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 CNBC Select's picks for the top airlines credit cards:
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
Earn 50,000 miles after you spend $2,500 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
$0 first year, then $99
15.99% - 24.99% variable
3%, minimum $5
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.
6X points on every $1 spent on JetBlue purchases; 2X points at restaurants and grocery stores; 1X points on all other purchases
40,000 bonus points after you spend $1,000 in the first 90 days and pay the annual fee
17.49% tor 26.49%
3%, minimum $5
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.
Earn 3 miles per dollar spent at hotels, 3 miles per dollar spent on Delta purchases, 2 miles per dollar spent at restaurants, 2 miles per dollar spent at U.S. supermarkets, and 1 mile per dollar on all other eligible purchases
Earn 40,000 bonus miles and 5,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $2,000 in purchases on your new card in your first three months. Plus, earn a $100 statement credit after you make a Delta purchase with your new card within your first three months
15.74% to 24.74% variable
Either $5 or 3% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
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 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 40,000 bonus miles and 5,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $2,000 in purchases on your new card in your first three months. Plus, earn a $100 statement credit after you make a Delta purchase with your newcard within your first three months. And now, with Status Boost™, you can earn 10,000 MQMs after you spend $25,000 in purchases on your card in a calendar year, up to two times per year, getting you closer to Medallion Status.
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 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.
2X points on every $1 spent on Southwest purchases; 1X points on all other purchases
Earn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open
15.99% to 22.99% variable
5%, minimum $5
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 only earn 2X points per every $1 spent on Southwest flights. There is a welcome bonus: Earn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first three months your account is open.
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.
2X 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
60,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open
$0 first year, then $95
16.49% to 23.49% variable
5%, minimum $5
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 2X miles per $1 spent on United purchases, as well as at restaurants and hotels booked through the hotel's website. All other purchases earn 1X miles per $1 spent. There's a welcome bonus: Earn 60,000 bonus miles after you make $3,000 in purchases in the first three months from account opening.
It is one of the few airlines travel cards that does come 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.
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.
To determine which cards will put the most money back in your pocket, CNBC 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.
CNBC 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. CNBC 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.
For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card, click here.