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Travel season is fast-approaching, and many consumers will be faced with advertisements for airline credit cards. Card ads are present on television, at airports and even at the checkout when we purchase our airline tickets. Some people may be offered to sign up once they board their flights. That's because, along with snacks and coffee, flight attendants are incentivized by carriers to hand out card applications. Reports show that the flight crew can earn as much as $100 per approved application. Whether we're sitting at our desks, or 10,000 feet in the sky, it's not always easy to know whether an airline credit card is worth applying for. We examined credit cards offered by America's 10 largest airlines to assess their value and help consumers make a more educated choice.
- Our study found that Alaska Airlines offers one of the most valuable co-branded credit cards. This is largely due to the high net worth of the MileagePlus program.
- As of 2018, the average value of a co-branded airline credit card is $679 over two years. This encompasses bonuses, miles earned from purchases, and checked bag and companion fare benefits for an individual traveler.
- Airline credit cards come with sizable signup bonuses, worth $400 on average. This is significantly better than other types of cards. For example, cash back card bonuses rarely exceed $150 in value.
- The average ongoing annual fee for the cards we surveyed is $127 per year.
Comparing the Value Of Airline Credit Cards
Alaska Airlines, America's sixth-largest carrier, offers the most value on average across the three consumer profiles we studied. Its sizable bonus, companion fares and checked-bag benefits put it above more recognizable airlines, such as Delta and American Airlines. The Seattle-based airline recently acquired Virgin America, meaning it now flies to more than 100 foreign and domestic locations. Despite its name, you don't have to fly to Alaska to find value here. Alaska Airlines services many locations throughout North America, especially on the West Coast. Also, thanks to strategic partnerships, Alaska miles can be used to book travel with carriers like American Airlines, British Airways and Emirates.
Here we've listed the two-year net value that you can expect from with each card for the consumer profiles that we examined.
ValuePenguin Estimates for the Net 2-Year Value of Airline Credit Cards
|Card||Single Person||Married Couple||Married Couple With Children|
|1||Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Credit Card||$1,104||$1,897||$2,305|
|2||Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express||$1,014||$1,892||$2,249|
|3||Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®||$1,148||$1,803||$2,198|
|4||Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card||$1,024||$1,579||$1,974|
|5||Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card||$1,015||$1,570||$1,965|
|6||United℠ Explorer Card||$938||$1,442||$1,817|
|7||Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express||$876||$1,380||$1,737|
|8||JetBlue Plus Card||$789||$1,365||$1,759|
|9||AAdvantage® Aviator® Red Mastercard®||$827||$1,323||$1,695|
|10||Hawaiian Airlines® World Elite Mastercard®||$595||$1,150||$1,224|
|11||Citi® / AAdvantage® Gold World Elite™ Mastercard®||$623||$845||$932|
|13||The Frontier Airlines World MasterCard®||$615||$786||$851|
|14||United℠ TravelBank Card||$525||$775||$872|
|15||Blue Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express||$477||$716||$806|
|16||Allegiant World Mastercard®||$334||$540||$615|
|17||AAdvantage® Aviator™ Silver World Elite Mastercard®||-$1||$503||$875|
|18||Spirit Airlines World MasterCard® Credit Card||$289||$454||$518|
|19||Citi® / AAdvantage® Bronze Mastercard®||$168||$279||$322|
Are These Cards Worth Keeping Long Term?
Airline credit cards tend to be front-loaded with perks and benefits during the first 12 months, then their value drops off severely after that. Some consumers may wonder whether they should keep, or cancel, their airline cards after that first year. Ultimately, the decision will come down to how much value you can continue to get out of the card and how that compares to the annual fee you're paying to keep the account open.
Though the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard® had the highest first-year value of the cards we surveyed, its stark dropoff in year two make it significantly less valuable than the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Credit Card—which ranked as the most valuable cards in terms of two-year net value. The card with the biggest drop in value was the AAdvantage® Aviator® Red Mastercard®, which had a 71% drop in value from year one to year two.
First-Year vs. Second-Year Rewards
Comparing Airline Companion Fare Benefits
Companion fares are one of the most valuable benefits that airline credit cards offer, and these fares are also the benefits where airline cards differ the most. Companion fares (sometimes called companion tickets) are special benefits that provide some sort of discount for people traveling with at least one other person. They can be invaluable to couples who fly together, as they can essentially serve as a buy-one-get-one free promotion. However, some airlines place severe restrictions on these perks, limiting travelers to certain types of seats and destinations. The Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express's companion fare is among the better ones, as it allows cardholders a free First Class, Delta Comfort+® or Main Cabin round-trip domestic flight each year. By contrast the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Credit Card's companion fare is less-valuable and less-versatile; it allows cardholders to purchase a round-trip coach ticket for $121 ($99 base fare plus up to $22 in taxes and fees).
