Best Airline Cards

“I mainly fly with X airline. This means that I should get their credit card, right?”

This is perhaps the most common question we see in the world of points & miles, and one that just about every frequent traveler has asked themselves at some point.

While many people make their decision based on this criteria alone, the answer is not as simple as you might think.

This guide will help you determine if airline credit cards are best for your situation, as well as compare the best options on the market today.

 

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In This Article

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  • Airline Credit Card Overview

    Airline credit cards have been a staple of the travel world for decades.

    Most airline credit cards have very similar features from one to the next. You can earn frequent flyer miles from your everyday purchases, bonus miles for purchases with the airline associated with your card, and can expect benefits such as priority boarding and free checked bags.

    Almost every major U.S. based airline has a branded credit card (or multiple) that is issued by a bank or other financial institution. It’s important to remember that the bank or financial institution is the one who handles the day-to-day use of the credit card, not the airline. So if you need to talk to someone about your account you should call the bank, not the airline.

    Most airline credit cards charge an annual fee, with those fees generally being in the range of $99 to $199 per year. Many airline cards will waive this fee for the first year to give you a chance to “test drive” the card before being charged your first annual fee.

    Lastly, most airline credit cards will offer some sort of bonus when you sign up for the card and meet the minimum spending requirement. These bonuses will often fluctuate throughout the year, but generally will be between 20,000 and 70,000 bonus points.

    All of these are great for travelers who are loyal to a particular airline, but are airline credit cards the best choice overall?

    Are Airline Credit Cards Best for Frequent Flyers?

    While airline credit cards can be great for anyone who is very loyal to a particular airline, they do have some clear drawbacks for the average traveler.

    The biggest one being that the mileage earnings and benefits are often restricted to one particular airline and its partners.

    Using an American Airlines branded credit card can be great if you are redeeming your miles or flying with AA or their OneWorld Partners, but this card will do nothing for you if you are flying Delta, United, Southeast, or the dozens of other airlines that have no association with American Airlines.

    This is why credit cards with transferrable points are often a better choice for the average person.

    Take the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card for example.

    Sapphire Preferred earns points that can be transferred to United, Southwest, British Airways, and a handful of other airlines and hotels at a 1:1 ratio. Which gives you a ton options for redeeming your points that don’t leave you tied to one particular airline.

    It’s almost as if you have a United, Southwest, British Airways, Air France, etc. credit card all rolled in to one.

    You can also redeem points earned by Chase Sapphire to book any type of travel through the Chase Travel Portal, meaning you will always have some sort of option to redeem your points for whatever trip you like.

    This is why most people should consider a credit card that earns transferrable points before considering an airline credit card.

    Some other popular transferrable points cards are the Platinum Card from American Express and the Citi Premier Card.

    And of course you need to remember that you are not restricted to one type of credit card. There are plenty of good reasons to have an airline credit card or two in addition to a card that earns transferrable points.

    Best Airline Credit Cards

    Trying to rank the best overall airline cards is virtually impossible because of the fact that the perks and miles are tied to a particular airline.

    The value of an airline credit card is also dependent on the travel habits of the person using it. A Southwest credit card might offer incredible value overall, but would be somewhat worthless to anyone who has aspirations of traveling to Europe or Asia or who lives in a region that is not serviced by Southwest.

    For that reason, we will split the best airline credit cards up by airline and also discuss options for the best premium card, best value, best no-fee card, and best business card.

    Best Credit Cards for American Airlines

    American Airlines is the largest airline based in the U.S. and has one of the most widely used loyalty programs in all of travel.

    AA is also one of the few airlines in the world with credit cards issued by multiple banks. In this case, Citi and Barclays.

    There are nearly a dozen total American Airlines branded credit cards for both personal and business use. They have annual fees that range from $0 to $450 and a variety of benefits to match these fees.

    Best Premium Card: American Airlines

    The Citi / AAdvantage Executive Card

    Best Value Card: American Airlines

    Citi AA Platinum or Barclays Aviator  (TIE)

    Best No-Fee Card: American Airlines

    AAdvantage MileUp Mastercard

    Best Business Card: American Airlines

    CitiBusiness Platinum

    Best Credit Cards for Delta

    Delta has perhaps the most popular airline credit cards on the market (anecdotally speaking), mainly due to the extensive marketing that is put behind their cards and the high level of brand loyalty that their brand enjoys.

