Are In-Flight Credit Card Offers Ever a Good Deal?

Airlines know they have a captive audience when pitching cards in-flight. You're better off waiting to decide.

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"This flight has been targeted for an exclusive offer," the flight attendant announces for your fourth straight flight. "Sign up in-flight and get 500 bonus miles on top of the welcome offer."

Nowadays, every flight seems to include a credit card sales pitch from a flight attendant.

With the hard-selling tactics some flight attendants employ, you might wonder if these in-flight credit card offers are a good deal. In fact, they can be. But don't break out your pen to apply on your next flight. Here's why.

Be wary of in-flight credit card pitch claims

Airlines instruct flight attendants to stick to the script when promoting a credit card offer. But, flight attendants may deviate from the script to make a card sound more appealing.

Sometimes this is as minor as referring to a card benefit as "priority boarding" rather than the "preferred boarding" perk the card actually offers. Other claims might earn a "pants on fire" rating when fact-checked.

Why would a flight attendant want to make a credit card sound more appealing than it is? Well, flight attendants don't pitch credit cards just to help you get more miles. Flight attendants are often directly compensated for each approved application they generate.

According to an American Airlines training memo, flight attendants earn a base of $50 per approved application. If the flight attendant sells more than 25 cards in a two-month period, those earnings jump to $90 per approval.

An article from DoctorOfCredit.com, a credit card blog, suggests that a $50 bonus per approval seems to be the industry standard. However, airlines will sometimes increase the incentive to drive more sales. For example, in 2018, travel industry publisher Skift reported that United Airlines doubled its incentive to $100 per approval.

Not all flight attendants are excited about the opportunity. "The credit card pitches make us sound like used car salesmen. It's tacky. It's unprofessional," says Heather Poole, a flight attendant and author of Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet.

Still, she understands the appeal of the extra pay and doesn't begrudge flight attendants who make one short announcement.

Don't act now

Like any good sales technique, these in-flight credit card pitches are designed to hurry you into a decision. Some airlines will even offer to let you use the in-flight Wi-Fi for free to apply online, or the flight attendant might offer to collect and securely send your application.

Both the flight attendant and the airline want you to apply now — when you're offline and unable to compare other options. However, if you're tempted by an in-flight credit card offer, take the time to research the details on the brochure. You can likely take the brochure home with you and still get the "exclusive" in-flight bonus offer even if you apply later online. Once you're back on Wi-Fi, compare the offer with NerdWallet's list of the best travel credit card offers currently available.

It's possible that the in-flight credit card offer is your best choice. However, most U.S. airlines offer at least two credit card options — and the perks on another credit card might be better suited for your needs. By taking the in-flight credit card brochure home, you can compare what’s available, and still get the bonus miles from the in-flight offer.

How much are in-flight credit card offers worth?

When considering any credit card offer, it's essential to factor in the value of the airline miles you're earning. Getting 50,000 bonus Frontier Airlines miles (valued by NerdWallet at 0.9 cent per mile) will not provide nearly the same value as 50,000 JetBlue miles (valued by NerdWallet at 1.5 cents per mile).

The actual value of airline miles depends on their use. So, NerdWallet dug into hundreds of real-life examples to determine a baseline value for the miles of 15 different airlines.

Credit card offers will vary. Here's a snapshot of possible values across a handful of different airline miles for a theoretical 50,000-mile credit card offer.

Airline loyalty program

Baseline value per mile

Value of 50,000 miles

American Airlines AAdvantage

1.5 cents per mile.

$750.

Delta SkyMiles

1.5 cents per mile.

$750.

JetBlue TrueBlue

1.5 cents per mile.

$750.

Southwest Rapid Rewards

1.5 cents per mile.

$750.

United MileagePlus

1.2 cents per mile.

$600.

Should you apply for in-flight credit card offers?

In short: No, don't immediately apply for a credit card in-flight.

However, after doing a little extra research, you might find that an in-flight offer ends up being your best option. So, snag that brochure during your flight, and then compare it online when you get home so you can make sure you're getting the best offer.


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 2022, including those best for:

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