Best Airline Credit Cards of December 2019

Our Top Picks for Earning Air Miles or Points

Disclosure: We are committed to recommending the best products for our readers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to products, but this never affects our reviews or recommendations.

If you fly frequently, you may be looking for the best airline credit cards. When you purchase plane tickets on an airline card, you earn miles or reward points that you can redeem for more flights. Sometimes the best card for flying isn’t even an airline-specific card. 

Our top picks favor cards with good sign-up bonuses, easy-to-earn rewards, and outstanding perks. Of course, a card with great rewards for a specific airline is only valuable if you fly with that carrier, so keep that in mind when perusing this list.

Best Airline Credit Cards

United℠ Explorer Card

Best Overall

,

Best for Earning High-Value Miles

,

Best for Excellent Perks

Our Rating Among Airlines Cards
4.4
United℠ Explorer Card
Recommended Credit Score Our recommended ranges are based off of the FICO® Score 8 credit-scoring model. Credit score is one of the many factors lenders review in considering your application.
350 579
580 669
670 739
740 799
800 850
Good - Excellent
Regular APR (%) 17.99% - 24.99% variable
Annual Fee $0 for the first year, then $95
Rewards Earning Rate Earn 2 miles per $1 spent at restaurants, on hotel stays and on purchases from United. 1 mile per $1 spent on all other purchases.
Foreign transaction fee (%) 0%

Why We Chose This Card

Frequent United Airlines flyers can easily rack up high-value miles with this superior airline card. You’ll get 2 miles per $1 you spend with United and at restaurants and hotels. And the miles—worth an average 2.16 cents apiece, according to our calculations—are the most valuable among the major domestic airline programs. In fact, the sign-up bonus alone, if you spend enough to earn all 65,000 miles, is worth an estimated $1,404 when used for flights. Plus, this card has an excellent line-up of travel perks such as airport lounge passes and free checked bags.

Chase Sapphire Reserve®

Best for Flexible Rewards

Our Rating Among Airlines Cards
4.1
Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Recommended Credit Score Our recommended ranges are based off of the FICO® Score 8 credit-scoring model. Credit score is one of the many factors lenders review in considering your application.
350 579
580 669
670 739
740 799
800 850
Excellent
Regular APR (%) 18.49% - 25.49% variable
Annual Fee $450
Rewards Earning Rate Earn 3x points on travel immediately after earning your $300 travel credit, 3X points on dining at restaurants, and 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases.
Foreign transaction fee (%) 0%

Why We Chose This Card

This is an all-star travel card if you don’t want to jump through hoops to earn award flights. Chase has a broad definition of travel purchases, so even parking fees and tolls earn rewards points. When it comes time to redeem them, you have plenty of options through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal, or you can transfer your rewards to one of several major airline partners, including United Airlines, to potentially get even more value. To top it off, great perks like airport lounge access make it easier to swallow the steep annual fee.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Best Sign-Up Bonus on a Flexible Card

Our Rating Among Airlines Cards
3.8
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
Recommended Credit Score Our recommended ranges are based off of the FICO® Score 8 credit-scoring model. Credit score is one of the many factors lenders review in considering your application.
350 579
580 669
670 739
740 799
800 850
Good - Excellent
Regular APR (%) 17.49% - 24.49% variable
Annual Fee $95
Rewards Earning Rate 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases worldwide
Foreign transaction fee (%) 0%

Why We Chose This Card

If you want to avoid a triple-digit annual fee and earn reward flights on your choice of eligible airlines, this card delivers. You have the option of redeeming your points to book flights directly through Chase’s online portal or transferring to one of several airline loyalty programs, some of which have even more valuable miles, according to research by The Balance. What’s more, if you charge $4,000 in your first three months as a cardholder, you’ll get a sign-up bonus of 60,000 points worth $948, based on our calculations.

