Best Airline Credit Cards in 2021

The best airline rewards credit cards offer other travel-specific benefits as well. These include priority boarding, free airport lounge access, free checked bags and more.

By  
  |  
Reviewed by    |  

Airline rewards credit cards help you earn points through an airline’s frequent flyer or loyalty program. The top priority in selecting an airline rewards card is narrowing down on an airline that works best for you based on where you live and the routes you travel. When you're part of a frequent flyer program, you might benefit through its partnerships with other airlines as well.

Some regular rewards credit cards give you the ability to use your points to pay for air travel, and some let you transfer your reward points to partner airline frequent flyer programs. As a result, they warrant your attention too.

It is common for airline credit cards to come with annual fees, which may vary from around $90 to over $500. This requires that you determine if you might be able to earn enough rewards and use the card’s features well enough to offset this cost.

The value of points/miles varies based on different factors, which include your airline loyalty program. The APR you need to pay, the sign-up bonus you stand to earn and the additional perks you get access to depend on the card you get.

While airline cards offer higher reward earn rates when you spend on flight tickets, their earn rates across other categories are sometimes lower than those offered by regular rewards cards.

tip icon
READY TO GET STARTED?

Use the links below to find the information you’re looking for quicker:

MoneyGeek Quick Tip: Get an airline credit card only if you think you can make up for its annual fee through the rewards you earn and the benefits you get to enjoy.

MoneyGeek’s Take: Top Credit Cards with Airline & Miles Rewards

MoneyGeek has compared scores of airline reward credit cards across parameters such as interest rates, fees, bonus miles, miles earned and additional perks so that you may select one with ease.

1

General Miles Credit Cards

  • Citi Premier Card — The Citi Premier Card comes with a $95 annual fee. It offers 3x points per $1 on multiple categories, air travel included. It lets you transfer your reward points to popular airline loyalty programs for no additional fee.
  • Capital One Venture Card — The Capital One Venture Card charges a $95 annual fee. It offers 2x miles per $1 on all purchases. You get to transfer your miles to various airline loyalty programs.
  • American Express Platinum Card — The Platinum Card from American Express comes with a $695 annual fee. It offers 5x points per $1 on flights booked through Amex Travel or directly through airlines (on up to $500,000 of such purchases per year). You get a $200 airline fee credit each year. You may use your points to pay for travel via Amex Travel. You may also transfer your points to different frequent flyer programs.
2

Co-Branded Airline Credit Cards

  • Chase United Club Infinite Card — The United Club Infinite Card from Chase charges a $525 annual fee. You earn 4x miles per $1 on purchases from United. You earn miles by flying with United, United Express, airlines that are part of the Star Alliance and other airline partners. You may redeem your miles for flights with United and other airline partners. You get various travel-related benefits, such as complimentary insurance, free checked bags, upgrades on award tickets and priority check-in.
  • American Express Delta SkyMiles Platinum Card — You need to pay a $250 annual fee for the Delta SkyMiles Platinum Card. You earn 3x miles per $1 on purchases made directly through Delta. You may use your miles to book air travel via Delta and for seat upgrades. Other travel-specific benefits include complimentary travel insurance, free checked bags and round-trip companion certificates.
3

Business Credit Cards With Airline Perks

  • Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Card — The Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Credit Card from Chase charges a $199 annual fee. You get 3x points per $1 on Southwest Airlines purchases. You may redeem your points for flights with Southwest Airlines. Other travel-related benefits include availability-based seat upgrades, TSA PreCheck/Global Entry credit and complimentary insurance.
  • American Express Business Platinum Card — The Business Platinum Card from American Express charges a $595 annual fee. It offers 5x points on flights and prepaid hotel bookings through Amex Travel. When you use your points to pay for all or part of an eligible airfare, you get 35% of those points back (up to 500,000 points back per year). While you may use your points to book air travel via Amex Travel, you can also transfer them to eligible frequent flyer programs. Other travel-specific benefits include airline fee credit, airport lounge access, complimentary insurance and complimentary Marriott Bonvoy Gold Elite and Hilton Honors Gold status.

Best Airline Rewards Credit Cards for September 2021

When selecting the best airline credit cards, our experts pay due attention to each card's advantages and drawbacks. For instance, if a card comes with a steep annual fee, we feel you should know about it up front.

