Best Airline Miles Credit Cards of 2018

When it comes to rewards, airline credit cards have some of the best overall perks and bonuses available. With many cards offering hundreds of dollars in overall benefits, choosing the right miles credit card could get you a free plane ticket or access exclusive benefits. We've compiled a list of credit cards that give the best value when used on airfare and built a tool to help you compare them.

Credit Cards
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Advertiser Disclosure

Advertiser Disclosure: Some of the card offers that appear on this website are from companies which ValuePenguin receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). The site does not review or include all companies or all available products.

Disclaimer: The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone. For a full list of our advertisers, see our disclosure page.

Opinions, analyses, reviews, or recommendations expressed here are the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed or endorsed by the issuer. We may be compensated through the issuer’s Affiliate Program. For a full list of our advertisers see our disclosure page.

Best for Earning Miles & Free Flights: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card has more built-in options for how cardholders can use its rewards than most credit cards. This opens up the possibility for consumers to have rewards rates as high as 2.5% or more, depending on how they use their points. One of the best ways to get high value out of this card is to trade your points in for frequent flyer miles. The card allows you to exchange your rewards at a 1:1 ratio for miles with British Airways, Air France, Korean Air, Singapore Airlines, Southwest, United and Virgin Atlantic.

The flexibility is what makes the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card the best travel credit card in our books. Plus, this card currently comes with one of the highest bonuses around. The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card offers 50,000 points to anyone who spends at least $4,000 on purchases in the first three months of card membership. We value the bonus at about $625, when used to book travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel site. If you transfer the points to one of the aforementioned airlines, and are clever about how you redeem them, you can easily make that bonus worth over $700.

Highlights

  • 2 points per dollar spent on travel and dining purchases.
  • 1 point per dollar spent on everything else.
  • 50,000 points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months from account opening.
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs.

Best Miles Card for Everyday Use: Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card

Consumers who want an airline credit card without being tied to a specific carrier should look no further than the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card. The reward structure makes this card perfect for everyday use, giving you 2 miles for every dollar you spend. Though Capital One calls its rewards "miles", they don't belong to any airline. Instead you redeem the miles you earn into statement credit to pay off any travel expenses on your credit card bill.

If you're looking for above average rewards for travel and would like to skip all the hassle of managing your rewards, the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card is your best bet. The card is currently offering 50,000 bonus miles to anyone who signs up and spends at least $3,000 on purchases within the first 3 months of account opening. While that's not worth nearly as much as what you get with the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, this bonus is slightly easier to get.

Highlights

  • 2 miles per dollar spent on all purchases, with no bonus categories.
  • 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 90 days.
  • No foreign transaction fees on purchases made while traveling abroad.

Best No Annual Fee Miles Credit Card: Discover it® Miles

The Discover it® Miles is one of the few credit cards that can earn you miles while not burning a hole in your pocket. The card has no annual fee while still providing industry-leading rewards. You get 1.5 miles on every dollar you spend, and those miles can be traded in for either cash back or as travel statement credit. The benefit of not having an annual fee is that this card is purely a net positive, even if you don't always use it. With other cards on this list, you need to spend a certain amount of money each year before it begins to actually benefit the user. If you're not a huge spender, that's a problem. That's why if you're spending less than $12,000 each year, a no annual fee card like the Discover it® Miles works well.

Currently, the Discover it® Miles comes with a very attractive bonus for new cardmembers. Discover will double all the miles you earned at the end of your first year. For example, if you accumulate 30,000 miles, the issuer will deposit an extra 30,000 into your account.

Highlights

  • You earn unlimited 1.5 miles per dollar spent anywhere you shop.
  • Discover matches all the miles you've earned at the end of your first year.
  • No Blackout Dates.
  • Miles redeemable for travel or cash back.

