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.
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card: Best for Flexible redemption + big sign-up bonus
Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card: Best for Delta Air Lines + Best domestic airline card
Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card: Best for Southwest Airlines
United℠ Explorer Card: Best for United Airlines
Alaska Airlines Visa® credit card: Best for Alaska Airlines
Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card: Best for Premium airline card
Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Business American Express Card: Best for Airline card for small business
Aeroplan® Credit Card: Best for International airline card
|Annual fee||Rewards rate||Intro offer|
Whether you want to pay less interest or earn more rewards, the right card's out there. Just answer a few questions and we'll narrow the search for you.
Whether you want to pay less interest or earn more rewards, the right card's out there. Just answer a few questions and we'll narrow the search for you.
Before applying, confirm details on the issuer’s website.
Our pick for: Flexible redemption + big sign-up bonus:
For a reasonable annual fee, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card earns bonus rewards (up to 5X) on travel, dining, select streaming services, and select online grocery 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: Delta Air Lines + best domestic airline card
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: 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. Plus, each purchase with the card earns points toward elite status. Read our review.
Our pick for: United Airlines
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: 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: 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® 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.
Our pick for: Allegiant vacation travelers
Allegiant Air caters to budget-minded vacation travelers. If you're regularly booking vacation packages in places like Orlando, Las Vegas and Southern California, this card might be a good fit. Like the airline, though, the card is no-frills. Read our review.
Our pick for: No-annual-fee airline card
For occasional but loyal American Airlines flyers, the no-annual-fee American Airlines AAdvantage® MileUp® is a cost-effective way to earn not only miles but also credit toward elite frequent-flyer status. 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: International airline card
Terrific rewards rates, generous bonus opportunities, a leg up on elite status and a raft of other perks make the Aeroplan® Credit Card worth a look for those who travel regularly in Canada and/or on the Star Alliance network. 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. Learn more and apply.
By Gregory Karp, NerdWallet
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, along with the value of points in hotel programs:
Keep in mind that the airline values are based on main cabin economy tickets and exclude premium cabin redemptions. See our valuations page for business class valuations and details about our methodology.
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.
— Sam Kemmis, NerdWallet travel rewards expert
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.
The three biggest domestic airlines all offer credit cards with no annual fee:
American: American Airlines AAdvantage® MileUp®.
Delta: Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card.
United: United Gateway℠ 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.
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.
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.
Last updated on December 6, 2023
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. Learn how NerdWallet rates credit cards.
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 $550. 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.