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 — then that airline’s card might be your only practical option. Other airports have more competition, giving you a choice of cards. We kept this in mind as we chose our best airline credit cards:

  • We’ll start by identifying the airline cards with the best features. This is what good looks like.
  • Then we’ll highlight the best card for each major airline (you can jump ahead to that part if you’d like).

Here are the airline cards with the best features:

Best domestic airline card

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 checked bag benefit

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 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 premium airline card

Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®
Apply Now on Citibank's secure application

Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®

Apply Now on Citibank's secure application
  • Annual fee: $450
  • Bonus offer: Earn 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles after spending $5,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening*
  • What our experts like about it
  Best no-fee travel card
United℠ TravelBank Card

 

Our pick for

Best domestic airline card

Why we like it

Choosing the best in class among airline cards comes down to each card’s unique extras. The United MileagePlus® 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 tickets purchased from United and 1 point per $1 on everything else. Cardholders who spend at least $25,000 in a year receive a 10,000-point bonus. The card offers 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. Its annual fee is $0 for the first year, then $95.

 

The first checked bag on each flight is free for you and one other person on your itinerary. That 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.


Our pick for

Best checked bag benefit

Why we like it

Free 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, 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. Its annual fee is $0 for the first year, then $95.

 

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. 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.


Our pick for

Flexible redemption

Why we like it

True, 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. Sure, its popular big brother, the Chase Sapphire Reserve℠, is better in many ways. But not everybody is comfortable shelling out an annual fee of $450. The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card strikes a balance between reasonable cost, valuable, usable travel rewards, and perks.

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, or you can transfer them at a 1:1 rate to several airlines’ frequent-flyer programs, including United, Southwest, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic. Plus, the card comes with a generous 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®. Its annual fee is $0 for the first year, then $95.

 

As a general travel card, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card lacks the special perks that many airline-specific credit cards offer, especially free checked bags and priority boarding.


Our pick for

Best premium airline card

Why we like it

If you value airport lounge access, an airline club card can be the way to go. And it’s hard to top this offering from American Airlines, which gets you into the carrier’s Admirals Clubs. It also offers stand-alone access for your authorized users — and you can add up to 10. A standard Admirals Club membership costs $550 per year, making the card’s $450 fee a relative bargain, especially considering the other perks you get.

he highlight of the card is the free lounge access for you and your guests, as well as for authorized users who can enter the club even without the primary cardholder. You receive a generous allocation of checked bags: The first is free for you and eight others on your reservation. You’ll earn 2 AAdvantage miles per $1 spent on eligible American Airlines purchases and 1 mile for every $1 spent on other purchases. Big spenders can earn 10,000 AAdvantage Elite Qualifying Miles — progress toward elite status — after spending $40,000 in a year. It has a sign-up bonus: Earn 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles after spending $5,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening*.

 

As with all co-branded cards, the value is tied to a single airline, in this case the largest carrier, American Airlines. And its rewards earnings rate is mundane. Unless you use the lounge regularly, you might have difficulty extracting enough value to warrant the high annual fee. If that’s true, consider a premium general travel card instead.


Our pick for

Best no-fee airline card

United℠ TravelBank Card

To apply

Applications are accepted only through the airline and the card’s issuer, Chase. See Chase’s page for the card.

Why we like it

You won’t get the robust airline perks featured by higher tier airline cards with annual fees, but United packs considerable value into its no-fee card aimed at leisure travelers. It has an easy-to-understand loyalty program with healthy rewards on non-United purchases and no foreign transaction fees.

Benefits

You 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.

Drawbacks

You won’t receive free checked bags or priority boarding with this card — or any no-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. And unlike general travel cards, you can spend your rewards on United flights only.


Here are the best airline cards for each major carrier:


Best American Airlines card

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

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

Apply Now on Citibank's secure application
  • Recommended Credit Score
  • 690
    850
    Good - Excellent
  • Card Details
  • Pros

    • Free checked bag
    • Preferred boarding
    • 10% back on redeemed miles

    Cons

    • Has annual fee
    • Best for frequent American Airlines flyers only

    Annual Fees

    $0 for the first year, then $95

    APR

    • APR: 17.24% - 25.24% Variable APR
    • Penalty APR: Up to 29.99%, Variable
    • Cash Advance APR: 26.49%, Variable

    Bonus Offers

    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*

    Intro APR

    • N/A
  • Additional Information
    • 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*
    • First checked bag is free on domestic American Airlines itineraries for you and up to four companions traveling with you on the same reservation*
    • Enjoy preferred boarding on American Airlines flights*
    • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases¹
    • Receive 25% savings on in-flight food and beverage purchases when you use your card on American Airlines flights*
    • Double AAdvantage® miles on eligible American Airlines purchases*
    • Earn 10% of your redeemed AAdvantage® miles back – up to 10,000 AAdvantage® miles each calendar year*

Benefits

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 beverage purchases. When using the card, you earn 2 miles per $1 spent with American Airlines and 1 mile per $1 spent elsewhere. There’s 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 receive 10% of those miles back, up to 10,000 miles per calendar year.

Drawbacks

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: $0 for the first year, then $95.

Bottom line

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 use abroad, because it doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees.

More about the card

Complete card details | Full NerdWallet review


Best Delta Air Lines card

Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express

Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express

Apply Now on American Express's secure site
  • Recommended Credit Score
  • 690
    850
    Good - Excellent
  • Card Details
  • Pros

    • Free checked bag
    • Priority boarding
    • Miles don't expire

    Cons

    • Has annual fee
    • Best for frequent Delta Air Lines flyers only
    • American Express isn’t accepted as widely as Visa or Mastercard internationally

    Annual Fees

    $0 for the first year, then $95

    APR

    • APR: 16.99% - 25.99% Variable APR
    • Penalty APR: 29.99%, Variable
    • Cash Advance APR: 26.49%, Variable

    Bonus Offers

    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.

    Intro APR

    • N/A
  • Additional Information
    • 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.
    • Earn 2 miles on every dollar spent on purchases made directly with Delta. Earn 1 mile for every eligible dollar spent on purchases.
    • Check your first bag free on every Delta flight - that's a savings of up to $200 per round trip for a family of four.
    • Settle into your seat sooner with Priority Boarding.
    • Enjoy a $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95.
    • Terms Apply.

Benefits

The Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express is similar to other major network carriers’ co-branded cards, with an especially generous checked-bag perk that applies to up to nine passengers traveling on the same itinerary. Cardholders receive 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 has 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.

Drawbacks

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. This card doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees, but American Express isn’t as widely accepted outside the U.S. as Visa and Mastercard.

Bottom line

Frequent Delta flyers will enjoy the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express’s rewards and perks. 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.

More about the card

Complete card details | Full NerdWallet review


Best Southwest Airlines card

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card

Apply Now on Chase's secure site
  • Recommended Credit Score
  • 720
    850
    Excellent
  • Card Details
  • Pros

    • No foreign transaction fees
    • Anniversary bonus
    • No blackout dates or seat restrictions

    Cons

    • No luxury perks
    • Can't stack points from other frequent flyer programs
    • Has annual fee, not waived for the first year

    Annual Fees

    $99

    APR

    • APR: 17.24% - 24.24% Variable APR
    • Cash Advance APR: 26.24%, Variable

    Bonus Offers

    Earn 50,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open

    Intro APR

    • N/A
  • Additional Information
    • Earn 50,000 points after you spend $2,000 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
    • Earn unlimited points that don't expire as long as your card account is open
    • No foreign transaction fees
    • No blackout dates or seat restrictions, Bags fly free® and no change fees
    • Redeem your points for flights, hotel stays, gift cards, access to events and more

Benefits

Most 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 spending requirement for the sign-up bonus is low: Earn 50,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. The card also pays a 6,000-point anniversary bonus, regardless of spending, and it doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. 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. It’s valid for the remainder of the calendar year in which you qualify and the year after.

Drawbacks

Southwest 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 the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card doesn’t.

Bottom line

Annual fee aside, the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card is a solid option for travelers flying domestic routes.

More about the card

Complete card details | Full NerdWallet review


Best United Airlines card

United MileagePlus® Explorer Card

United MileagePlus® Explorer Card

Apply Now on Chase's secure site
  • Recommended Credit Score
  • 690
    850
    Good - Excellent
  • Card Details
  • Pros

    • Free checked bag and priority boarding
    • Two United Club passes annually
    • Bonus miles when you spend $25,000 in a year
    • Miles don't expire as long as you're a cardholder

    Cons

    • Has annual fee
    • Checked bag fee waived for fewer traveling partners than competitors
    • Best for frequent United flyers only

    Annual Fees

    $0 for the first year, then $95

    APR

    • APR: 17.24% - 24.24% Variable APR
    • Cash Advance APR: 26.24%, Variable

    Bonus Offers

    Earn 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open

    Intro APR

    • N/A
  • Additional Information
    • 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open
    • $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95.
    • Check your first bag for free (a savings of up to $100 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
    • No foreign transaction fees
    • Earn 2 miles per $1 spent on tickets purchased from United, and 1 mile per $1 spent on all other purchases
    • Your miles don't expire as long as your credit card account is open, with no limit to the number of miles you can earn

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 lot, which is why we chose it above as the top domestic airline 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.

Drawbacks

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.

Bottom line

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.

More about the card

Complete card details | Full NerdWallet review


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.

Information about the United℠ TravelBank Card was collected by NerdWallet and has not been provided or reviewed by the issuer of this card.

Last updated Jan. 8, 2018.

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