The 9 best airline credit cards for earning miles to book free flights

Alyssa Powell/Business Insider

If you want to book free flights, a credit card from an airline or a bank that partners with frequent flyer programs is a must. Not only will you earn miles on every purchase you make, but you can also earn a welcome bonus that can jump-start your frequent flyer account balance and help you book an award flight sooner than you’d think.

There isn’t simply one best airline credit card; the right option for you depends on what airline you fly, whether you’re a loyalist or want flexibility, how you want to use your miles, how much of an annual fee you’re comfortable paying, and several other factors.

Here are the best airline credit cards available now:

How we chose the best airline credit cards

Personal Finance Insider chose its top airline card picks based on the value each card offers in relation to its annual fee. To make sure we were considering the best airline credit cards from every perspective, we also researched the recommendations and methodology of top airline card lists from other websites, including, NerdWallet, The Points Guy, and Wirecutter.

In many cases, each publication had a different pick for the best credit card for a given airline – and in that situation we arrived at our selection by returning to the question of which card offers the most value in return for its annual fee, excluding benefits that require spending extra money to unlock.

Note that we focused on credit card options for flying with major US airlines – including the “big three” of American, Delta, and United, as well as smaller popular carriers like Alaska, JetBlue, Southwest, and Hawaiian Airlines. If you frequently fly with another airline like Frontier, you may want to look into the co-branded credit card options, though we won’t discuss those here.

Keep in mind that we’re focusing on the rewards and perks that make these credit cards great options, not things like interest rates and late fees, which will far outweigh the value of any points or miles. It’s important to practice financial discipline when using credit cards by paying your balances in full each month, making payments on time, and only spending what you can afford to pay back.

Read more:
American vs. Delta vs. United – we compared the 3 most popular airline credit cards

Chase Sapphire Preferred

Who it’s best for: Those who are new to travel rewards and aren’t necessarily loyal to one airline

Welcome bonus: 60,000 points after you spend $US4,000 in the first three months

Annual fee: $US95

The Chase Sapphire Preferred earns Ultimate Rewards points that you can use to book travel directly through Chase or by transferring to various airline and hotel partners, including United, British Airways, JetBlue, and Marriott. So even though it’s not an airline co-branded card, you can use the points you earn from the Sapphire Preferred to book award flights.

Personal Finance Insider isn’t alone in recommending the Sapphire Preferred as the best starter card for those who are new to travel rewards; other publications in the credit card space – from The Points Guy to NerdWallet – sing its praises as well. That’s because it offers a very strong lineup of perks and rewards in exchange for a relatively moderate annual fee.

You’ll earn valuable Chase Ultimate Rewards points on all your spending, with 2x points on travel and dining. Travel includes everything from airfare to parking to hotels, while dining includes restaurants, delivery services, and even some bars. The Sapphire Preferred also offers one of the best sign-up bonuses among consumer credit cards, and you get some valuable coverage benefits as well, including trip delay insurance and primary car rental insurance.

If you apply for the Chase Sapphire Preferred and find that you’re a fan of earning and redeeming travel points, remember that you can always upgrade to its higher-end sibling, the Chase Sapphire Reserve, after your first year. The Reserve has a $US450 annual fee, but it also earns 3x points on travel and dining (vs. 2x) and offers up to $US300 in annual travel credits that apply to virtually any travel purchase.

Click here to learn more about the Chase Sapphire Preferred.

The Platinum Card from American Express

Who it’s best for: Frequent travellers who want to earn as many points as possible on their airfare purchases, with some luxury travel perks to boot

Welcome bonus: 60,000 points after you spend $US5,000 in the first three months

Annual fee: $US550

With a steep annual fee, the Amex Platinum card doesn’t make sense if you only travel once or twice a year. However, if you’re on the road frequently, the card’s many premium benefits – from airline lounge access to up to $US200 in airline fee credits each year – make it a useful pick.

The Platinum card earns a spot on our list of the top airline credit cards because it earns 5 points per dollar on flights booked directly with the airline or through Amex Travel. The points you earn are in the Amex Membership Rewards program, and you can use them to book travel directly to Amex or transfer them to more than a dozen airline partners to book flight awards.

Click here to learn more about the Amex Platinum card.

AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard

Who it’s best for: American Airlines flyers

Welcome bonus: 60,000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles after you make your first purchase in the first 90 days and pay the annual fee

Annual fee: $US99

The AAdvantage Aviator stands out for offering a generous sign-up bonus that only requires making one purchase in the first three months. It’s one of two American Airlines cards at this price point – the other is the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®. The Aviator card is currently offering a higher sign-up bonus, but it’s also offering an introductory companion certificate for one guest for $US99 after you make your first purchase and pay the annual fee in the first 90 days.

