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Looking for the best airline credit cards? If a particular airline sees a good chunk of your annual travel, it’s usually a smart move to apply for its corresponding cobranded card. But that’s not the only reason to add an airline card to your wallet. Some benefits can apply well beyond travel just on that particular carrier, especially when you consider each airline’s partners and redemption perks.
The Best Airline Credit Cards of 2019
- Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard: Best for American Airlines
- United Explorer Card: Best for United
- Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express: Best for Delta
- JetBlue Plus Card: Best for JetBlue
- Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Card: Best for Southwest
- Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card: Best for Alaska Airlines
How We Chose the Best Airline Credit Cards
When we assembled our list of the best airline cobranded cards for this year, we made sure to consider the extra value each card can bring. Because with so many varying benefits, it’s important to know which card will best match your own travel needs and preferences. In this post, we’re looking specifically at airline consumer credit cards, as opposed to business credit cards.
One thing to take into account when you are deciding on an airline credit card is your airline preference. If you know what airline you want to travel on, that makes your decision much easier. You can review the best and worst airlines here. The other major criteria that impacted our list include: the annual fee, travel perks, offer bonus and spending requirements.
Do You Need an Airline Credit Card?
Before we get into the list of top airline credit cards, let’s take a moment to address the question of whether you need one in the first place.
Airline cobranded credit cards usually don’t offer the highest return on spending for airline purchases, so if you’re simply looking to maximize your spending, you’d do better with the Platinum Card® from American Express, which earns 5x points on flights purchased directly with the airline, equal to a 10% return based on TPG’s valuations. That card has a $550 annual fee (see rates & fees), but you still have other strong options like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card (2x points on travel, equal to a 4% return) with a $95 annual fee.
As a rule, credit cards that earn transferable points (such as Amex, Capital One, Chase or Citi points) generally get you a better return on spending, but airline credit cards are worth looking at for the airline-specific perks they offer. Most airline cobranded credit cards include a free checked bag, early boarding and sometimes even discounts on inflight purchases. More premium airline credit cards can also include the option to earn elite-qualifying miles for those pursuing airline status, and even lounge access in some cases.
In short, having an airline credit card can make your flight experience more enjoyable (and even less expensive) if you frequently fly with a specific carrier. Those who simply pick the cheapest fare available may be better served by a card that earns transferable points, but even those travelers could consider an airline credit card if they’re looking for miles to book a specific award itinerary.
Comparing Airline Credit Cards
Below we can see how each airline credit card compares to the competition.
|Card||Bonus Offer||Annual Fee||Notable Perks|
|Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard||60,000 miles after you spend $3,000 in the first three months.||$99*||Free checked bag for you and up to 4 companions
25% rebate on inflight food and beverage purchases
$125 American Airlines flight discount after you spend $20,000 in a membership year and renew your card
|United Explorer Card||40,000 miles after you spend $2,000 in the first 3 months||$95*||One free checked bag when you use the card to pay for your United flights
Two United Club passes each year
Access to additional award space on United flights
|Delta Reserve Credit Card from American Express||40,000 miles and 10,000 MQMs after you spend $3,000 in the first three months.||$450 (see rates & fees)||Complimentary Sky Club access when you’re traveling on Delta
Free checked bag for you and up to 8 companions
Companion certificate for domestic travel each year after your account anniversary
Earn bonus MQMs for high annual spend
|JetBlue Plus Card||40,000 points after you spend $1,000 in the first 90 days||$99||Free checked bag for you and up to 3 companions
10% rebate on all redeemed TrueBlue points
5,000 bonus points at your card member anniversary each year
Earn JetBlue Mosaic elite status with $50,000 in annual spend
|Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card||60,000 points after you spend $2,000 in the first 3 months. Offer valid through 6/10/2019.||$149||7,500 points each year on your account anniversary
$75 Southwest annual credit
4 upgraded boardings per year
Earn tier-qualifying points toward A-List status for meeting spend thresholds
|Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card||40,000 miles plus a companion fare from $121 ($99 plus taxes and fees from $22) after you spend $2,000 in the first 90 days||$75||Free checked bag for you and up to 6 companions
Get a companion fare from $121 every year on your account anniversary
*Annual fee waived the first year.
Airline Credit Card Perks and Details
Here we will dive into the details of the best airline credit cards and discuss how you can maximize the benefits of each offer.
If you’re a regular traveler on American Airlines, you’ll likely want to pick up the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard.
With a free checked bag on American flights for you and up to four companions on your reservation (even if you use a different card to pay for the ticket), priority boarding and a 25% rebate on inflight food and beverage purchases, it’s a must-have card for American flyers.
