Best Airline Credit Cards of August 2020

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Best Cards Summary

Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®
Why this is one of the best airline credit cards: American Airlines flyers can earn 2 miles per dollar at restaurants and gas stations and with American Airlines. All other purchases earn 1 mile per dollar. New cardholders will earn 50,000 bonus miles after spending at least $2,500 in purchases within the first three months of opening an account and an annual $125 flight discount when you spend $20,000 or more each year and renew your card. You will get preferred boarding and a free first checked bag for you and up to four traveling companions when flying American Airlines.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
Why this is one of the best airline credit cards: The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card offers flexible redemption options when booking flights. Travel and dining purchases earn unlimited two points per dollar, which can be redeemed through Chase Ultimate Rewards for 25% more value. Or, you can transfer points on a 1:1 basis to partner airlines and hotels. This card has a $95 annual fee and no foreign transaction fee.

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card
Why this is one of the best airline credit cards: The Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card offers two points per dollar on Southwest purchases, as well as Rapid Rewards hotel and car rental purchases. All other purchases earn one point per dollar. Points earned with the card can help you qualify for the Southwest Companion Pass, which allows one companion to fly free with you when a seat is available.

United℠ Explorer Card
Why this is one of the best airline credit cards: The United Explorer Card offers unlimited 2 miles per dollar on United flights, hotel stays and purchases at restaurants. All other purchases earn 1 mile per dollar. Cardholders get valuable airline perks, including up to a $100 fee credit toward Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, your first checked bag free, priority boarding and 25% back on United in-flight purchases.

Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Why this is one of the best airline credit cards: The Chase Sapphire Reserve card offers a $300 annual travel statement credit against travel purchases charged during the year, including flights. Once you earn the credit, you can begin earning three points per dollar on travel purchases. You also earn three points on dining and one point on all other purchases. When you redeem points for flights through Chase Ultimate Rewards, they’re worth 50% more in travel value.

Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card
Why this is one of the best airline credit cards: If Delta is your preferred airline, this card can help you earn free award flights faster. Delta purchases and purchases at restaurants and U.S. supermarkets earn 2 miles per dollar, and you’ll earn 1 mile per dollar on all other purchases. You’ll also get your first checked bag free, priority boarding on Delta flights and 20% savings as a statement credit when you charge Delta in-flight purchases.

The Platinum Card® from American Express
Why this is one of the best airline credit cards: This card is firmly in the luxury travel category, with benefits like access to the Global Lounge Collection, up to a $200 airline fee credit and Fine Hotels & Resorts perks. Flights booked directly with airlines or American Express Travel earn five Membership Rewards points per dollar. Hotels booked through amextravel.com also earn five points per dollar. Those features help balance out the $550 annual fee.

AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard®
Why this is one of the best airline credit cards: Frequent American Airlines flyers can get value from this card, which earns 2 miles per dollar on American Airlines purchases and 1 mile per dollar on all other purchases. You can earn 60,000 bonus miles when you make your first purchase within 90 days of opening the card and pay your annual fee.

American Express® Gold Card
Why this is one of the best airline credit cards: The American Express Gold Card offers four points per dollar at restaurants, four points per dollar at U.S. supermarkets on up $25,000 in yearly purchases (then one point per dollar thereafter), three points per dollar for all flights booked directly with an airline or on amextravel.com and one point per dollar for all other purchases. The card charges a $250 annual fee.

Citi Prestige® Credit Card
Why this is one of the best airline credit cards: The Citi Prestige Credit Card earns five points per dollar on air travel and dining, three points per dollar on cruise lines and hotels and one point per dollar on all other purchases. Cardholders access valuable travel benefits including up to a $250 annual travel credit, up to a $100 fee credit toward Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, a complimentary fourth night stay at a hotel of your choice with a minimum four-night consecutive night stay when booking through Citi Prestige Concierge, and Priority Pass airport lounge access. You’ll pay a $495 annual card fee.

What You Can Expect From Airline Credit Cards

Here’s what you need to know about airline credit cards:

Rewards earning: About 78% of airline credit cards earn at least two points or miles per dollar on airline purchases. These cards might also have rewards in particular categories, such as 2% on dining. Other than travel, these cards usually offer 1% on other purchases.

Rewards redemption: About 57% of airline credit cards earn rewards that you can redeem as cash back, travel bookings or transfers to travel partners. Nearly all other airline cards have rewards you can redeem with multiple partners, such as within an airline alliance.

Sign-up bonus value: You can earn a sign-up bonus worth at least $500 with about 43% of airline cards. Only a couple of cards don’t have a sign-up bonus, with others earning at least $100.

Annual fee: More than 70% of airline credit cards card have an annual fee. But here’s the good news: About 20% waive the annual fee for the first year.

