Here are the best airline credit cards:

Best for flexible redemption

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
Apply Now on Chase's secure site

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Apply Now on Chase's secure site
  • Annual fee: $0 for the first year, then $95
  • Bonus offer: 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®
  • What our experts like about it

Best for frequent United fliers

United MileagePlus® Explorer Card
Apply Now on Chase's secure site

United MileagePlus® Explorer Card

Apply Now on Chase's secure site
  • Annual fee: $0 for the first year, then $95
  • Bonus offer: Earn 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open
  • What our experts like about it

Best for frequent American fliers

Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®
Apply Now on Citibank's secure site

Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®

Apply Now on Citibank's secure site
  • Annual fee: $0 for the first year, then $95
  • Bonus offer: 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*
  • What our experts like about it

Best for frequent Delta fliers

Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express
Apply Now on American Express's secure site

Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express

Apply Now on American Express's secure site
  • Annual fee: $0 for the first year, then $95
  • Bonus offer: 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.
  • What our experts like about it

Best for budget travelers

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card
Apply Now on Chase's secure site

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card

Apply Now on Chase's secure site
  • Annual fee: $99
  • Bonus offer: Earn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open
  • What our experts like about it
Our pick for

Flexible redemption


Benefits

Unlike cards tied to a specific airline, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card provides rewards that can be used in many ways. 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 when you use them to book travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards, or you can transfer them at a 1:1 rate to several frequent flier programs, including United, Southwest, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic. Plus, the card comes with a big-time 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 lacks the special perks — like free checked bags and priority boarding — that many airline-specific credit cards offer.
If you mostly fly on one airline, a co-branded credit card from that airline may provide benefits that the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card does not. But for travelers who want flexible rewards with many redemption options, this card is one of the best around.
Our pick for

Frequent United fliers


Benefits

The biggest advantage of an airline-specific card is often the perks you get when you fly. With the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card, you get a free checked bag when you fly, priority boarding, and two one-time passes each year to United’s airport lounges. You earn 2 miles per $1 spent on tickets purchased from United and 1 point per $1 on everything else. There is a sign-up bonus: Earn 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. Cardholders who spend at least $25,000 in a year enjoy a 10,000 points bonus. If you can reach this spending level, your rewards rate will effectively increase.

If you’re redeeming miles for flights, you’re limited to United and other StarAlliance partners. With a general travel card, you may have more redemption options.
Frequent United fliers will enjoy the extra rewards, bonuses and perks with the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card. Since it doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees, this card is also a good choice for use overseas.


Our pick for

Frequent American fliers


Benefits

With this card, 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 beverages. When using the card, you earn 2 miles per $1 spent on American Airlines purchases, and 1 mile per $1 spent elsewhere. There is 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*. When you redeem miles, you’ll get 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. The card also comes with an annual fee.
Between the sign-up bonus, extra miles on ticket 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 overseas travel, considering it doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees.

Our pick for

Frequent Delta fliers


Benefits

The Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express is similar to co-branded cards of other major network carriers, with an especially generous checked-bag perk that applies to up to nine passengers traveling on the same itinerary. Cardholders get priority boarding and discounted lounge access. The card offers 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 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.

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. Although it doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees, American Express isn’t as widely accepted outside the U.S. as Visa and MasterCard.
Frequent Delta fliers will enjoy the extra rewards and perks with the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express. The money you save on baggage fees alone could more than make up for the annual fee of $0 for the first year, then $95.

Our pick for

Budget travelers


Benefits

While most airline cards give you extra rewards only when you buy plane tickets, the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card also gives you extra points when you book hotel stays and car rentals through one of Southwest’s partners, like 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 offers a 6,000-point anniversary bonus, regardless of spending, and it has no foreign transaction fees, so it’s a solid card for overseas purchases.

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, and is valid for the remainder of the calendar year in which you qualify and the year after.

Southwest provides service to only a limited number of international destinations in Latin America and the Caribbean. Many travel credit cards waive the annual fee the first year, but the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card doesn’t. However, the anniversary bonus will partially cover this yearly cost.
Annual fee aside, the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card is a solid option for travelers on a budget.

Top airline miles credit cards for loyalists

AIRLINECREDIT CARD
(CLICK FOR FULL DETAILS)
ANNUAL FEE
American Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®$0 for the first year, then $95
American Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®$450
British Airways British Airways Visa Signature® Card$95
Delta Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express$0 for the first year, then $95
Hawaiian The Hawaiian Airlines® World Elite MasterCard®$89
JetBlueJetBlue Card$0
JetBlueJetBlue Plus Card$99
Southwest Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card$99
United United MileagePlus® Explorer Card$0 for the first year, then $95
Virgin America Virgin America Visa Signature® Card$49

Methodology

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 Dec. 31, 2016

Gregory Karp is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: gkarp@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @spendingsmart