The Best Airline Credit Cards

The average American takes between 1 and 2 flights a year, most of them domestic, and more than 8 out of 10 have flown at least once. Americans are not as well traveled as Europeans or Australians, but an increasing number of them are flying abroad, spending over $135 billion on international travel. The US is also home to 4 of the world’s top 5 airlines based on passengers carried, and 6 of the 7 biggest aerospace companies.

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Needless to say, the US air travel industry is massive and getting bigger with each passing year, so it’s no surprise that the financial sector is seeking its own slice of the pie with airline travel credit cards. These cards are offered by major airlines in conjunction with credit card issuers. They encourage consumer spending by offering travel rewards and perks in exchange for everyday purchases.

In this guide, we’ll highlight the very best airline travel cards, focusing on the rewards and perks they provide, as well as essential information such as penalty fees, transfer fees, interest rates, and more.

Best Airline Credit Cards

There are many perks and benefits to look out for when comparing airline credit cards. We have scoured all offers, compared most cards, and selected the best ones available right now. These cards are offered by specific airlines and are not tied to general reward schemes or airmile programs.

Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Card

There are two Southwest Rapid Reward cards worthy of inclusion on this list of the best airline credit cards: The Plus and the Priority. The latter is a little more expensive but offers a few more benefits and is a better option for frequent flyers.

Cardholders can earn points on everyday purchases and twice as many points on Southwest Airlines and partner purchases. What’s more, up to 75,000 points are offered with the card’s welcome bonus, with 40,000 released after spending $1,000 in the first three months and an additional 35,000 after spending $5,000 in 6 months.

The Southwest Rapid Rewards card has a high annual fee, but there is no application fee or foreign transaction fees, and there are seat upgrades and in-flight discounts available, as well as 7,500 bonus points on the cardholders cardmember anniversary.

  • Annual Fee: $149
  • Issuer: Visa
  • Airline: Southwest
  • Regular APR: 17.49% to 24.49% 
  • Foreign Transaction Fees: $0
  • Rewards Program: 1x points for everyday purchases; 2x points for travel
  • Welcome Bonus: Up to 75,000 bonus points on offer

Delta SkyMiles Blue American Express Card

At the time of writing, the Blue Delta SkyMiles card has a limited welcome offer that will expire in just a few months. This welcome offer provides all new applicants with 15,000 bonus points when they spend $1,000 in three months, and while it will expire soon, it will likely be replaced by a similar offer.

You can earn 2x miles for every Delta purchase and there are also limited offers that provide the same rate boost for everyday purchases. The Blue Delta SkyMiles also offers discounts on travel purchases.

  • Annual Fee: $0
  • Issuer: American Express
  • Airline: Delta Airlines
  • Regular APR: 17.24% to 26.24% 
  • Foreign Transaction Fees: $0
  • Rewards Program: 1x to 2x points
  • Welcome Bonus: Earn 15,000 points when you spend $1,000 in the first three months (limited time only)

Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express Card

With a 70,000-point bonus offer, savings on Delta flight purchases, main cabin priority boarding, and your first bag checked for free, the Gold Delta SkyMiles is a costlier but more beneficial card than the Blue Delta SkyMiles mentioned above. You will be offered a similar rate and foreign transaction fees, cash advances, and balance transfer details are the same, but you will pay a higher annual fee after the first calendar year.

  • Annual Fee: $99 (waived for the first year)
  • Issuer: American Express
  • Airline: Delta SkyMiles
  • Regular APR: 17.24% to 26.24% 
  • Foreign Transaction Fees: $0
  • Rewards Program: 1x to 2x points
  • Welcome Bonus: Earn 60,000 points when you spend $2,000 in the first three months and 10,000 on your first account anniversary

British Airways Visa Signature Card

Although it’s not tied to an American airline and is therefore not a great option for domestic travelers, the British Airways Visa card is a good choice for international travelers, especially those looking for the best First Class and Business Class experiences.

The BA card uses an airline miles program known as Avios, and new cardholders can get 100,000 Avios points when they first join. There is also a Travel Together perk, which gives your travel companion a seat in the same cabin when you use your points to make a purchase. This benefit is offered when you spend at least $30,000.

  • Annual Fee: $95
  • Issuer: Visa
  • Airline: British Airways
  • Regular APR: 17.49% to 24.49% Variable APR
  • Foreign Transaction Fees: $0
  • Rewards Program: Avios Points
  • Welcome Bonus: Spend $20,000 in the first year to earn 100,000 points

Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card

The Alaska Airlines Visa card has one of the best airline-specific loyalty programs as it offers an unlimited 3x miles when you spend money on Alaska Airlines purchases and 1x for all other purchases. You can also qualify for 40,000 bonus points and receive the Alaska Famous Companion Fare when you spend $2,000 in the first 3 months.

The Alaska Famous Companion Fare offers a round-trip companion fare for just $99 plus tax. There is also a first checked bag offer and no blackout dates when you redeem your miles.

