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Some of the most valuable travel rewards are booking award flights. Using an airline credit card can give you extra perks that help you avoid optional fees including checked baggage. As most airlines offer several credit card options, picking the right one might seem overwhelming at first.
Before you apply for the first offer you receive in the mail, use the following guide to choose an airline credit card and compare your options. Taking a few minutes to consider all the factors helps you find the best fit.
Choose An Airline Credit Card: Focus On The Airline You Fly The Most
To get the most from a branded airline credit card, you will need to fly with that airline on a regular basis. Your choice is easy if your airport is a hub for one major airline like American, United, or Delta. If you split your flights between two airlines, you should compare the card benefits and purchase rewards to see which one is best.
If you bounce between carriers and don’t fly enough with one to accumulate enough rewards to book free flights, some of the best travel credit cards for beginners can be a better option as they offer more flexibility. Although you won’t get complimentary benefits like free checked bags or priority boarding, you have the flexibility of redeeming your points for award flights on any airline.
Compare Card Benefits
Branded airline credit cards justify their annual fee through their various travel benefits. One of the most common benefits is a free checked bag. United Airlines credit cards waive the fee on the first checked bag for you and one companion. Some of the best credit cards for American Airlines travelers waive the fee for 4 companions and some of the best Delta credit cards lets up to 8 companions check one bag for free.
Other benefits you may receive include:
- Airport lounge passes
- Seat upgrades (when available)
- In-flight purchase discounts
- Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee credit
- Free in-flight WiFi
- Annual companion certificates
Credit cards with higher annual fees will offer more benefits. You will need to decide if the extra benefits are worth the higher fee. If you don’t want an annual fee but still want a travel rewards card, check out our guide to the best travel credit cards with no annual fees.
Even if you only fly with one or two roundtrips a year, your card benefits can save you more money than you spend in the annual fee.
Compare Purchase Rewards
Most airline credit cards have a straightforward rewards program. You can expect to earn 2 miles per $1 spent with that airline and 1 point per $1 for all other purchases.
In recent years, some cards now award bonus points on select non-airline purchases. Bonus categories can include:
- Gas stations
- Grocery stores
Some cards also give you extra miles when you reach certain spending milestones. Spending at least $25,000 in a year with the Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express gives you 10,000 bonus SkyMiles and 10,000 bonus Medallion Qualification Miles (Expired).
It’s not a bad idea to time your application when you can spend enough to earn the card’s one-time signup bonus. Most cards have a minimum spend between $1,000 and $3,000 and you can earn between 30,000 and 50,000 bonus miles.
You might also wait to apply when some of the best limited-time credit card offers are available.
Most airlines offer enhanced offers one or two times a year. The minimum spend might be the same although you can earn more points. These bonus points can be enough to help you book an extra award flight and more.
Although the annual fee might be the first thing you look at when comparing your options for the best rewards credit cards, it should be the last trait you compare. This is because you should first look at the card benefits and purchase rewards and calculate the value of your potential rewards each year. Then, you can compare your rewards value to the annual fee.
If the reward value is greater than the annual fee, it can make sense to apply for the card.
Choose An Airline Credit Card: Some Of The Best Airline Credit Cards
Most airlines offer a card that caters to your travel frequency. It doesn’t matter if you fly once a year or once a week. Below are some of our favorite airline credit cards for each of the major airlines. These cards can also give you an idea of what airline credit cards can offer you.
Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card
The Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express offers these perks:
- 2x SkyMiles on purchases made directly with Delta
- 1x SkyMiles on all non-Delta spend
- First checked bag free for you and up to 8 travel companions
- Up to 30,000 bonus SkyMiles after spending $1,000 in purchases during the first 3 months
New cardholders can also earn a $50 statement credit after making a Delta purchase on their new card within the first 3 months of account opening. The introductory annual fee is $0 for the first year, then $95 after (See Rates & Fees).
Learn more: Airline Credit Cards
United Explorer Card
The United℠ Explorer Card is one of the few airline credit cards offers bonus points on select daily purchases:
- 2x miles on United purchases
- 2x miles at restaurants and hotel nights booked directly from the hotel
- 1x miles for everything else
- Free checked bag for the primary cardholder and one companion
- Two one-time United Club passes each year
- Premier upgrades (when available)
- 40,000 bonus MileagePlus miles after spending $2,000 in the first 3 months
- $0 annual fee for the first year (then $95)
You also get a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee credit saving you up to $100. And if you’re interested in the United℠ Explorer Business Card, for a limited-time you can earn up to 100,000 miles by meeting the following criteria:
Learn more about both cards: Airline Credit Cards
Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select
The Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard® is the mid-tier American Airlines credit card option.
- 2x points on eligible American Airlines purchases
- 2x points at restaurants and gas stations
- 1x points on all non-bonus spending
- Free checked bag for the primary cardholder and up to 4 companions
- $125 American Airlines flight discount after $20,000 annual spend
- 50,000 bonus AAdvantage miles after spending $2,500 miles in the first 3 months
The $99 annual fee is waived for the first 12 months.
Learn more about both cards: Airline Credit Cards
Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Card
There are three different personal Southwest credit cards. The Plus and Premier cards have lower annual fees and earn rewards points on each purchase. However, the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card offers other Southwest flight perks:
- 2x points on Southwest Airlines purchases
- 1x points on non-bonus spending
- $75 Southwest annual travel credit
- 4 Upgraded Bookings per year (when available)
- 7,500 anniversary Rapid Rewards points per year
The $149 annual fee is billed on your first monthly statement, so you should apply for this card if you can use the travel credit and Upgraded Bookings during your first year of ownership.
New cardholders can earn 40,000 points by spending $1,000 on eligible purchases in the first 3 months of account opening.
All points you earn on the signup bonus or from purchases count toward the annual 110,000-point requirement to get the Southwest Companion Pass. Having this pass means you only need to pay the fees and taxes anytime your companion flies with you for up to two years.
As always, your first two checked bags always fly for free on every Southwest flight.
Summing It All Up: How To Choose An Airline Credit Card
Some of the best airline credit cards 2019 come with the easiest way to earn frequent flyer miles for the airline you fly on a regular basis. The additional card benefits can also help you save money on baggage fees, lounge visits, and flight upgrades. You should focus first on finding the card offering the most benefits you will use each year.
This is the card that can help you save the most money when flying on your favorite airline.
For rates and fees of the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express, please click here.
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Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided by any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.