Best Option for College Students: Citi® ThankYou® Preferred Credit Card for College Students

The Citi® ThankYou® Preferred Credit Card for College Students is currently one of the only mile-earning credit cards available to students. You can qualify even if you have a limited credit history. The card awards ThankYou points with every purchase. These can be transferred at a 1:1 ratio with 16 different airline programs:

  • Asia Miles
  • Air France/KLM
  • Malaysia
  • Qatar
  • Virgin Atlantic
  • EVA Air
  • Etihad Guest
  • Turkish Airlines
  • Singapore Airlines
  • Virgin America
  • JetBlue TrueBlue
  • Garuda Indonesia
  • Qantas
  • Thai Airways

In terms of helping you earn those miles, the Citi® ThankYou® Preferred Credit Card for College Students is well-tailored for the types of expenses college students face. You'll get 2 points per dollar spent on dining and entertainment purchases, and 1 point per dollar spent on everything else. However, the bonus for this card is not as good as other cards in this category. You'll receive 2,500 points after spending $500 on the card within the first three months, which translates into $25 in gift cards..

Highlights

  • Double points on dining and entertainment purchases.
  • 2,500 bonus points after spending $500 within the first 3 months of account opening.
  • 0% Intro APR on purchases for 7 months.
  • Points can be transferred to 16 participating airlines.

Best Airline Card for Luxury Perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®

The Chase Sapphire Reserve® is currently one of the absolute best travel credit cards around for those who don't mind its $450 annual fee. The card comes with a mix of of perks. Cardholders earn 3 points per dollar spent on travel and dining, plus cardmembers get access to ritzy airport lounges to make traveling more enjoyable. The card gives a $300 annual travel credit that can be used on anything from airline tickets to Uber rides, effectively lowering its annual fee to around $150. Like with the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, all the points you earn with the Reserve Card are transferable to one of six airlines, including Southwest and United.

Highlights

  • 3 points per dollar on travel and dining; 1 point on everything else.
  • 1:1 Point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs.
  • Access to Priority Pass airport lounges.
  • $300 annual travel credit.

Best Airline Credit Card for Bad/Low Credit Score: AeroMexico Visa Secured Card

The AeroMexico Visa Secured Card comes with very good benefits, even when compared to other cards on this list. Credit cards for people with bad credit are usually among the worst options available. The AeroMexico Visa Secured Card provides its users with benefits that hold up to scrutiny. You'll get double miles on gas and grocery purchases, free checked bags when flying with Aeromexico, all for a low annual fee of $25.

Users also get a $99 companion certificate with each renewal. For Aeromexico tickets, this is a "buy-one-get-one for $99" deal. While Aeromexico predominantly flies around North and South America, it's part of the SkyTeam airline alliance. That means you can use all the miles you earn to book flights on 20 different airlines, including Delta, KLM and Air France.

Highlights

  • Double miles when used for gas and groceries.
  • $99 companion certificate with renewal.
  • 3,500 first use bonus miles plus complimentary companion certificate.
  • Complimentary baggage.

The Best Credit Cards by Airline

We singled out the cards above for their combination of flexibility and great value. If you don't mind sticking to (or want to cultivate loyalty with) a single airline, we'll go over some of the top cards by carrier in this section.

Best Airline Credit Card For...

Southwest Airlines: Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card

Out of all of the airline credit cards we looked at, the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card comes with some of the highest bonuses. If you fly with this airline frequently, this card is a must-have. Southwest's biggest limitation is that it's a domestic carrier. If you're looking to earn miles for international flights, we recommend looking at other cards. This card currently comes with a 40,000 sign-up bonus, which you earn if you manage to spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months. We place the value of this bonus at around $680.

You'll also get an annual bonus of 6,000 points every time you pay your annual fee. More importantly, however, all the points you get with this card count towards the prestigious Southwest Companion Pass — one of the most sought after airline rewards. If you manage to earn 110,000 Southwest Rapid Rewards points within a single calendar year, you earn the pass. It allows you to designate one person who will be able to fly with you free of charge. You can learn more about the Southwest Companion Pass here.

