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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here – Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard, Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit CardSouthwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card, Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card, Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express, Starwood Preferred Guest® Business Credit Card from American ExpressAlaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card, Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard

Since they first appeared over three decades ago, frequent flyer programs have grown and changed dramatically. Many look nothing like they did at their advent. Particularly in recent years, these programs have seen seismic shifts in the way flyers can earn and redeem miles, thanks to model-shifting changes to the programs of American Airlines, Delta and United, as well as those of foreign airlines like Air France/KLM’s Flying Blue and Lufthansa’s Miles & More.

Introduced shortly after frequent flyer programs themselves, airline credit cards associated with specific carriers have also multiplied and evolved radically. Sign-up bonuses vary by tens of thousands of miles, annual fees go up and down, perks and benefits are swapped in and out — all while the mileage programs themselves are reorganized.

The coupling of financial institutions with byzantine loyalty programs can be downright overwhelming, leaving consumers with more questions than answers as they ask the one seminal question at the heart of all travel rewards: is it worth it?

Photo by Ridofranz / Getty Images
Picking the right airline card can save you time and money while putting travel rewards within reach. (Photo by Ridofranz / Getty Images)

But while choosing an airline card can be harder than ever, the good news is that there are still great choices out there for any number of different travelers. It’s simply important to outline your travel habits and then ask yourself whether an airline credit card will help you maximize your value and rewards.

Here are the factors you should consider when deciding whether an airline  card is still worth it for your needs. For our overall top choices of airline  cards, read our guide on “The Best Airline Credit Cards,” which includes specific details on all of the best options.

Welcome Bonuses

Probably the first (and flashiest) factor that most folks consider is a credit card’s sign-up bonus. We can all be wooed by big numbers like the current up to 100,000 Avios tiered sign-up bonus (earn 50,000 bonus Avios after you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first 3 months of account opening and an additional 50,000 bonus Avios after you spend $20,000 total on purchases within your first year) on the British Airways Visa Signature Card

However, sign-up bonuses change all the time, and it pays to check into a credit card’s bonus history to make sure you’re getting the best deal possible. A card that has a 30,000-mile bonus today can have a 60,000-mile bonus tomorrow. That’s often the case with the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard. Imagine getting a 30,000-mile bonus only to see it double the next month and have missed out on 30,000 miles.

Among the cards whose bonuses change frequently are the family of Delta Amex cards. For example, the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express is currently offering 30,000 Bonus Miles after you use your new Card to make $1,000 in purchases within your first 3 months and a $50 Statement Credit after you make a Delta purchase with your new Card within your first 3 months.

That said, some cards remain pretty constant, like the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card, which offers 30,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 in the first 90 days, pretty much come rain or shine.

Once you’ve confirmed a bonus is as high an offer as you can hope for, the second step is making sure that you have an idea of how you can put the miles you earn to use. It’s all great and well to say, “Hey, 60,000 American AAdvantage miles seems like a lot — that should get me plenty of places.” But it’s quite another to have a few possible award redemptions in mind so you can be sure you’re maximizing that bonus with the travel rewards you want.

Annual Fees

evening traffic at New York JFK airport. Photo by XavierMarchant / Getty Images.
If you spend a lot of time on planes, carrying the right credit card can be imperative. (Photo by XavierMarchant / Getty Images)

Besides sign-up bonuses and the spending requirements to earn them, your other primary financial consideration should be the annual fee. The best credit cards typically charge annual fees of less than $100.

There are several exceptions. The high-end cards that get you club lounge access, like the Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express (See Rates & Fees), United Club Card and Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard all cost $450 a year to carry. These cards are great for premium travelers who want the benefit of club lounge access and, in the case of the American and Delta cards, the ability to earn elite-qualifying miles based on spending.

On the other end of the spectrum, the new Blue Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express (See Rates & Fees)and the JetBlue Card don’t charge any annual fees. Because of that and the fact that they both have decent bonus-earning categories (restaurants with the Delta card and restaurants and grocery stores with the JetBlue one), they might be a better choice for flyers on a budget who want a card that racks up miles quickly and cheaply.

