The Best Airline Credit Cards to Maximize Your Rewards [December 2019]

Airplane

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If you fly frequently on a specific airline, chances are high that you’ve considered that airline’s branded credit card. After all, there are a lot of compelling reasons to hold an airline credit card that is associated with your most frequented airline.

Airline credit cards offer benefits such as the ability to earn more frequent flyer miles, receive free checked bags and priority boarding, save on inflight purchases, and even enjoy complimentary lounge access.

However, as simple as it is to narrow your credit card preference to your airline of choice, that’s just the first step in the process.  One airline alone could have several different credit cards from which you’d then have to select.

To help narrow down your choices, here’s a snapshot of the best cards for each popular airline, along with explanations of how you’ll earn rewards and the flight benefits that come with each card.

The purpose of this article is to give you all the information need to select the right airline credit card for your wallet, spending profile, and frequented airline — plus provide links to further articles so you can learn even more about the cards and how to earn/redeem for maximum value.

American Airlines Credit Cards

AA 777 Business Class
Miles earned on your American Airlines credit card can be used to enjoy American’s 777-300ER Business Class. Image Credit: American Airlines

The American Airline’s AAdvantage loyalty program is the largest frequent flyer program and one of the longest standing programs still around. With so many members, card issuers Barclays and Citi needed to design several credit cards that would meet the needs of a variety of American flyers.

You’ll find cards that offer lounge access, free checked bags for you and your traveling companions, discounts on inflight purchases, and even the ability to earn elite qualifying miles for a faster path to elite status.

Here’s a look at some of the best credit cards American offers and each card’s related benefits.

Earning Miles on American Airline Credit Cards

One of the most important aspects of an airline credit card is the ability to earn frequent flier miles that can be redeemed for award flights.

All American Airlines cards listed below earn at least 2 miles per dollar spent on American. A few cards also have bonus spending categories.

Bottom Line: All the American Airlines credit cards featured earn at least 2 miles per dollar spent at American Airlines and 1 mile per dollar on purchases other than the specific bonus categories mentioned. 

Best American Airlines Credit Cards for Flight Benefits

One of the primary reasons to select an airline credit card is the flight benefits you receive just for having the card. Let’s look at the flight related benefits you can expect from these popular American Airlines credit cards.

American Airlines Credit CardFlight Benefits
CitiBusiness Platinum Select Card

AAdvantage Aviator Red Card

AAdvantage Aviator Business Card
  • free checked bag for the cardholder and up to 4 traveling companions
  • Preferred boarding (boards after priority boarding)
  • 25% statement credit for inflight food and beverage purchases
AAdvantage Aviator Silver Card
  • Receive a free checked bag for the cardholder plus 8 traveling companions
  • Preferred boarding (boards after priority boarding)
  • $100 Global Entry or TSA PreCheck credit
  • Up to $50 in statement credits annually for inflight Wi-Fi purchases
  • $25 per day back as a statement credit for in-flight food and beverage purchases made with the card
AAdvantage Platinum Select Card
  • $125 American Airlines flight discount after spending $20,000 per card anniversary year
  • A free checked bag for the cardholder and up to 4 traveling companions
  • Preferred boarding (boards after priority boarding)
  • 25% statement credit for inflight food and beverage purchases
AAdvantage Executive World Elite Card
  • Access to Admirals Club for cardholder, 2 guests or immediate family, and authorized users
  • Dedicated check-in areas, expedited airport screening, and priority boarding
  • Receive a free checked bag for the cardholder plus 8 traveling companions
  • $100 Global Entry or TSA PreCheck credit
  • 25% statement credit for inflight food and beverage purchases

Best American Airlines Credit Cards for a Faster Path to AAdvantage Elite Status

American Airlines Credit CardElite Qualifying MilesElite Qualifying Dollars
AAdvantage Aviator Silver Card
  • 5,000 EQM after spending $20,000 on the card in a calendar year, 5,000 additional EQM, for a total of 10,000, after spending $40,000
  • $3,000 EQD after spending $50,000 on the card in a calendar year
AAdvantage Aviator Business Card
  • N/A
  • $3,000 EQD after spending $25,000 on the card in a calendar year
AAdvantage Executive World Elite Card
  • 10,000 EQM after spending $40,000 in a calendar year
  • N/A

Note that the AAdvantage Aviator Silver card is not available for new applications. However, the card is available as an upgrade to cardholders who have an eligible Aviator Red card.

Additional Perks and Benefits of American Airlines Branded Cards

American Airlines branded cards issued by Barclays come with several useful shopping and travel protections including, but not limited to, car rental insurance, baggage insurance, purchase protection, and extended warranty.

