Airline credit cards are a great way to bolster benefits with an airline miles program, and if you know how to put the sign-up bonus and other rewards to work, you can walk away with thousands of dollars in value the first year.
Check out our summary of everything you need to know about airline credit cards below.
What Is a Co-Branded Airline Credit Card?
Typically, credit cards are branded (or sponsored) by the bank or credit card company issuing them. If you look at your credit card, you’ll see the relevant logos, and they might be from financial institutions such as Chase, Citibank, Visa, Discover, American Express or MasterCard.
Co-branded cards add a second corporate player to the mix. These second brands partner with the bank or credit card company to provide a card that comes with additional perks related to the additional brand.
For example, retailers partner with credit card companies to provide co-branded cards. This isn’t the same as a non-branded card solely for use in the store (which acts as a credit line for you with that retailer). A co-branded card lets you use the card at any location that accepts the co-brand (such as Visa or MasterCard) while earning points that you can use with the sponsoring retailer.
This same principle works in the travel industry, where hotels and airlines partner with banks to co-brand cards. Delta partners with American Express, for instance, to offer the Delta SkyMiles credit cards. You can use those cards anywhere American Express is accepted, and spending with the card earns you Delta SkyMiles points.
The Difference Between Airline, Hotel and Travel Rewards Cards
Co-branded credit cards provide a way for you to earn additional value when you spend with your card, and they can be a huge benefit to travelers.
Frequent travelers looking to cover travel expenses or earn luxury travel opportunities can choose from three types of travel rewards credit cards.
- Airline cards let you earn miles or points that transfer to the applicable airline rewards program. A Delta branded credit card lets you earn Delta SkyMiles; a United branded card lets you earn MileagePlus points.
- Hotel cards let you earn points that transfer to the applicable hotel rewards program. A Hilton branded card lets you earn Hilton Honors points, for example.
- Travel rewards cards without a co-brand let you earn points you can redeem for travel via the bank or credit cards online booking portal. You may also be able to transfer rewards from general travel cards to airline or hotel programs, though the value of each point sometimes drops when you do.
An airline card might be the right choice for you if you fly regularly with a specific airline. Some perks you might appreciate include the fact that points are credited immediately to your miles account, and the points you accrue with your credit card are in addition to miles you accrue by traveling. That means you could use your co-branded credit card to purchase fare with the airline — thus earning mile points by spending. But you also earn mile points associated with the flight.
Double dipping with rewards is a great way to rack up miles and get a lot of free flights. Some credit card offers also include specialty miles that let you gain premium status with airline rewards programs faster.
Choosing the Right Airline Credit Card
The right airline card helps you maximize the rewards value, and the first step to choosing a card is knowing which airline to work with.
For example, if you’re a frequent business flyer and you live in the Atlanta metro area, you probably fly out of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport a lot. Around nine major domestic airlines are served by the airport, including Delta, United, Alaska Airlines and Frontier, all of which co-brand credit cards.
If you have a preference for one of the airlines, you might choose the relevant co-branded card; if you don’t have a preference, consider where you’re most likely to fly, and choose the co-branded card from the airline that offers the most potential flights.
If you’re more of an international traveler, you might opt for a card co-branded by an airline such as Virgin Atlantic.
Other tips for choosing an airline credit card are included below.
- Look for a sign-up bonus. Sign-up bonus offers let you earn thousands of extra miles within the first few months you have the card. Often, the bonus is enough to cover one or more flights with your airline of choice, so they can be worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
- Consider the fees. Count the cost of the card before you dive in for the rewards. Will you be able to earn and redeem enough rewards to cover the annual fee and other costs? You can find airline cards with fairly low fees — under $100 or so — and it’s usually easy to make up that cost in annual rewards. Luxury airline cards can come with fees as high as $500 or more, though; while you get some stellar benefits from those cards, you have to ensure you can put them to work for a return on your annual investment.
- Evaluate the addition perks and rewards. Airline cards often come with extra perks aside from the miles rewards. Look at all the benefits of the cards, such as additional complimentary flights, travel insurance and lounge access. Add up the monetary values of perks when you can to see how much more value one card might have over another.
- Look at the banking or credit card network. If you already have a credit card with one bank or credit card, it’s often a good idea to apply with another network for your next card. First, spreading your financial eggs among diverse baskets is rarely a bad choice. Second, networks offer different travel insurance, buy protections and other perks. If you’re already a card holder with one network, you might already be benefiting from its perks, and a second card with a different bank or credit card company gives you access to new benefits.
What’s a Sign-Up Bonus, Why Do You Want It and How Do You Get It?
A sign-up bonus is a large number of mile points that you get just for opening and using your card. How much you have to use the card to get the bonus depends on the offer. Requirements usually range between $500 and $5,000 dollars spent on qualifying purchases within the first few months after opening the card.
Some examples of potential sign-up bonuses you might see with airline cards are:
- 10,000 bonus miles if you spend $500 in the first three months
- 50,000 bonus miles if you spend $3,000 in the first three months
- 75,000 bonus miles plus a complimentary fare if you spend $5,000 in the first three months
Remember, sign-up bonuses vary by offer, and the offers do change, so make sure you read the fine print on yours to understand exactly what benefits you can get.
If you’re thinking that $3,000 or $5,000 sounds like a lot of spend in just three months, check out the math breakdown below.
- $5,000 in three months is only $1,666.67 per month.
- That’s only around $416.67 a week.
- Since most sign-up bonuses let you meet the spending requirement on any qualified purchases, you can hit $416.67 a week by paying for groceries, eating out, catching a movie at the theater and covering bills such as cell phone, utility, internet and cable costs.
- Most people will hit the sign-up bonus just using their new card to cover everyday expenses they’d have to pay for anyway.
In most cases, the sign-up bonus miles are enough to cover at least one flight, so we’re talking about $300 to $1,500 in value — or even more with luxury or international airline cards.
Keep Earning Rewards With An Airline Credit Card
Once the sign-up bonus is earned, the rewards don’t stop coming. Airline cards usually award you at least 1 mile for every dollar you spend. Some airline cards include higher rewards on categorical spending or purchases made directly with the airline.
For example, you might earn 2 miles on purchases in the travel and dining categories, which means $300 spent with a car rental company would net you 600 miles. Likewise, a $50 meal would equate to 100 miles.
Some airline cards award 3 miles or more when you use your card to make purchases directly with them. Thus, a $500 fare turns into 1,500 (or more) miles.
Understanding exactly how the miles add up is key to making the most of your airline credit card.
What Can You Do With All the Rewards?
The best airline credit cards give you plenty of options when it comes to redeeming your miles. While the primary value is going to be in redeeming miles for airfare, look for cards that come with multiple options so you aren’t locked into one choice.
Some common redemption options include:
- Using miles to cover airfare. You can use your miles to cover the full cost of fare (usually you do have to pay fees and taxes with cash) or reduce the total cash cost of fares. This option typically gets you the most value for your miles, with miles being worth 1.5 cents each or more.
- Redeeming for gift cards. Many airline rewards programs offer 1-point-per-penny redemption on gift cards. That means a $25 gift card to your choice of select retailers or restaurants requires 2,500 points.
- Chose from select merchandise. You may be able to visit the airline’s miles market to redeem mileage rewards points for merchandise such as small kitchen appliances, jewelry or gadgets.
- Transfer to another program. Some airlines partner with hotel programs and even other airline programs, so you can transfer miles at a lower per-mile value.
- Gift or donate miles. You may be able to gift or donate your rewards for use by a family member, friend or charity.
Other Common Perks of the Best Airline Credit Cards
The best airline credit cards come with perks beyond the sign-up bonus and mile points. Here are some of the common perks to look for in airline credit cards.
- Complimentary flights. Some airline credits cards award you one free fare every year you remain a card holder.
- Lounge access. Many airline cards include a few free passes to airport lounges, and luxury cards often come with an anytime entry to lounges all across the world (a perk that can be worth more than $300).
- Travel insurance. Travel cards often come with peace-of-mind perks such as baggage delay, loss or damage insurance, trip delay or cancellation insurance and accident insurance that kicks in if you’re injured on a common carrier. You typically have to prepay for your travel with the credit card for these perks to kick in.
- Car rental insurance. Many credit cards in the travel niche offer insurance on your car rental, so you can waive the insurance offered by the rental company and save a little money. Again, you have to pay for the car rental with your card to get this benefit.
- Purchase protections. We think the best cards of any type include provisions to protect you from fraud. Other purchase protections include refund guarantees, extended warranties and cell phone purchase protection that reimburses you if a cell phone you bought with your credit card is stolen or damaged.
What Don’t the Banks Tell You About Airline Credit Cards?
While banks do have to disclose all their fees and details about the offer, they don’t have to make all that information easy to find. Here are a few insider facts and tips that you might miss when you review a credit card offer.
- Airline mile points are held in your airline rewards membership account, not your credit card account. These rewards transfer immediately to your miles account in many cases; in others, the miles transfer at the close of every statement period.
- Because airline miles aren’t ultimately linked to your credit card account, you can close your account and keep the miles you earned. That means you can earn the sign-up bonus and close the account before the next year if you don’t anticipate enough ongoing value to overcome any annual fee.
- Some cards include foreign transaction fees of 3 to 5 percent. If your card does, that means you’ll pay that much more for purchases when you swipe internationally. Before you travel outside of the country, check your credit card fee structure and plan accordingly.
An airline credit card can be a great tool for anyone who flies regularly with the same brand. Do your homework, choose a card co-branded by an airline you like, trust and use at least once or twice a year, and you’re likely to come out ahead in the long run.