The Best Airline Credit Cards
Illustration: Sarah MacReading
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The Best Airline Credit Cards

  • United updated some of their rates and fees for the United Infinite Club Card. We’ve updated this guide accordingly.

The best airline credit card is the one that best helps you avoid pain—the pain of checked-bag fees and costly tickets and scant legroom and miserable food and interminable boarding lines.

Alleviating that pain depends on how you fly and what you want. A businessperson on the go may be willing to spend hundreds of dollars in annual fees if it entitles them to extra-sweet comforts and conveniences, whereas someone who uses only one airline every once in a while may want to get wherever they’re going by paying as little as possible.

 

Credit cards we reviewed
You need to know
Annual fee
Intro bonus
Regular APR
You need to knowBest airline card
Annual fee$550
Intro bonus
60,000 points
Regular APRN/A
Apply Now
Apply now for this Partner Offer on American Express’s secure website.
You need to knowBest American Airlines credit card
Annual fee$99
Intro bonus
60,000 bonus miles
Regular APR15.99% - 24.99% variable
Learn More
We don't earn a commission on this offer.
You need to knowOur favorite Delta card for most Delta flyers
Annual fee$0 annual fee for the first year, then $99
Intro bonus
35,000 bonus miles
Regular APR15.74% - 24.74% variable
Apply Now
Apply now for this Partner Offer on American Express’s secure website.
You need to knowBest if you fly Southwest Airlines
Annual fee$149
Intro bonus
40,000 points
Regular APR15.99% - 22.99% variable
Learn More
We don't earn a commission on this offer.
You need to knowBest United Airlines credit card
Annual fee$0 annual fee for the first year, then $95
Intro bonus
40,000 bonus miles
Regular APR16.49% - 23.49% variable
Learn More
We don't earn a commission on this offer.
You need to knowBest if you fly Alaska Airlines
Annual fee$75
Intro bonus
40,000 bonus miles + Companion Fare™
Regular APR15.99% - 23.99% variable
Learn More
We don't earn a commission on this offer.
You need to knowBest if you fly JetBlue Airlines
Annual fee$99
Intro bonus
40,000 bonus points
Regular APR15.99% - 24.99% variable
Learn More
We don't earn a commission on this offer.
You need to knowBest for Hawaii residents or frequent visitors
Annual fee$0 annual fee for the first year, then $99
Intro bonus
60,000 bonus miles
Regular APR15.99% - 24.99% variable
Learn More
We don't earn a commission on this offer.
You need to knowBest Frontier Airlines credit card
Annual fee$79
Intro bonus
50,000 bonus miles
Regular APR15.99% - 24.99% variable
Learn More
We don't earn a commission on this offer.

The Platinum Card from American Express is still our favorite airline card if you’re in the skies at least once a month and want access to perks like airport lounges and award flights. If you’d rather get a reasonably priced airline-specific card to avoid checked-bag fees and earn a reward ticket every now and then, we’ve picked our favorite card for each of a number of popular airlines.

Best airline credit card for frequent flyers: Platinum Card from American Express

You should get this card if you fly roughly 10 to 12 times a year and want a ton of perks, rewards, and good customer service. (You’ll need that flight frequency to justify the $550 annual fee.)

Best American Airlines credit card: Barclays AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard

You should get this card if you’re an American Airlines devotee. You earn valuable rewards when you first sign up for the card (in the form of miles and a discounted companion ticket), and the annual fee is a manageable $99.

Best Delta Airlines credit card: Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card

You should get this card if you want to lessen the cost and burden of flying without paying a huge annual fee. The card’s travel statement credit, intro bonus, and baggage-fee savings more than offset its $99 annual fee, which is waived your first year of card membership.

Best Southwest credit card: Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card

You should get this card if you want to use the card’s intro bonus as a boost toward earning Southwest’s vaunted Companion Pass. In addition, the card is littered with other valuable extras, such as a yearly $75 travel credit that helps mitigate its $149 annual fee.

Best United Airlines credit card: United Explorer Card

You should get this card if you fly United almost exclusively and want to avoid baggage fees. The Explorer card comes with a few nice touches, including two one-time passes to United Club lounges and a complimentary upgrade on award tickets.

Best Alaska Airlines credit card: Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Credit Card

You should get this card if you’re based on the West Coast and can take advantage of the card’s annual companion-fare ticket. You earn solid rewards on Alaska Airlines purchases, and you can utilize the airline’s travel partners.

Best JetBlue credit card: JetBlue Plus Card

You should get this card if you’re dedicated to JetBlue. This card offers a chunk of rewards on airline spending, which helps compensate for its lack of travel credits and companion-fare discounts.

Best Hawaiian Airlines credit card: Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard

You should get this card if you travel back and forth between the Aloha State and 13 US locations on the regular. You save a ton of money, thanks to the discount companion pass the first year and a $100 discount each year thereafter.

Best Frontier Airlines credit card: Frontier Airlines World Mastercard

You should get this card if you exclusively fly the budget carrier and want to save even more on your ticket. Despite Frontier’s penny-pinching reputation, this card is actually generous, especially if you fly without checking a bag or carrying a bag on.

The research

We looked at dozens of cards and compared their benefits against two types of hypothetical flyers: jet-setters and average travelers.

Jet-setters fly at least once a month, sometimes internationally and often with other people, perhaps a spouse and kids. They prefer a card with exclusive perks, including access to airport lounges, and they’re willing to pay a high annual fee to get those benefits.

Average travelers fly about four times a year on a specific airline, check a bag once or twice, and take one trip with family or friends. They tend to fly exclusively on one airline, they prefer a card that can take some of the nickel-and-diming (such as baggage fees) out of their life, and they want to use miles or points to earn the odd award ticket. These flyers should consider an airline-specific card.

If you don’t see yourself as either a frequent or average flyer, you should consider a cash back credit card, or a travel credit card that isn’t tied to a particular airline. An airline card, especially for occasional passengers, makes sense only if you exclusively use that carrier.

You might also dislike our picks here if you’re averse to annual fees. Since airline-specific cards with no annual fee don’t help you avoid baggage charges, earn little in the way of rewards, and deliver very few perks, you’re better off looking for a different no annual fee credit card.

 

Best airline card

The Platinum Card® from American Express

The Platinum is key to a glitzier life. You can earn outstanding rewards on airfare and hotel purchases, receive top-rated customer service, and enjoy sterling perks, including access to Amex’s famed Centurion Lounge network.

What we love

This card rounds off the sharp edges of living life 30,000 feet in the air.

  • 5x Membership Rewards (MR) points per dollar spent on eligible flights and hotel stays
  • Best airport-lounge access (includes Priority Pass and Centurion Lounges)
  • Up to $200 in Uber credits annually
  • $200 annual airline-fee credit on one qualifying airline of your choice
  • From May through December 2020, get a credit of up to $20/month (for a maximum of $40) on both select streaming and wireless phone services purchased directly from US providers

What we don’t love

We wish the Platinum would make its rewards and benefits easier to use.

  • You have to spend a very high $5,000 in three months to earn the 60,000 Membership Rewards points intro bonus
  • Travel credits require time, effort, and thought to use
  • The Platinum is the best travel card for earning rewards on airline spending—but it won’t get you airline-specific perks like priority boarding
The Platinum Card® from American Express
See Rates & Fees. Terms Apply.
Apply Now
Apply now for this Partner Offer on American Express’s secure website.

Annual Fee

$550

Regular APR

N/A

Intro Bonus

60,000 points

Recommended Credit

Good to excellent

What makes the Amex Platinum great

If you’re in an airplane once a month, that means you’re in an airport once a month—and that means you may be miserable. The American Express Platinum is our pick to ameliorate the inevitable indignities you may suffer during frequent swings through TSA and the food court.