General Miles Credit Cards

General miles credit cards are not linked to any specific airline. Some let you use your points to pay for air travel directly, and you may also find alternatives that let you transfer your points to different airline frequent flyer programs. Some travel rewards credit cards offer high reward rates on categories other than air travel.


  • creditApproved icon

    FEATURED

    Citi Premier Card
    An excellent travel rewards card for international use

    • ExcellentCredit Needed
    • $95Annual Fee
    • 1-3 Points per $1Rewards Rate
    • 3xRewards Rate on Air Travel
    • 3xRewards Rate on Groceries

  • Capital One Venture
    An excellent travel rewards card for international use

    • Good-ExcellentCredit Needed
    • $95Annual Fee
    • 2 Miles per $1Rewards Rate
    • 2xRewards Rate on Air Travel
    • 2xRewards Rate on Groceries

  • American Express The Platinum Card
    A great rewards card for air travel with premium benefits

    • Good-ExcellentCredit Needed
    • $695Annual Fee
    • 1-5 Points per $1*Rewards Rate
    • 5xRewards Rate on Air Travel
    • 1xRewards Rate on Groceries

Co-Branded Airline Credit Cards

Co-branded airline credit cards are linked with particular airlines. With an airline card, you stand to earn higher rewards on travel and in-flight purchases. Some airline cards let you earn and use points/miles with partner airlines. Getting one makes sense if you are loyal to a specific airline and travel frequently.


  • creditApproved icon

    FEATURED

    Chase United Club Infinite
    An excellent card for earning United’s MileagePlus miles

    • ExcellentCredit Needed
    • $525Annual Fee
    • 1-4 Miles per $1*Rewards Rate
    • 4xRewards Rate on Air Travel
    • 2xRewards Rate on Hotel

  • American Express Delta SkyMiles Platinum Card
    An excellent card for earning Delta SkyMiles

    • Good-ExcellentCredit Needed
    • $250Annual Fee
    • 1-3 Miles per $1Rewards Rate
    • 3xRewards Rate on Air Travel
    • 3xRewards Rate on Hotel

Business Credit Cards with Airline Perks

The best airline credit cards for business offer high reward earn rates when you book flight tickets. If you have a business credit card with airline perks, transferring your points to different frequent flyer programs might be an option. Other perks can come in the form of access to airport lounges, priority boarding and complimentary travel insurance. If you get additional cards for your employees, they may also earn rewards and enjoy the same perks.


  • creditApproved icon

    FEATURED

    Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business
    An excellent business card with Southwest and other travel benefits

    • Good-ExcellentCredit Needed
    • $199Annual Fee
    • 1-3 Points per $1*Rewards Rate
    • 3xRewards Rate on Air Travel
    • 1xRewards Rate on Hotel

  • American Express Business Platinum Card
    A good business card for premium travel benefits

    • Good-ExcellentCredit Needed
    • $595Annual Fee
    • 1-5 Points per $1*Rewards Rate
    • 5xRewards Rate on Air Travel
    • 5xRewards Rate on Hotel

tip icon
WANT THE MILES WITHOUT THE ANNUAL FEE?

If you wish to earn miles without paying an annual fee, bear in mind that lower reward rates are usually part of the parcel. Some of the best airline credit cards with no annual fees include the Delta SkyMiles Blue American Express Card, the American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp Card from Citi, the Discover it Miles Card and the Capital One VentureOne Rewards Card.

How We Rank Airline Credit Cards

Our lists of the best credit cards are based on publicly available data from card issuers and other reputable sources like the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. We review each card's fees, interest rates, rewards, benefits and more to assign a rating for each feature. These ratings are stack ranked and weighted for each card category to determine our top selections for each type of user. Because card details change regularly, we revisit our data each month to update our ratings, recommendations and other card information as needed. Learn more about our data collection and ranking process.