Still, most airline credit cards charge annual fees somewhere around the $100 mark. Just to name some examples, the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card, JetBlue Plus Card and Citi AAdvantage Platinum all charge $99 per year (waived on the Citi card). The AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard from Barclays, the Gold Delta SkyMiles card (See Rates & Fees) and the United Explorer Card all charge $95 (waived the first year on the Delta and United cards). The Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard costs $89 per year and the Alaska Airlines Visa charges $75 per year.

A few cards tuck extra points or miles into your account when your card anniversary comes up, making the fee sting a little bit less. The Southwest Premier and the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Business Credit Card each give you 6,000 bonus points at your cardmember anniversary, while the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card offers 3,000 anniversary bonus points. And the JetBlue Plus brings with it an extra 5,000 TrueBlue points each year you renew.

But before you go lining your wallet with airline cards, add up the annual fees you’ll have to pay and determine if it makes sense for your finances — not just from the perspective of being able to pay them every year, but whether you’ll be able to leverage their perks to offset those annual costs.

Category Bonuses

Overhead cropped view of waiter removing receipt from credit card machine in restaurant
Earning bonus miles at merchants like restaurants can make it worthwhile to carry and use an airline’s credit card.

Historically, most airline credit cards have offered multiple miles per dollar on purchases made with the associated airline, but just a single mile per dollar on other purchases. That has recently changed, though, as issuers struggle to keep their airline cards competitive with the other rewards cards on the market. So when thinking about getting an airline card these days, take a careful look at their bonus earning opportunities and how complementary they are to your spending habits.

For instance, among the changes Chase made to the United Explorer recently, it now earns 2x miles per dollar on hotel and dining purchases. Citi has also improved the Citi AAdvantage Platinum, with 2x miles per dollar at restaurants and gas stations in addition to American Airlines purchases. And the JetBlue Plus has long earned 2 points per dollar at restaurants and grocery stores.

How Many Other Cards You Have or Had?

Before you go signing up for every great credit card offer that comes along, keep in mind that issuers have been cracking down on so-called “churning” lately. For instance, American Express will only let consumers earn the sign-up bonus on a particular credit card one time. Ever. That means if you had the Gold Delta SkyMiles card several years ago, cancelled it and then decided to apply again because of a limited-time bonus offer, you wouldn’t be eligible for the bonus (though you might still be accepted for the card). Even if you haven’t had a particular card, the issuer is denying bonuses if you’ve churned through too many Amex cards overall, though at least its new Welcome Bonus qualification tool will let you know if you’re ineligible for a bonus before you pull the trigger on a new card.

Likewise, Chase has implemented what’s called its 5/24 rule, which applies to many of its most sought-after credit cards. Put simply, the bank will not accept your application for certain cards, including the Southwest Premier card, the United Explorer Card and the United Club Card if you’ve opened five or more personal credit cards in the past 24 months. That includes not just accounts opened with Chase, but with any issuer. So be sure to check your credit report before applying and make sure you don’t have too many recent account openings if you want one of these Chase cards.

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.

Money Saving Benefits

Young handsome man passenger in his 20s with carry-on backpack waiting at conveyor belt to pick his luggage in arrivals lounge of airport terminal building. (Photo by fizkes/Getty Images)
Will you take advantage of money-saving benefits like free checked bags? (Photo by fizkes/Getty Images)

Aside from one-time attractions like a sign-up bonus or a waived annual fee, the best reason to carry co-branded airline credit cards is the host of elite-style benefits they tend to come with, including free checked bags, priority boarding, onboard discounts and more. Let’s concentrate on that free checked bag benefit to start, since this is where you’ll likely save the most money.

