Best airline credit card for October 2021 – CNET

With the right airline credit card, every time you make a purchase, it brings you that much closer to your next trip. Why are airline cards worthwhile for frequent (or even infrequent!) travelers? Airline credit cards are co-branded cards offered by an airline and a bank to reward users with frequent flyer miles. The best airline credit cards also offer other perks like complimentary companion fares, in-flight Wi-Fi passes and waived checked-bag fees.

So which is the best airline credit card for you? We compared cards for seven of the most popular airlines in the US and narrowed it down to those that offer the most value for the biggest portion of travelers. Since most of the rewards rates fall in the same 2x to 3x miles or points range, we looked at whether they offer benefits like a free checked bag, credits for gift cards and more. Here are our recommendations for the best airline credit cards.

Intro BonusEarn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That’s $900 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®

APR16.99%-23.99% Variable

Recommended Credit Excellent Credit

Reward Rates

  • Earn 10X total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
  • Earn 5X total points on air travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Earn 3X points on other travel and dining.
  • 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases

Annual Fee$550

Intro Purchase APRN/A

Balance Transfer Fee Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each balance transfer, whichever is greater

Balance Transfer APR16.99%-23.99% Variable

Foreign Transaction Fees $0

Penalty APR Up to 29.99%

  • Earn 10X total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
  • Earn 5X total points on air travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Earn 3X points on other travel and dining.
  • 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases

Our Take

The Chase Sapphire Reserve is a general travel rewards credit card, meaning you earn points on any travel or dining purchase, not just with a single airline card issuer, and your redemption options are much more flexible and transferable. The Chase Sapphire Reserve rewards card is included here for those who want more flexibility but still want to use rewards to book future travel. You earn 10x points on hotel and car rental purchases and 5x points on air travel purchases through Chase Ultimate Rewards. You can also earn 3x points on all other travel and dining purchases (earn elevated rewards on all travel purchases immediately after earning the $300 annual travel credit), and 10x points on Lyft rides through March 2022. All other purchases earn 1x points. 

This rewards card is even better for those who value the additional travel perks like travel insurance, hotel benefits on eligible stays and lounge access. 

Intro BonusEarn 100,000 Membership Rewards® Points after you spend $6,000 on purchases on the Card in your first 6 months of Card Membership.

APRSee Pay Over Time APR

Recommended Credit Excellent/Good

Reward Rates

  • Earn 10x points on eligible purchases on the Card at restaurants worldwide and when you Shop Small in the U.S., on up to $25,000 in combined purchases, during your first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 5X Membership Rewards® Points for flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year.
  • Earn 5X Membership Rewards® Points on prepaid hotels booked with American Express Travel.

Annual Fee$695

Intro Purchase APRN/A

Late Payment Fee Up to $40

Foreign Transaction Fees None

  • Earn 10x points on eligible purchases on the Card at restaurants worldwide and when you Shop Small in the U.S., on up to $25,000 in combined purchases, during your first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 5X Membership Rewards® Points for flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year.
  • Earn 5X Membership Rewards® Points on prepaid hotels booked with American Express Travel.

Our Take

A high-return travel rewards card, the Platinum Card from American Express offers frequent fliers the high potential rewards rates. The Platinum Card earns 5x Membership Rewards points on flights and prepaid hotels booked directly with airlines or through the Amex portal (third-party sites don’t qualify), and as 1x MR points on other eligible purchases. The high annual fee of $695 is partially offset by up to a $200 airline fee statement credit for travel incidentals, a statement credit for Global Entry or TSA Precheck (worth $100 for Global Entry or $85 for TSA precheck, and valid for five years) and up to $200 in Uber Cash per year for US rides and eats (up to $15 in Uber Cash each month, plus a bonus $20 in December). The new member bonus is also on the high side at 100,000 points when you spend $6,000 in the first six months of card membership.

