Travelers who want the most flexibility for where and how they fly
2 Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card Frequent Southwest customers
3 The JetBlue Card Frequent JetBlue customers that need a card with no foreign transaction fees

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® Card, 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® Card 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
  • Hyatt Gold Passport®
  • Priority Club® Rewards
  • Marriott Rewards®
  • The Ritz-Carlton Rewards®

You can get one of the best airline cards and the best rewards card by combining the The British Airways Visa Signature® Card and the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. You can then transfer your points between these two programs on a 1:1 basis. This is important because many airlines put restrictions on how you can transfer your points.

British Airways is a Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partner AND part of the oneworld alliance. So you could transfer points between these programs and then transfer them to any other airline in the oneworld program giving you many more options.

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® Credit Card 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 1,200 Starwood properties. Top Starwood brands include Westin, Sheraton, and W Hotels. Starpoints transfer 1:1 to many airlines, including British Airways and American.

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, one of the best strategies is to pair this card with the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express. You can link your Skymiles and Starpoints accounts to earn double points when you fly Delta or stay at a Starwood property.

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.

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® Card 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.

About this resource:

Created on: August 16, 2016

Updated on: September 01, 2016

Edited by: Sarah Ban, Michael Gardon, Christine Neilson

Research by: Mike Jelinek, Montana Thomas

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