The Best Airline Credit Cards

Advertiser Disclosure
Our favorite cards from our partners and the marketplace.
This post contains references to products from our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to these products. Please visit our Advertiser Disclosure to view our partners and for additional details.
The 30-Second Review

The best airline credit cards offer at least 2x points on purchases made within the airline, as well as additional perks like free bag checks and discounted companion flights. The real question, though, is whether you're better off with a general travel card than an airline-specific card. We generally prefer travel cards, but we walked through the math and examined the perks to help make your decision a little easier.

Our Favorite Travel Cards

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
2x points that can be redeemed for any travel.

Better for Big Spenders

Chase Sapphire Reserve℠

Platinum Card® from American Express
$450 annual fees are offset by the biggest rewards out there.

The Best Airline Credit Cards

Airlines want your loyalty — and they want to secure that loyalty through an airline credit card. You’ve probably heard the sales pitches at the end of every flight: Apply now and start earning rewards before you land! But which airline cards are offering the best rewards, and why should you choose an airline credit card over a travel credit card?

Best Rewards for Most People

Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® 2x miles per dollar on any purchase, plus 50,000 bonus miles if you spend $3,000 in the first 90 days.

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer. It’s going to depend on how often you travel, where you travel to, if you regularly stay in hotels, and if you have the flexibility to book travel with only one airline. For lots of people, a general travel card is going to be better than an airline-specific card. The rewards are typically better, and they can be redeemed for a much broader range of travel expenses.

We like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® and Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. With the Barclaycard, you can earn 2x rewards no matter what you purchase, which can then be redeemed for just about anything travel-related: flights, rental cars, hotels, and more. The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is the same in reverse. You earn 2x rewards on travel and dining purchases, and then redeem them for anything through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. The Chase Sapphire Reserve has even higher rewards potential and bigger bonuses that can likewise be applied to virtually any travel expense – but you’ll have to fork over a sizeable $450 annual fee to take advantage of them. We also took note of the Platinum Card® from American Express, a charge card with a $450 annual fee, but offers hefty air travel rewards that aren’t pinned down to any one airline.

But if you do fly exclusively with one airline, an airline-specific card will help pay for your flights and typically come along with lots of little extras to make the actual traveling part better. For those who typically fly to major cities and hubs, we picked the Virgin America Premium Visa Signature® Card, which gives you big benefits even if you aren’t a very big spender. The British Airways Visa Signature® Card is impressive for international jetsetters — if you spend $30,000 in a year, you score a free companion ticket in the same cabin as your paid-for ticket. And for those with smaller-name destinations (think Boise, not Bangkok), the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card has good rewards and the widest swath of travel perks, from free checked bags to free airclub passes.

Our Picks for the Best Airline Credit Cards

Best Rewards for Most People

Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® 2x miles per dollar on any purchase, plus 50,000 bonus miles if you spend $3,000 in the first 90 days.

We’re starting off with our two favorite travel credit cards — ones that can help you earn points toward air travel, as well as trains, cruises, rental cars, hotels, cabs, and more. Use these cards as a starting point, and do the math. Is an airline credit card likely going to get you more or less of the rewards you want? Do you fly often enough to give up the rewards on other types of travel spending?

The Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® gets you 2x miles on all purchases, which is something you’re not going to get with an airline credit card. (Airline cards tend to offer higher point bonuses on purchases made within the airline and lower point bonuses on everything else.) You also get a nice entry bonus: 50,000 miles if you spend $3,000 in the first 90 days. You also get 5% miles back every time you redeem your rewards — so if you redeemed your 50,000-mile bonus, you’d get an extra 2,500 miles back to go toward future redemptions.

Best Rewards for Most People

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card 2x points on travel and dining, plus 50K bonus miles if you spend $4,000 in the first 3 months.