The Gold Delta SkyMiles card, the Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express and the Delta Reserve all get cardholders a free checked bag for themselves and up to eight companions traveling on the same reservation on a Delta or Delta Connection flight. That single perk can be worth hundreds of dollars per direction, depending on how much you’re able to leverage it and how often you normally pay to check a bag.

The Citi AAdvantage Platinum and the Citi AAdvantage Executive cards offer a free checked bag to cardholders and multiple companions on the same reservation on American and affiliate flights domestically. The Platinum gives the benefit for up to three companions, while the Executive card benefit applies to as many as seven people.

The United Explorer Card and the United Club cards both offer free checked bags to the primary cardholder and one traveling companion on the same reservation (one bag per person with the Explorer, two with the Club), but you must use your United card to purchase the tickets. The JetBlue Plus, Hawaiian Airlines Mastercard and Alaska Airlines Visa all come with free checked bag benefits as well.

Many of these cards also offer 20-25% discounts on onboard meal, beverage and entertainment purchases, though the most generous of these are the JetBlue Card and JetBlue Plus, which both offer a 50% discount off eligible in-flight purchases including alcohol, meals and movies. The revamped United card also includes a 25% discount on in-flight Wi-Fi service.

And while they’re technically not “money saving” benefits, a few airline cards also offer mileage-specific perks. Cards like the Citi AAdvantage Platinum, the AAdvantage Aviator Red and the JetBlue Plus rebate a portion of your redeemed airline miles, while the United cards open up expanded award availability on United flights.

Elite Status

Even if you have elite status, having the right airline card can boost you to the next level. (Photo by JT Genter / The Points Guy)

If you already fly enough to earn elite status with a particular airline or group of airlines, this adds another wrinkle. On the one hand, you might want to double down on your mileage earning by carrying a credit card where you can earn miles on everyday purchases, or even earn elite-qualifying miles for hitting certain spending thresholds. On the other, if you already earn elite status through flying, you’re probably enjoying many of the elite-style benefits that a co-branded credit card offers anyway, so why bother?

This is a situation where it really pays to analyze your travel habits… and perhaps branch out. If you have elite status with one airline, you might consider getting a different airline’s credit card in order to enjoy similar perks when you don’t have the option of flying your primary carrier.

In terms of getting a credit card associated with an airline that you do have elite status with already, one of the instances where it makes a lot of sense is when spending on it can give you a boost toward that next level of status. For example, when you spend $40,000 or more per calendar year on the Citi AAdvantage Executive, you can earn 10,000 Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs). Or you can convert an Aviator Red to the AAdvantage Aviator Silver World Elite Mastercard, which earns 5,000 EQMs for every $20,000 you spend annually (up to 10,000 miles each year).

The Platinum Delta SkyMiles card and the Delta Reserve both offer Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) as part of their welcome bonuses, and you can earn up to 20,000 MQMs with the Platinum Delta card by spending up to $50,000 in a calendar year, and up to 30,000 MQMs on the Reserve by spending up to $60,000 in a calendar year.

For every $10,000 you spend on the Southwest Premier card, you earn 1,500 Tier Qualifying Points up to a maximum of 15,000 per year, while with the JetBlue Plus card, you can earn Mosaic status when you spend $50,000 on it in a calendar year.

In short, even if you have elite status with an airline, carrying one of its credit cards can still make sense for expanded benefits or a boost to the next elite status level. You might also considering getting the credit card of another airline in order to diversify your mileage portfolio and enjoy elite-style benefits when you’re not able to take your carrier of choice.

Companion Tickets

California Companion Pass
Traveling with a companion? Several airline credit cards can help. (Photo by izusek / Getty Images)

Several airline credit cards come with either an automatic companion ticket deal or the possibility of earning one. Though technically a money-saving benefit, this one gets its own category because it’s both specialized and still somewhat rare among airline credit cards, and is predicated toward specific travel needs.

For example, the Alaska Airlines Visa offers an annual companion fare in economy for just $99 plus any taxes and fees (usually about $22 round-trip). This one benefit can save you hundreds of dollars each year. The Platinum Delta SkyMiles card and the Delta Reserve, both from American Express, offer annual companion certificates as well.

