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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.
How to choose the Best Airline Credit Card
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.
Here are the Best Airline Credit Cards based on my valuations:
- Best for Southwest: Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card
- Best for Alaska Airlines: Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Credit Card
- Best for United: United MileagePlus Explorer Card
- Best for American Airlines: Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard
- Best for Delta: Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express
- Best for JetBlue: JetBlue Plus World Elite Mastercard
First, here’s a look at the bonus offers, annual fees and notable perks for this year’s picks.
|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||$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 MileagePlus Explorer Card||40,000 miles after you spend $2,000 in the first three 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||60,000 miles after you spend $3,000 in the first three 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.
The Details on Our Top Picks
Let’s dive into the details of these cards and offers, and how you can maximize the benefits of each.
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 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.
United MileagePlus Explorer 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 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. Finally, starting June 1, 2018, the card is adding 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 60,000 miles after spending $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 $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.
The 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.
Best Airline Credit Cards of 2018 Review
Here are the best Airline Credit Cards based on my valuations:
- Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card
- Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Credit Card
- United MileagePlus 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.
LIMITED TIME OFFER: Earn 60,000 miles after $3,000 spent within the first 3 months. The sign-up offer alone is worth up to $840. 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.
- For a limited time, earn 60,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles after making $3,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening*
- New: Earn 2 AAdvantage® miles for every $1 spent at gas stations*
- New: Earn 2 AAdvantage® miles for every $1 spent at restaurants*
- Earn 2 AAdvantage® miles for every $1 spent on eligible American Airlines purchases*
- New: 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 in-flight food and beverage purchases when you use your card on American Airlines flights*