Not only does the Amex Platinum tend to deliver the most valuable spending rewards on airfare and prepaid hotel stays (booked directly with the airline or hotel or via American Express Travel) as well as a series of travel credits, but it also gives you access to the widest selection of airport lounges—including the relatively luxurious Centurion Lounge network—of any card we analyzed. And should you run into trouble, American Express consistently performs well in customer satisfaction surveys.

Airport lounges Platinum cardholders can access:

Lounge access is particularly appealing for frequent flyers who can easily spend more than they bargained for on food and drinks while they’re waiting for their flight. If you tend to shell out $50 on airport restaurants and bars, you might make up this card’s $550 annual fee in saved spending.

Take One Flew South (PDF), a highly rated fine-dining spot in Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport where the delicious-sounding thyme roasted pork belly goes for almost $30. Add in a beer, taxes, and tips, and you’ve probably spent $50 already.

You can sup on fare that’s just as good or better at Amex’s Centurion Lounge—and there, the buffet and bar are bottomless. There are 10 Centurion Lounge locations in the US, and each one offers its own regionally inspired menu, relaxing places to eat, and fast Wi-Fi connections to help you work. Business travelers in need of a quietish place to hunker down and grab a bite won’t find a better refuge.

If you don’t use an airport that has a Centurion Lounge, this card also gives you entry to more than 1,300 locations through a Priority Pass Select membership (you’ll be mailed a membership card; don’t forget to bring it, or download the app). These spots, however, are generally considered more hit or miss.

To help you get through security more quickly, Amex gives you a credit for TSA Pre✓ (worth $85) every four and a half years, or for Global Entry (worth $100) every four. We recommend Global Entry, which includes the TSA Pre✓ benefit as well.

You earn hotel benefits, too. The card allows you to enroll in the Marriott Bonvoy program with Gold Elite status and the Hilton Honors program with Gold status, which you can use for room upgrades and late checkout, among other things. Should you book a hotel stay for at least two nights through Amex’s Hotel Collection—a grouping of more than 600 luxury hotels across the world—you receive $100 in credits on qualifying charges such as spa treatments and dining.

There’s also the similarly named Fine Hotels & Resorts Program, which is like an amplified version of the Hotel Collection. Choose from more than 1,000 fancy hotels across the world, and you receive a room upgrade when available, daily breakfast for two, a 4 p.m. late checkout, noon check-in (when available), and complimentary Wi-Fi. Each stay comes with a unique amenity credit specific to that property; for example, a recent search yielded a $100 credit for a spa session at the Villa Cora in Florence, Italy. Fine Hotels & Resorts rooms aren’t cheap, so this perk is best used as a special vacation treat.

A screen showing details of a Fine Hotels & Resorts Program offer
This Fine Hotels & Resorts offer comes at a (somewhat) reasonable price for a special vacation, as well as a $100 credit to use on spa services.

And if you’re looking for inspiration about how to fill your time, you can take advantage of Amex’s Platinum Travel Service, which offers dining and entertainment suggestions.

Besides experiential perks, the Platinum offers a ton of travel credits and spending rewards that help offset the $550 annual fee.

When you select one airline at the beginning of the year or after you receive the card, you receive up to $200 in credits for incidental costs like baggage fees or, say, an in-flight gin and tonic. You have to pick from one of the following domestic carriers: Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit, and United.

The card makes traveling to and from the airport easier, too. You get $15 in Uber credits each month, with an additional $20 (for a total of $35) in December. While unused credits don’t roll over at the end of the month, frequent travelers should be able to make the most of this perk—which no other card we analyzed offers.

And for a limited time cardholders will receive a slew of credits more attuned to the current lockdown spending climate.The global pandemic has rendered air travel almost nonexistent, thus making an expensive travel card inert. But Amex wants you to keep the Platinum top-of-wallet, so it has introduced a temporary credit that might keep an otherwise happy Platinum customer from canceling their card. From May to December 2020, you can receive up to $20 per month in credits on both select streaming services and wireless telephone services purchased directly through U.S. service providers.

And then there are the spending rewards. You earn 5x Membership Rewards (MR) points for every dollar you spend on eligible flights (purchased directly with an airline or through the American Express Travel portal) and prepaid hotel stays (booked through Amex Travel). Combine that with an intro bonus of 60,000 MR points when you spend $5,000 on your new card in three months, and you’ll quickly rack up points.

As we mention throughout this guide, a “point” or “mile” is a made-up currency issued by the bank or airline, and it can devalue over time.

As a result, the value can be difficult to pin down. The Points Guy, which has a rough estimation of what credit card rewards are worth in various loyalty programs, currently pegs a single MR point at 2¢, much higher than the value of a mile for American AAdvantage, Delta SkyMiles, and United MileagePlus.

So not only do you earn more points with the Platinum than with an airline-specific card (which generally offers 2x miles on purchases made at their respective carriers), but each point may also be worth more when you redeem it.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

We think of the Platinum as a delicate race car: It has the horsepower to earn you a ton of benefits, but you have to use it just right.

For starters, the incidental-fee/Uber-credits structure is a bit wonky for our taste, especially compared with the travel credits that a competing luxury travel card, the Chase Sapphire Reserve, offers. For instance, should you happen to fly an airline that isn’t the one you selected at the beginning of the year, you can’t use your $200 travel credit. Should you spend $10 on Uber in March and $20 in April, you receive only $25 in credits, despite being offered $15 in credits each month.

Likewise, Amex has recently made some changes to counteract the Centurion Lounges’ popularity, and overcrowding concerns have added some friction for travelers. You now need to be waiting for a connecting flight or departure less than three hours from the time you want to walk past the ivy-covered foyer. You can’t go to a lounge with your card when you’ve reached your destination. And as for your Priority Pass membership, you can’t use a restaurant voucher with the Platinum, as you can with the Reserve.

 

Best American Airlines credit card

Barclays AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard®

American Airlines passengers have a unique number of branded credit card options to choose from, but this one has the right balance of awards, perks, and reasonable fees to merit consideration for your wallet.

What we love

American Airlines flyers will likely find joy with this card, which waives the first checked-bag fee, delivers priority boarding, and earns decent spending rewards and credits.

  • An introductory companion ticket good for one guest for $99 (plus taxes and fees)
  • A large welcome bonus after you meet the minimum spending requirements, as well as 2x miles per $1 spent on eligible American Airlines purchases
  • $25 Wi-Fi credit each year

What we don’t love

Although this card is best for most American Airlines passengers, it doesn’t offer as much as other airline-specific cards.

  • The anniversary companion-fare benefit can be difficult to earn
  • The $99 annual fee isn’t waived the first year
Barclays AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard®
See Rates & Fees. Terms Apply.
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We don't earn a commission on this offer.
Product details have been collected independently by Wirecutter and are accurate as of 3/31/2020. Learn More.

Annual Fee

$99

Regular APR

15.99% - 24.99% variable

Intro Bonus

60,000 bonus miles

Recommended Credit

Good to excellent

What makes the AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard great

Confusingly, American Airlines partners with two banks for its credit cards: Citi and Barclays. Other credit card comparison sites typically recommend a Citi card for this airline, but after doing a careful analysis we’ve concluded that the AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite from Barclays is the best option for intermittent American Airlines passengers.

The Aviator Red (a not terribly elucidating credit card name) comes with a package of perks that makes it better than any of the more common Citi-issued cards, including the Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select. You receive a welcome offer of 60,000 bonus miles after making any purchase with the card within 90 days and paying the $99 annual fee, 2x miles per $1 you spend on eligible American Airlines purchases, and 1x mile on all else.