Even if you’re loyal to one airline, you should get a better return on spending with the Platinum card than you would with a co-branded airline credit card. It’s an excellent choice for those who value premium travel perks like lounge access and hotel upgrades, or who want the flexibility to redeem rewards with a larger roster of airlines.

Note: Terms apply to American Express benefits and offers. Enrollment may be required for select American Express benefits and offers. Visit americanexpress.com to learn more.

Intro BonusLimited Time Offer: Earn 90,000 Bonus Miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer expires 11/10/2021.

APR15.74%-24.74% Variable

Recommended Credit Excellent/Good

Reward Rates

  • Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels.
  • Earn 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide, including takeout and delivery and at U.S. supermarkets.
  • Earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases.

Annual Fee$250

Intro Purchase APRN/A

Foreign Transaction Fees None

Penalty APR 29.99% Variable

  • Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels.
  • Earn 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide, including takeout and delivery and at U.S. supermarkets.
  • Earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases.

Our Take

With an annual domestic companion certificate (taxes and fees of no more than $75 is required), a welcome bonus for new card members and a moderate annual fee, the Delta SkyMiles Platinum Card from American Express is the best airline rewards card for most Delta fliers. The rewards are fairly average for an airline rewards program, but this airline rewards credit card makes up for that with other perks. The Delta SkyMiles Platinum Card offers 3x miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels, 2x miles at restaurants and US supermarkets and 1x miles on all other eligible purchases. Those who check bags often and travel with a companion (domestically) at least annually can save a substantial amount of money. 

Note: Terms apply to American Express benefits and offers. Enrollment may be required for select American Express benefits and offers. Visit americanexpress.com to learn more.

Intro BonusEarn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months.

APR15.99% – 22.99% Variable

Recommended Credit Excellent/Good

Reward Rates

  • Earn 3X points on dining, including takeout and eligible delivery services, for the first year.
  • Earn 2 points per $1 spent on Southwest® purchases.
  • Earn 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases.

Annual Fee$149

Intro Purchase APRN/A

Balance Transfer Fee Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each balance transfer, whichever is greater.

Balance Transfer APR15.99% – 22.99% Variable

Foreign Transaction Fees $0

Penalty APR Up to 29.99%

  • Earn 3X points on dining, including takeout and eligible delivery services, for the first year.
  • Earn 2 points per $1 spent on Southwest® purchases.
  • Earn 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases.

Our Take

Given its perks and credits, the Priority card, which is co-branded with Chase, offers the best value among Southwest Rapid Rewards cards. With a 40,000-point welcome bonus for new card members after spending $1,000 in the first three months, a reward rate of 1x to 3x points and a $75 annual Southwest travel credit, this card pays for itself fairly quickly. The Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority card offers 3x points on dining purchases for the first year, 2x points on Southwest Airlines purchases and 1x points on all other purchases. Though Southwest already gives fliers their first two checked bags for free and doesn’t have airport lounges, this rewards credit card saves Southwest loyalists money in other ways. 

The $149 annual fee is offset by the $75 annual Southwest travel credit, which is automatically applied to your account each year when you use your card for a Southwest Airlines purchase, and the additional 7,500 points awarded each card anniversary. 

Intro BonusEarn 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

APR16.49% to 23.49% Variable

Recommended Credit Good, Excellent

Reward Rates

  • Earn 2 miles per $1 spent on dining, hotel stays, and United purchases
  • Earn 2 miles per $1 spent on dining including eligible delivery services
  • 1 mile per $1 spent on all other purchases

Annual Fee$0 Intro for First Year, then $95

Intro Purchase APRN/A

Balance Transfer Fee Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.