The AAdvantage Aviator Red Card and AAdvantage Aviator Silver Card both offer a $99 companion ticket benefit (plus taxes and fees) that is good for up to 2 companions after spending $30,000 each card anniversary year. The CitiBusiness Platinum Select Card offers a companion ticket benefit after spending $30,000 each card anniversary year.

Most American Airlines branded credit cards are also eligible for reduced mileage award tickets to certain destinations. You can find more information on American’s website.

We have a lot more information to share with you regarding American Airlines credit cards. To learn more about all the benefits and to compare, explore our best alternative travel rewards cards for American flyers.

Delta Air Lines

Delta One Suite
Use your Delta SkyMiles to fly in a Delta One A350 suite. Image Credit: Delta

Earning Miles on Delta Air Lines Credit Cards

Each Delta Air Lines credit card featured below earns 2 miles per dollar spent on the airline and 1 mile per dollar spent on all other purchases.

The Best Delta Air Lines Credit Cards for Flight Benefits

All of these featured Delta credit cards come with a free checked bag benefit and priority boarding, which directly follows Sky Priority boarding.

Delta Branded CardFlight Benefits
  • Free checked bag for cardholder and up to 8 travel companions
  • Sky Team Elite level priority boarding
  • Discounted Sky Club Access – $29 per person/per visit, up to 2 guests
  • Main Cabin companion ticket
  • Pay-with-Miles option to purchase flights
  • 20% off inflight purchases
  • Free checked bag for cardholder and up to 8 travel companions
  • Sky Team Elite level priority boarding
  • Discounted Sky Club Access – $29 per person/per visit, up to 2 guests
  • Main Cabin domestic companion ticket
  • Pay-with-Miles option to purchase flights
  • 20% off inflight purchases
  • Free checked bag for cardholder and up to 8 travel companions
  • Sky Team Elite level priority boarding
  • Complimentary Sky Club lounge access for cardholder
  • Discounted Sky Club access for 2 guests – $29 per person/per visit
  • First class, Main Cabin, or Comfort Plus domestic companion ticket
  • Medallion upgrade priority
  • Pay-with-Miles option to purchase flights
  • 20% off in-flight purchases

Bottom Line: Having a Delta branded credit card can add value by saving you money with a free checked bag for the cardholder and up to 8 traveling companions. Priority boarding and discounted or complimentary lounge access can make your trip more comfortable. Add in the ability to use frequent flyer miles to offset the cost of your ticket and you’ll find plenty of flight-related benefits that make a Delta credit card worthwhile . 

Best Delta Credit Cards for a Faster Path to Medallion Elite Status

Delta Medallion Elite status requires flying a specific number of miles or flight segments earn calendar year, spending Medallion Qualifying Dollars (MQD) on Delta flights, and/or spending on a Delta credit card to waive the MQD requirement.

All of the Delta credit cards featured in this article allow you to waive the MQD requirement for elite levels up to Platinum by spending $25,000 each calendar year. You can waive the Diamond MQD requirement by spending $250,000 in a calendar year.

In addition, you can earn MQM towards elite status by spending on the Delta Platinum and Delta Reserve consumer and business cards:

  • Platinum Delta Card and Platinum Delta SkyMiles Business Card – Earn 10,000 MQM towards elite status after spending $25,000 on the card in a calendar year and another 10,000 MQM after spending $50,000
  • Delta Reserve Card and Delta Reserve Business Card – Earn 15,000 MQM towards elite status after spending $30,000 on the card in a calendar year and another 15,000 MQD after spending $60,000

Additional Benefits and Perks of Delta Branded Cards

The Delta Reserve Card, the Platinum Delta card, and the business versions of each of these cards offer a buy one/get one companion ticket benefit each year for travel within the lower 48 United States. The cardholder pays only for the taxes and fees on the companion ticket.

The Pay-with-Miles benefit allows you to use frequent flyer miles to offset the cost of your paid ticket. Each 5,000 miles equals $50 in credit towards the cost of your flight.

For a complete breakdown, explore our best credit cards for Delta flyers, including our flexible travel rewards card recommendations for Delta flyers.

United Airlines

United Global First Cabin
Use your United miles to book United Global First where every seat has lie flat comfort and aisle access. Image Credit: United Airlines

Earning Miles on United Airline Credit Cards

All of the United branded credit cards featured here earn 2 miles for every dollar spent on United purchases, and some cards have bonus earning categories that result in elevated earnings on specific purchases. Cards, unless otherwise specified, earn 1 mile for every dollar purchased.

You can also earn 10,000 bonus miles after spending $25,000 in a calendar year on the United Explorer Business Card.

Best United Credit Cards for Flight Benefits

Having a United credit card can help make your trip more comfortable and save you money. Here’s how each United credit cards can enhance your journey.