Your first checked bag is free on domestic flights for you and up to four companions traveling on the same reservation, and you also enjoy preferred boarding.

All of that, though, is pretty much what you get with the Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select (which offers a welcome bonus of 10,000 fewer miles when you spend $2,500 within three months of opening your account but waives the $99 annual fee the first year).

The big difference comes in the form of travel credits.

The Aviator Red offers an introductory companion certificate, which is good for one guest, at the cost of $99 (plus taxes and fees, which range from about $20 to a little more than $40 on round-trip domestic flights) after you make your first purchase with the card and pay the annual fee in your first 90 days. The Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select doesn’t offer anything comparable.

As for ongoing travel credits, the Aviator Red beats out the Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select, but neither card is particularly great.

First, with both cards, you need to spend at least $20,000 on purchases annually (a tall order) to qualify for credits. (Compare that with the Amex Platinum, which issues credits annually with no spending requirements.)

With the Aviator Red, you receive an anniversary companion certificate good for one guest for $99 (plus taxes and fees)—to receive it, in addition to the $20,000 spending requirement, you must keep your account open for 45 days after your anniversary. The certificate is good for a year. You can use it in any of the contiguous 48 states, and it’s accepted on flights marketed and operated by American Airlines, including flights on some regional airlines such as Envoy Air and SkyWest.

With the Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select, you net a $125 flight discount after spending the same amount and keeping your card open for 12 billing cycles.

Annual feeWelcome bonusTravel credit
Barclays AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard$9960,000 miles after your first purchase within 90 days of opening the card and paying the annual fee; you also earn a companion certificate for a domestic round-trip flight for $99 (plus taxes and fees)Earn an anniversary companion certificate (good for one ticket at $99 plus taxes and fees) after spending $20,000 on purchases and keeping the card open 45 days after your anniversary date
Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select$0 annual fee for the first year, then $9950,000 miles after $2,500 in purchases within three months of opening the accountReceive a $125 flight discount certificate for American Airlines flights after spending $20,000 on purchases during your credit card membership year

When we ran the numbers for people who travel four times a year, we found that the Aviator Red delivered almost $300 more in value in the first year of card ownership than the Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select. (We didn’t take into account the annual travel credits, and the cards performed the same in the second year and each one after.)

While both cards offer a 25% discount on in-flight food and purchases on American Airlines–operated flights, the Aviator Red also comes with a $25 statement credit per year on in-flight Wi-Fi.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

The difficulty in earning the anniversary companion ticket is a minus, and the spending rewards are average. The greatest boons for our average traveler after the welcome bonuses are priority boarding and the lack of baggage fees. Average travelers will have trouble making up for the annual fee on spending rewards alone.

But if you’re planning to go with an American Airlines card, this is the one to apply for.

 

Our favorite Delta card for most Delta flyers

Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card

Our pick for regular Delta flyers, this card helps you avoid airline nickel-and-diming and lets you earn some rewards without being charged an arm and a leg. You don’t receive sensational perks, but you don’t want to pay the annual fee it takes to get them.

What we love

Delivers the best balance of rewards and fees to satisfy most Delta flyers, and doesn’t require too much work to make the most of the card.

  • Main Cabin 1 priority boarding
  • $100 credit for future travel after you spend $10,000 in eligible purchases in a calendar year
  • No fee for first checked bag
  • Earn 4x miles at US supermarkets from May through July 2020

What we don’t love

Delta’s more expensive cards offer benefits and perks that can make those cards more valuable.

  • All other spending rewards (2x miles on purchases made at restaurants and directly through Delta) are pedestrian
  • We wish you didn’t have to spend quite so much to earn the $100 credit
  • $99 annual fee (waived your first year as a cardholder)
Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card
See Rates & Fees. Terms Apply.
Apply Now
Apply now for this Partner Offer on American Express’s secure website.

Annual Fee

$0 annual fee for the first year, then $99

Regular APR

15.74% - 24.74% variable

Intro Bonus

35,000 bonus miles

Recommended Credit

Good to excellent

What makes the Delta SkyMiles Gold great

The Delta SkyMiles Gold is the best and most practical choice for most Delta flyers. The card doesn’t come with much panache or elan, but you’ll earn enough miles and avoid enough fees to justify the card’s place in your wallet.

New cardholders receive a quick infusion of rewards that can help cover the cost of a flight or two. You earn 35,000 miles after you spend $1,000 in your first three months of owning the card.

Delta also wants to keep you around for the long haul. When you spend $10,000 or more on eligible purchases in a calendar year, you receive a $100 credit for a future Delta flight. That alone offsets the card’s annual fee (which, pleasantly, is waived in your first year of card membership).

The ongoing spending rewards are fine: You earn 2x miles per dollar spent on Delta purchases and restaurants.Normally you'd earn 2x miles per dollar spent at US supermarkets, but that benefit has been doubled to 4x miles from May to July 2020.

You earn 1x mile per dollar spent on all else (although in an ideal world, you use a different card for all else).

Keep in mind that miles aren’t the same as cash, and what a mile gets you on Tuesday may be different than on Wednesday, since you may not be able to book a flight using miles at the time you want.

Let’s say you want to fly from Los Angeles to Hawaii in the last week of September to treat yourself.

  • If you were to book a Comfort+ seat with 55,500 miles and about $11 in taxes and fees on a fare that costs around $705, your SkyMiles would be worth roughly 1.2¢ each. (The math, based on costs we found when searching for flights on Delta’s site: $704.59 flight minus $11.20 in taxes and fees, divided by 55,500 miles.)
  • A screenshot of a flight and its corresponding price.

    Note: Redeeming a mile for a value of more than a penny a pop is generally a good deal.

  • A screenshot of a flight and it's corresponding points required to purchase it.

    Note: Redeeming a mile for a value of more than a penny a pop is generally a good deal.

1 of 2
  • If that same ticket were to cost $1,000 on the day of the flight, the value of a mile would jump to 1.5¢.

Miles are more valuable the more expensive the ticket. If you tend to buy economy seats well in advance to get the best price, a mile may be less valuable to you. That’s why we really like cards that avoid fees and offer travel credits.

You skip baggage fees ($30 domestic and $60 international per bag) for yourself and up to eight people on your ticket, and you get to enjoy Main Cabin 1 priority boarding when you book a Delta flight with your card. Eligible in-flight purchases, such as for alcohol or food, earn you 20% savings in the form of a statement credit. (So if you buy two $10 Jack and Cokes, for example, you receive a $4 credit on your credit card bill.)

Flaws but not dealbreakers

Practical, while best for most, can seem boring to some.

The Delta Gold doesn’t come with some of the supercharged perks available on other Delta cards. For instance, the Delta Platinum offers an annual companion-ticket voucher on any main-cabin round-trip flight within the contiguous 48 states, which could save you hundreds of dollars each year.

The Delta Reserve has the same benefit, but ups the stakes by letting the companion pass apply to first-class and Delta Comfort+ seats. Both cover your application fee for TSA Pre✓ or Global Entry with statement credits, and the Reserve grants you access to the choice American Express Centurion Lounge network.

But these cards are really expensive to own: The Platinum has a $250 annual fee, while the Reserve sets you back a steep $550. Though some travelers can justify those fees, we suspect you’d be happier with the Delta Gold.

 

Best if you fly Southwest Airlines

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card

Dedicated Southwest flyers looking to keep life simple by booking their flights with a Southwest credit card should strongly consider this one, even if it’s pricier than the alternatives. It can make traveling with a partner, and even your experience on the plane, less expensive and more joyful.

What we love

The intro bonus puts you well on the way to getting the heralded Southwest Companion Pass, which lets a pal fly for free (minus taxes and fees) for a year.

