Best Airline Credit Cards

Airline credit cards are associated with a specific airline, such as American Airlines or Delta Air Lines. These cards typically earn bonus points for purchases through the airline and many offer some type of reduced elite status benefit to the card holder, such as a free checked bag or priority boarding.Building up miles/points with these cards can be somewhat harder due to the lack of extra bonus categories.Usage of points is also more restricted with these cards since rewards must be redeemed with a single airline and its partners. However, many of these cards can hold tremendous value if used correctly!

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Best Airline Credit Cards (6)

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What is an airline credit card?

First, let's briefly discuss frequent flyer programs offered by airlines, because the whole point of an airline co-branded credit card is to earn miles and save on flights with your carrier of choice. Frequent flyer loyalty programs are very straightforward: they allow airlines to incentivize travelers like you to keep your business with that airline by offering you credit for every mile you fly with that airline. Once you accumulate enough miles, you can then redeem them for free travel with that airline in the future.

The concept is simple enough, but every airline differs in its program management, accrual schedule, and redemption availability for award flights. Most airline credit cards offer generous rewards and perks such free checked bags, or airport lounge access, as well as accelerated progress toward elite status. Furthermore, many cards offer a sizable sign-up bonus of mileage points when you first open your account, which usually can get you far toward an international round-trip ticket or a couple of domestic round-trip flights.

How do airline credit cards work?

As you spend on your credit card, you earn points or miles that can be redeemed for free flights. Often, travel spending on airlines, rental cars and hotels earn bonus points. Some airline credit cards allow for higher point valuations when redeemed for airline rewards as well.

In addition to earning free flights, many airline credit cards come with travel perks such as free checked baggage, priority boarding, seat upgrades, concierge services or even access to members-only airport lounges.

Is an airline credit card right for you?

A good airline card should combine a high value rewards program with enough exclusive perks to make it worth your loyalty. When comparing airline cards, keep an eye on the fine print for restrictive redemption policies, stingy rewards, or miles with a low redemption value.

To summarize, an airline credit card will be a great fit for you if:

You spend a significant amount of money specifically on air travel every year. If you don't travel often, or if the destinations you frequent aren't offered through your airline and associated partners of choice, you might want to consider getting a generic travel credit card that allows you to transfer points to your travel program of choice. The Chase Sapphire Preferred is one of the most popular cards in this category.

You have good or excellent credit. You will want to have a FICO credit score of at least 670 before applying for an airline rewards credit card, which typically requires great credit. You can use the free credit check tool at CreditCards.com to check your credit score at any time without triggering a credit score hit.

You are able to pay off your balance each month. Interest charges are no joke, and can quickly cost you far more than your rewards are worth. Ideally, you should be debt-free and always avoid carrying a balance on any credit card you hold.

Selection criteria: what makes a great airline credit card?

Reasonable annual fee: Most airline cards have annual fees, so you want to make sure you’re getting more out of the card than it costs.

Good rewards program: The standard is 2X miles per dollar for most cards, although some offer more than that.

Valuable travel benefits: The best airline credit cards offer credits for travel purchases and other cost-saving benefits that will lighten the load on your wallet.

Airport lounge access: Some airline cards provide complimentary or limited access to airport lounges, with all the amenities that come with them.

Free checked bags: You should usually expect to get your first checked bag free, although it’s not always true for airline cards with no annual fee.

Priority boarding: You can typically board the plane before non-cardholders — but again, not always for cards without annual fees.

No foreign transaction fees: Airline cards, like other travel cards, shouldn’t charge for purchases in foreign currency.

How to make the most of your airline credit card?

Make sure the fees are worth it: Consider your plans for using the card, earning rewards and taking advantage of benefits. If you won’t use it enough to offset associated fees, the card may not be worth it. Leff encourages cardholders to justify the value of a card’s annual fee especially if you’re carrying multiple cards.

Combine cards: If you have a general travel rewards card but often fly one airline, it may make sense to supplement with an airline cobranded card. Your general card may offer better point earnings bonus categories, but your airline card will earn the most when you fly with the airline.

Maximize loyalty tier rewards

Travel as much as you can with a single airline. Keep close track of your qualifying purchases, points and flights and find out when qualifications expire. Schedule your trips so that you can maximize earnings within the calendar year and earn a tier upgrade. Also, keep an eye out for promotions to earn bonus points or discounts on tier upgrades. For example, the Delta Reserve Credit Card from American Express offers a bonus of 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles if you spend $3,000 in the first three months of the account opening.

Maximize bonus category returns: Understand the criteria for earning bonuses and keep track of any promotional programs offered by your card company. Keep in mind that bonus spending with airlines may not be limited to flights. For example, Southwest’s Rapid Rewards program lets you earn bonus rewards on hotels, rental cars, dining and more.

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