United Credit CardFlight Benefits
United Explorer Card
  • A free checked bag for you and your travel companion
  • Priority boarding
  • 25% statement credit for inflight food/beverage purchases
  • $100 Global Entry credit
  • 2 United Club one-time passes per card anniversary year
  • Enhanced award ticket availability
United Explorer Business Card
  • A free checked bag for you and your travel companion
  • Priority boarding
  • 2 United Club one-time passes per card anniversary year
  • Enhanced award ticket availability
United MileagePlus Club Card
  • 2 free checked bags for you and your travel companion
  • Premier Access Package: Priority boarding, priority seat selection, priority security lane, and priority baggage handling
  • United Club access for cardholder
  • Enhanced award ticket availability
United MileagePlus Club Business Card
  • 2 free checked bags for you and your travel companion
  • Premier Access Package: Priority boarding, priority seat selection, priority security lane, and priority baggage handling
  • United Club access for cardholder
  • Enhanced award ticket availability

Bottom Line: Having a United branded credit card adds comfort and cost savings to your trip. You’ll receive a free checked bag(s), priority boarding, and passes to the United Club airport lounge. Having access to enhanced award ticket availability means you’ll also use less miles to secure a United award ticket. 

Best United Airline Credit Cards for a Faster Path to Premier Elite Status

Like American Airlines (EQD) and Delta Air Lines (MQD), United has a requirement that you must spend a certain amount of money each year on airline tickets to qualify for United Premier elite status. United’s revenue requirement is referred to as Premier Qualifying Dollars (PQD).

However, if you spend $25,000 per calendar year on any United credit card mentioned above, United will waive the PQD requirement for Premier elite levels up to, and including, Premier Platinum. There is no PQD waiver for top United 1K Premier status.

For a comprehensive overview of all United Airline’s credit cards, you’ll want to check out our best credit cards for United flyers.

Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines Premium Class
Use your miles to upgrade and enjoy Alaska Airlines Premium Class. Image Credit: Alaskaair.com

Alaska Airline loyalists are passionate about flying their favorite airline. If you’re a frequent Alaska Airline traveler, having a branded credit card can help you earn miles faster, plus save you money with a free checked bag and their famous $99 companion certificate. Our recommended Alaska branded credit card is the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Credit Card.

The Alaska Airlines Visa Signature card is issued by Bank of America, the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature card is great card for frequent Alaska Airlines travelers.

Earning

You’ll receive 3 miles per dollar spent on the card for Alaska Airlines purchases and 1 miles per dollar spent on all other purchases.

Flight Benefits

  • A free checked bag for cardholder and up to 6 traveling companions
  • $99 companion certificate (cardholder just pays taxes/fees not to exceed $22)

Learn more about the Alaska Airline Mileage Plan loyal program and the best ways to redeem your Mileage Plan miles for maximum value.

Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines has several branded rewards credit cards. However, our recommended Southwest branded card is the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card.

Earning

You’ll earn 2 points per dollar spent with Southwest and hotel/car rental partners and 1 point per dollar on all other purchases. The card also gives you a bonus 7,500 anniversary points each year

Flight Benefits

Cardmembers can take advantage of the $75 Southwest annual travel credit, 4 upgraded boardings per year, and get 20% back on inflight purchases.

A Faster Path to Elite Status

Southwest has 3 tier levels of status, A-List, A-List Preferred, and Companion Pass. You can reach the first 2 levels by flying 25,000 and 50,000 miles per year respectively or by earning 35,000/70,000 tier qualifying points by spending on Southwest. You will need 110,000 points in a calendar year to earn a Southwest Companion Pass.

You can earn tier qualifying points for all elite levels, including Companion Pass, by also spending on any Southwest Rapid Rewards credit cards.

British Airways

British Airways Club Europe
British Airways Avios frequent flyer miles offer great value on short flight redemptions.  Image Credit: Britishairways.com

If you fly on British Airways or its partner One World Alliance airlines such as American Airlines, Qantas, Japan Airlines, or Cathay Pacific, you’re sure to have use for their frequent flyer miles, which British Airways has named “Avios”. While redeeming Avios for long-haul premium flights is a solid option, the redemption sweet spot can be realized on short flight redemptions. Flights of 650 miles or less start at just 4,000 Avios for an off-peak one-way flight.

Our recommended British Airways’ branded card is the British Airways Visa Signature® Card. The British Airways Visa Signature card doesn’t come with a lot of bells and whistles but is does allow you to earn Avios, receive discounts on British Airways flights and earn a valuable companion ticket potentially worth thousands of dollars.

Earnings

Chase issues the British Airways Visa Signature that earns 3 Avios (miles) per dollar spent on British Airways, Aer Lingus, Iberia, and Level. You can also earn 2 Avios per dollar spent on hotel accommodations, then all other purchases earn 1 Avios per dollar spent.