The Rapid Rewards points earned with the Southwest Premier, the Southwest Plus and even the Southwest Premier Business all count toward qualifying for that airline’s much-loved Companion Pass, which basically means half-priced trips. Even the sign-up bonuses are Companion Pass-qualifying, though you can no longer get both the Premier and the Plus cards at the same time.

Meanwhile, the Hawaiian Airlines Mastercard comes with a one-time 50% off companion discount on round-trip coach travel between Hawaii and North America, and $100 off a companion ticket for round-trip coach airfare between Hawaii and North America after each account anniversary.

For its part, the British Airways Visa confers a sort of two-for-one award “Travel Together” ticket when you spend $30,000 on the card in a calendar year. The ticket allows you to redeem Avios for one award and get a second award seat without redeeming any further Avios, though you do have to pay significant taxes and fees on both tickets.

If you’re someone who tends to travel with companions, be it a partner, family or colleagues, then considering a card with companion benefits might be well worth it.

Award Chart Devaluations

The other homework you need to do before settling on whether an airline credit card is a good choice for you is to look into the history of its mileage program and see how it’s changed over time. All three major US legacy carriers — American, Delta and United — have changed how customers earn and redeem miles in recent years.

On the earning side, all three now calculate award mileage earned based on the cost of your ticket rather than the distance you fly. On the redemption side, all three have raised award prices in recent years. Delta has done away with award charts altogether and seems to be slowly moving toward pricing awards dynamically based on the going airfare rates.

It’s not just the three giant US carriers either. Even Southwest has instituted a series of (relatively mild) devaluations to its Rapid Rewards points system. Alaska hiked up certain award rates too, and foreign airlines like Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines have overhauled their award charts with little or no notice, Flying Blue’s new award redemption system is illogical, to say the least.

So if you’re someone who wants to get an airline credit card so you can stockpile miles for redemptions in the future rather than using them on an ongoing basis, then you should look into the frequent flyer program you’re interested in and see if it has made any unexpected or negative changes in the past few years as an indicator of how your miles might be affected if you wait to redeem them.

Other Options with Transferable Points

One final, but major, consideration is whether there are other credit cards on the market that are not specifically associated with your airline(s) of choice through which you can earn points that transfer into the frequent flyer programs you use most.

Specifically, think about the four main transferable points programs that exist in the US marketplace today: American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest. Each program partners with a number of airlines so that the points you earn with your credit card can then be transferred to any of them. That way, you can use your points how and when you need them with greater flexibility and without having to commit to a single airline mileage program.

Additionally, many of the credit cards associated with these programs come with bonus-earning opportunities on purchases such as gas, groceries, travel and dining, meaning they might be a better overall choice on the earning side of the equation if you don’t need the card itself to provide elite-style perks when flying a specific carrier.

As a reminder, here are the airline partners of the four major transferable points programs, and some of the current credit cards associated with them.

American Express Membership Rewards

Once the standard for transferable points, this program partners with the following airlines:

  • Aeromexico
  • Air Canada Aeroplan
  • Air France/KLM Flying Blue
  • Alitalia MilleMiglia
  • ANA Mileage Club
  • Asia Miles
  • British Airways Avios
  • Delta SkyMiles
  • El Al Matmid
  • Emirates Skywards
  • Etihad Guest
  • Hawaiian Airlines HawaiianMiles
  • Iberia Plus
  • JetBlue True Blue
  • Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer
  • Virgin Atlantic Flying Club

Among the cards that earn Membership Rewards points are The Platinum Card® from American ExpressThe Business Platinum® Card from American Express, The Amex EveryDay® Credit Card from American Express, and the American Express® Business Gold Card. For more information, read our guide on “Redeeming American Express Membership Rewards for Maximum Value.”

