best airline credit cards
Updated June 08, 2020

7 Best Airline Credit Cards for 2020

Credit Cards

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You probably hear frequent advertisements about airline credit cards and hear discussions about earning miles, but is an airline credit card right for you, your spending habits, and your lifestyle? If so, what are the best airline credit cards?

What is An Airline Credit Card?

Co-Branding

An airline credit card is co-branded, meaning that it carries the brand of the card company as well as an airline. An example of an airline credit card is the American Express Delta SkyMiles card. The card is an American Express but also branded by Delta.

An airline credit card is unique from more general travel cards and cash back cards because you’re going to earn rewards that are specific to the co-branded airline and perhaps their partner airlines as well.

With an airline credit card, when you spend you earn “miles,” which you can then exchange for airline tickets, seat upgrades, in-flight purchases and other things related to the airline and travel in general.

Depending on the card, you may also be able to work toward elite status with the airline faster. Elite status can mean you get priority boarding, free upgrades or complimentary checked luggage, for example.

Frequent Flyer Program

When you get an airline credit card, it works alongside a frequent flyer program. You can be part of an airline’s frequent flyer program without having a co-branded card, but having both will usually allow you to accrue miles faster.

Most airline cards will offer more points earned for purchases that are made with the airline company, and then you’ll earn comparatively fewer points on your other purchases, although this doesn’t have to be true. For example, some airline cards may also offer bonus categories so you can boost your rewards earnings in certain spending categories like dining out or supermarket spending.

Most of the perks that come with airline cards are related to travel and the airline in particular. As an example, with certain cards you might get access to airport lounges.

Is an Airline Credit Card Right for You?

The idea of airline credit cards has been around for decades, but over the years, there have been a lot of changes in how you earn rewards and how you can use these rewards.

There are more of these cards available now than in the past, and these cards often undergo changes as far as points valuations and redemption.

These changes and the growth of other types of rewards cards that may offer more value leave some people wondering if an airline credit card is worth it or right for them.

The short answer? It depends.

When It Makes Sense to Get An Airline Credit Card

If you’re crunching numbers and comparing offers, the following are specific instances where it could make sense to get an airline credit card.

You’re a Frequent Traveler

It sounds obvious, but if you’re a frequent traveler, it may make sense for you to get an airline credit card.  This could include work or leisure travel.

The thing with airline cards is that they often reward you most for spending with the airline and they may have a high annual fee.

If you don’t travel that much and therefore don’t purchase airline tickets very often your card, you could find it hard to accrue any value from using the card. You may not even be able to clear the annual fee if you don’t travel enough.

If you do travel and you take advantage of the card’s benefits, you can typically justify a high annual fee.

For example, if you earn a companion certificate, that could in and of itself more than make up for the annual fee of a card.

Along with frequent travel making sense from a financial standpoint, you might also get a lot of value from the perks that are attached to a card that you wouldn’t necessarily get with a general travel or rewards card such as lounge access.

If a lounge offers free drinks and food, you could save quite a bit on airport food, so for some people that alone is worth an airline credit card.

You’re Loyal to One Airline

Even if you frequently travel, if you regularly use different airlines, you might not want a co-branded card. You’re going to be restricted to getting the most value only with that one airline, whereas a card with transferable points may be better if you often fly different airlines.

Even a general rewards card that doesn’t strictly have anything to do with travel might give you the flexibility to redeem for airline perks.

If you do travel on the same airline often, a co-branded credit card can be valuable.

You Always Check Your Bags

There’s been a lot of backlash in recent years as airlines have continued to increase their baggage fees.

It’s not uncommon to see a fee of $60 or more round trip to check a bag.

If you get an airline card with free checked bag benefits, you could save that much money every trip. That adds up quickly.

If you had a $95 annual fee on a card, flying just twice by yourself is going to cover that fee.

When It Doesn’t Make Sense to Get An Airline Credit Card

Of course, if you don’t travel often, you should probably choose a cash back card.