  • A $75 annual credit plus a 7,500-point anniversary bonus (worth about $110) make it easy to justify the annual fee
  • Extra goodies include upgraded boardings so you can be one of the first to pick your seat, even if you forgot to check in early
  • Through May and June 2020, you’ll earn 3x points per dollar spent (up to a maximum of $1,500 per month) on eligible grocery and grocery-delivery purchases

What we don’t love

You may be able to earn more points from your Southwest flights with non-Southwest cards, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve or Amex Platinum.

  • The annual fee is lower than those of many other airline credit cards, but it still stings
  • The rewards miles you earn on all purchases, including those on Southwest, aren’t spectacular
Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card
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Product details have been collected independently by Wirecutter and are accurate as of 4/2/2020. Learn More.

Annual Fee

$149

Regular APR

15.99% - 22.99% variable

Intro Bonus

40,000 points

Recommended Credit

Good to excellent

What makes the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card great

The Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card makes it easy for Southwest flyers to combine miles earned through purchases and those earned directly from flights to get perks, upgrades, and trips, which comes in handy when you’re angling for the vaunted Companion Pass.

The Companion Pass lets a buddy fly free (minus pesky taxes and fees) for the rest of the year in which you earn the bonus, as well as the following one.

You can enjoy such manna from heaven by doing one of the following in the same calendar year:

  • fly 100 qualifying one-way flights
  • amass 125,000 qualifying points

Unless you’re a serious top gun, you’re unlikely to rack up those 100 flights. The latter option is where the Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card comes in.

You earn 40,000 points when you spend $1,000 within three months of getting the card. So the initial welcome bonus alone puts you almost a third of the way toward the Companion Pass threshold.

You can make up the rest on Southwest purchases (but even this way, you’ll have to spend thousands of dollars). You get two points for each buck you spend on Southwest and 10 points for every dollar you spend on Southwest Anytime tickets (in addition to the two points you earn on any purchase with the card).

So, for example, if you buy $7,200 worth of Anytime tickets, you earn 72,000 points as a Rapid Rewards member, plus another 14,400 points from the card. And if you earned the 40,000 bonus points from the intro bonus, you’d hit the 125,000 needed for the Companion Pass (note: to earn the Pass, you need to do all of this within the same calendar year.)

You also receive a 7,500-point bonus on the anniversary of your signing up for the card (which brings you an estimated $113 in value if you value a point at 1.5¢ as The Points Guy does), as well as a $75 annual travel credit that you can use on most Southwest purchases including tickets (though it does not apply to upgraded boardings or in-flight purchases).

Every year, then, you make up your annual fee plus almost an extra $50. You’re also entitled to reimbursement for four upgrades each year, which moves you into the A1 to A15 boarding positions. You can buy them anytime on the day of the flight, from the ticket counter or at the gate.

And as COVID-19 keeps most of us grounded, Chase has introduced a temporary perk to make the Priority a contender for being top of your wallet.

From May 1 to June 30, 2020 you earn 3 points per dollar spent (up to a maximum of $1,500 of spending per month) at qualifying grocery stores, and on qualifying grocery- and meal-delivery services.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

Remember, all reward points have to post to your account in the same year, or you’ll undershoot your Companion Pass target. If you can’t meet that marker with the help of the intro bonus, you might struggle to ever get there, which reduces the value of this card.

Southwest’s Anytime tickets are a quick means to acquire points toward a Companion Pass, but they’re also more expensive than the carrier’s Wanna Get Away alternative.

A search for an October 2019 Baltimore-to-Denver round-trip flight showed a Wanna Get Away flight to be around $400 to $500 less than an Anytime ticket or a Business Select ticket (you earn 12 points for each dollar you spend on a Business Select ticket, and it generally offers more flexibility or more benefits than an Anytime ticket). You earn just six points per dollar on a Wanna Get Away flight. If you’re inclined to buy the cheapest seat, this credit card may be less valuable for you.

The $149 fee, worth paying for someone who’s constantly in the air, may otherwise cause some people to reach for the barf bag.

 

Best United Airlines credit card

United℠ Explorer Card

United Airlines passengers enjoy a sampling of nice perks and bonuses that other, similar airline cards don’t offer.

What we love

Not only do you escape your first checked-baggage fee and board the plane more quickly, but you also receive a statement credit to cover TSA Pre✓ and Global Entry, a rarity among airline cards that charge an annual fee below $100.

  • Two one-time passes to United Club when you first sign up for the card, and then every year after
  • Annual fee is waived the first year
  • There’s a large pot of bonus miles thanks to a welcome offer, and you earn 2x miles on restaurant, hotel, and United purchases and 1x mile on all else
  • Through May and June 2020, you’ll earn 3x miles per dollar spent (up to a maximum of $1,500 per month) on eligible grocery and grocery-delivery purchases

What we don’t love

Despite some nice touches, there’s no wow factor among the rewards offered.

  • No travel credits or companion fares offered
  • No anniversary mile bonus
United℠ Explorer Card
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Annual Fee

$0 annual fee for the first year, then $95

Regular APR

16.49% - 23.49% variable

Intro Bonus

40,000 bonus miles

Recommended Credit

Good to excellent

What makes the United Explorer Card great

With the Explorer, your first checked-bag fee is waived, you can board the plane prior to general boarding, and you receive a statement credit every four years for your TSA Pre✓ or Global Entry fee—a rare benefit for an airline card with a sub-$100 annual fee.

You also get two one-time United Club lounge passes after you open your account and then each year after you pay your annual fee, as long as your account is in good standing. That’s a real benefit, especially if you’re in need of a quick place to use Wi-Fi or want a quick snack or drink (just don’t expect crème brûlée).

The card’s welcome bonus is mundane. You net 40,000 miles after spending $2,000 in purchases within three months of opening your account. While 40,000 miles is a good sum, you need to commit a bit to the card to meet the spending requirement.

Chase has introduced a temporary perk to make the Explorer a contender for being top of your wallet while you can’t travel due to COVID-19 restrictions.

From May 1 to June 30, 2020 you earn 3 miles per dollar spent (up to a maximum of $1,500 of spending per month) at qualifying grocery stores, and on qualifying grocery- and meal-delivery services.

Besides the Explorer ($0 annual fee for the first year, then $95), United offers the Club℠ Infinite card ($0 annual fee for the first year, then $525). The Club℠ Infinite card comes with a host of benefits, including access to more than 45 United Club locations and other participating Star Alliance–affiliated lounges. But the annual fee is simply too great for a card that’s valuable with only one retailer, especially if you happen to fly only about four times a year at most.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

The priority-boarding perk is valid only on United- and United Express–operated flights, so a partner flight doesn’t count. The card offers neither travel credits nor companion fares, and the spending rewards (2x miles on United flights, hotels, and restaurants; 1x mile on all else) aren’t overwhelming.

No other United card makes sense if you’re an average traveler, and if nothing else, you can just about cover the cost of the Explorer’s annual fee in saved baggage fees if you check a bag for at least three flight segments.

 

Best if you fly Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines Visa® Credit Card

Think of this as the tasting menu of airline cards — and everything is toothsome. You receive an annual companion ticket, excellent earnings rate on airline spending, and the ability to book flights on partner airlines (including American Airlines) with your miles. Yum.

What we love

The Alaska Airlines card delivers pretty much everything you could hope for from an airline card: the famed companion ticket, great rewards on your Alaska Airlines spending, and plenty of partner airlines for your points.

  • Annual Companion Fare ticket, costing as little as $121, is a huge perk
  • Good earnings on airline miles and a reasonable annual fee

What we don’t love

The delightful perks come at a price—a $75 annual fee. Also, Alaska Airlines has a strong presence on the West Coast, but if you live on the East Coast or in the Midwest, it might not be one of your airport's top airlines.