Chase Ultimate Rewards

Since its inception about a decade ago, this program has grown quickly and now partners with the following airlines:

  • Aer Lingus AerClub
  • Air France/KLM Flying Blue
  • British Airways Executive Club
  • Iberia Plus
  • Korean Air SkyPass
  • Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer
  • Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards
  • United MileagePlus
  • Virgin Atlantic Flying Club

Among the cards that earn transferable Ultimate Rewards are the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and the Ink Business Preferred Credit Card. For more information, read our guide on “Redeeming Chase Ultimate Rewards for Maximum Value.”

Citi ThankYou Rewards

Citi has taken huge steps in recent years to make its ThankYou Rewards program competitive with Chase and Amex. At this point, its airline transfer partners include:

  • Asia Miles
  • Avianca LifeMiles
  • EVA Air Infinity MileageLands
  • Etihad Guest
  • Flying Blue (Air France/KLM)
  • JetBlue True Blue
  • Jet Airways JetPrivilege
  • Garuda Indonesia Frequent Flyer
  • Malaysia Airlines Enrich
  • Qantas Frequent Flyer
  • Qatar Airways Privilege Club
  • Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer
  • Thai Airways Royal Orchid Plus
  • Turkish Airlines Miles & Smiles
  • Virgin Atlantic Flying Club

Among the cards that earn ThankYou Rewards points are the Citi Prestige and the Citi Premier Card. For more information, read our guide on “Redeeming Citi ThankYou Points for Maximum Value.”

Starwood Preferred Guest

Though it’s a hotel loyalty program, one of the major strengths of Starwood Preferred Guest is the sheer number of airline frequent flyer partners you can transfer points to. Changes are underway as the Starwood and Marriott programs are combined, so stay tuned for updates on airline partners, though from the initial news it looks like the program will actually gain rather than lose any partners.

For now, you also get a 5,000-mile bonus for every 20,000 points you transfer to most partners. Here is the current list:

  • Aegean Airlines Miles&Bonus
  • Aeromexico Club Premier
  • Air Canada Aeroplan
  • Air China Phoenix Miles
  • Air France/KLM Flying Blue
  • Air New Zealand Airpoints
  • Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan
  • Alitalia MilleMiglia
  • ANA Mileage Club
  • American Airlines AAdvantage
  • Asiana
  • Avianca LifeMiles
  • British Airways Executive Club
  • Cathay Pacific Asia Miles
  • China Eastern (Eastern Miles)
  • Delta SkyMiles
  • Emirates Skywards
  • Etihad Guest
  • GOL Smiles·
  • Hainan Airlines Fortune Wings Club
  • Hawaiian Airlines HawaiianMiles
  • Iberia Plus
  • JAL Mileage Bank
  • Jet Airways Jet Privilege
  • Korean Air SkyPass
  • LATAM Pass·
  • Lufthansa Miles & More
  • Qatar Airways Privilege Club
  • Saudia Alfursan
  • Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer
  • Thai Airways Royal Orchid Plus
  • United MileagePlus
  • Virgin Atlantic Flying Club
  • Virgin Australia Velocity

You can earn Starpoints with the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express and the Starwood Preferred Guest® Business Credit Card from American Express. For more information, read our guide on “Redeeming Starpoints for Maximum Value.”

Bottom Line

Whether it makes sense to get an airline credit card depends on what you hope to get out of it. High limited-time sign-up bonuses might make it worthwhile to apply, while ongoing perks like free checked bags and priority boarding can save you time and money at the airport if you don’t already get these benefits from elite status.

On the other hand, a card’s annual fee might be a consideration for some — especially when those fees can range into the hundreds of dollars. As with all travel rewards cards, make sure you’re going to maximize the benefits of a card and more than make up for its annual fee before settling on one that’s right for you.

Featured image by DuKai photographer / Getty Images.

For rates and fees of the Delta Reserve Credit Card from American Express, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Blue Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express , please click here.
For rates and fees of the Gold Delta SkyMiles card, please click here.

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