Balance Transfer APR16.49% to 23.49% Variable

Foreign Transaction Fees $0

Penalty APR Up to 29.99%

  • Earn 2 miles per $1 spent on dining, hotel stays, and United purchases
  • Earn 2 miles per $1 spent on dining including eligible delivery services
  • 1 mile per $1 spent on all other purchases

Our Take

The rewards rate of Chase’s United Explorer card is on the low end for co-branded airline credit cards at 2x miles on United purchases, dining and hotels, but it does offer decent value through its new card member sign-on bonus and waived baggage fees. In many cases, you’d be better off with a no-annual-fee cash-back credit card if you don’t spend a high amount on travel and dining each year. But if you value priority boarding and check a bag every time you fly United, the Explorer card is worth considering. Generally, United’s credit cards don’t compare well with the other airlines when it comes to overall value, so this recommendation is really the best of some not-so-great options. 

The United Explorer card offers 2x miles on United purchases, 2x miles on dining and hotels and 1x miles on all other purchases. The card’s $95 annual fee is waived the first year of ownership and new cardholders earn 40,000 bonus miles after spending $2,000 on purchases in the first three months.

Intro BonusEarn 60,000 AAdvantage® bonus miles after making your first purchase and paying the $99 annual fee in full within the first 90 days.

APR15.99%, 19.99% or 24.99% variable based on your creditworthiness

Recommended Credit Excellent/Good

Reward Rates

  • 2 miles per dollar on eligible American Airlines purchases
  • 1 mile per dollar on other purchases

Annual Fee$99

Intro Purchase APRN/A

Intro Balance Transfer APR0% intro for first 15 billing cycles following each BT that posts within 45 days of account opening

Balance Transfer Fee Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.

Balance Transfer APR15.99%, 19.99% or 24.99% variable based on your creditworthiness

Late Payment Fee Up to $40 (the amount of the fee varies by state)

Foreign Transaction Fees 0% of each transaction in U.S. dollars.

  • 2 miles per dollar on eligible American Airlines purchases
  • 1 mile per dollar on other purchases

Our Take

The AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard* from Barclays, with its free checked bags for up to four others on the same reservation, is ideal for families who travel together often. It only takes one round-trip flight with the whole family and a cartload of bags to earn back for the $99 annual fee and it’s also the card with the lowest spending threshold (make your first purchase and pay the $99 annual fee in full within the first 90 days) to earn the 60,000 airline mile sign-on bonus. 

The card offers 2x miles on eligible American Airline purchases and 1x miles on all other eligible purchases. Cardholders get their first checked bag free and a free checked bag for up to four companions traveling on the same reservation, which can add up to $300 in baggage fee savings for one round-trip flight. The card also offers preferred boarding, a $25 statement credit for in-flight Wi-Fi purchases per year and 25% back on in-flight food and beverages. 

Intro BonusEarn 40,000 Bonus Points after spending $1,000 on purchases in the first 90 days and payment of annual fee

APR15.99%, 19.99% or 24.99% variable based on your creditworthiness.

Recommended Credit Excellent

Reward Rates

  • 6X points on eligible JetBlue purchases
  • 2X points at restaurants and eligible grocery stores
  • 1X points on all other purchases

Annual Fee$99

Intro Purchase APRN/A

Intro Balance Transfer APR0% intro for first 12 billing cycles following each BT that posts within 45 days of account opening

Balance Transfer Fee Either $5 or 3% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.

Balance Transfer APR15.99%, 19.99% or 24.99% variable based on your creditworthiness.

Late Payment Fee Up to $40

Foreign Transaction Fees 0% of each transaction in U.S. dollars.

  • 6X points on eligible JetBlue purchases
  • 2X points at restaurants and eligible grocery stores
  • 1X points on all other purchases

Our Take

The Barclays JetBlue Plus Card* has the best rewards rate of any airline card on this list and its other features, perks and bonuses are on par with category averages, including its fairly standard $99 annual fee. It’s a good card for JetBlue loyalists and even a good option for those who fly JetBlue only a few times a year, but who can take advantage of the sign-on bonus and free checked bags. 

