Advertiser Disclosure

How to Choose an Airline Credit Card

Aug. 24, 2017
Airline Credit Cards, Credit Cards
At NerdWallet, we strive to help you make financial decisions with confidence. To do this, many or all of the products featured here are from our partners. However, this doesn’t influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own.

The first step in choosing an airline credit card is determining whether it’s the right type of card for you. You have other options, notably a general travel credit card. These cards provide travel rewards without tying you to a single airline for earning and spending miles. And general travel cards tend to be simpler than airline-specific credit cards, which require familiarity not only with the card features but also with a complex airline frequent-flyer program.

Is an airline card right for me?

Consider these questions in deciding whether an airline card is best for you.

Do you always fly the same airline? If you like to shop for the best deal on airfare — and have choices in airlines — a general travel card might be a better fit. You can earn points or miles and redeem them not only for fares on a wide range of airlines but also for other travel expenditures, such as hotel stays and car rentals.

So if you spread your flying among several airlines or don’t fly that much — fewer than, say, four times per year — an airline card might not be the best choice. Indeed, NerdWallet has found that most people would be better off with a cash-back card than any travel card.

Do you check bags? A primary differentiator for some major airline cards is free checked bags, typically one free checked bag for at least two passengers on the same travel itinerary. This is important because checking bags typically costs $25 each way. During a single roundtrip with a partner, checked bags could cost $100, more than making up the typical annual fee of an airline credit card. Airline cards are the only ones that offer free checked bags.

Nerd tip

An exception to the checked-bag consideration is Southwest Airlines, which as of August 2017 did not charge for the first two checked bags. So, its credit cards offer no advantage for bags.

Further, priority boarding that comes with many airline cards can ensure that when you don’t check bags, you’ll board early enough to get space in the overhead bins. 

What’s your credit score? Airline cards — and travel cards in general — typically require a good or excellent credit scores, meaning 690 or higher. You can check your credit score on NerdWallet.

Do you pay in full? Rewards credit cards, including travel and airline cards, are best for those who pay their balance in full each month.

How to choose an airline card …

… When you mostly fly one airline

Airline cards earn miles in a carrier’s frequent-flyer program. The primary concern in choosing among airline cards often has nothing to do with the features of the card itself. And among major carriers, credit card offerings are similar.

Instead, it depends on whether you usually fly one particular airline. Does one carrier dominate your preferred home airport?

If you’re in Atlanta or Minneapolis, your probable choice will be Delta Air Lines. If you’re in Houston or San Francisco, a strong option is United Airlines. In Miami or Charlotte, you’re probably flying American most often.

If one carrier dominates your home airport or you’re already loyal to one carrier (or its alliance partners), your search is mostly done. You should earn and redeem miles on the airline you fly most, even if it’s because you have no choice. Why? When you accumulate enough miles for a free flight, you want to be able to spend them for a fare you want or need. And you want your card perks, such as free checked bags, to be useful for as many trips as possible. It doesn’t make sense to cash in on an attractive credit card sign-up bonus for use on an airline you never fly.

A secondary consideration is: Where do you fly? If you make repeated trips to Dallas, for example, American Airlines or Southwest are your primary choices.

If you have a primary airline, your decision then is to choose among a single airline’s credit card offerings, typically a basic card and a premium card. More on that below.

… When you have a choice of airlines

If you most often fly from big cities, such as New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, you have choices of airlines and airports. And not all airports are dominated by big carriers. If you fly from Fort Lauderdale, for example, you might be choosing among JetBlue, Southwest and Spirit. In Seattle and Portland, you might pledge allegiance to Alaska Airlines.

Midsize cities, too, such as Cleveland, Des Moines, Iowa, and Syracuse, New York, are often served by multiple airlines with no single carrier dominating. Which airline you choose for a given flight just depends on where you’re going.

Nerd tip

Not sure which airlines dominate your preferred airport? Check market share for any U.S. airport at the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

If you spread your flying among several airlines, a general travel card might be best.

If you’re a frequent flyer and mostly fly two airlines — say, United and American out of Chicago O’Hare International Airport — you might consider getting two airline cards. Paying two annual fees is not ideal, but if you fly enough to benefit from card perks from a couple of airlines, especially if you can recoup the annual fee with your savings on checked bag fees, that might be the way to go.

Lesser considerations in choosing an airline card include the sign-up bonus and transfer partners. Which other airlines can you use your accumulated miles with? If you will use your airline card while traveling abroad, consider that Visa and Mastercard are accepted more places internationally than American Express. More limited international acceptance is also an issue for Discover, which doesn’t have an airline card but does have a general travel card. And you can save money abroad by using a card that charges no foreign transaction fees.

How to choose among one airline’s credit cards

In choosing among a major airline’s credit cards, a primary differentiator is airport lounge access. American, United and Delta each have a pricier card that offers more benefits overall, the most significant of which is access to its brand of airport lounges. Annual fees for these cards are typically hundreds of dollars.

If you think lounge access is worth it, get the premium card. Otherwise, get the more basic card. Some premium general travel cards also offer lounge access.

With other airlines, the difference between their co-branded credit cards is more subtle, especially with Southwest Airlines. Often the key is whether you will use enough of the higher-tier card benefits to justify a larger annual fee.

Should I use an airline card for everyday spending?

Typically, airline cards don’t offer attractive rewards for everyday spending. Major airlines might give 2 miles per dollar spent on fares, which is fine, but just a mundane 1 mile per dollar spent on everything else.

That’s why some people mostly use airline cards as membership cards to get perks, such as free checked bags, and use a different credit card for everyday spending.

It depends on the card, though. For example, JetBlue personal credit cards offer elevated spending rewards on dining out and groceries.

The quick answer

Which airline card should you get? One branded by the carrier you’re loyal to. Not loyal to one airline? Then a general travel card or other type of rewards card is likely a better choice.

About the author