Highlights

  • 2 points per dollar spent on Southwest flights.
  • 1 point per dollar on everything else.
  • 6,000 point anniversary bonus.
  • 40,000 points when you spend at least $1,000 on purchases in the first three months.

JetBlue: JetBlue Plus Card

The JetBlue Plus Card is another excellent airline card worth highlighting for its great sign-up bonus, free checked baggage benefits and high rewards rate. With this card, you earn 6 TrueBlue points per dollar spent on JetBlue purchases, and 2 points per dollar spent at grocery stores and restaurants. Since we value a single TrueBlue point at about $0.012, that comes out to a rewards rate between 2.4% and 7.2%—much better than the average what rewards card typically gives.

You'll also receive 5,000 anniversary points each year, which are worth about $60—which covers over half of this card's $99 annual fee. The card also provides free checked bags, which is a perk for travelers who tend to pack heavy. Keep in mind, however, that this applies to the primary cardholder only. If the primary cardholder is not traveling on the same itinerary, the others in the party cannot enjoy this benefit.

Note: This offer is currently unavailable through ValuePenguin. You may contact this card's issuer, Barclaycard, for more information.

Highlights

  • 6 points per dollar spent on JetBlue purchases.
  • 2 points per dollar spent on grocery stores & restaurants.
  • 1 point per dollar spent everywhere else.
  • 30,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 90 days.

United Airlines: United MileagePlus® Explorer Card

Out of the three United credit cards available, the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card hits a sweet spot that will make it work best for most travelers. It's not nearly as expensive as the United MileagePlus® Club Card, though it still comes equipped with rich benefits. The United MileagePlus® Explorer Card gives its cardholders 2 miles per dollar spent on tickets purchased from United, and 1 mile per dollar spent on all other purchases. While you get half a point less on every purchase than you would with the United MileagePlus® Club Card, your annual fee is also $355 lower. It's also worth noting that the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card currently offers 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first three months your account is open. We estimate the bonus to be worth approximately $480.

Highlights

  • 2 miles per dollar spent on tickets purchased from United, and 1 mile per dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • No foreign transaction fees.
  • 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first three months your account is open.
  • Priority boarding privileges and visit the United Club with 2 one-time passes each year for your anniversary.

American Airlines: AAdvantage® Aviator™ Red Mastercard®

The AAdvantage® Aviator™ Red Mastercard® is the best American Airlines credit card out of the four offered. The card is a mix of all the other AA credit cards, and it takes the best aspects of each. You get free checked bag benefits, $3,000 Elite Qualifying Dollars when you spend $25,000 on purchases each year, preferred boarding, in-flight savings on food and beverages, and a 10% miles dividend each year. To top it all off, cardholders also get 50,000 bonus miles— which we value at $850—when they make their first purchase in the first 90 days.

Highlights

  • 2 miles per dollar spent on eligible American Airlines purchases.
  • 1 mile per dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • 10% of your redeemed miles back.
  • 50,000 bonus miles when you make your first purchase in the first 90 days and pay the annual fee

Compare Airline Credit Cards

If you're looking for a specific airline credit card that we may not have mentioned in our top list, we've created a handy tool that lets you compare airline credit cards. Take a look at how rewards with each card performs.

Assumptions Based On Monthly Spend of: $1,430 Edit
General:
U.S. Gas Stations:
U.S. Supermarkets:
Airlines:
Hotel:
U.S. Restaurants:
Office:
Utilities:
Computing:
Card Annual Fee 2-yr Net Rewards Rate

The Net Rewards Rate is equal to the Rewards Value over two years divided by the total spending. The total spending is equal to the values entered into the tool and multiplied by 24 months. See the rewards Value note to see details on how it is calculated.

The estimates here are ValuePenguin's alone. They are not those of the card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer. All estimates are based on the spend assumptions entered above (which you can edit).

