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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.

So 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.

The Best Airline Credit Cards of 2018

Here are more details on this year’s picks.

Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card

Southwest Airlines
The Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card can get you closer to a Companion Pass. Image courtesy of Southwest.

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 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. So if you’ve got a lot of spend during the year and fly regularly on Southwest with a spouse, family member or friend, this could be the perfect card for you.

Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Credit Card

You can now use Alaska miles to fly on Japan Airlines.

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.

United MileagePlus Explorer Card

United
You’ll get access to more award space when you have the United MileagePlus Explorer Card. Image courtesy of United.

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 MileagePlus 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.

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.

Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard

American’s credit card offers a 10% rebate on award redemptions up to 10,000 miles each year.

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.

But the biggest benefit of this card may be the 10% rebate on redeemed AAdvantage miles. Each time you book an award with American miles, you’ll get back 10% of those miles up to 10,000 miles per calendar year. The value of those returned miles easily make up for the card’s $95 annual fee, which is waived the first year in any case. Like most other cards on this list, the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select waives foreign transaction fees.

Delta Reserve Credit Card From American Express

With $25,000 in spend on a Delta credit card, you can waive the MQD requirement.

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 sign-up 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.

Bottom Line

Every one of these cards 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 adding an airline card to your credit card portfolio. 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.

Featured image courtesy of Chris Sattlberger via Getty Images.

The Platinum Card® from American Express

The American Express Platinum card has some of the best perks out there: cardholders enjoy the best domestic lounge access (Delta SkyClubs, Centurion Lounges, and Priority Pass), a $200 annual airline fee credit as well as up to $200 in Uber credits, and mid-tier elite status at SPG, Marriott, and Hilton. Combined with the 60,000 point welcome offer -- worth $1,140 based on TPG's valuations -- this card is a no-brainer for frequent travelers. Here are 5 reasons you should consider this card, as well as how you can figure out if the $550 annual fee makes sense for you.

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More Things to Know
  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you use your new Card to make $5,000 in purchases in your first 3 months.
  • Up to $200 for Uber rides annually. Credit and Uber VIP status available to Basic Card Member only.
  • 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel.
  • 5X Membership Rewards® points on eligible hotels booked on amextravel.com.
  • As a Platinum Card Member, you can enjoy access to the Global Lounge Collection, the only credit card airport lounge access program that includes proprietary lounge locations around the world.
  • Receive complimentary benefits with an average total value of $550 with Fine Hotels & Resorts. Learn More.
  • $200 Airline Fee Credit, up to $200 per calendar year in baggage fees and more at one qualifying airline.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Intro APR on Purchases
N/A
Regular APR
N/A
Annual Fee
$550
Balance Transfer Fee
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Recommended Credit
Excellent/Good
Terms and restrictions apply. See rates & fees.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are 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.

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