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card gets you 2x points on travel and dining purchases and 1 point on all other purchases, as well as a 50,000-point bonus if you spend $4,000 in the first three months of account opening. The big draw with this card is that your points increase by 25% if you redeem them on travel purchases made through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. If you took your 50,000-point bonus and logged into Chase Ultimate Rewards®, that 25% boost would give you a total of 62,500 points to redeem toward flights, hotels, rental cars, cruises, and more. (You can also transfer your points at a 1:1 rate to top airline and hotel loyalty programs, although you’ll lose your 25% boost since you aren’t redeeming through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.)

Both of these cards come with additional travel benefits like trip-cancellation insurance, making them ideal candidates for frequent travelers. They also both have annual fees — $89 for Barclaycard, $95 for Chase — but both annual fees are waived during the first year, which makes these cards even more attractive options.

  • Earn 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 90 days – that’s enough to redeem for a $500 travel statement credit
  • Earn 2X miles on all purchases
  • Redeem for travel or cash back statement credits, gift cards and merchandise. Redemption values vary
  • Get 5% miles back to use toward your next redemption, every time you redeem
  • Miles don’t expire as long as your account is open, active and in good standing
  • No foreign transaction fees on anything you buy while in another country
  • 0% introductory APR for 12 months on Balance Transfers made within 45 days of account opening. After that, a variable APR will apply, 16.24%, 20.24% or 23.24%, based on your creditworthiness.
  • Please note, there is a fee for balance transfers.

Highest Rewards Potential for Big Spenders

Chase Sapphire Reserve℠ 3x points on travel and restaurant, a $300 annual travel credit, and 100,000 bonus points if you spend $4,000 in the first 3 months.

We also want to highlight two travel cards designed to provide big rewards to big spenders: the Chase Sapphire Reserve℠ and the Platinum Card® from American Express.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve℠ is a new entrant into the travel credit card market, and it’s coming with some significant perks: 3x points on travel and dining purchases, 1x points on all other purchases, a $300 annual travel credit, and the opportunity to earn 100,000 bonus points if you spend $4,000 in the first three months — that’s a $1,500 value if you redeem those 100,000 points through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.

We like this card because you can redeem its rewards on all travel, from trains to planes to automobiles. It’s even more flexible when you consider you can transfer points at a 1:1 rate with many of the top airline or hotel loyalty programs.

Highest Rewards Potential for Big Spenders

Platinum Card® from American Express 5x points for flights, a $200 airline fee credit, plus $40,000 points if you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months.

The Platinum Card® from American Express is another high-rewards card designed just for air travel. It’s also not a traditional credit card; it’s a charge card, which means you must pay off any balance charged to the card in full every month. As you make and pay off charges, you’ll earn 5x points for flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel, as well as 40,000 bonus points after you make $3,000 in purchases in the first three months. Other perks include up to $200 in airline fee credits per year, 20% off Delta commercial flights, complimentary Boingo WiFi access at more than a million hotspots worldwide, and more.

So let’s break it down: To maximize your rewards with the Platinum Card® from American Express, you need to be able to pay the $450 annual fee as well as make at least $1,000 in purchases every month for the first three months (to get your 40,000 bonus points). You also need to pay off $1,000 in purchases every month for the first three months; you cannot carry a balance on this card.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve℠ also has a $450 annual fee and an even higher bonus threshold. Are you likely to be able to put $4,000 on a single credit card in three months and pay that $4,000 off before it starts racking up interest?

If these cards’ demands are reasonable with your lifestyle, you aren’t going to find any bigger rewards around. If they are a little rich for your wallet (or, like we said, if you fly exclusively with only one airline), reconsider the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card or the Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® — or keep reading.

Best for Big-City Travelers

Virgin America Premium Visa Signature® Card 8 points for every $1 you spend on Virgin America purchases, 1 point on everything else, and 15,000 bonus points if you spend $1,000 in the first 90 days.

If you’re the kind of traveler that flies to and from large cities, you’re likely to get the most value from the Virgin America Premium Visa Signature® Card. You get 8 points for every $1 you spend on Virgin America purchases — 5 points for being an Elevate member and 3 points for using your card — and 1 point for every $1 spent on other purchases. You also get 15,000 bonus points, worth up to $300 in blackout-free reward flights, if you make $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days.

