Airline credit cards are often pushed to the back burner in favor of cards with transferrable rewards currencies. After all, cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve® not only provide flexibility when it comes to redeeming points, but they also tend to offer lucrative welcome bonuses as well. These cards allow holders to transfer points to various airline or hotel rewards programs, or even to redeem them for cash back.
So why would anyone get an airline credit card? Because they still have benefits that can make them worth applying for. Here are some of the pros and cons of airline credit cards.
The case against airline credit cards
The main negative aspect of airline credit cards is the lack of redemption options. Since you'll only earn a single frequent flyer currency, you can only redeem miles with that specific airline and its partners. Airline award availability can be unpredictable, and if you can’t find award space within the program and have no flexibility in terms of travel dates, you might get stuck.
Another reason why airline credit cards might not be ideal is that airlines reserve the right to devalue their programs at any moment, without notice. In the past, multiple airlines have made substantial changes to their award charts (before eliminating them completely in some cases) with no heads up. If a frequent flyer program suddenly devalues its currency, then you might find yourself with an airline credit card that isn’t quite as appealing or useful anymore.
Cards offering flexible rewards currencies hedge against this threat, because if one partner airline devalues its points, you can always transfer points to another partner airline.
The case for airline credit cards
For all the potential negatives, airline credit cards have definite positive attributes and some advantages over cards earning transferrable rewards currencies. For starters, airline credit cards sometimes offer big welcome bonuses that can give your frequent flyer account a nice boost. Here's the current offer on the AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard®: Earn 50,000 AAdvantage® bonus miles after making your first purchase and paying the $99 annual fee in full within the first 90 days. That’s a tempting offer if you want to give your AAdvantage miles balance a quick bump with an easy spending requirement.
Airline credit cards also offer perks that flexible rewards programs don’t, like the ability to earn elite-qualifying miles with your airline of choice. Delta, American Airlines and Southwest all have credit cards that allow you to inch your way closer to elite status via credit card spending:
Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®: Earn 10,000 EQMs after spending $40,000 per calendar year.
Delta Air Lines
Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card: Limited Time Offer: Earn 80,000 bonus miles and 20,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $5,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer expires 4/28/2021. Terms Apply.
Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card: Limited Time Offer: Earn 90,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer expires 4/28/2021. Terms Apply.
The following Southwest credit cards offer new cardmembers a substantial welcome bonus: Earn Companion Pass® through 2/28/2022 plus 30,000 points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months.
Southwest isn’t the only airline to offer a companion ticket benefit. The Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card offers its $99 Companion Fare to cardholders on an annual basis. The Hawaiian Airlines® World Elite Mastercard® comes with an annual $100 companion discount valid on round-trip airfare between the U.S. and Hawaii.
While the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard® doesn’t come with a companion pass, per se, it does offer an annual $125 flight discount when you spend $20,000 in a year. Frequent solo travelers may get even more value out of that $125 flight discount than from a companion ticket. (Annual fee: $0 intro for the first year, then $99.)
Airline credit cards are also useful in helping reduce travel expenses, if you’re OK with sticking to a specific program. Another helpful perk? Free checked bags, which come standard with most airline credit cards. (This is why the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard® repeatedly earns its place in my wallet. I take at least one trip a year with my family and save upwards of $240 on round-trip checked bag fees. That more than makes up for the card’s annual fee.)
Are airline credit cards worth it?
Airline credit cards can be absolutely worthwhile if you make use of more than just the miles earned. If you can take advantage of added card benefits like free checked bags, priority boarding and companion tickets, you’ll likely get your money’s worth.
When evaluating the merits of an airline credit card, it’s also important to think about your travel goals and choose an airline that helps you get where you need to go. If you live in a specific airline’s hub city, getting a co-branded credit card can be a tremendous money saver.
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 2021, including those best for:
Airline miles and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card
Flat-rate rewards with no annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Premium travel rewards: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card