APR: You can expect to have an annual percentage rate of at least 15% with airline cards. Only two of the airline cards we surveyed have an APR lower than 15%. Nearly all airline cards surveyed have a minimum APR between 15% and 18.99%.

Benefits: Airline cards often have excellent benefits, with 59% of airline cards surveyed offering top-level benefits such as travel credits, priority boarding, discounts on in-flight food and beverages, free checked bags, and airport lounge access.

U.S. News Survey: Airline Rewards Cardholders Say They Earn Hundreds in Rewards, But Many Admit to Carrying a Balance

U.S. News surveyed airline credit card holders to learn how they use their card and rewards program. Most sign up for an airline credit card to earn miles or points, and many redeem rewards for free flights and other travel. But cardholders could diminish the advantages of an airline card by not redeeming rewards, failing to maximize redemption value or allowing card costs, such as interest or annual fees, to outweigh value.

Most people sign up for airline rewards cards to earn miles or points.

Earning miles or points is the top reason respondents signed up for an airline credit card. The fact that the card did not charge an annual fee and card perks like free bags were the next most popular answers. Respondents were least likely to cite the card’s sign-up bonus as the reason they signed up for their airline credit card.

(Conducted Using Google Surveys – July 2019)

Many airline credit card holders aren’t using valuable benefits, but when they do, it’s often for airline-specific benefits.

About 38% of respondents say they haven’t used any major benefits offered by airline credit cards within the last year. Cardholder benefits can be valuable, but only if you use them. For example, free checked bags while flying could save you about $60 round trip.

About a quarter (24%) of respondents say they’ve used their free checked bags benefit the most within the last year. Others have taken advantage of upgraded seating, priority boarding or airport lounge access to elevate their travel experience.

(Conducted Using Google Surveys – July 2019)

Almost half of airline credit card holders earned $600 or more in rewards in the last year.

Though 29% of respondents earned less than $200 in rewards within the last year, many others fared better. About 48% earned $600 or more within the last year. That’s likely enough for a free domestic flight, possibly round trip. A little over 20% earned $1,200 or more.

(Conducted Using Google Surveys – July 2019)

Some cardholders use airline rewards for nonairline redemptions, and more than a third haven’t used their card’s rewards at all.

Airline cardholders may earn typically hundreds in rewards value each year, but earning isn’t the same as actually redeeming rewards. About 35% haven’t redeemed any airline rewards within the last year, which means consumers could miss out if rewards expire. Nearly 10% use airline rewards for redemption options that aren’t travel related, like cash back, gift cards or merchandise, which might have a lower redemption value than airfare.

Overall, cardholders are using airline card rewards for travel expenses. More than half (54%) redeemed airline credit card rewards for free domestic or international flights or flight upgrades. Another 14% used them for free hotel stays or room upgrades.

(Conducted Using Google Surveys – July 2019)

Most airline cardholders don’t face redemption difficulties.

About 54% say they don’t have trouble redeeming flight rewards with their airline credit card. But 16% experience blackout dates, limiting when they can use earned rewards. Other gripes from airline cardholders involved expired points or miles, limits on destinations, or restrictive portals for redeeming flights.

(Conducted Using Google Surveys – July 2019)

Airline co-branded cardholders aren’t necessarily loyal to their card’s airline.

Nearly 30% don’t have an airline-specific card, but 44% have an airline co-branded card and chose to fly with another airline at least once within the last year. More than a quarter (26%) of airline credit card holders are loyal to their card’s airline, not flying any other airlines within the last year.

(Conducted Using Google Surveys – July 2019)

Nearly half of cardholders say their card’s value outweighs its costs, but some cardholders aren’t sure how much value they get.

Just under half (49%) of airline credit card holders say their card’s rewards, perks or a combination of both offer a good value that outweighs its costs. But 38% don’t know whether their card offers a good value, and 13% say their card’s costs outweigh its rewards and perks.

If your card’s cost is greater than what you get out of it, reassess your card choice. Talk to your card’s issuer about ways to save, such as downgrading to a no-annual-fee version of the card or negotiating a lower APR. Or, shop for a different card that will better fit your needs.

(Conducted Using Google Surveys – July 2019)

Carrying a balance on an airline credit card can be a problem, but most airline cardholders do it.

About 72% of airline cardholders carried a balance within the last year. More than a quarter (27%) carried a balance of $2,000 or more.

It’s best to avoid carrying a balance on your airline card. When you do, it could offset the value of rewards. A $1,000 card balance carried over a year at 18% APR will cost about $180 in interest. If you need to carry a balance, a low interest credit card is a better choice.

(Conducted Using Google Surveys – July 2019)

Cardholders are almost evenly split on whether they’d consider a card with annual fees.

Just over half of respondents (55%) say they’d consider opening an airline credit card with an annual fee, but 45% won’t pay one. Almost 25% say they’d consider an annual fee airline card if the rewards were valuable enough, and about 13% would consider it for perks like free bags. About 12% would consider a card that charges an annual fee but might switch later to a card with no annual fee.