Bonus Value

The bonus field shows our estimate for the value of the card’s welcome bonus. If the bonus is point or mile based, we multiply the total bonus points/miles by our estimate for their value to arrive at a dollar equivalent. We display $0 if there is no bonus or if the user doesn’t qualify for the bonus based on the current spending entered into the tool. All estimates are based on the spend assumptions entered above (which you can edit).

The estimates here are ValuePenguin's alone. They are not those of the card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer.

2-yr Rewards Value

The Rewards value is calculated by adding together the rewards earned from charging purchases to the card over two years and any welcome bonuses (if applicable). They are then multiplied by our estimated point/mile value, with any annual fees (if applicable) subtracted. All values are based on our own estimates for the dollar value of any points, miles or bonuses earned using a card and on the spend assumptions entered above (which you can edit).

The estimates here are ValuePenguin's alone. They are not those of the card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer.

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card
$99 3.40%
$782
Get 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months of opening your account
$1,167
Graph Card Read Review More Details and Value Calculation

Estimated Rewards Through 24 Months

Card Rewards Estimated Rewards Value Dollars*
Spending Rewards 34,320 x $0.017 = $583
Bonuses
40,000 x $0.017 = $680
6,000 x $0.017 = $102
Less Annual Fees -$198
Total Net Estimated Rewards Through 24 Months 1,167

*The value estimate is calculated using ValuePenguin.com rewards point value.

Annual Fee $99
APR 17.49% - 24.49% Variable

Card Details

  • Earn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.
  • 6,000 bonus points after your Cardmember anniversary
  • 2 points per $1 spent on Southwest® purchases and Rapid Rewards® Hotel and Car Rental Partner purchases
  • 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Earn unlimited points that don't expire as long as your card account is open
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • No blackout dates or seat restrictions, Bags fly free® and no change fees
  • Redeem your points for flights, hotel stays, gift cards, access to events and more
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
$0 Intro for the First Year, then $95 3.00%
$625
50,000 bonus points when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening
$1,028
Graph Card Read Review More Details and Value Calculation

Estimated Rewards Through 24 Months

Card Rewards Estimated Rewards Value Dollars*
Spending Rewards 39,840 x $0.013 = $498
Bonuses
50,000 x $0.013 = $625
Less Annual Fees -$95
Total Net Estimated Rewards Through 24 Months 1,028

*The value estimate is calculated using ValuePenguin.com rewards point value.

Annual Fee $0 Intro for the First Year, then $95
APR 17.49% - 24.49% Variable

Card Details

  • Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $625 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred® named a 'Best Travel Credit Card' by MONEY® Magazine, 2016-2017
  • 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • Earn 5,000 bonus points after you add the first authorized user and make a purchase in the first 3 months from account opening
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 50,000 points are worth $625 toward travel.
  • No blackout dates or travel restrictions - as long as there's a seat on the flight, you can book it through Chase Ultimate Rewards
Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card
$0 intro for first year; $95 after that 3.18%
$500
Receive 50,000 miles once you spend $3,000 within the first 3 months
$1,091
Graph Card Read Review More Details and Value Calculation

Estimated Rewards Through 24 Months

Card Rewards Estimated Rewards Value Dollars*
Spending Rewards 68,640 x $0.01 = $686
Bonuses
50,000 x $0.01 = $500
Less Annual Fees -$95
Total Net Estimated Rewards Through 24 Months 1,091

*The value estimate is calculated using ValuePenguin.com rewards point value.

Annual Fee $0 intro for first year; $95 after that
APR 14.49% - 24.49% (Variable)

Card Details

  • Enjoy a one-time bonus of 50,000 miles once you spend $3,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $500 in travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles per dollar on every purchase, every day
  • New! Earn 10 miles per dollar on hotels when you pay with your Venture card at hotels.com/venture; learn more at hotels.com/venture
  • Fly any airline, stay at any hotel, anytime
  • Travel when you want with no blackout dates
  • Miles won't expire for the life of the account and there's no limit to how many you can earn
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • $0 intro annual fee for the first year; $95 after that

Note: The information in this box was provided by Capital One® and is not part of our independent analysis.

