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The Best Airline Credit Cards to Apply for Right Now

By Eric Rosen

Jul 23, 2021

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A new airline credit card could be your ticket to a free business-class flight, airport lounge access, and more.

Courtesy of Delta

A new airline credit card could be your ticket to a free business-class flight, airport lounge access, and more.

Whether you want free checked bags, annual companion passes, access to swanky airport lounges, or simply to earn miles on everyday spending, there’s a great airline credit card out there just for you.

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Right now might be the best time to apply for a new airline credit card. Not only are many airline credit cards offering some of their highest welcome bonuses ever, but most also include benefits that you normally have to earn elite status to enjoy. Even if you only plan to take a few trips in the near future, carrying an airline credit card can be your ticket to a world of perks. Plus, all the bonus miles you can earn will come in handy for booking award flights as travel restrictions in more places are eased. Here’s what to look for in an airline credit card, and the best ones to apply for at the moment.

Benefits to look for in an airline credit card

Any airline credit card you apply for should offer some, if not all, of the following benefits.

  • A high welcome bonus: When you apply for a new airline credit card, you can often earn tens of thousands of miles quickly, simply for making everyday purchases. Only open a new airline credit card when its bonus is higher than usual and if you can afford any spending requirements it entails.
  • Free checked bags: The current rate for a checked bag is around $30–$35 for domestic flights but many airline credit cards include a first checked bag for free not just for the cardholder, but for others on their reservation, too.
  • Priority boarding: Look for cards that will get you on board ahead of the general crowd so you don’t have to join a scrum to secure some overhead space for your carry-on.
  • In-flight discounts: If you fly a lot, it can pay to carry a card that offers discounts on such in-flight purchases like food, beverages, and headsets, plus newer add-ons like Wi-Fi.
  • Bonus earning opportunities: Time was, many airline credit cards would only earn bonus miles on tickets purchased from the partner airline and one mile per dollar on other charges. However, more travel rewards cards, including many airline cards, earn bonus miles on other expenses as well, such as charges at restaurants, on gas, and groceries. 
  • Airport lounge access: At the higher end of the price range, some premium airline credit cards include membership to their airport clubs. These cards tend to cost upwards of $500 per year, but if you actually use these facilities regularly, you can save on membership dues while getting access to great spaces in which to eat and work before or between flights.
  • Companion tickets or discounts: Some airline credit cards include companion tickets or discounts among their perks. While some require you to spend a certain amount on purchases per year, others are awarded automatically each account anniversary after you pay the annual fee.
  • Travel protections: Airline credit cards are basically travel credit cards. As such, they should extend certain protections if and when things go wrong, such as trip interruption or cancellation coverage, trip delay reimbursements, and lost luggage insurance.
  • Elite status qualification: Some airlines that have annual airfare spending requirements for elite status also let you bypass them by spending a certain amount on purchases with a cobranded credit card each year. If elite status (and benefits like upgrades, bonus earning opportunities, and waived fees on various travel arrangements) interests to you, this perk may be worth it.
  • Global Entry or TSA PreCheck: Some airline credit cards will reimburse you for a Global Entry ($100) or TSA PreCheck ($85) application fee every four or five years. 

You might not be able to find an airline credit card that offers all of these benefits. Instead, think about the perks you value (and will use) most, the airlines you tend to fly, and the annual fee you are willing to pay, and then focus on the cards that shake out in the mix.

Best airline credit cards for 2021

Here are some of the best airline credit cards currently available, including some that are more general travel rewards cards but still include benefits making them worth considering.

1. Best for American Airlines fliers: Citi® /AAdvantage Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®

This card is a great all-round choice if American Airlines is your primary carrier. It is offering 50,000 bonus miles after making $2,500 in purchases within the three months of account opening, and its $99 annual fee is waived the first 12 months.

It also earns two miles per dollar on American Airlines purchases as well as at restaurants and gas stations, then one mile per dollar on all other purchases. Cardholders and up to four companions on the same reservation get a free checked bag and priority boarding, and paying for in-flight food and beverage purchases earns a 25 percent discount.