The JetBlue Plus Card offers 6x points on eligible JetBlue purchases, 2x points at restaurants and eligible grocery stores and 1x points on all other purchases. The sign-on bonus is 40,000 TrueBlue points after spending $1,000 and paying the annual fee in full, both in the first 90 days. Cardmembers also get an additional 5,000 bonus points each year on their account anniversary. The first checked bag on each flight is free for you and up to three companions traveling on the same reservation. JetBlue Plus card holders also get 50% off in-flight food and beverage purchases, twice the discount that most other airline cards offer. 

Intro BonusGet 50,000 bonus miles plus Alaska’s Famous Companion Fare™ from $121 ($99 fare plus taxes and fees from $22) with this offer. To qualify, make purchases of $2,000 or more within the first 90 days of opening your account.

APR15.99% – 23.99% Variable APR on purchases

Recommended Credit Excellent/Good

Reward Rates

  • Earn unlimited 3 miles for every $1 spent on eligible Alaska Airlines purchases.
  • Unlimited 1 mile for every $1 spent on all other purchases.

Annual Fee$75

Intro Purchase APRN/A

Balance Transfer Fee Either $10 or 3% of the amount of each transaction, whichever is greater.

Balance Transfer APR15.99% – 23.99% Variable APR on balance transfers

Late Payment Fee Up to $40

Foreign Transaction Fees None

Penalty APR up to 29.99% APR

  • Earn unlimited 3 miles for every $1 spent on eligible Alaska Airlines purchases.
  • Unlimited 1 mile for every $1 spent on all other purchases.

Our Take

The Alaska Airlines Visa Credit Card* from Bank of America is the only airline card offered by Alaska Airlines, but it’s a good one. The annual $121 companion fare ($99 fare plus taxes and fees from just $22), free checked bag and 3x miles on eligible Alaska Airlines spending can translate into valuable savings for an Alaska frequent flyer. It’s the only card we found that offers free checked bags for up to six companions on the same reservation, so families will obviously benefit from those waived fees. The rewards rate is also substantial, and paired with a lower-than-average annual fee of $75, this card can save Alaska Airline loyalists a significant amount of money. 

You also earn 20% back on in-flight purchases and 1x miles on all other purchases. The sign-on bonus is 50,000 miles, plus Alaska’s Companion Fare from $121 ($99 fare plus taxes and fees from $22) after spending $2,000 in the first 90 days.

FAQs

How do airline credit cards work?

Airline credit cards reward users with points or miles from an airline’s frequent flyer program, which can be redeemed for flights with that airline. Sometimes you can transfer those points to one of the airline’s travel partners, though this option varies from airline to airline. 

Airline credit cards operate like loyalty programs in that you stay in a closed-loop rewards system. You earn rewards when you purchase flights on the airline, and you can use those points for future bookings. Some airline credit cards also reward card holders for making purchases at restaurants, grocery stores or other categories, but given the average reward rate of airline credit cards for those categories, we generally advise paying for those purchases with a cash-back credit card or general travel rewards credit card. 

Who should use an airline credit card?

Airline reward cards are best for those who are already loyal to one airline — and thus don’t mind the inflexibility of the rewards — as well as those who value perks like airline lounge access and waived baggage fees. Despite their rigidity, however, there are lots of situations that make airline cards worthwhile, especially because some of them offer card reward standbys like balance transfer, a sign-up bonus or welcome bonus for new card holders and other membership reward perks.

If you rarely check a bag and bargain-hunt for most flights, an airline credit card might not be the best choice for you. Instead, consider a travel credit card (two of which are listed below), a cash-back credit card or even a business credit card. If you check a bag every time you fly though, those waived baggage fees that come with card membership can add up to hundreds of dollars in annual savings. Plus, early boarding often guarantees overhead bin space, giving you more legroom and less stress.

What are the benefits of an airline credit card?

