Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available or the benefits and terms have changed. View the issuer’s site for current information.
Airline credit cards can be a gold mine for frequent flyers, especially those who are loyal to a single airline. However, many cards offer such an extensive range of features that even occasional flyers can enjoy using them.
For its first annual Best Credit Cards rankings, GOBankingRates analyzed a variety of popular airline credit cards to determine which ones were worthy of being included among the Best Credit Cards of 2019. Here’s a look at the most competitive options, along with tips on how to use the top airline credit cards and maximize the benefits they provide.
- Best Airline Credit Cards
- Chase United Explorer Card
- Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard
- First Bankcard Sun Country Airlines Visa Signature Card
- Bank of America Allegiant World Mastercard
- Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard
- At a Glance: Best Airline Credit Cards of 2019
- Best Airline Credit Card Offers: October 2019
- Learn More About Airline Cards
The Chase United Explorer Card combines the backing of the largest bank in the United States with the only U.S.-based member of the global Star Alliance. Cardholders flying between United’s 356 global destinations will benefit from the card’s lack of foreign transaction fees.
Highlights: The United Explorer Card offers an extensive range of benefits that aren’t always common with other card issuers, such as a $100 Global Entry or TSA Precheck fee credit — which can help you speed through airport security — and two United Club one-time passes. The card also provides primary car rental insurance, purchase protection, trip delay reimbursement and lost luggage reimbursement. As a bonus, the annual fee is waived for the first year.
Annual Fee: $95 (waived for the first year)
Sign-Up Bonus: Earn 40,000 bonus miles after spending $2,000 within the first three months of account opening.
The Fine Print: The card’s annual percentage rate is high, and there’s no promotional rate available. Cardholders also face an annual fee after the first year.
The Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard has no foreign transaction fees, which makes it a good choice for international travelers. Issued on behalf of American Airlines, the largest airline in the world, this card offers significant benefits to loyal flyers, including preferred boarding, 25% off in-flight food and beverage purchases, one free checked bag and a $125 American Airlines flight discount if you spend $20,000 during your card membership year and renew your card.
Highlights: This Citi card offers a generous sign-up bonus and earns double miles in three categories: restaurants, gas stations and eligible American Airlines purchases. Cardholders earn regular miles on all other purchases.
Annual Fee: $99 (waived for the first year)
Sign-Up Bonus: Earn 50,000 bonus miles after spending $2,500 within the first three months of account opening.
The Fine Print: After the first year, cardholders face a $99 annual fee, and interest rates run as high as 24.99%.
The First Bankcard Sun Country Airlines Visa Signature Card flies under the radar because it’s issued by a smaller bank for an airline with limited routes. However, the card’s features and benefits are good enough to cement its ranking among the top five airline credit cards.
Highlights: The annual fee on the Sun Country Airlines Visa Signature Card is relatively low at $69, and the card offers a 10,000-point anniversary bonus. Cardholders enjoy priority boarding as well as 50% off seat selections and their first bag.
Annual Fee: $69
Sign-Up Bonus: Earn 25,000 points after spending $1,500 within the first 90 days of account opening.
The Fine Print: Sun Country Airlines only operates 52 routes compared with the 356 flown by United Airlines, so it might be difficult to get the most value out of this credit card unless you live near one of the limited destinations. The sign-up bonus is also fairly low compared to what’s typically offered by other top credit cards.
Allegiant Air is the smallest carrier in GOBankingRates’ Best Airline Credit Cards ranking, with flights to only 23 destinations. However, the Bank of America Allegiant World Mastercard offers a number of features and benefits that can be enjoyed by cardholders who aren’t Allegiant Air passengers.
Highlights: For many cardholders, the standout feature of the Allegiant World Mastercard might be the 0% APR for 12 months on balance transfers posted within 60 days of account opening. Another significant benefit is the buy one, get one free airfare offer on certain vacation packages. The card also grants triple points on Allegiant purchases and double points on qualified dining.