Beyond those introductory benefits, the card also offers some perks that can improve your experience flying American, such as a free checked bag, preferred boarding, and discounts on in-flight purchases.

Platinum Delta SkyMiles Card from American Express

Who it’s best for: Delta flyers

Welcome bonus: 35,000 SkyMiles and 5,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) when you spend $US1,000 in the first three months.

Annual fee: $US195 (increasing to $US250 for applications received on or after January 30, 2020)

You may wonder why we’re recommending a Delta credit card that will soon have a $US250 fee. Our answer is that, even with the higher fee that will take effect in early 2020, the Platinum Delta Amex offers the best value among Delta credit cards – and the fee increase comes along with some new benefits.

Starting on January 30, 2020, the Platinum Delta Amex will earn 3x miles on hotels and Delta purchases, plus 2x miles at restaurants and US supermarkets. Thanks to these new and improved bonus categories, the card will now be a valuable option for everyday spending, not just for earning bonus miles on your Delta purchases. Plus, starting in 2020 the card will offer an application fee credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, which is worth $US100. That benefit alone can make up for the increase in annual fee.

Other Platinum Delta Amex benefits that make it a standout pick for Delta loyalists are a first checked bag for free, an annual companion certificate, and priority boarding.

Click here to learn more about the Platinum Delta Amex.

United Explorer card

Who it’s best for: United flyers

Welcome bonus: Up to 65,000 United miles – 40,000 miles after you spend $US2,000 in the first three months, and an additional 25,000 miles after you spend $US10,000 total in purchases in the first six months

Annual fee: $US0 the first year; then $US95

The United Explorer card offers the perks you’d expect from an airline credit card – a free checked bag (you need to pay for the United flight with your Explorer card to get this perk), priority boarding, discounts on in-flight purchases, and bonus miles for purchases with the airline – but also some very valuable extras.

If you have this card (or any other United card), you get expanded access to United’s lowest-priced “saver” awards, which could help you save miles on an upcoming flight booking. The Explorer card also offers two one-time United Club passes each year, and an application fee credit of up to $US100 for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck.

Click here to learn more about the United Explorer card.

Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Card

Who it’s best for: Southwest flyers

Welcome bonus: 40,000 Rapid Rewards after you spend $US1,000 on purchases in the first three months

Annual fee: $US149

This is another instance where even though there are lower-annual-fee options for a credit card with this airline, the higher annual fee is warranted due to the value you get. Wirecutter and highlight the Southwest Priority card for its overall value, and thanks to annual benefits like up to $US75 in statement credits for travel on Southwest and four upgraded boardings where available, we’re inclined to agree.

The statement credit for up to $US75 toward Southwest purchases each year effectively lowers the annual fee to $US74 – lower than the annual fee for the next-cheapest Southwest consumer card, the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card($US99).

Plus, the Priority card offers a bonus of 7,500 Southwest Rapid Rewards points each year after your account anniversary (you can use these points to book award flights), and you’ll get 20% off in-flight purchases. If you fly Southwest more than once or twice a year, this card can easily be worth the annual fee.

Click here to learn more about the Southwest Priority card.

Alaska Airlines Visa Signature card

Who it’s best for: Alaska flyers

Welcome bonus: 40,000 Alaska miles after you spend $US2,000 in the first 90 days from account opening. Plus, get a companion fare from $US121 ($US99 plus taxes and fees starting at $US22) after you make $US2,000 in purchases in the first 90 days.

Annual fee: $US75

Alaska Airlines doesn’t have the largest route network among US carriers, but if you live in the Pacific Northwest or another area where the airline offers extensive service – or if you fly Alaska to Hawaii – this is a great card to have.

The Alaska Airlines Visa Signature card not only offers a companion fare as part of its sign-up bonus, but you can also get one each year on your account anniversary (also starting at $US121). You can use this fare to bring someone along on an Alaska flight, with no blackout dates, and this benefit alone makes the card worth having if you frequently fly with this airline.

You also get the standard airline credit card benefits like a free checked bag, 20% off in-flight purchases, and bonus miles on Alaska purchases – but in this case it’s 3 miles per dollar spent with Alaska rather than the more standard 2x miles bonus on airline purchases available on other cards.

Click here to read our Alaska Airlines Visa Signature card review.

JetBlue Plus Card

Who it’s best for: JetBlue flyers

Welcome bonus: 40,000 points after you spend $US1,000 in the first 90 days from account opening

Annual fee: $US99

The standout benefits of the JetBlue Plus card are points earning – you get 6x points on JetBlue purchases, 2x points at restaurants and grocery stores, and 1 point per dollar on everything else – and a 5,000-point bonus each year after your account anniversary.