  • Limited utility for flyers on the East Coast and Midwest
  • The annual fee—it's not the highest out there, but paying one is still a pain
Alaska Airlines Visa® Credit Card
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Annual Fee

$75

Regular APR

15.99% - 23.99% variable

Intro Bonus

40,000 bonus miles + Companion Fare™

Recommended Credit

Good to excellent

What makes the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature card great

The Alaska Airlines Visa Credit Card can save you hundreds in airfare costs, thanks to a valuable companion-fare discount you can receive every year you own the card. Although devoted Alaska Airlines flyers who fly solo can still find the card worthy, it’s especially powerful when you take advantage of the companion fare.

You earn two sets of welcome bonuses: 40,000 miles plus a voucher you can use for a companion’s airfare on a round-trip or one-way ticket when you buy the flight on Alaska’s website. You can get the companion ticket for as little as $121 ($99 for the ticket plus at least $22 in taxes and fees), which can mean hundreds in savings. To earn both, you must spend $2,000 within the first 90 days of opening your account.

An Alaska Airlines discount and companion fare summary screen
Once you earn the companion fare, Alaska Airlines issues a code that you must use within 12 months.

From then on, you get the voucher within two billing cycles (or two months, in non-legalese) of the anniversary of your account opening. You have to buy both tickets at the same time and use the voucher code within 12 months.

A small note: You can’t use miles to buy your flight, but you do receive the miles for it—and if your travel buddy has an Alaska Airlines frequent-flyer account, they’ll earn miles for their flight too. Largely on the back of this companion-fare deal and the card’s strong ongoing rewards rate, the Alaska Airlines Visa will pay for itself—and then some—even if you fly only four times a year.

That’s partly thanks to the fact that the card charges a lower annual fee ($75) than our picks for American, Delta, and Southwest, among others, while also earning 3x miles for all Alaska purchases. As of this writing, those points are worth an estimated 1.8¢ each, so they net a value of 5.4¢ on every Alaska dollar you spend.

You can use the points with any of 17 travel partners, including American Airlines, British Airways, and Emirates—meaning you can wait for a deal to emerge on an array of airlines.

The initial spending bonus is transparent and easy to earn, although lower than that of the competition. But the program more than makes up for that because you receive a companion ticket with the card, which is a huge benefit.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

While solo Alaska Airlines flyers should still apply for the card—the combination of a free first checked bag and spending rewards will almost certainly offset the cost of the card—it’s much less valuable if you’re solo than if you have someone to fly with. The reduced fare of at least $121 can save your flying partner hundreds on a round-trip or one-way flight.

While the discounts for in-flight purchases (20%) and a day pass at an Alaska Lounge (50%) are better than nothing, they are not particularly generous. You still owe $25, for instance, to enter an Alaska Lounge, of which there are only seven locations in five airports.

This isn’t widely known, but if you don’t have the right credit profile to qualify for the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature card (which comes with a minimum credit limit of $5,000), you may be offered an alternative card instead, the Alaska Airlines Visa Platinum Plus.

The Platinum Plus has the same annual fee, rewards, and APR as the Visa Signature; you just have a lower credit limit (minimum $1,500), and you also don’t qualify for the Visa Signature perks, according to Bank of America spokesperson Betty Riess.

 

Best if you fly JetBlue Airlines

JetBlue Plus Card

Although there’s no buddy ticket comparable to that of Alaska or Southwest, the two-decade-old carrier offers cardholders a sizable chunk of points per dollar spent on JetBlue purchases, half off in-flight purchases, and a hearty anniversary bonus.

What we love

You have the opportunity to earn a lot of points on your JetBlue spending, which you can then redeem on JetBlue flights.

  • Lots of rewards on JetBlue purchases
  • Decent anniversary bonus

What we don’t love

The JetBlue Plus card doesn't offer the kinds of glitzier perks you might expect from a card with an annual fee.

  • Lackluster travel credits
  • No companion ticket
JetBlue Plus Card
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Annual Fee

$99

Regular APR

15.99% - 24.99% variable

Intro Bonus

40,000 bonus points

Recommended Credit

Good to excellent

What makes the JetBlue Plus Card great

The JetBlue Plus credit card doesn’t offer much in the way of travel credits or special perks. Instead it gives you spending rewards—and a lot of them.

You receive 6x points for every $1 you spend on the carrier, which is worth about 7.8¢ (one point is worth 1.3¢ currently, according to The Points Guy’s estimations), about as close to the rewards value of the Amex Platinum as you can find among airline cards. You also receive 2x points at grocery stores and restaurants—better than with the Platinum—so you earn bonus points on three major spending categories.

The welcome offer (40,000 points after you spend $1,000 within 90 days of opening your account) isn’t overwhelming, but it is easier to earn than intro offers from other airline cards we recommend. You receive 5,000 points on each anniversary of your account opening; they’re worth an estimated $65 when you redeem them on JetBlue flights, which goes a good way toward offsetting the $99 annual fee.

Moreover, you enjoy elite status when you spend $50,000 on the card in one year, netting two free checked bags, complimentary booze, and higher earnings on JetBlue flights (although $50,000 is a high bar to clear for such marginal returns). Your benefits kick in when you reach Mosaic status, and they last for the remainder of that calendar year in addition to the next year.

Once you redeem your miles, you get 10% of them back, plus an anniversary bonus of 5,000 points. All in-flight purchases are 50% off when you pay with the card. Buy a JetBlue Vacations package worth more than $100, and you receive a $100 credit.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

This card’s biggest downside is that it doesn’t offer much in the way of travel credits or niceties. You earn a checked-bag fee waiver, but the card doesn’t come with companion-fare discounts or access to club lounges. Although the spending rewards are useful, points inherently devalue over time.

 

Best for Hawaii residents or frequent visitors

Hawaiian Airlines® World Elite Mastercard®

Frequent visitors or residents of the Aloha State can find value and delight with the Hawaiian Airlines card, especially if you already have a top-of-wallet credit card for non-airline purchases.

What we love

This card has enough unique perks and rewards to entice and satisfy Hawaiian Airlines flyers for the long haul.

  • Intro bonus of 60,000 miles after you spend $2,000 within 90 days of opening the account
  • 50% discount on a companion ticket within~ 13 months of opening the account, and an annual $100 off a companion ticket thereafter
  • 3x miles on all Hawaiian Airlines purchases

What we don’t love

Despite easing your trip to paradise, the card lacks some benefits that rival cards offer.

  • The rewards on non–Hawaiian Airlines spending—2x miles on eligible gas, dining, and grocery purchases and 1x mile on all else—aren’t particularly strong
  • Only cardholders get their first checked bag for free; every other member of the party has to pay
  • $99 annual fee (although it is waived your first year of card membership)
Hawaiian Airlines® World Elite Mastercard®
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Annual Fee

$0 annual fee for the first year, then $99

Regular APR

15.99% - 24.99% variable

Intro Bonus

60,000 bonus miles

Recommended Credit

Excellent

What makes the Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard great

The Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard offers two different flight credits, both of which we love, especially given the card’s modest annual fee.

You get a one-time 50% discount on a companion ticket available for the first 13 months you own the card, and a $100 discount on a companion ticket each year after. Both goodies apply only to round-trip coach flights between Hawaii and North America, don’t include fees or taxes, and must be booked on the Hawaiian Airlines site.

Those companion discounts represent a substantial savings opportunity. For example, we found a flight from Seattle to Honolulu for about $440 in late October (fare almost $390; taxes and fees a little more than $50). If you were to book two tickets on that flight in your first year, you’d save almost $200 on your companion’s ticket.

The $100 discount off a companion flight on every anniversary of your account opening works out to about 25% savings on that Honolulu flight’s fare (not including taxes and fees). This discount should allow you to keep the card as long as you and your companion continue flying to Hawaii (there are worse fates).

The intro offer of 60,000 bonus points after you spend $2,000 in your first 90 days can earn you a reward flight all on its own. But considering that the card awards only 2x points for gas, dining, or grocery purchases, and 1x point per dollar spent on other categories, we think that aside from Hawaiian Airlines die-hards, most people will benefit from putting their everyday expenses on another card. Consider Amex’s Blue Cash Preferred for gas and groceries, and the Uber Credit Card for dining.

The cheapest tickets from Hawaii to the West Coast cost 17,500 miles, which means your intro bonus could net you a round-trip flight with lots of miles to spare. One-way flights to the East Coast start at 26,250 miles. You’re still on the hook for taxes and fees.

You earn 3x miles on Hawaiian Airlines purchases. At first glance, that looks higher than the 2x miles that other airline cards, such as the Delta SkyMiles Gold, generally offer for their bonus purchases. Remember, though, that a mile is a made-up currency that’s only as good as the bank and airline allow it to be.

As of September 2019, The Points Guy pegged a HawaiianMile as worth 0.9¢, three-tenths of a cent less than a Delta SkyMile. So $1 you spend on Hawaiian with the Hawaiian card may net 2.7¢ of value, compared with 2.4¢ for a Delta purchase with the Delta SkyMiles Gold.

Cardholders escape their first checked-bag fee, saving $30 both ways. If you’re the primary cardholder and if you were to check a bag each way for your two round-trip flights a year, you’d save $120 in baggage fees.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

The Hawaiian card comes with an annual fee of $99, though it is waived your first year of card membership, which is a solid incentive to apply.

Although the Hawaiian Airlines card’s checked-bag perk is better than a $30 fee, it’s stingier than that of other cards. The Delta SkyMiles Gold, for instance, allows you and up to eight passengers on your ticket to fly with a free bag. With the Hawaiian card, it’s just you.

More broadly, you have to be a particular type of flyer for the Hawaiian Airlines card to make sense. Companion tickets are available only on flights the airline operates between Hawaii and the mainland (partner airline flights don’t apply), so we recommend this card only if you’ll be flying in or out of one of the 13 US cities that offer a direct flight to a Hawaiian airport:

  • Boston
  • Las Vegas
  • Long Beach, California
  • Los Angeles
  • New York City
  • Oakland, California
  • Phoenix
  • Portland, Oregon
  • Sacramento, California
  • San Diego
  • San Francisco
  • San Jose, California
  • Seattle

If you want to visit Hawaii only once and don’t have the time, budget, or inclination to make it a regular habit, this card isn’t worth keeping around.

 

Best Frontier Airlines credit card

Frontier Airlines World Mastercard®

The idea of owning a loyalty credit card for a low-budget airline may seem odd, but the card offers enough benefits to prompt anyone who uses Frontier frequently or exclusively to sign up.

What we love

You earn enough spending rewards from the welcome bonus and ongoing spending—including 5x miles on Frontier flights—to offset the cost of the annual fee.

  • $100 flight voucher after every account anniversary with eligible purchases
  • Priority boarding in Zone 2
  • Manageable annual fee of $79

What we don’t love

Frontier flights are meant to get you from one city to another as cheaply as possible, which means you may not use this card for a first-class award flight to Paris.

  • Annual fee isn’t waived the first year
  • No waived bag or carry-on fees unless you hit elite status (20,000 qualifying miles or 25 segments)
Frontier Airlines World Mastercard®
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Annual Fee

$79

Regular APR

15.99% - 24.99% variable

Intro Bonus

50,000 bonus miles

Recommended Credit

Excellent

Despite Frontier’s reputation as a chintzy, ultra-low-cost airline, it actually offers an airline card that deserves a place in your wallet if you fly the Denver-based budget carrier four times a year.

You earn a $100 flight voucher on each anniversary of your account opening when you spend $2,500 on purchases during your cardmember year, which is “each 12-month period through and including your account anniversary date,” per the card’s terms and conditions.

You need to use the voucher within 180 days of receiving it, but you can book a flight well into the future as long as you purchase the flight within those six months. The voucher works only on Frontier Airlines flights, and the flight you book doesn’t earn rewards.

Those restrictions, which are relatively minimal, more than offset the card’s $79 annual fee. You receive Zone 2 boarding (there are four zones), and there’s no foreign transaction fee, which is useful for passengers traveling to Mexico.

Frontier offers a decent chunk of spending rewards, too. You net a welcome bonus of 50,000 miles after spending $500 within 90 days of owning the card and paying the annual fee, and you earn 5x miles with each dollar you spend on a Frontier flight. The Points Guy guesstimates the value of a mile at 1.1¢, so you can potentially earn a decent amount of value relatively quickly.

This card has a few other creative benefits that caught our eye. For instance, there’s a feature called Family Pooling, which allows you to share your miles with eight other contributors. This way you can share your miles with family and friends without paying a fee, a rare perk among airline credit cards.

You can also spend your way toward elite status. With every $1 you spend on the card, and every mile you fly on Frontier, you earn a qualifying mile. Once you hit 20,000, you earn Elite 20k Status, which allows you to bring a carry-on (which costs $35 when purchased online and up to $60 at the gate) without charge.

This feature is a bit hit or miss. It’s probably not in your best interest to put all of your spending on the Frontier with so many other valuable rewards cards available. Should you fly Frontier exclusively and want to save some money on carry-on bags, and if you don’t want to think about more than one card, this benefit makes sense for you.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

Unless you hit Elite 20k Status, the card’s benefits don’t cover the cost of carry-ons, not to mention checked bags. Frequent Frontier flyers may be used to this arrangement, but other cards do a better job of waiving fees.

The card does nix a fee, which starts at $5.60 for one-way flights, when you redeem your miles for an award ticket. Although it’s nice that you save money here, we’re not big fans of the fee being imposed in the first place.

Vexingly, this card requires you to make at least one purchase every six months to keep your miles from expiring—again, a restriction that other airline cards don’t subject you to. So if you use this card and another rewards card in tandem, be sure to put a small regular purchase on your Frontier card so you don’t lose out.

If you have a choice in which airline you fly, you might want to avoid Frontier altogether. Although about 78% of flights have arrived on time so far this year, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, just 72% of Frontier flights have.

Even Spirit loyalists should avoid the Spirit Airlines World Mastercard. Consider an all-purpose travel rewards card instead.

Let’s start with the positive: With this card, you don’t face an annual fee the first year (but you owe $59 each year after that).

Other than the waived annual fee, you can’t find much joy here. The welcome bonus is small, the spending rewards are mundane, and each mile, according to The Points Guy, is worth only 0.4¢. Although you can receive an anniversary bonus of 5,000 miles, you first have to spend $10,000 on the card each year.

There are no travel credits or vouchers or priority boarding or much of anything to reduce fees of any kind.

This offer isn’t worth your time.

