Are airline credit cards worth it anymore?

Mar 23, 2021

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 – Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card      

Airline credit cards have been around almost as long as frequent flyer programs themselves — more than 30 years now.

At first, the formula was simple: You signed up for a card and earned a bonus worth a free flight or two. After that, you would make everyday purchases with your card to rack up enough miles for another free flight every year or so, depending on your spending patterns. Award charts and earning rates were, at a minimum, predictable.

Since then, however, not only have airline mileage programs changed dramatically, but so have the number and types of travel rewards credit cards available to consumers.

Now, many of the best travel cards are those that earn transferable points, such as The Platinum Card® from American Express and the Chase Sapphire Reserve. Airline credit cards have also faced increasing competition from fixed-value points programs such as Capital One Rewards, along with the proliferation of phenomenal hotel credit cards that has occurred in the past few years.

For more TPG news delivered each morning to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.

The sheer number of airline credit cards has multiplied too, making it harder for consumers to gauge the value of one versus another. For example, Delta now fields no fewer than seven personal and business credit cards with its partner, American Express.

Adding another layer of complexity, airline credit cards and their benefits are subject to constant changes. Sign-up bonuses yo-yo by tens of thousands of miles, annual fees rise and perks are removed or added, all while the mileage programs themselves undergo constant restructuring and dramatic pricing swings.

(Photo by John Gress Media Inc/Shutterstock)

With all these factors to keep track of, you might well be asking yourself: Is it even worth carrying an airline credit card anymore? Especially at a time when a global pandemic nearly brought the airline industry to a complete halt from which it will be recovering for some time to come.

That’s certainly a good question — and one you should actually ponder every year before your card’s annual fee comes due, especially if you carry one of the premium airline credit cards (read: with high annual fees) now available.

The good news is there are some truly great airline credit cards out there with perks tailored to different types of travelers, so chances are there’s still a right one for you. Here are the elements you should consider when deciding whether an airline card is still worth it for your needs. For our overall top choices of airline cards, read our guide on the best airline credit cards, which includes specific details on all of the best options.

Welcome offers/sign-up bonuses

The first (and certainly the flashiest) factor you should look at is whether an airline card’s sign-up bonus is a good deal. Earning 100,000 Avios with the Iberia Visa Signature Card sounds great. But in order to get there, you need to spend a $5,000 in the 3 months of account opening. Before you apply, make sure you can meet the minimum spending requirements for the bonus.

Iberia Airbus A350 (Photo by Christian Kramer/The Points Guy)

Next, you’ll need to do a little homework and determine whether you are getting a relatively high or low welcome offer, because sign-up bonuses change all the time — sometimes by tens of thousands of miles.

For example, the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card typically offers 40,000 bonus miles and 5,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles after spending $2,000 in the first three months.

But from now through April 28, 2021, however, the card is offering an astonishing 90,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening. So for an extra $1,000 in spending, you could earn 50,000 more miles than usual (worth about $550 more according to our most recent valuations). You do miss out on MQMs, but in a year when elite status might not matter as much as usual, that shouldn’t be a deal-breaker.

Once you’ve made sure the bonus you’re being offered is as high as you can hope for and that you can meet the spending requirements to earn it, you should have a concrete idea for how you’re actually going to use those miles. After all, earning 50,000 American miles (after spending $2,500 on purchases in the first three months of account opening) with the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard® will get you a lot of places. But if you’re hoping to redeem those miles for a flight in Qatar Airways’ Qsuites from the U.S. to Doha, you’ll still fall short.

The information for the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select 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.

Related: The 12 best elevated credit card offers to sign up for in March 2021

Annual fees

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Your other primary consideration should be your card’s annual fee. There are now several airline credit cards without annual fees, such as the Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card (see rates and fees) and the JetBlue Card, though these are still the exception rather than the rule. They even offer bonus earning categories (restaurants with the Delta card and both grocery stores and restaurants with JetBlue). For that reason, they might be good choices for occasional travelers who just want to rack up miles cheaply and don’t care about day-of-travel perks.