United MileagePlus® Explorer Card
$0 Intro for First Year, then $95 2.75%
$560
40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open
$945
Graph Card Read Review More Details and Value Calculation

Estimated Rewards Through 24 Months

Card Rewards Estimated Rewards Value Dollars*
Spending Rewards 34,320 x $0.014 = $480
Bonuses
40,000 x $0.014 = $560
Less Annual Fees -$95
Total Net Estimated Rewards Through 24 Months 945

*The value estimate is calculated using ValuePenguin.com rewards point value.

Annual Fee $0 Intro for First Year, then $95
APR 17.49% - 24.49% Variable

Card Details

  • 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open
  • $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95.
  • Check your first bag for free (a savings of up to $100 per roundtrip) when you use your Card to purchase your ticket
  • Enjoy priority boarding privileges and visit the United Club℠ with 2 one-time passes each year for your anniversary
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • Earn 2 miles per $1 spent on tickets purchased from United, and 1 mile per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Your miles don't expire as long as your credit card account is open, with no limit to the number of miles you can earn
Discover it® Miles
$0 2.25%
$257
Discover will match all the Miles you've earned at the end of your first year. Bonus Miles - For example, if you earn 30,000 Miles, you get 60,000 Miles.
$772
Graph Card Read Review More Details and Value Calculation

Estimated Rewards Through 24 Months

Card Rewards Estimated Rewards Value Dollars*
Spending Rewards 51,480 x $0.01 = $515
Bonuses
257 x $0.01 = $257
Total Net Estimated Rewards Through 24 Months 772

*The value estimate is calculated using ValuePenguin.com rewards point value.

Annual Fee $0
APR 13.49% - 24.49% Variable

Card Details

  • We'll match all the Miles you've earned at the end of your first year. For example, if you earn 30,000 Miles, you get 60,000 Miles.
  • Unlimited 1.5x Miles per dollar on all purchases, every day, with no annual fee.
  • No Blackout Dates - fly any airline, stay at any hotel.
  • Redeem your Miles as a statement credit towards travel purchases.
  • Freeze your account in seconds with an on/off switch either on the mobile app or website to prevent new purchases, cash advances, and balance transfers.
  • Get your free Credit Scorecard with your FICO® Credit Score, number of recent inquiries and more.
  • Receive FREE Social Security number alerts-Discover will monitor thousands of risky websites when you sign up.
  • No Annual Fee.
  • Click "APPLY NOW" to see rates, rewards, FICO® Credit Score terms, Discover Match® details & other information.
Chase Sapphire Reserve®
$450 1.55%
$750
50,000 bonus points when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 in travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
$530
Graph Card Read Review More Details and Value Calculation

Estimated Rewards Through 24 Months

Card Rewards Estimated Rewards Value Dollars*
Spending Rewards 45,360 x $0.015 = $680
Bonuses
50,000 x $0.015 = $750
Less Annual Fees -$900
Total Net Estimated Rewards Through 24 Months 530

*The value estimate is calculated using ValuePenguin.com rewards point value.

Annual Fee $450
APR 17.49% - 24.49% Variable

Card Details

  • Earn 50K bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year
  • Named a ‘Best Travel Credit Card for 2017’ by MONEY® Magazine
  • 3X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases. Plus, no foreign transaction fees
  • Get 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 50,000 points are worth $750 toward travel
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Access to 1,000+ airport lounges worldwide after an easy, one-time enrollment in Priority Pass™ Select
  • Up to $100 application fee credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓®
Citi® ThankYou® Preferred Credit Card for College Students
No Annual Fee 1.23%
$25
Earn 2,500 bonus ThankYou points after you spend $500 within the first 3 months
$423
Graph Card Read Review More Details and Value Calculation

Estimated Rewards Through 24 Months

Card Rewards Estimated Rewards Value Dollars*
Spending Rewards 39,840 x $0.01 = $398
Bonuses
2,500 x $0.01 = $25
Total Net Estimated Rewards Through 24 Months 423

*The value estimate is calculated using ValuePenguin.com rewards point value.

