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Air travel is surging as people are making up for lost vacations and business travel. But when you look in your wallet, do you have any of the best airline credit cards—the ones that will maximize both your increased travel spending and your at-home buys? Or are you still using the first travel credit card that caught your eye with minimal mileage-earning potential? If it’s the latter, you could be leaving free flights or a faster track to frequent flier elite status on the table.
When looking for the best airline credit cards, it’s also important to factor in the additional perks that come along with them (lounge access, free checked bags, upgrade priority on award tickets) as well as how easy it is to redeem the miles you earn. Among the dozens of mileage-earning cards, these rule the pack.
Why we love it: If you fly Southwest frequently, this is the card for you, as it builds up points for free flights even when you’re on the ground. For its low $99 annual fee, its bonus point–earning categories, two Early Bird Check-Ins each year (worth as much as $50), and a fast track to A-List and A-List Preferred status based on annual spending are impressive.
How it earns miles: You’ll earn three points per dollar spent on Southwest flights, plus two points per dollar spent with any Rapid Rewards hotel or car partners. That’s not to mention the two points per dollar spent on local transit, including rideshare services. There are double-point categories, too, for spending on internet, phone, cable, and select streaming services. Each year on your card’s anniversary, you’ll also earn 6,000 Rapid Rewards bonus points just for having the card. The best part is that points you earn with this credit card get you closer to the airline’s most lucrative benefit: the Companion Pass, which allows you to bring someone along with you on flights for free.
Additional perks: The card comes with two annual Early Bird Check-Ins each year, 1,500 tier-qualifying points towards status for every $10,000 you spend, and 25 percent back on in-flight purchases. On Southwest, all bags fly free, but if yours gets lost or delayed, you’re protected. The card comes with $100 per day for up to three days if your bag is delayed more than six hours plus a bigger sum if it gets lost completely. Extended warranty and purchase protection against damage or theft are further perks.
Annual fee: $99
Current welcome bonus: Earn 50,000 bonus points after spending $2,000 within the first three months from account opening and an additional 50,000 points after spending $12,000 within the first year.
How to spend the welcome bonus: A potential 100,000 bonus points is a hefty balance with Southwest and is worth more than $1,400 in travel spending. That can get you and a loved one round-trip tickets to Hawaii, the Caribbean, or most places in the United States where Southwest flies.
Why we love it: This card packs a punch, offering perks that other airline cards do not include, such as access to more award ticket availability and space-available upgrades on award tickets for elite status fliers. Its low annual fee and long list of benefits make it a great value for United fliers.
How it earns miles: Cardholders score two miles per dollar spent at restaurants, hotels, and on United flights. All other purchases earn one mile per dollar spent. Those interested in United elite status can use the card for a head start to Premier status. After spending $24,000 within a calendar year, the card delivers 1,000 elite Premier Qualifying Points (PQP) to edge you closer to status. (In 2021, entry-level Silver status requires 3,500 PQP.)
Additional perks: This card comes with priority boarding, a free checked bag, two United Club passes each year, and a 25 percent discount on in-flight food and beverage purchases. When redeeming miles, cardholders have greater access to award inventory, which makes it easier to use miles for a free flight. You’re also covered with trip delay or cancelation, lost luggage, and car rental insurance.
Annual fee: $95 (waived the first year)
Current welcome bonus: After spending $2,000 within the first three months of account opening, you’ll earn 40,000 MileagePlus miles.
How to spend the welcome bonus: United and its Star Alliance partners fly all over the world. 40,000 miles is a good start towards a business or first-class ticket, but it is also enough to cover a round-trip, domestic economy class ticket.
Why we love it: While you won’t be earning airline miles with this card, it deserves attention for its freestyle Ultimate Rewards points that can be transferred to various airline and hotel programs. The flexibility that comes with being able to transfer to different programs or use points outright to pay for airfare makes this one of the top cards to have in your wallet, especially if you’re not loyal to any one airline.
How it earns miles: Cardholders earn one Ultimate Rewards point for every dollar spent. Bonus categories are plentiful including five points per dollar spent on travel purchased through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal or on Peloton equipment, three points per dollar spent on dining (including delivery services and takeout meals) and certain streaming services, and two points per dollar spent on other travel purchases.
Additional perks: With a low annual fee and a plethora of perks, this is a great card for those that want value for money. You’ll be protected when traveling with trip cancellation, car rental and lost luggage insurance. An annual $50 hotel credit is available to those booking through Chase Ultimate Rewards, and cardholders can get as much as $60 back on Peloton digital or all-access membership. A free subscription to the DoorDash Dash Pass means you pay no fees on food delivery services.
Annual fee: $95
Current welcome bonus: Earn 60,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 within the first three months of card opening.
How to spend the welcome bonus: You can transfer 60,000 points to United MileagePlus, which is often enough to redeem for a roundtrip economy class ticket to Europe. For maximum flexibility, you can also redeem 60,000 points through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal for $750 worth of travel. This means you can travel on any flight or book any hotel or vacation rental listed on the website, and use points to shave $750 off the total bill.
Why we love it: Like the Chase Ultimate Rewards, the flexibility of American Express Membership Rewards points and the long roster of general travel-related benefits make the Platinum Card a premium choice for frequent fliers. Rather than aligning with a particular airline, this card provides maximum flexibility when it comes to redeeming points for free flights.
How it earns miles: This card can pile on the points. For starters, you’ll earn 10 points per dollar spent when dining—and during the first six months of card membership, you also earn 10 points on Shop Small (small businesses) purchases in the United States. Cardholders earn five points per dollar spent on flights and prepaid hotel bookings purchased through the Membership Rewards portal, too.
AmEx’s Platinum card will get you access to Centurion lounges.
Additional perks: Despite a high annual fee, the benefits more than outweigh the cost if you know how and when to use them. Access to Centurion lounges and studios in more than 40 airports is a huge perk for frequent travelers while complimentary Priority Pass Select membership picks up the slack in other terminals without a Centurion lounge. Instant Gold elite status with both Hilton Honors and Marriott Bonvoy are additional perks, which means complimentary breakfast and premium internet. You’ll get a $200 hotel credit to use each year for Fine Hotels + Resorts or The Hotel Collection properties booked via American Express. Entertainment fans can take advantage of a $20 monthly credit to Peacock, Audible, SiriusXM, and The New York Times (enrollment required, terms apply). That’s in addition to $200 in annual Uber and airline credits valid for things like bag fees, onboard food and drinks or seat assignments. Cardholders also get a refund for Clear membership (expedited airport security valued at $179) and $25 per month to use at Equinox gyms. For all of these perks, enrollment is required and terms apply.
Annual fee: $695 (see rates and fees)
Current welcome bonus: This is one of the most lucrative welcome bonuses on the credit card market today. After spending $6,000 within the first six months of card membership, you’ll earn 100,000 Membership Rewards points.
How to spend the welcome bonus: This hefty bonus is transferable to other airline and hotel loyalty programs (AmEx has a long list of partners including British Airways, Emirates, Hilton, Marriott, Qantas, Radisson and Virgin Atlantic among others) or can be used to directly purchase $1,000 worth of travel via the Membership Rewards portal.
Why we love it: We don’t love the low value of Delta SkyMiles, since you sometimes need double, triple, or quadruple the miles compared to what other airlines charge for mileage tickets. But, we do love the opportunity to earn Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) toward elite status by meeting certain spend thresholds. If it’s Delta elite status you’re after, this is a must-have for your wallet.
How it earns miles: You’ll earn three SkyMiles for every dollar you spend on Delta flights, two miles on dining and supermarket purchases, and one mile on everything else. After spending $10,000 on the card, you will earn 10,000 bonus MQMs, and another 10,000 MQMs after reaching $20,000 in annual spend. That’s helpful since it only takes 25,000 MQMs to reach entry-level Silver Medallion status.
Additional perks: A free checked bag when flying Delta is one of the perks, as is a statement credit to offset the cost of TSA PreCheck or Global Entry membership (enrollment required, terms apply). Another popular benefit is a companion certificate that allows cardholders to bring along a fellow flier for free (plus tax).
Annual fee: $250 (see rates and fees)
Current welcome bonus: You can earn 75,000 SkyMiles and 10,000 MQMs toward elite status after spending $3,000 within the first three months of opening the account.
How to spend the welcome bonus: Delta prices its award tickets at sometimes exorbitant rates, but there are still some good deals from time to time. A recent award fare sale priced economy class tickets to Europe at 34,000 miles round-trip. Most of the year, however, the mileage cost of award flights on Delta and its partners can be rather inflated compared to other airlines, which means those 75,000 miles will definitely come in handy, no matter where you want to fly.
Look for award fare sales to get the most out of your Delta miles. Courtesy Delta Airlines
Why we love it: Alaska Airlines is the only major domestic airline to award miles based on distance flown rather than how much you spend on a ticket. This makes it easier to rack up Alaska miles, even on cheap tickets. In March, Alaska joined the OneWorld alliance, but the carrier also has a long roster of other international airline partners where you can earn and redeem miles. The low annual fee and plethora of benefits deliver great value.
How it earns miles: The card awards three miles per dollar spent on Alaska flights and one mile on everything else.
Additional perks: Fliers can check their first bag free and save 20 percent on in-flight food and beverage purchases. For a little relaxation before a flight, a day pass to the Alaska Board Room lounge is half price for cardholders.
Annual fee: $75
Current welcome bonus: After making $2,000 in purchases within the first 90 days of opening the card, cardholders earn 40,000 miles as well as an annual companion pass, which allows someone to travel with you for only $99 plus tax.
How to spend the welcome bonus: Alaska outpaces its competitors by still offering an award chart, which helps frequent fliers know how many miles they need for a free flight. For example, a one-way, first-class ticket to Hawaii from the U.S. mainland starts at 40,000 miles, according to the airline’s award chart.
Why we love it: If you’re an American Airlines flier, this card piles on the perks. Perhaps its biggest asset is Admirals Club lounge access for you and two guests (or your immediate family). American AAdvantage and its OneWorld partners offer a huge network of flights and some impressive premium cabins that can make flying a real treat. Qatar Airways, with its fully enclosed Qsuite business class seat, and Cathay Pacific, with its swanky first-class seats and lounge, are a great use of AAdvantage miles.
How it earns miles: Cardholders earn two miles per dollar on all American flights, and one mile per dollar on all other purchases. While there are no additional bonus categories, it comes with a fast track to elite status, earning 10,000 Elite Qualifying Miles (EQM) after spending $40,000 in a calendar year. Entry-level AAdvantage Gold status requires 25,000 EQMs.
Additional perks: The card comes with priority boarding and a first checked bag for free. Onboard, you’ll save 25 percent on food and beverage purchases. If you use the card to pay for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry, you’ll receive a statement credit to cover the cost, too.
Annual fee: $450
Current welcome bonus: New cardholders will earn 50,000 AAdvantage miles after spending $5,000 within the first three months of holding the card.
How to spend the welcome bonus: The current welcome bonus is enough for a roundtrip, domestic first-class ticket or roundtrip economy class to Hawaii. It will also get you most of the way to a one-way business class ticket in Qatar Airways’ Qsuite, which costs 70,000 miles each way to the Middle East, India, and Thailand, among other places.
Why we love it: This is one of the easiest ways for U.S.-based fliers to redeem miles for Emirates first class while also enjoying instant elite status. The Skywards program is a transfer partner with other travel credit card points programs, too, like American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards. That means you can top off your account easily without charging a fortune to this card.
How it earns miles: Earn three miles per dollar spent on Emirates or FlyDubai flights and double miles on other travel-related purchases including airfare, hotel, and car rental purchases. The card awards one mile per dollar on everything else. After spending $30,000 within a calendar year, you’ll earn a 10,000-mile bonus.
Additional perks: Unlike other cards, this one gives new cardholders instant Gold elite status on Emirates for the first year of holding the card. After the first year, cardholders can keep the same status tier after spending $40,000 per year. Gold status comes with business class lounge access, bonus miles on Emirates flights, and free seat selection. The card also comes with Priority Pass Select membership, which opens the door to more than 1,000 airport lounges. The card offers a statement credit when using it to pay for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry.
Annual fee: $499
Current welcome bonus: Earn 60,000 miles after spending $3,000 within the first 90 days of being approved for the card.
How to spend the welcome bonus: Mileage redemptions for Emirates first and business class flights are not cheap, but recently the carrier lowered the fees associated with them. A round-trip first class ticket between New York and Dubai costs 272,500 miles, but the signup bonus will have you well on your way.
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