Airline credit cards ranked by their return on spending

Jan 13, 2020

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Cobranded airline credit cards can be valuable for people who fly a lot with a particular airline. They often come with a host of elite-like benefits, such as free checked bags and priority boarding, as well as shortcuts to earning status tiers.

To appeal to the widest swath of possible customers, many of the airlines offer a range of cards, with costs that vary from no annual fee to $450 a year. Today, we’re going take a closer look at the best cards in each of these tiers.

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Ranking criteria

These cards are ranked solely by the return they offer on airline spending based on our valuations. To see our overall choices of top airline cards, which were determined by factoring in other criteria such as sign-up bonuses and perks, read our guide on the best airline credit cards. Although most airlines offer business cards, we’ve only included personal cards and ones that are currently available to new applicants for today’s rankings.

No-annual-fee airline cards

Card Bonus for airline purchases RETURN oN sPENDING (bASED oN TPG vALUATIONS)
JetBlue Card 3x 3.9%
American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp℠ Card 2x 2.8%
Blue Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express (see rates and fees) 2x 2.4%
United TravelBank Credit Card 2% back in TravelBank cash N/A

 

JetBlue Credit Card

Welcome bonus: Earn 10,000 points (worth $130 based on TPG valuations) after spending $1,000 in the first 90 days from account opening.

Earning rates: 3 points per dollar on all JetBlue purchases, 2 points per dollar at restaurants and grocery stores and 1 point per dollar on everything else

The JetBlue Credit Card is the only no-annual-fee airline card to offer 3x points on airline spend (with JetBlue only, not all airlines). That return is even higher than what you’ll get with many mid-tier cards. Earning double points on dining and groceries can also be useful — especially if you don’t already have the American Express® Gold Card which earns 4x points on dining and at U.S. supermarkets (up to $25,000 in purchases each calendar year; then 1x). Other perks of the card include 50% savings on inflight food and beverage purchases and no foreign transaction fees.

American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp Card

Photo by Angel DiBilio / Shutterstock.
(Photo by Angel DiBilio/Shutterstock)

Welcome bonus: Earn 10,000 miles (worth $140 based on TPG valuations) and a $50 statement credit after spending $500 on purchases in the first three months from account opening.

Earning rates: 2 miles per dollar at grocery stores and on eligible American Airlines purchases; 1 mile per dollar on everything else

The AAdvantage MileUp Card offers a solid sign-up bonus with a low spending requirement and decent bonus rewards for a category beyond your spending on American Airlines flights. The card also comes with 25% savings on inflight food and beverage purchases.

APPLY HERE: American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp Card

Blue Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express

Delta Air Lines Jet in Salt Lake City in September of 2015. Photo by Clint Henderson/ThePointsGuy.
(Photo by Clint Henderson/ThePointsGuy)

Welcome bonus: Earn 10,000 miles (worth $120 based on TPG valuations) after spending $500 in purchases within three months of account opening. Terms apply.

Earning rates: 2 miles per dollar at U.S. restaurants and on Delta purchases; 1 mile per dollar on everything else

The card’s welcome bonus has a low spending requirement, and earning 2x miles on spending at U.S. restaurants is a nice bonus. The card also offers 20% savings on inflight purchases and secondary rental car insurance.

APPLY HERE: Blue Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express

United TravelBank Credit Card

(Photo courtesy of United)
(Photo courtesy of United)

Welcome bonus: Earn $150 in United TravelBank cash after spending $1,000 in the first three months from account opening.

Earning rates: 2% of your spending back in TravelBank cash on tickets purchased from United; 1.5% in TravelBank cash on all other purchases

The United TravelBank Card is best for those who like simplicity. Since the card earns TravelBank cash to use on United tickets as opposed to traditional airline miles, booking award travel is straightforward and doesn’t require scouring for saver award availability. Other benefits of the card include 25% back as a statement credit on food and beverage purchases on board United flights, auto rental coverage, trip cancellation/interruption insurance and no foreign transaction fees.

The information for the United TravelBank card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Mid-tier airline cards

Card Bonus for airline purchases RETURN oN sPENDING (bASED oN TPG vALUATIONS)
JetBlue Plus Card 6x 7.8%
Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card 2x 3%
Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card 2x 3%
Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard® 2x 2.8%
United Explorer Card 2x 2.6%
Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express 2x 2.4%

 

JetBlue Plus Credit Card

Annual fee: $99

Welcome bonus: Earn 40,000 points (worth $520 based on TPG valuations) after you spend $1,000 in the first 90 days from account opening.

