NerdWallet’s Best Airline Credit Cards, Winter 2014

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Whether you’re flying economy or first, we’ve got the best airline credit cards for frequent flyers out there! Business travelers and bag-checkers, loyalty flyers and bargain hunters will find a credit card that gets them airborne. A branded airline credit card has its perks – priority boarding, waived bag fees, and so on – while a more general travel credit card offers higher earning potential and greater flexibility. The nerds will break down the pros and cons of various airline cards, and help you find one that suits your needs.

Best flat-rate travel card: the Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard

Use miles on: Any airline or hotel, and more besides – redeem as a statement credit against any travel expense

One of our favorite cards out there, the Barclaycard Arrival has a lot to offer any traveler. It earns a full 2.2% rewards per $1 spent when you redeem as a statement credit for travel. This is substantially more lucrative than most airline cards, where the standard is 2 miles only on airline spending and 1 the rest of the time. Plus, it has no foreign transaction fee, which’ll save you a pretty penny if you travel abroad. Finally, there is a $89 annual fee, waived the first year and offset by a bonus: Earn 40,000 bonus miles when you spend $3,000 or more on purchases in the first 90 days from account opening.

You can redeem your miles as a statement credit against any travel expense – gas, airfare, baggage fees, hotel stays, you name it – and you’ll get 10% of those points credited back into your account. This means that even though you earn at a rate of 2 miles per $1, you effectively get 2.2 miles because 10% of your rewards come back to you. This flexible rewards program allow you to book through discount sites like Kayak and to fly on the airline of your choice, rather than limiting you to just one carrier. If you fly on a number of different airlines or prefer bargain-hunting, there’s no better airline card.

Barclaycard Arrival™ World MasterCard® - Earn 2x on All Purchases
Barclays Arrival Credit Card
Apply Now

on Barclays's
secure website

starstarstarstarstar
  • Earn 40,000 bonus miles when you spend $3,000 or more on purchases in the first 90 days from account opening. 40,000 bonus miles equates to $400 off your next travel redemption!
  • 0% intro APR on purchases and balance transfers for the first 12 months after account opening. After that, variable APR, currently 14.99% or 18.99%, based upon your creditworthiness
  • Earn 2X miles on all purchases
  • No mileage caps or foreign transaction fees
  • Get 10% miles back when you redeem for travel statement credits (i.e. redeem 25,000 miles for travel and get 2,500 miles back)
  • Use your card to book through any airline, hotel or discount travel engine with no blackout dates or seat restrictions
  • Easily redeem your miles for statement credits towards all or a portion of your travel purchases within the last 90 days
  • Complimentary online FICO® Score access for Arrival cardmembers
thumbsupPros
  • High rewards rate
  • 0% on purchases and balance transfers for 12 months
thumbsdownCons
  • Has annual fee
Annual Fee Signup Bonus APR , Variable* APR Promotions
$89 - Waived first year Earn 40,000 bonus miles when you spend $3,000 or more on purchases in the first 90 days from account opening. 14.99% or 18.99%* (Variable) 0% on purchases and balance transfers for 12 months

Best bang for your buck: the Chase Sapphire Preferred

Transfer points to: United MileagePlus, Southwest, British Airways, Korean Air; points worth 25% more when redeemed for travel booked through Chase

This isn’t your standard travel credit card: if you use your points for airline travel, you’ll find your rewards stretching even further. First off comes the impressive signup bonus: Earn 40,000 bonus points after you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months.. Then, the ongoing rewards rate: 2 points per $1 spent on travel and dining, and 1 per $1 spent elsewhere. Like the Venture, this puts it ahead of most airline credit cards in that you earn bonus points on more than just one airline. But here’s the kicker: If you redeem your points for travel booked through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel tool, your points are worth 25% more. And on top of that, you get a 7% points dividend at the end of the year, so your rewards rate ends up being as high as 1.34% base and 2.68% bonus. The Preferred has no foreign transaction fee, essential for overseas travel, and its $95 annual fee is waived the first year. With a hard-hitting signup bonus and opportunities for greater earning, the Sapphire cements itself as the best short-term airline card.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card
Apply Now