At the high end, the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card charges $550 a year (see rates and fees), the United Club Infinite Card costs $525 per year and the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard® has a $450 annual fee. But those prices could still be worth it for some frequent flyers who can maximize their value-added benefits such as lounge access and the ability to earn elite-qualifying miles or points based on spending.

For the most part, popular airline credit cards charge around $100 per year. These include mainstays like the AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard from Barclays ($99), the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card ($0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $99 see rates and fees), the JetBlue Plus Card ($99), the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card ($99) and the United Explorer Card ($95, waived the first year). The Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard costs $99 per year and the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card charges $75 per year.

The information for the AAdvantage Aviator Red, JetBlue Plus, Hawaiian Airlines World Elite has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Taking some of the sting out of forking over nearly $100, some of these cards offer anniversary bonuses. The Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card rewards cardholders with 6,000 bonus points on their account anniversary, while the JetBlue Plus confers 5,000 TrueBlue points each year you renew.

Each year your annual fee comes due, look back and determine if you were able to leverage your card’s perks to offset the cost of carrying it for another year.

Related: Choosing the best credit cards for Delta flyers

Earning categories

Young man at home, paying bills online
(Photo by AleksandarNakic/Getty Images)

Not so long ago, most airline cards would only earn double miles purchases with their associated airline. Facing increased competition from non-airline rewards cards, though, many airline credit cards now earn multiple miles per dollar at a variety of merchants such as restaurants and grocery stores.

If you’re considering an airline credit card, or already carry one, look at the categories in which it earns bonus miles and see how that fits in with your financial habits. After all, it’s no good carrying a card that earns 2x miles per dollar on dining if you typically spend most of your food budget on groceries.

Among the top earners is the United Explorer Card, which now earns 2x miles per dollar on hotel and dining purchases. The Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select card earns 2x miles on gas stations and restaurants, while the JetBlue Plus rakes in 2x points per dollar at restaurants and grocery stores.

Related: A complete guide to the best travel credit cards, broken down by bonus category

Day-of-travel benefits

Person Putting Luggage into Overhead Bin
(Photo by Mangpink/Shutterstock)

Aside from one-time perks like a sign-up bonus or a waived annual fee, airline credit cards typically offer a variety of money- and time-saving benefits for travel. These can include free checked bags, priority boarding and discounts on inflight purchases such as food and Wi-Fi.

However, these benefits are only as valuable as the use you get out of them. For example, the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card costs $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $99 (see rates and fees). But cardholders are eligible for a free checked bag for themselves and up to eight companions on the same reservation. On one single round-trip domestic itinerary, that could be worth up to a staggering $540. It’s doubtful most cardholders are taking full advantage of this benefit, but even if you are saving just a few hundred dollars a year, that could be worth it.

In terms of onboard discounts, both the JetBlue Plus and JetBlue Card confer 50% savings on food and beverage purchases, while the AAdvantage Aviator Silver refunds cardholders up to $25 back per day as statement credits on inflight food and beverage purchases. Use that amount every day of the year, and you’re looking at $9,125 in savings (not that anyone probably comes close to this usage). Cardholders also receive up to $50 back on inflight Wi-Fi purchases on American Airlines flights every account year.

Related: 7 places in the airport where your credit card can save you time and money

Elite status

Elite status gives you the chance to upgrade to a premium cabin, such as Delta One. (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Airline elite status is another major consideration for some travelers. If you are in danger of falling short, however, spending on your cobranded airline card might just be the stopgap you need.

Before you get too excited, only a handful of airline credit cards actually offer elite-boosting opportunities, and they tend to have high annual fees. Still, if you’re a frequent flyer and need a last lift for that next tier of status, this could be just the reason to continue carrying an airline card.

Among the cards that offer this type of benefit, the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite card offers 10,000 elite-qualifying miles to cardholders who spend $40,000 or more in a calendar year.

