How to Choose an Airline Credit Card

You’ve taken your first step into a larger world.

A backpacking flyer steps into the crowded terminal confident the perks provided by his airline credit card will see him comfortably to his destination.
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Mohd Hafiez Mohd Razali / EyeEm / Getty Images 

Airline credit cards make it easy to earn miles on your regular spending, get on the fast track to elite status, and score special airline-related benefits like free checked bags or priority boarding. But they’re not the right option for everyone—and they can even be limiting if you need flexibility in how you redeem your rewards. For the most part, a co-branded airline credit card can be a wise choice if:

  • You’re loyal to an airline: Airline credit cards are best for frequent flyers who have the ability to be loyal to a specific airline or airline alliance. However, you may be better off with a general travel credit card if you prefer to shop among different carriers to find the best price.
  • You like to check bags and score free perks: If you like to check bags when you fly, an airline credit card that offers free checked bags can help you save money. Airline credit cards can also be a boon for flyers who want priority boarding and other special treatment.
  • You want airline miles: Airline credit cards are best for those who specifically want to earn airline miles and have a plan to redeem them. But because airline miles can be difficult to redeem—especially for big families or during peak travel times—they can be limiting in some cases.

Which Airline Flies Where You Want to Travel?

Provided you’re a good candidate for an airline credit card, the first step you should take is figuring out which airline would serve you best. This really depends on where you live and where you like to travel. 

If you’re not sure already, do some research online to find out which airlines operate out of the airports you fly out of—and which routes they offer. Most airlines have a page on their main website that explains where they fly and, as a result, where they don’t fly.

For example, let’s say you live in Miami, Florida and want to travel frequently to the Caribbean with miles. In that case, American Airlines would be a good option since they have a stronghold, or hub, at Miami International Airport (MIA) with lots of flights coming and going. 

On the flip side, Southwest Airlines, which is well known for operating inexpensive flights to the Caribbean, wouldn’t be a solid choice since they don’t fly out of MIA—unless, of course, you were willing to drive to another South Florida airport like Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL). 

Another example: If you live in Atlanta, you may just want to resign yourself to picking up a co-branded Delta credit card considering Delta has had its headquarters there since 1941 and the airline has a stronghold there. 

Most airlines have a page on their website dedicated to their routes and offerings, so make sure to check. If one airline is an obvious choice for the destinations you want to visit, you should start there. 

Which Credit Card Perks Are You Willing to Pay For?

While you can get plenty of value from an airline credit card, this type of card typically comes with an annual fee between $95 and $450. Fortunately, many cards with lower fees will waive it first year, giving you 12 months to try out the perks. 

Benefits you can secure with the right airline credit card include:

  • Free checked bags for you and sometimes several companions
  • Early boarding on your plane
  • Priority check-in when you arrive at the airport
  • Airport lounge membership
  • Discounted airport lounge entry
  • In-flight discounts on food, internet access, and other travel incidentals
  • Companion tickets that let a companion fly free
  • Global Entry or TSA Precheck credit
  • Elite qualification miles that can help you reach elite status

If you have an idea of which airline you prefer, taking a close look at the benefits each of their co-branded credit cards offer is your next best step. Then take a look at airline card annual fees and how their benefits might justify paying them. 

For example, paying the $99 annual fee on the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard® after the first year can be well worth it since you get a free checked bag for you and up to four companions on your itinerary. After all, a first checked bag will set you back $30 per bag on most domestic itineraries with American. 

What About Elite Status?

A final piece of the puzzle in helping you select an airline credit card is whether cards you’re considering help you earn elite status—and whether or not you even care. Keep in mind that you typically have to fly often to earn even the lowest level of elite status with a major airline, so this simply isn’t a consideration for everyone. If you’re a business traveler or you have lots of personal travel plans, on the other hand, earning elite status and the perks that come with it (i.e. free upgrades, priority boarding, free checked bags, more miles on airline purchases, etc.) may be crucial.

If you are someone who can benefit from elite status, note that some airline credit cards can help you get there faster. They typically do this by granting you some elite qualification miles when you meet a minimum spending requirements. With the right card and enough spending each year, you may also have the ability to bypass some of the requirements for elite status. 

Final Considerations

You have almost everything you need to select the right airline credit card, but there’s another detail to check out—how many miles can you earn right away? 

Many airline credit cards offer welcome bonuses of up to 60,000 miles if you can spend several thousand dollars within a few months. Make sure to check on these bonuses and compare them before deciding whether the required spending threshold is feasible to meet.

Also remember that airline credit cards aren’t always the best option for your everyday spending since they rarely give you more than 1 mile for regular purchases. For that reason, you may want to consider pairing your airline credit card with a general travel card that offers better bonus categories and a broader selection of travel benefits.