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Credit Cards

Best airline credit cards of September 2021

We analyzed 19 popular credit cards using an average American's annual spending budget and digging into the perks and drawbacks to find the best airline rewards credit cards based on your travel habits.

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If you frequently fly with the same airline, using the right credit card can earn you increased rewards and special perks when you travel. After all, loyalty should count for something, right?

There are dozens of airline cards on the market, and they are definitely not all created equal. In order to cut through the noise, we analyzed 19 popular options using an average American's annual spending budget and digging into each card's perks and drawbacks to find the best of the best based on your travel habits. (See our methodology for more information on how we choose the best cards.)

If you're not loyal to a specific airline, you might want to take a look at our list of the best travel credit cards, which provides alternative cards that offer competitive rewards rates on broader travel purchases, such as hotels and cruises, in addition to airfare. These cards offer travel insurance, more flexibility and often allow points to be transferred to frequent flyer programs.

When you're looking for an airline rewards credit card, consider the additional travel perks that best suit your needs — whether it's free checked bags for you and your companions, lounge access, in-flight food and beverage discounts or priority boarding. You might even be able to earn free flights. Many cards offer multiple perks, so decide what's important to you before choosing a card.

Here are Select's picks for the top airlines credit cards:

Best for American Airlines

Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®

Information about the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard® has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.
  • Rewards

    2X miles on every $1 spent on eligible American Airlines purchases, gas stations, and restaurants; 1X miles earned on every $1 spent on all other purchases

  • Welcome bonus

    Earn 50,000 miles after you spend $2,500 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

  • Annual fee

    $0 first year, then $99

  • Intro APR

    None

  • Regular APR

    15.99% - 24.99% variable

  • Balance transfer fee

    3%, minimum $5

  • Foreign transaction fees

    None

  • Credit needed

    Good/Excellent

See our methodology, terms apply.

Pros

  • 50,000 miles after you spend $2,500 in the first 3 months
  • 25% savings on eligible in-flight purchases
  • Preferred boarding for eligible credit cardmembers
  • First checked bag free
  • Priority boarding

Cons

  • $99 fee after the first year
  • You have to spend $20,000 in 12 months in order to qualify for the $125 credit
  • No special 0% financing offers
  • No airport lounge access
  • Estimated miles earned after 1 year: 78,138
  • Estimated miles earned after 5 years: 190,690

Rewards totals incorporate the miles earned from the welcome bonus

Who's this for? The Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard® offers a whole host of benefits for American Airlines loyalists, including a strong rewards program and welcome bonus. Cardholders earn 2X miles on every $1 spent American Airlines flights, gas stations and restaurants and 1X miles for every $1 spent on everything else.

New cardmembers can earn 50,000 miles after they spend $2,500 in the first 90 days. High spenders can also take advantage of a $125 American Airlines credit when you spend $20,000 within the first year (you must renew your card to qualify).

As a cardmember, you get your first checked bag free (along with 4 guests on the same reservation), preferred boarding and a 25% rebate on in-flight food and beverage purchases.

While there is no 0% introductory APR period, the first year's $99 annual fee is waived. There are no foreign transaction fees.

Best for JetBlue

JetBlue Plus Card

Information about the JetBlue Plus Card has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.
  • Rewards

    6X points on every $1 spent on JetBlue purchases; 2X points at restaurants and grocery stores; 1X points on all other purchases

  • Welcome bonus

    40,000 bonus points after you spend $1,000 in the first 90 days and pay the annual fee

  • Annual fee

    $99

  • Intro APR

    None

  • Regular APR

    15.99% tor 24.99% variable

  • Balance transfer fee

    3%, minimum $5

  • Foreign transaction fees

    None

  • Credit needed

    Excellent/Good

See our methodology, terms apply.

Pros

  • 40,000 miles after you spend $1,000 in the first 90 days and pay the annual fee
  • 5,000 bonus points on your account anniversary
  • 10% rebate on all redeemed TrueBlue points
  • First checked bag free for you and up to three companions
  • 50% off in-flight purchases

Cons

  • $99 annual fee
  • No special 0% financing offers
  • No airport lounge access
  • Estimated points earned after 1 year: 72,872
  • Estimated points earned after 5 years: 204,360

Rewards totals incorporate the miles earned from the welcome bonus

Who's this for? JetBlue Plus Card cardholders earn the highest rewards rate on airline purchases compared to the other cards on this list. Earn 6X points for every $1 spent on JetBlue purchases, 2X points at restaurants and grocery stores and 1X points on everything else. What gives this card a leg up on other airlines is you get a 10% rebate on all the TrueBlue points you redeem. So if you if you redeem 20,000 TrueBlue points for a qualifying flight, you'll get 2,000 points back.