The JetBlue Plus and JetBlue Business both confer automatic Mosaic status upon cardholders who spend $50,000 or more on purchases in a calendar year.

For every $10,000 you spend on the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card or the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card, you earn 1,500 tier-qualifying points, up to a maximum of 15,000 per year, toward A-List status.

Both the United Explorer Card and United Club Infinite Card allow you to earn up to 1,000 Premier qualifying points with $24,000 in annual spending on the card.

Finally, those with the Delta SkyMiles Reserve American Express earn 15,000 Medallion Qualification Miles after spending $30,000 in a calendar year, up to 60,000 MQMs for $120,000 in spending (though this has been boosted to 18,750 MQMs per $30,000, up to a total potential of 75,000 MQMs, in 2021; offer ends 12/31/21). That means you can earn all the way up to Gold or Platinum Medallion status without even flying the airline.

Those were just a few examples. If you’re on the fence about this particular benefit, or achieve your desired elite status on your own, this might be the time to branch out to another airline so you can enjoy elite-style perks when not flying your primary carrier.

Related: Credit cards that can help you earn airline elite status

Companion tickets

(Photo courtesy of Delta)

One of the best reasons to carry an airline credit card is to leverage a companion ticket benefit that can be worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars. The benefit can vary from airline to airline and even card to card with the same carrier, so be sure to read the fine print.

Among the best-known of these is the one offered by the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature. As part of its sign-up bonus and then every year upon renewal, cardholders receive an annual companion fare. It is good for economy from just $121 ($99 plus any taxes and fees from $22 round-trip). This one benefit can save you hundreds of dollars each year.

The Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard includes a one-time 50%-off companion discount on round-trip coach travel between Hawaii and North America and $100 off a companion ticket for round-trip coach airfare between Hawaii and North America after each account anniversary.

Both the Delta SkyMiles Platinum American Express Card and the Delta SkyMiles Reserve American Express Card offer annual companion certificates as well.

Finally, the points earned with Southwest’s credit cards, including the Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Credit Card and the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card, count toward earning the airline’s much-discussed Companion Pass (and these cards sometimes include the Companion Pass as part of their introductory offers).

If you’re someone who tends to travel with a partner, family member or colleague, then considering a card with companion benefits might be well worth it.

Related: Guide to airline credit card companion tickets

Award chart devaluations

What good is socking away miles with an airline if it then puts awards out of reach with devaluations? (Photo by The Points Guy)

In the longer term, you should assess the frequent flyer programs of the airlines whose credit cards you are considering and see if they have retained their value over time. In recent years we’ve witnessed massive devaluations in award charts not just with U.S. carriers but also with foreign airlines like Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines.

Some programs, including Delta SkyMiles, United MileagePlus and Air France-KLM, have even removed their award charts altogether and now price tickets dynamically.

So before you jump into a new frequent flyer program with both feet and sign up for the credit card, you should investigate how the program has changed over the past few years to determine whether you will actually be able to use the miles you earn from a sign-up bonus and everyday spending for the travel rewards you want.

How many other cards do you have?

(Photo by Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

Keep in mind that many of the major credit card issuers have put certain restrictions in place to limit so-called churning that might preclude you from opening a new credit card or earning its sign-up bonus.

Few of these rules are published, and there are exceptions to some. But they are still worth keeping in mind because the last thing you want is to apply for a card only to get denied. Or worse, to get approved and think you are going to earn the sign-up bonus only to be told that you are ineligible for it.

The best known of these policies is Chase’s 5/24 rule, which applies to popular cards such as the United Explorer Card and the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card. We have a thorough guide on the topic, but the gist is that Chase will generally not approve you for a new card if you have opened five or more personal credit cards (from all banks, not just Chase) in the last 24 months.

Likewise, Amex has gotten even more stringent about eligibility rules for many of its popular cards, including its Delta lineup, and limits bonus eligibility to once per lifetime on each product. On the plus side, the bank has created a welcome bonus qualification tool that will let you know if you’re ineligible for a bonus before you pull the trigger on an application.