(Conducted Using Google Surveys – July 2019)

Most airline cardholders either prefer to mix general travel credit cards and co-branded airline cards or don’t have a preference.

About 42% of respondents say they don’t have a preference between general travel cards and airline co-branded cards. Nearly 23% prefer a mix of both. Almost 20% prefer co-branded airline cards, and 16% prefer general travel cards.

A general travel card might offer more flexibility, but a co-branded airline card could come with greater benefits or rewards specific to the airline. If you use both types, you could get rewards flexibility and airline benefits.

(Conducted Using Google Surveys – July 2019)

  • U.S. News ran a nationwide survey through Google Surveys in July 2019.
  • The sample size was the general American population, and the survey was configured to be representative of this sample.
  • The survey asked 10 questions relating to how respondents use their airline credit card.

How Do Airline Credit Cards Work?

When you make purchases with your credit card, you earn points or miles that can be redeemed for free flights and for many other travel-related expenses. Often, travel spending on airlines, rental cars and hotels earns bonus points. Some airline credit cards even allow for higher point valuations when points are redeemed for airline rewards.

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 access to members-only airport lounges.

Using points for travel: Rewards can be a major incentive for frequent travelers. Airline credit cards may offer bonus points for purchases with the airline, for other travel-related purchases, or on categories such as dining, entertainment and groceries. Airline credit cards typically have a sign-up bonus that provides extra points, miles or cash back.

Airfare discounts: Even when you’re not redeeming rewards points or miles, you can use your airline card to save money. Some airline credit cards provide discounts on airfare just for using your card.

Airline privileges: Many airlines offer special privileges for airline credit card holders, including free checked bags, priority boarding, discounts on in-flight purchases and seat upgrades. Your card may also get you access to private airport lounges with complimentary beverages, snacks, internet access and workspaces. If you spend a lot of time in airports, access to the airport lounge can make your trip much more enjoyable.

Travel perks and protections: Many airline credit cards waive foreign transaction fees, which is important if you travel overseas. They may also offer insurance and protection for travelers, including trip cancellation insurance, car rental insurance, lost baggage protection and emergency assistance. Concierge services may be provided to help you book restaurants, get tickets to popular events, select gifts and even plan travel.

Complicated rewards structure: With airline co-branded credit cards, point valuations are fluid. Determining just how much a point or a mile is worth can sometimes be a challenge. Each airline has different earning and redemption structures and might have cardholder tiers, which further complicates estimating the value.

But don’t let that scare you away. It just takes a little time and patience to study the rewards program. And don’t forget, you can always call the issuer and ask for an explanation.

Annual fees: Many airline credit cards have annual fees, so you’ll have to make sure your rewards will outweigh the cost.

Higher purchase and balance transfer APRs: Purchase and balance transfer APRs for airline credit cards may be higher than other types of rewards cards.

Credit score requirements: Airline credit cards are often reserved for consumers with at least good credit (FICO score above 670).

Restrictions on earnings: Many airline credit cards only earn bonus points or miles on purchases with a specific airline. Or some bonus categories may only earn the bonus rewards rate on a limited amount of annual purchases.

Restrictions on redemptions: Points or miles earned with an airline credit card may only be usable with a particular airline or with its partners. There may be blackout dates, which limit the flights you have access to as well as the dates when you can travel.

Some rewards programs may also restrict which online services you can use to book your flights. Points or miles can expire after a specific period of time or if your card remains inactive for too long, and your airline may not offer flights to your desired destination.

Is an Airline Rewards Credit Card Right for You?

Before you apply for an airline credit card, take a look at this checklist to see if these cards are a good fit for you.

  1. You frequently fly with the airline or plan to do so in the future. If you don’t travel frequently or visit destinations served by a particular airline, a general travel rewards card may be a better choice than an airline credit card.
  2. You have good or excellent credit. Airline credit cards usually require good to excellent credit. You should have a FICO credit score of at least 670 before you apply for an airline rewards credit card.
  3. You can pay off your balance each month. You should be debt-free and avoid carrying a balance on your airline rewards credit card, as interest charges can quickly wipe out any rewards you earn.

How Can You Choose the Best Airline Credit Card?

Airline loyalty, spending habits and preferences are different for every traveler, so the “best airline credit card” will differ from person to person.

When you’re trying to pick the best airline credit card, follow these six simple steps to evaluate each card:

  1. Pick the right rewards program for you.
  2. Calculate earning potential.
  3. Factor in sign-up bonuses.
  4. Calculate redemption value.
  5. Subtract annual fees.
  6. Understand travel benefits.