Annual Fee No Annual Fee
APR 13.99%, 18.99% or 23.99% Variable

Card Details

  • Earn 2 ThankYou points per dollar on purchases for dining at restaurants and entertainment
  • Earn 1 ThankYou point per dollar on other purchases
AAdvantage® Aviator™ Red Mastercard®
$95 1.15%
$0
$393
Graph Card Read Review More Details and Value Calculation

Estimated Rewards Through 24 Months

Card Rewards Estimated Rewards Value Dollars*
Spending Rewards 34,320 x $0.017 = $583
Less Annual Fees -$190
Total Net Estimated Rewards Through 24 Months 393

*The value estimate is calculated using ValuePenguin.com rewards point value.

Annual Fee $95
APR 15.99%, 19.99% or 24.99% Variable

Card Details

  • 2X miles for every dollar spent on eligible US Airways and American Airlines purchases. 1x mile for every 1 dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • 1 Free Checked Bag
  • Whenever you redeem, you’ll receive 10% of your redeemed miles back
  • Priority boarding
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees
  • 25% in-flight savings on food, beverages, and headsets on US Airways and AA operated flights
AeroMexico Visa Secured Card
$0 Intro Annual Fee for the first year then $25 1.44%
$50
5,000 First Use Bonus Miles plus Complimentary Companion Certificate
$495
Graph Card More Details and Value Calculation

Estimated Rewards Through 24 Months

Card Rewards Estimated Rewards Value Dollars*
Spending Rewards 47,040 x $0.01 = $470
Bonuses
5,000 x $0.01 = $50
Less Annual Fees -$25
Total Net Estimated Rewards Through 24 Months 495

*The value estimate is calculated using ValuePenguin.com rewards point value.

Annual Fee $0 Intro Annual Fee for the first year then $25
APR 22.99%

Card Details

  • 5,000 First Use Bonus Miles plus Complimentary Companion Certificate
  • 1 Club Premier Mile per $1 spent
  • 2 miles per $1 spent on Gas & Groceries
  • Complimentary Baggage

How to Find the Best Miles Credit Card for You

Airline credit cards come with some of the best perks and bonuses available compared with other rewards cards. Choosing the right miles credit card can mean a free flight, access to exclusive airport lounges, and other benefits worth hundreds of dollars. We've compiled a list of miles credit cards that offer the best value when used on airfare and created a tool to help you compare cards.

Determining the best airline card depends on what you want. Do you want a card that helps you earn free flights, provides a luxury experience or offers other travel benefits? Figuring out the benefits you prioritize most also will help determine if a co-branded card or a general travel card is right for you.

Key Benefits of Airline Credit Cards

When evaluating an airline credit card, start with the benefits that each card provides. Remember: Some benefits that issuers advertise are actually common among all airline credit cards, such as rental car insurance—with the exception of Discover—and travel accident insurance. Generally, miles cards also don’t charge foreign transaction fees, a surcharge on a foreign or non-U.S. dollar purchase. Look out for the following benefits when comparing cards.

Earning miles: This is main benefit of airline credit cards. Check to see if there is an accelerated rate for certain categories that will maximize your spending. If you eat out often, consider a travel card that offers two miles per dollar on dining.

Sign-up bonus: Most miles cards come with a bonus if you spend a certain amount in the first months of the card’s opening. In some cases, this bonus can translate into a free flight. But before being persuaded by this incentive, make sure you can meet the bonus requirement without overspending.