But even for frequent travelers, there are some scenarios where an airline credit card doesn’t necessarily make sense.

You Choose Airlines Based on the Lowest Fares

If you aren’t loyal to one airline and you regularly comparison shop for airline tickets, having a co-branded card is going to be of little value to you.

You’re only going to be able to accrue the maximum amount of rewards if you’re buying from one airline, and you’re also going to have to redeem with that airline or maybe a few partners.

If you have a co-branded card, you could find yourself spending more on airline tickets just to earn miles.

If you’re someone who comparison shops for airline tickets, there are general travel cards that will give you miles for all purchases.

You Tend to Take Short Trips

Many of the perks of airline cards are geared toward frequent travelers and often people who travel long distances.

If you only fly short distances, the planes you’re on might not even have first class, so the appeal of status upgrades can lose some of its luster.

7 Best Airline Credit Cards

If you’ve done the math and an airline credit card is right for you, the following are seven great options to consider.

Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus

  • southwest rapid rewards plus credit card
    Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus: Best For Budget Travelers
    • Basics: Consumers love flying Southwest in many cases, and the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus features 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 in purchases in the first three months after you open an account plus the opportunity to earn two points per dollar spent on Rapid Rewards hotels and car rental partner purchases. You earn one point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
    • Pros: The Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus allows you to spend on not just Southwest purchases and earn double miles, but also hotel and car rental purchases, making it a good all-around travel card. You earn 3,000 anniversary points after your first cardmember anniversary and the annual fee is only $69. There are flexible redemption options as well and you can redeem for international flights, cruises, hotel stays, gift cards and hotel rentals.
    • Cons: Southwest doesn’t fly out of every airport, so that could limit who would find value with this card. The card also has a 3% foreign transaction fee.
    • Welcome Offer

      40,000 miles with $1,000 spend within first three months from opening account.

    • Annual Fee

      $69

    • Perks

      • Automatic 3,000 bonus points each card anniversary year.

United Explorer Card

  • United Explorer Card
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    United Explorer Card: Best for Restaurant and Hotel Spending
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    • Basics: The United Explorer Card is good if you are a moderate United flyer, and there are a fair amount of perks to help overcome the $95 annual fee, which is also waived during the first year. Travel perks extend beyond earning United Miles with a $100 statement credit for Global Entry or TSA Precheck every four years when the program fee is charged to the card. You will need good-to-excellent credit to qualify for this card.
    • Pros: The United Explorer Card earns you not only two miles for every dollar spent on United purchases, but you can earn the same for hotel stays and restaurants, and eligible delivery services (GrubHub, Caviar, Seamless, and DoorDash). The card includes your first checked bag for free when you fly with United and use your card to purchase the ticket, and the $95 annual fee is waived for the first year. The checked bag perk is available for the primary cardmember, which is a value of $140. There are no foreign transaction fees.
    • Cons: If you’re booking award travel, the pricing can be expensive, and this card includes a relatively high APR with no introductory APR offer currently. The spending threshold to get the welcome offer is also high — you can earn 40,000 bonus miles after spending $2,000 within the first three months the account is open.
    • Welcome Offer

      40,000 bonus miles after a $2,000 spend within the first three months the account is open.

    • Annual Fee

      $95, waived for the first year

    • Perks

      • 25% back on United purchases made inflight
      • $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓
      • First bag checked free (up to $140) when flight booked on card
      • Priority boarding on United flights

