Our pick for
Flexible redemption and sign-up bonus
Recommended Credit Score
ProsTrue, 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 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
ConsAs 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.
- Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
- 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
- Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 60,000 points are worth $750 toward travel
Our pick for
Alaska Airlines and best domestic airline card
Recommended Credit Score
ProsThe 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.
ConsAlthough 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.
- NOW - 40,000 Bonus Mile + Alaska's Famous Companion Fare™ Offer.
- Get 40,000 bonus miles and 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.
- Save with a free checked bag on Alaska flights for you and up to six other guests on the same reservation.
- Get Alaska's Famous Companion Fare™ every year! EACH YEAR on your account anniversary get a companion fare from $121 ($99 plus taxes and fees from $22). Valid on all Alaska flights booked on alaskaair.com with no blackout dates.
- Earn unlimited 3 miles for every $1 spent on eligible Alaska Airlines purchases and 1 mile for every $1 spent on all other purchases. And, your miles don't expire on active accounts.
- NEW! Enjoy 50% off day passes at the Alaska Lounge and 20% back on all Alaska Airlines inflight purchases when you pay with your new card.
- Redeem miles with no blackout dates on any of Alaska's 1,200 daily flights or choose from over 900+ destinations with more than a dozen global airline partners. Plus, get exclusive access to discounted redemption levels when you redeem miles for hotel stays at over 400,000 properties using Alaska Airlines Hotels.
- Plus, no foreign transaction fees and a low $75 annual fee.
Our pick for
Delta Airlines and best checked bag benefit
$0 intro for the first year, then $95
Recommended Credit Score
ProsFree 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, there's a great offer for new cardholders: 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.
ConsAs 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.
- 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.
- Earn 2 miles on every eligible dollar spent on purchases made directly with Delta.
- Earn 1 mile for every eligible dollar spent on purchases.
- Check your first bag free on Delta flights – that’s a savings of up to $240 for a family of 4 roundtrip.
- Receive Main Cabin 1 Priority Boarding on Delta flights, stow your carry-on bag and settle in sooner.
- Enjoy a $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95.
- Terms Apply.
- View Rates and Fees
Our pick for
$0 for the first year, then $95
Recommended Credit Score
ProsChoosing the best in class among airline cards comes down to each card’s unique extras. The United℠ 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 restaurants, hotels and eligible purchases from United and 1 point per $1 on everything else. The card offers a sign-up bonus: Limited time offer! Earn up to 65,000 Bonus Miles: 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. Plus earn an additional 25,000 bonus miles after you spend $10,000 total on purchases in the first 6 months your account is open. You get a free checked bag on each flight for you and one other person on your itinerary, and this card also offers reimbursement for the application fee for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry.
ConsA free checked bag for you and a companion 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.
- Limited time offer! Earn up to 65,000 Bonus Miles.
- $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95.
- Earn 2 miles per $1 spent at restaurants and on hotel stays
- Up to $100 Global Entry or TSA Pre✓® Fee Credit
- 25% back on United inflight purchases
- Check your first bag for free (a savings of up to $120 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 purchases from United, and 1 mile per $1 spent on all other purchases
Our pick for
Recommended Credit Score
ProsMost 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 card also pays a 6,000-point anniversary bonus, regardless of spending, and it doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. The sign-up bonus is something special: Earn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.
ConsSouthwest 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.
- Earn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.
- 6,000 bonus points after your Cardmember anniversary.
- 2 points per $1 spent on Southwest® purchases and Rapid Rewards® hotel and car rental partner purchases.
- 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases.
- No foreign transaction fees.
- No blackout dates or seat restrictions.
- Redeem your points for flights, hotel stays, gift cards, access to events, and more.
Our pick for
Premium airline card
Our pick for
No-annual-fee airline card
Recommended Credit Score
ProsYou 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.
ConsYou won’t receive free checked bags or priority boarding with this card — or any no-annual-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.
- Earn 2% in TravelBank cash per $1 spent on tickets purchased from United.
- Earn 1.5% in TravelBank cash per $1 spent on all other purchases
- No foreign transaction fees
- Enjoy 25% back as a statement credit on purchases of food, beverages and Wi-Fi onboard United®-operated flights when you pay with your United TravelBank Card.
- TravelBank cash is easy to use. $1 in TravelBank cash = $1 when used toward the purchase of a United ticket.
- Your TravelBank cash accumulates in your United TravelBank account on United.com.
- $0 Annual fee
- The information related to the United℠ TravelBank Card has been collected by NerdWallet and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of this 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)||Get 40,000 bonus miles and 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|
|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® ($99, waived for first 12 months*)||Earn 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles after $2,500 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening* (This offer is no longer available on our site)|
|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 intro 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 ($250 if application is received on or after 1/30/2020))||Earn 75,000 Bonus Miles and 5,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer Expires 10/30/2019. In addition, earn a $100 statement credit after you make a Delta purchase with your new Card within your first 3 months. Terms Apply.|
|Delta||Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express ($450 ($550 if application is received on or after 1/30/2020))||Earn 75,000 Bonus Miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $5,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer Expires 10/30/2019. Terms Apply.|
|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℠ 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)||Limited time offer! Earn up to 65,000 Bonus Miles: 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. Plus earn an additional 25,000 bonus miles after you spend $10,000 total on purchases in the first 6 months your account is open.|
|United||United Club℠ Card ($450)||Earn 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.|
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 Club℠ Card, United℠ TravelBank Card, Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express and the Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express has been collected by NerdWallet and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuers 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 November 7, 2019
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
Every time you use an airline-branded credit card to make a purchase, you earn rewards points, usually called "miles." Those miles get deposited into your account with the airline's loyalty program, where you can use them to book free flights. Many airline credit cards also come with perks, such as free checked bags, priority boarding, discounts on in-flight purchases or access to the airline's airport lounges.