You can already tell that this card is designed to provide big benefits even if you aren’t a very big spender. You only have to spend $1,000 over three months to get your bonus, instead of the $4,000 required by Chase Sapphire Reserve℠, and the rest of the Virgin America Visa Signature® Card’s benefits are also designed to help you save money: no change or cancel fees if your travel plans change, $150 off a companion fare every year, a free bag for you and your plus-one on every flight booked with your card, 20% off all in-flight RED™ purchases (snacks, entertainment, and more), and discounts when you use your card to shop online with top merchants. You also get priority boarding.

You will pay a $149 annual fee to use this card, but that’s reasonable for an airline rewards card offering these perks, plus you’ll probably save that much in baggage costs alone. But remember! You’re limited to the cities Virgin America flies — which includes major cities in both the US and Mexico — so take a look at the route map and make sure the majority of your travel is to and from its destinations.

Best for Overseas Travelers

British Airways Visa Signature® Card 3x "Avios" for every British Airways purchase, 1 "Avios" for everything else, and 50,000 bonus "Avios" if you spend $3,000 in the first three months.

If the majority of your travel is overseas, you’ll want to explore the British Airways Visa Signature® Card. This card gets you 3 Avios for every $1 spent on British Airways purchases, 1 Avios for every $1 spent on other purchases, and 50,000 bonus Avios if you spend $3,000 in the first three months. (Avios are the equivalent of points. Why don’t they just call them points?)

The British Airways Visa Signature® Card is designed for higher spenders than the Virgin America Visa Signature® Card — you can tell because the bonus doesn’t kick in until you’ve spent $3,000 in three months, and because you don’t get a free companion fare unless you make a whopping $30,000 in purchases in a calendar year. However, that’s a free companion fare, not a discounted companion fare, and your companion gets to ride in the same class as you — which means you could get a free first class international ticket for your companion if you’re also flying first class. (You will be responsible for paying taxes, fees, and carrier charges on the companion fare.) If you’re planning the trip-of-a-lifetime, this card is a good one to help offset the costs.

Best for Small-City Travelers

United MileagePlus® Explorer Card 2x miles on United tickets, plus 30,000 bonus miles if you spend $1,000 in the first three months.

We’ve looked at what cards you should get if you’re traveling to London or New York, but what if you need to get to Columbus or Boise? In that case, you’re going to want an airline that services as many airports as possible — and an airline credit card that offers the highest possible rewards.

The United MileagePlus® Explorer Card will get you to your destination. In addition to offering 2x miles on tickets purchased from United and 30,000 bonus miles if you make $1,000 in purchases within the first three months, you also get to maximize your perks: a free checked bag for both you and your companion, priority boarding, and two complimentary United Club℠ passes per year. On top of that, you get “room upgrades, complimentary daily breakfast for two, early check-in, late checkout, and other amenities at more than 900 luxury hotels and resorts worldwide.” You also get the $95 annual fee waived for the first year, which means even more savings.

Why did we choose the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card over its two most comparable cards, the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express and the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ MasterCard®? It comes down to perks. We’ve put together a chart comparing points and perks, and it’s pretty clear which card comes out on top.

United MileagePlus® Explorer Card

Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express

Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ MasterCard®

Base rewards

2x miles per $1 spent on tickets purchased from United

1x miles per $1 on all other purchases

2x miles per $1 spent on purchases made directly with Delta

1x miles per $1 on all other purchases

2x miles per $1 spent on American Airlines purchases

1x miles per $1 on all other purchases

Bonus rewards

5,000 miles after you make your first purchase*

30,000 miles after you spend $1,000 in the first three months

10,000 miles after spending $25,000 in a calendar year

$50 statement credit after you make your first purchase*

50,000 miles after you spend $2,000 in the first three months

Earn 10% of your redeemed miles back each calendar year, up to 10,000 miles

30,000 miles after you spend $1,000 in the first three months

Annual fee

$0 for the first year, then $95

$0 for the first year, then $95

$0 for the first year, then $95

Free checked bag (self)
Free checked bag (companion) X**
Priority boarding
Discounted in-flight purchases X
Airline club passes (discounted) X X
Airline club passes (free) X X
Hotel privileges (room upgrades, complimentary breakfast) X X
Travel accident insurance X
Trip cancellation insurance X X
Trip delay reimbursement X X
Lost luggage reimbursement X
Baggage delay reimbursement X X