Top Rating Criteria for Airline Rewards Credit Cards

airplane
Airline Reward Rate
signupBonus
Sign-up bonus
coins
Annual Fee

Quick Tips for Comparing Airline Credit Cards

Various aspects require your attention when selecting an airline card that works well for you. These include:

  • Free flights: Using the points/miles you earn to book flight tickets is typically easy. Many airline credit cards let you earn enough bonus miles to pay for a flight ticket as a new cardholder if you meet predetermined spending criteria. For example, you may earn 50,000 to 75,000 bonus miles by spending $3,000 to $4,000 in the first three months.
  • Upgrades: Some airline credit cards offer complimentary upgrades. For example, the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card from Chase offers four free upgrades every year. The Delta SkyMiles Reserve American Express Card, on the other hand, gives you upgrade priority over others who have the same elite status within Delta's loyalty program. You might also be able to use your miles for seat upgrades, although rules surrounding upgrading tickets purchased through airline miles tend to differ from carrier to carrier.
  • Partner airlines: Some frequent flyer programs have partnered with other airlines, giving you the ability to earn and redeem miles when you fly outside your conventional routes. For instance, Alaska Airlines's Mileage Plan reward program has partnerships with Aer Lingus, American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Emirates and Singapore Airlines. Some of the airlines that are part of American Airlines’ AAdvantage reward program include British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Malaysia Airlines, Qantas and Qatar Airways.
  • Annual fees: You will be hard-pressed to find a no-annual-fee airline credit card. Exceptions include the Citi AAdvantage MileUp Card and the Delta SkyMiles Blue American Express Card. Depending on the features and benefits of the card you get, you might need to pay an annual fee of around $90 to more than $500. Some airline cards offer annual fee waivers for the first year. How well you manage to use your card has a bearing on whether or not you can justify paying its annual fee.
  • Foreign transaction fees: Airline credit cards that charge foreign transaction fees require that you pay an added 2% or 3% of each international transaction. The best airline credit cards for international travel are ones that charge no foreign transaction fees, with examples being the Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express Card, the JetBlue Card by Barclays and the Bank of America Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card.
  • APR: If you plan to carry forward balances from one billing cycle to the next, you’ll want to pay attention to the annual percentage rate (APR). The cash advance APR is typically higher than the purchase APR. Like travel cards, it is uncommon for airline cards to come with introductory APR offers. If you’re looking for an intro 0% APR offer on purchases, you might benefit by looking at what the travel-oriented Chase Freedom Unlimited Card has to offer.
  • Sign-up bonus: Sign-up bonuses remain a big draw for people who are looking for airline credit cards. If you use a popular airline such as American Airlines, Delta or United for most of your travels, you can expect to find an airline card that offers bonus miles for the corresponding frequent flyer program. This is usually the case with popular international frequent flyer programs as well.
  • Reward earn rates: The number of points/miles you earn per dollar varies from one airline credit card to another. Earn rates with such cards are typically the best when you spend on airline purchases and tend to drop for other categories. For example, the Delta SkyMiles Reserve American Express Card offers 3x miles on Delta purchases and 1x miles on all other purchases. If you wish to maximize your ability to earn rewards across all categories, you might benefit by getting a travel rewards card instead.
  • Value of miles: While you stand to earn a different number of points/miles per dollar through different airline credit cards, their value varies based on other factors too. For instance, NerdWallet has found that American Airlines offers better value for your points when you redeem them for business class instead of economy. Depending on the route you wish to travel, your points may provide lesser value during weekends. You also need to remember that you cannot use your miles to pay for taxes when traveling overseas. Typically, the value of one airline mile varies from just under one cent to two cents.
  • Membership status level: Getting an airline credit card can give your frequent flyer program’s membership status a boost. With the Delta SkyMiles Reserve American Express Card, you may reach the Medallion Status faster. If you spend more than $25,000 in a year, you stand to get a Medallion Qualification Dollar (MQD) waiver. In addition, you may earn 15,000 Medallion Qualification Miles by spending $30,000 in a year, up to four times each year. The Virgin Atlantic World Elite Mastercard offers 25 tier points toward status for every $2,500 you spend (with a maximum of 50 points per month). In several cases, the benefits you receive through higher tiers of memberships are typically the ones you already get through your airline credit card.
  • Additional benefits: Flight-specific benefits may come in the form of discounts on in-flight purchases, airline credits, free/discounted companion fares, Global Entry/TSA PreCheck credits, free checked bags, airport lounge access, priority boarding, travel insurance and purchase protection.
tip icon
MONEYGEEK EXPERT TIP

Unless you travel often by car or train, an airline credit card is likely a better idea than a hotel credit card if you are debating between the two. With housing alternatives like Airbnb and others, where you sleep is less of a “barrier to entry” than how you get there, especially if the distance between you and your destination is significant.

