Are you a person who loves to travel and thinks you might benefit from an airline credit card in 2023?
Money expert Clark Howard is an avid traveler who loves earning credit card rewards. But he cautions against using airline co-branded credit cards unless you’re serious about traveling with one specific airline.
And when you do, you need to be aware you’re at risk of changes in the valuation of the miles, points and bonus rewards structures, based on decisions made by the card issuer or the airline rewards program itself.
Still, there are terrific rewards out there for frequent travelers who are willing to pay the annual fees for some of these credit cards. And even the casual traveler could see the benefits of boarding upgrades and free checked bags that a low-annual-fee airline card could provide.
I have investigated this sector of the credit card market to identify some of the best cards available, and I also got Clark’s advice on when you should and shouldn’t apply for this type of credit card.
Should You Use an Airline Credit Card? Clark Howard Weighs In
The idea of a co-branded credit card from a favorite airline can seem like a great choice for avid travelers who are looking for a rewards card that fits their aspirations.
But is that actually the best choice for your wallet?
Clark says that airline co-branded credit cards are usually only for consumers who fit a narrow spending profile. It comes down to two factors:
- How often you fly with the airline
- How much money you spend on the card
“The people who benefit from an airline rewards card are people who travel an airline at least two times per month and have a charge volume of at least $10,000 per month,” Clark says. “This will normally be a very wealthy individual or somebody who is traveling for business.”
If that’s you, Clark says using an airline card could be a good choice. If not, Clark says you may be better off with a good cash back credit card. Alternatively, low-volume travelers may see more benefit from a no-annual-fee travel card that rewards airline, hotel and ground transportation spending regardless of brand.
Clark Says: Don’t Be Fooled by Points Bonuses
You may look at that advice above and say, “But there are great welcome offers attached to the airline card that I want.”
Clark has been consistent in his stance that credit card welcome offers should be a low priority when choosing a long-term card for your wallet. He says a short-term gain can be a long-term loss if the card’s ongoing perks are lacking.
This holds true for airline credit cards, as they often offer miles or points within their rewards programs as the main welcome offer. Clark says the ever-changing value of a point when compared to the cost of a flight makes this a hard bonus to evaluate.
“The number of points you have to have before those cards really benefit you in terms of travel is crazy,” Clark says. “Sometimes an airline will say something like, ‘A domestic trip starts at 20,000 points,’ but you have to pay attention. ‘Starts at’ is the key term there. It’s usually much more than that these days, because the airlines have inflated how many points it takes to earn a free trip.”
Clark’s Exception to the Rule
While his stance on airline co-branded credit cards is pretty firm, Clark does see a notable exception that could justify some travelers applying for one of these cards even if it doesn’t meet the criteria he detailed above.
Some airline cards may offer enough value in free checked bags and boarding upgrades to justify adding one of those cards to your wallet. This can be a net positive versus the annual fee for the card if you travel often enough.
“If those two benefits are important to you, even if you don’t meet the dollar volume increment that I talked about, you could make a case for it,” Clark says. “Let’s say you fly six times a year and normally check a bag: The lowest tier airline card on an airline you fly frequently would be worth it if it includes a free bag.”
We encourage you to take Clark’s advice on this topic seriously and to evaluate your own spending habits before moving on to our analysis of the best airline co-branded credit cards on the market.
Best Airline Credit Cards
|OUR TOP CHOICE||RUNNER UP||HONORABLE MENTION|
|Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card||The Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card||United Quest℠ Card|
|Accelerate points earned toward Companion Pass||Lounge access, free checked bag, seating upgrades||3x points on United purchases, annual credit|
Annual Fee: $149
Foreign Transaction Fee: $0
Bonus Offer: Earn 75,000 bonus points
Bonus Offer Disclaimer: after spending $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.
Rewards Program Details: Receive 7,500 anniversary points, 4 upgraded boardings when available, and a $75 Southwest® travel credit each year. Enjoy benefits including 3X points on Southwest purchases, 2X points on local transit and commuting, including rideshare, 2X points on internet, cable, and phone services; select streaming, 10,000 Companion Pass® qualifying points boost each year, and more.
Airline Rewards Opportunity: This card awards a $75 annual flight credit and four boarding upgrades per year when available. All the points you earn go toward qualifying for both the Companion Pass and “A-List” status. If you earn more than 125,000 points per year, you’ll qualify for a companion to fly free with you wherever you go with Southwest.
Why We Like It: Clark carries this card in his wallet and for good reason: He has earned the Companion Pass for 17 consecutive years (and counting). Spending with this card has allowed Clark’s wife to travel with him for free year after year. And while other cards tout things like free bag checking, Southwest Airlines doesn’t charge you to check your first two bags in the first place.
Annual Fee: $550 (See Rates & Fees)
Foreign Transaction Fee: None
Bonus Offer: Earn 60,000 bonus miles
Bonus Offer Disclaimer: after you spend $5,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 6 months.
Rewards Program Details: Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases. Earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases.
