Best Airline Credit Cards of October 2019

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Airline cards let you earn extra reward points on purchases of plane tickets and, sometimes, other travel items, which you can redeem for flights. Sometimes, the best card for flights isn’t even an airline 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.

Editors' Picks

Best Overall

Chase Sapphire Reserve®

Our Rating Among Airlines Cards
4.2
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 (%) 18.99% - 25.99% 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 all-star card tops several of our lists for a few reasons. The sign-up bonus is worth at least $500 when used for travel, thanks to high-value Chase Ultimate Rewards points and the program’s airline transfer partners. Extra points are offered on many travel purchase types, too, making it easy to earn points, which you can redeem for free flights and much more. Ridiculously good benefits come with this card, too, like unlimited airport lounge access and an annual reimbursement for travel expenses.

Best for Cost-Conscious Airline Loyalists

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card

Our Rating Among Airlines Cards
3.8
Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus 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 (%) 17.99% - 24.99% variable
Annual Fee $69
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 (%) 3%

Why We Chose This Card

New cardholders can earn a 40,000-point bonus after spending $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months, plus an additional 20,000 points after spending $12,000 within the first year, and 3,000 bonus points each year after that. It’s a duo that can more than make up for a low annual fee. This card offers double points on all Southwest purchases, and additional perks like free checked bags, unlimited reward seats, and no blackout dates. Altogether, it’s a lucrative but low-cost airline card for Southwest fans.

Best Airline-Specific Sign-Up Bonus

British Airways Visa Signature® Card

Our Rating Among Airlines Cards
4.1
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 (%) 17.99% - 24.99% variable
Annual Fee $95
Rewards Earning Rate Earn 3X points on purchases with British Airways and 1X points 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 three months and get 50,000 bonus Avios. Get another 50,000 bonus Avios if you spend $20,000 by the end of the first year. The bonuses easily make up for the annual fee. Plus, British Airways has 14 partner airlines, so you’ll have options for how to use those extra, high-value airline points. (But if you fly British Airways regularly, you’re aware of the airline’s hefty fuel surcharges, and that’s not factored into the points value.)

Best for Earning High-Value Miles

Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®

Our Rating Among Airlines Cards
3.4
Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®
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 (%) 17.74% - 25.74% variable
Annual Fee $0 for the first year, then $99
Rewards Earning Rate Earn 2 miles for every $1 spent at gas stations, eligible American Airlines purchases, and restaurants.
Foreign transaction fee (%) 0%

Why We Chose This Card

American Airlines’ frequent flyer miles are by far the most valuable of the major U.S. airlines’, according to our calculations. We found they’re worth 2.95 cents each, on average, when redeemed for flights. Plus, you’ll earn double miles on gas and restaurant purchases in addition to flights, which makes this a better daily-use card than many airline-branded cards. There’s also a generous bonus and free-checked-bag benefit that make up for the annual fee.

Find Your Credit Card Match

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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 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. They represent the value you should easily find when booking a plane ticket with a major airline, on a popular route. Airline miles can save money on something you would’ve purchased anyway, so we don’t calculate value by looking just at first-class travel. Premium tickets can be a good way to redeem a large number of miles, but economy flights may help you redeem miles (and travel) more often.

Here's our analysis of average airline-mile value when redeemed for domestic economy flights on major U.S. carriers, based on research conducted in the second quarter of 2019:

  • American Airlines (AAdvantage): 1 mile = 3 cents
  • Delta Air Lines (SkyMiles): 1.3 cents
  • United Airlines (MileagePlus): 1.1 cents
  • Southwest (Rapid Rewards): 1.5 cents
  • JetBlue (TrueBlue): 1.3 cents
  • Alaska Airlines (Mileage Plan): 1.2 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

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

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 4 cards made cut for this list.

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