The card also comes with a welcome bonus: Spend $1,000 in the first 90 days and pay the $99 annual fee and you'll earn 40,000 points. After you spend $50,000 in the first year, you can qualify for TrueBlue Mosaic status, which comes with a number of perks, including no fees for changing or canceling a reservation, early boarding and one complimentary alcoholic beverage per flight.

Cardholders also receive 5,000 bonus points on their card account anniversary, 50% off in-flight purchases and an annual $100 statement credit after you purchase a JetBlue vacation package of $100 or more.

Best for Delta

Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card

On the American Express secure site
  • Rewards

    Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels; 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide, including takeout and delivery and at U.S. supermarkets; 1X Miles on all other eligible purchases

  • Welcome bonus

    Limited Time Offer: Earn 90,000 Bonus Miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer expires 11/10/2021.

  • Annual fee

    $250

  • Intro APR

    N/A

  • Regular APR

    15.74% to 24.74% variable

  • Balance transfer fee

    N/A

  • Foreign transaction fees

    None

  • Credit needed

    Excellent/Good

See rates and fees, terms apply.

Who's this for? Delta frequent fliers who don't mind paying for perks should consider the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card. While its $250 annual fee (see rates and fees) is a tad steeper than most mid-tier airline cards, the card benefits make up the difference. You just have to be prepared to navigate the somewhat complicated world of Delta's frequent flier rewards program.

New cardmembers earn 90,000 bonus miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in eligible purchases on your new card in your first three months. This limited-time offer ends on Nov. 10, 2021.

Rewards redemptions are: 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels; 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide, including takeout and delivery and at U.S. supermarkets; 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases. Plus, Delta offers ways to accelerate your path to Medallion Status, with Status Boost® and ways to earn bonus Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs).

The difference between MQMs and bonus miles is this: Bonus miles are everyday rewards points that you can redeem for Delta airlines tickets and more. MQMs are the points you acquire in order to achieve top status as a Delta SkyMiles member. You need 25,000 MQMs to achieve Silver status (the first tier).

Beyond the welcome bonus, this card offers members several perks: an annual companion travel certificate, first checked bag free on Delta flights for you and your companions on the same reservation (maximum nine waivers per reservation) and priority boarding. There's also car rental loss and damage insurance and baggage insurance plan, plus a fee credit for global entry or TSA PreCheck.

With this card, members gain lounge access to the Delta Sky Club for you and up to two guests at a discounted rate of just $39 when traveling on a Delta flight. You also receive a 20% savings in the form of a statement credit after you use your Card on eligible Delta in-flight purchases of food, beverages, and audio headsets.

Best for Southwest Airlines

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card

On Chase's secure site
  • Rewards

    2X points on every $1 spent on Southwest purchases; 1X points on all other purchases

  • Welcome bonus

    Earn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months. Plus, earn 3X points on dining, including takeout and eligible delivery services, for the first year.

  • Annual fee

    $149

  • Intro APR

    None

  • Regular APR

    15.99% to 22.99% variable

  • Balance transfer fee

    5%, minimum $5

  • Foreign transaction fees

    None

  • Credit needed

    Excellent/Good

See our methodology, terms apply.

Pros

  • Southwest upgraded boarding on up to 4 tickets per year
  • 7,500 bonus points on each account anniversary
  • $75 Southwest annual travel credit
  • 20% savings on in-flight purchases
  • 4 upgraded boardings per year when available

Cons

  • $149 annual fee
  • No special financing offers
  • Estimated points earned after 1 year: 52,672
  • Estimated points earned after 5 years: 196,030

Rewards totals incorporate the miles earned from the welcome bonus

Who's this for? If you frequently fly Southwest and want to reap the benefits of a loyalty membership, the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card is worth considering thanks in part to the annual $75 Southwest statement credit and 7,500 bonus points you earn each account anniversary.

This card doesn't offer as a robust rewards program compared to other airlines cards. Cardmembers earn 2X points per every $1 spent on Southwest flights.

There is a generous welcome bonus that can earn you 40,000 points after spending $1,000 on purchases in your first three months. Plus, earn 3X points on dining, including takeout and eligible delivery services, for the first year.

