Many airlines have loyalty programs where you can earn miles that are redeemable for free flights, but it can be hard to earn enough miles unless you fly all the time. To help people who travel less frequently take advantage of their loyalty programs, many airlines partner with credit card issuers. That’s why the best airline credit cards can help you earn free travel and get a host of perks when you fly your favorite airline.

ALSO READ: Our Complete Guide to the Best Hotel Credit Cards

The Best Airline Credit Cards

Every airline’s card is different. Some give you great perks when you fly with the airline, but don’t offer much in the way of miles. Others focus heavily on helping you earn free flights. Which card is best for you will depend on your travel goals.

What is an airline credit card?

An airline credit card is a credit card that offers travel perks and rewards to cardholders. While any credit card that offers rewards can be used to pay for travel, such as by using cash back to pay for flights, airline credit cards are designed specifically for air travel. Instead of earning cash back or points, you’ll earn miles that can be redeemed for flights. Additionally, the best airline cards will offer perks like free checked baggage or priority boarding.

What to look for in an airline credit card

Airline cards come in many forms. Some are basic cards that don’t do much but let you earn miles when you spend. Others have premium perks but carry a premium price.

When looking at airline credit cards, you’ll want to consider the following factors:

  • Annual fee
  • Sign up bonus
  • Interest rate
  • Ongoing rewards
  • Travel perks

>>FIND THE CREDIT CARD THAT FITS YOUR SPENDING HABITS

Annual Fee

A credit card’s annual fee is the amount of money that you have to pay to open the card and keep it open each year.
Many travel cards charge an annual fee to help cover the cost of the rewards and perks they offer. Premium cards with a lot of perks tend to have higher fees.

When choosing a card with an annual fee, make sure that you will use the card and its perks often enough to offset the fee. If you could get the same benefits for less than the cost of the fee, opening the card does not make sense.

Sign-Up Bonus

One of the easiest ways to earn free flights is with a credit card sign up bonus. Many cards offering tens of thousands of miles if you spend enough money within a few months of opening the card. Depending on the airline, that could be worth one or more free flights.

If you have a specific travel plan in mind, look for the card with the sign up bonus that will get you closest to buying those tickets.

Ongoing Rewards

On top of the sign up bonus, you’ll earn points or miles for each dollar you spend using your card. Some cards have flat rewards rates while others will give you varying amounts based on the types of purchases that you make.

Choose a card that will offer a good value in rewards for purchases in categories where you spend a lot of money. While signing up for a card just for the sign up bonus is a legitimate strategy for getting free travel, having a card that you can use over the long-term can get you free travel on a consistent basis.

Interest Rate

All credit cards charge interest. No one is going to let you borrow money for free, though some cards do offer 0% interest promotions.

In an ideal world, you’ll never pay credit card interest. You’ll use the card and pay the balance in full at the end of each month. If you do that, interest will never accrue. However, people sometimes forget to make a monthly payment or encounter a financial emergency and need to carry a balance.

If you think that you might have to carry a balance occasionally, look for a card with a low interest rate.

Perks

Travel credit cards offer perks that focus on travel. You can get things like priority boarding, seat upgrades, or lounge access. Look at the different credit cards and their perks to decide which perks will be most valuable to you.

ALSO READ: The CardCruncher Guide to the Best Restaurant Credit Cards

FAQs

Here are some of the most commonly asked questions about airline credit cards.

How do airline credit cards work?

Airline credit cards work much like other credit cards. You can use them to make purchases at stores and online. At the end of the month, you’ll get a bill to pay. If you don’t pay the full balance, you’ll owe interest.

What differentiates them from normal credit cards is that airline credit cards give you rewards when you use them. Every dollar you spend will earn rewards miles that can be redeemed toward travel. Many travel credit cards also offer perks when you fly, such as free checked bags. Using a travel card can actually make travel cheaper and more luxurious.

>>FIND THE CREDIT CARD THAT FITS YOUR SPENDING HABITS

Do I have to be a frequent flyer to have an airline credit card?

You do not have to be a frequent flyer to use an airline credit card. In fact, many airline cards are great for people who don’t fly often.

Many airline credit cards offer huge sign up bonuses that you can redeem for multiple free flights. If you know that you have a big trip coming up, signing up for an airline card and using the bonus to book your flights can save you a lot of money.

How many miles do I earn with an airline credit card?

The number of miles you earn with an airline credit card depends on the card and the airline. Each airline credit card is different, but the typical airline card offers 30,000 – 60,000 miles as a sign up bonus. On top of that, you’ll earn between 1 and 3 miles per dollar spent, depending on the card and the type of purchase.

Will I still earn miles from flying if I earn them on a card?

Yes, you can still earn miles from flying if you also have an airline credit card. In fact, having an airline card can accelerate your earnings by letting you get miles from the flight and from buying the ticket.

How much is an airline mile worth?

The value of an airline mile varies with the airline. For example, Southwest miles can be redeemed for gift cards for different retailers in addition to Southwest flights. If you choose that option, you’ll get one cent per mile in gift card credit.

Other airlines will charge the same number of miles for any domestic flight, giving their miles a value that varies wildly with the flight you decide to book. Typically, you can expect to get about 1 cent of value for each mile that you earn.

Are credit card miles the same as “regular” airline miles?

