NerdWallet's

Best Airline Credit Cards of 2018

You don’t have to just wing it. The right card can get you where you’re going — with some pretty fly upgrades.

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One of the most important considerations in choosing an airline credit card — if not the most important — has nothing to do with the card. It’s where you live. If your local airport is dominated by a single airline — like Atlanta’s is by Delta, for instance — then that airline’s card might be your only practical option. Other airports have more competition, giving you a choice of cards. We kept this in mind as we chose our best airline credit cards:

  • • We identified the airline cards with the best features. This is what good looks like.
  • • We also identified the best card for each of the largest U.S. airlines.
More on this card
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card Review
For richer rewards with a much higher fee
Chase Sapphire Reserve®

Benefits

Benefits

True, this is a general travel card, not an airline-specific card. But you can convert its rewards directly into miles for multiple carriers or use them to book flights on any airline. You earn 2 points per $1 spent on travel and dining and 1 point per $1 spent on everything else. Points are worth 25% more than the standard 1 cent when you use them to book travel through Chase, or you can transfer them at a 1:1 rate to several airlines’ frequent-flyer programs, including United, Southwest, British Airways, Air France/KLM and Virgin Atlantic. Plus, the card comes with a generous sign-up bonus: Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $625 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®

Drawbacks

Drawbacks

As a general travel card, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card Card lacks the special perks that many airline-specific credit cards offer, especially free checked bags and priority boarding.

Bottom Line

Bottom Line

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card strikes a balance between reasonable cost, valuable, usable travel rewards, and perks.

More on this card
United℠ Explorer Card Review

Benefits

Benefits

Choosing the best in class among airline cards comes down to each card’s unique extras. The United℠ Explorer Card edges out its competitors with two useful, valuable and unsung benefits: two free United Club lounge passes per year and primary rental car insurance. This means the card’s insurance kicks in before your own auto insurance, which can save you money if you have an accident in a rental.

You earn 2 miles per $1 spent on restaurants, hotels and eligible purchases from United and 1 point per $1 on everything else. The card offers a sign-up bonus: 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. You get a free checked bag on each flight for you and one other person on your itinerary, and this card also offers reimbursement for the application fee for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry.

Drawbacks

Drawbacks

A free checked bag for you and a companion probably suffices for many trips, but cards from competing airlines offer free checked bags for more travelers. And you’re limited to redeeming rewards for flights with United and other Star Alliance partners. General travel cards have more flexibility.

Bottom Line

Bottom Line

The United℠ Explorer Card delivers solid value for United loyalists — and valuable extras for anyone who could become one.

Benefits

Benefits

Free checked bags are a valuable and common benefit for airline co-branded cards — and their biggest advantage over general-purpose travel cards (cards whose rewards can be used for any travel purchase). Delta blows away the competition for the sheer number of people on your itinerary who can check their first bag for free: up to nine. The comparable card from American Airlines allows five, and United allows just two. Of course, the best carrier for checked bags is Southwest Airlines, which allows all passengers to check two bags for free. But its credit cards don’t offer additional checked baggage benefits.

Besides free checked bags, cardholders get priority boarding and discounted lounge access. The card pays 2 miles per $1 spent on Delta purchases and 1 mile per dollar on everything else. Plus, it offers a sign-up bonus: Limited Time Offer: Earn 60,000 Bonus Miles after you make $3,000 in purchases on your new Card within your first 4 months. Offer expires on 9/19/2018. Terms Apply.

Drawbacks

Drawbacks

As with other co-branded airline cards, if you’re redeeming miles for flights, your options are limited — in this case, to Delta Air Lines and its SkyTeam Alliance partners. When traveling abroad, you won’t pay foreign transaction fees. But it’s an American Express card, which aren’t as widely accepted outside the U.S. as Visa and Mastercard.

Bottom Line

Bottom Line

With its great checked bag benefit, Delta's basic credit card could save you hundreds of dollars a year if you travel often and not necessarily light. Plus, it's a solid value for regular Delta flyers.

Benefits

Benefits

You get a free checked bag for you and up to four other people on your reservation, priority boarding on domestic flights and a discount on in-flight food and beverage purchases. When using the card, you earn 2 miles per $1 spent with American Airlines, at gas stations and at restaurants, and 1 mile per $1 spent elsewhere. There’s a sign-up bonus: Earn 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles after making $2,500 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening*. You can earn a $100 flight discount if you put $20,000 on the card in a year. And when you redeem miles, you’ll receive 10% of those miles back, up to 10,000 miles per calendar year.

