The Ultimate Guide to Airline Credit Cards

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Last updated on August 24th, 2023

Are you considering getting a co-branded airline credit card? Or maybe you already have one and are looking for tips on how to maximize your miles or award redemptions? No matter what you are after, you’ll find it here in our ULTIMATE guide to all things airline credit cards.

Why Choose a Travel Credit Card?

One of the most popular uses for credit cards is booking vacations. Booking airfare is one of the most expensive aspects of travel. Fortunately, there are loyalty programs that help customers earn rewards and book free flights.

These programs also offer co-branded credit cards with some of the largest banks in the United States. These cards allow account holders to make purchases that earn additional rewards – and may even offer extra benefits before, during, and after their flights – including airport lounge access, statement credit for Global Entry or TSA Precheck, and more.

Travel credit cards offer numerous benefits for everything, from the weekend getaway to the round-the-world journey of a lifetime. Here are some of the plusses – and negatives – about travel cards:

Pros Cons
Credit cards for travel can make traveling significantly cheaper. That’s because they offer points. These points can apply to future travel, reducing costs. Some cards also offer discounts with hotel chains, airlines, or car rental companies. The best travel cards charge an annual fee. These fees range from approximately $95 to $650 per year. While there are plenty of great no annual fee cards, the rewards and points won’t be as plentiful as they are with a card that charges an annual fee.
Many travel rewards credit cards charge a foreign transaction fee – a charge on using the credit card outside of the United States. Fortunately, many travel rewards cards offer no foreign transaction fees, meaning travelers aren’t penalized for daring to spend money abroad. Credit cards with travel rewards typically require an excellent credit score or a good credit score.
Signup bonuses and introductory offers are two of the best perks with this type of credit card. Some cards come with bonuses of up to 100,000 miles, with a cash value of hundreds of dollars. While these bonuses require a minimum spend, the reward rate is typically many times more than the normal rate – making them an excellent value. Because they offer rewards and huge bonuses, credit cards for travel have higher than average APR. Interest rates with travel cards are, on average, one percent higher than cash back rewards cards and three-percent lower than 0% intro APR credit cards.

Which Airlines Offer US Credit Cards?

You might associate airline credit cards with the big carriers only. After all, co-brand credit cards are only for the very biggest brands – but that’s not the case. Dozens of regional, national, and international airlines and alliances offer a co-branded credit card for US market. 

Here’s who currently offers a co-branded airline card to the US consumer or business markets:

American Airlines Iberia Japan Airlines Air France/ KLM Virgin Atlantic
Aer Lingus Cathay Pacific JetBlue All Nippon Ailines (ANA) Allegiant Airlines
Aeromexico Delta Airlines Korean Air Spirit Airlines Lufthansa
Alaska Airlines Emirates LATAM Southwest Airlines Sun Country Airlines
British Airways Frontier Airlines Hawaiian Airlines United Airlines China Airlines

What Credit Score Do You Need to Get an Airline Credit Card?

Airline credit card offers differ from hotel credit cards in that there are options for nearly every credit score or profile. Some airlines, such as LATAM and Korean Airlines, offer secured credit cards. These options provide an excellent way to earn miles for those who love to travel but still need to improve their credit score.

Most other co-branded airline cards require good or excellent credit. An excellent credit score varies depending on the scoring model. According to FICO – the credit scoring model that more than 90% of issuers use – “excellent” is any score between 800 and 850. The VantageScore model is the next most commonly used scoring method. Under this model, an excellent credit score is between 781 and 850.

Tips for Boosting Your Credit Score

If your credit score isn’t high enough to get your dream airline card just yet, don’t worry. Millions of Americans struggle with bad credit and low credit scores.

There are several steps you can take today to help raise your credit score, including:

① Check and review your credit reports Ⓐ Check your credit reports from all three of the nationwide consumer reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.
Ⓑ Check for negative credit information, like potential fraud or ID theft, accounts in collection, or unpaid balances.
② Pay your bills on time Ⓐ Automatic payments are a great way to avoid accidentally missing a payment.
Ⓑ Splitting monthly payments into two smaller payments can help stretch budgets while ensuring you pay on time.
③ Keep credit use low Ⓐ Credit utilization accounts for roughly 30% of your credit score, so aim to keep credit use as low as possible.
Ⓑ Consider a balance transfer credit card if your credit use is creeping up and you want to consolidate that debt into one new account, typically at 0% Intro APR.
④ Limit new applications Limit any new credit applications to only what is essential (i.e. if applying for a balance transfer credit card).
⑤ Keep old accounts open Don’t close any old, unused accounts. Closing accounts can lower your average credit utilization.

These tips are easy to follow and can show impressive results in as little as a month. Realistically, however, these best practices may take up to six months (or more) before your score rises significantly.

What to Look for In an Airline Credit Card

Here are some of the more critical features to look out for when deciding on a co-branded airline credit card:

① Sign-up bonuses One of the reasons why airline rewards cards are so popular is that they offer signup bonuses. As with travel cards and hotel credit cards, airlines provide big bonuses to entice new passengers. While the exact bonuses differ depending on the annual fee, some cards, such as those from Delta, Aer Lingus, British Airways, and others, offer signup bonuses of up to 100,000 miles.
② Airline alliance and codeshare agreements Many people get airline rewards credit cards because they frequently travel with an airline and want rewards for their loyalty. One of the excellent things about these cards is the ability to rewards with several different carriers. These alliances allow people with airline credit cards from one carrier to earn – and redeem – miles with any other member of the partnership
③ Flexibility of rewards Rewards flexibility is another critical consideration when it comes to this type of card. Many airline rewards credit cards – especially those part of frequent flyer programs, like Delta SkyMiles – have fairly strict terms of redemption. These are typically for flights with SkyTeam, seat upgrades, lounge access, or bookings with select hotel partners.
④ Travel perks Before you apply for an airline rewards card always be check out the benefits cardholders can expect from card membership. The higher the annual fee, the better the perks. The same rationale applies to other perks, like frequent flyer tiers with airlines or other partners.
⑤ Foreign transaction fees Many people overlook foreign transaction fees when exploring airline rewards credit cards. But what good is an airline card if you must pay to use it when you are traveling overseas? If you plan on using the credit card abroad, look for a card with no foreign transaction fees.