on Chase's
secure website

starstarstarstarstar
  • Earn 40,000 bonus points when you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $500 in travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate RewardsSM.
  • Earn 5,000 additional bonus points after you add the first authorized user and make a purchase in the first 3 months from account opening.
  • 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases
  • No foreign transaction fees, plus Chip and Signature enabled for international travel.
  • 1:1 point transfer to participating frequent travel programs at full value — that means 1,000 Ultimate Rewards points equal 1,000 partner miles/points.
  • 24/7 direct access to dedicated customer service specialists
  • Introductory Annual Fee of $0 the first year, then $95
thumbsupPros
  • High rewards rate
  • No foreign transaction fee
thumbsdownCons
  • Has annual fee
Annual Fee Signup Bonus APR , Variable* APR Promotions
Introductory Annual Fee of $0 the first year, then $95. Earn 40,000 bonus points after you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months. 15.99% (Variable) Purchase: None
Transfer: None

Best airline-specific card: the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier

The Southwest Rapid Rewards credit card is pretty great, offering a solid signup bonus: Get 25,000 points for 1 Rountrip Flight after you spend $1,000 in the first 3 months of opening your account. Government fees as low as $5 not included. It earns 2 points per $1 on Southwest and 1 per $1 elsewhere, and since Southwest points are valued at 1.43c each of Wanna Get Away fare, you’re basically earning 1.43% rewards on every purchase you make. The $99 annual fee is offset by a 6,000-point anniversary bonus worth $86 of WGA fare, so you’re paying a net of just $13. And with the high rewards rate and signup bonus, there’s a lot to love.

Southwest Airlines® Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card
Chase Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Credit Card
Apply Now

on Chase's
secure website

starstarstarstarhalfstar
  • Get 25,000 points for 1 Roundtrip Flight after you spend $1,000 in the first 3 months of opening your account. Government fees as low as $5 not included.
  • Get 6,000 points after your Cardmember Anniversary.
  • Earn 2 points per $1 spent on Southwest Airlines® and AirTran® Airways purchases made directly with the airlines and on Rapid Rewards Hotel and Car Rental Partner purchases.
  • Earn 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases.
  • Redeem points for gift cards, car rentals, cruises, hotel stays, and international flights to over 800 Destinations on 50+ global carriers.
  • No foreign transaction fees
thumbsupPros
  • High rewards rate
  • No foreign transaction fee
thumbsdownCons
  • Has annual fee
Annual Fee Signup Bonus APR , Variable* APR Promotions
$99 Get 25,000 points for 1 Rountrip Flight after you spend $1,000 in the first 3 months of opening your account. Government fees as low as $5 not included. 15.24% (Variable) Purchase: None
Transfer: None

Branded airline credit cards and their perks

Name

Signup Bonus

Annual Fee

Rewards Rate

Major Perks

General travel cards

BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Credit Card

Online exclusive 10,000 bonus points if you make at least $500 in purchases in the first 90 days- that can be $100 towards travel purchases.

$0

1.5 miles per $1

No foreign transaction fee

Capital One Venture Rewards

Enjoy a one-time bonus of 20,000 miles once you spend $2,000 on purchases within the first 3 months, equal to $200 in travel.

$59*

2 miles per $1

No foreign transaction fee

Capital One VentureOne

Enjoy a one-time bonus of 20,000 miles once you spend $2,000 on purchases within the first 3 months, equal to $200 in travel.

$0

1.25 miles per $1

No foreign transaction fee

Chase Sapphire Preferred

Earn 40,000 bonus points after you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months.

$95*

Up to 2.68% on travel and dining, 1.34% elsewhere

No foreign transaction fee

Airline-branded credit cards

Aer Lingus Credit Card

5,000 AerLingus Miles Bonus

$0

2 miles per $1 on Aer Lingus, 1 mile per $1 elsewhere

None

AirTran A+ Rewards

19,200 AirTran Miles Bonus after spending $1,000 - in the first 3 months; 2 business class upgrades with your first purchase.

$0

2 miles per $1 on AirTran/Southwest,1mileper$1elsewher

2 A+ rewards credits every year

American Express Gold Delta SkyMiles

Earn 30K bonus miles after you make $1K in purchases on your new Card within your first 3 months and a $50 statement credit after you make a Delta purchase with your new Card within your first 3 months.