2. Best for Delta Air Lines fliers: Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card

This card has a lot going for it. First, for a limited time through November 10, 2021, it’s offering 70,000 bonus miles after spending $2,000 on purchases in the first three months.

Second, it accrues two miles per dollar spent on Delta purchases, at restaurants, and at U.S. supermarkets, then one mile per dollar on everything else, making it a great earner. The introductory annual fee is $0 the first year, then $99 (see rates and fees).

3. Best for JetBlue fliers: JetBlue Plus Card

Right now, this card is offering a tempting intro bonus of 60,000 miles after spending $1,000 on purchases and paying the $99 annual fee in full, both within the first 90 days. If you do so, you will also earn six points per dollar on JetBlue purchases, two points per dollar at restaurants and eligible grocery stores, and one point per dollar on everything else, plus up to $100 in statement credits annually toward JetBlue Vacations packages. Cardholders also enjoy 50 percent in-flight savings on cocktails and food purchases, plus 5,000 bonus points after their account anniversary each year.

4. Best for Southwest Airlines fliers: Southwest Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card

Business credit cards might not have been on your radar, but if you want to separate work expenses from personal ones, you might consider this one. It is currently offering 80,000 bonus points after you spend $5,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening. It also accrues three points per dollar on Southwest Airlines purchases as well as on social media and search engine advertising and on internet, cable, and phone service, then one point per dollar on everything else.

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Cardholders get extra perks, including up to 365 in-flight Wi-Fi credits per year (meaning you could get free internet every time you fly), four upgraded boardings per year, 9,000 anniversary bonus points, and a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck credit worth up to $100 once every four years. The annual fee is $199.

5. Best for United Airlines fliers: United℠ Explorer Card

A great intro offer and suite of benefits make this card a standout. Earn up to 70,000 bonus miles—60,000 after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months your account is open, and an additional 10,000 miles after you spend $6,000 on purchases in the first six months. There is no intro annual fee the first year, then it’s $95.

Apart from that, the card earns two miles per dollar on United purchases, as well as on hotels and dining, including eligible delivery services. It also confers a first checked bag free for cardholders and a companion on the same reservation, priority boarding, 25 percent back on in-flight purchases of Wi-Fi and food and drinks, and a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee reimbursement once every four years.

Now, on to cards you should consider for specific benefits.

6. Best for travel protections: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

You don’t have to pay a high annual fee (just $95) to enjoy this card’s excellent travel protections. If you have to cancel or cut short your vacation for covered reasons, you can claim up to $10,000 per person or $20,000 per trip. It will also insure lost or stolen checked bags up to $3,000, and for delayed bags starting at six hours provide up to $100 a day for five days to purchase replacement items like clothes or toiletries. It will reimburse you up to $500 for covered expenses like meals and lodging if your trip is delayed more than 12 hours or requires an overnight stay. Finally, it extends primary auto rental collision damage waiver insurance, meaning you are covered against damage to a rental car if you get into a fender bender on the road.

The Chase Sapphire Preferred is currently offering its best-ever bonus of 100,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first three months; it earns two points per dollar on travel and dining and one point per dollar on everything else.

7. Best for a welcome bonus: United Quest℠ Card

New cardholders can earn up to a whopping 100,000 miles—80,000 after spending $5,000 on purchases within the first three months, plus an additional 20,000 after spending $10,000 total on purchases within the first six months.

Aside from that, the card offers up to $125 in statement credits annually toward United purchases (like tickets or lounge passes), a first and second checked bag free for cardholders and a companion traveling on the same reservation, and reimbursement for a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee once every four years (worth up to $100). It earns three miles per dollar on United purchases; two miles per dollar spent on other travel, dining, and select streaming services; and one mile per dollar on everything else. Its annual fee is $250.

8. Best for elite status: Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card

If you’re after elite status and put a significant amount of spending on your credit cards, this one can’t be beat. For a limited time through November 10, 2021, it’s offering 80,000 bonus miles plus 20,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) toward elite status after spending $5,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening.

In addition, you can earn 15,000 MQMs after you spend $30,000 in purchases on your card in a calendar year, up to four times, meaning you could earn up to 60,000 MQMs—enough for mid-level Gold status without even flying. (In 2021, cardholders even get 25 percent bonus MQMs for a total of 18,750 per $30,000 spent up to four times.)

