Pros and Cons of Getting an Airline Credit Card

Smart for Airline Loyalists but Otherwise Not So Much?

A backpacking young woman tourist looks up at the overhead flight info board in an airport terminal.
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Kelly Dilworth / Getty Images 

If you travel often, you’ve probably heard in-flight pitches for an airline’s co-branded credit card. Flight attendants often promote airline credit cards with promises of special perks for cardholders. 

But before you apply, consider your travel style and preferences. For instance, if you usually fly the same airline and prize boarding a flight early, an airline card that offers priority boarding may be worth the annual fee. But if you want your card to help fund your next vacation, then a general travel card’s sign-up bonus may get you a free flight faster. 

Here are the pros and cons of getting an airline credit card. 

Pros

  • Priority boarding

  • Complimentary seat upgrades

  • Free checked baggage

  • Discounts on in-flight purchases

  • Free or heavily discounted companion passes

  • Airport perks

  • Easy ways to earn miles

Cons

  • Potentially limits you to one airline

  • Less lucrative sign-up bonuses

  • Fewer opportunities to earn bonus miles

  • Complex reward redemption process

  • More likely to have an annual fee

Pros of Airline Credit Cards Explained

Here's why you should get one. 

Priority Boarding

If being one of the first to board a flight is important to you, an airline credit card could guarantee your spot. A number of airline cards offer priority boarding as a perk for cardholders—which you won’t find on a general travel card. 

Complimentary Seat Upgrades

Signing up for an airline’s rewards card can also boost your odds of landing a roomier seat towards the front of the jet, even if you only pay for an economy seat. Some airline cards offer free seat upgrades, under certain conditions, as a perk. 

Plus, many airline loyalty programs reward frequent flyers with free seat upgrades when available. You may need elite status to qualify, but an airline credit card could help you earn elite status faster on the airline if you meet certain spending thresholds.

Free Checked Baggage

Several airline credit cards also waive cardholders’ baggage fees. That could save you at least $60 on a round-trip Delta or American Airlines flight, for example (unless you have elite status and qualify for free checked bags). 

Some cards will even cover the cost of baggage for others flying on the same reservation as you. Just one group vacation could more than justify the card’s annual fee. General travel cards may offer credits that can reimburse you for baggage fees. But those credits are capped—at $100 or $200 per year, for instance, depending on the card—so you may save more with an airline card. 

Discounts on In-Flight Purchases

Some airline cards also offer discounts, commonly 20% to 25%, on in-flight purchases like food, drinks, and Wi-Fi.

Free or Discounted Companion Passes 

Companion passes are only available on a handful of airline cards, but they’re one of the most lucrative perks you can receive. Some airline cards automatically offer at least one free or deeply discounted companion pass a year, while others award them after you’ve spent a certain amount. You’ll pay taxes and fees on free companion passes, though the card may limit the amount you can be charged.

Airport Perks

Your airline card may also offer special benefits to make your airport stay less stressful, like airport lounge access and free food and drinks in the lounge. Cards with middle-of-the-road annual fees (around $100) typically offer limited or discounted lounge access, while more expensive cards will let you in anytime for free. In addition, some airline cards offer application fee credits for TSA Precheck or Global Entry so you can avoid long security lines. 

Easy Ways to Earn Miles

If you’re a member of an airline’s loyalty program and are looking for an easy way to earn more miles, charging purchases to an airline’s co-branded credit card is a good way to do it. While you can also transfer miles from a general travel card to your chosen airline, the process isn’t as straightforward. 

Cons of Airline Credit Cards Explained 

And here's why you might consider another kind of travel rewards card.

Potentially Limits You to One Airline

With a general travel card, you can typically book flights on a wide variety of airlines. When you choose an airline card, you commit to flying with just one carrier when using that card—though you can use rewards earned on some cards to purchase flights on partner airlines.

Less Lucrative Sign-Up Bonuses

General travel cards, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred and the Capital One Venture, tend to offer plusher bonuses to new cardholders than airline cards. A few airline cards stand out for their generous sign-up bonuses, though, like the British Airways Visa Signature and the Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard.

Fewer Opportunities to Earn Bonus Miles

Many airline cards also sharply limit the kinds of purchases that earn bonuses, making it tough to stock up enough miles to earn a free flight. For example, many airline cards only offer bonus points on airline purchases. Others are slightly more generous and offer a limited number of miles on everyday purchases, such as dining, groceries, or gas. 

Complex Reward Redemption Process

One of the biggest downsides to an airline credit card is that it can be a pain to book rewards travel through an airline’s loyalty program. Some airlines impose travel blackout dates, restricting when you can travel. Others limit the number of rewards seats that are available, making it harder to find an open seat. 

You also can’t count on an airline card’s rewards program staying the same: A number of airlines have retooled their loyalty programs in recent years, causing the miles frequent flyers earn to be less valuable when booking a flight with the airline. 

Annual Fees

Most airline credit cards charge an annual fee, often ranging from $69 to $95 a year or more. (Some waive the annual fee the first year.) A few luxury airline cards even charge $450 yearly in exchange for premium benefits. There are a handful of airline cards that don’t charge an annual fee, but they don’t offer as many perks, either. 

Who Should Get an Airline Credit Card? 

You typically need good to excellent credit to qualify for an airline credit card. Also, many airline cards’ APRs start at 17% to 18%, and maximum APRs can reach 26.99% or more. That means they’re best for those who plan to pay off their balances in full each month to keep interest from piling up.

You’ll get the most value out of an airline card if you travel often enough to earn bonus points on airfare and earn back its annual fee. In addition, you may be a good match for an airline card if: 

  • You spend a lot on checked baggage fees, particularly if you often fly with a group. 
  • Being one of the first passengers on board is important to you. 
  • You value comfort and convenience when you travel.
  • You’d like a simple way to earn additional airline miles. 

The average airline credit card doesn’t offer as many flashy perks or plush bonuses as some travel rewards cards. But if you’re looking for an easy way to turbocharge your miles or save money on your next trip, then an airline credit card may be worth a closer look.