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Best Airline Credit Cards of 2021
The average American owns at least three credits cards to use as a cushion for surprise expenses, cashless payments and rewards, according to an Experian survey. The survey finds that roughly 16% of those credit cards are airline-specific. Although airline credit cards are not as common, they can be incredibly valuable to have in your financial arsenal.
Best airline credit cards of 2021
- Best for no annual fee – Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card
- Best for travel perks – United℠ Explorer Card
- Best for Delta loyalists – Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card
- Best for signup bonus – Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
- Best for anniversary bonus points – Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card
- Best rewards travel card for everyday spending – Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card
- Best travel perks – Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card
Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card
Who should get it
The Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card is a straightforward airline card for people who fly frequently with Delta Air Lines and prefer a consistent rewards rate over luxury travel perks.
How to use it
Racking up miles with the Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card is relatively simple, but redeeming them might be a bit more difficult. Like with many airline cards, there is not a statement credit or cash back option. However, Delta does offer a few different ways to use your SkyMiles. Delta reward flights aren’t priced on a fixed chart, so the price in SkyMiles can vary drastically during peak times. In addition, you might be charged a surcharge on international trips.
- Foreign transaction fees ( See Rates & Fees )
- No lounge access or priority boarding
- No intro 0% APR period
Why you’ll love it
With the Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card, you can earn 2x miles per dollar spent with Delta Air Lines or at restaurants worldwide. Cardholders can earn 1x mile for every dollar spent on all other purchases, and can also benefit from 20% savings in the form of a statement credit off any purchases onboard Delta flights.
United℠ Explorer Card
Who should get it
Want to escape the chaos of fighting for a seat on your flight? The United Explorer Card delivers consistent rewards rate and United Club passes for a more relaxed, enjoyable traveling experience. As you’ll see, the United℠ Explorer Card is perfect for anyone who flies on United Airlines exclusively and wants some free perks in exchange for their loyalty.
How to use it
You’ll score plenty of United-specific perks such as the first checked bag free on United flights, priority boarding privileges, and complimentary passes to any United Lounge worldwide. Your miles will never expire and, as a cardholder, you can use miles for any seat on any flight without worrying about blackout dates or capacity controls.
- Annual fee of after the first year
- Only two United Club lounge passes each year
- No 0% intro APR period
Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card
Who should get it
If you’re already part of the Delta frequent flyer program, you can maximize your miles and optimize your travel with the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card. The welcome bonus alone has the potential to cover the cost of a flight for those looking to reap the rewards from a travel card.
How to use it
Use this card to buy Delta airfare and to take advantage of promotional point purchases from partners. Enjoy free bag check, priority boarding, seat upgrades, and other in-flight perks when you have this card.
- Annual fee of $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $99.
- Only worth the cost for frequent Delta flyers
- American Express network isn’t as extensive as Visa or Mastercard
Why you’ll love it
With perks like priority boarding and free checked bags on Delta flights, the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card is a worthwhile travel card to keep in your wallet. Earn 2x miles per dollar spent with Delta purchases, at restaurants worldwide, including takeout and delivery and at U.S. supermarkets and 1x mile on all other purchases.
Compare the Best Airline Credit Cards of 2021
|Card||Travel Rewards Rate||Annual Fee||Welcome Offer||Extra Travel Perks|
|Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card||Earn 2x miles with Delta, 2x miles at restaurants worldwide, 1x mile for everything else. Terms Apply.||$0||10,000 bonus miles after you spend $500 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Terms Apply.|
|United℠ Explorer Card||Earn 2 miles per $1 spent on dining, hotel stays, and United purchases||$0 Intro for First Year, then $95||60,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. Plus, an additional 10,000 bonus miles after you spend $6,000 in the first 6 months.|
|Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card||Earn 2X Miles on Delta purchases, at restaurants worldwide, including takeout and delivery and at U.S. supermarkets. Terms Apply.||$0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $99.||35,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Terms Apply.|
|Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card||Earn 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide, eligible delivery services, takeout and dining out & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.||$95||Earn 100,000 bonus miles after spending $4,000 during the first three months of account activation.|
|Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card||2x points per dollar spent on Southwest Southwest® purchases, 1x point per dollar on everything else||$149||Earn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months. Plus, earn 3X points on dining, including takeout and eligible delivery services, for the first year.|
|Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card||2 points per dollar spent on Southwest® purchases, 1 point per dollar on everything else||$69||Earn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months. Plus, earn 3X points on dining, including takeout and eligible delivery services, for the first year.|
|Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card||2x points per dollar spent on Southwest® purchases, 1x point per dollar on everything else||$99||Earn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months. Plus, earn 3X points on dining, including takeout and eligible delivery services, for the first year.|
How to compare different airline credit cards
Picking the right airline card can seem overwhelming, especially since there are dozens of options to pick from. Here are 5 factors you should consider when choosing an airline credit card.
