The 9 Best Airline Credit Cards of January 2023
Best General Travel Card
Chase Sapphire Preferred®
- 60K points bonus
- 5x points on travel
Best for Premium Travel Card
Capital One Venture X
- 75K miles bonus
- Airport lounge access
Best for Mid-Tier Flyers
Platinum Select® World Elite
- 50k miles bonus
- $0 introductory annual
$0 first year
Best for Premium Delta Flyers
Delta SkyMiles® Reserve
- 95K miles bonus
- Companion ticket
The Penny Hoarder has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. The Penny Hoarder and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers.
Opinions, reviews, analyses and recommendations are the author’s alone and have not been reviewed, endorsed or approved by any of these entities.
Airline credit cards are a good way to maximize travel spending and enjoy perks along the way. An airline credit card is a card co-branded between a credit card company and a specific airline, earning you airline miles for your purchases on the card–often with added returns for purchases from that airline. If you’re looking at some future travel, an airline credit card might be a lucrative investment in your next trip.
The first thing to figure out with an airline specific card is which airline. First, check your travel history and see if there’s a natural leader in which airline you prefer to fly. You might also look at if a specific airline has a major hub near you. For example, American Airlines’ main hub is the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and United’s is in Denver. If you live by these airports, these airlines would be a good bet.
From there, it’s time to explore that airline’s different credit card offerings. Most airlines have a basic credit card, a mid-tier card, and a premium card and it can get confusing which one will fit the bill for you. You’ve got to think about where you stand on the size of acceptable annual fee, points per dollar, free checked bags, priority boarding, airport lounge access, and foreign transaction fees.
If you need some help, we’ve tried, tested, and read the fine print on each of the cards and picked our top choices of the best airline credit cards for the average frequent flier. Plus, if you’re feeling less airline loyal, we snuck a few general travel cards into the mix as well.
The Best Airline Credit Cards
- Alaska Airlines Visa Signature: Best for Alaska Airlines Flyers
- Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®: Best for American Airlines Premium Perks
- Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite: Best for Mid-Tier American Airlines Flyers
- Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card: Best for Premium Delta Airlines Flyers
- SouthWest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card: Best for Southwest Airlines Flyers
- United℠ Explorer Card: Best for United Flyers
- Chase Sapphire Preferred®: Best for General Travel Card
- Capital One Venture X: Best for Premium Flexible Travelers
- Venture Rewards Credit Card: Best for Flexible Redemption
Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card
- 50,000 miles sign up bonus after purchase
- Companion Fare™
The Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Credit card offers 3 miles for every dollar spent on eligible Alaska Airlines purchases and unlimited 1 mile for every dollar spent on eligible purchases anywhere else. Plus, when you sign up and spend $2,000 in eligible purchases in the first 90 days, you get 50,000 miles in a sign up bonus–that’s enough miles to fly round trip anywhere that Alaska Airlines flies.
From there, the real value of this Alaska Airlines credit card is access to Alaska Airlines’ Companion Fare. With the Companion Fare, you’ll receive a credit once a year that allows you to book a ticket for an Alaska Airlines flight for a partner for as low as $121 ($99 fare plus taxes and fees starting at $22). Depending on how you spend this benefit, it can be a real money saver.
The downside of an Alaska Airlines card is that Alaska doesn’t fly everywhere. Most notably, Alaska has limited flights to the East Coast and the Midwest. Alaska is working to combat this downside with Oneworld Alliance member airlines and their Global Partners, but it’s still worth making sure that Alaska flies where you want to go before you get the credit card.
If you’ve worked out that Alaska Airlines will get you where you want to go, then this credit card is a great option to benefit from your Alaska Airlines flights and actually enjoy traveling as well. With Alaska Airlines flights booked with your airline credit card, you’ll get a free checked bag for you and up to six other guests and no foreign transaction fee on purchases once you get to your location.
AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Card®
- 80,000 miles sign up bonus with purchase
- Admirals Club access
- No foreign transaction fee
The AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard® currently offers 4 miles for every dollar spent on eligible American Airline purchases (this limited-time offer ends December 31st, 2022). All other eligible purchases earn you 1 point per dollar.
This earning potential isn’t the best return you can find on the market, but the huge welcome bonus of 80,000 miles when you spend $5,500 in purchases within the first 3 months of the account opening is pretty amazing. You also get 10,000 additional Loyalty Points after you spend $40,000 in a qualifying year. That’s basically an extra $100 bonus.
The real draw of cards like the AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Card® is an enhanced airport experience.
You get priority boarding, a free checked bag for up to 8 additional travel companions, no foreign transaction fees, 25% off in-flight purchases, and $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck.
On top of all that, you also get access to the large American Airlines Admirals Club® lounge system, which is considered a $650 value.
AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite
- 50,000 mile sign up bonus with purchase
- $0 introductory annual fee
- No foreign transaction fees
The AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard® rewards you 2 miles for every dollar spent on restaurants and gas stations, 2 miles for every dollar spent on eligible American Airlines flights and 1 mile for every dollar spent on other purchases. While these aren’t the highest mile returns on this list, the $0 introductory annual fee and other airport perks makes it a good airline credit card for most.
With the AAdvantage® Platinum Select® card, you get a free checked bag for you and up to 4 travel companions on the same reservation, preferred boarding on American Airlines flights, and 25% savings on in-flight purchases like food and beverages and Wifi.
Unfortunately, AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard® doesn’t provide any access to the airport lounges, so if you’re looking for a place to relax at the airport you might have to upgrade to one of American Airlines higher offerings.
But, if you’re a big spender, we do love that you can earn a $125 American Airlines Flight Discount after you spend $20,000 or more in purchases during your first year and renew your card. Plus, if traveling internationally, you have the added benefit of no foreign transaction fees.
Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express
- 50,000 miles welcome offer
- Companion ticket
The Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Credit Card earns you 3x miles on Delta purchases and 1x miles for all other eligible purchases.
While the annual cost will give some thrifty travelers pause, the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express credit card does offer a lot of perks to make up for the hit on your wallet.
First, you currently get a 50,000 mile sign up bonus when you spend $5,000 in the first six months. That’s nearly $1,000 to spend on Delta purchases just for signing up, paying the account opening annual fee, and purchasing the required amount. Just a reminder, you won’t be rewarded these miles until you spend the $5,000 minimum with your airline credit card, so don’t expect to use your miles right away.
With this card, you also get complimentary access to the Delta Sky Club lounge and two one-time guest passes. A Sky Club membership alone runs about $545, so if you’re considering purchasing a membership, you might as well spring for the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve credit card instead.
In case that awesome lounge option doesn’t feel like quite enough, you also get into the American Express Centurion Lounge at the airport if you made your Delta purchase with your Delta American Express credit card.
The other major perk that puts this card in our best airline credit card category is the illustrious Companion Certificate. Each year that you renew this card you receive a Companion Certificate which allows you to fly a companion on any domestic round-trip flight with you for free. You’ll have to cover the fees and taxes (capped at $75), but this pass is a real score each year.
Finally, Delta finishes its credit card perks by offering a free checked bag for up to eight companions traveling with you, priority boarding, 20% back on inflight Delta purchases, Global Entry/TSA PreCheck fee credit, and no foriegn transaction fees.
All in all, it’s expensive, but if you fly enough, it’s a no-brainer.
Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Card
- 50,000 points for spending $1K in first 3 months
- $75 annual travel credit
The Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority card gives you 3 points for every dollar you spend on Southwest, 2 points for every dollar spent on a Rapid Rewards® hotel and car partners, and 1 point for every other dollar you spend.
While the Priority Card is a little more expensive than Southwest’s other credit card offerings, the annual $75 Southwest travel credit and 7,500 points awarded each year on the credit card account anniversary make a solid dent in offsetting that expense.
You also get four Upgraded Boardings per year (when available). This means you can move from your boarding group up to a higher boarding position, allowing you to get on the airplane faster, pick better seats, and ensure better overhead space for your luggage. This upgrade cost begins at $30, but with this airline credit card you get four for free.
The Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card also offers no foriegn transaction fees and two free checked bags are included in normal Southwest service, but what pulls this card ahead in our best airline credit card for Southwest is the possibility to earn the coveted Southwest Companion Pass.
The Southwest Companion Pass allows one person to book a ticket with you on every Southwest flight for a year–obviously a huge savings. Southwest makes you earn it by earning 125,000 qualifying points or flying on 100 one way flights in a calendar year. While you’re in no way guaranteed a Companion Pass with this credit card, the points you earn can go towards your total qualifying points.
While this Companion Pass is incredibly tempting, do make sure to check that Southwest flies where you want to go before you fully commit, especially if you’re planning international travel. Southwest has pretty good coverage in the continental US and South America, but no coverage in Europe or Asia.
United℠ Explorer Credit Card
- 60,000 sign up bonus miles after purchase
- $0 intro annual fee for the first year, then $95
The United℠ Explorer Credit Card offers 2 miles per dollar spent on United Airlines purchases and dining and hotels. From there, it’s 1 mile for all other eligible purchases. This is a pretty nice return but the real bump in points is the 60,000 welcome bonus you get after you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months following your account opening.