Earning rates: 6 miles per dollar on all JetBlue purchases, 2 points per dollar at restaurants and grocery stores and 1 point per dollar on everything else

The JetBlue Plus Card far outshines most other airline cards in its earning power. The card also comes with some great money-saving benefits such as a free checked bag for you and up to three companions, 10% rebate on all redeemed TrueBlue points and 5,000 bonus points at your cardmember anniversary each year. You can also earn JetBlue Mosaic elite status with $50,000 in annual spend on the card.

Read our full JetBlue Plus Card review.

Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card

(Photo by Eric Helgas/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Eric Helgas/The Points Guy)

Annual fee: $69

Welcome bonus: Earn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

Earning rates: 2 points per dollar on Southwest purchases and purchases with Rapid Rewards hotel and car rental partners; 1 point per dollar on everything else.

Although the Southwest Plus Card is the airline’s entry-level card, it offers the same earning rates as its more expensive siblings. The points earned with this card count toward both A-List and Companion Pass eligibility. You’ll get 3,000 bonus points on your account anniversary, worth about $45 based on TPG’s valuations.

Read our full Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus card review.

APPLY HERE: Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card

Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card

Annual fee: $99

Welcome bonus: Earn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

Earning rates: 2 points per dollar on Southwest purchases and purchases with Rapid Rewards hotel and car rental partners; 1 point per dollar on everything else

The Southwest Premier Card offers the same welcome bonus and earning rates as the Southwest Plus Card. Instead of 3,000 bonus points on your account anniversary, you’ll get 6,000 bonus points, worth about $90. This card has no foreign transaction fees.

Read our full Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier card review.

APPLY HERE: Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card

Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard

American Airlines Group Inc. planes stand at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) in Grapevine, Texas, U.S., on Friday, April 6, 2018. American Airlines is scheduled to release earnings figures on April 26. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images
(Photo by Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Annual fee: $99

Welcome bonus: Earn 60,000 miles (worth $840 based on TPG valuations) after you spend $2,500 in the first three months from account opening.

Earning rates: 2 miles per dollar at restaurants, gas stations and on eligible American Airlines purchases; 1 mile per dollar on everything else

The Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard offers run-of-the-mill cobranded card benefits like a free checked bag for you and up to four companions, priority boarding and a 25% rebate on inflight food and beverage purchases, as well as a $125 American Airlines flight discount after you spend $20,000 in a membership year and renew your card and access to reduced mileage awards.

Read our full Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select card review.

United Explorer Card

Annual fee: $95 (waived first year)

Welcome bonus: For a limited time, earn 60,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

Earning rates: 2 miles per dollar on dining, hotel and United purchases; 1 mile per dollar on everything else

As with many other cards on this list, with the United Explorer Card you’ll get a free checked bag when you use the card to pay for your United flights, priority boarding and a 25% discount on inflight purchases. However, the benefits don’t end there. You’ll also get a pair of United Club passes each year, access to additional award space, a $100 Global Entry/$85 TSA PreCheck credit and primary car rental coverage.

Read our full United Explorer Card review.

APPLY HERE: United Explorer Card

Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express

Annual fee: $95 (waived first year, See Rates & Fees)

Welcome bonus: Earn 30,000 bonus miles after you use your new card to make $1,000 in purchases within your first three months and a $50 statement credit after you make a Delta purchase with your new Card within your first three months.

Earning rates: 2 miles per dollar on Delta purchases; 1 mile per dollar on everything else

The Gold Delta Amex doesn’t offer an especially exciting return on spend and its perks are all fairly basic. The card offers free checked bag for you and up to eight companions, priority boarding, a 20% rebate on inflight food and beverage purchases and discounted Sky Club access.

Read our full Gold Delta SkyMiles American Express credit card review.

APPLY HERE: Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express

Premium airline cards

Card Bonus for airline purchases Return on spending (Based on TPG valuations)
Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card 2x 3%
Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard® 2x 2.8%
United Club Card 2x 2.6%
Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express 2x 2.4%
Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express 2x 2.4%

Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card

Annual fee: $149

Welcome bonus: Earn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

Earning rates: 2 points per dollar on Southwest purchases and purchases with Rapid Rewards hotel and car rental partners; 1 point per dollar on everything else

The Southwest Priority Card comes with valuable travel benefits that effectively offset the card’s annual fee. With this card, you’ll get 7,500 bonus points at your cardmember anniversary each year, a $75 annual Southwest travel credit, four upgraded boardings per year (when available) and 20% back on inflight drinks and Wi-Fi.

Read our full Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card review.

APPLY HERE: Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card

Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard

Annual fee: $450

Welcome bonus: Earn 50,000 miles (worth $700 based on TPG valuations) after spending $5,000 in the first three months from account opening.

Earning rates: 2 miles per dollar on eligible American Airlines purchases; 1 mile per dollar on everything else

The Citi/AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard comes with a full Admirals Club membership, which allows you and your immediate family (including children under 18) or two traveling companions access to the club no matter what airline you’re flying. You’ll also get a free checked bag for you and up to eight companions, priority check-in, airport screening and boarding privileges. Those chasing elite status can earn 10,000 elite-qualifying miles (EQMs) after spending $40,000 on the card in a calendar year.

Read our full Citi/AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard review.

APPLY HERE: Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard

United Club Card

(Photo courtesy of United)
(Photo courtesy of United)

Annual fee: $450

Welcome bonus: Earn 50,000 miles (worth $650 based on TPG valuations) after you spend $3,000 in the first three months from account opening.

Earning rates: 2 miles per dollar on United purchases; 1.5 miles per dollar on everything

The United Club Card offers full United lounge membership and other premium benefits such as priority check-in, security screening and boarding, as well as priority baggage handling. You’ll also have access to expanded award availability, no fees on last-minute award flights and primary insurance on car rentals. And 1.5 United miles per dollar is a pretty strong earning rate for day-to-day spending.

Read our full United Club Card review.

The information for the United Club Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express

Annual fee: $195 ($250 if application is received on or after Jan. 30, 2020) (See Rates & Fees)

Welcome bonus: Earn 5,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) and 35,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new card in your first three months and a $100 statement credit after you make a Delta purchase with your new card within your first three months.

Earning rates: 2 miles per dollar on Delta purchases; 1 mile per dollar on everything else

The earnings aren’t particularly lucrative, but there is value to be found in the Platinum Delta Amex (aka the best airline credit card, according to TPG readers). The card offers the standard suite of airline-card benefits like free checked bags and priority boarding, as well as more valuable ones, such as built-in MQM boosters and an MQD waiver, both of which allow you to earn status without actually flying. The card’s annual companion certificate can also be extremely valuable and help you more than offset the annual fee.

Read our full Platinum Delta SkyMiles American Express credit card review.

APPLY HERE: Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express

Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express

Annual fee: $450 ($550 if application is received on or after  Jan. 30, 2020) (See Rates & Fees)

Welcome bonus: Earn 40,000 miles (worth $480 based on TPG valuations) and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases in the first three months from account opening.

Earning rates: 2 miles per dollar on Delta purchases; 1 mile per dollar on everything else

The Delta Reserve Credit Card from American Express is ideal for those working toward Delta elite status and those who don’t already have the Platinum Card® from American Express. In addition to offering complimentary Sky Club access when you’re traveling on Delta (the same benefit offered by the Amex Platinum), the card offers Medallion Qualifying Miles (MQMs) toward medallion status, both as part of the welcome bonus and for cardholders who meet certain spending thresholds. Other benefits include a companion certificate for domestic travel each year after your account anniversary, a free checked bag on Delta flights, priority boarding and no foreign transaction fees (See Rates & Fees).

Read our full Delta Reserve American Express credit card review.

APPLY HERE: Delta Reserve Credit Card from American Express

Bottom line

You don’t need to pay an annual fee to get a good return on your airline spending. The no-annual-fee JetBlue Credit Card, for example, offers a higher return on spending than most mid-tier and premium airline cards. But when you do pay an annual fee, you’ll enjoy far more benefits, such free checked bags, savings on inflight purchases, shortcuts to elite status and companion passes.

However, if it’s just a high return on airfare purchases you’re after, you may be better off using a card that earns flexible rewards such as the Platinum Card from American Express or the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. For more on maximizing airfare purchases, check out our in-depth guide on The best credit cards for airfare purchases.

For rates and fees of the Blue Delta SkyMiles card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Gold Delta SkyMiles Card, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Delta Reserve Card, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Platinum Delta SkyMiles Card, please click here.

Featured photo Carlos Hernández / Unsplash.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.