Annual Fee: $59
Sign-Up Bonus: Earn 15,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 within the first 90 days of account opening.
The Fine Print: The sign-up bonus is a bit underwhelming, and the card lacks several flight-oriented benefits — such as in-flight savings or free baggage — that other airline cards typically offer.
The Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard is not for everyone. As an elite card, it carries extensive benefits but also has an otherworldly annual fee. However, for frequent flyers who book consistently with American Airlines, the card can provide far more value than the cost of its annual fee.
Highlights: In addition to an Admirals Club membership, which grants free lounge access across the airline’s network, the Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard provides a Global Entry or TSA Precheck fee credit, priority boarding on American Airlines flights, 25% in-flight savings on food and beverage purchases and 10,000 AAdvantage elite qualifying miles after spending $40,000 in a single year.
Annual Fee: $450
Sign-Up Bonus: Earn 50,000 bonus miles after spending $5,000 within the first three months of account opening.
The Fine Print: The biggest negative about this card is the high annual fee, which is prohibitive for many potential cardholders. The rewards categories are also fairly skimpy: only double miles on American Airlines purchases and one mile for every $1 spent on everything else.
Airline credit cards aren’t technically issued by individual airlines. Rather, airlines choose banking partners such as Bank of America or Chase to issue cards on their behalf. These credit cards provide benefits specific to individual airlines and help companies generate customer loyalty. Customers tend to enjoy using airline credit cards because they can receive special perks.
“Virtually all of the airline credit cards will offer you a free checked bag, sometimes for yourself and companions as well,” said Jason Steele, a credit card and travel expert. “Other benefits you can expect from an airline credit card will be priority boarding, discounts on in-flight purchases and even elite qualifying miles. Those are special miles that count toward the next level of elite status.”
However, depending on the type of traveler you are and the benefits you prefer, there might be some drawbacks to airline cards.
“Your rewards are locked into that airline program,” Steele said. “These airlines can and frequently do something called a devaluation, which is when they just change the terms of the program and now it costs a lot more miles to get the flight you’ve been saving up for. They reserve the right to do that, and they do it all the time — usually, maybe once every year or year and a half.”
Airline Credit Cards vs. Travel Credit Cards
Airline cards are different from other travel rewards credit cards because they offer benefits tied to a specific airline. For example, if you open an Alaska Airlines Visa Credit Card from Bank of America, you’ll receive Alaska Air miles on your purchases, a 40,000-mile sign-up bonus, one free bag on your flights and a yearly companion fare starting at $121. For this credit card, all benefits are specific to Alaska Airlines.
With a general travel rewards card, you’ll earn generic points or miles that you may be able to use for different purposes — such as hotel stays or merchandise purchases — or for various airlines.
“If you have a more generic travel rewards card, you’ll get one of two things,” Steele said. “You’ll get either points or miles that you can redeem for statement credits toward travel purchases or toward travel reservations that you make through that card’s designated travel agent. Or, you could receive points that you could transfer to airline miles with one of several different airlines.”
Common Airline-Specific Credit Cards
The airline credit card space is crowded, so individual airlines must offer competitive frequent flyer programs to stand out to potential customers. Here’s a quick glance at other airline-specific cards and the rewards they offer:
- Southwest Airlines already gives free checked bags to all customers, so its Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Card from Chase offers additional benefits to cardmembers, such as a $75 annual travel credit.
- The JetBlue Plus Card from Barclays offers a 50% discount on in-flight food and beverages as well as six times the points on JetBlue purchases.
- Two of America’s three remaining legacy carriers, American Airlines and Delta Airlines, each offer multiple cards. The American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp Mastercard from Citi requires only $500 in purchases over the first three months to earn 10,000 miles and a $50 statement credit. Plus, it charges no annual fee.