|Card||Companion Fare Details|
|1||Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express||Annual domestic First Class, Delta Comfort+® or Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate|
|2||Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express||Annual domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate|
|3||Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Credit Card||Annual coach companion fare for $121 ($99 base fare plus $22 in taxes and fees)|
|4||Hawaiian Airlines® World Elite Mastercard®||One-time 50% off companion fare for a round trip coach ticket between Hawaii and North America|
|5||AAdvantage® Aviator™ Silver World Elite Mastercard®||Every year that you spend $30,000 or more in purchases, you can earn a companion fare good for adding up to two guests at $99 each on any flight within the contiguous U.S. and Canada|
All but two of the credit cards we surveyed featured some sort of bonus with an average value of $400. These bonuses come in the form of extra miles that cardholders can earn by spending a certain amount within the first few months of account opening—the average for these cards being $1,388. This is a massive incentive to apply for these cards, however, you should be weary that some of these cards require that you spend as much as $5,000 within three months to earn this introductory spending bonus.
|Card||VP Bonus Value Estimate||Requirement|
|1||Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®||$810||Make $3,000 in purchases within three months.|
|2||United MileagePlus® Club Card||$700||Make $3,000 in purchases within three months.|
|3 (tie)||Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card||$680||Make $1,000 in purchases within three months.|
|3 (tie)||Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card||$680||Make $1,000 in purchases within three months.|
|5||AAdvantage® Aviator® Red Mastercard®||$675||Make your first purchases within three months and pay your annual fee.|
|6||Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®||$675||Make $5,000 in purchases within three months.|
|7||Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Credit Card||$570||Make $1,000 in purchases within three months.|
|8||United℠ Explorer Card||$560||Make $2,000 in purchases within three months.|
|9 (tie)||Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express||$480||Make $3,000 in purchases within three months.|
|9 (tie)||JetBlue Plus Card||$480||Make $1,000 in purchases within three months.|
|11||Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express||$420||Make $1,000 in purchases within three months.|
|12||The Frontier Airlines World MasterCard®||$400||Make $500 in purchases within three months.|
|13||Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express||$360||Make $1,000 in purchases within three months.|
|14||Hawaiian Airlines® World Elite Mastercard®||$350||Make $1,000 in purchases within three months.|
|15||Citi® / AAdvantage® Gold World Elite™ Mastercard®||$338||Make $750 in purchases within three months.|
|16 (tie)||Allegiant World Mastercard®||$150||Make $1,000 in purchases within three months.|
|16 (tie)||United℠ TravelBank Card||$150||Make $1,000 in purchases within three months.|
|18 (tie)||Blue Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express||$120||Make $500 in purchases within three months.|
|18 (tie)||JetBlue Card||$120||Make $1,000 in purchases within three months.|
|20||Spirit Airlines World MasterCard® Credit Card||$75||Make your first purchase.|
Comparing Airline Credit Cards With Checked Bag Benefits
Paying for checking bags can be one the most the expensive parts of air travel. Most of these cards—over 60%—include free checked bags as a benefit for the primary cardholder, though some will allow free checked bags for multiple passengers booked on the same reservation. Those that often travel in large groups should consider one of the Delta cards (apart from the Blue Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express), which allow for checked bags for up to nine travelers on the same reservation. This could results in a savings of up to $225 per flight, since each passenger’s first checked bag is $25 with Delta.
|Rank||Card||Number Of Passengers That Can Get Free Checked Bags|
|1 (tie)||Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express||9|
|1 (tie)||Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express||9|
|1 (tie)||Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express||9|
|4||AAdvantage® Aviator™ Silver World Elite Mastercard®||8|
|5||Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Credit Card||6|
|6 (tie)||Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®||4|
|6 (tie)||AAdvantage® Aviator® Red Mastercard®||4|
|6 (tie)||Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®||4|
|9||JetBlue Plus Card||3|
|10 (tie)||United MileagePlus® Club Card||2|
|10 (tie)||United℠ Explorer Card||2|
|12||Hawaiian Airlines® World Elite Mastercard®||1|
Luxury Airline Credit Cards
Many of the cards that have the highest annual fees—over $200—are less focused on earning rewards and more focused on providing luxury travel benefits. Cards like the United MileagePlus® Club Card, the Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express and the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard® all offer club access to their cardholders. This perk is more targeted toward very frequent travelers and are less valuable to the average American that flies only a couple of times a year.
Below, we've calculated the estimated value of these cards if you factor in the value of lounge access.
|Rank||Card||Single Person||Married Couple||Married Couple With Children|
|1||United MileagePlus® Club Card||$1,425||$2,040||$2,461|
|2||Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®||$532||$2,453||$2,825|
|3||Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express||$1,247||$2,091||$2,453|
We utilized the Consumer Expenditure Survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to arrive at average yearly spending in the following categories: airfare, groceries, gas, restaurants and all other spending.
|Individual||Married Couple||Married Couple With Kids|
|All Other Spending||$5,916||$9,867||$13,093|
We estimated that individual travelers wouldn't check any bags, couples would check one bag and families would check two bags.
The miles value we used for each airline are our own estimates, which we arrived at by collecting a variety of itineraries and comparing cash value to the required miles to redeem.
|Delta Air Lines||$0.0120|
* 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: Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express, Premier Rewards Gold 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 Amex EveryDay® Credit Card from American Express, The Plenti® Credit Card from Amex, Blue from American Express®, Platinum Card® from American Express Exclusively for Mercedes-Benz, SimplyCash® Plus Business Credit Card from American Express, Bluebird, Centurion® Card from American Express, Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card, Starwood Preferred Guest® American Express Luxury Card, American Express Cash Magnet®, and Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® 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.
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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.