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Credit Cards

Best Airline Credit Cards: Maximize Your Miles

Updated Feb 16, 2024   |   16-min read

Travelers often wonder what the best frequent flyer credit card might be, and with so many options, it’s no wonder making a choice can be difficult. The credit card industry has become increasingly competitive in recent years, with companies offering big sign-up bonuses and annual incentives to convince customers to use their cards. Travelers, especially, can benefit from these incentives.

There are a number of airline cards to choose from—some are dedicated specifically to one airline, and others allow you to take your travel points wherever you want. Here are our picks for the best airline credit cards.

Best airline credit cards

5 best airline credit cards

Below, you can read more about each of our picks for the best airline credit cards.

Best overall: Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card

LendEDU Rating: 4.8/5

Rewards rate: 1x – 2x

Annual fee: $0 for the first year; then $150

Editor’s thoughts: This card offers a generous welcome bonus, plenty of rewards opportunities on food-related purchases, and comes with multiple Delta-specific benefits

Rates and Fees. Terms Apply.

The Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card is our top-rated airline credit card and is best for those who fly with Delta. There is a bonus offer of 70,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 within the first six months of account opening.

The $150 annual fee can be covered each year if you spend $10,000 on the card. This is because cardholders who spend $10,000 in a calendar year will earn a $200 Delta flight credit. This benefit alone will provide you with more value than the card’s cost without factoring in the rewards rates and other benefits.

Here is the rewards rate breakdown:

  • 2x miles at restaurants
  • 2x miles at U.S. supermarkets
  • 2x miles on purchases made directly with Delta
  • 1x miles on all other eligible purchases

Pros

  • Frequent Delta flyers can earn 2x miles on purchases made directly with the airline

  • A generous welcome bonus with a manageable spending requirement

  • Your first checked bag is free

  • A $200 Delta flight credit when you spend $10,000 on your card in a calendar year

  • No foreign transaction fees

  • Several other travel benefits, insurance protections, and more

  • Contactless payment

Cons

  • No interest-free promotion on balance transfers

  • An annual fee

To learn more about this card and what it offers, click here.


Best for flying United: United Explorer Card

LendEDU Rating: 4.8/5

Rewards rate: 1x – 2x

Annual fee: $0 for the first year; then $95

Editor’s thoughts: This card offers an achievable welcome bonus, several added benefits to cardholders, and multiple rewards rates for different spending categories

The United Explorer Card is our top-rated card for earning rewards while flying United. New cardholders earn 60,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 on purchases in the first three years with your card.

When it comes to airline cards, it’s important to note that the rewards rate isn’t the only thing to pay attention to. For example, this card comes with added benefits such as up to $100 as a statement credit for Global Entry, TSA PreCheck®, or NEXUS every four years to reimburse application fees charged to your card.

Additionally, cardholders earn 25% back as a statement credit on purchases of food, beverages, and Wi-Fi onboard United-operated airlines and on Club premium drinks when paying with your card.

Here is the rewards rate breakdown:

  • 2x miles on United® purchases
  • 2x miles on dining
  • 2x miles on hotel accommodations when purchased directly with the hotel
  • 1x miles on all other purchases

Pros

  • A generous welcome offer

  • Several ways to earn rewards on spending

  • A Global Entry, TSA PreCheck®, or NEXUS statement credit

  • 25% back on purchases made onboard United®-operated flights

  • Free first checked bag (Terms Apply)

  • Take advantage of two United Club one-time passes

  • Priority boarding

  • Contactless payment

  • No foreign transaction fees

Cons

  • An annual fee after the first year

  • No introductory APR offers

To learn more about this card and what it offers, click here.


Best for flying Delta with no annual fee: Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card

LendEDU Rating: 4.8/5

Rewards rate: 1x – 2x

Annual fee: $0

Editor’s thoughts: This card is a great option for those looking to earn miles on Delta purchases with no annual fee

Rates and Fees. Terms Apply.

The Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card is best for those who frequently fly with Delta and don’t want to pay an annual fee. New cardmembers can earn 10,000 bonus miles after spending $1,000 in purchases within the first six months of card membership.