Cardmembers can also take advantage of up to four priority boarding upgrades per calendar year, 20% rebate on in-flight purchases and no foreign transaction fees.

Best for United Airlines

United℠ Explorer Card

On Chase's secure site
  • Rewards

    2X miles per $1 spent on United purchases; 2X miles per $1 spent on dining, eligible delivery services and hotel stays; 1X mile earned on every $1 spent on all other purchases

  • Welcome bonus

    Earn 60,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. Plus, an additional 10,000 bonus miles after you spend $6,000 in the first 6 months.

  • Annual fee

    $0 first year, then $95

  • Intro APR

    None

  • Regular APR

    16.49% to 23.49% variable

  • Balance transfer fee

    5%, minimum $5

  • Foreign transaction fees

    None

  • Credit needed

    Excellent/Good

See our methodology, terms apply.

Pros

  • Up to $100 statement credit to cover Global Entry and TSA PreCheck® application fees every four years
  • Two one-time United Club lounge passes per year
  • Priority boarding for primary card members and their travel companions when upgrades are available
  • 25% rebate on in-flight purchases

Cons

  • $95 annual fee after the first year
  • No special financing offers
  • Estimated miles earned after 1 year: 111,967
  • Estimated miles earned after 5 years: 219,836

Rewards totals incorporate the miles earned from the welcome bonus

Who's this for? For those who prefer flying United, the United℠ Explorer Card offers a variety of impressive benefits with its rewards program.

Cardholders earn 2 miles per $1 spent on United purchases; 2X miles per $1 spent at restaurants and hotels; 1X miles earned on every $1 spent on all other purchases. The welcome bonus is: Earn 60,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months your account is open. Plus, an additional 10,000 bonus miles after you spend $6,000 in the first six months.

It is one of the few airline travel cards that comes with some lounge access: you can take advantage of two United Club one-time passes per year. That's a value of over $100 per year and helps offset some of the cost of the annual fee ($0 first year, then $95).

There are a host of nice perks for travelers: Users can get a 25% rebate on all in-flight purchases, their first bag is checked for free (and for one traveling companion) and priority boarding. There's also an auto rental collision damage waiver, baggage delay insurance, lost luggage reimbursement, trip cancellation/interruption insurance and trip delay reimbursement.

Perhaps the best perk offered by the United℠ Explorer Card is you can get up to $100 statement credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck(TM) every four years. While this is becoming a standard benefit of many travel rewards cards, it's not something frequently offered by airlines.

Best airline credit cards

Category Credit Card
Best for American AirlinesCiti® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®
Best for JetBlueJetBlue Plus Card
Best for DeltaDelta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card
Best for Southwest AirlinesSouthwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card
Best for United AirlinesUnited℠ Explorer Card

Our methodology

To determine which cards will put the most money back in your pocket, Select evaluated 19 popular rewards credit cards offered by major banks, financial companies and credit unions that allow anyone to join and offer bonus rewards on airline-related purchases. We compared each card on a range of features, including travel rewards (points and miles), annual fee, welcome bonus, introductory and standard APR, one-time perks, annual perks, redemption rates, as well as factors such as required credit and customer reviews when available.

Select teamed up with location intelligence firm Esri. The company's data development team provided the most up-to-date and comprehensive consumer spending data based on the 2019 Consumer Expenditure Surveys from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. You can read more about their methodology here.

Esri's data team created a sample annual budget of approximately $22,126 in retail spending. The budget includes six main categories: groceries ($5,174), gas ($2,218), dining out ($3,675), travel ($2,244), utilities ($4,862) and general purchases ($3,953). General purchases include items such as housekeeping supplies, clothing, personal care products, prescription drugs and vitamins, and other vehicle expenses. Select used this budget to compare cards that reward specific purchases and estimate how many rewards the average consumer might earn.

We then estimated how much the average consumer could earn in rewards (in the case of airlines cards, it's usually "points" or "miles") over the course of a year, two years and five years, assuming they would attempt to maximize their rewards potential by earning all welcome bonuses offered and using the card for all applicable purchases.

Our final picks are weighted heavily toward the highest five-year returns, since it's generally wise to hold onto a credit card for years. This method also avoids giving an unfair advantage to cards with large welcome bonuses.

While the five-year estimates we've included are derived from a budget similar to the average American's spending, you may earn a higher or lower return depending on your travel habits.

Don't miss: Emirates launches two new credit cards in partnership with Barclays and Mastercard

For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card, click here.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.