Credit card miles are different from regular airline miles. With airline miles, you can usually only redeem them with the associated airline. Some have transfer partners that you can transfer the miles to, but others will only let you redeem directly with them.

Credit card miles tend to be more flexible. Depending on the card, you might be able to transfer the miles to one of multiple airlines, letting you choose how to use your rewards. Other credit cards let you redeem miles against travel purchases you’ve made, letting you choose how and when to travel and which carrier to use.

Can I earn elite status with an airline credit card?

Yes, many credit cards make it possible to earn elite status. For example, if you earn 110,000 Southwest miles in a year, you’ll qualify for the companion pass for the remainder of the year and the entire next year. This can be much easier to do if you get a Southwest card, earn the sign up bonus, and use it for everyday purchases. Another example is American Airlines, which offers cardholder 10,000 Elite Qualifying Miles when they spend $40,000 in one year.

Do airline credit cards get you free checked bags?

Yes, many airline credit cards offer free checked bags as one of their perks. This perk only applies when you fly on the associated airline and usually requires that you buy the tickets with the card. Depending on the card, you may get to check one or two bags for as few as one or as many as nine passengers.

Some of the airline credit cards that will give you free checked bags are:

Do airline credit cards get you into the airport lounge?

Airport lounge access tends to be a perk of premium cards with high annual fees, but there are airline credit cards that get you into the airport lounge. The United Explorer card is one such credit card.

Do airline credit cards charge an annual fee?

Yes, many airline credit cards charge an annual fee. Usually, the perks that you get are worth more than the fee, making the cards worth it for people who travel a few times a year. Some airline cards do not charge a fee, but their rewards and perks are usually more limited than those that do have an annual fee.

Which airline credit card is easiest?

The easiest airline credit cards are the ones that aren’t associated with a specific airline. That makes it easy to redeem your miles for the trips that you want by letting you work with multiple airlines.

The Chase Sapphire Preferred is particularly easy to use because of Chase’s many transfer partners. Even if you don’t transfer your miles, you can book travel through Chase’s portal and pay using your points.

More details on the best airline credit cards

Southwest Premier Business

Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Business Credit Card

Annual fee: $99

APR17.74% to 24.74% variable APR

Bonus: 60,000 bonus points after making $3,000 in purchases within three months of account opening.

Rewards Rates: 2x miles on all Southwest purchases, 1x points on all other purchases

Travel Perks: 6,000 bonus miles on cardmember anniversary, 2 free checked bags, no change fees

Pro/strength: Great sign up bonus gets you halfway to the Southwest Companion Pass

Con/weakness: Only offers bonus rewards on Southwest purchases

Read full card details here.

Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus

Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card

Annual fee: $69

APR17.74% - 24.74% variable APR

Bonus: 40,000 points

Travel Perks: 3,000 bonus miles on cardmember anniversary, 2 free checked bags, no change fees

Pro/strength: Great sign up bonus gets you halfway to the Southwest Companion Pass

Con/weakness: Only offers bonus rewards on Southwest purchases

Read full card details here.

AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard

AAdvantage Executive World Elite Credit Card

Annual fee: $450

APR17.24% - 25.24% variable APR

Bonus: 50,000 bonus miles if you spend $5,000 within the first three months of owning the card

Rewards Rates: 2x miles on all American Airlines purchases, 1x mile on all other purchases

Travel Perks: Global Entry or TSA Pre✓ fee credit, free checked bags for up to 9 people, free Admiral’s Club membership, priority boarding, concierge service

Pro/strength: Premium perks are great for frequent travelers who want to speed through security and relax in the lounge

Con/weakness: Hefty annual fee means only frequent flyers should apply

Read full card details here.

Gold Delta SkyMiles

Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card

Annual fee: $0 the first year, then $95 annual fee

APR17.24%-26.24% Variable

Bonus: 30,000 SkyMiles + $50 when you spend $1,000 within the first three months

Rewards Rates: 2x miles on Delta purchases, 1x mile on all other purchases

Travel Perks: Free checked bag, 20% off in-flight purchases

Pro/strength: No annual fee in the first year makes it a good card to choose for sign up bonuses

Con/weakness: A lack of perks makes the annual fee hard to justify

Read full card details here.

United Explorer

United Explorer Credit Card

Annual fee: $0 the first year, then $95 annual fee

APR18.24% - 25.24% variable APR

Bonus: 40,000 bonus miles when you spend $2,000 in the first three months after signing up. Plus 25,000 added points after spending $10,000 in the first 6 months.

Rewards Rates: 2x miles on United, hotels, and restaurants, 1x mile on all other purchases

Travel Perks: Fee credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓, free check bag, 2 United Club passes annually, 25% off in-flight purchases, priority boarding

Pro/strength: Lots of perks for a low annual fee

Con/weakness: Weak sign-up bonus

Read full card details here.

Chase Sapphire Preferred

Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card

Annual fee: $95

APR17.74% - 24.74% Variable

Bonus: 60,000 points

Rewards rates: Earn 2X points on travel and dining and 1X points on everything else.

Hotel perks: You can transfer your rewards to Hyatt, IHG and Marriott on a 1:1 basis.

Pro/strength: Rewards are worth 25% more when redeemed for travel through Chase.

Con/weakness: Despite a lot of redemption flexibility, its rewards rates aren’t as generous as some of the other cards on our list. 

Read full card details here.

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