This card is part of the American Express and Delta partnership that aims to reward Delta flyers with miles for their credit card purchases. On top of the miles earned, there are several other benefits cardholders can take advantage of to lower the overall cost of their trips.

Here is the rewards rate breakdown:

  • 2x miles at restaurants
  • 2x miles on Delta purchases
  • 1x miles on all other eligible purchases

Pros

  • No annual fee

  • No foreign transaction fees

  • 20% back on eligible in-flight purchases

  • Take up to $50 off the cost of your flight for every 5,000 miles you redeem with Pay with Miles when booked with delta.com

Cons

  • A smaller welcome bonus compared to other cards

  • No introductory APR offers

To learn more about this card and what it offers, click here.


Best for flying British Airways: British Airways Visa Signature® Card

LendEDU Rating: 4.7/5

Rewards rate: 1x – 3x

Annual fee: $95

Editor’s thoughts: This card is a great option for those who are frequent flyers of British Airways who want to earn rewards and other benefits

The British Airways Visa Signature Card is our top-rated card for earning rewards while flying with British Airways. New cardholders can earn 75,000 Avios after spending $5,000 on purchases within the first three months from account opening.

Here is the rewards rate breakdown:

  • 3x Avios on British Airways, Aer Lingus, and Iberia purchases
  • 2x Avios on hotel accommodations when booked directly with the hotel
  • 1x Avios on all other purchases

Pros

  • A large welcome bonus

  • 10% off British Airways flights starting in the U.S. when you book through the website provided in your welcome materials

  • Up to $600 reward flight statement credits

  • Earn a Travel Together Ticket when you make $30,000 in purchases each calendar year

  • Contactless payment

  • No foreign transaction fees

Cons

  • An annual fee

  • No introductory APR offers

To learn more about this card and what it offers, click here.


Best for flying Southwest Airlines: Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Card

LendEDU Rating: 4.7/5

Rewards rate: 1x – 3x

Annual fee: $99

Editor’s thoughts: This card is great for those who frequently fly with Southwest Airlines and want to earn a welcome bonus, rewards rates, and more

The Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Card is our top-rated card for earning rewards while flying Southwest Airlines. New cardmembers can earn Companion Pass® through February 28th, 2025, plus 30,000 points after spending $4,000 in purchases during the first three months with the card.

Here is the rewards rate breakdown:

  • 3x points on Southwest® purchases
  • 2x points on local transit and commuting
  • 2x points on internet, cable, phone services, and select streaming
  • 1x points on all other purchases

Pros

  • An opportunity to earn additional points through a welcome offer

  • 6,000 bonus points after your cardmember anniversary each year

  • No blackout dates or seat restrictions

  • 2 EarlyBird Check-in® each year

  • All points earned count towards Companion Pass®

  • Points never expire

  • Contactless payment

  • No foreign transaction fees

Cons

  • An annual fee

  • No introductory APR offer

To learn more about this card and what it offers, click here.


Recap of the best airline credit cards

CardRewards rateAnnual fee
Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card1x – 2x$0 year one; then $150
United Explorer Card1x – 2x$0 year one; then $95
Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card1x – 2x$0
British Airways Visa Signature Card1x – 3x$95
Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Card1x – 3x$99

Frequently Asked Questions About Airline Credit Cards

How Do Airline Credit Cards Help You Earn Seat Upgrades?

One of the most beneficial perks of having an airline credit card is the ability to earn miles for the airline the cardmember flies most frequently. When airline miles accumulate, they are added to the cardmember’s frequent flyer loyalty program automatically, typically at the end of each billing cycle. As these miles build up over time, cardmembers have several options for redeeming the miles toward flying advantages, like upgraded seats.

Most airline credit cards allow cardmembers to redeem accumulated miles for an award flight or other travel-related purchases as a statement credit. However, some airlines allow frequent flyers the ability to use available miles toward an upgrade to first-class or a preferred seat on their next flight.