Drawbacks

Drawbacks

When redeeming your miles for travel, you’re limited to American Airlines or other Oneworld partner airlines.

Bottom Line

Bottom Line

Between the sign-up bonus, extra miles on several kinds of purchases and cardholder perks, the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard® offers good value if you frequently fly American for domestic flights. It’s also not a bad choice for use abroad, because it doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees.

Benefits

Benefits

Most airline cards give you extra rewards only when you buy plane tickets, but the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card also gives you a bonus for booking hotel stays and car rentals through Southwest’s partners, such as Hertz and Hyatt. The spending requirement for the sign-up bonus is low: Earn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open The card also pays a 6,000-point anniversary bonus, regardless of spending, and it doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. By completing 100 qualifying one-way flights or earning 110,000 qualifying points in a calendar year, you can earn Companion Pass status. This allows you to bring a guest with you on Southwest flights for free. It’s valid for the remainder of the calendar year in which you qualify and the year after.

Drawbacks

Drawbacks

Southwest provides service to a limited number of international destinations in Latin America and the Caribbean. Many travel credit cards waive the annual fee the first year, but this one does not.

Bottom Line

Bottom Line

Annual fee aside, the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card is a solid option for travelers flying domestic routes.

Benefits

Benefits

The Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card offers an annual Companion Fare, which allows you to get a ticket for a traveling partner for just $99 plus taxes and fees once a year. Also valuable: a free checked bag on Alaska and Virgin America flights for you and up to six other passengers on the same reservation. Besides those perks, the card offers rewards of 3 miles per dollar spent directly on Alaska Airlines and Virgin America purchases and 1 mile per dollar spent on everything else. There's also a nice bonus for new cardholders.

Drawbacks

Drawbacks

Although Alaska's acquisition of Virgin America has expanded the airline's footprint, it still doesn’t fly to every state, making its credit card a poor choice for some. And the card’s annual fee is not waived for the first year, as it is with many other co-branded airline cards.

Bottom Line

Bottom Line

The Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card is a solid choice for those who can fly the airline regularly. Its companion fare makes it well worth the modest $75 annual fee, and a valuable choice for anyone who flies on Alaska Airlines with another person at least once a year.

Benefits

Benefits

The highlight of the card is the free access to American Airlines' Admirals Club airport lounges for you and your guests, as well as for authorized users, who can enter the club even without the primary cardholder. Admirals Club membership costs $550 per year, making the card’s $450 fee a relative bargain, especially considering the other perks you get. You receive a generous allocation of checked bags: The first is free for you and eight others on your reservation. You’ll earn 2 AAdvantage miles per $1 spent on eligible American Airlines purchases and 1 mile for every $1 spent on other purchases. Big spenders can earn 10,000 AAdvantage Elite Qualifying Miles — progress toward elite status — after spending $40,000 in a year. And it has a sign-up bonus: Limited time offer: Earn 75,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles after spending $7,500 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening*

Drawbacks

Drawbacks

As with all co-branded cards, the value is tied to a single airline, in this case the largest carrier, American Airlines. And its rewards earnings rate is mundane. Unless you use the lounge regularly, you might have difficulty extracting enough value to warrant the high annual fee. If that’s true, consider a premium general travel card instead.

Bottom Line

Bottom Line

If you value airport lounge access and VIP perks, an airline club card can be the way to go. And it’s hard to top this offering.

ALSO NOTEWORTHY

Best no-fee airline card:
United℠ TravelBank Card

» TO APPLY: Applications accepted only through the airline and the issuer. Here's Chase's page for the card.

Benefits

You earn an unlimited 2% back in TravelBank cash per $1 spent on United airline tickets and 1.5% back on other purchases. You also get 25% back as a statement credit on food and beverage purchases on United flights. Redeem $1 in TravelBank cash for $1 toward a United ticket — no fussing with award seat availability or blackout dates. There's also a decent sign-up bonus.

Drawbacks

You won’t receive free checked bags or priority boarding with this card — or any no-fee airline card. Your rewards also aren't part of the regular United MileagePlus frequent-flyer program, so there’s no chance for scoring outsized value when redeeming them. And unlike general travel cards, you can spend your rewards on United flights only.

Bottom Line

You won’t get the robust airline perks featured by higher tier airline cards with annual fees, but United packs considerable value into its no-fee card aimed at leisure travelers. It has an easy-to-understand loyalty program with healthy rewards on non-United purchases and no foreign transaction fees.

(Information about the United℠ TravelBank Card was collected by NerdWallet and has not been provided or reviewed by the issuer of this card.)