- Annual fees: If you don’t want to pay anything, there are plenty of cards that offer no annual fees or waive it during your first year. However, airline credit cards with luxury perks typically charge a high annual fee.
- APR: Because of their extra rewards, airline credit cards may have a higher APR than other kinds of credit cards.
- Sign up bonus: Generous welcome bonuses mean you get your travel rewards faster.
- Rewards rate: Look for a card with a high rewards rate on travel expenses.
- Perks: Want priority boarding? Pick which travel perks are important to you and look out for those when comparing cards.
Most popular airline rewards programs
Delta SkyMiles allows frequent flyers to earn miles, check a bag for free and enjoy priority boarding. Each tier offers perks and the miles never expire.
Southwest Rapid Rewards
Southwest Rapid Rewards offers no blackout dates, unlimited reward seats and points that never expire. The top levels of this program include A-List, A-List Preferred and the elusive Southwest Companion Pass.
Miles earned under the United MileagePlus program can be used with United Airlines and tons of other travel partners. Members can redeem points for hotels, car rentals, cruises, shopping, experiences and gift cards, among other perks.
Can you transfer miles between airlines?
Most airlines are part of airline alliances like SkyTeam, Oneworld and Star Alliance. American Airlines is part of Oneworld, while Delta is a member of SkyTeam and United is a Star Alliance carrier. You can book travel using your rewards across multiple airlines, as long as they’re in the same alliance. For example, United and AirCanda are both Star Alliance so you can transfer miles between them.
How to get the Southwest Companion Pass
Although you have to pay taxes and fees, the Southwest Companion Pass can be a worthwhile travel perk to obtain. To get the Companion Pass, you’ll need to fly 100 qualifying one-way Southwest flights or earn 110,000 points in a calendar year. If you don’t always fly Southwest, you can still build up miles using Southwest’s travel partners.
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card Details
|Card||Welcome offer||Minimum spending requirement||Rewards rate||Number of transfer partners||Foreign transaction fees||Annual fee|
|Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card||100,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That’s $1,250 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.||$4,000||2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide, eligible delivery services, takeout and dining out & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.||13||$0||$95|
Do airline credit cards have foreign transaction fees?
Some lenders charge foreign transaction fees that typically cost around 3% per purchase. While that number seems low, that fee can quickly add up if you’re using it abroad frequently. If you only travel domestically, this fee is irrelevant. If you’re a world traveler, it’s crucial to find a card without a foreign transaction fee.
How to maximize Chase Ultimate Rewards for travel
If you end up choosing the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, you can redeem your rewards through the Chase Ultimate Rewards site. You can use your points to book free stays at over 5,000 IGH Hotels & Resorts worldwide.
And if you don’t have enough points to cover the cost of your next trip, you can use a combination of accumulated points and your credit card if you book it through Chase Ultimate Rewards.
Chase’s transfer partners include:
- Virgin Atlantic Flying Club
- World of Hyatt
- Marriott Rewards
- IHG Rewards Club
- Ritz-Carlton Rewards
- JetBlue True Blue
- Aer Lingus AerClub
- Air France/KLM Flying Blue
- British Airways Avios
- Iberia Plus
- Singapore Airlines
- Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards
- United Airlines MileagePlus
What credit score do I need for an airline credit card?
You’ll need good to excellent credit for most airline credit cards. The perks you can accrue and earn with these cards are subject to your financial habits. If you carry a big balance month to month, those interest payments can quickly add up. In general, credit cards with bigger perks and rewards tend to have a higher interest rate.
5 tips on making the most of your airline credit card
To make the most of your airline credit card, you’ll need to have a good handle on your card’s rewards structure. Most importantly, you should focus on earning your card’s introductory welcome bonus, especially if you need to balance out the cost of an annual fee.
- Use your card for regular purchases: The rewards rate for non-travel categories is typically lower than it would be for flights, hotels and car rentals, but it still adds up.
- Check your rewards categories: If you opt for a card with rotating bonus categories, make sure you activate them to maximize your earning potential.
- Pay attention to your locale: If you want to choose a co-branded airline card, pick one that makes sense for your location. It’s not useful to own a Delta co-branded credit card if that airline doesn’t fly out of the airport closest to you.
- Consider long-term loyalty over cheap discounts: You can sometimes find good discounts on travel websites, perhaps cheaper than what you can find through your airline and travel partners. However, you should always weigh those savings against what you’d earn in miles for the same flight with your airline credit card.
- Be a smart traveler: You’re not going to get the most significant savings if you try to redeem your miles on a busy travel day. Instead, aim to redeem your miles on routes that aren’t as busy during unpopular flight times.
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