Delta SkyMiles Gold

  • gold delta skymiles
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    Delta SkyMiles Gold: Best for Supermarket Shoppers
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    • Basics: The Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express allows you to earn two miles per dollar on all Delta purchases, but also a new offering is the ability to earn two miles per dollar at restaurants and U.S supermarkets. Another new feature is a $100 Delta Flight Credit towards future travel after you spend $10,000 in purchases during a calendar year.
    • Pros: The Delta SkyMiles Gold is great for Delta loyalists, and Delta tends to be an airline that makes it fairly easy to book reward travel. For example, you can use your miles to take a dollar amount off your ticket purchase, rather than only booking award-specific itineraries. The card also expands your earning options so you get two miles per dollar at restaurants and U.S supermarkets, putting you closer to Medallion status with Delta. The card comes with travel perks like your first free checked bag on Delta flights and Priority Boarding. The card also includes American Express perks such as access to presale tickets to in-demand events.
    • Cons: While it’s waived for the first year, the annual membership fee then goes to $99. This card doesn’t include complimentary status perks or a companion certificate, and there’s no complimentary lounge access to Delta Sky Club lounges.
    • Welcome Offer

      50,000 bonus miles with $2,000 spend within first three months from opening account. This offer expires October 28, 2020. Since 50,000 miles are worth approximately $500, this results in a 25% return on spend from the bonus alone.

    • Annual Fee

      $99, waived for the first year

    • Perks

      • No foreign transaction fee
      • First checked bag free (Delta flights only)
      • Main Cabin 1 Priority Boarding (Delta flights only)
      • $100 Delta Flight Credit when you spend $10,000 on the card in a calendar year

Delta SkyMiles Platinum

  • Platinum Delta Skymiles Credit Card
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    Delta SkyMiles Platinum: Best for Traveling Together
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    • Basics: Another SkyMiles card available from American Express is the Delta SkyMiles Platinum. If you travel with someone else at least once a year, the card pays for itself. Otherwise it might not be the right option for you. The card comes with a hefty opportunity to earn bonus miles and recently added was a Status Boost feature.
    • Pros: The Delta SkyMiles Platinum comes with a yearly companion certificate so you can travel with someone domestically. It’s good for one round trip domestic flight in the main cabin, minus any taxes and fees. If you account for the fact that a domestic airline ticket can cost several hundred dollars or more, one trip using your companion certificate more than pays for the $250 annual fee. Your first checked bag is free on Delta, and the same is true for up to eight other people traveling on your reservation. You get priority boarding and the card includes a $100 credit every four years for either TSA Precheck or Global Entry application fees. You also earn more than you do with the Gold SkyMiles card—three miles per dollar on purchases made directly with Delta and three miles per dollar spent with hotels. You earn two miles per dollar on restaurant spending and U.S supermarkets and everything else earns you one mile per dollar. [Offer Expires 10/28/2020 -- If you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months after you open a new card you earn 60,000 bonus mile.]
    • Cons: If you travel alone, the companion certificate won’t have value for you, and you’ll have to work to make up for the annual fee. This card doesn’t include complimentary SkyClub access either.
    • Welcome Offer

      Offer Expires 10/28/2020 - 60,000 bonus miles with $3,000 spend within first three months from opening account. Since 60,000 miles are worth approximately $600, this results in a 20% return on spend from the bonus alone.

    • Annual Fee

      $250

    • Perks

      • No foreign transaction fee
      • First checked bag free (Delta flights only)
      • Main Cabin 1 Priority Boarding (Delta flights only)
      • 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles when you spend $25,000 on the card in a calendar year
      • $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓
      • $39 per person to enter the Delta Sky Club

Delta SkyMiles Reserve

  • Reserve Delta Skymiles Credit Card
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    Delta SkyMiles Reserve: Best For Big Spenders and Frequent Travelers
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    • Basics: The SkyMiles Reserve Card from American Express is not a card for discount or budget travelers, but it does give you the flexibility to redeem miles toward travel with more than 30 airline partners. If you like a luxury travel experience, this could be a good card thanks to the Sky Club Access.
    • Pros: The SkyMiles Reserve Card lets you request an upgrade to receive complimentary Delta Sky Club access, and you also receive two Delta Sky Club one-time guest passes every year. If you fly Delta and purchase your ticket on the Delta Reserve you can get complimentary access to American Express Centurion Lounges. If you want to qualify for Delta elite status or boost your status tier, this card works well. The current welcome bonus could be worth as much as $1,200. This card comes with a Domestic First Class, Delta Comfort + or Domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate each year at card renewal.
    • Cons: The annual fee on this card is extremely high at $550. For most travelers, the card only makes sense if they not only travel often but also value lounge access. The SkyMiles Reserve Card only earns one mile per dollar for all purchases too.
    • Welcome Offer