OTHER RESOURCES

Major airline credit card bonuses

The following credit cards for major U.S. airlines are available through NerdWallet. (Some airlines offer additional cards, such as for occasional flyers, bargain hunters or higher-end travelers. Check the airlines' websites for other options.)

Airline Card (annual fee) Bonus offer
Alaska Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card ($75) Buy 1 ticket, get 1 for just the taxes and fees with Alaska's Famous Companion Fare™ Offer. Get 30,000 bonus miles after you make $1,000 or more in purchases within the first 90 days of your account opening.
American American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp Card ($0) NEW: Earn 10,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles and receive a $50 statement credit after making $500 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening*
American Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard® ($0 for the first year, then $99) Earn 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles after making $2,500 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening*
American Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard® ($450) Limited time offer: Earn 75,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles after spending $7,500 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening*
Delta Blue Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express ($0) Earn 10,000 bonus miles after spending $500 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Terms Apply.
Delta Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express ($0 for the first year, then $95) Limited Time Offer: Earn 60,000 Bonus Miles after you make $3,000 in purchases on your new Card within your first 4 months. Offer expires on 9/19/2018. Terms Apply.
Delta Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express ($195) Limited Time Offer: Earn 70,000 bonus miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card within your first 3 months. Offer expires on 9/19/2018.
Southwest Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card ($69) Earn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open
Southwest Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card ($99) Earn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open
Southwest Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card ($149) Up to 65,000 points. Earn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. Plus, earn an additional 25,000 points after you spend $15,000 total on purchases within the first year.
United United℠ Explorer Card ($0 for the first year, then $95) 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open

How to choose an airline credit card

The first step in choosing an airline credit card is determining whether an airline card even makes sense for you, especially compared with a general travel credit card whose rewards aren't tied to a specific carrier. An airline card can be a good choice if you regularly fly the same airline and do so often enough that the benefits you get from the card justify the annual fee.

The more you fly a particular airline, the more able you are to rack up enough miles for a free flight or seat upgrade and use those rewards for a flight you want. Checked bags are a big consideration because most major airline cards include a checked bag fee waiver, which can be valuable and quickly make up for the annual fee.

If you fly mostly one airline, choose a card from that carrier. If you regularly fly a couple of airlines, you might even consider getting cards for both. In choosing among a major airline’s credit cards, a primary differentiator is airport lounge access. If you think lounge access is worth it, get the premium card but be prepared to absorb a hefty annual fee. Beware that a lower-tier, no-fee airline card might not include free checked bags.

For more, see our guide to choosing an airline credit card.

How to make the most of your airline credit card

Make sure to link your airline card with your frequent-flyer account — that’s how some airlines determine whether you qualify for free checked bags. And with some airlines, notably United Airlines and JetBlue Airways, you must use your airline card to pay for your tickets in order to qualify for free checked bags.

Many airline cards have no foreign transaction fees, so can be a good choice to use while traveling abroad. Because airline cards typically give you accelerated rewards for airline purchases — often 2 miles or more per dollar spent — use the card for airfare, in-flight purchases and other airline-related expenses. More generally, optimize your card by learning not only all its features but also details of the frequent-flyer program it’s linked to.

For more, see our guides to airline frequent flyer programs.

Other cards to consider

Travel enthusiasts have multiple options besides airline cards, notably general travel credit cards. These cards provide travel rewards without tying you to a single airline. Their rewards usually apply to a wide range of travel-related expenses. And general travel cards tend to be simpler than airline-specific credit cards. So if you spread your flying among several airlines or don’t fly that much, a general travel card may be a better choice than an airline card.

You might not need a travel card at all, if a different kind of rewards credit card is a better fit. Indeed, a 2016 NerdWallet study found that most people — including many travelers — would get more in rewards with a cash-back card than with any travel credit card.

Finally, if you fly different airlines but prefer a particular hotel chain — or if you would just prefer free nights to free flights — consider getting a hotel credit card.

Methodology

NerdWallet’s credit cards team selects the best cards in each category based on overall consumer value. Factors in our evaluation include fees, promotional and ongoing APRs, and sign-up bonuses; for rewards cards, we consider earning and redemption rates, redemption options and redemption difficulty. A single card is eligible to be chosen in multiple categories.

Last updated August 16, 2018.

Greg is a personal finance writer at NerdWallet. He previously worked at the Chicago Tribune and wrote two money books. Email: gkarp@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @spendingsmart.

To recap our selections...

NerdWallet's Best Airline Credit Cards of 2018

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