This card gets you into Delta’s Sky Clubs when flying the airline, and earns three miles per dollar on Delta purchase and one per dollar on everything else. Its annual fee is $550. (Terms apply, see rates and fees.)

9. Best for category spending bonuses: Chase Sapphire Reserve®

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If you’re not loyal to a specific airline, but still want a card that earns great travel rewards and offers a few perks, the Chase Sapphire Reserve should be your top choice. It’s currently offering 60,000 bonus points after making $4,000 in purchases within the first three months.

The card accumulates points at a quick clip in the following categories (as of August 16, 2021):

  • Ten points per dollar on Chase Dining purchases
  • Ten points per dollar on hotel stays and car rentals made through Chase Ultimate Rewards
  • Five points per dollar on air travel purchases made through Ultimate Rewards
  • Three points per dollar on other travel and dining, including takeout and delivery
  • One point per dollar on all other eligible purchases

Those points are worth 1.5 cents apiece for travel bookings made through Chase but can also be transferred on a 1:1 basis to 10 airlines, including JetBlue, Southwest, and United, as well as to three hotel points programs: World of Hyatt, Marriott Bonvoy, and IHG Rewards.

Cardholders receive up to $300 in statement credits toward travel purchases per year and can enroll for Priority Pass Select access to airport lounges around the world, among other benefits. The annual fee is $550.

10. Best for luxury travelers: The Platinum Card® from American Express

The Amex Platinum card has been a longtime favorite of luxury travelers because of its many premium perks (enrollment required for select benefits, terms apply). Those include access to not only the issuer’s own fashionable Centurion Lounges but also Priority Pass ones and Delta Sky Clubs, among others. Cardmembers can also count on up to $200 in statement credits toward airline incidental fees (seating assignments, checked bags, in-flight drinks, etc.) on a U.S. carrier they designate each calendar year, and up to another $200 toward prepaid luxury hotel bookings made through Amex’s Fine Hotels & Resorts portal. If you tend to fly up front, you can enjoy tremendous savings on tickets in first and business class on over 20 partner carriers, including Cathay Pacific and Emirates by booking through the Amex International Airline Program.

The card is a great choice for paying for airfare anyway since it earns five points per dollar on flights booked directly with airlines or through Amex Travel (on up to $500,000 per calendar year), as well as on prepaid hotels booked with Amex Travel. It earns one point per dollar on everything else. Now is a great time to apply because the card is offering 100,000 Membership Rewards points after you spend $6,000 on purchases within the first six months, and 10 points per dollar on up to $25,000 in combined eligible purchases at restaurants worldwide and at Shop Small partner businesses in the U.S. during the first six months. Those points transfer to over 20 airline and hotel partners, so you can put them to use in any number of interesting ways rather than having to stick with a single airline for your rewards strategy. Its annual fee is now $695 (see rates and fees).

11. Best for a companion ticket: Alaska Airlines Visa® Credit Card

The one perk that sets the Alaska Airlines Visa Credit Card apart is its annual companion fare. When you purchase one round-trip coach ticket, you can get a second ticket on the same reservation for just $99 plus taxes and fees, which can amount to huge savings. New cardholders can earn one (along with 40,000 bonus miles) for signing up and spending $2,000 or more on purchases within the first 90 days. The card’s annual fee is $75.

The variety of airline credit cards runs the gamut from basic ones with no annual fees and few earning opportunities to top-shelf products with perks like lounge access and companion tickets. As you try to decide on one, think about which airlines you fly the most, the benefits you would maximize, and how high an annual fee you are willing to pay. It’s also worthwhile looking beyond cards that are cobranded with a single airline to those that rack up more dynamic travel rewards, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred or the Amex Platinum. Both include plenty of other travel-related perks and protections and are currently offering some of their most lucrative introductory bonuses ever, so it could be the perfect moment to apply.

While the offers mentioned above are accurate at the time of publication, they are subject to change at any time, and may have changed or may no longer be available. This article was originally published July 23, 2021, and updated August 16, 2021.

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