Credit Cards

Breaking Down 2018's Essential Airline Credit Cards

We surveyed 22 credit cards from the 10 largest airlines in the U.S. to figure out which are worth getting and which should be avoided.

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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.


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.

Key Takeaways

  • 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

Rank

CardSingle PersonMarried CoupleMarried Couple With Children
1Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Credit Card$1,104$1,897$2,305
2Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express$1,014$1,892$2,249
3Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®$1,148$1,803$2,198
4Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card$1,024$1,579$1,974
5Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card$1,015$1,570$1,965
6United℠ Explorer Card$938$1,442$1,817
7Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express$876$1,380$1,737
8JetBlue Plus Card$789$1,365$1,759
9AAdvantage® Aviator® Red Mastercard®$827$1,323$1,695
10Hawaiian Airlines® World Elite Mastercard®$595$1,150$1,224
11Citi® / AAdvantage® Gold World Elite™ Mastercard®$623$845$932
12JetBlue Card$548$838$945
13The Frontier Airlines World MasterCard®$615$786$851
14United℠ TravelBank Card$525$775$872
15Blue Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express$477$716$806
16Allegiant World Mastercard®$334$540$615
17AAdvantage® Aviator™ Silver World Elite Mastercard®-$1$503$875
18Spirit Airlines World MasterCard® Credit Card$289$454$518
19Citi® / 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 the First-Year Rewards to the Second-Year Rewards Value for Airline Credit Cards

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).

Rank

CardCompanion Fare Details
1Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American ExpressAnnual domestic First Class, Delta Comfort+® or Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate
2Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American ExpressAnnual domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate
3Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Credit CardAnnual coach companion fare for $121 ($99 base fare plus $22 in taxes and fees)
4Hawaiian Airlines® World Elite Mastercard®One-time 50% off companion fare for a round trip coach ticket between Hawaii and North America
5AAdvantage® 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

Comparing Bonuses

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.

Rank

CardVP Bonus Value EstimateRequirement
1Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®$810Make $3,000 in purchases within three months.
2United MileagePlus® Club Card$700Make $3,000 in purchases within three months.
3 (tie)Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card$680Make $1,000 in purchases within three months.
3 (tie)Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card$680Make $1,000 in purchases within three months.
5AAdvantage® Aviator® Red Mastercard®$675Make your first purchases within three months and pay your annual fee.
6Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®$675Make $5,000 in purchases within three months.
7Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Credit Card$570Make $1,000 in purchases within three months.
8United℠ Explorer Card$560Make $2,000 in purchases within three months.
9 (tie)Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express$480Make $3,000 in purchases within three months.
9 (tie)JetBlue Plus Card$480Make $1,000 in purchases within three months.
11Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express$420Make $1,000 in purchases within three months.
12The Frontier Airlines World MasterCard®$400Make $500 in purchases within three months.
13Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express$360Make $1,000 in purchases within three months.
14Hawaiian Airlines® World Elite Mastercard®$350Make $1,000 in purchases within three months.
15Citi® / AAdvantage® Gold World Elite™ Mastercard®$338Make $750 in purchases within three months.
16 (tie)Allegiant World Mastercard®$150Make $1,000 in purchases within three months.
16 (tie)United℠ TravelBank Card$150Make $1,000 in purchases within three months.
18 (tie)Blue Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express$120Make $500 in purchases within three months.
18 (tie)JetBlue Card$120Make $1,000 in purchases within three months.
20Spirit Airlines World MasterCard® Credit Card$75Make 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.

RankCardNumber Of Passengers That Can Get Free Checked Bags
1 (tie)Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express9
1 (tie)Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express9
1 (tie)Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express9
4AAdvantage® Aviator™ Silver World Elite Mastercard®8
5Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Credit Card6
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
9JetBlue Plus Card3
10 (tie)United MileagePlus® Club Card2
10 (tie)United℠ Explorer Card2
12Hawaiian 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.

RankCardSingle PersonMarried CoupleMarried Couple With Children
1United MileagePlus® Club Card$1,425$2,040$2,461
2Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®$532$2,453$2,825
3Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express$1,247$2,091$2,453

Methodology

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.

Category

IndividualMarried CoupleMarried Couple With Kids
Airfare$262$559$584
Grocery$2,704$4,530$5,952
Gas$1,336$2,083$2,797
Restaurants$2,190$3,618$4,655
All Other Spending$5,916$9,867$13,093
Sum$12,408$20,657$27,081

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.

AirlineMile Value
Delta Air Lines$0.0120
American Airlines$0.0135
Alaska Airlines$0.0190
JetBlue Airways$0.0120
United Airlines$0.0140
Hawaiian Airlines$0.0100
Southwest Airlines$0.0170
Frontier Airlines$0.0100
Allegiant Air$0.0100
Spirit Airlines$0.0050

* 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. 

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.

Bailey Peterson

Bailey is a Research Analyst at ValuePenguin, covering credit cards and insurance. He graduated from Occidental College with a B.A. in Mathematics and a minor in Computer Science.

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.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from 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). ValuePenguin does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

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.

Example of how we calculate the rewards rates: When redeemed for travel through Ultimate Rewards, Chase Sapphire Preferred points are worth $0.0125 each. The card awards 2 points on travel and dining and 1 point on everything else. Therefore, we say the card has a 2.5% rewards rate on dining and travel (2 x $0.0125) and a 1.25% rewards rate on everything else (1 x $0.0125).