BEST OF

Best Airline Credit Cards of December 2020

NerdWalletNovember 19, 2020
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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, or Denver's by United — then that airline’s card might be your only practical option. Other airports have more competition, giving you a choice of cards.

Click the card name to read our review. Before applying, confirm details on the issuer’s website.

Our pick for: Flexible redemption + big sign-up bonus:

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card earns 2X points on travel and dining for a reasonable annual fee. Points are worth 25% more when you redeem them for travel booked through Chase, or you could transfer them to about a dozen airline and hotel partners. The sign-up bonus is stellar, too. Read our review. 

Our pick for: United Airlines + Best domestic airline card

The United℠ Explorer Card earns bonus rewards not only on spending with United Airlines but also at restaurants and on eligible hotel stays. And the perks are outstanding for a basic airline card — a free checked bag, priority boarding, lounge passes and more. Read our review.

Our pick for: Delta Air Lines + Best checked bag benefit

The Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card pays bonus rewards not only on Delta flights but also at restaurants worldwide and at U.S. supermarkets, making it the rare airline card that's great for everyday spending. A best-in-class checked-bag benefit (first bag free for you and up to eight others on your reservation), priority boarding and the opportunity to earn a flight credit each year make this card a bargain for Delta stalwarts. Read our review.

Our pick for: American Airlines

The Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard® delivers offers solid value if you frequently fly American Airlines. Enjoy bonus rewards at gas stations and restaurants, a fine sign-up bonus, a checked-bag benefit, priority boarding and more. Read our review.

Our pick for: Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines' priciest card is also its best. The Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card doesn't offer richer rewards or a significantly better sign-up bonus than the carrier's lower-fee cards, but it comes with an annual travel credit, a great anniversary bonus and other perks that justify (and offset) its annual fee. Read our review.

Our pick for: Alaska Airlines

If you're a committed Alaska Airlines flyer, or you travel enough on the West Coast that you could become one, the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card is very nearly a must-have. The annual Companion Fare benefit alone can more than make up for the reasonable annual fee. Read our review.

Our pick for: JetBlue

Because of its relatively limited footprint, JetBlue isn't an option for everyone. If you do fly the airline, though, take a good, long look at the JetBlue Plus Card. This card gives you high-value miles — and a lot of them — plus a checked bag benefit, a generous anniversary bonus and other perks. Read our review.

Our pick for: No-annual-fee airline card

To unlock the most valuable perks of airline credit cards, you'll have to pay an annual fee. But if you're a leisure traveler just hoping to earn airline miles in the background, it's hard to do better than the Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card. Read our review.

Our pick for: Premium airline card

Every airline has a premium card that gets you into its airport lounges, but the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card also gets you into American Express's Centurion Lounges when flying Delta, and it comes with an annual companion certificate that's good even in first class. Read our review.

Our pick for: Airline card for small business

If your business has you on the road a lot, you'll appreciate the airport lounge access on the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Business American Express Card, which includes both Delta's own Sky Clubs and American Express's Centurion Lounges when flying Delta. The annual companion certificate — which is good even in first class — and the checked-bag benefit add considerable value, too. Read our review.

OTHER RESOURCES

How much is an airline mile worth?

By Sam Kemmis, NerdWallet travel rewards expert

Airline credit cards earn frequent-flyer program miles every time you use the card, but the value of these miles depends both on the airline and how you redeem the miles.

To better understand what miles are worth, NerdWallet researched the cash prices and reward-redemption values for hundreds of flights. Our results:

Program

Mile value

1 cent

1 cent

0.9 cent

0.3 cent

1.1 cents

1.1 cents

1.6 cents

1 cent

For details about our methodology, see our valuations page.

Our valuations are different from many others you may find. That’s because we looked at the average value of a mile based on reasonable fare searches that anyone can perform, not a maximized value that only travel rewards experts can expect to reach.

You should therefore use these values as a baseline for your own redemptions. If you can redeem your points and miles for the values listed, you are doing well. Of course, if you are able to get higher value out of your miles, that’s even better.

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-annual-fee airline card might not include free checked bags.

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

Should you consider a no-annual-fee airline card?

The three biggest domestic airlines all offer credit cards with no annual fee:

  • American: American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp℠ Card.

  • Delta: Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card.

  • United: United℠ TravelBank Card.

No-annual-fee airline cards are best for people who don't travel regularly but still want to earn airline miles — those who get a psychological boost from "getting closer to a trip" with each purchase. NerdWallet doesn't recommend no-annual-fee airline cards for frequent flyers because while they earn miles (often at comparable rates to annual-fee cards) and sometimes entitle you to a discount on in-flight food and entertainment, they lack the most valuable benefits of carrying an airline card:

  • Annual-fee airline cards generally include a free checked bag for you and at least one other person traveling on your reservation. With $30 bag fees now standard, this perk alone can save a couple $120 on a single roundtrip, more than enough to make up for the typical $95 annual fee. As a rule, no-annual-fee cards do not include free bags.

  • Annual-fee airline cards usually give you preference in boarding. Some airlines call this "priority boarding," others call it "preferred boarding." It generally means that you're allowed to board the plane after the passengers with elite frequent-flyer status but before everyone else. No-annual-fee cards don't give you and head start on boarding.

  • Annual-fee airline cards offer richer bonuses. Sign-up bonuses on cards with fees are typically hundreds of dollars more than on no-annual-fee cards.

For hardcore travelers, top-of-the-line cards with annual fees in the $450 range may offer all of the above plus VIP service, access to the airline's airport lounges and other luxury perks.

If you fly a single airline a couple of times a year and you regularly check bags, you'll easily save more money with an annual-fee card than with a no-annual-fee option. But if you're dead-set against paying annual fees in any case, consider skipping an airline card entirely. Consider a no-annual-fee general-purpose travel credit card whose rewards can be used on any airline (or any other travel expense), or get a good cash-back credit card and save your cash rewards for your next trip.

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.

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.

To view rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card, please visit this page.

To view rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card, please visit this page.

To view rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card, please visit this page.

To view rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Business American Express Card, please visit this page.

Last updated on November 19, 2020

Methodology

NerdWallet's Credit Cards team selects the best airline credit cards based on overall consumer value, as evidenced by star ratings, as well as their suitability for specific kinds of consumers and for flyers loyal to a specific airline. Factors in our evaluation include each card's annual fee, rewards earning rates, redemption options, bonus offers for new cardholders, and noteworthy perks such as free checked bags, priority boarding, free or discounted companion fares, in-flight privileges or discounts, and airport lounge access.

To recap our selections...

NerdWallet's Best Airline Credit Cards of December 2020

Frequently asked questions