BEST OF

Best Airline Credit Cards of October 2021

NerdWalletSep 23, 2021

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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.

NerdWallet's Best Airline Credit Cards of October 2021

Best Airline Credit Cards From Our Partners

Our pick for

Flexible redemption + big sign-up bonus

Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card
Apply now

on Chase's website

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

5.0

NerdWallet rating 
Apply now

on Chase's website

Annual fee

$95

Rewards rate

1x-5x

Points

Intro offer

100,000

Points

Recommended Credit Score

It's not a branded airline card, but the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card works a lot like one — and is in some cases better. You earn elevated rewards in several popular spending categories, including travel and dining. Plus, the points are more valuable and more flexible than many airlines' frequent flyer miles.

Pros

  • You earn 5 points per $1 spent on all travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards®; 3 points per $1 spent on dining (including eligible delivery services and takeout), select streaming services, and online grocery purchases (not including Target, Walmart and wholesale clubs); 2 points per $1 spent on travel not purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards®; and 1 point per $1 spent on other purchases. Points are worth 1.25 cents apiece when redeemed for travel booked through Chase — any travel, with any airline or hotel. You can also transfer them at a 1:1 rate to several airlines’ frequent-flyer programs, including United, Southwest, JetBlue, British Airways, Air France/KLM and Virgin Atlantic. Plus, the card comes with a generous sign-up bonus.

Cons

  • As a general-purpose travel card, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card doesn't offer free checked bags, preferred boarding or other perks offered by credit cards that carry an airline's brand.

Read full review
  • Our best offer ever! Earn 100,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,250 when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.

  • Enjoy new benefits such as a $50 annual Ultimate Rewards Hotel Credit, 5X points on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, 3X points on dining and 2X points on all other travel purchases, plus more.

  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 100,000 points are worth $1,250 toward travel.

  • With Pay Yourself Back℠, your points are worth 25% more during the current offer when you redeem them for statement credits against existing purchases in select, rotating categories

  • Get unlimited deliveries with a $0 delivery fee and reduced service fees on eligible orders over $12 for a minimum of one year with DashPass, DoorDash's subscription service. Activate by 12/31/21.

  • Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more.

  • Get up to $60 back on an eligible Peloton Digital or All-Access Membership through 12/31/2021, and get full access to their workout library through the Peloton app, including cardio, running, strength, yoga, and more. Take classes using a phone, tablet, or TV. No fitness equipment is required.

  • See if you qualify for a better offer with Chase:

    Get Pre-Qualified

Our pick for

Delta Air Lines + Best domestic airline card

American Express Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card
Apply now

on American Express's website

Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card

5.0

NerdWallet rating 
Apply now

on American Express's website

Annual fee

$0 intro for the first year, then $99

Rewards rate

1x-2x

Miles

Intro offer

70,000

Miles

Recommended Credit Score

With double miles not just on Delta purchases but also everyday spending categories, you can pile up rewards fast with the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card. And the top-notch checked-bag benefit can save hundreds of dollars a year if you travel often and not necessarily light.

Pros

  • You'll earn 2 miles per dollar spent on Delta purchases, at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets, and 1 mile per dollar on everything else. Terms apply. There's a great bonus offer for new cardholders, too. And if you like to travel as a group, this card provides a free checked bag for yourself and up to eight other people traveling on your reservation. You also get priority boarding.

Cons

  • As with other co-branded airline cards, if you’re redeeming miles for flights, your options are limited. You won’t pay foreign transaction fees, but it’s an American Express card, and AmEx isn't as widely accepted outside the U.S. as Visa and Mastercard.

Read full review
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 70,000 Bonus Miles after spending $2,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer expires 11/10/2021.

  • Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.

  • Earn 2X Miles on Delta purchases, at restaurants worldwide, including takeout and delivery and at U.S. supermarkets.

  • Earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases.

  • $100 Delta Flight Credit: After you spend $10,000 in purchases on your card in a calendar year, receive a Credit to use toward future travel.

  • Enjoy a $0 introductory Annual Fee for the first year, then $99.

  • Terms Apply.