Cardholders also get a free checked bag and 50% off in-flight purchases.

Beyond that, the card offers an incentive for big spenders: If you spend $US50,000 or more on purchases on the JetBlue Plus card in a calendar year, you’ll get JetBlue Mosaic status, which gets you free drinks on board, waived change and cancellation fees, two free checked bags, and more.

Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard

Who it’s best for: Hawaiian Airlines flyers

Welcome bonus: 60,000 Hawaiian miles after you spend $US2,000 in the first 90 days

Annual fee: $US99

If you frequently visit Hawaii, or if you live on the islands, having a card that earns you Hawaiian Airlines miles could make a lot of sense. The Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard offers a solid sign-up bonus – enough miles for a round-trip flight to Hawaii – along with a free checked bag and 3x miles on Hawaiian Airlines purchases. You’ll also get 2x miles on gas, dining, and grocery store purchases, and 1 mile per dollar on all other spending.

This card also offers a one-time companion discount of 50% for round-trip coach travel between Hawaiian and the mainland US. And every year after your account anniversary, you’ll get a $US100 discount for round-trip coach airfare between the mainland and Hawaii as well.

Popular airline credit cards that just missed the cut

To keep things simple, we limited our list of the best airline credit cards to one definitive pick per airline, plus a few top options that aren’t affiliated with a particular airline. However, if you’re open to doing some deeper comparison-shopping, these cards are also worth a look.

  • Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card While the Venture card is another solid option for earning miles than can be redeemed with a variety of airline partners, the partners themselves aren’t necessarily the most convenient for US travellers, and the transfer ratios can get a bit confusing.
  • Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express This card has a lower annual fee than the Platinum Delta Amex ($US95, and it’s waived the first year), but also fewer benefits.
  • Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard® – With a $US450 annual fee, it doesn’t necessarily make sense for all American Airlines flyers, but if you want access to American’s Admirals Club airport lounges, this card fits the bill, offering Admirals Club membership along with the usual perks like a free checked bag and priority boarding.
  • Blue Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express If you want to earn Delta miles on your spending without paying an annual fee, give this card a look. It earns 2x miles at US restaurants and offers 20% off in-flight Delta purchases. Starting at the end of January 2020, it will expand the 2x miles to restaurants worldwide, and it will waive foreign transaction fees.

Frequently asked questions

What credit card offers the best airline miles?

There isn’t one “best” airline credit card or one type of airline mile that’s categorically better than the others, because it depends on which airline is most convenient for you.

For example, if your home airport is small, you could have limited options when it comes to which airline you fly, so you’ll likely want to earn whatever miles you need to fly from your hometown.

If you live near a large airport where your airline choices are plentiful and you have more options for loyalty, you may want to investigate how much different airline miles are worth. We recommend The Points Guy’s valuations, which attach a value (in cents) to the major airline currencies based on the types of award flights you can book through each. You’ll see that Delta miles are generally worth less than Alaska miles, but keep in mind all points and miles are only valuable if you can use them – so if you don’t travel to destinations served by Alaska or its airline partners, earning its miles probably isn’t your best bet.

Is an airline credit card worth it?

If you’re loyal to a particular airline, it could make sense to apply for one of its co-branded cards. For instance, United offers the United Explorer card, which gets you benefits like a free checked bag and priority boarding on United.

If you aren’t loyal to a particular airline and you simply book with whichever carrier is offering the cheapest airfare, an airline co-branded card may not be the best option. You could consider a travel rewards card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or the Amex Platinum card instead. This way, you’ll earn points that can be used to book airfare through Chase and Amex, respectively, as well as through specific airline transfer partners affiliated with the two programs.

How do credit cards that earn miles work?

Airline credit cards that earn you miles in a particular frequent flyer program require you to add your frequent flyer number to your card account. You’re usually asked to do this during the credit card application process. Then, you’ll earn miles on all your eligible credit card spending, and those earnings will be reflected in your frequent flyer account. You’ll be able to access the miles you earned from your credit card directly through your frequent flyer account and use them to book award flights.

What is the difference between airline credit cards and travel rewards credit cards?

Airline credit cards earn you miles in a specific frequent flyer program, such as JetBlue TrueBlue or United MileagePlus. These airline co-branded cards are best for travellers who are loyal to one airline, since your main option for using miles will be for flights on that airline or its partners.

Travel rewards cards, on the other hand, earn transferable points – rewards that you can transfer to a variety of airline and/or hotel partners. With travel rewards cards, you aren’t locked into using your points with only one airline, but you also won’t get airline-specific benefits like a free checked bag or priority boarding.

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