This card membership also gets you priority boarding and a free first checked bag for you and a companion. While that doesn’t hold a candle to Delta’s free checked bag policy, we love that United also gives you up to $100 Global Entry, TSA PreCheck or NEXUS fee credit and two one-time passes to the United Club. Unlike other mid-tier credit cards that still bar you from the airline lounge access, this United Airlines credit card allows you to sit back and relax in comfort two times a year. It’s not huge, but it helps.
Like the other airlines, United has no foreign transaction fees with this card. Plus, you can earn 500 premium qualifying points for every $12,000 you spend with your Explore card (up to 1,000 points a year). These points are added to your points total and can earn you premier status. Premier status with United Airlines means you get elite perks like preferred seating, upgrades, and waived fees. It also allows you access to Saver Award flights, meaning seats that require fewer miles. These flights are limited so you can’t always get one, but higher premier status means a greater opportunity to score fantastic deals.
As an added bonus, United Airlines is currently offering DashPass for one year for new customers.
Chase Sapphire Preferred®
- 60,000 points sign up bonus with purchase
- $50 annual hotel credit
- 5x points on specific travel purchases
Chase Sapphire Preferred®’s high reward rate and flexible point redemption puts it top on our list of credit cards for travelers. Chase offers 5 points per dollar spent on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards, 3 points per dollar spent on dining, and 2 points per dollar spent on all other travel purchases like car rental, airline tickets or hotels. Chase really shows up when it comes to rewarding your travel purchases.
To spend your points, you can book through Chase Ultimate Rewards or transfer points to Chase’s airline partners. Chase partners with airlines like Southwest, United, and Jetblue, giving you a 1:1 transfer of points to miles. Chase doesn’t publish these airline partners (though you can usually figure them out with just a few minutes on Google), but know it’s not every airline.
Chase does incentivize spending points on the actual Chase website, however, giving you 25% more value when you redeem with Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, the 60,000 point sign up bonus you receive when you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases in the first 3 months is worth $750 when redeemed through the Chase Ultimate Rewards.
While the Sapphire Preferred® doesn’t have any airport specific perks like priority boarding or a free checked bag (though it does offer no foreign transaction fees), Chase easily compensates with other financial perks. For instance, once a year, you’ll receive a $50 hotel credit when you book a hotel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards® portal.
You’ll also get more value for your points when you use Pay Yourself Back, where points are worth 25% more when you redeem them for specific existing purchases within specified categories. It can be a little confusing, but basically, you can use your points for more value to pay off previous eligible purchases.
Finally, another perk worth noting is that each year on your credit card account anniversary you’ll receive bonus points worth 10% of the points you accrued the previous year.
In short, Chase Sapphire Preferred® rewards can make travel very lucrative. The downside is having to book through Chase for the best returns. It can be complicated and not always the best price, plus there is no price match, which some other credit card issuers offer.
Capital One Venture X Rewards Card
- 75,000 miles sign up bonus with purchase
- 10,000 miles anniversary bonus each year
- $300 annual travel credit
While not technically an airline credit card, Capital One still makes our list because of the great travel rewards and other travel perks similar to some airline credit cards, like no foreign transaction fees and a $100 Global Entry credit.
This card offers high returns if you’re willing to make purchases through the Capital One website. You earn 10x miles on hotels & rental cars booked through Capital One Travel, 5x on flights booked through Capital One Travel, and 2x miles on all other purchases every day. If traveling, these points can add up quickly.
With these points, you can purchase on Capital One or transfer to their 15+ partners. We especially love the Smart Booking aspect of Capital One which means they’ll give you a partial refund if you buy a flight when they recommend and the price drops lower later.
We know the annual cost for the Capital One Venture X Rewards Card might provide some sticker shock for some credit card users, but it is actually slightly lower than many other cards with similar offerings.
This card also gives you access to Capital One Lounges and 100+ Plaza Premium Lounges while you’re at the airport. This perk is awesome where available, but right now the Capital One Lounges locations are pretty limited. Currently Capital One only has an open lounge at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport, but they are working on opening them at the Denver airport and Dulles airport soon.
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
- 75K sign up bonus after eligible purchases
- $100 Global Entry credit
The CapitalOne Venture Rewards Credit Card is a good choice for the best airline credit card seeker who doesn’t want to shell out for the Venture X. You keep a lot of the same mile redemption benefits for a lower price tag–just notice that you do lose the flight credits.
The CapitalOne Venture Rewards Credit Card offers you an unlimited 2 miles for every dollar spent on everyday purchase and a special 5 miles per dollar spent on hotels and rental cars purchased through Capital One Travel.
You can use the miles you earn to purchase a trip through Capital One Travel or transfer your miles to their 15+ partners. If you make purchases through Capital One Travel, you should get some peace of mind knowing they’ll refund the difference if you find a better price for that flight within 24 hours of booking. The downside is that flights on Capital One Travel are limited, so you may not be able to find the best flight through the website.