The card has a $99 annual fee, which is waived the first year. Like most other cards on this list, the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select waives foreign transaction fees. The card is currently offering a bonus of 60,000 miles after you spend $3,000 in the first three months of account opening. It also recently added 2x earning rates for spending at restaurants and gas stations, as well as a $125 American Airlines flight discount when you spend $20,000 on the card in a membership year and renew your card.
As United is a member of the Star Alliance, its miles can be used for some great international redemptions on partner airlines, which is one reason why the United Explorer Card is on our list.
But another reason is the somewhat unusual but very neat perk in which card holders get access to additional award space on United flights. These seats come out of an entirely different fare bucket than the normal United award space, so if you have this card and sign in to your frequent flyer account on united.com, you’ll have access to more award flights than folks without the card. The airline did recently pull its award chart, so while United miles may offer less value depending on the mileage rate you lock in, the perk of expanded award availability will still come in handy.
You’ll also get one free checked bag when you use the card to pay for your United flights, along with priority boarding and two United Club passes each year at your card member anniversary. Plus, with no foreign transaction fees, this is a card you’ll be able to use anywhere, so for a $95 annual fee, it’s one to think about getting if you’re a regular United traveler. Finally, the card recently added 2x earning rates for spending on dining and hotels, an application fee credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck and 25% off inflight purchases.
If you really value United Club access and aren’t averse to paying a higher annual fee, you might also consider the United MileagePlus Club Card. It offers a full United Club membership (the main draw), plus two free checked bags on United flights, priority check-in, security and boarding and more. There’s a $450 annual fee, and no foreign transaction fees. This card’s currently offering a sign-up bonus of 50,000 miles after you spend $3,000 in the first three months — previously, it didn’t even offer a sign-up bonus.
The information for the United MileagePlus 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.
American Express has three personal cards in its Delta lineup, and with a $450 annual fee — the Delta Reserve Credit Card is the most expensive. That said, it could be worth the price if you frequently fly with the carrier and are working toward Delta elite status.
In addition to offering you complimentary Sky Club access when you’re traveling on Delta, 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. If you charge at least $30,000 to the card in a year, you’ll get 15,000 bonus miles and 15,000 MQMs, and you’ll get another 15,000 of each if you charge $60,000 to the card in the same year. Silver Medallion status requires 30,000 MQMs, so you could meet that aspect of qualifying for Delta status through (significant) spending on this card alone.
Other benefits include a companion certificate for domestic travel each year after your account anniversary, 2x miles on Delta purchases, a free checked bag on Delta flights, priority boarding and no foreign transaction fees. If you don’t want to pay a $450 annual fee, you might also consider the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card From American Express, which has a $95 fee that’s waived the first year (see rates & fees). With this card, you’ll get a free checked bag, priority boarding, no foreign transaction fees (see rates & fees) and 20% in savings on inflight purchases.
And as far as elite status goes, if you’re considering going for the Gold — or Silver, Platinum or Diamond — Delta will waive its MQD requirement up to Platinum status if you spend $25,000 on one of its co-branded cards. It recently increased the waiver requirement for Diamond status to $250,000.
You may not be able to get outsized value for your points with TrueBlue, JetBlue’s fixed-value frequent flyer program. But the JetBlue Plus card comes with some great benefits that will make booking and flying on JetBlue easier than ever, plus some decent bonus categories to boot.
As with most of the other cards on this list, with the JetBlue Plus you (and up to three of your companions on the same reservation) get a free checked bag whenever you fly JetBlue, which will save you at least $20 on every flight you take. You’ll also get a 10% rebate on all your redeemed TrueBlue points. You can also earn JetBlue Mosaic elite status with $50,000 in annual spend on the card. And each year at your anniversary when you pay the $99 annual fee, you’ll get 5,000 bonus points just for renewing. Based on TPG’s most recent valuations, those points are worth $65, which offsets two-thirds of the annual fee.
On the earning side, the JetBlue Plus card outshines most of the other cards on this list, with 6 points per dollar on JetBlue purchases, 2 points per dollar at restaurants and grocery stores and 1x on all other purchases. For dining purchases you may want to use a card that earns flexible rewards such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, but the return on grocery spend can definitely be useful for most households.
The most premium (and the most recently introduced) credit card from Southwest offers some perks that go beyond your standard airline cobranded offering. It makes the most sense for those who fly the airline several times a year, as you’ll get four upgraded boardings to use each year, along with a $75 annual travel credit for Southwest purchases, which effectively brings the annual fee down to $74.
Southwest offers one of the most valuable perks in the biz to its most frequent customers: the Companion Pass. This gets you 2-for-1 travel with a designated friend or family member (minus taxes and fees), and the points you earn from Southwest credit card sign-up bonus count toward the 110,000 you’ll need to earn in a year to get the pass. You could stack the Priority card’s sign-up bonus of 60,000 points (after meeting minimum spend requirement) with the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Business Credit Card‘s sign-up bonus of 60,000 points after you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months to earn the Companion Pass outright. Just note that you can only have one personal Southwest credit card at a time.
Other solid benefits of the Southwest Priority card include 7,500 Rapid Rewards points each year after your account anniversary (worth $112.50 based on TPG’s valuations) and the ability to earn 1,500 tier-qualifying points (TQPs) toward A-List status for every $10,000 you spend on the card (up to $100,000 in purchases annually). Read our review of the Priority card for more info.
Alaska Airlines miles are one of the most valuable airline valuable currencies — if not the most valuable — thanks to Alaska’s airline partners. You can use Alaska miles to book award flights on carriers such as Cathay Pacific and Fiji Airways. There aren’t many options for earning Alaska miles, though, so having this credit card can be a great tool. It helps that it comes with an awesome companion fare benefit, too.
With the companion fare, your friend or family member can travel with you on an Alaska Airlines flight for free minus a fare from $121 ($99 fare, plus taxes and fees, which start at $22). You get this companion fare when you meet the minimum spending requirement for the sign-up bonus, plus every year after your account anniversary.
Another strong aspect of this card is its earning rate for Alaska Airlines purchases: Rather than the standard 2x on purchases with the airline offered by most cobranded cards, you get 3 miles per dollar on Alaska Airlines purchases, and the standard 1 mile per dollar on everything else. Read our review for more info.
When to Consider a No-Annual-Fee Airline Card
Although many airlines now offer no-annual-fee credit cards, none of them make our list of the top airline cards. That’s because they lack features like free checked bags and priority boarding, not to mention the most generous welcome bonuses. Nevertheless, there are some instances where a no-fee airline card can make sense.
Some credit card users simply refuse to pay an annual fee, and if you fall into this category but want to earn airline miles, opening a no-annual-fee cobranded card could make a lot of sense. Next are infrequent travelers, who simply can’t justify the cost of the annual fee based on the benefits that they will rarely use. For example, these may never check bags, and not value priority boarding very highly.
Then there are the most frequent travelers who already receive these perks because they earned elite status, or because they typically travel in business and first class. If the benefits offered by premium airline cards are redundant, there’s no reason to pay an annual fee to receive them. However, a no-fee card can still be a great way to earn miles through spending.
Finally, there’s the curious fact that some airline’s no-annual-fee cards can actually have better bonus categories than their premium versions. If your main goal is to earn miles, a no-annual-fee card can sometimes be a better option than a premium one.
How to Find a No-Fee Airline Card
There are several no-fee airline cards offered to new applicants, but that’s not the whole story. Some card issuers also offer no-fee cards only to existing account holders. Typically, these offers are made when an existing account holder contacts the card issuer to close his or her account.
When card holders indicate that they are closing an account to avoid paying an annual fee, they might be offered a no-fee version as a way of retaining their business. And since these no-fee versions aren’t always available to new applicants, there may not be much information available on them. For more information on how to change cards without closing your account, read my story on When a Credit Card Product Change Makes Sense.
No-Fee Airline Cards Available to New Applicants
|Welcome Bonus||Earning Rate(s)||Benefits||Fees|
|American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp Card||10,000 bonus miles and a $50 statement credit after spending $500 in the first three months||2x at grocery stores and on American Airlines purchases, 1x on everything else||25% savings on inflight food and beverage purchases||3% foreign transaction fee
|Blue Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express||10,000 bonus miles after spending $500 in purchases within three months of account opening. Terms apply.||2x at US restaurants and on Delta purchases, 1x on everything else||20% savings on inflight purchases, various purchase protections.||2.7% foreign transaction fee (See Rates & Fees)|
|JetBlue Credit Card||10,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 in the first 90 days||3x on all JetBlue purchases, 2x at restaurants and grocery stores and 1x on everything else||50% savings on inflight food and beverage purchases||No foreign transaction fee|
|SkyBlue SkyPass Visa Card||5,000 bonus miles after your first qualifying purchase||1 Korean Air SkyPass mile for every $2 spent||Car rental and travel accident insurance||3% foreign transaction fee (2% for transactions in US dollars)|
|United TravelBank Credit Card||$150 in United TravelBank cash after spending $1,000 in the first three months||2% of your spending back in TravelBank cash on tickets purchased from United, 1.5% in TravelBank cash on all other purchases.||25% back as a statement credit when you use your card to purchase food and beverages on United-operated flights||No foreign transaction fee|
Welcome bonus: Earn 10,000 bonus miles and a $50 statement credit after spending $500 on new purchases within three months of account opening.
