Research the Best Airline Credit CardsBelow 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 DirectoryIn 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.
Perks Tier Level
Sign up Bonus Tier Level
Rewards Tier Level
Great Ongoing Rewards
No Annual Fee
Rating MethodologyAfter 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 BonusSignup 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 RateThe 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.
BenefitsBenefits 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 OptionsFor 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 CategoriesRewards 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.
APRThe 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 StrategicallyBusiness 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 DifferencesThe 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 ProgramsWhen 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 RewardsNow 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 CardMy 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®