Our pick for
Flexible redemption and sign-up bonus
Our pick for
Alaska Airlines and best domestic airline card
Our pick for
Delta Airlines and best checked bag benefit
Our pick for
Our pick for
Waived first year
18.24% - 26.24% Variable APR
recommended credit score
Our pick for
No-annual-fee airline card
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|
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)||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 within the first 90 days of your account opening.|
|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*|
|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 spending $1,000 in purchases on your new Card in 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))||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. (This offer is no longer valid on our site)|
|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)||Earn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.|
|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 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.
To view rates and fees of the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express, please visit this page.
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 on February 12, 2019
To recap our selections...
NerdWallet's Best Airline Credit Cards of February 2019
- Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card: Best for Flexible redemption and sign-up bonus
- Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card: Best for Alaska Airlines and best domestic airline card
- Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express: Best for Delta Airlines and best checked bag benefit
- United℠ Explorer Card: Best for United Airlines
- Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®: Best for American Airlines
- Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card: Best for Southwest Airlines
- Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®: Best for Premium airline card