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The Best Airline Credit Cards

By Ramsey Qubein

Jan 25, 2019

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Southwest Airlines is offering a free companion pass for anyone who signs up for a credit card by February 11.

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Southwest Airlines is offering a free companion pass for anyone who signs up for a credit card by February 11.

Everybody loves to fly for free—and the best way to do it is by choosing wisely when it comes to an airline-affiliated credit card. Depending on how you like to travel, these are the top cards for getting those elusive award tickets.

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Airline-affiliated credit cards can unlock the globe when it comes to flying for free. Whether you are looking for hotel points, cards with great transfer partners, or ways to fly first class on the cheap, there are all kinds of great offers floating around. We grouped together some of the best airline credit cards that can help you fly for free.

Southwest Rapid Rewards: the card that lets you fly with a friend for free

In what is sure to be one of the best offers of the year, new sign-ups for the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus, Premier, or Priority credit cards will receive 30,000 Rapid Rewards points and a free companion pass for all of 2019 after they spend $4,000 within the first three months. 

The Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Card
The companion pass is a popular Southwest perk that lets its most frequent fliers designate a companion to fly unlimited, free flights with them anytime throughout the year. Typically, travelers must fly 100 Southwest flights or accrue 110,000 Rapid Rewards points within a year to get the pass. Now, that highly sought benefit is available to anyone who successfully applies for the card and meets the $4,000 spend. 

Annual fees for the Plus card are $69; the Premier card is $99 per year; and the Priority card is $149 per year. This offer is only valid until February 11, so you’ll need to act quickly.

Choose this card if: You like to travel with a buddy for free anywhere in the Southwest network.

Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard: the best card for Hawaiian vacations

For those of us living on the mainland, the Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard may not be the first card we think of for travel. But there are some important points to consider beyond the brand-new 60,000 bonus miles sign-up offer for those who spend $2,000 within the first 90 days of having the card. Hawaiian flies more routes from Hawaii to 13 cities on the mainland than any other carrier. This means you will have better odds of scoring award availability opportunities.

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Since major carriers like Alaska, American, Delta, and United have a limited number of seats on their flights to Hawaii, free award tickets are harder to come by. But all of Hawaiian’s flights are to the vacation destination, making it easier for the carrier to open availability. That’s why having Hawaiian Airlines miles is a best-kept secret when it comes to fun in the sun.

The Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard
When you sign up for the card, you also receive a onetime 50-percent-off companion discount for round-trip economy class travel between Hawaii and North America on Hawaiian Airlines. The card comes with a free checked bag on Hawaiian-operated flights, waived foreign transaction fees, and shopping discounts through the World Elite Mastercard benefits program.

For the $99 annual fee, cardholders earn three miles per dollar spent on eligible Hawaiian Airlines flight; two miles per dollar on gas, dining, and grocery stores; and one mile per dollar on everything else.

Choose this card if: You want the best odds of finding an award ticket to Hawaii.

JetBlue Card and Frontier Airlines World Mastercard: the best cards for family pooling

Not everyone flies often enough to rack up the miles needed for a free flight. But there are a couple of airline credit cards that let you pool points with family and friends so that you can get to that free vacation faster. These include the JetBlue Card and the Frontier Airlines World Mastercard.

The JetBlue card comes with a 10,000-point sign-up bonus after you spend $1,000 on eligible purchases within the first 90 days. It also includes triple points on all JetBlue purchases and double points on any dining and grocery store purchases. This makes it a great card for families, especially those who love to eat. There’s also a 50 percent discount on all in-flight purchases with the card, and importantly, no annual fee.

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The Frontier Airlines Mastercard carries a $79 annual fee but delivers a 40,000-mile bonus after you spend $500 within the first 90 days. More bonus miles kick in for spending on Frontier Airlines (five miles per dollar spent) and on restaurant purchases (three miles per dollar). There’s also a $100 flight voucher each year you renew the card.

Lots of miles are nice, but the real perk is the ability to pool miles with other people to earn enough for a free trip. Few airlines allow this feature without charging for it, which is why these cards are a great way to get closer to free travel. Frontier allows you to combine miles with up to eight other travelers. JetBlue allows up to seven friends and family members to pool points.

Choose this card if: You don’t fly often enough to earn enough miles for free flights but know several people with small balances who are willing to share.

British Airways Visa Signature: the best card for free short flights

The British Airways Visa Signature card
Most of us don't have the time to rack up points with long journeys overseas in first class. If your travel is primarily short-haul, the British Airways Visa Signature credit card can offer huge benefits because flights under 1,151 miles within North America cost only 7,500 Avios points for an economy seat (double that for first class). That means you can redeem points for short flights on American or Alaska domestically, or save them for overseas trips. For example, a short flight of less than 650 miles anywhere else in the world (London to Paris, Sydney to Melbourne) costs only 4,500 Avios points. A flight less than 2,000 miles is only 10,000 Avios points.

Avios points can be redeemed on any Oneworld alliance member (like Iberia, Qantas, or Cathay Pacific) plus partners like Aer Lingus and Alaska. Chase is offering one of its highest enrollment bonuses at the moment: 50,000 points after spending $3,000 within the first three months of having the card. You could earn another 25,000 Avios points for spending $10,000 within the first year or another 50,000 Avios points for spending $20,000 within the first year. The annual fee for this card is $95. 

Choose this card if: You mostly fly shorter routes when you travel—especially at the last minute when prices can skyrocket.

Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant American Express Card: the wild card for those who want flexibility

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Beginning February 13, the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express Luxury Card will be rebranded to the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant American Express Card. While it is a hotel-affiliated credit card with Marriott’s new loyalty program branding, this card offers a decent bonus when you transfer points to one of its many airline partners. Most of its airline transfer partners operate at a ratio of three Marriott Bonvoy points to one airline mile, but there’s a sweet spot where you can transfer 60,000 Marriott Bonvoy points and receive 25,000 miles in your chosen airline program. Even better, if you transfer to United, 60,000 points becomes 27,500 United miles. This makes it an airline-mileage-earning credit card if you max out its bonus option. 

The Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant American Express Card
For the $450 annual fee, card members receive Bonvoy Gold Elite status, which means bonus points, potential room upgrades, and 15 elite night credits to apply to getting to the next level, Bonvoy Platinum Elite. A 100,000-point sign-up bonus is even nicer for those who spend $5,000 within the first three months of having the card.

If you think the annual fee is high, consider this: You get a $300 statement credit when using the card at any Marriott family hotel. Add on complimentary airport lounge passes through Priority Pass Select membership (typically $249 a year) and you’re basically making money applying for this card.

The card also earns six points per dollar spent at Marriott family properties, triple points at domestic restaurants and on flights booked directly with airlines, and double points on other eligible purchases.

Choose this card if: You want flexibility in which airline programs you can transfer points to. Since you can’t always predict which airlines will have award seats for your travel dates, this card means you aren’t locked into one airline program.

 >>Next: Surprising Credit Card Perks You May Be Missing

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