Flight Benefits

  • 10% discount on British Airways flights purchased with the card when booked by March 31, 2020
  • Travel Together companion ticket after spending $30,000 per calendar year

If you travel on British Airways, their partner airlines, have use for a premium companion ticket, or want to have a stash of Avios on hand for booking short haul flights, the card will bring you value.

JetBlue Airlines

JetBlue Mint Cabin
JetBlue Mint Cabin. Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

If you’re a JetBlue fan, you may find value and earn lots of rewards with a JetBlue branded credit card. Barclays issues 3 JetBlue branded Cards including the JetBlue Card, the JetBlue Plus Card, and the JetBlue Business Card.

We especially like the JetBlue Plus Card for its elevated earnings and its benefits.

Earnings

  • 6x points per dollar spent on JetBlue
  • 2x points per dollar at restaurants and grocery stores

Flight Benefits

  • 50% discount on inflight food and beverages purchases
  • Free checked bag for cardholder

Everything Else You Need to Know

In addition to earning miles, flight benefits, a faster path to elite status, and discounts, airline credit cards can offer travel and shopping protections and associated benefits.

The level of benefits varies by card but you can expect to see some of these complimentary protections and benefits.

Our credit card reviews highlight these coverages and more, but the best source of determining the level of benefits offered for a specific airline credit card is the card’s Guide to Benefits.

Final Thoughts

One benefit of airline credit cards is that they usually come with a generous welcome bonus you can earn when you initially secure the card and complete the minimum spending requirement within a designated amount of time. Welcome bonuses can be as much as 100,000 miles and provide enough capital to book at least a business class flight.

Welcome bonus aside, however, the best airline credit card for you may not be an airline-branded credit card but a travel rewards earning credit card. Or you may find that a combination of an airline branded card and a travel rewards card will work for even greater earnings and elevated travel benefits.

The right card combination can give you the highest earnings on every airline you fly (including your preferred airline), flexible redemption options beyond your frequented airline, luxury travel benefits, and travel/shopping protections that add value.


FAQ

Which is the best airline credit card?

The best airline credit card will likely be the one representing the airline you fly on most frequently.

This is because you could receive benefits such as free checked bags, priority boarding, the possibility of a faster path to elite status, and even airport lounge access.

Another good choice for an airline credit card will be one that has a large welcome bonus that you could subsequently use to redeem for award flights. This may be an airline branded credit card that isn’t tied to your most frequented airline.

The best credit card for airline purchases, however, may not be branded by the airline. For example, the best card could be a flexible rewards earning credit card that may offer 5x earnings on flight purchases versus 2 miles per dollar spent on the airlines with the airline credit card.

Plus, with a flexible rewards earning card, you will not be limited to redeeming your rewards on one specific airline or airline alliance.

How do airline credit cards work?

Airline credit cards are not issued by the airlines but by financial institutions. When you apply for the credit card, you will be sent a card from the financial institution but the card will also be tied to your airline frequent flyer account.

For this reason, before you apply for an airline credit card, you should register for an airline frequent flyer account (if you do not already have one). This account will receive all the frequent flyer miles you earn when you spend on your airline branded credit card.

Airline credit cards usually come with the benefit of earning double miles for spending on the card, some flight benefits such as a free checked bag, priority boarding, and perhaps a discount for on board purchases.

Premium airline credits may also come with lounge access, the ability to earn elite status miles, and travel/shopping protections.

The miles you earn on your airline credit card accumulate in your frequent flyer account and can be redeemed for award flights on the airline and/or partner airlines. In some cases you can redeem rewards for merchandise, gift cards, and more.

Can you transfer miles from one airline to another?

While it is generally not possible to transfer miles from one airline to another, you may be able to use the miles accumulated in one airline frequent flyer account for award flights on their partner airlines in the same alliance.

Many travel rewards cards that earn Membership Rewards, Ultimate Rewards, Capital One miles, and other transferable points allow you to transfer these points to the card’s specific airline transfer partners.

How many miles does it take to get a free ticket?

The amount of miles required to purchase a free airline ticket will vary depending on the frequent flyer program, where you are traveling to/from, the timing of your flights, seat availability, and the class of service.

You should generally expect to pay no less than 25,000 miles for a round trip domestic ticket within the continental U.S. unless there is a fare sale or saver level award available. You may also have to pay much more depending on the factors previously mentioned.

Can I have more than one airline credit card?

Yes, you can have several airline credit cards, subject to the rules of each credit card issuer.

For example, Chase has a 5/24 rule that may limit the amount of cards you can be approved for and American Express has a limit on the maximum number of cards you can hold with them.

Christine Krzyszton

About Christine Krzyszton

Christine, who lives in Northern Michigan, travels about 300,000 miles a year despite her remote location. Her expertise is traveling the world on a weekend with no pre-determined destination in mind, letting the cost of the airfare determine where she will go. She has over four million flown miles and elite status on all three major domestic carriers.

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