In most cases, the most cost-effective way to achieve an upgraded seat on a flight is to purchase an economy or coach-class ticket, then use miles to upgrade the seat before the actual flight. For instance, American Airlines allows frequent flyers to use 15,000 miles plus a fee to upgrade one-way on a domestic flight. Using an airline credit card to earn miles on purchases, either related to the airline or otherwise, can be a strategic way to upgrade seats once enough miles are earned.

Airline Miles From Frequent Flyer Programs vs. Airline Miles Earned on Airline Credit Cards

Frequent flyers typically earn miles in two ways: through a loyalty program directly with a specific airline or through credit card miles earned by making purchases. Airline miles awarded from an airline loyalty program are offered free of charge, and participants accumulate miles with each flight completed by the specific airline.

Airline credit card miles, on the other hand, are only earned by making purchases with the specific credit card partnered with the airline. Most airline credit cards offer more miles per dollar spent on purchases for flights or related to an airline expense, but cardmembers also earn on other purchases, just at a lower rate.

The good news for frequent flyers is that miles earned through a credit card can be used the same as miles earned from a direct loyalty program. Both can be redeemed for upgrades or award flights, although the number of miles needed for a redemption varies from airline to airline.

Does It Make Sense to Have Multiple Airline Credit Cards?

It can make sense to have multiple airline credit cards, but there are many considerations for cardmembers to think through before doing so. Cardmembers benefit the most from an airline credit card when they travel frequently with the same airline.

If a traveler spends his or her time on several different airlines, still frequently, having more than one airline credit card can mean accumulating miles toward each frequent flyer program over time. However, having multiple airline credit cards can be a challenge to manage, especially when balances are carried over from month to month.

It can also be difficult to justify the annual fee of multiple airline credit cards if miles do not outweigh the expense over time.

Can You Open Up Multiple Airline Credit Cards to Get the Sign-up Bonuses?

As a frequent flyer, it may be enticing to consider opening several airline credit cards in order to earn sign-up bonuses. This is because sign-up bonuses can be significant and can quickly help a cardmember earn a free flight without spending a substantial amount on the credit card or waiting to accumulate miles from flights.

Sign-up bonuses run the gamut from airline to airline, but some new offers give cardmembers the chance to earn upwards of 50,000 miles—enough for a free round-trip award flight. The downside to opening several cards at once is that many sign-up bonuses have minimum spending limits that must be met in order to qualify.

This could mean putting several thousand dollars on multiple cards just for a free flight or two. Additionally, opening several credit cards at once drags down one’s credit score, making it more difficult to get approved for a new card or other type of credit account in the future.

Is It Worth Paying an Annual Fee on an Airline Credit Card?

Not all airline credit cards come with annual fees, but those that do cost between $59 and $450 per year. Cardmembers who have a relatively low annual fee, say $100 or less, may be able to easily justify paying the expense when they take advantage of perks like free checked bags, in-flight discounts, and earned miles that can be converted to award flights.

However, when the annual fee starts to equal several hundred dollars, even frequent flyers have to determine if the amount they spend on the card and the advantages they receive from doing so are worth the high annual fee.

In some cases, cardmembers receive benefits they cannot get elsewhere, making the annual fee a moot point. It is important to consider these factors when selecting an airline credit card that carries an annual fee.

Can You Qualify for an Airline Credit Card With Fair or Bad Credit?

Airline credit cards are available from several airlines and credit card issuers, meaning there is possibly a credit card option for applicants with less than ideal credit. The airline credit cards that have fewer benefits and a minimal or no annual fee may be available to borrowers who have had a credit mishap in the past, like a late payment or two, a recent bankruptcy, or an account that found its way into collections.

However, the best airline credit cards—those with the highest annual fees and most robust perks—are often not available to those who have had or currently have poor credit. All credit card issuers want to ensure the individuals they allow to use credit can do so wisely, which means their credit score and history should be in good shape before applying.

Can You Transfer Airline Miles Between Different Credit Cards or Rewards Programs?

Most airlines do not allow frequent flyers to transfer miles to a different airline, whether they are accumulated from an airline credit card or through completed flights. Airlines want to remain competitive, so there is no advantage to allowing the transfer of miles.