  • Annual Fee: $75
  • Issuer: Visa
  • Airline: Alaska Airlines
  • Regular APR: 17.49% to 25.49%
  • Foreign Transaction Fees: $0
  • Rewards Program: Airline rewards offering 1x to 3x miles
  • Welcome Bonus: Get 40,000 bonus points


United Explorer Card

​Earn 1x air miles on everyday purchases and 2x miles on hotel stays and United purchases with the United Explorer Credit Card from Visa. There is an annual fee of $95 that isn’t charged for the first year, 2 one-time passes for the United Club, $100 credit for TSA Pre-Check or Global Entry, and 60,000 bonus points.

  • Annual Fee: $95 (waived for the first year)
  • Issuer: Visa
  • Airline: United Airlines
  • Regular APR: 17.99% to 24.99%
  • Foreign Transaction Fees: $0
  • Rewards Program: 1x to 2x miles
  • Welcome Bonus: 60,000 bonus points, $100 Global Entry credit, and United Club access

American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp Card

In the first three months of your AAdvantage account opening, you can earn 10,000 bonus miles and $50 worth of statement credit, all from spending just $500. This card offers discounts on inflight purchases (food, beverages) and between 1 and 2 points for every $1 spent.

  • Annual Fee: $0
  • Issuer: Citi
  • Airline: American Airlines
  • Regular APR: 17.49% to 26.49%
  • Foreign Transaction Fees: $0
  • Rewards Program: 1 to 2 AAdvantage Miles per $1 spend.
  • Welcome Bonus: 10,000 bonus miles and $50 statement credit

What Credit Score Do You Need for an Airline Card?

Generally speaking, you need a credit score of at least 670 to get one of the aforementioned credit cards, but it all depends on the provider and the type of card. If you have a credit score above 600 there’s a chance you might be accepted, but we would recommend improving your score and trying to get over 700 before you apply.

This way, not only will you be accepted for more cards and better reward programs, but you’ll also be offered a better annual percentage rate.

What are the Best Airlines?

Interest rates and rewards aren’t the only things you should factor into the equation when comparing airline credit cards. You also need to consider the benefits that the airline provides, especially if you’re used to traveling with multiple different airlines and will use your new card to remain loyal to a single one.

In this case, there are a few things that need to be considered:

The Airfare

You can generally save more money by shopping around, focusing on the airline that offers the cheapest flights to your chosen destination, as opposed to simply relying on the carrier that you always use. However, if you’re sticking with a single carrier because of a rewards card or because they meet your needs elsewhere, it’s important to make sure they actually fall within your price range.

There’s no point in choosing a card offered by a premium carrier if you can only afford budget travel. You may save a few bucks on those premium services, but never enough to fit your budget. 

Don’t simply focus on the card that offers the most points or the best point-to-cash-ratio, look at the airline’s prices first, see how these compare. Card A may seem like a great option if it offers you a $200 better sign-up bonus or will give you $300 extra every year, but those benefits are moot if Card B is connected to an airline that charges $200 less per flight.

The Destinations

You need an airline that actually flies to the destinations you want to visit. It should go without saying, but many cardholders just assume that their chosen provider will take them where they need to go. 

And they’re right, to an extent, because there’s a chance your airline can get you there in the end, but only via connecting flights and lay-overs, potentially increasing the cost of the flight and wasting countless hours of your time in the process.

Look at the routes covered by the airlines and make sure they fly where you need to go before you sign on the dotted line. 

If you’re using these cards purely as a tourist, you may not care where they fly and can simply choose your destination based on flights available at the time. This is actually a great way to save money on flights and vacations, while sending you to some surprising and unexpected locations. 

In this case, however, you may be better off with a general air miles card, as airline cards are geared more towards business travelers and professionals with specific locations in mind.

Perks and Premium Options

Does your chosen provider have in-flight Wi-Fi, free meals, and priority boarding? Does it offer a truly premium Business Class or First Class experience? First Class facilities can differ greatly from airline to airline and if you’re an international traveler, this is a very important consideration. 

An airline’s service doesn’t end when you book flights, there are many additional features and options to consider. If you’re a business traveler, the last thing you want is an airline that relies on old planes, has cramped seats, and offers little or no Wi-Fi; if you travel in style, you need an airline that offers a premium first-class experience like British Airways.

The Service

Customer service is often overlooked in favor of more easily measured parameters like price and routes, but it’s just as important. In recent years, a few major airlines have repeatedly hit the headlines for extremely poor service, from demanding that passengers remove clothing or jewelry to manhandling them over the smallest of issues or the most egregious of oversights.

If you have a bad experience with an airline, you’ll likely want to avoid flying with them in the future, and if your credit card and rewards program is tied to them, that won’t be easy.

Some airlines have a reputation for great customer service, others treat their passengers like paying cattle. Based on recent customer surveys, the following airlines come out on top:

  1. Delta Air Lines
  2. Alaska Airlines
  3. Southwest Airlines

As for the worst ones:

  1. Frontier Airlines
  2. Spirit Airlines
  3. Allegiant Air

What are the Best Credit Card Issuers?

