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.
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.
Our pick for
Best domestic airline card and best for United
Choosing the best in class among airline cards comes down to each card’s unique extras. The United MileagePlus® 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 tickets purchased 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.
The first checked bag on each flight is free for you and one other person on your itinerary. That 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.
The United MileagePlus® Explorer Card delivers solid value for United loyalists — and valuable extras for anyone who could become one.
Our pick for
Best checked bag benefit and best for Delta
on American Express's secure website
17.24% - 26.24% Variable APR
$0 for the first year, then $95
Recommended credit score
recommended credit score
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: Earn 30,000 Bonus Miles after spending $1,000 in purchases in the first 3 months and a $50 statement credit after making a Delta purchase in the first 3 months with your new Card. Terms Apply.
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.
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.
Our pick for
Best for American Airlines
on Citibank's secure application
17.49% - 25.49% Variable APR
$0 for the first year, then $99
Recommended credit score
recommended credit score
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: For a limited time, earn 60,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles after making $3,000 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.
When redeeming your miles for travel, you’re limited to American Airlines or other Oneworld partner airlines.
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.
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.
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.
Annual fee aside, the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card is a solid option for travelers flying domestic routes.
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.
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.
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 annual fee, and a valuable choice for anyone who flies on Alaska Airlines with another person at least once a year.
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®
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.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card strikes a balance between reasonable cost, valuable, usable travel rewards, and perks.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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 May 17, 2018.
To recap our selections...
NerdWallet's Best Airline Credit Cards of 2018
- United MileagePlus® Explorer Card
: Best for Best domestic airline card and best for United
- Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express
: Best for Best checked bag benefit and best for Delta
- Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®
: Best for Best for American Airlines
- Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card
: Best for Southwest Airlines
- Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Credit Card
: Best for Alaska Airlines
- Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
: Best for Flexible redemption
- Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®
: Best for Best premium airline card