Citi has some interesting limitations in place for its AAdvantage cards, including the fact that you will not get the bonus on a new card if you have opened or closed another Citi / AAdvantage card in the past 48 months. So if you have one that’s already been open for over 24 months, apply for another before closing it or you might disqualify your application.

Related: Ultimate guide to credit card application restrictions

Other options: Transferable points

If your primary goal is simply to use an airline card to rack up frequent flyer miles quickly rather than actually taking advantage of travel benefits like companion tickets, free checked bags and elite boosts, you might be better off applying for a card that earns transferable points.

There are more transferable points programs than ever these days, including American Express Membership Rewards, Capital One Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards and Marriott Bonvoy. Each program partners with a number of airlines so that the points you earn with your credit card can then be transferred to any of them at the time you choose. This will insulate you from any sudden award chart devaluations with your main carrier, and give you more flexibility to redeem rewards with a larger number of airlines.

What’s more, many of the credit cards associated with these programs come with bonus-earning opportunities on categories like gas, groceries, dining and a large number of travel purchases, not just airfare. This makes them even better earners than many airline credit cards.

As a reminder, here are the airline partners of the five major transferable points programs, and some of the current credit cards associated with them.

American Express Membership Rewards

Once the gold standard for transferable points, this program partners with the following airlines (points transfer at a 1:1 ratio unless otherwise noted):

  • Aer Lingus AerClub
  • Aeromexico Club Premier (1:1.6)
  • Air Canada Aeroplan
  • Air France-KLM Flying Blue
  • Alitalia MilleMiglia
  • ANA Mileage Club
  • Avianca LifeMiles
  • British Airways Executive Club
  • Cathay Pacific Asia Miles
  • Delta SkyMiles
  • Emirates Skywards
  • Etihad Airways Guest Program
  • Hawaiian Airlines HawaiianMiles
  • Iberia Plus
  • JetBlue TrueBlue (1:0.8)
  • Qantas Frequent Flyer
  • Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer
  • Virgin Atlantic Flying Club

Among the cards that earn Membership Rewards points are The Platinum Card from American Express, The Business Platinum Card® from American Express, the American Express® Gold Card and the American Express® Business Gold Card.

Related: Redeeming American Express Membership Rewards for maximum value

Capital One Rewards

Long a fixed-value program, Capital One Rewards added the ability to transfer points to over a dozen airline partners in 2018. The bad news is that the transfer ratios aren’t great. The good news is, Capital One boosts them by launching frequent transfer bonuses.

  • Aeromexico Club Premier (2:1.5)
  • Air Canada Aeroplan (2:1.5)
  • Air France-KLM Flying Blue (2:1.5)
  • Alitalia MilleMiglia (2:1.5)
  • Avianca LifeMiles (2:1.5)
  • Cathay Pacific Asia Miles (2:1.5)
  • Emirates Skywards (2:1)
  • Etihad Airways Guest Program (2:1.5)
  • EVA Air Infinity MileageLands (2:1.5)
  • Finnair Plus (2:1.5)
  • JetBlue TrueBlue (2:1.5)
  • Qantas Frequent Flyer (2:1.5)
  • Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer (2:1)

Among the cards that earn transferable Capital One miles are the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, the Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card, the Capital One Spark Miles For Business and the Capital One Spark Miles Select for Business.

The information for the Capital One Spark Miles Select has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Related: How to use your Capital One miles for maximum value

Chase Ultimate Rewards

After it launched around a decade ago, the Ultimate Rewards program quickly became one of the best transferable points currencies around and now partners with 10 airlines:

  • Aer Lingus AerClub
  • Air France-KLM Flying Blue
  • British Airways Executive Club
  • Emirates Skywards
  • Iberia Plus
  • JetBlue TrueBlue
  • Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer
  • Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards
  • United MileagePlus
  • Virgin Atlantic Flying Club

Among the cards that earn transferable Ultimate Rewards are the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and the Ink Business Preferred Credit Card. For more information, read our guide on redeeming Chase Ultimate Rewards for maximum value.