British Airways Visa Signature® Card

Best Airline-Specific Sign-Up Bonus

Our Rating Among Airlines Cards
3.8
British Airways Visa Signature® Card
Recommended Credit Score Our recommended ranges are based off of the FICO® Score 8 credit-scoring model. Credit score is one of the many factors lenders review in considering your application.
350 579
580 669
670 739
740 799
800 850
Good - Excellent
Regular APR (%) 17.49% - 24.49% variable
Annual Fee $95
Rewards Earning Rate Earn 3 points per $1 on purchases with British Airways and 1 point per $1 for all other purchases.
Foreign transaction fee (%) 0%

Why We Chose This Card

For big spenders, this card’s bonus offerings are outstanding. Spend $3,000 in the first three months and get 50,000 bonus Avios. Get another 50,000 if you spend a total of $20,000 by the end of the first year. These bonuses easily make up for the annual fee your first year, especially because the points are so valuable, according to our research on reward flights. When used for U.S. flights on partner airlines such as American Airlines, we value the points at an average of 2.1 cents each. So if you qualify for both bonuses, you’ll have rewards worth $2,100 in airfare.

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card

Best for Cost-Conscious Airline Loyalists

Our Rating Among Airlines Cards
3.7
Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card
Recommended Credit Score Our recommended ranges are based off of the FICO® Score 8 credit-scoring model. Credit score is one of the many factors lenders review in considering your application.
350 579
580 669
670 739
740 799
800 850
Good - Excellent
Regular APR (%) 17.49% - 24.49% variable
Annual Fee $149
Rewards Earning Rate 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.
Foreign transaction fee (%) 0%

Why We Chose This Card

Diehard Southwest fans should add this low-cost airline card to their wallets. For starters, new cardholders only have to spend $1,000 in the first three months to earn a 40,000-point bonus. Those are worth $596 when redeemed for flights, based on our calculations of the average point value. Plus, you’ll get 2 points per $1 spent on Southwest flights and purchases with hotel and rental car partners. But best of all, the annual fee is more than covered by the $75 travel credit and the 7,500 cardmember anniversary points you’ll get each year.

Find Your Credit Card Match We consider travel rewards, perks, and fees the most important things you should consider when choosing a travel credit card, but we know you might have different priorities. See what suits you best.
My Credit Score is
POOR EXCELLENT
{{ groupWeights[item].display }}
A LITTLE A LOT
{{ filterMessage }}
Your Results

What Is an Airline Credit Card & How Does it Work?

Airline cards are co-branded with a major airline, such as Delta, United, or American Airlines. They let you earn frequent flyer miles or points on every dollar you spend on the card, with extra miles given for purchases made through that particular airline. Some general travel cards also highly reward airline ticket purchases and offer robust travel reward redemption options, so we considered them for this list, too.

Miles or points can be redeemed for flights, seat upgrades, and even other travel expenses, like hotel stays. Most airline cards also offer high-value sign-up bonuses to new cardholders who spend a certain amount within a few months of opening their account. The best cards award bonuses large enough to book a round-trip plane ticket. 

Many airline cards also offer extra airline and travel benefits, like free checked bags, early boarding privileges, and discounts on in-flight purchases. Premium cards may include lounge access and various types of travel insurance. 

Do You Need an Airline Credit Card?

Pros

  • Easy way to earn frequent flyer miles

  • Valuable sign-up bonuses

  • Airline privileges (e.g., early boarding or free checked bags)

  • Travel insurance perks

  • Travel discounts or statement credits offered with select cards

Cons

  • Limited flexibility with co-branded cards

  • Good or excellent credit required

  • High APRs

  • Complex airline reward program rules

  • Annual fees on the most valuable cards

How to Compare Airline Cards

Pay attention to these card details to select the best airline card for you

Sign-up bonus: Use our mile valuations (below) to determine which card offers more value right off the bat. Multiply the number of miles in the sign-up bonus by the per-mile value (i.e., 1.3 cents-per-mile value x 50,000 bonus miles = $650 value). Also, based on your normal monthly spend, does one card have a more attainable spending requirement than another?

Annual fee: Benefits can offset annual fees (typically between $95 and $450), but If you don’t care about extra airline or travel perks, don’t open a card with an annual fee. 