You must be a member of an airline's loyalty program to earn miles with that airline's credit card. (Your card will be linked to your account in the program.) Airline loyalty programs are commonly referred to as "frequent-flyer" programs, but anyone can be a member. It's free, and you can join regardless of how often or how seldom you fly.
In most cases, there's no limit to the number of miles you can earn with an airline credit card. The more you spend, the more you earn:
- With most airline cards, you earn at least 1 mile per dollar spent on the card.
- Spending with the airline itself usually earns extra miles — 2 or more miles per dollar.
- Some cards also give you extra miles for purchases in certain categories. For example, Southwest's cards give you extra points when you book with the airline's hotel and rental car partners, and the United℠ Explorer Card earns double miles at hotels and restaurants.
Additionally, most airline credit cards offer new cardholders a bonus as an incentive to use the card. Spend a certain amount of money — say, $2,000 — within the first few months, and you'll get tens of thousands of miles dropped into your account.
The miles you earn with an airline credit card come on top of the miles you earn from actually flying on the airline.
Most airline programs nowadays earn miles based on how much you pay for a ticket rather than how far you've flown. (The term "miles" is a holdover from the days when the miles you earned were literally based on the miles you flew.) For example, an airline might give basic members of their loyalty program 5 miles per dollar spent on a ticket. Buy a $1,000 ticket, and you earn 5,000 miles. You could get an additional 2 miles per dollar spent by buying the ticket with the airline's credit card. That would bump your total rewards for the flight to 7,000 miles.
There's no standard value for airline miles, although it's helpful to think of them as being worth about 1 cent apiece, on average. The actual value you get depends on how much money you save by redeeming them for a free flight. That, in turn, depends on the airline, the route you're flying, how far in advance you book your flight, and the fare class of the ticket (economy, business, first).
The two key factors here are the price of a ticket and the number of miles you need to redeem for the same ticket. For example, if you redeem 20,000 miles for a ticket that would have cost you $300, you're getting 1.5 cents per mile ($300 / 20,000 = $0.015).
NerdWallet has done extensive research to determine an average value per mile for the larger U.S. carriers. See our findings here.
When it comes to using miles to book flights, the miles earned with an airline credit card are no different from the miles you earn by flying the airline. However, miles earned with a credit card usually don't count toward earning elite frequent-flyer status with the airline.
Elite status in a frequent-flyer program entitles you to perks not typically available to casual travelers, such as free seat upgrades, priority boarding, higher rewards rates, fee waivers and other benefits. Airlines reserve this status for their best customers, so elite qualifying is mostly tied to how much business you actually do with the airline — how much money you spend on tickets and how many flights you take. Miles earned from spending on a credit card generally don't count toward elite status.
That said, some airline credit cards offer a boost toward elite status as an added incentive to use their cards. Take the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card. One way to gain Southwest's elite "A-List" status is to earn 35,000 "tier qualifying points" in a year. In general, you get qualifying points by buying tickets from Southwest; points earned from spending on the credit card don't count. However, for every $10,000 you spend on the card, the issuer throws in a bonus of 1,500 tier qualifying points (up to 15,000 a year).
Also, keep in mind that airline credit cards offer some of the perks of elite status, such as free checked bags and preferred boarding.
Many airline credit cards let you check a bag for free, which can save you about $30 on each flight you take. A couple round trips a year, and the money you save in bag fees can be enough to pay for a card with a $95 annual fee. In most cases:
- The bag-fee waiver typically applies to the cardholder and at least one other person traveling on the same reservation. See major airline cards' baggage perks.
- Some fine print applies. For example, you might not get a free bag if you don't book directly with the airline, or if you fail to provide a frequent-flyer number. See our tips to avoid bag-fee gotchas.
- Airline credit cards with no annual fee generally do not offer free checked bags.
American, Delta and United airlines each offer a premium credit card that gives you unlimited access the the carrier's airport lounges. Annual fees on "club" cards are usually in the $450 range. Basic airline cards — those with fees of $95 or less — don't offer the same access. However, a basic airline card might give you a small taste of the lounge life. The United℠ Explorer Card gives you two one-time lounge passes a year, and some other cards let you buy discounted day passes.
Most airline cards charge annual fees ranging from about $59 to $450. In some cases, the fee is waived in the first year. The higher the fee, the more benefits you can expect. American, Delta, United and JetBlue all offer cards without an annual fee for budget-minded travelers, but those cards don't give you much in the way of perks. You'll earn miles with your spending, and that's about it.