Some common benefits of an airline credit card include:

  • Waived checked baggage fees
  • Priority boarding
  • Lounge access (during some, not all, itineraries) 
  • Accelerated airline status qualification
  • Complimentary or reduced companion fares
  • No foreign transaction fee
  • Global Entry or TSA PreCheck credits
  • Generous sign-on bonuses

How do airline cards compare with travel rewards cards?

While airline credit cards offer rewards in the form of an airline’s miles or points, general travel rewards credit cards have their own systems, like American Express’ Membership Rewards points or Chase’s Ultimate Rewards points. General travel credit card points can be used to redeem travel (with any available airline) through the card issuer’s travel portal, or for a potentially higher value, transferred to an airline partner. You also earn extra points on any travel purchase, regardless of the airline.

Though they may charge higher annual fees, the general travel rewards credit cards tend to offer superior return rates and, since they cover a much greater range of purchases, they are often the better option. American Express Membership Rewards points and Chase Ultimate Rewards points may also be worth more cents per point when transferred strategically, making the return even greater.

Even the best airline credit card is typically less flexible than general travel cards, since you only earn the bonus reward rate when making purchases with an airline, and your options for redemption are much more limited. Given their relative inflexibility, airline credit cards are best for travelers who want to take advantage of airline-specific perks. If you often spend on upgraded boardings or checked bags and you always fly with the same airline, these cards can save you money. 

If you’re not loyal to one airline, rarely check bags and don’t care about your frequent flyer status, a general travel credit card is a better choice.

How to use an airline card as a secondary travel rewards card

While airline credit cards are usually best for travelers who are loyal to one airline, they can also be used as valuable “secondary” cards, in conjunction with a general travel rewards card like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, American Express® Gold Card or The Platinum Card from American Express. 

This works by taking advantage of the generous intro bonuses, which range in value between $500 and $1,000. You’ll need to satisfy the spending threshold to earn those bonuses, but if you can identify an opportunity, like holiday flights, business-related trips or a family vacation, the strategy works. In those cases, you can apply for the credit card in advance, use it to book your trips, then reassess in a year to see if this card still holds value for you.

That said, I’m generally not a fan of the “super user” strategy of signing up for lots of different cards to take advantage of bonuses, as it usually ends up taking more time and energy than it’s worth. Trying to keep track of several accounts is not a prudent financial strategy. And from an overall returns rate perspective, you’ll usually be better off simply using a general travel rewards card for all those purchases from different airlines.

How we pick the best airline credit card

Each major airline generally offers three to four tiers of credit cards with a range of annual fees, rewards structures and available perks. The lower-tier cards have annual fees under $100, while the highest-tier cards have annual fees that can reach $450-$500. Most of the airline credit cards we recommend fall in the middle of that range. This is because there are excellent no-annual-fee or low-fee cash-back credit cards available that offer better rewards rates than most airline cards. Once you reach the travel spending threshold required to make a $500 annual fee airline card worth it, you would see more value return from a high-end travel rewards card such as the Platinum Card from American Express or the Chase Sapphire Reserve, listed above. 

To determine the best airline credit card, we researched all the available cards for seven major airlines and selected those that offer the best potential financial value. Given that the value of airline credit cards can fluctuate considerably based on factors like how many bags you check with your preferred airline in a given year, it’s harder to calculate the specific spending thresholds at which a card makes sense. That being said, we emphasize the rewards and perks that matter the most with each card so you can find the best airline credit card given your situation.

Cards we researched

More personal finance advice

For rates and fees of The Platinum Card from American Express, click here.

For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles Platinum American Express Card, click here.

*All information about the AAdvantage Aviator Red Elite World Mastercard, JetBlue Plus Card and Alaska Airlines Visa Credit Card has been collected independently by CNET and has not been reviewed by the issuer.

Disclaimer: The information included in this article, including program features, program fees and credits available through credit cards to apply to such programs, may change from time-to-time and are presented without warranty. When evaluating offers, please check the credit card provider’s website and review its terms and conditions for the most current offers and information. Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, hotel, airline, or other entity. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of the entities included within the post.

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