Airline Rewards Opportunity: This card carries a stiff annual fee, but if you’re a serious Delta traveler you’ll love what you get. That includes complimentary entry to the Delta Sky Club when traveling on a Delta flight (Effective 2/1/25, Reserve Card Members will receive 15 Visits per year to the Delta Sky Club; to earn an unlimited number of Visits each year starting on 2/1/25, the total eligible purchases on the Card must equal $75,000 or more between 1/1/24 and 12/31/24, and each calendar year thereafter) and complimentary access to The Centurion® Lounge when you book a Delta flight with your Reserve Card. You also can get a waiver for Medallion® Qualifying Dollars (which are a part of how Delta measures its rewards tiers) if you spend at least $30,000 with the card each year (This is valid through Dec. 31, 2023). You’ll also have a chance to qualify for Medallion® Qualification Miles boosts. Terms apply.
Why We Like It: If you’re a very serious Delta traveler, this card offers all the bells and whistles you could want. But there are other Delta cards offered by American Express (Gold and Platinum) that offer things like free checked bags and seat upgrade opportunities for much smaller annual fees. If you’re traveling only a few times per year, you may want to consider one of those instead. It is worth noting that Clark has been critical of Delta’s handling of SkyMiles valuation in recent years, so if you’re not already a Delta person you may want to consider a different airline rewards program.
Annual Fee: $250
Foreign Transaction Fee: $0
Bonus Offer: Earn 70,000 bonus miles and 500 Premier qualifying points
Bonus Offer Disclaimer: after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.
Rewards Program Details: 3 miles per $1 spent on United® purchases. 2 miles per $1 spent on dining, select streaming services & all other travel. 1 mile per $1 spent on all other purchases. Plus, each year, receive up to a $125 United® purchase credit and up to 10,000 miles in award flight credits each year (terms apply), as well as earn up to 6,000 Premier qualifying points.
Airline Rewards Opportunity: You can earn half your annual fee back each year through up to a $125 United® purchase credit each year. You also can earn up to 10,000 in rewards flight credits each year. Terms apply.
Why We Like It: This card delivers an easy way to get some of your annual fee money back each year, plus it rewards your spending on several different categories beyond United travel purchases. That means it won’t be dead weight in your wallet when you’re spending on things like dining and streaming.
Other Co-Branded Airline Credit Cards To Consider
If you’re not a frequent traveler of Southwest, Delta or United airlines, the top three cards on our list are probably pretty useless to you. That’s what makes this a complicated credit card category to rank.
Ultimately, much of the value you’ll find in an airline credit card is dependent upon your access to that airline in the first place.
Many airlines have credit cards, and some have perks that are really close to the cards we recommended above. Here are a few more airline credit cards you may want to consider:
- Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card: This card has a $75 annual fee that is easily recouped via a $99 passenger airfare credit on a flight that costs $121 or more. This credit is available once per year. Each person on your reservation will get to check one bag for free if you pay for your tickets with this credit card.
- FRONTIER Airlines World Mastercard: This card has a $79 annual fee. But you can recoup it through a $100 flight voucher that you earn every account anniversary, as long as you’ve spent at least $2,500 with your card during the previous 12 months. You also can spend your way to Elite Status (one point per $1 spent with Frontier) and get complimentary boarding upgrades.
- JetBlue Plus Card: This card has a $99 annual fee, but you can wipe that out by taking advantage of a $100 annual credit that you can claim if you spend $100 or more on a JetBlue vacation package. This card gets your first bag checked for free.
- Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®: Citi offers a few different options for American Airlines customers, but this card is an easy bet to be a net positive on your wallet with just a few trips each year. The $99 annual fee is waived the first year, but you can cover it most years with free checked bags for you and your companions as well as boarding priority upgrades.
What About Generic Travel Credit Cards?
For many travelers, a generic travel rewards credit card may be a better choice than an airline-specific card.
There are quite a few credit cards on the market that give you rewards for travel spending without requiring that you do the spending with any particular brand.
For example, the card_name is one of the most popular travel cards on the market. It will give you 5x on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, 3x on dining, 2x on all other travel purchases and $50 annual Ultimate Rewards Hotel Credit, plus more.
This can open you up to shop for the best deal on things like flights, hotel stays, car rentals and ride-hailing purchases.
In addition to the Sapphire Preferred card, some other popular generic travel cards include:
- Discover it Miles (Discover matches your miles point for point during the first year of spending.)
- card_name (Unlimited 2x Miles per dollar on every purchase, every day)
- card_name (Elite travel rewards card that offers upgrades galore.)
Team Clark has reviewed the card marketplace and you can read our full roundup of the best travel credit cards.
When it comes to picking an airline credit card, so much of the decision is about which airline you fly most often.
Delta may have a great credit card, but if you primarily fly another airline, SkyMiles are largely useless to you as a consumer.
If you do find a quality credit card that aligns with the airline you travel most often, remember Clark’s rules of thumb: Are you traveling with that card at least twice a month? And are you charging a volume of more than $10,000 per month with the card?
If not, you may be better off with a credit card that is not so narrowly focused on rewards for one business.
Do you have an airline credit card that you use for rewards already? We’d love to hear about it in the Clark.com community!
To see the rates and fees for the American Express cards featured, please visit the following links: The Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card: See Rates and Fees; The Platinum Card® from American Express: See Rates and Fees