1. Pick the right rewards program for you.

Co-branded airline credit cards sometimes offer the biggest benefits toward airfare and related purchases. Travel rewards cards provide broader rewards categories, but many don’t offer the same level of rewards for airline-based earnings. If you fly frequently with a particular airline, you should consider a co-branded airline card. If this isn’t your approach to travel, then a travel rewards card might be a better choice for your wallet

Airline credit cards are often called “co-branded cards” because they are tied to a particular airline, such as Delta or United. As mentioned, they do provide the highest level of rewards earning and redemption on airline purchases. However, co-branded airline cards often only offer rewards tied to that specific brand and its affiliate partners, which can limit your travel options.

Popular co-branded airline cards include:

If you’re signing up for a co-branded airline card, consider airlines with hubs at your local airport. For example, many frequent flyers in Atlanta fly with Delta because the airline has a huge hub there.

With travel rewards cards, points or miles can be used for flights, hotels and rental cars without being restricted to a particular airline or an airline partner. They can also be redeemed for merchandise or cash back. Travel rewards cards are more versatile than co-branded airline cards, but they typically lack airline-specific perks like free checked bags or priority boarding.

Popular travel rewards cards include:

Take your time and decide which type of rewards will benefit you the most – an airline credit card or a general travel rewards credit card. There’s no wrong answer here. The best type of credit card is the one that works best for you.

2. Calculate earning potential.

With the best rewards on airfare and related purchases made directly with the airline, co-branded airline cards promote brand loyalty. For example, the JetBlue Plus Card earns six points per dollar on JetBlue purchases, two points per dollar at restaurants and grocery stores, and one point per dollar on all other purchases. Some cards also offer bonus spending categories.

General travel rewards credit cards often provide you with more chances to earn a higher rate of rewards. They may offer broader bonus spending categories or simply earn a higher rate on all purchases.

3. Calculate sign-up bonuses and welcome offers.

Sign-up bonuses and welcome offers provide a lot of points or miles, but only after you meet certain spending requirements.

Here is a sign-up bonuse from a co-branded airline credit card:

  • With the JetBlue Plus Card, you can earn 40,000 bonus points when you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 90 days and pay the annual fee.

For comparison, here are some other sign-up bonuses and welcome offers from travel rewards credit cards:

  • The welcome offer for The Platinum Card from American Express provides 60,000 bonus points after card users spend $5,000 in purchases in your first three months.
  • The Bank of America Premium Rewards credit card earns 50,000 bonus points after you spend $3,000 in purchases in the first 90 days of account opening.

But a warning: Don’t get dazzled by a fabulous sign-up bonus. Make sure the credit card is right for you, apart from the sign-up bonus. In other words, keep a cool head and choose wisely.

4. Calculate redemption value.

For most travel rewards cards, one point is equal to 1 cent. Co-branded airline cards may offer anywhere from 1 cent to 5 cents per point, depending on the flight, but it’s difficult to put a consistent value on what you earn in rewards because it’s always changing based on flight prices, route, availability and more.

While some airlines have a published award chart you can use to estimate value, others don’t. This can make it difficult to determine how many miles you need to earn for a free flight. Some airlines have published award charts that make it easier to understand the value of your miles.

Subtract annual fees from your potential earnings to estimate the true rewards value of a card. Although a card may have annual fees, the benefits and rewards could offset those costs.

6. Understand travel benefits.

Airline rewards cards come with benefits that can be helpful for traveling and making purchases. Many travel cards offer perks, including:

  • No foreign transaction fees
  • Trip cancellation or interruption insurance
  • Auto rental insurance
  • Lost baggage protection
  • Roadside assistance
  • Extended warranty coverage
  • Extended return periods
  • Concierge services
  • Late checkout privileges at participating hotels and resorts

Airline co-branded cards typically provide more valuable cardholder benefits than general travel cards. They may offer benefits directly with the airline, which could include:

  • Free checked bags
  • Priority check-in
  • Priority boarding
  • Discounts on in-flight purchases
  • Companion tickets
  • Access to airport lounges with free snacks, drinks and Wi-Fi

In addition, many airline rewards programs offer membership tiers to reward airline loyalty. These tiers are typically based on the amount of points or miles earned or the number of flights taken in a particular time period. Perks offered to elite status cardholders often include:

  • Additional free checked bags
  • Priority boarding
  • Seat upgrades
  • Complimentary food and beverages
  • Access to restricted dates and flight times
  • Bonus points or miles for eligible purchases made with the program

How Can You Maximize Airline Rewards?

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.

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

Maximize loyalty tier rewards. To do this, you have to 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. You’ll need to think ahead to make it work out.

Maximize bonus category returns. Understand the criteria for earning bonuses, and keep track of any promotional programs your credit card company offers. Keep in mind that bonus spending with airlines may not be limited to flights. And don’t overspend to get the bonus or the rewards. Have a budget for your airline credit card and stick to it.



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