      Expired Offer -- 80,000 bonus miles and 20,000 Medallion Qualification Miles with $5,000 spend within first three months from opening account plus 20,000 bonus miles after first anniversary of opening account. Since 80,000 miles are worth approximately $800, this results in a 26.66% return on spend from the bonus alone, plus the 20,000 additional bonus miles after one year.

    • Annual Fee

      $550

    • Perks

      • No foreign transaction fee
      • 20% in-flight savings
      • First checked bag free (Delta flights only)
      • Main Cabin 1 Priority Boarding (Delta flights only)
      • 15,000 Medallion Qualification Miles when you spend $30,000 on the card in a calendar year
      • $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓
      • Complimentary Delta Sky Club access
      • Complimentary Centurion Lounge access if you book your Delta flight on the card

British Airways Visa Signature

  • British Airways Visa Signature
    British Airways Visa Signature: Best for European Trips
    • Basics: The British Airways Visa Signature Card gives you rewards not only on British Airways but also Aer Lingus and Iberia, making it good for people who frequently travel to Europe and even within Europe. The fact that it has no foreign transaction fee is also valuable.
    • Pros: With this card, you earn 3 Avios for every dollar spent on purchases with British Airways, Aer Lingus, Iberia, and LEVEL. Earn two Avios for every dollar spent on hotels and one dollar on other purchases. You can get 10% off British Airways flights that start in the U.S. and if you make $30,000 in purchases on your card every year, you get a Travel Together Ticket. Earn 50,000 bonus Aviso after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months and you can earn another 50,000 bonus Avios when you spend $20,000 in purchases within the first year after you open a new account.
    • Cons: If you don’t travel to and from Europe often, this card will have little value to you. British Airways is also known for high surcharges on their award tickets, so you might end up paying hundreds of dollars more when you’re redeeming your points. For example, you could think you’re not going to pay anything for a ticket and then as you’re booking it you might end up paying quite a bit more in cash, so you could end up losing money in the whole process. It’s something to watch for.
    • Welcome Offer

      50,000 bonus Avios with $3,000 spend within first three months from opening account plus an additional 50,000 bonus Avios with $20,000 spend within first year from opening account.

    • Annual Fee

      $95

    • Perks

      • No foreign transaction fee
      • Complimentary Travel Together Ticket with $30,000 spend on card in each calendar year

Citi American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp Mastercard

  • Citi American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp Mastercard
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    Citi American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp Mastercard: Best for No Annual Fee
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    • Basics: The Citi AAdvantage MileUp is simple and straightforward and allows you to earn American Airlines miles without paying an annual card fee.
    • Pros: Along with no annual fee, you also get a $50 statement credit after you spend $500 on purchases in the first three months and you earn 10,000 American Airlines AAdvantage bonus miles. It’s a good everyday spending, earning two miles for every dollar spent at grocery stores along with American Airlines purchases. You save 25% on in-flight food and beverage purchases when you use your card on American Airlines flights.
    • Cons: There aren’t any perks like lounge access associated with this card, nor are there are travel benefits like free checked bags.
    • Welcome Offer

      10,000 bonus American Airlines AAdvantage miles and a $50 statement credit with $500 spend within first three months from opening account.

    • Annual Fee

      $0

    • Perks

      • 25% off food and beverage purchases on American Airlines flights

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Ashley Sutphin Watkins

Ashley is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill where she studied journalism. She has worked as a journalist, content creator, and copywriter for nearly a decade, with a focus on personal finance, real estate, and healthcare. She now lives in Knoxville with her husband and young kids. During her free time, she enjoys traveling and enjoying the outdoors in East Tennessee.

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