We do love that CapitalOne offers you two complimentary visits per year to the Capital One Lounges (or the 100+ Plaza Premium Lounges) with this card. Again, the CapitalOne Lounge locations are limited, but it’s still a nice perk for only $95 a year.
What Is an Airline Credit Card?
An airline credit card refers to a travel reward credit card that is co-branded with the card brand and a specific airline. Cardholders earn miles on that specific airline for the purchases they make with their credit card. Often you can get extra miles or benefits if you use the card for travel specific purchases.
Airline credit cards also sometimes offer extra perks for cardholders when they travel. If you travel on the airline, you might receive free checked bags, priority boarding, airport lounge access, and even sometimes companion tickets.
How Do Airline Credit Cards Work?
Airline credit cards work by paying you points or miles for your everyday eligible purchases. You simply make purchases wherever the card brand is accepted, but there are higher rewards for airline purchases than other eligible purchases. These purchases then rack up miles that apply to the airline’s frequent flyer program. With these miles, you can book flights with this airline and sometimes other airlines partners.
How many miles you actually earn per purchase depends on the airline but most offer 1 mile per dollar for normal purchases and 2-5x the miles for airline purchases. Sometimes there are also other incentivized categories like hotels and rental cars.
Alternatives to Airline Credit Cards
An airline specific credit card is not right for everyone, especially if you don’t have a favorite airline in mind. Check out some of the alternatives below if you’re not ready to commit to an airline card but still want some travel rewards.
Travel Rewards Credit Card
A general travel rewards credit card might be a good choice if you don’t have airline loyalty but still want travel rewards. Often these cards will reward you for everyday purchases but have enhanced rewards for travel purchases. They offer more flexibility in how you earn and how you redeem than most airline credit cards. You can often even transfer points to specific airline partners’ websites. You won’t get airline specific perks like priority boarding, but they do often come with pretty awesome sign up bonuses.
We snuck a few into our list above if you want to check them out. While there are a lot on the market, these are our front runners.
Hotel Credit Cards
A hotel credit card can help you recoup some of the expenses of traveling. Like an airline credit card, a hotel credit card rewards you more points for staying in their branded hotel properties. These points can be cashed in for free nights or even sometimes transferred to their airline partners.
Airline Rewards Program
If you’re not interested in a new credit card, just signing up for an airline’s frequent flyer program might have unforeseen benefits. These programs keep track of your flights and reward your flight purchases, slowly building your miles until you can purchase future flights with them. While you won’t see the big bonuses that the best airline credit cards offer, frequent flyer points can become valuable quickly.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Airline Credit Cards
Still thinking? Check out answers to the most frequently asked questions about airline credit cards.
Airline credit cards are worth it if you frequently fly on one specific airline. This card will reward you more for purchases made with the airline than they do on everyday purchases. This means points can stack up quickly if you’re racking in travel rewards. You also often get an elevated airport experience with priority boarding or a free checked bag.
The downside is often the annual fee. The best airline credit card is one where the rewards outweigh the annual fee, but that depends on how frequently you fly, your spending habits, and the amount of the card’s annual fee.
If those don’t stack up, then an airline credit card probably isn’t worth it for you. If you still want to cash in on travel rewards, then look into a more general travel credit card. These credit cards will reward you for travel and often allow you to buy flights from their platform or transfer points to an airline or hotel brand.
How much airline miles are worth varies depending on the airline. Currently, however, a generic airline mile is worth around 1.3 cents. That means that some of these 50,000 bonus miles are worth around $650. Each airline's return is different and the rates vary over time; however, Delta and American currently have the highest airline mile value at 1.5 cents.
Some do, but not all. Airline miles expiration date depends on the airline. Many extended their expiration dates because of the pandemic.
- American – 24 months from the date of your most recent qualifying activity or 24 months after account inactivity
- Alaska – No expiration, however your account will close after 24 months of inactivity and require reinstating
- Delta – No expiration
- Frontier – 6 months if no accrual activity on account (purchases)
- Jetblue – No expiration
- Southwest – No expiration
- Spirit – 3 months after they’re earned
- United – No expiration
No, you don’t need to be a frequent flyer to own an airline credit card, but it does make the card more beneficial. Airline credit cards earn you miles for that specific airline each time you make eligible purchases. Often when you make travel purchases you receive travel rewards like more miles per dollar spent. That means that flying on that airline more often means more points for you to spend.
If you’re not a frequent flyer, just make sure you'll still use it enough to justify the card’s annual fee. It can still be worth it, you just have to be a bit more strategic.
Contributor Whitney Hansen covers banking, credit cards and investing for The Penny Hoarder. She also writes on other personal finance topics.
The Penny Hoarder has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. The Penny Hoarder and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers.