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Looking for the best airline credit cards? Most folks already know that if a particular airline sees a good chunk of your annual travel, it’s a smart move to apply for its corresponding co-branded 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 2018
Here are the Best Airline Credit Cards based on my valuations:
- Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card: Best for Southwest
- Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card: Best for Alaska Airlines:
- United Explorer Card: Best for United
- Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard: Best for American Airlines:
- Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express: Best for Delta
- JetBlue Plus World Elite Mastercard: Best for JetBlue
How We Chose the Best Airline Credit Cards
When we assembled our list of the best airline co-branded cards for this year, we made sure to consider the extra value each card can bring, whether you’re flying on that airline or not. Because with so many varying benefits, it’s important to know which card will best match your own travel needs and preferences.
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 are going to want to travel on, that makes your decision much easier. You can review the best and worst airlines here. The other major criterion, which impacted our list, include: the annual fee, travel perks, offer bonus, and spending requirements. Below you will find a credit card comparison table which lays out the major factors of our best credit cards so you can evaluate how they rank against each other.
Comparing Airline Credit Cards
Below we can see how each airline credit card compares to to the competition.
|Card||Bonus Offer||Annual Fee||Notable Perks|
|Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card||40,000 points after you spend $1,000 in the first three months. Plus, 20,000 points after you spend $12,000 within the first year.||$69||Points count toward Companion Pass
3,000 bonus points at your cardmember anniversary each year
|Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card||30,000 miles after you spend $1,000 in the first 90 days||$75||Free checked bag for you and up to six companions
Annual $99 Companion Fare
|United Explorer Card||40,000 miles after you spend $2,000 in the first three months. Plus, 25,000 miles after you spend $10,000 total in the first six 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
|Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard||40,000 miles after you spend $2,000 in the first three months. Plus, 10,000 bonus miles after you spend $6,000 total in the first 12 months.||$99*||Free checked bag for you and up to four companions
25% rebate on in-flight food and beverage purchases
$100 American Airlines flight discount after you spend $20,000 in a membership year and renew your card
|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||Complimentary Sky Club access when you’re traveling on Delta
Free checked bag for you and up to eight companions
Companion certificate for domestic travel each year after your account anniversary
Earn bonus MQMs for high annual spend
|JetBlue Plus World Elite Mastercard||40,000 points after you spend $1,000 in the first 90 days||$99||Free checked bag for you and up to three companions
10% rebate on all redeemed TrueBlue points
5,000 bonus points at your cardmember anniversary each year
Earn JetBlue Mosaic elite status with $50,000 in annual spend
*Annual fee waived the first year.
Airline Credit Cards: Individual Assessments
Here we will dive into the details of the best airline credit cards and how you can maximize the benefits of each offer.
The biggest complaint about airline miles is they’re impossible to use because there’s never any award space. Well, that’s never a problem with the Rapid Rewards points you can earn with the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card. Southwest uses a revenue-based fixed-value redemption system in which the number of points needed to redeem for an airline ticket is tied to the cost of the airfare. So you’ll never get outsized value for your points, but you’ll also never be unable to find award space (unless the flight itself is entirely sold out).
With this card, you’ll earn 2 points per dollar spent at Southwest and 1 point per dollar on everything else. Unfortunately, this card does charge a 3% foreign transaction fee, so you won’t want to use it on overseas trips. You’ll also get 3,000 bonus points after your cardmember anniversary each year, and with only a $69 annual fee, the cost of keeping the card long-term is at the low end of the scale for airline co-branded cards.
Finally, the points you earn from spending on this card count toward earning the Southwest Companion Pass. Since hotel point transfers are no longer eligible, Southwest credit cards are one of the few ways left to earn qualifying Companion Pass points other than actual flights on Southwest. Just note that you can no longer apply for both the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Card and the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card and use that strategy to earn the Companion Pass — you’re now limited to one Southwest consumer credit card and can’t earn a sign-up bonus on a Southwest consumer card if you’ve already earned one in the last 24 months.
Even if you don’t fly regularly on Alaska Airlines — or even if you never fly on Alaska Airlines — the Mileage Plan miles earned with the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Credit Card can be extremely valuable thanks to Alaska’s great list of airline partners and mostly reasonable award chart. On top of that, thanks to the Alaska-Virgin America merger, Alaska miles can now be used to book Virgin flights, which means a first-class seat on Virgin America can be had for just 25,000 Alaska miles with excellent award availability.
And if you do fly on Alaska even once or twice a year, this card is a no-brainer. With a free checked bag for you and up to six companions on your reservation and an incredibly valuable annual $99 Companion Fare (plus taxes), you can make back the $75 annual fee plus a lot more in no time. The Companion Fare in particular is extremely flexible — not only does it come with no blackout dates, but you can use it for a one-way, round-trip, open jaw or multi-stop itinerary. Additionally, this card waives foreign transaction fees.
Clearly, regardless of whether your travel patterns include Alaska Airlines, this card is one to strongly consider.
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 cardholders 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.
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 cardmember 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, on June 1, 2018, the card added 2x earning rates for spending on dining and hotels, an application fee credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck and 25% off in-flight 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, complimentary World of Hyatt Discoverist status 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.
If you’re a regular traveler on American Airlines, you’ll likely want to pick up the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard to take advantage of its benefits.
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 in-flight 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 50,000 miles after spending $2,000 in the first three months of account opening. Plus, 10,000 bonus miles after you spend $6,000 total in the first 12 months. It also recently added 2x earning rates for spending at restaurants and gas stations, as well as a $100 American Airlines flight discount when you spend $20,000 on the card in a membership year and renew your card.
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. With this card, you’ll get a free checked bag, priority boarding, no foreign transaction fees and 20% in savings on in-flight 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, but unlike the American AAdvantage cards, there’s no annual cap, so you’ll benefit from it every time you redeem. 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, but the return on grocery spend can definitely be useful for most households.
When to Consider a No-Fee Airline Card
Although many airlines now offer no-fee credit cards, none of them make our list of the top airline cards. That’s because these no-fee cards 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-fee co-branded 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 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-fee cards can actually have better bonus categories than their premium versions. If your main goal is to earn miles, a no-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 cardholders 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 in-flight 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 in-flight purchases, various purchase protections.||2.7% foreign transaction fee|
|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 in-flight 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 in-flight 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 in-flight purchases of food, beverages and audio headsets. You earn 1 mile per dollar spent elsewhere.
Benefits: You receive a 20% savings on in-flight 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, 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 in-flight 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 Explorer Card or 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 in-flight 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:
Best Airline Credit Cards
- Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card
- Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card
- United Explorer Card
- Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard
- Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express
- JetBlue Plus World Elite Mastercard
Featured image courtesy of Chris Sattlberger via Getty Images.
If you're a frequent American flyer but don't have status, additional perks that come with this card like first free checked bag on domestic AA itineraries, preferred boarding on American flights can be extremely valuable.
- Earn up to 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles: 40,000 AAdvantage® miles after making $2,000 in purchases in first 3 months and 10,000 after making a total of $6,000 in purchases in first 12 months of account opening*
- Earn 2 AAdvantage® miles for every $1 spent at gas stations*
- Earn 2 AAdvantage® miles for every $1 spent at restaurants*
- Earn 2 AAdvantage® miles for every $1 spent on eligible American Airlines purchases*
- Earn a $100 American Airlines Flight Discount after you spend $20,000 or more in purchases during your cardmembership year and renew your card*
- No Foreign Transaction Fees*
- 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*
- Receive 25% savings on inflight food and beverage purchases when you use your card on American Airlines flights*