However, there are a handful of airlines that partner with other carriers that, in some cases, gives cardmembers and frequent flyers the ability to move miles from one program to another without any reduction or restrictions. For example, British Airways and Iberia have the same frequent flyer program, Avios, which means program members and cardmembers can use accumulated miles for either airline interchangeably. The miles, however, have to be at least three months old before this transfer can take place.

Other airlines allow cardmembers to book award flights with accumulated miles on partner airlines. American Airlines partners with British Airways for frequent flyers. Another option is to pay for an airline miles program transfer through a third-party service, like Points.com.

Through this exchange, frequent flyers can convert miles from one program to another, but there is a cost involved. Most of these services reduce the conversion rate for miles, meaning each mile is worth less once it is converted.

How Do Airline Miles Change in Value?

Most airlines keep the value of their miles the same over time. This means that cardmembers earn the same number of miles per dollar spent on travel-related purchases and other spending for the lifetime of their card membership.

However, there are some bonus offers made available directly through the credit card issuer that give cardmembers the chance to earn more miles per dollar spent on certain purchases during specific timeframes.

Once miles are earned, their value does not change. What does change is the number of miles needed to redeem an award flight. Airlines use the current fares of domestic and international flights to determine how many miles are necessary to cover a one-way or round-trip flight each day.

The closer it comes to the departure of the selected flight, the higher the cost. This means cardmembers could end up using more miles for booking an award flight than they originally anticipated.

What are Some of the Common Perks You Should Expect?

Airline credit cards are beneficial to frequent flyers not only because of the miles earned toward award flights but also because of the added perks offered for simply being a cardmember. While the advantages of an airline credit card vary from issuer to issuer, some of the most common benefits offered at no additional cost include the following:

  • Free Checked Bags – most airline credit cards offer the first checked bag fee waived so long as the flight is paid for with the credit card.
  • Companion Passes – while this benefit is becoming less common, some of the best airline credit cards still offer a companion ticket once per year for cardmembers. Other airline credit cards also offer a companion pass to airline lounges, with a limit on how many times it can be used per calendar year.
  • Priority Boarding – most airline credit cards offer priority boarding when the flight is purchased with the credit card. Cardmembers are moved up in the boarding process based on the type of credit card they hold.
  • Seat Upgrades – some airline credit cards also offer upgrade opportunities to cardmembers. This perk varies from airline to airline, but some cardmembers may be able to move to first-class seats or preferred seating at little cost when the flight is purchased with the card.

What Happens to Your Airline Credit Card Miles If Two or More Airlines Merge Together?

Most airline credit card miles are limited to the specific airline offering the credit card. In some cases, airlines will merge together, which can be both frustrating and confusing for cardmembers who have miles accumulated under one program or the other. In these cases, the airlines often map over the miles earned on the credit card to the loyalty program of the new airline without any reductions.

However, the credit card of an airline that will no longer exist after an acquisition or merger may no longer be offered or available for use by cardmembers. In these cases, the new airline may offer cardmembers the option to switch to their co-branded credit card, or they may require a new application be submitted for a new credit card altogether.

Each of these scenarios is up to the airlines involved in the merger, but all cardmembers are notified of their options when it takes place.

Do Airline Credit Card Miles Ever Expire?

Yes, airline credit card miles can expire, but when they expire is determined by each specific airline. For most accumulated miles through an airline credit card, an immediate expiration may take place if the credit card is closed and miles have yet to transfer to the frequent flyer program with the airline.

If the credit card remains open, airlines may have miles expire anywhere from two years to 10 years after they are earned. It is important for airline credit card members to read the terms and conditions of their credit card and understand how long miles stay active so as not to lose out on the potential for an award flight in the future.

Which Airlines Offers Credit Cards?

As flyers look for ways to earn rewards and other benefits on their travel, many airlines have turned to branded credit cards as a way to convince flyers to continue using their services. Here are some airlines that have their own branded credit cards:

For more options, check out our picks for the best travel credit cards.


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