Of those tips listed above, pay special attention to the foreign transaction fees of any airline card you consider. Foreign transaction fees are charges from card issuers for transactions at non-U.S. retailers. However, these fees occur for more than physically paying with your credit card overseas. Foreign transaction fees include online purchases to foreign companies, ATM withdrawals outside the U.S., or currency conversion fees.

Currency conversion fees occur when the payment networks (Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Discover, etc.) charge the card issuer (Capital One, Chase, Wells Fargo, etc.) a processing fee. Typically, this fee is 1% of each U.S. dollar spent. Look for cards with no foreign transaction fees to avoid headaches abroad.

Other Things to Look For

No Annual Fee

Many co-branded credit cards come with “free” and “premium” versions. Premium versions come with an annual fee. These fees can range anywhere between $95 and $900. No-annual-fee airline cards offer frequent flyer rewards at a lower rate than premium cards but without a yearly membership fee.

Should you apply for a no-annual fee card or opt for the premium version?

No annual fee credit cards are an easy way to boost your frequent flyer miles quickly. These types of cards are perfect for folks who may not travel enough to warrant things like lounge access, security fast-pass, or priority boarding.

The easiest way to determine whether applying for a card with an annual fee is right for you is to closely examine your current travel habits and consider your spending levels to see if they match a premium version. Often, individuals will prefer a premium airline card for all the perks it offers. But if they do not take advantage of all these benefits and do not fly very often, they will unnecessarily spend money on unused features.

What Airline and Airport Perks Should You Look for In a Co-Branded Airline Credit Card?

Airport perks and benefits are another aspects of airline credit cards. These perks come from the carrier itself – and not the card issuer. These benefits allow account holders to enjoy exceptional amenities and luxury – at no additional cost.

Here are some of the most popular features to look out for:

Free checked bags Specific amount of miles per dollar spent Priority boarding
Lounge access In-flight discounts Airport of in-flight Wi-Fi

Targeted Offers

Credit card companies and frequent flyer programs often offer exclusive, invite-only, invite-only, exclusive promotions to their customers. Card issuers offer these discounts on criteria including credit history, spending habits, and geographic location.

The metrics used to determine who gets which offer vary by the credit card issuer. Unless you have an excellent credit score, clean credit history, and are actively using revolving credit (and are a member of the frequent flyer program that’s being targeted), you may not see a targeted offer in your mailbox.

Lounge Access

Paying for lounge access per trip can be pricey (if that lounge even accepts day passes), so the easiest way to ensure you can enjoy the finer things the airport has to offer is with a co-branded airline card. Airline lounges provide a wide variety of amenities, including showers, private rooms, complimentary cocktails, and more.

Anniversary Bonuses

An anniversary bonus is a perk that is granted to a qualifying cardholder or rewards program member on the anniversary of their program activation. Each calendar year, the card issuer gives the cardholder this special bonus.

What Are My Miles Worth?

Before you decide on a co-branded airline credit card, make sure you understand how much the points or miles you earn are worth. Here are the latest valuations for leading frequent flyer loyalty programs:

Program Value (cents/point)
Air Canada (Aeroplan) 1.3
American Airlines (AAdvantage) 1.1
Alaska Airlines (Mileage Plan) 1.4
Avianca (LifeMiles) 1
British Airways (Avios) 1.3
Delta Air Lines (SkyMiles) 1.2
Frontier (Frontier Miles) 1.4
Hawaiian Airlines (HawaiianMiles) 0.9
JetBlue (TrueBlue) 1.3
KLM/ Air France (Flying Blue) 1.2
Korean Air (SkyPass) 1.6
Lufthansa (Miles & More) 1.4
Southwest (Rapid Rewards) 1.5
Spirit Airlines (Free Spirit) 0.8
United Airlines (MileagePlus) 1.2
Virgin Atlantic (Flying Club) 1.5

These valuations change depending on how you redeem miles or to which partners you choose to transfer miles.  

Browse Airline Alliance and Codeshare Guides

Looking for a comprehensive guide to your favorite airline alliance or loyalty program? Chances are that we have it! Browse our Ultimate Guides:

Oneworld guide SkyTeam guide Star Alliance  guide

Browse Frequent Flyer Program Guides

Looking for a comprehensive guide to your favorite airline loyalty program? 

American Airlines AAdvantage guide Avios guide Spirit Airlines Free Spirit guide Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan guide
United Airlines MileagePlus guide Southwest Rapid Rewards guide Delta SkyMiles guide Southwest Rapid Rewards guide

Check out more

Travel Rewards Credit Cards

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About: Cory Santos
Cory Santos

Cory is the senior credit card editor at BestCards, specializing in everything credit card-related. He’s worked extensively with credit cards and other personal finance topics, including nearly five years at BestCards. Cory’s extensive knowledge is an essential part of the BestCards experience, helping readers to live their best financial lives with up-to-date insights and comprehensive coverage of all facets of the credit card space, including market trends, rewards guides, credit advice, and comprehensive credit card reviews.

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