Best credit cards for economy-class flyers: Maximize your miles, minimize your fees

Nov 18, 2019

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here.

First-class and business-class seats and top-tier elite status can be worth thousands of dollars if you travel all the time. But what about the masses who aren’t traveling on their employer’s dime or don’t have a flexible schedule? Don’t worry, there are plenty of affordable travel credit cards that come with perks that can save you money and improve your journey.

Flying in economy is a great way to stretch your miles. If you’re booking a trip for the whole family, it might be your only option. So let’s take a look at cards for flyers in the back of the plane:

In This Post

The best credit cards for economy-class flyers of 2019

Comparing the best credit cards for economy class flyers of 2019

CREDIT  card Key Benefits Annual fee
United Explorer Card Free checked bag, inflight purchase discount and increased award availability $95, waived the first year
Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express Free checked bag and priority boarding $95, waived the first year (see rates and fees)
Barclaycard AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard Free checked bag, Wi-Fi credit, priority boarding, companion certificate and inflight discounts $99
Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card Free checked bag, priority boarding and companion certificate $75
Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card $75 Southwest credit, annual 7,500-point bonus, four upgraded boardings per year $149
JetBlue Plus Card Free checked bag $99

Information for the JetBlue Plus card and Barclaycard AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard have been collected independently by The Points Guy and have not been reviewed by the card issuer.

United Explorer Card: Best for United Airlines flyers

Sign-up bonus: Until April 2, 2020, the United Explorer card has a bonus of 60,000 miles. You’ll earn 60,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

Key benefits: This card comes with the standard airline card perks of a free checked bag (for up to two people), priority boarding and 25% back on United inflight purchases. But it also has some unique perks that are unusually valuable for a card that only has a $95 annual fee (waived the first year): You’ll get two, one-time United Club lounge passes per cardmember year and an application fee credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck.

What might be the best perk is that when you have a United Airlines credit card, you’ll have access to an increased number of award tickets. This can be invaluable when your travel dates aren’t flexible.

Why we chose this card: What makes this card so special for infrequent economy-class flyers is that its perks very closely mimic entry-level Silver United elite status. The best of these perks is the extra award seats you’ll have access to. On top of that, having airport lounge access and being able to get Global Entry or TSA PreCheck for free are benefits you won’t find with many cards that have low annual fees (waived the first year).

United Airlines has always been great for booking Star Alliance awards because it doesn’t add fuel surcharges to any awards. This can save you a lot of cash when booking partner flights to Europe. Now that United Airlines has ditched its award chart, prices will be dynamic. This has obvious downsides if you wanted to use your miles for more popular flights, but it has been a boon for some economy awards. We’ve seen one-way flights drop to 5,000 miles.

Apply here: United Explorer Card

Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express: Best for Delta flyers

Welcome offer: The Gold Delta SkyMiles Amex credit card has an intro bonus of 30,000 miles after you spend $1,000 in purchases in the first three months and a $50 statement credit after making a Delta purchase in the same time frame.

Key benefits: This card comes with a free checked bag and priority boarding (Main Cabin 1) for the cardholder and up to eight traveling companions. You’ll also get 20% back on inflight purchases you make with the card.

Why we chose this card: Delta was the first major U.S. airline to eliminate its award chart in favor of dynamic pricing, but it has made up for this with regular SkyMiles award sales. These sales occur at least once a week and can include domestic flights starting at 8,000 miles round-trip. In addition, the international award sales can be amazing. We’ve seen flights for as little as 20,000 miles round-trip (plus taxes and fees) to Europe, 30,000 miles round-trip to Asia and 12,000 miles round-trip to the Caribbean. As long as you have the patience to wait for the right Delta award sale, you’ll be hard-pressed to find better miles to use for international economy flights.,

Apply here: Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express

Barclaycard AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard: Best for American Airlines flyers

Sign-up bonus: The AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard has a bonus of 60,000 miles and a companion certificate after you make a single purchase within the first 90 days of account opening and pay the card’s $99 annual fee. The companion certificate allows you to bring along a guest for $99, plus taxes and fees, on a qualifying round-trip, domestic economy ticket.

Key benefits: This card comes with preferred boarding (Group 4) and a free checked bag for the cardholder and up to four companions traveling on the same reservation. You’ll also receive a 25% discount on inflight food and beverages when you pay with the card. On top of that, every cardmember year you’ll get up to $25 in Wi-Fi credits.

You’ll also earn a companion certificate every year you spend $20,000 on the card and keep your account open. As a World Elite Mastercard, the card also has other benefits like cellphone insurance and a $10 Lyft credit after five qualifying rides in a calendar month

Why we chose this card: As American Airlines moves toward dynamically priced awards, we’ve been consistently coming across some stellar deals with the economy web specials. There are dozens of routes that are regularly available for much lower than the standard price and there are even deals on international flights. We’ve seen (for a few hours) 10,000-mile round-trip flights from the U.S. to New Zealand. With the potential for deals like that you’ll want to have a healthy amount of American Airlines miles sitting in your account, just in case.

This is the American Airlines credit card I plan on keeping long term because it comes with the perks I expect in an airline credit card (free checked bag and priority boarding) and I regularly take advantage of the Lyft and Wi-Fi credits.