Airline companion tickets: Worth hundreds of dollars, the companion ticket is considered the holy grail of airline rewards. Most cards that offer this perk give one ticket per year, while other cards may require you earn a specific number of miles before issuing a companion pass. This benefit is only offered by airline co-branded cards, and some restrictions may apply. Elite status: Some cards offer airline elite status after signing up, while you must spend a minimum amount on others before getting elite membership. The benefits of elite status include early boarding, higher rewards rate and free seat upgrades.

Fee credit: Some airline cards will reimburse you for incidental fees, such as checked bag fees, in-flight meals and beverages, and Wi-Fi.

Airport lounges: High-end airline cards with high annual fees typically provide unlimited access to airport lounges that often feature free Wi-Fi, beverages, food, among other amenities. Some lower-priced cards offer a one-time lounge pass per year.

Co-branded Versus Generic travel cards

There are two types of miles credit cards: generic and co-branded. Generic cards allow you to earn miles that can be redeemed at multiple airlines. If you aren’t loyal to one particular airline, a generic travel card may be the best option for you. These cards often offer a higher rewards rates for other spending categories such as dining and entertainment. So, if you charge a lot in these categories, then a generic travel card will maximize your spending the best. Co-branded cards make it easier for you to achieve elite status membership with a particular airline. You get all the benefits of a frequent flier even if you don’t fly enough to qualify on your own. These perks include, early boarding, free seat upgrades and free checked bags. You also earn more miles for each booking.

Benefits Seen on Co-branded Airline CardsBenefits of Generic Travel Cards
Early boardingMiles can be used with multiple airlines
Free checked baggageHigher rewards per dollar in other categories
Companion tickets
Shortcut to elite status

Airline Alliance

It’s also important to find out which airlines you have access to through certain travel cards because of airline alliances, or agreements among two (or more) airlines that allow flyers to use miles from one to book travel with the other. For example, you can use American Airlines miles to travel with British Airways because they are part of the same airline alliance.

Star Alliance CarriersOneworld CarriersSkyTeam Carriers
  • Adria Airways
  • Aegean Airlines
  • Air Canada
  • Air China
  • Air India
  • Air New Zealand
  • All Nippon Airways
  • Asiana Airlines
  • Austrian Airlines
  • Avianca
  • Brussels Airlines
  • Copa Airlines
  • Croatia Airlines
  • EgyptAir
  • Ethiopian Airlines
  • EVA Air
  • LOT Polish Airlines
  • Lufthansa
  • Scandinavian Airlines
  • Shenzhen Airlines
  • Singapore Airlines
  • South African Airways
  • Swiss International Air Lines
  • TAP Portugal
  • Thai Airways International
  • Turkish Airlines
  • United Airlines
  • American Airlines
  • British Airways
  • Cathay Pacific
  • Finnair
  • Iberia Airlines
  • Japan Airlines
  • LATAM Chile
  • Malaysia Airlines
  • Qantas
  • Qatar Airways
  • Royal Jordanian
  • SriLankan Airlines
  • S7 Airlines
  • Aeroflot
  • Aerolíneas Argentinas
  • Aeroméxico
  • Air Europa
  • Air France
  • Alitalia
  • China Airlines
  • China Eastern Airlines
  • China Southern Airlines
  • Czech Airlines
  • Delta Air Lines
  • Garuda Indonesia
  • Kenya Airways
  • KLM
  • Korean Air
  • Middle East Airlines
  • Saudia
  • TAROM
  • Vietnam Airlines
  • Xiamen Airlines

Consider How Much You Spend

How much you charge to a card generally determines if paying an annual fee will make sense. If you spend less than $12,000 per year on your credit card, you should stick to a card with no annual fee. If you spend more, you could benefit from an annual-fee card. Cards with generous sign-up bonuses often more than offset the annual fee in the first year. After that, consider the dollar values of certain card benefits, such as an annual free flight, which could be worth hundreds of dollars, or a $300 fee credit for airline expenses. If you deduct those from the annual fee, the card isn’t as expensive.

