This year, I decided to take a fresh approach to the best airline credit cards. With rising fares and falling oil, no one knows the future for air travel prices, but these cards will still 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.
I still don’t believe you should own an airline card as your primary credit card (see my rules for owning an airline credit card below). Before choosing an airline card from this list, make sure you set yourself up with an all around best rewards travel credit card.
Here is the top travel credit card to consider (I share all the best airline cards just below):
The reason you should choose a more general travel card is that airline 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 isn’t higher than if you used 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 where your airline card can’t. 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 rewards credit card first.
The Simple Dollar’s Top Airline Credit Card Picks
Because we view airlines cards as secondary, I wanted to show you a variety of cards, from the major airlines on down to smaller regionals. My goals was to show you what some of the top benefits are of specific airline cards so you can decide if an airlines card is really right for you.
Here are the 5 best airline credit cards:
- Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express
- British Airways Visa Signature® Card
- Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card
- United MileagePlus® Explorer Card
- The Hawaiian Airlines® World Elite MasterCard®
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
What to Consider Before Getting An Airline Credit Card
Here are my basic rules for getting an airline credit card:
- You are loyal to one airline.
- You fly more than five times per year.
- You have no problem occasionally paying more for airfare.
- You will take advantage of companion fares.
- You own or plan on owning an all-around rewards credit card for purchases away from the airline. (This is very important.)
- 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 Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express
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 earn 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.
Who Should Get It
Best Way To Use It
- 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.
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, this could add up to several thousand dollars savings!
Who Should Get It
Best Way To Use It
- 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
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. 50,000 bonus points when you spend only $2,000 in the first 3 months. You’ll earn 2x points on Southwest purchases made directly from Southwest and 1x points on everything else. You can receive 6,000 bonus points on the first anniversary of your card membership, and this card has 0 foreign transaction fees, but it does carry a $99 annual fee that is not waived in the first year.
Who Should Get It
Best Way To Use It
- You love Southwest, and travel it often
- Chase Sapphire Preferred® cardholders, because you can transfer points 1:1.
- Book all your Southwest airfare on the card
- Get the Chase Sapphire Preferred®, monitor Southwest airline flight deals, and when the time is right, transfer your Ultimate Rewards points to Southwest to pay for your flight.
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 has a limited time offer that starts with 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months.
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.
Who Should Get It
Best Way To Use It
- You fly United often, or have the ability to do so.
- Chase Sapphire Preferred® 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, and add another card holder
- Pair this card with Chase Sapphire Preferred® 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.
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.
Sort, filter, or search for what matters most to find the best airline credit card for you.
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 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.
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 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.
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 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.
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 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®. 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 1,180 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® 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.
Become a subscriber of The Simple Dollar and get a free copy of Trent's e-book today plus exclusive updates.