  • View Rates & Fees

Our pick for

United Airlines

Chase United Airlines Mileage Plus Credit Card
Apply now

on Chase's website

United℠ Explorer Card

5.0

NerdWallet rating 
Apply now

on Chase's website

Annual fee

$0 intro for the first year, then $95

Rewards rate

1x-2x

Miles

Intro offer

40,000

Miles

Recommended Credit Score

The United℠ Explorer Card delivers terrific value, with several perks not offered by other airline cards in its price range. If you fly United regularly — or have the option to — it's a must.

Pros

  • You earn 2 miles per dollar on United purchases, at restaurants and on hotel stays; other purchases earn 1 mile per dollar. The first checked bag is free for you and a companion, and you get priority boarding. Each year, you receive two one-time passes to United Club airport lounges, and the card reimburses your application fee for TSA Precheck or Global Entry. You even get primary rental car insurance and a great sign-up bonus.

Cons

  • Other cards provide a free checked bag for more people traveling on your reservation. As with any branded airline card, you're limited in how you can redeem your rewards.

Read full review
  • Earn 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

  • $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95

  • Earn 2 miles per $1 spent on dining, hotel stays, and United purchases

  • Up to $100 Global Entry or TSA PreCheck® fee Credit

  • 25% back on United inflight purchases

  • Check your first bag for free (a savings of up to $140 per roundtrip) when you use your card to purchase your ticket

  • Enjoy priority boarding privileges and visit the United Club℠ with 2 one-time passes each year for your anniversary

  • Earn 2 miles per $1 spent on dining including eligible delivery services

Our pick for

American Airlines

Citibank AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard Credit Card
Apply now

on Citibank's application

Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®

4.8

NerdWallet rating 
Apply now

on Citibank's application

Annual fee

$0 intro for the first year, then $99

Rewards rate

1x-2x

Miles

Intro offer

50,000

Miles

Recommended Credit Score

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.

Pros

  • 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 you spend $2,500 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening. You can earn a $125 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.

Cons

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

Read full review
  • Earn 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles after you spend $2,500 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening.

  • Earn 2 AAdvantage® miles for every $1 spent at gas stations and restaurants.

  • Earn 2 AAdvantage® miles for every $1 spent on eligible American Airlines purchases.

  • Earn a $125 American Airlines Flight DIscount after you spend $20,000 or more in purchases during your cardmembership year and renew your card.

  • No Foreign Transaction Fees

  • First checked bag is free on domestic American Airlines itineraries for you and up to four companions traveling with you on the same reservation.

  • Enjoy preferred boarding on American Airlines flights.

  • The standard variable APR for Citi Flex Plan is 15.99% - 24.99%, based on your creditworthiness. Citi Flex Plan offers are made available at Citi's discretion.

Our pick for

No-annual-fee airline card

Blue Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express"
Apply now

on American Express's website

Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card

3.9

NerdWallet rating 
Apply now

on American Express's website

Annual fee

$0

Rewards rate

1x-2x

Miles

Intro offer

10,000

Miles

Recommended Credit Score

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.

Pros

  • The rewards are similar to what you'd earn with any airline card: 2 points per dollar on purchases directly with Delta and 1 point per dollar on other purchases. But you also get 2 points per dollar at restaurants. There's a modest bonus offer, too, and you save 20% on in-flight purchases. Terms apply.

Cons

  • You don't get the free checked bags or priority boarding privileges that other cards offer — but then again, you're not paying for those perks either.

Read full review
  • Earn 10,000 Bonus Miles after you spend $500 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months.

  • No Annual Fee.

  • Earn 2X Miles per dollar at restaurants, now worldwide.

  • Earn 2X Miles per dollar spent on Delta purchases.

  • Earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases.

  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.

  • Receive a 20% savings in the form of a statement credit after you use your Card on eligible Delta in-flight purchases of food, beverages, and audio headsets.

  • Terms Apply.

  • View Rates & Fees

Our pick for

Alaska Airlines

Bank of America Alaska Airlines Visa Signature®  Credit Card
Apply now

on Bank of America's website

Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card

4.5

NerdWallet rating 
Apply now

on Bank of America's website

Annual fee

$75

Rewards rate

1x-3x

Miles

Intro offer

50,000

Miles

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 alone makes it well worth the modest $75 annual fee.

