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NerdWallet’s Best Airline Credit Cards, 2015

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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 bang for your buck: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Transfer points to: United MileagePlus, Southwest, British Airways, Korean Air, Singapore KrisFlyer; 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 $4,000 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, so your rewards rate ends up being as high as 1.25% base and 2.50% 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.

Example image of Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

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Apply Now on Chase's secure website

Pros

  • No foreign transaction fee

Cons

  • Has annual fee

Sign-up Bonus

Earn 40,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 in the first 3 months.

Intro APR Promotions

None

APR

  • APR: 15.99% (Variable)
  • Penalty APR: 29.99%, Variable
  • Cash Advance APR: 19.24%, Variable

Annual Fee

Introductory Annual Fee of $0 the first year, then $95

Card Details

  • Earn 40,000 bonus points when you spend $4,000 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 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 leading 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

Best flat-rate travel card: Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite 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 Plus 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.

Example image of Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®

Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®

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Apply Now on Barclays's secure website

Pros

  • High rewards rate
  • 0% on balance transfers for 12 months (must be completed within first forty-five days of account opening)

Cons

  • Has annual fee

Sign-up Bonus

Earn 40,000 bonus miles when you spend $3,000 or more on purchases in the first 90 days from account opening.

Intro APR Promotions

0% on balance transfers for 12 months

APR

  • APR: 14.99% or 18.99%* Variable
  • Penalty APR: 27.24%, Variable
  • Cash Advance APR: 25.24%, Variable

Annual Fee

$89 - Waived first year

Card Details

  • Earn 40,000 bonus miles when you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 90 days — that's enough to redeem for a $400 travel statement credit
  • 0% intro APR for 12 months for each Balance Transfer made within 45 days of account opening. After that, a variable APR currently 14.99% or 18.99%, depending on your creditworthiness.
  • Earn 2X miles on all purchases - Miles don't expire as long as your account is open, active and in good standing
  • Chip card for increased confidence and convenience to pay abroad as easily as you do at home
  • Redeem your miles for travel statement credits - redemptions start at 2,500 miles for $25 toward travel purchases made in the last 120 days
  • Get 10% miles back to use toward your next redemption every time you redeem for travel statement credits
  • No foreign transaction fees on anything you buy while in another country
  • Complimentary online FICO® Credit Score access for Barclaycard Arrival cardmembers

Best airline-specific card: Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card

The Southwest Rapid Rewards credit card is pretty great, currently offering a generous signup bonus: Get 50,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months of opening your account. 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.

Example image of Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card

Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card

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Apply Now on Chase's secure website

Pros

  • High rewards rate
  • No foreign transaction fee

Cons

  • Has annual fee

Sign-up Bonus

Get 50,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months of opening your account.

Intro APR Promotions

None

APR

  • APR: 15.99% (Variable)
  • Penalty APR: 29.99%, Variable
  • Cash Advance APR: 19.24%, Variable

Annual Fee

$99

Card Details

  • Get 50,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months of opening your account.
  • Get 6,000 points after your Cardmember Anniversary.
  • Earn 2 points per $1 spent on Southwest Airlines® purchases made directly with the airline 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.

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 40,000 miles once you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first 3 months, equal to $400 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 $1,000 on purchases within the first 3 months

$0

1.25 miles per $1

No foreign transaction fee

Chase Sapphire Preferred

Earn 40,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 in the first 3 months.

$95*

Up to 2.50% on travel and dining, 1.25% 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

Hawaiian Airlines World Elite MasterCard

Earn 35,000 bonus miles when you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 90 days*

$89

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

First checked bag free for primary cardmember, 5,000 discount on award flights between North America and Hawaii, $100 off a companion ticket once a year

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® Platinum Select® MasterCard®

Earn 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles after making $3,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening*

$95, waived for first 12 months*

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

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 and payment of the annual fee

$79

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

None

Southwest Credit Card

Get 50,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months of opening your account.

$99

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

Limited Time Offer: Earn 50,000 bonus miles after your first purchase and payment of the $89 annual fee*

$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

Get 10,000 bonus reward points after you spend $1,000 in your first 90 days as a cardholder; that's up to $200 toward no-blackout reward flights on Virgin America.

$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 for Business

Get a one-time bonus of 25,000 miles once you spend $5,000 on purchases within the first 3 months

$0 intro for first year; $59 after that

2 miles per $1

None

Capital One® Spark® Miles Select for Business

One-time bonus of 10,000 miles once you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first 3 months

$0

1.5 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

Earn 30,000 bonus miles after you make $1,000 in purchases on 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

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

  • Jessica

    Do the free miles that you gain, for any of the cards, have an expiration date? Do they clear at the end of the year if not used?

    • http://www.nerdwallet.com/ NerdWallet

      Hi @Jessica – The expiration for miles will vary from card to card so it’s important to read the fine print. At a minimum, all of the miles should stay valid if you keep the credit card active, so you shouldn’t worry about them clearing at the end of the year.

  • http://www.nerdwallet.com/ NerdWallet

    Hi @SmaA – The Chase Sapphire Preferred and the Barclaycard Arrival Plus are both great cards. The Barclaycard has a higher rewards rate – you earn 2x points on all purchases, not just in certain categories. The points also correlate directly to a $ value (as of 1/12/2015, 1 point = $.01), which makes it easy to apply as a statement credit for any eligible travel expenses with any airline, which is nice. The CSP, on the other hand, allows you to transfer points 1:1 to several airline programs. The benefit of this is that you are able to use the points on flights that are “undervalued” where the point value is much lower than the dollar value would be. Depends on your preference and how you like to book travel… I would probably go with the Barclaycard because the value of the points is more consistent and it’s easier to book travel. Hope this helps!

  • Bob Wershing

    Alaska Air has a good card, it also has a companion fare for 99.

  • Jackie

    Hello,
    I am a very frequent flyer because I work on cruise ships. My flights to work are typically covered by the company, but I belong to a few different reward programs. I do a lot of flying on my own as well (mostly to England as that is where my boyfriend lives). Chase Sapphire Preferred looks like an excellent choice, but I was hoping to find something with 0% APR OR no annual fees. Any suggestions?

  • HawaiianDreams

    Hello! I am new to the travel credit cards and have no clue which one to get! My husband and I plan on traveling to Hawaii every year (if feasible) and plan on traveling to other places also (domestic and international). I mainly want a credit card that offers the best skymiles offers. Can someone please help me figure out which card would suit me? Thank you so much!!

  • ADPT

    I have a Chase Sapphire Preferred card and while I was initially impressed with the sign on bonus and international travel perks I have been very disappointed with the travel redemption process. In order to use your points you must book through the chase ultimate rewards website, and every time I have looked for a flight on their website it is often hundreds of dollars more expensive than booking with another site. I am currently looking for tickets from the west coast to Puerto Rico, on the Chase website its $1250 and through google flights I found the exact same flight for $850. Chase does offer a straight points to dollars statement credit, but that is a poor use of miles. I am getting really frustrated that I pay and annual fee for travel perks that I can never use. I’m thinking a card with a straight cash back program may be a better option.