Notes: *First purchase must be made within the first 3 months of account opening. **Free checked bag for up to four companions.

If you fly Delta or American Airlines regularly and are interested in a credit card with a few more perks attached, consider the Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express or the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ MasterCard®. Both of these cards have higher annual fees — $195 and $450, respectively — and come with additional benefits. However, these cards don’t beat the rewards offered by other top travel cards at the same level, like the Virgin America Premium Visa Signature® Card or the Chase Sapphire Reserve℠, so only consider them if you really love Delta or American Airlines.

For the rest of us, who just want an airline card that’ll get us to a variety of places without charging high fees, the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card is a good option. Don’t forget that United flies both domestic and international routes, with more than 350 possible destinations. Earn miles when you visit your folks in Cedar Rapids this holiday season, and then use those points — along with your complimentary United Club℠ passes and your complimentary daily breakfast for two — to make your next vacation more relaxing and luxurious than you ever imagined.

Best No-Fee Airline Card

The JetBlue Card 3x points on JetBlue purchases, 2x points on restaurants and grocery store purchases, and 1x points on everything else.

We wanted to add one more top card to the list: The JetBlue Card, which comes with no annual fee and a lot of rewards: 3x points on JetBlue purchases, 2x points on restaurants and grocery store purchases, and 1x points on all other spending.

You don’t get as many travel perks with The JetBlue Card as you do with some of our other options — just 50% off eligible in-flight purchases — but you do get the option to earn a lot of points on a variety of purchases without having to pay an annual fee. Although JetBlue doesn’t fly to as many cities as United does, you can still get to a variety of large- and medium-sized cities, so check out JetBlue’s destination map and see if it matches yours.

Did You Know?

Is your go-to airline’s card not one of our top picks? Here’s how to see how it stacks up.

We’ve highlighted a few airline credit cards that offer high rewards and perks, but every airline has a loyalty program. If you fly the most with another carrier — say, Alaska — check to see if it offers at least 2x points on purchases made within the airline, as well as a few other attractive perks. If it does (and you’re still unsatisfied), you’re probably better off going with a travel card as opposed to switching to another airline credit card.

Use your airline credit card in combination with another rewards credit card to maximize your points.

Best Cashback Card

Chase Freedom® A great card to pair with your airline or travel credit card.

All of the airline credit cards (and even some of the general travel credit cards) we’ve highlighted give you maximum points if you make airline-related purchases. Consider getting another rewards credit card to earn maximum points on non-airline-related purchases. We recommend the Chase Freedom®, which gets you 5x points on rotating categories and a $150 cashback bonus if you spend $500 in the first three months of opening your account. You can even redeem those points in Chase Ultimate Rewards® to use toward travel, if you want!

The Bottom Line

Airlines want your business, and they’re ready to offer competitive credit card rewards to get it. Start with our list of top airline credit cards, and then look at the airlines you fly the most frequently. Choose a card with at least 2x rewards for purchases booked through the airline, and consider combining your airline credit card with another rewards card to maximize your rewards potential. If you don’t fly often enough to benefit from an airline credit card, a travel credit card will likely be the better option.

Editorial Note: Compensation does not influence our rankings and recommendations. However, we may earn a commission on sales from the companies featured in this post. To view a list of our partners, click here. Opinions expressed here are the author's alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by our advertisers. Reasonable efforts are made to present accurate info, however all information is presented without warranty. Consult our advertiser's page for terms & conditions.