$95*

2 miles per $1 on Delta, 1 mile per $1 elsewhere

First checked bag free for up to 9 people, priority boarding, 20% off in-flight purchases

Asiana Airlines Credit Card

5,000 Asiana Airlines Miles Bonus

$80

1 mile per $1

$100 annual rebate on Asian Airline purchases

Bank of Hawaii Hawaiian Airlines Visa Platinum

10,000 Hawaiian Airlines Miles Bonus

$50

2 miles per $1 on Hawaiian, 1 mile per $1 elsewhere

One-time $25 discount on two published full coach round-trip fares (must be used within 13 months)

Bank of Hawaii Hawaiian Airlines Visa Signature

35,000 Hawaiian Airlines Miles Bonus after spending $100 - within 120 days. 20,000 for signing up, and another 15,000 miles when you spend $1,000.

$79

2 miles per $1 on Hawaiian, 1 mile per $1 elsewhere

One-time $25 discount on two published full coach round-trip fares (must be used within 13 months)

China Air Credit Card

7,500 China Air Miles Bonus

$59

1 mile per $1 on China Air, 0.5 miles per $1 elsewhere

None

China Air No Annual Fee Credit Card

2,500 China Air Miles Bonus

$0

1 mile per $1 on China Air, 0.5 miles per $1 elsewhere

None

Citi AAdvantage Visa Signature

30,000 American Airlines Miles Bonus after spending $1,000 - in the first 3 months

$95*

1 mile per $1

First checked bag free, priority boarding, 25% savings on eligible in-flight purchases, $100 American Airlines flight discount annually with $30k in purchases

Frontier Airlines Credit Card

Earn 40,000 bonus miles after spending $500 in purchases in the first 90 days.

$59

2 miles per $1 on Frontier, 1 mile per $1 elsewhere

None

Frontier Airlines Credit Card – No Fee

5,000 Frontier Miles Bonus after spending $250

$0

1 mile per $1 on Frontier, 0.5 miles per $1 elsewhere

None

Hawaiian Airlines Credit Cards

10,000 Hawaiian Airlines Miles Bonus

$50

2 miles per $1 on Hawaiian, 1 mile per $1 elsewhere

25% discount on Mainland to Hawaii flights

Holland America Line Credit Card

5,000 Holland America Points Bonus

$0

2 miles per $1 on Holland America, 1 mile per $1 elsewhere

None

Icelandair Credit Card

10,000 Icelandair Miles Bonus

$39

2 miles per $1 on Icelandair, 1 mile per $1 elsewhere

None

Icelandair No Annual Fee Credit Card

5,000 Icelandair Miles Bonus

$0

1 mile per $1 on Icelandair, 0.5 miles per $1 elsewhere

None

Lufthansa Miles & More Credit Card

15,000 Lufthansa Miles Bonus

$59

1 mile per $1

None

Lufthansa Premiere Miles & More Credit Card

Earn 20,000 award miles after your first purchase or balance transfer.

$79

2 miles per $1 on Lufthansa, 1 mile per $1 elsewhere

None

Southwest Credit Card

Get 25,000 points for 1 Rountrip Flight after you spend $1,000 in the first 3 months of opening your account. Government fees as low as $5 not included.

$0

2 miles per $1 on AirTran/Soutwest, 1 mile per $1 elsewhere

6,000-mile anniversary bonus

Skypass Visa

3,000 Korean Air Miles Bonus

$0

0.5 miles per $1

None

Skypass Visa Signature

Get up to 15,000 Bonus Miles after your first purchase.

$80

1 mile per $1

2,000 bonus miles at renewal, $100 discount on Korean Air annually, 2 lounge coupons per year

US Airways Credit Card

15,000 US Airways Miles Bonus - 15,000 miles after your first purchase, and an additional mile for every $1 of transferred balance up to 10,000 miles.

$49

1 mile per $1

5,000 mile discount on reward ticket redemptions, $149 companion ticket annually

US Airways Premier Credit Card

Earn up to 40,000 bonus miles with qualifying transactions.