Airline Rewards Credit Cards Compared at a Glance

Use the corresponding table to narrow down on a suitable airline credit card after accounting for key aspects such as reward rates across different categories and annual fees.

Scroll for more

swipe icon
  • Card Name
    Card Type
    Everyday Reward Rate
    Rewards Rate on Air Travel
    Annual Fee
  • 1.
    Citi Premier Card
    Travel Rewards
    1-3 Points per $1
    3x
    $95
  • 2.
    Capital One Venture
    Travel Rewards
    2 Miles per $1
    2x
    $95
  • 3.
    American Express The Platinum Card
    Travel Rewards
    1-5 Points per $1*
    5x
    $695
  • 4.
    Chase United Club Infinite
    Co-branded Airlines Card
    1-4 Miles per $1*
    4x
    $525
  • 5.
    American Express Delta SkyMiles Platinum Card
    Co-branded Airlines Card
    1-3 Miles per $1
    3x
    $250

MoneyGeek’s Quick Guide to Understanding Airline Rewards Credit Cards

Airline rewards credit cards are usually affiliated with specific carriers. When you use an airline card with the airline in question or with its partner airlines, you stand to earn higher rewards. Airline credit cards typically offer other travel-related perks such as airport lounge access and priority boarding. Depending on the card you get, you may use your points to book flights or get seat upgrades.

Getting an airline credit card might work well for you if:

  • You have a favored airline. If you prefer using any particular airline, you might benefit by getting a linked credit card. This way, you stand to earn high rewards and enjoy airline-specific perks as well.
  • You fly frequently. If you fly frequently, you might consider capitalizing on your spending by getting an airline credit card. If you use two or more airlines, find out if they’re connected through a common frequent flyer program.
  • Your business takes you overseas. If you or your employees need to travel outside of the country frequently, you may want to consider getting an airline credit card or a business card with travel perks. While you and your employees get to earn rewards, you may also benefit by making use of other travel perks. For instance, some airline credit cards come with no foreign transaction fees.
  • You are looking for travel perks. If you’re looking for travel-related perks, such as TSA PreCheck/Global Entry credit, airport lounge access, priority boarding, flight credit and complimentary travel insurance, and feel that you would use them often enough, an airline credit card may serve the purpose.

How Do Airline Credit Cards Work?

Airline credit cards are generally associated with a specific airline. Most popular airlines such as American Airlines, United, Delta, Virgin Atlantic, Alaska Airlines, Southwest, Emirates, Aer Lingus, Lufthansa and British Airways have their own frequent flyer/loyalty programs.

What you also need to account for is that frequent flyer programs tend to have multiple partners, which gives you the ability to earn and redeem points across different carriers. For example, United Club members may earn and use their miles across any airline that is part of the Star Alliance (examples include Air Canada, Air China, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines and Thai Airways). Similarly, if you sign up for an AAdvantage credit card, you may earn and redeem points through partner airlines such as Alaska Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Malaysia Airlines, Qatar Airways and Japan Airlines.

The top credit card rewards programs that let you transfer your reward points to popular airline frequent flyer programs include American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Capital One Rewards and Citi ThankYou Rewards.

Unlike general travel rewards cards, airline credit cards tend to offer lower rewards when you use them to make non-airline-specific purchases. For instance, while a travel rewards card might offer a high reward rate on all travel spending, you stand to earn high rewards with your airline card only when you spend through the airline in question or its partner airlines.

Do I Have to Be a Frequent Flyer to Have an Airline Credit Card?

Getting an airline credit card makes sense if you are a frequent flyer. If you fly occasionally, you might be better off getting a regular rewards card. As a frequent flyer, you build your points balance each time you travel. This, in turn, leads to discounted or free flights in the future. If you don’t fly often enough, the annual fee you pay toward an airline card might outweigh the points you earn through the course of a year.

To offset the annual fee of an airline card, you should be able to make use of its other benefits often enough. These include in-flight discounts, airport lounge access, priority check-in, free checked bags and seat upgrades.

A number of credit cards are linked to airline frequent flyer programs. When you use any such card to make purchases, the points you earn go directly into your frequent flyer program account. This way, even the points you earn for your everyday spending make it to your airline loyalty program. Cardholders may even achieve membership status upgrades faster through their day-to-day spending.

Is an Airline Credit Card Worth It?

An airline credit card may be worth it if the rewards you earn and the benefits you receive offset the annual fee you need to pay. Before getting one, it is important that you take into account the airline(s) you favor, and looking at partner airlines will hold you in good stead. You might benefit by getting an airline credit card if you:

  • Favor one airline and its partner airlines over others
  • You check your bags on all flights
  • You use airport lounges regularly
  • You’re a frequent traveler and will make use of an airline credit card’s perks
  • You want to add miles to your frequent flyer program through your everyday spending
  • You prefer flying business class on international flights

Benefits you may expect from the best airline credit cards include:

  • Benefits
    Details
  • Upgrades
    Having an airline credit card increases the possibility of getting upgraded when flying, even over other members of the same frequent flyer program. This is the case with the Delta SkyMiles Reserve American Express Card, which gives cardholders preference for upgrades over other SkyMiles members with the same status.
  • In-flight discounts
    You may expect discounts of up to 25% on food, drinks, Wi-Fi and other in-flight services, even when you’re flying with partner airlines.
  • Free/discounted companion pass
    A few airline credit cards offer free or discounted companion passes. Southwest gives qualified members the ability to get others to fly with them for free (excluding taxes and fees) on multiple Southwest flights for up to two years. Earning 125,000 Rapid Rewards points in a year gives you the means to qualify for a Southwest companion pass. You may use either the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card or the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card – both from Chase — to earn the required points sooner. With the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Credit Card, you may look forward to discounted companion fares. This is also the case with the American Express Delta SkyMiles Reserve and Platinum cards, which give you companion certificates from the second year of card membership.
  • Free checked bags
    Most airline credit cards let you check one bag for free, which can save you around $30 per flight. This waiver typically applies to a co-passenger booked on the same ticket as well. However, you might not qualify if you don’t book directly through the airline or if you don’t provide your membership number when booking. Some of the airline credit cards that offer a free checked bag include the Barclays JetBlue Plus Card, the Delta SkyMiles Reserve American Express Card, the Bank of America Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card, the Chase Bank United Explorer Card and the Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard.
  • Priority boarding
    Most airline credit cards offer priority boarding for their cardholders. This gives you more time to wipe your seat down, if so required, as well as easy access to overhead bin space. A few airline credit cards that don’t offer this benefit include the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card, the JetBlue Card and the Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard.
  • Airport lounge access
    Premium airline credit cards tend to give you unrestricted access to the carrier’s airport lounges globally, although these tend to come with steep annual fees. Most airline credit cards give you free airport lounge access up to a specific number of times each year, and some offer discounted access as well. The Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard offers unlimited access to Admirals Club lounges. With the Delta SkyMiles Reserve American Express Card, you may access Delta SkyClub lounges as often as you like. The United Explorer Card gives you two one-time United Club passes every year. The Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card offers a 50% discount on Alaska Lounge day passes.
  • Credits
    Some airline credit cards provide credits that you may use toward in-flight purchases or TSA PreCheck/Global Entry.

FAQs About Airline Rewards Credit Cards

Here are answers to other commonly asked questions about airline reward credit cards.

Next Steps

Now that you understand how airline credit cards work and how they compare with travel rewards cards, determine which of the two might work better for you. If you feel you may use an airline card to good effect, make a selection based on the rewards you stand to earn, partner airlines and added perks.

About the Author


expert-profile

Rajiv Baniwal has been writing about different financial topics for over 15 years. Meticulous in his research, he makes sure he provides accurate and up-to-date information. His areas of expertise include mortgages, personal loans, credit cards, insurance and international money transfers.


sources
*Rates or fees may vary or include specific stipulations. We recommend visiting the card issuer’s website for the most up-to-date information available.
Advertiser Disclosure: MoneyGeek has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. MoneyGeek and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. To ensure thorough comparisons and reviews, MoneyGeek features products from both paid partners and unaffiliated card issuers that are not paid partners.