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Best Airline Credit Cards of May 2019

NerdWalletMay 17, 2019

At NerdWallet, we strive to help you make financial decisions with confidence. To do this, many or all of the products featured here are from our partners. However, this doesn’t influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own.

NerdWallet's Best Airline Credit Cards of May 2019

Our pick for

Flexible redemption and sign-up bonus

Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card

on Chase's website

on Chase's website

Annual Fee

$95

Regular APR

18.24% - 25.24% Variable APR

Intro APR

N/A

recommended credit score

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

Our pick for

Alaska Airlines and best domestic airline card

Bank of America Alaska Airlines Visa Signature®  Credit Card

on Bank of America's website

on Bank of America's website

Annual Fee

$75

Regular APR

17.24% - 25.24% Variable APR

Intro APR

N/A

recommended credit score

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.

Our pick for

Delta Airlines and best checked bag benefit

American Express Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card

on American Express's website, or call (866) 512-6673

Rates & Fees

on American Express's website, or call (866) 512-6673

Rates & Fees
Annual Fee

$95

Waived first year

Regular APR

17.99% - 26.99% Variable APR

Intro APR

N/A

recommended credit score

With its great checked bag benefit, the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express 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.

Our pick for

United Airlines

Chase United Airlines Mileage Plus Credit Card

on Chase's website

on Chase's website

Annual Fee

$95

Waived first year

Regular APR

18.24% - 25.24% Variable APR

Intro APR

N/A

recommended credit score

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

Our pick for

Southwest Airlines

Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card

on Chase's website

on Chase's website

Annual Fee

$99

Regular APR

18.24% - 25.24% Variable APR

Intro APR

N/A

recommended credit score

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

Our pick for

No-annual-fee airline card

The United℠ TravelBank Card

on Chase's website

on Chase's website

Annual Fee

$0

Regular APR

18.24% - 25.24% Variable APR

Intro APR

N/A

recommended credit score

You won’t get the robust perks offered by airline cards with annual fees, but United packs considerable value into the United℠ TravelBank 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.

OTHER RESOURCES

How much is an airline mile worth?

By Joe Cortez, NerdWallet point and miles 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. As a general rule, airline miles go further if you use them for business- and first-class accommodations on international flights.

To better understand what miles are worth, NerdWallet researched the cash prices and reward-redemption values for hundreds of flights. The table below shows average values derived from that research.

Average value per point/mile, in cents
Airline Domestic International
Alaska 1.2 1.1
American 1.0 5.0
Delta 1.4 2.7
Frontier 0.8 1.1
JetBlue 1.5 1.7
Southwest 1.6 1.9
Spirit 0.4 0.7
United 1.3 3.3

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: Blue Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express.
  • 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.

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) Get 40,000 bonus miles and Alaska's Famous Companion Fare from $121 ($99 fare plus taxes and fees from $22). To qualify, make purchases of $2,000 or more within the first 90 days of opening your account
American American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp Card ($0) 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 $2,500 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening*
American Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard® ($450) Earn 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles after spending $5,000 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 of Card Membership. Terms Apply.
Delta Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express ($0 for the first year, then $95) Earn 30,000 Bonus Miles after you use your new Card to make $1,000 in purchases within your first 3 months and a $50 Statement Credit after you make a Delta purchase with your new Card within your first 3 months. Terms Apply.
Delta Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express ($195 (This offer is no longer valid on our site)) Earn 5,000 Medallion Qualification Miles and 35,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. In addition, earn a $100 statement credit after you make a Delta purchase with your new Card within your first 3 months.
Delta Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express ($450 (This offer is no longer valid on our site)) Earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) and 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months.
Southwest Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card ($69) Earn 60,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months.
Southwest Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card ($99) Earn 60,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months.
Southwest Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card ($149) Earn 60,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months.
United United℠ TravelBank Card ($0) $150 in United TravelBank cash after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.
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.
United United MileagePlus® Club Card ($450) Earn 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.

All information about the Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express and the Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express has been collected independently by NerdWallet. The Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express and the Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express are no longer available through NerdWallet.

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.

Information related to the United MileagePlus® Club Card and the United℠ TravelBank Card has been collected by NerdWallet and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of these cards.


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

Last updated on May 17, 2019

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.