Alaska Airlines

American Airlines

  • American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp℠ Card
  • Barclays AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard®
  • Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®
  • Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®

Delta Air Lines

  • Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card
  • Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card
  • Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card
  • Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card

Frontier Airlines

  • Frontier Airlines World Mastercard®

Hawaiian Airlines

JetBlue Airways

Southwest Airlines

Spirit Airlines

  • Spirit Airlines World Mastercard®

United Airlines

  • United℠ Explorer Card
  • United Club℠ Infinite Card
  • United℠ TravelBank Card

General airline cards

If you’re considering an airline credit card, it’s important to know three things: your credit situation, your travel habits, and your preferences. Here are three questions to ask yourself:

  • Do I have good credit? Airline credit cards typically require you to have good or excellent credit to get approved. Generally, that means having a FICO score of 670 and above, though card issuers also consider your overall credit health, including positive and negative items in your credit report, how much of your monthly income goes to debt payments, and more.
  • How often do I fly? If you fly at least a few times a year with a favored carrier, having an airline credit card can provide significant value, especially if you usually check your luggage and/or can take advantage of the card’s other perks. Many airline cards offer a free checked bag (for the cardholder as well as others on the same reservation), priority boarding, in-flight discounts, and more. Even if you fly only three or four times a year, getting an airline card may still be worth it. Baggage fees can be $30 or more each way, so if you check a bag for free on two round-trip flights a year ($120 in value), that alone outpaces the annual fee on many airline cards.
  • Am I fine with using my rewards for flights, or do I want more flexibility? Airline credit card rewards are generally good for one thing: booking complimentary flights with the co-branded airline. If you’d prefer having the flexibility to redeem rewards for hotel stays or cruises, you may be better off with a general travel rewards card.

Ask yourself these questions when comparing airline credit cards to see if there’s one that’s a better fit for you.

Do I generally fly with a particular airline? Does that airline serve my home airport?

If you exclusively fly with one airline and don’t plan on changing that, it doesn’t make sense to get a card with a competing carrier. But if you’re more flexible—and if you live near an airport that acts as a hub for one or more airlines—it may make sense to compare credit cards from those airlines to see which one offers you the most value or the best perks, such as a companion pass or lounge access.

Am I willing to pay an annual fee?

If you want a no annual fee credit card, look elsewhere: Airline cards that don’t charge annual fees tend to offer few perks and low rewards for your airline spending.

Most airline cards charge annual fees of about $90 to $100, though some waive the annual fee your first year. This can give you some time to earn (and hopefully use) the card’s intro bonus and see whether the rewards program is a good fit for you.

That said, if you’re positive that you want a card with a certain airline and it doesn’t waive the first annual fee, it may be worth paying for the first year once you’re approved so you can get the card and the benefits you want.

How good is the intro bonus?

Most credit cards offer an intro bonus after you meet a minimum spending requirement within a set period of time. These bonuses, which often range from 5,000 to 60,000 miles (and sometimes more), can give you a jump-start toward earning award flights. With certain cards, the welcome offer can even be enough to cover one or more round-trip flights. Just keep in mind that you’re still responsible for paying taxes and fees on any flights you book using points or miles.

Are the airline’s points or miles easy to use?

In most cases, you’ll use your points or miles to book flights directly with the carrier. Where it can get more complicated is when airlines impose blackout dates or redemption rules, such as limiting the availability of award seats on certain flights or travel dates. These restrictions can make it challenging to book the fares you need, especially if your travel plans don’t have much flexibility.

Some airlines, including JetBlue and Southwest, don’t have blackout dates or award restrictions, which makes it easier to redeem your rewards for a flight.

How quickly can I earn points or miles?

As you might expect, airline credit cards typically earn bonus rewards on purchases you make with the airline, but some also offer rewards in everyday spending categories, typically the rewards rate is 1x mile per dollar. When you’re looking at options, compare the rewards rates for each card with your actual spending habits to determine which ones give you the chance to earn the most rewards.

What other benefits would I use?

In addition to spending rewards, many airline cards offer additional benefits like priority boarding, in-flight discounts on food and beverages, or free checked bags. However, if checked bags are important to you, some airlines (including Southwest) allow up to two free checked bags with all tickets, with or without a branded credit card.

Some cards go one step further, though, and offer perks like complimentary airport-lounge access, the opportunity to earn companion passes, and credits toward elite status (which could get you bonus rewards on paid flights, free upgrades, waived fees, and more). Of course, many cards that offer these additional benefits charge higher annual fees, so your decision ultimately depends on how often you fly and how much you value each of the perks.

How much an airline mile is worth depends on the airline, where you fly, when you fly, and other factors. However, most frequent-flyer programs have baseline values for their rewards currency based on data collected from scores of reservations. Check travel websites like The Points Guy, which compare average valuations for each of the major airline loyalty programs.

There are many factors that influence the value of an airline mile, including:

  • The cash price of the flight: The price of airfare is constantly changing, but the number of points you need for an award ticket doesn’t necessarily change along with it, and it won’t always rise or fall in equal proportion. If you redeem 25,000 miles to book a $500 fare, each mile is worth 2¢. But if the cash price of that same flight drops to $350 and it still requires 25,000 miles, the value of your miles drops to 1.4¢ apiece.
  • Your departure and destination airports: The number of miles you need for a free flight often depends on where you’re flying from and where you’re flying to. Most airlines have redemption charts that show how many miles you’ll need to travel to different regions around the world.
  • Available seats and blackout dates: Airlines typically restrict the number of seats on each flight that can be booked using miles. This means that if the direct flight you want is out of award tickets, the alternative may be a flight with one or more layovers and a different cash price, which would affect how much your miles are worth. As for blackout dates, some airline loyalty programs offer award fares—like American Airlines’ AAnytime awards—that can be booked anytime, though you typically have to redeem more miles for that kind of flexibility.
  • Basic economy vs. standard economy vs. business class: When booking a rewards flight, cabin options run the gamut. Generally, your options are basic economy, standard economy, business class, and first class. Depending on the number of miles you need for each type of seat and their associated cash prices, you might get more value by upgrading your fare without changing your flight. In many cases, business- and first-class tickets actually offer more value per mile than economy tickets.
  • Award-specific sales: Some airlines offer discounted award tickets without discounting the cash price of the same fare. If you can snag one of these deals, you can typically get more value than usual. With Southwest, you can subscribe to an email list to get notified of such sales, but for other airlines, follow popular travel websites like The Points Guy (or its Twitter account, @TPG_Alerts), View from the Wing, or One Mile at a Time.

If you’re hoping to squeeze as much value out of your airline miles as possible, take time to research different flight options anytime you’re booking travel. And if you want to determine the value per mile before you book, you can divide the cash price of the flight (minus any taxes and fees) by the number of miles required to book the ticket.

Airline credit cards can provide a lot of valuable benefits, but let’s face it: They’re not always easy to understand, and they can be challenging to use. Here’s what to consider if you’re choosing between airline, general travel rewards, and cash back credit cards.

Airline credit cards

Pros

  • Airline credit cards offer you the chance to earn miles with your preferred airline.
  • Many cards provide additional perks, such as priority boarding and free checked bags, when you fly with the co-branded airline.
  • The value of your points or miles can vary depending on how you use them, giving you the opportunity to get more value on some redemptions with an airline card than you would with a general travel rewards or cash back card.

Cons

  • Redemption options can be somewhat limited—using your rewards for complimentary flights is usually your best bet if you want to get the best value.
  • If you have little flexibility with your travel plans, it can be challenging to maximize your rewards, as you won’t be able to compare flights based on travel dates and destinations. Also, some airlines have blackout dates and restrict how many seats on a particular flight can be booked with rewards.
  • Most airline credit cards charge an annual fee, and the ones that don’t offer very little (besides bonus rewards on airline spending).

General travel credit cards

Pros

  • General travel cards typically allow for more flexibility when redeeming points, especially when booking travel. Rewards can generally be used for not only flights but also hotel stays, car rentals, cruises, and more, often at the same redemption rate.
  • Many cards offer a flat value per point or mile (for example, one mile is worth 1¢), so you don’t have to worry about doing extra legwork to maximize your rewards.
  • Some solid travel cards have no annual fee.