    Like their competitors, Delta has a range of credit cards that fit every budget and that can be used for either personal or business use.

    Best Premium Card: Delta

    Delta Reserve

    Best Value Card: Delta

    Delta Gold

    Best Business Card: Delta

    Delta Business Gold

    Best No-Fee Card: Delta

    Delta Blue

    Best Credit Cards for United Airlines

    United Airlines offers three different personal cards and one business card after some recent changes to their product lineup. While this is fewer options than many of their competitors, United does have a good variety of cards for every budget and travel style.

    Best Premium Card: United

    United Club Infinite

    Best Value Card: United

    United Explorer Card

    Best Business Card: United

    United Business Card

    Best Business Card: United

    United Business Card

    Best Credit Cards for Southwest

    Southwest has a handful of cobranded airline credit cards to suit almost any budget. Many people also take advantage of their cards to earn a Southwest Companion Pass, which is the highest status offered by Southwest.

    Note however that there are restrictions that prevent you from getting multiple Southwest credit cards. You are limited to earning one Southwest personal card bonus per 24 months and also cannot currently be holding a Southwest credit card in your own name.

    These restrictions do not apply to the Southwest Business credit cards and there is no “cross over” restriction that covers personal and business card eligibility.

    Best Premium Card: Southwest

    Southwest Priority Card

    Best Value Card: Southwest

    Southwest Priority Card

    Best Business Card: Southwest

    Southwest Performance Business Card

    Best No-Fee Card: Southwest

    Southwest is one of the few U.S. based airlines to not offer a no-fee card, making the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card the best option for anyone looking to minimize their fees.

    Bottom Line

    While airline credit cards might not be the ideal first choice for anyone looking to save on travel, they can provide quite a bit of value and play an important role in your overall card strategy.

    Just be sure to compare their benefits to the more popular transferrable points earning cards to ensure you are not leaving money on the table.

    FAQ

    How many miles does a free ticket cost?
    The amount of miles needed to book a free ticket depends on the frequent flyer program, your origin and destination, class of service, and when you are traveling. This can be highly variable from one program to the next so it’s difficult to even provide benchmarks, but if I had to do so I would estimate that you can expect to pay ~25,000 miles for a round-trip domestic flight within the contiguous 48 states and ~50,000-70,000 miles for a round-trip flight to Europe or Asia.

    Can you transfer airline miles from one airline to another?
    Generally not, at least without paying a fee that is prohibitively high. If you have miles with a particular airline you should only consider using them for travel on that airline or any of its partners.

    Can you use airline miles to book hotels or other travel?
    Sometimes you can redeem airline miles to book other forms of travel, such as hotels or activities. But the value that you get with these redemptions tends to be much lower than what you would get if you used your airline miles to book an award flight. You should avoid using your airline miles for non-airline redemptions if at all possible.

    Which is the best airline credit card overall?
    It’s very difficult to compare airline credit cards because their value is highly dependent on which airline you fly most frequently and how you plan to redeem your miles. In general, you should start by considering the cards that are branded with the airline with which you travel most often, but that does not always hold true.

    Can I use my miles to book a ticket for a friend or family member?
    Most airlines will allow you to use your miles to book award travel for other people. There is rarely an additional fee or restrictions to do so.

    Can I have more than one airline credit card?
    Generally yes, as long as you follow the eligibility rules of each issuer. Many people have multiple airline credit cards and will often change these cards based on shifting travel habits.

    How do airline credit cards work?
    Airline credit cards are often referred to as “co-brand cards” because they are issued by a financial institution but have an airline brand on them.

    For example, the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card is a Southwest branded credit card that is issued by Chase. This card earns Southwest miles and comes with perks for travel on Southwest but any day-to-day account issues are handled by Chase. So there is no need to contact Southwest for any account related issues.

    Airline credit cards are attached to your frequent flyer account with the airline to receive any miles earned on the card.

    In general, you can only attach an airline card to the frequent flyer account of the primary card holder. So you cannot “team up” and use multiple airline credit cards to earn miles in a single account.