The credit card issuer is less important than the airline, as many of them provide the same benefits. However, it’s important to stick with a trusted, reputable brand and if you want a solid rewards card, you may be better off with American Express.

American Express has some of the best rewards programs in the industry, with fantastic credit card offers across the board, as well as a host of extra rewards and benefits for their more premium cards, including VIP airport lounge access, account opening bonuses, bonus miles, and a host of membership rewards.

Rewards Credit Card vs Airmiles and Airline Credit Cards

Airline credit cards offer some pretty tempting rewards and can seem like sensible choices for frequent travelers. However, these cards are not for everyone and depending on your situation, there may be better options out there.

When you Should Use Airline Credit Cards

Airline credit cards are great if you spend a lot of money on a particular airline. They’re like store cards for air travel—every time you shop with your favorite provider you’re rewarded for your loyalty and can accumulate points and cash to purchase more of your favorite things.

If you’re making regular flights with United Airlines, JetBlue, Alaska Airlines, Delta Airlines, or any other airline, and you enjoy their services, we recommend looking into airline credit cards. However, this really only applies if you take at least 2 flights per year, and preferably at least half a dozen flights for business purposes, as it’s highly unlikely you’ll get your money’s worth from the odd family vacation.

When you Should Use General Travel Rewards Credit Cards

If you don’t fly with any specific airline and simply focus on the cheapest or best provider for any given flight, then an airline credit card probably isn’t the best option for you. Instead, frequent flyers should look into non-airline specific cards.

These cards are not tied to specific airlines and can be used at any airport, for any airline and on an abundance of services.
The best travel rewards cards offer you VIP lounge access; discounts on flights, car rentals, baggage services, car rentals, and much more. 

You can get big sign-up bonuses that amount to several hundred dollars’ worth of flight credits and are often rewarded with additional bonuses when you use your card for flight-specific purchases. 

In many cases, these cards will benefit you even if you fly with a specific airline, so it’s worth adding a few general travel credit cards to your search, including Discover It Miles, Chase Sapphire Preferred, and Capital One Venture.

When you Should Use General Rewards Credit Cards

Just because you fly once a year and spend a few thousand dollars on an all-inclusive round-trip doesn’t mean you will benefit from a travel rewards card. They are certainly worth considering, and we recommend weighing up the pros and cons, but more often than not you will benefit more from a general rewards card.

These cards offer cash back, statement credit, and purchase credits every time you use them. The best ones offer an unlimited rate of between 1% and 1.5% on all purchases, in addition to limited rates of between 2% and 6% on specific purchases.

For instance, some reward credit cards give you 5% cash back every time you spend money at gas stations, supermarkets or grocery stores, with a cap of between $1,000 and $3,000 that allows you to earn between $50 and $150 before the rate is reduced. You can also get a substantial sign-up bonus, often in the form of a lump sum when you spend a specific amount of money during your first three billing cycles.

In the case of the Discover It rewards card, which has an unlimited 1% rewards rate in addition to the aforementioned bonus categories, your first year’s rewards will be doubled regardless of how much you earned.

These cards are ideal for families, big spenders, and anyone who uses their credit card a lot, doesn’t fly all that often and wants to turn everyday purchases into cash back, rewards points, and perks.

Other Options

Rewards credit cards are great if you can benefit from them, but they’re not for everyone. The most generous rewards program in the world won’t cover the losses incurred through high-interest rates and penalty fees, so if you don’t pay your balance in full every month, you should focus on credit cards that have favorable interest rates and fees.

Imagine, for instance, that you spend $1,000 on your credit card every single month and find a rewards card that offers you an unlimited return of 1.25% for every dollar that you spend. Over the course of the year, that card will earn you $150 in cash back or statement fee credit. 

It’s a sizeable sum, if you weren’t paying through the teeth for it, because if you fail to clear your balance for the first three months, have a rolling balance for the next six months, and then pay everything off in full, you will have paid more than that in interest. Many credit card users have a balance that remains on their card throughout the year and they merely payoff any additional purchases they accumulate.

The intro APR that these cards offer can suspend those losses for the first year and allow you to walk away with a small profit. 

However, the average consumer doesn’t accumulate a rolling balance on a new card until they have owned it for at least a few months, and in most cases, for a year or two. Eventually, they spend more money than they can afford to repay in a single month, the balance accumulates, and before they know it, they are well and truly in the red.

These days, most cards offer some kind of reward and you don’t necessarily pay for these rewards with a higher rate of interest. But by focusing purely on the card that has the best rewards program and ignoring all others, you could be settling for a much higher interest rate than you can get elsewhere, and this is very dangerous if you’re likely to have a rolling balance.

Every percentage point counts, so shop around, don’t focus solely on the rewards, and make sure you get the very best interest rate for your credit score.