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When NerdWallet writers came together to choose our best credit cards for 2019, there was one category that inspired a particularly intense debate: airline credit cards. In this case, naming a winner is hardly a cut-and-dried case of which card offers the richest rewards and benefits. We also wanted a card associated with an airline that offered service to several destinations and a robust loyalty program.
That's how the Alaska Airlines Visa® credit card took top honors in this category for 2019. For those who can take advantage of the card's benefits, its ongoing value is head and shoulders over the competition. It also features a rich loyalty program, good airline partners and — thanks in part to Alaska's acquisition of Virgin America — routes that span the U.S. You don't need to live in Alaska to appreciate this card's value.
You do, however, need to frequent the routes offered by this Seattle-based airline to make the card worth your while. Alaska Airlines doesn't fly to every state, and even in certain states that it does serve, your destination options may be limited.
But for those who can unlock its value, this $95-annual-fee card deserves your attention. Here's why it triumphed in this hotly contested category this year.
Its Companion Fare is incredibly valuable
The Alaska Airlines Visa® credit card offers something that makes it stand out among other major co-branded airline cards at the same price point: an annual Companion Fare benefit. With this perk, you can bring a companion with you on the same flight in coach for as little as $121 ($99 plus taxes and fees from $22) when you book through Alaska Airlines. You get this perk annually on your account anniversary, regardless of how much you actually use your card for purchases. This cannot be emphasized enough: There aren't any other $95-annual-fee cards that make it this easy to save hundreds of dollars on flights every year.
“This cannot be emphasized enough: There aren’t any other $75-annual-fee cards that make it this easy to save hundreds of dollars on flights every year.”
Say you took a flight that would otherwise cost $800 per passenger. That's not hard to do when flying to a smaller airport, or to one of the airline's far-flung destinations such as Costa Rica or Hawaii. With the Companion Fare, you could potentially save $679 on your traveling partner’s ticket. That would make the card's annual fee seem minuscule.
The sign-up bonus is generous
In a crowded field of competing airline credit card sign-up bonuses, the Alaska Airlines Visa® credit card holds its own. Its offer is two-fold: Get 70,000 bonus miles plus Alaska's Famous Companion Fare™ from $122 ($99 fare plus taxes and fees from $23) with this offer. To qualify, make $3,000 or more in purchases within the first 90 days of opening your account.
NerdWallet values Alaska miles at 1.2 cents each. This is a baseline value, drawn from real-world data on hundreds of economy routes, not a maximized value. In other words, you should aim for award redemptions that offer 0.9 cent or more in value from your Alaska miles.
The miles portion of the bonus alone is enough to cover several years' worth of annual fees even before factoring in the Companion Fare offer. Just keep in mind that you can’t combine the Companion Fare with miles while booking a flight; it can only be used to cover cash fares.
Other travel-friendly perks make it a keeper
When we were looking for NerdWallet’s best airline credit card award, we knew flashy benefits alone aren't enough to seal the deal. The winning card also needed to offer certain table-stakes perks, such as waived baggage fees, bonus rewards on airline purchases and no foreign transaction fees. And, of course, it would have to offer service to several destinations and a good loyalty program so that miles earned were actually useful.
“For a reasonable annual fee that's roughly $20 lower than what you could typically find on other airline cards, the card's strong benefits make it worth holding on to.”
We found that the Alaska Airlines Visa® credit card easily checked all those boxes:
Free checked bags: With this card, you can check one bag free for you and up to six other people on your reservation for a flight marketed and operated by Alaska Airlines or its subsidiaries. Without this benefit, your first standard checked bag would cost $30.
Bonus rewards on airline purchases: You’ll get 3 miles per dollar spent directly on Alaska Airlines, and 1 mile per dollar spent on all other purchases.
Discounts: Get 50% off day passes at the Alaska Lounge and 20% back on all Alaska Airlines inflight purchases when you pay with the card.
No foreign transaction fees: You won’t pay extra just for using this card abroad.
Service to several destinations: Alaska Airlines offers service to more than 115 destinations across the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Costa Rica as of this writing. And because of its strong network of airline partners, which includes Cathay Pacific and American Airlines, you can redeem miles on even more routes.
Solid loyalty program structure: With Alaska Airlines’ loyalty program, you earn miles based on distances flown, rather than cash fares paid. Distance-based airline loyalty programs like this, which make it easier to rack up miles, are rare these days.
For a reasonable annual fee of $95 — roughly $20 lower than the annual fees you could typically expect on other airline cards — the card’s strong benefits make it worth holding on to.
How we would improve this card
The Alaska Airlines Visa® credit card is an excellent airline card, but it’s not perfect. If we could make some tweaks to improve it, here’s what we would ask for:
“If it added a couple of new categories, the card would be more appealing to use for everyday purchases.”
More rewards on everyday purchases. This past year, both the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard® and the United℠ Explorer Card added new bonus categories, making them more appealing to use for certain everyday purchases. Currently, the Alaska Airlines Visa® credit card offers bonus miles only on Alaska Airlines purchases. If it added a couple of new categories, the card would be more appealing to use for everyday purchases.
Waived first-year annual fee. The United℠ Explorer Card, Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard® and the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card all waive their annual fees in the first year. We would love to see that benefit on the Alaska Airlines Visa® credit card, too.
Should you get it?
The annual Companion Fare on the Alaska Airlines Visa® credit card helps it soar above the competition in terms of ongoing value. But, of course, the best airline card for you depends on your travel. While Alaska Airlines flies to several destinations, its service to certain parts of the U.S. are limited; this could make the card less worthwhile for some.
If you always travel solo and can’t use the Companion Fare, or if you seldom fly with Alaska, other cards will prove more rewarding. But if Alaska is your airline of choice, this best-in-class card is worth adding to your wallet.