To choose the right airline credit card for you, you’ll have to analyze the costs of the card against the benefits that you expect to earn based on your spending patterns and travel habits. Here are some of the factors that should play an important role in your decision.
As of October 2019, the minimum annual percentage rate for airline credit cards averages 17.08%, according to U.S. News & World Report. Many rewards credit cards, including airline credit cards, have rates much higher than that.
Interest rates on airline cards tend to skew high to help offset the cost of the provided benefits. Even the top five cards on this list have higher-than-average APRs, with one of the lowest available rates — on the Bank of America Allegiant World Mastercard — hitting a minimum of 16.74%. At these rates, your credit card debt could double in just a few years if you only make minimum payments. Thus, it’s critical to keep a leash on your outstanding balances if you open an airline credit card account.
Ideally, you’ll be able to pay off the balance on your airline card before you trigger any interest charges. In many cases, the interest you pay on an airline credit card will outweigh the benefits that you receive from using the card. However, the reality is that the average American carries a credit card balance exceeding $5,500. So, before you pull the trigger on an airline card, it’s essential to understand how the card’s APR works.
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Some airline credit cards might offer an introductory interest rate that’s much lower than the standard rate. In some cases, this rate can be as low as 0%. If you’re enticed by this type of offer, be sure to read the fine print to see when that introductory rate expires. If you’re not paying attention, your rate may quietly kick up to 17% or more.
All else being equal, when you’re searching for an airline credit card, you’ll want to find a card with the lowest APR possible.
Bonuses are the quickest way to get value out of a new airline card. Typically, when you sign up for an airline credit card, you’ll be granted thousands of points if you spend a certain amount of money in a relatively short time period. For example, you might earn 50,000 miles if you spend $3,000 in the first 90 days after opening your card. These miles or points are in addition to any rewards that you get from spending on your card.
When you’re comparing bonuses between different types of cards, you’ll generally want to seek out the biggest sign-up bonus. However, it’s financially unwise to aim for a bonus that would unnecessarily increase your spending. For example, if you normally spend only $500 per month on a credit card but you’re being asked to spend $1,000 to qualify for a bonus, you should consider looking for a card with a lower initial spending requirement.
Airline card rewards typically come in the form of airline miles, though some cards offer cash back while others provide rewards in the form of points. When you spend money on your card, you’ll earn rewards. With most cards, you’ll earn at least one mile or point for every $1 you spend on everyday transactions.
Credit cards also have bonus reward categories where you can earn even more points or miles. For example, the Bank of America Allegiant World Mastercard pays three points per $1 spent on Allegiant purchases, two points per $1 spent on dining and one point per $1 spent on all other purchases.
The best types of points and miles are the ones that seem easy for you to earn. For example, earning two miles per $1 spent on United Airlines purchases is great if you’re a frequent United flyer, but if you mostly use your card to buy groceries, your rewards won’t rack up as quickly.
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Airline credit cards offer travel-specific benefits that aren’t always available with other types of credit cards. For example, many airline cards offer car rental insurance, lost luggage reimbursement, travel delay reimbursement, in-flight discounts and priority boarding. Other cards might offer elite privileges, such as airport lounge access.
As with rewards, you should prioritize the benefits that you intend to use. For example, if lounge access isn’t important to you, you shouldn’t choose that type of airline card.
Like most credit cards, airline credit cards might come with many types of fees, but every card is different. Some of the most common are annual fees, foreign transaction fees, interest charges and balance transfer fees.
Usually, the more benefits that an airline card provides, the higher its annual fee. The Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard, for example, provides Admirals Club membership along with other significant benefits, but it charges $450 per year for those privileges. If you’re a fan of American Airlines, you can still open a Citi card — the American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp Mastercard — for no annual fee.
Balance transfer fees are usually 3% to 5% of the amount that you transfer. If you don’t pay at least the minimum amount due on your credit card before your payment deadline, you’ll get hit with a late fee, typically in the $29 to $39 range. You might also see your APR skyrocket to 25% or more.
One of the latest battlegrounds when it comes to credit card fees has been the foreign transaction fee. Many credit cards used to charge 3% per transaction made in a foreign currency, but plenty of “world” airline cards have since removed that fee.
Your Travel Goals
The key to selecting the right airline credit card is to match the features and benefits of the card with your travel goals. For example, if you often fly internationally, you wouldn’t want to select a card that charges a foreign transaction fee. If you tend to overpack or bring back souvenirs when you fly, you might prefer a card that offers free baggage. And, if you’re a luxury traveler, you should look for a card that offers lounge access so you can enjoy free food and drinks — and a more private space — before you board your flight.
The bottom line: The best card for you is one that matches your travel style. If you want to rack up points as rapidly as possible, look for a card with a generous sign-up bonus. If you need an airline with extensive connections, check out the airline’s routes and list of partners before you commit to a particular card.
The best way to maximize airline rewards is to select cards that match up with your regular pattern of spending. Obviously, if you only fly on United Airlines, you’ll benefit from a card tied to United.
But you can also maximize airline rewards by finding cards that pay bonus miles for other types of spending. For example, if you have a large family and spend a lot of money at grocery stores, you can benefit from a card that pays extra miles for your grocery shopping.
When it comes to redeeming miles, the process is usually straightforward:
- To begin the redemption process, you’ll need to access your account either online or by phone. To redeem miles, log in to your frequent flyer online account or call the mileage club directly. To redeem points, log in to your credit card rewards portal or call the customer service line directly.
- Check your account balance. Verify that all of the miles or points you think you’re entitled to have been credited to your account.
- Select the type of reward you want. Airline miles and points can often be used for more than just airfare. For example, you can redeem United MileagePlus miles for gift cards, merchandise, a TSA Precheck membership, cruise awards or charitable donations, among many other options.
- Follow the instructions to book your reward.
If you’re using a website, follow the on-screen instructions, which will outline the number of points or miles you’ll need to book your reward. For example, if you’re looking to use your miles to book a reward flight, enter your flight specifics and then pay the required number of miles. If you’re speaking directly with a customer service representative, ask how many miles you’ll need for your specified reward and then grant permission to redeem those miles.
Here are the answers to questions you might have while you’re on the lookout for an airline credit card.
Can you transfer miles between airlines?
Unlike many generic travel rewards cards, airline cards are tied to specific airlines. As a result, you can’t transfer miles between airlines. However, there’s one workaround: You can often use one airline’s miles to book reward flights on another carrier in the same airline alliance. For example, you can use United Airlines miles to book reward flights with fellow Star Alliance member Lufthansa.
Which card provides the best flight points?
Airline credit cards can award impressive bonuses in different areas. The JetBlue Plus Card from Barclays, for example, grants six points per $1 spent on JetBlue purchases, which is an outstanding earnings rate. When it comes to sign-up bonuses, the Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card and the Delta Reserve Credit Card from American Express provide $1,200 and $900 in value, respectively. The Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard offers a high number of different travel perks, with a total of six benefits.
Which card is the easiest to get approved for?
Getting approved for an airline credit card depends on a number of factors. In most cases, you’ll face the best chances for approval if you have a good credit score of at least 720. However, customers with credit scores in the mid-600s have also reported getting approved for various cards. Capital One seems to be more flexible on credit scores than other issuers such as Citibank and Chase.
Your chances for approval for any card will go up if you always pay your bills on time and keep your outstanding balances and credit utilization low. Some credit card issuers, including Discover, let you enter basic information to see if you are prequalified for any of their cards.
Should I get an airline credit card?
You should only get a credit card if you can handle your finances responsibly. Even the best airline rewards credit cards will be detrimental to your overall financial condition if you end up paying 17% or more in monthly interest charges.
That being said, many customers — particularly flyers who are loyal to a particular airline — can benefit from the freebies offered by airline credit cards. Between the sign-up bonuses and rewards categories that provide additional miles, frequent flyers can earn rewards toward free airfare, even in premium cabins like business and first class.
But, if you’re more of a general traveler who will fly on whichever airline offers the cheapest fare, you might be better off with a travel rewards card that isn’t tied to a particular airline.
Can you earn points for travel and non-travel purchases with an airline credit card?
Most airline travel cards provide bonus mileage categories to encourage spending in particular areas. For example, the Chase United Explorer Card rewards you with two miles for every $1 you spend at restaurants, on hotel stays and on United purchases. However, you can also earn miles for nontravel purchases. All of the cards that ranked among GOBankingRates’ Best Airline Credit Cards of 2019, for example, will pay you at least one mile per $1 you spend on nontravel purchases. Some cards, like the Spirit Airlines World Mastercard from Bank of America, will even reward you with double miles on everyday purchases.
Can you earn points for a balance transfer with an airline credit card?
Although individual card promotions are subject to change at any time, you usually can’t earn points or miles for a balance transfer from a different credit card. Unlike purchases, balance transfers don’t generate any interchange fees for card issuers, so the only benefit you’re likely to receive is a promotional balance transfer APR.
Perhaps you value free checked bags, priority boarding and other travel perks over points or miles. In that case, rewards won’t matter as much when you’re ready to choose an airline credit card.
“Your goal might not be to earn miles for your spending but to earn benefits for when you travel,” Steele said. “And if those benefits are worth the cost of the annual fee, then it can be a great deal.”
Learn More About the Best Credit Cards of 2019
Erika Giovanetti contributed to the reporting for this article.
Methodology: GOBankingRates identified the best airline credit cards by analyzing the following factors: (1) rewards rates; (2) foreign transaction fees; (3) annual fees; (4) regular APR for purchases; (5) promotional APR for purchases; (6) length of promotional APR period; (7) sign-up bonuses; (8) airline destination totals; (9) 2018 enplaned passengers total; and (10) miscellaneous travel benefits. Miscellaneous travel benefits include free checked bags, access to airport lounges, priority boarding, any flight discounts, discounted companion fares, access to free Wi-Fi on flights and TSA Precheck access. All data for the Best Airline Credit Cards of 2019 was sourced from each financial institution’s or airline’s website or promotional material and is accurate as of Oct. 4, 2019. Every month, GOBankingRates’ research team updates data and details on each credit card in order to maintain accurate and relevant information for readers; however, credit card rankings remain the same as of the original date the research was conducted and rankings were established: June 12, 2019.
For the most up-to-date information on an institution or its accounts, visit its website.
The information related to the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard and the Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard has been collected by GOBankingRates.com and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer or provider of this product or service.
Editorial disclosure: GOBankingRates is a personal finance and consumer interest rate website owned by ConsumerTrack Inc., an online marketing company serving top-tier banks, credit unions and other financial services organizations. Some companies mentioned in this article might be clients of ConsumerTrack Inc., which serves more than 100 national, local and online financial institutions. Rankings and roundups are completely objective, and no institution, client or otherwise, paid for inclusion or specific placement. Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of GOBankingRates alone and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the companies included in the article. All fees and rates are subject to change at the issuers’ discretion. Some interest rates might be short-term or promotional offers only, and it is possible additional terms and conditions must be met in order to obtain the interest rates listed. Some offers might no longer be available on the credit card issuers’ websites, depending on how you access the webpage. Rates and availability might vary by region. Please verify terms and conditions — especially sign-up bonuses and other bonus offers — before opening an account.
GOBankingRates bases its assessment of “best” and “top” products on the above-stated parameters to create a baseline for comparison. This assessment is an approximation of “best” and “top” designed to help consumers find products that might be appropriate for them. There could be other options available as well. Consumers should consider various options appropriate for their personal circumstances.