Related: How to maximize your Chase Ultimate Rewards points

Citi ThankYou Rewards

Citi has taken huge steps in recent years to make its ThankYou Rewards program competitive with Chase and Amex. At this point, its airline transfer partners include:

  • Aeromexico Club Premier
  • Air France-KLM Flying Blue
  • Avianca LifeMiles
  • Cathay Pacific Asia Miles
  • Emirates Skywards
  • Etihad Airways Guest Program
  • EVA Air Infinity MileageLands
  • InterMiles (formerly Jet Privilege)
  • JetBlue TrueBlue
  • Malaysia Airlines Enrich
  • Qantas Frequent Flyer
  • Qatar Airways Privilege Club
  • Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer
  • Thai Airways Royal Orchid Plus
  • Turkish Airlines Miles&Smiles
  • Virgin Atlantic Flying Club

Among the cards that earn ThankYou Rewards points are the Citi Prestige® Card and the Citi Premier® Card. For more information, read our guide on redeeming Citi ThankYou points for maximum value.

The information for the Citi Prestige 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.

Related: Redeeming Citi ThankYou points for maximum value

Marriott Bonvoy

This hotel loyalty program actually incorporates the most airline partners of any transferable points program, with over 40 in all.

First, the negative: Transfers are at a lackluster ratio of three Marriott points to one airline mile with most partners. On the plus side, for every 60,000 points you transfer, you get a 5,000-mile bonus, so instead of 20,000 airline miles, you’d end up with 25,000. On top of that, you also get a 10% bonus on United transfers.

Here is the current list of partners:

  • Aegean Airlines Miles+Bonus
  • Aer Lingus Aer Club
  • Aeroflot Bonus
  • Aeromexico Club Premier
  • Air Canada Aeroplan
  • Air France-KLM Flying Blue
  • Air New Zealand Airpoints (200:1)
  • Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan
  • Alitalia MilleMiglia
  • American Airlines AAdvantage
  • ANA Mileage Club
  • Asiana Airlines Asiana Club
  • Avianca LifeMiles
  • British Airways Executive Club
  • Cathay Pacific Asia Miles
  • Copa Airlines ConnectMiles
  • Delta SkyMiles
  • Emirates Skywards
  • Etihad Guest
  • Frontier Miles
  • Hainan Airlines Fortune Wings Club
  • Hawaiian Airlines HawaiianMiles
  • Iberia Plus
  • InterMiles (formerly Jet Privilege)
  • Japan Airlines JAL Mileage Bank
  • JetBlue TrueBlue
  • Korean Air SkyPass
  • LATAM Pass and Multiplus Fidelidade
  • Qantas Frequent Flyer
  • Qatar Airways Privilege Club
  • Saudia Alfursan
  • Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards
  • TAP Air Portugal Miles&Go
  • Thai Airways Royal Orchid Plus
  • Turkish Airlines Miles&Smiles
  • United MileagePlus
  • Virgin Atlantic Flying Club
  • Virgin Australia Velocity Frequent Flyer
  • Vueling Club

You can earn Marriott Bonvoy points with the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card and the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card, among other options. For more information, read our guide on how to redeem points with Marriott Bonvoy.

Related: When does it make sense to transfer Marriott points to airlines?

Bottom line

Whether or not it makes sense to carry an airline credit card will come down to several key factors. First, think about whether you will use its ongoing benefits like day-of-travel perks and discounts enough to offset its annual fee. Next, make sure you are getting a great deal on the sign-up bonus. Finally, think about whether a rewards card that earns transferable points instead will suit your spending habits and travel needs better. By answering those few questions, you will have all the information you need to make your decision.

For rates and fees of the Delta Sky Miles Blue, please click here.  
For rates and fees of the Delta Sky Miles Reserve, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Delta Sky Miles Gold, please click here.

Featured photo by DuKai photographer/Getty Images.

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.