Rewards: Earn 2x AAdvantage miles not just on American purchases but also at grocery stores (including delivery services). Earn 1 mile per dollar spent on all other purchases.
Benefits: 25% savings on inflight food and beverage purchases.
Fees: There’s no annual fee, but there is a 3% foreign transaction fee.
Welcome bonus: Earn 10,000 bonus miles after spending $500 in purchases within three months of account opening.
Rewards: This card offers you double miles at US restaurants as well as on all Delta purchases including Sky Club membership or passes, Delta Vacations packages, seat upgrades and inflight purchases of food, beverages and audio headsets. You earn 1 mile per dollar spent elsewhere.
Benefits: You receive a 20% savings on inflight purchases of food, beverages and audio headsets in the form of a statement credit. The card also comes with (secondary) rental car insurance, extended warranty coverage, return protection and damage and theft coverage. Other benefits include American Express Entertainment Access and free 2-day shipping as part of the ShopRunner program.
Fees: There’s no annual fee (see rates & fees), but there is a 2.7% foreign transaction fee.
Welcome bonus: Earn 10,000 bonus points after you spend $1,000 in the first 90 days.
Rewards: Earn 3x points on all JetBlue purchases, 2x points at restaurants and grocery stores and 1 point per dollar spent elsewhere.
Benefits: 50% savings on inflight food and beverage purchases. You can also pool you rewards between family members.
Fees: No annual fee and no foreign transaction fees.
SkyBlue SkyPass Visa Card
Welcome bonus: Earn 5,000 bonus miles after your first qualifying purchase.
Rewards: Earn 1 Korean Air SkyPass mile for every $2 spent.
Benefits: None beyond car rental and travel accident insurance.
Fees: No annual fee and a 3% foreign transaction fee (2% for transactions in US dollars).
Welcome bonus: $150 in United TravelBank cash after spending $1,000 on new purchases within three months of account opening.
Rewards: Earn 2% of your spending back in TravelBank cash on tickets purchased from United. You also earn 1.5% in TravelBank cash spent on all other purchases. Unlike miles, a dollar of TravelBank cash equals a dollar of credit that you can use toward the purchase of a ticket on flights operated by United, but not for flights operated by Star Alliance carriers or other partners. TravelBank cash can be used alone or combined with select forms of payment during the purchase.
Benefits: Receive 25% back as a statement credit when you use your card to purchase food and beverages on board United-operated flights.
Fees: No annual fee and no foreign transaction fees.
The information for the United TravelBank Credit 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.
No-Fee Airline Cards Offered to Existing Account Holders
United MileagePlus Card
This card offers you just 1 mile for every $2 spent, which isn’t good. However, it does have one great feature that makes it worth requesting if you can no longer justify the annual fee on your United MileagePlus Club Card. This card gives you access to the same increased United saver award space that you get with any other United credit card.
This no-fee card offers you 1 mile per dollar spent on American Airlines purchases, and just 1 mile for every $2 spent elsewhere. It does feature a 25% discount on inflight food and beverage purchases, but it also has a 3% foreign transaction fee.
Most airline credit card users will be better off paying an annual fee to enjoy far more benefits from their card, but there are some exceptions. For example, the Blue Delta SkyMiles Card from American Express is a great choice for infrequent travelers, and elite flyers who want to earn double miles at restaurants. Likewise, the AAdvantage MileUp Card lets you earn double AA miles at supermarkets and on grocery delivery services. And even the no-fee JetBlue card from Barclays offers you double points at restaurants and grocery stores, and 3x points for JetBlue purchases.
And yet, every one of the airline cards with an annual fee offers at least one unique benefit not available on any other credit card, so if one of those perks fits your travel needs, you’ll want to consider potentially paying an annual fee for an airline card. Just make sure your choice fits your travel goals and makes sense within your normal travel profile. And of course, if you’re a regular flyer on one of these airlines, definitely take a hard look at these cards to see if one of them can make your time in the air cheaper, more comfortable, or (hopefully) both.
Here is a recap of our Best Airline Credit Cards:
- Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard
- United Explorer Card
- Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express
- JetBlue Plus World Elite Mastercard
- Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card
- Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card
Featured image courtesy of Chris Sattlberger via Getty Images.
For rates and fees of the Amex Platinum card, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Delta Reserve card, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Blue Delta SkyMiles card, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Gold Delta SkyMiles card, please click here.
This is The Points Guy’s permanent page with the best currently available airline credit cards, so you can bookmark it and check back regularly for updates. Keep in mind you may see some reader comments referring to older offers below.
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