What Cards Do You Qualify For?

If you have excellent credit and a long credit history, you likely will qualify for any card on our list. If you have good credit or a shorter credit history, it may be tougher, but not impossible, to qualify for these cards. It largely depends on each issuer’s underwriting policies. If you have little to no credit history or blemished credit, your choices are largely limited to the Citi® ThankYou® Preferred Credit Card for College Students and the AeroMexico Visa Secured Card. Get a free FICO score and look for offers that align with your creditworthiness.

Our Selection Methodology

Our evaluation of airline credit cards consists of comparing the following factors:

  • Rewards Rate Across Multiple Sample Budgets
  • Rewards Flexibility — how easy the points/miles are to use
  • Other Benefits, such as airport lounge access and free checked bags

For each factor, we considered how the cards compared to others in their cohort. For example, we compared credit cards available to people with excellent credit, separately from those available to students. We considered airline and travel credit cards from the following banks: Chase, American Express, Citibank, Capital One, US Bank, USAA, PNC, Discover, Wells Fargo, Barclaycard, Bank of America, Wells Fargo.

Net Rewards Rate Explained

The rewards rate for each card is the dollar value of rewards, perks and bonuses earned divided by the amount of spending you make using the card. Airline credit cards generally outperform most other rewards card options, second only to some hotel-specific cards. One issue with assessing rewards rates for airline credit cards is that a card can have very different rewards rates based on how you use the card and how you use the points.

While cards like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® are generally much more straightforward, cards that offer loyalty program miles are more complicated. For these affiliated cards, we looked at a range of flight bookings to come up with an average value for each mile with that airline. We then simulated the cards under a few spending scenarios to profile the total value of rewards, bonuses and perks for each card.

This gave us a sense as to which cards performed the best purely from a dollar value perspective when it came to rewards. All calculations for a rewards rate were net of annual fees, giving you a truer sense of earnings as a result of having the card.

Redemption and Earning Flexibility

The second part of our assessment was to look at how easy the rewards and benefits were to use. The more flexible the credit cards features and redemption options were, the better a card performed. We looked at whether or not rewards and bonuses could be used at multiple airlines, or be redeemed under different options while maintaining the same value.

A card that allowed you more choices with the points or miles you earned would be a better option and rated more highly in our selection criteria. We also accounted for variability in rewards. Cards that were better able to give you a narrower range of rewards rate were given higher standing, since it means that you would achieve the estimated rewards rate more easily.

Award Seat/Award Seat Availability: An award seat refers to a seat on a plane that is available for purchase by using miles. Airlines will typically allow a certain number of seats per flight to be purchased with miles. If an airline is said to have "good award seat availability" that means that each flight has a large number of seats available to those looking to book with miles.

Comments and Questions

* See the online credit card application for details about terms and conditions. Reasonable efforts are made to maintain accurate information. However all credit card information is presented without warranty. When you click on the "Apply Now" button, you can review the credit card terms and conditions on the issuer's website.

Info about the following cards: American Express® Gold Card, Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express, Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card, Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express, Hilton Honors™ Card from American Express, Hilton Honors Surpass® Credit Card, American Express® Blue Sky, American Express® Green Card, The Amex EveryDay® Preferred Credit Card from American Express, The Plenti® Credit Card from Amex, Blue from American Express®, Platinum Card® from American Express Exclusively for Mercedes-Benz, Bluebird, Centurion® Card from American Express, Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card, and Starwood Preferred Guest® American Express Luxury Card has been collected independently by ValuePenguin. The issuer did not provide the details, nor is it responsible for their accuracy.

Disclaimer: This content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuer. Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of the credit card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer. This site may be compensated through the credit card issuer Affiliate Program. 

These responses 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.

How We Calculate Rewards: ValuePenguin calculates the value of rewards by estimating the dollar value of any points, miles or bonuses earned using the card less any associated annual fees. These estimates here are ValuePenguin's alone, not those of the card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer.

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