Cons

  • General travel cards have fewer airline-related perks (though some offer credits for things like checked bags or TSA Pre✓ application fees).
  • Many cards in this category charge an annual fee.
  • A set value per point or mile could cause you to leave money on the table compared with airline cards, which offer the chance to get higher redemption rates on some flights.

Cash back credit cards

Pros

  • Cash back rewards offer maximum flexibility because, well, you get cash, which can be used for pretty much anything you want.
  • You can get higher rewards rates in everyday spending categories like groceries, restaurants, online shopping, and gas.
  • Most cash back credit cards don’t charge an annual fee.

Cons

  • Intro bonuses are usually much lower with a cash back card than with an airline or general travel rewards card.
  • The value of your cash back typically doesn’t change (you generally earn anywhere from 1¢ to 6¢ in cash back for every dollar you spend), so there’s no opportunity to maximize reward redemptions.
  • You won’t receive any airline- or travel-specific perks.

If you’re considering a new credit card to use as your primary payment method, consider an airline card only if you travel on the regular and are fine with using your rewards for free flights and nothing else.

If you like the idea of having more flexibility, it may still make sense to get an airline card so that you can take advantage of its perks when you fly. But you may want to use a separate travel or cash back card for the majority of your spending.

Maximizing the value of your airline rewards can take a lot of time and research, and you typically need to be flexible with your travel plans. But when you find a sweet spot, it can be well worth the effort.

As a result, airline rewards are best for people who have big travel aspirations, a flexible work schedule, and extra time to compare their options. If your paid time off is limited—or if you don’t have the budget to cover the other aspects of a major trip, such as your accommodations—it may still be possible to achieve your travel goals with airline rewards. However, it can be more challenging.

A screenshot showing a user's Mileage Plan deals.
Use your miles to get complimentary flights or status in your airline’s loyalty program.

Peak vs. off-peak redemptions

Peak and off-peak seasons refer to the popularity of a particular destination at certain times throughout the year. For example, holiday weekends and summer (when the kids are out of school) are typically considered peak travel times, during which both award tickets and cash fares can cost more. In contrast, you can typically get more valuable redemptions during the off-peak season, when fewer people are traveling.

For example, we found a round-trip economy flight with American Airlines from Dallas to New York City in April 2020 for $360 (or 25,000 miles) and $11.20 in taxes and fees, giving you a value of 1.4¢ per mile.

If you were to book a flight over the same number of days during Fourth of July weekend, though, it’d cost you $467 (or 34,500 miles) and $11.20 in taxes and fees. That’s a value of 1.32¢ per mile.

Though the rates for paying with cash and paying with points went up for the holiday weekend, your rewards are worth less when used for the second itinerary. Of course, if you’re planning to take the trip anyway, getting a complimentary ticket (minus taxes and fees) is better than paying full price. But if your goal is to maximize rewards, try to stick with off-peak times.

First-class flying

Flying in business or first class costs a lot more than sitting in the main cabin, whether you use cash or miles. But when it comes to redemption value, it can be a sweet spot, especially if you’re flying international.

For example, in November 2019, Delta ran an award-fare sale on business-class flights to Europe. A flight from Salt Lake City to Vienna, Austria, cost 98,000 miles, compared with a cash price of $5,200 for the same itinerary. That’s a value of roughly 5.2¢ per mile, compared with Delta’s typical average of 1.2¢ per mile, according to The Points Guy.

Redemption partners and airline networks

Many major US carriers have partnerships with other domestic and international airlines by way of membership in alliances like Oneworld, Star Alliance, and SkyTeam. You may not be able to transfer your miles between loyalty programs, but you can use the miles you earn with one partner to book flights with another.

For example, if you have United MileagePlus miles, you could book an economy-class fare from Chicago to Dubai on partner airline Lufthansa for $1,210.65. An award ticket for the same dates with the same airline would cost 190,000 miles and $96.55 in taxes and fees, a value of just 0.59¢ per mile.

Alternatively, you could book an award ticket that includes flights with United and Ethiopian Airlines for 85,000 miles and $56.55 in taxes and fees, a value of 1.36¢ per mile. So with a little research, you can enjoy better redemption rates with your card’s co-branded airline partners.

How do airline credit cards work?

Airline credit cards are co-branded cards, which means that the card itself is issued and serviced by a bank, while the rewards program is managed by the partner airline. Any miles you earn are deposited into your frequent-flyer account, in contrast to rewards programs like Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards, which are owned and operated by banks.

In addition to rewards, many airline credit cards also offer various perks you can take advantage of while you’re flying. Even if you don’t spend a lot of money with the card, the benefits can outweigh the annual fee. The more you fly, the more value you can get from these benefits.

One thing to keep in mind is that there’s no right or wrong answer to the type of credit card you should get. Your travel preferences and spending habits can change over time, so even if you choose not to get an airline card right now, that doesn’t mean it won’t be a good fit in the future.

What are the benefits of an airline credit card?

Airline rewards allow you to earn free flights with your preferred airline. In many cases, you get bonus miles when you use the co-branded card to book flights or otherwise spend money with the airline, and some cards also offer bonus rewards on other types of purchases.

Many airline credit cards provide benefits other than spending rewards, which may include:

  • free checked bags
  • priority boarding
  • discounts on in-flight purchases
  • companion certificates
  • credits toward elite status
  • access to airport lounges

As you’re comparing airline credit cards, consider the value that each card can offer you to find the one that best meets your needs.

Do all airline credit cards have annual fees?

While most airline credit cards charge annual fees, some airlines, including American, Delta, JetBlue, and United, also offer cards with no annual fee. The caveat is that these cards generally don’t offer any benefits beyond a rewards program.

What’s more, the intro bonuses on these cards typically aren’t even enough to cover the cost of one round-trip flight. So if you’re considering a no annual fee airline card, it could take you a while to earn enough miles for an award ticket.

What credit score do I need to get an airline credit card?

You typically need good or excellent credit to get approved for an airline card, which means a FICO score of 670 and above. Of course, your credit score is just a snapshot of your overall credit health, and it isn’t the only thing banks consider when deciding whether to approve you for a card.

Factors may include your income (and debt-to-income ratio), the number of other cards you have, how much credit you’ve applied for recently, and your current available credit, among others.

Are there any airline credit cards for bad credit?

The SKYPASS Visa Secured Card is an airline card available to people with bad credit or limited credit history. The card, which requires a security deposit equal to your credit limit (from $300 to $5,000), lets you earn Korean Air Skypass miles.

Korean Air is a member of the SkyTeam alliance, so you can use Skypass miles to book flights with partner airlines like Delta. The airline partners with Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, and Hawaiian Airlines, too, giving you plenty of options for domestic flights.

We don’t recommend this card, though. It charges a $50 annual fee, and its intro bonus and rewards program don’t make it easy to rack up miles quickly.

Rates and fees:
The Platinum Card® from American Express
Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card

About your guides

Taylor Tepper

Taylor Tepper

Senior Staff Writer

Taylor Tepper is a senior writer at Wirecutter Money. Prior to Wirecutter, Taylor was a staff writer at Money magazine, where he mainly covered investing and won a 2017 Loeb Award, among other prizes, for delving into the financial costs of mental illness. He has been published in Fortune, NPR, Bloomberg, Tampa Bay Times, and Bankrate. He earned his master’s at the Craig Newmark School of Journalism at CUNY, and is currently taking CFP courses at the University of Texas. You can find him on LinkedIn.

Ben Luthi

Ben Luthi

Ben Luthi has been writing about personal finance since 2013 and is based in Utah. His work has appeared in U.S. News, USA Today, Yahoo Finance, Money, and more. You can find him on LinkedIn.

Editorial note: The evaluations of financial products in this article are independently determined by Wirecutter and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any third party.

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