Pros

  • This card's Companion Fare allows you to get a ticket for a traveling partner for as little as $121 ($99 plus taxes and fees from $22) once a year. Also valuable: a free checked bag on Alaska flights for you and up to six other passengers on the same reservation. As for rewards, you earn 3 miles per dollar spent directly on Alaska Airlines purchases and 1 mile per dollar on everything else. There's also a nice bonus for new cardholders.

Cons

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

Read full review
  • SPECIAL ONLINE OFFER – 50,000 BONUS MILES!

  • Get 50,000 bonus miles plus Alaska's Famous Companion Fare™ from $121 ($99 fare plus taxes and fees from $22) with this offer. To qualify, make purchases of $2,000 or more within the first 90 days of opening your account.

  • Alaska’s Famous Companion Fare™. Every year on your credit card account anniversary you’ll receive a companion fare certificate which allows you to book a companion flight from just $121 ($99 fare plus taxes and fees from $22). Valid on all Alaska Airlines flights booked on alaskaair.com.

  • Free checked bag for you and up to 6 guests on the same reservation – that's a savings of $60 per person roundtrip!

  • Earn unlimited 3 miles for every $1 spent on eligible Alaska Airlines purchases and unlimited 1 mile for every $1 spent on all other purchases.

  • With oneworld® Alliance we’ve expanded our global reach to over 1,000 destinations worldwide, bringing you more airline partners and more ways to earn and redeem miles.

  • Flexibility when booking with no blackout dates on Alaska Airlines flights and miles don’t expire on active accounts.

  • Plus, no foreign transaction fees and a low $75 annual fee.

  • This online only offer may not be available elsewhere if you leave this page. You can take advantage of this offer when you apply now.

Our pick for

Southwest Airlines

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card
Apply now

on Chase's website

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card

4.8

NerdWallet rating 
Apply now

on Chase's website

Annual fee

$149

Rewards rate

1x-3x

Points

Intro offer

40,000

Points

Recommended Credit Score

The Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card comes with an array of perks that not only make up for its annual fee, but actually make it a better value than the airline's lower-priced cards.

Pros

  • This card offers the same (excellent) sign-up bonus and earns the same rewards as Southwest cards with annual fees that are $50 to $80 lower. But its perks quickly make up the difference: a $75 annual credit for Southwest purchases, up to four free upgraded boardings every year (worth $30 to $50 apiece), a 7,500-point annual bonus, 20% off in-flight purchases, and a boost toward elite "A-List" status. Rewards: 2 points per dollar spent with Southwest and its hotel and rental-car partners; 1 point per dollar on other purchases.

Cons

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

Read full review
  • Earn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months. Plus, earn 3X points on dining, including takeout and eligible delivery services, for the first year.

  • 7,500 bonus points after your Cardmember anniversary each year.

  • $75 Southwest® travel credit each year.

  • 4 Upgraded Boardings per year when available.

  • 20% back on inflight drinks and WiFi.

  • Earn 2 points per $1 spent on Southwest® purchases.

  • Earn 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases.

  • No foreign transaction fees.

Our pick for

Premium airline card

American Express Delta Reserve Credit Card
Apply now

on American Express's website

Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card

5.0

NerdWallet rating 
Apply now

on American Express's website

Annual fee

$550

Rewards rate

1x-3x

Miles

Intro offer

80,000

Miles

Recommended Credit Score

Every airline has a premium card that gets you into its airport lounges, but the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card gives you that AND an annual companion certificate that's good even in first class.

Pros

  • The card gets you into Delta's Sky Clubs (an annual membership costs $545), and you can also use it to access American Express Centurion Lounges when flying Delta. Every year, you get a companion certificate, which lets you bring someone with you on a domestic flight, regardless of what fare class your ticket is. Rewards: 3 miles per dollar on Delta purchases and 1 mile per dollar on other purchases. And don't forget the sterling bonus offer. Terms apply.

Cons

  • You'll have to be a frequent Delta traveler to justify paying an annual fee of $550. Lounge access is only valuable if you use it, and to use a companion certificate, you have to pay full price for a ticket for yourself.

Read full review
  • 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 11/10/2021.

  • Earn up to 60,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) with Status Boost® per year. After you spend $30,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, you can earn 15,000 MQMs four times per year, getting you closer to Medallion® Status.  MQMs are used to determine Medallion® Status and are different than miles you earn toward flights.