Airline flight options: If you’re considering a co-branded airline card, but aren’t near a major airline hub city (like Atlanta for Delta or Denver for United), how often can you fly the airline, based on desired departure and arrival locations? For general travel cards, can you easily redeem (or transfer) the points for flights on a variety of airlines? 

Extra rewards: If you don’t already have a good everyday rewards card, consider an airline card that will earn miles on non-travel purchases, like groceries and gas. In some cases, a general travel card may offer more flexible rewards earning options. 

Additional benefits: An airline card will be more valuable if you use the benefits it provides, like free checked bags, TSA Precheck/Global Entry application fee reimbursement, or free airport lounge access. 

What Are Airline Miles Worth?

Average mile value data can help you gauge whether or not an airline card sign-up bonus (or flight) is actually a good deal. 

Our point valuations may be more realistic for you than other website valuations.
There’s more than one way to use airline miles to save on air travel, so we included more than one type of flight in our value calculations. Our average per-mile value data includes one-way economy and first-class (or the equivalent classifications) ticket prices for domestic and international flights from 18 airlines. The flights follow popular routes for each airline, with departures one to five months out to account for trip planners and last minute flight shoppers. We do not factor in fuel surcharges when determining value.

Here's our analysis of average airline-mile value for major U.S. carriers:

  • United Airlines (MileagePlus): 2.16 cents
  • American Airlines (AAdvantage): 2.10 cents
  • Delta Air Lines (SkyMiles): 1.60 cents
  • Southwest (Rapid Rewards): 1.49 cents
  • JetBlue (TrueBlue): 1.30 cents
  • Alaska Airlines (Mileage Plan): 0.80 cents

Can You Transfer Miles?

Most airline frequent flier programs don’t permit transfers between one another, even if the airlines are in the same alliance. There are numerous international airline alliances, but the biggest ones with major U.S. airlines are: Star Alliance (United), OneWorld (American Airlines), and SkyTeam (Delta). 

However, within these groups, you can typically earn miles by flying one airline and redeem them for flights on another. For example, Delta SkyMiles may be used for flights on Air France and Virgin Atlantic in the SkyTeam alliance. 

Note

Points earning and redemption levels on partner airlines may vary, depending on the partner. 

How to Maximize Airline Card Rewards

Each rewards program has its own rules, but to maximize airline card rewards overall, follow these tips: 

  1. Don’t make reservations through a third-party agent or website. Book all flights directly with the airline or rewards portal.
  2. Airline miles are usually most valuable when used to book flights or other travel reservations. You may see options to redeem rewards for merchandise or gift cards, but they are often a worse value. 
  3. Watch for loyalty program opportunities to earn extra miles or score discounted flight tickets.
  4. Pair with another card that earns rewards on everyday expenses if the airline card lacks earning options.
  5. Book travel companions on your reservation so they can enjoy many of the airline benefits you do.
  6. Connect your frequent-flyer account to your card to access all loyalty perks.

Important

Should You Get a No-Annual-Fee Airline Card?

Most airline cards charge annual fees, but people who travel just a few times each year can easily recoup that cost. For example, most airlines charge $30 for a checked bag, each way. If a card offers one free checked bag each way, but charges a $95 annual fee, it only takes two round trips to make up the fee cost. No-annual-fee airline cards usually lack valuable benefits, like free checked bags, and come with low-value sign-up bonuses.

If you prefer a card with no annual fee, we recommend a cash-back credit card with no annual fee, instead.

Methodology

We collect data on hundreds of cards and score more than 55 features that affect your finances. We do this because it's our mission to give you unbiased, comprehensive credit card reviews.

Our reviews are always impartial. No one can influence which cards we review, the way we present them to you, or the ratings they receive.

About This List

We reviewed more than 50 airline-specific and general-travel-rewards credit cards to find the very best airline cards, and these cards made the cut.

What We Score

Cards with big sign-up bonuses, flexible rewards programs, valuable miles, and better benefits receive better scores. Airline cards with low miles value, few perks, and limited transfer options receive lower scores accordingly. For more information about how The Balance evaluates credit cards, see our full credit card review methodology