$89

2 miles per $1 on US Airways, 1 mile per $1 elsewhere

5,000 mile discount on reward ticket redemptions, 2 $99 companion tickets annually, first class check-in, one Club day annually

US Bank AeroMexico Visa

15,000 AeroMexico Miles Bonus - Free companion ticket upon approval. 2,000 bonus miles and $99 companion ticket annually.

$45*

2 miles per $1 on AeroMexico, 1 mile per $1 elsewhere

10% discount on AeroMexico purchases

US Bank AeroMexico Visa Signature

Receive 20,000 First-Use bonus miles - enough for a round-trip ticket.

$80*

2 miles per $1 on AeroMexico, 1 mile per $1 elsewhere

15% discount on AeroMexico purchases

US Bank LANPASS Visa Card

15,000 LANPASS Miles Bonus - with first purchase

$45*

1 mile per $1

2,000 bonus miles at renewal, 10% discount on one LAN purchase per year (up to $500), 10% flight miles bonus

US Bank LANPASS Visa Signature Card

20,000 Bonus Miles with your first card use.

$75*

1 mile per $1

4,000 bonus miles at renewal, 20% discount on one LAN purchase per year (up to $1,000), 25% flight miles bonus, 3 one-way upgrade coupons per year

US Bank LifeMiles Visa Card

15,000 LifeMiles Bonus - with first purchase, and 3000 bonus LifeMiles with each annual renewal.

$45*

1 mile per $1

3,000 bonus miles at renewal, 25% excess baggage discount

US Bank LifeMiles Visa Signature Card

20,000 bonus LifeMiles with your first card use.

$75*

2 miles per $1 on TACA, 1 mile per $1 elsewhere

6,000 bonus miles at renewal, 50% excess baggage discount

Virgin America Credit Card

10,000 Elevate Points Bonus after spending $1,000 - after you spend $1,000 in your first 90 days as a cardholder

$49

3 miles per $1 on Virgin America, 1 mile per $1 elsewhere

Up to 25,000 bonus points on qualifying transactions (limited time), $150 discount on one companion ticket annually, no blackout dates

Virgin Atlantic Credit Card

20,000 Virgin Atlantic Miles Bonus

$90

3 miles per $1 on Virgin Atlantic, 1.5 miles per $1 elsewhere

None

General business credit cards

Capital One Spark Miles

Get a $250 cash bonus - just spend $5,000 on purchases within the first 3 months.

$59*

2 miles per $1

None

Capital One Spark Miles Select

Earn 1.5 miles per dollar on every purchase, every day.

$0

1.25 miles per $1 spent

None

Airline-branded business credit cards

American Express Delta for Business

10,000 Delta Miles Bonus - 10,000 MQMs (and 10,000 bonus miles) with first purchase.

$450

2 miles per $1 on Delta and Northwest, 1 miler per $1 elsewhere

30,000 MQMs (including 30,000 bonus miles) each year your eligible spend on the card is $60,000, access to Delta Sky Club airport lounges, conceirge staff personal assistance, free annual domestic First Class Companion Certificate, check first bag free for up to 9 people

American Express Platinum Delta SkyMiles Business

20,000 Delta Miles Bonus - 5,000 MQMs (and 15,000 bonus miles) with your first purchase.

$150

2 miles per $1 on Delta, 1 mile per $1 elsewhere

20,000 MQMs (including 20,000 bonus miles) each year your eligible spend on the card is $50,000; complimentary upgrades, mileage bonuses, priority boarding

American Express Gold Delta SkyMiles Business

Get 30,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 in purchases on the Card within your first 3 months of Cardmembership.