  • Receive a Domestic First Class, Delta Comfort+® or Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate each year upon renewal of your Card.*Payment of the government-imposed taxes and fees of no more than $75 for roundtrip domestic flights (for itineraries with up to four flight segments) is required. Baggage charges and other restrictions apply. See terms and conditions for details.

  • Complimentary access into the Delta Sky Club® for you when travelling on a Delta flight.

  • Enjoy complimentary access to The Centurion® Lounge or Escape Lounge – The Centurion® Studio Partner when you book a Delta flight with your Reserve Card.

  • Fee Credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓®.

  • Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.

  • Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases.

  • Earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases.

  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.

  • $550 annual fee.

  • Terms Apply.

  • View Rates & Fees

Our pick for

Airline card for small business

Small-business credit cards aren't just for people with storefronts or offices. If you're a freelancer, have a "side hustle" or do gig work, you may a good candidate for a small-business credit card, too. Having a dedicated card for your money-making enterprise helps you keep business and personal finances separate.

American Express Delta Reserve for Business Credit Card
Apply now

on American Express's website

Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Business American Express Card

4.9

NerdWallet rating 
Apply now

on American Express's website

Annual fee

$550

Rewards rate

1x-3x

Miles

Intro offer

80,000

Miles

Recommended Credit Score

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. The annual companion certificate — which is good even in first class — and the checked-bag benefit adds considerable value, too.

Pros

  • The card gets you into Delta's Sky Clubs (an annual membership costs $545), and you can also use it to access the American Express Centurion Lounge or Escape Lounge — The Centurion Studio Partner — when flying Delta. Every year, you get a companion certificate, which lets you bring someone with you on a domestic flight, regardless of what fare class your ticket is. Rewards: 3 miles per dollar on Delta purchases and 1 mile per dollar on other purchases (rising to 1.5 miles per dollar after you spend $150,000 in a calendar year). There's a super bonus offer, too. Terms apply.

Cons

  • All the perks come at a cost, and a high one: The annual fee is $550. That fee can be a deductible business expense, though, and if you use this card as intended, you'll get your money's worth.

Read full review
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 80,000 bonus miles, 20,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs), and a $200 statement credit after spending $5,000 on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer Ends 11/10/21.

  • With Status Boost®, earn 15,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $30,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, up to 4x per year getting you closer to Medallion Status. Plus, throughout 2021 earn an additional 3,750 MQMs after making $30,000 in purchases, up to 4x. That’s in addition to the 15,000 MQMs that you would earn with Status Boost.

  • When you purchase a Delta flight with your Delta SkyMiles Reserve Card, you will receive complimentary access to The Centurion® Lounge or Escape Lounge – The Centurion® Studio Partner.

  • After you spend $150,000 on your Card in a calendar year, you earn 1.5 Miles per dollar (that’s an extra half mile per dollar) on eligible purchases the rest of the year. If your purchase qualifies for a category that has a higher mileage accelerator, only the higher accelerator will apply (ex: you would earn 3X miles on purchases made directly with Delta instead of 1.5X).

  • Pay no foreign transaction fees when you spend overseas.

  • Earn 3 Miles on every dollar spent on eligible purchases made directly with Delta.

  • Terms and limitations apply.

  • View Rates & Fees

Want to compare more options? Here are our other top picks:

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

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: Flexible redemption + big sign-up bonus:

For a reasonable annual fee, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card earns 5 points per $1 spent on all travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards®; 3 points per $1 spent on dining (including eligible delivery services and takeout), select streaming services, and online grocery purchases (not including Target, Walmart and wholesale clubs); 2 points per $1 spent on travel not purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards®; and 1 point per $1 spent on other purchases. Points are worth 25% more when you redeem them for travel booked through Chase, or you can transfer them to about a dozen airline and hotel partners. The sign-up bonus is stellar, too. 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: 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: 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: 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: 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. Terms apply. 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.

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

1.1 cents.

1.2 cents.

1.3 cents.

0.7 cent.

1 cent.

1.5 cents.

1.4 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. New cardholder bonus offers 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® Blue American Express Card, see this page. To view rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card, see this page. To view rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card, see this page. To view rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Business American Express Card, see this page.

Last updated on September 23, 2021

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.

Frequently asked questions