Apply here: Barclaycard AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard

Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card: Best for travelers living on the West Coast

Sign-up bonus: The Alaska Visa Signature card has an special limited time offer of a $100 statement credit, 40,000 miles and  Alaska’s Famous Companion Fare™ from $121 ($99 fare plus taxes and fees from $22) after you make $2,000 or more in purchases within the first 90 days of opening your account.

Key benefits: You’ll get a free checked bag (on Alaska Airlines flights) for the cardholder and up to six companions. You’ll also receive 50% back on the purchase of Alaska Lounge day passes and 20% back on eligible inflight purchases.

But the best perk is the single-use companion fare, which allows you to bring a guest on any Alaska Airlines-operated domestic economy flight for just $99 plus taxes and fees. And you’ll get a companion fare every year you keep the card without having to meet a high spending threshold to earn it, which makes this one of the best companion fare benefits available outside of the Southwest Companion Pass.

Why we chose this card: Alaska Airlines miles can be quite valuable because the airline has so many great partners. It is great for short-haul domestic flights. Any Alaska Airlines flight of 700 miles or less is only 5,000 miles one-way and flights of 701-1,400 miles are 7,500 miles each way. So you can get rock-bottom economy award prices without the guessing game of dynamic award pricing. Alaska also has great prices on economy flights to Asia (30,000 miles each way) with its partners, Cathay Pacific and Hainan Airlines. If you’re looking to visit South America, you can book partner economy flights with American Airlines to South America Zone 1 (mostly northern South America) for 20,000 miles each way.

Apply here: Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card: Best for Southwest flyers

SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS - DECEMBER 12, 2018: A Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 passenger jet takes off from San Antonio International Airport in Texas. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)
A Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 takes off from San Antonio International Airport. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images.)

Sign-up bonus: The Southwest Priority credit card has a bonus of up to 75,000 points; 40,000 points after spending $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months account is open. Plus, earn an additional 35,000 points after spending $5,000 on purchases in the first 6 months account is open.

Key benefits: If you’re a regular economy flyer, chances are you’re a big Southwest fan. With no seat assignments, free checked bags and no extra fees for changes or cancellations, there isn’t much to complain about. Although the Southwest Priority card does have the highest annual fee ($149) of any of the Southwest consumer cards, you only need to fly Southwest once or twice a year to make it worth having.

First, each year this card comes with a $75 Southwest credit (valid for tickets and much more), 7,500 bonus points (worth $112 according to TPG’s valuations) and four upgraded boardings (worth $30 to $50 each). And you get 20% back on inflight purchases like Wi-Fi and drinks.

Why we chose this card: It wouldn’t be possible to talk about domestic economy flights without mentioning Southwest and this card has the most perks of any of the personal Southwest cards (the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card has even more).

One thing that makes Southwest points so valuable is that the airline doesn’t have an award chart. Instead, the price of an award flight is tied to the cash price. Most of the time, you’ll get 1.5 cents per point toward the cost of Southwest flights, which means you can book some incredibly cheap awards during one of Southwest’s many sales. The other advantage to running its loyalty program this way is that Southwest doesn’t have blackout dates on award flights. As long as there is a seat available on the flight you can use points to book it (although it could get expensive).

Apply here: Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card

JetBlue Plus Card: Best for flyers in the Northeast

 

Sign-up bonus: With the JetBlue Plus card you can earn 40,000 points after spending $1,000 on purchases in the first 90 days.

Key benefits: You (and up to three companions) will get your first checked bag free when you purchase your JetBlue fare with the card. Also, inflight purchases made with the card will earn a 50% credit. And every year you’ll get 5,000 bonus points on your cardmember anniversary (worth $65 according to TPG’s valuations) and an annual $100 discount on JetBlue vacation purchases (of $100+) you make with your card.

My favorite perk of this card is the 10% rebate you’ll get on award redemptions. You’ll get the points rebate after you complete the flight and there is no maximum amount of points you can earn back.

Why we chose this card: JetBlue has the champagne of economy class with exceptional legroom, unlimited snacks and free Wi-Fi. It also operates a similar loyalty program to Southwest, so no blackout dates for award flights and the points price is tied to the cash price. Just like Southwest, JetBlue has regular fare sales, which means you can snatch up cheap flights for under 2,000 points sometimes. When you combine those prices with the JetBlue Plus card’s 10% rebate, it makes this card a great deal if you live near a JetBlue hub city.

Apply here: JetBlue Plus Card

How we chose the best credit cards for economy class flyers

When choosing the best credit cards for economy-class flyers we focused more on the cards’ ongoing benefits and each loyalty program’s value for economy redemptions than we did on the cards’ welcome bonuses (which can vary). We also limited our selection to cards with small annual fees or perks that could outweigh the annual fee even if you only traveled occasionally (see the Southwest Priority card).

Bottom line

Economy-class travel is a great way to take a modest miles or points balance and transform it into a dream vacation. Besides costing much less to book, economy awards are much easier to find. So they are better if your travel dates aren’t flexible. And if you’re traveling with a large group or family, you’ll have much better luck securing awards on the same flight if you’re booking economy.

But just because you’re traveling in economy, that doesn’t mean you need to board last or pay baggage fees. There are plenty of airline credit cards with benefits that mirror entry-level elite status, like free checked bags and priority boarding. You can even get airport lounge passes and a TSA PreCheck fee credit with the United Explorer card.

For rates and fees of the Gold Delta SkyMiles credit card from American Express, click here.

Featured image by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy.

Updated on 2/27/20

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.