$95*

2 miles per $1 on Delta, 1 mile per $1 elsewhere

First checked bag free for up to 9 people, priority boarding, 20% off in-flight purchases

American Express JetBlue Business

10,000 JetBlue Miles Bonus

$40

Up to 8 points per $1 on JetBlue, 1 mile per $1 elsewhere

None

Alaska Airlines Credit Card – Business

20,000 Alaska Airlines Miles Bonus - with first purchase

$75

3 miles per $1 on Alaska/Horizon, 1 mile per $1 elsewhere

Up to 1,000,000 miles annually, $99 companion ticket annually

Asiana Airlines Credit Card – Business

10,000 Asiana Airlines Miles Bonus - after first purchase

$80

2 miles per $1 on Asiana and at participating grocery stores, 1 mile per $1 elsewhere

None

Hawaiian Airlines Credit Card – Business

10,000 Hawaiian Airlines Miles Bonus

$75

2 miles per $1 on Hawaiian, 1 mile per $1 elsewhere

One-time 25% travel discount on two full coach round-trip fares between Hawaii and the Mainland, 2,000 bonus anniversary Hawaiian miles annually upon renewal

SKYPASS Business Credit Card

5,000 Korean Air Miles Bonus

$75

2 miles per $1 on Korean Air, 1 mile per $1 elsewhere

2,000 bonus miles at renewal, $100 discount on Korean Air annually, two lounge coupons annually

US Airways Business Credit Card

25,000 US Airways Miles Bonus

$79

2 miles per $1 on US Airways, 1 mile per $1 elsewhere

One Club pass annually

US Airways Business No Annual Fee Credit Card

5,000 US Airways Miles Bonus

$0

1 mile per $1 on US Airways, 0.5 miles per $1 elsewhere

None

*annual fee waived first year

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  • Sue

    Do any of these cards give you the benefits at the actual airports? Priority access, companion access, etc. (Not for business)

  • Jeff

    With the Barclaycard Mastercard does the 90 days start when the account opens or when the card is activated? I am very interested to take advantage of the sign up offer but I am deployed and don’t want to sign up and have my 90 days run through before I’m home to meet the $1000 requirement.

  • Emily Haussmann

    My family is leaving the U.S. to spend nine months in Europe for my husbands sabbatical. We’ve had great luck with the two aril credit cards we use but alas, their miles won’t do us good in Europe. Would you recommend the Barclays card so we can use the points toward all our travel expenses?

  • Sarah Brown

    I am taking over the finances from my husband. We started a business three years ago and have relied heavily on credit cards. Currently, we have balances of $2500, $13,900, $7,500, and $8000 on four different credit cards. We have a Chase Slate, Chase Sapphire, and two USBank cards. My husband says we will be able to pay the credit cards off next month (February). I would like a fresh start and a card that earns airline miles. We travel to Korea and China for business. I think the Chase Sapphire Preferred looks like a good choice for us. Should I apply now or wait until the other cards are paid down? Is that the best card for earning miles for us? Thank you for your help.

  • Matt S

    Hi,

    I’m a young professional looking for a credit card with better rewards than the one I currently have, the Chase Freedom card. I would estimate I use my credit card for around $28,000 a year and about ($15,000) of the expenses on this card go towards restaurants and bars. An additional $8,000 goes towards flight tickets, and my travel expenses when I am there (food, hotel, etc). I want a card that’s the best bang for my buck–I’m not opposed to getting another cash back card, but I figure I would receive more monetary value (I consider a free $500 flight to be equivalent to $500) going for a card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred since most of my CC expenses are used for travel and restaurants/bars anyways.

    A few questions:

    -Does the Chase Sapphire Preferred consider bars as “restaurants”? That is, do they fall under the same merchant code?

    -Let’s say I go to New York for a weekend. For the Chase Sapphire Preferred, are ALL my expenses there considered “travel” expenses; thus, I get 2x rewards for them? Or is it only the hotel, flight, etc?
    -Is there another CC that would be better, for example a specific Airline CC? Keep in mind I am looking for one that has 0% foreign transaction fee.

    Thanks all!!

  • dakota4ds

    I’d have a United Mileage Plus card for years now, and recently traveled to Australia. I bought a 1-way ticket using my points which cost me 80,000 miles (!), my friend let me use his points on his American Airlines CC and it only got him 35,000 points for my flight back??! I was in awe after I saw how much more he received for his points on his AA card. So -. I’ve done some digging around but am unable to find anything on how much return you get for points. Yes some cards you can rack up points, but maybe it costs a lot more points to redeem the rewards than another card. Any insight or knowledge on which cards may have the best redemption rates?

  • Zach Evanish

    Are there any pre-paid credit or debit cards that allow me to rack up airline miles?