7 Things to Consider When Picking an Airline Credit Card

Make sure to pin down which airlines will best serve your travel habits before deciding on a card.
Alisha McDarris
By Alisha McDarris 
Updated

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If you’re new to the world of airline loyalty programs, travel credit cards, and points and miles, it’s easy to feel swamped with all of the options and information out there. Knowing what to look for in an airline credit card that’s right for you can be overwhelming — but not impossible.

Here’s how to determine which card best suits your travel style.

Why get an airline credit card

If you’re wondering why you might want to consider getting an airline-specific credit card in the first place, there are plenty of reasons. For starters, points and miles credit cards offer the fastest route to award travel (that is, "free" air travel booked with rewards currencies).

Co-branded airline cards often include impressive sign-up bonuses and perks like:

  • Flight discounts on cardmember anniversaries.

  • Fast tracks to elite status.

Generally, airline credit cards are the most rewarding for travelers who tend to be loyal to a specific airline.

What to consider

Choosing an airline loyalty program in conjunction with your airline credit card can help streamline your spending, which could also improve your chances to earn elite status or other perks reserved for frequent flyers. Here's what else to consider:

1. Where the airline flies

The first factor to weigh when choosing an airline credit card is the airline itself and where it flies. Signing up for a co-branded credit card with an airline that doesn’t travel from your nearest airport or to the destinations you want to go to means any miles or perks you earn from that card won’t do you a lot of good. Selecting a card from an airline you’ll actually be able to travel with is the best way to take advantage of all the perks the card will provide.

Choose an airline that flies to and from your most frequented or desired destinations.

2. The sign-up bonus

A quick way to rack up easy points is to look for a credit card that offers a large sign-up bonus. Some cards offer upwards of 50,000 bonus miles or points in the first several months after you spend a certain amount on the card, while other cards offer even more after you reach a spend threshold in the first year. The higher the bonus, the faster you can book award travel.

Here are some of the best travel rewards credit card welcome offers right now.

3. The earnings rates

Consider the ongoing earning potential of a card you're considering. The sign-up bonus isn’t the only benefit to getting an airline credit card. Since you get it only once, it behooves you to consider the long-term earning potential of a card via everyday spending, too. Not every card will offer the same return on investment for every kind of spending.

For example, one card might offer 2 points or miles per dollar spent on airfare, but only 1 point or mile per dollar on everything else. If you don’t fly that often, or usually opt for the most budget-friendly tickets, the earning potential of that card will be low for you.

On the other hand, if you dine out frequently or spend regularly to fill up the family car, then a card that offers 3 points per dollar for gas or dining means you’ll earn more for your spending.

For most cards, however, gas and groceries are where the bonus spending categories end, save for the odd extra point for a car rental or hotel booking. It’s common to earn 1 point or mile per dollar on most other purchases.

Take a good look at spending categories and opt for a card that fits your spending habits and lifestyle for the highest earning potential in the long run.

4. The value of its rewards currency

How much are the points and miles that the card earns worth? Don’t forget to consider how much travel points and miles are worth if you’re trying to decide between one airline credit card and another, because not all points and miles are created equal.

Check NerdWallet valuations to see what a mile should be worth on any given airline, and aim to get a value of at least 1 cent per mile. The higher the value, the farther those miles will take you.

5. Additional perks and benefits

Check for additional perks and benefits to increase the potential value of a given card.

Many airline cards also offer a series of travel protections and benefits. These can include rental car coverage, trip cancellation coverage and lost luggage insurance.

Whether these additional perks and benefits are worth it depends on your travel style and, often, what annual fee you're willing to pay.

6. The annual fee

Don’t neglect to take a card’s annual fee into consideration. Some airline credit cards, like the Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card, have a $0 annual fee, while the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card has an annual fee that is $0 intro for the first year, then $150 every year thereafter. Terms apply.

On the flip side, the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Business American Express Card has a $650 annual fee. Terms apply.

In general, cards with higher annual fees also tend to come with the most airline-specific perks and benefits, like:

  • Higher welcome bonuses.

  • Free checked bags.

  • Expedited paths to elite status.

  • Discounted companion passes.

But the extras aren’t worth it for everyone. If you rarely check a bag or only fly a few times a year and aren’t reaching for elite status, then a card with a high annual fee that offers those perks likely isn’t worth it for you.

If, however, you would be paying for those services and amenities on a regular basis anyway, a higher annual fee may actually turn out to be a good deal.

7. If a general rewards card would be a better fit

If you have access to an airport that is serviced by multiple domestic airlines and you generally prefer to purchase flights based on cost more than carrier, a general travel credit card, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, might be a better fit. The card earns points that can be transferred to several partner airlines like Southwest Airlines, United Airlines and Emirates Airlines, among others.

This is a good option if you're not sure you want to be loyal to a single airline. A card like this could free you to redeem your points and miles for the best deal, period, rather than for the best deal in the airline of your co-branded credit card.

The bottom line

Now that you've considered the important factors, you're ready to learn how to choose an airline credit card. If you’re new to the world of points and miles and airline credit cards, take these factors into consideration when choosing the right one for you.


How to maximize your rewards

You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2024, including those best for:

Travel Cards from Our Partners
Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card

on Chase's website

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
5.0
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate

1x-5x

5x on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, 3x on dining, select streaming services and online groceries, 2x on all other travel purchases, 1x on all other purchases.

Points

Intro offer

60,000

Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.

Points
Chase Freedom Unlimited Credit Card

on Chase's website

Chase Freedom Unlimited®
5.0
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate

1.5%-6.5%

Enjoy 6.5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase Travel; 4.5% cash back on drugstore purchases and dining at restaurants, including takeout and eligible delivery service, and 3% on all other purchases (on up to $20,000 spent in the first year). After your first year or $20,000 spent, enjoy 5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase Travel, 3% cash back on drugstore purchases and dining at restaurants, including takeout and eligible delivery service, and unlimited 1.5% cash back on all other purchases.

Cashback

Intro offer

$300

Earn an additional 1.5% cash back on everything you buy (on up to $20,000 spent in the first year) - worth up to $300 cash back!

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

on Capital One's website

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
4.7
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate

2x-5x

Earn unlimited 2X miles on every purchase, every day. Earn 5X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of trip options.

Miles

Intro offer

75,000

Enjoy a one-time bonus of 75,000 miles once you spend $4,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel.

Miles
See more travel cards
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