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How to Choose an Airline Rewards Credit Card

Last updated on April 20th, 2021

Travel credit cards are a great way to earn rewards for travel and save money on everyday purchases. Airline credit cards are especially great for those who frequently travel – either for work or play – and can help you get a free trip, travel-class upgrade, or even airport lounge access just for using the card! But what are the best airline cards, and how should you choose an airline rewards credit card that suits your needs?

Should You Get an Airline Rewards Credit Card?

First things first – is an airline rewards card the right option for you? Typically, most airline rewards credit cards require either good or excellent credit to qualify. The reason behind this hurdle is that often these types of cards come with great benefits and introductory perks, and credit issuers are wary of simply giving away free money to risky applicants.

If you don’t have excellent credit, however, fear not: there are still rewards cards available. The Discover It Secured Card is one example of a secured credit card that offers travelers who either have bad credit or no credit history at all.

Those seeking an airline card for average credit also have options.  The Free Spirit® Points Mastercard® from First Bank and Trust and Creditshop (the issuer of the Mercury Mastercard) is an example of a credit card offering from a major airline for people with average or subpar credit. The card earns points in Spirit Airline’s Free Spirit loyalty program and even comes with a sign-up bonus of up to 15,000 points.

What to Look for In an Airline Rewards Credit Card

When it comes to airline cards, there are dozens of things that could be considered, depending on the wants and needs of everyone. There are, however, a few critical things for which all travelers should be looking out.

Airline Alliances and Codeshare Agreements

One of the main reasons people get airline rewards credit cards is that they frequently travel with a specific airline and want to get rewarded for their loyalty – and that makes total sense. One of the great things about many airline cards that people often overlook is the ability to earn miles or points with several different carriers. Many of the biggest airlines in the world are members of global alliances.

Delta, for example, is a member of the SkyTeam Alliance, which also includes Air France, KLM, Aeromexico, Korean Air, and others. United Airlines is a Star Alliance member, including Avianca, Lufthansa, Air Canada, and many more, while American Airlines is in the Oneworld Alliance, also featuring heavy hitters like Qantas and British Airways.

Delta features several co-branded credit cards through American Express. These options include versatile rewards cards like the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card. Several other SkyMiles card options, including business credit cards, can help companies maximize savings – and frequent flyer miles.

Benefits of Codeshare and Frequent Flyer Program Credit Cards

These alliances allow people with co-branded credit cards from one carrier to earn – and redeem – miles with any other carrier in the alliance, which provides excellent value. What, though, if you don’t fly with one of these carriers, but someone like Alaska Airlines or JetBlue? While these carriers may not be a member of a global alliance, they do have “codeshares” with other airlines, which can help you out in a big way.

Alaska, for example, has a codeshare agreement with British Airways (amongst others), which means Alaska Airlines Visa Credit Card earns miles when flying with Alaska or British. It gets even better, as Alaska Airlines’ frequent flyers can rack up serious miles – Alaska is one of the few carriers that earns miles based on miles flown, not the price of a ticket – and use them towards a vacation airfare with British.

Flexibility of Rewards

Rewards flexibility is another key consideration when it comes to airline rewards credit cards. Many airline rewards cards – especially those tied to frequent flyer programs, such as Delta’s SkyMiles – have pretty strict terms of redemption, usually for flights with SkyTeam, seat upgrades, lounge access, or bookings with select hotel partners.

General travel rewards cards, such as the Spark® Miles Select from Capital One® or the Chase Sapphire Reserve® offer much more versatile earning and rewards, which can be spent with greatly reduced restrictions or transferred to loyalty or frequent flyer programs as you please.

Also keep in mind that while rewards may provide versatility, they might not cover your entire award itinerary when redeeming. Many programs, for example, don’t allow members to apply miels towards taxes and fees – meaning these costs should be accounted for before redeeming miles or points.

Perks

Before you apply for a rewards card – regardless of the type – always be sure to check out the benefits and perks cardholders can expect from membership. As a rule, the higher the annual fee, the better the perks.

Cards with annual fees around $495 will usually offer lounge access, either unlimited or for a set number of visits; cards with an annual fee in the $249 to $295 price range will offer some airport lounge access (usually 1 or 2 trips per year). Cards with no annual fee will often provide no lounge access.

The same rationale applies to other perks, such as frequent flyer tiers with airlines or alliance partners. By taking the time to consider what you want out of a credit card, such as lounge access, membership tiers, seat upgrades, etc., you can whittle down the list to find the ideal card for you.

Foreign Transaction Fees

Foreign transaction fees are something many people overlook when looking into a travel rewards credit card, but they shouldn’t. After all, what good is an airline card if you must pay to use it when you are traveling overseas? While many cards come with no foreign transaction fees, some do, meaning it’s vital to at least peek at the “terms & conditions” before hitting the apply button.

Card Acceptance

One final thing you should always consider before applying for an airline rewards credit card – or any credit card for that matter – is whether you can use the card where you plan to travel. Many credit card types, such as Mastercard or Visa, have great acceptance worldwide. In contrast, other cards, such as American Express or Discover, have limited acceptance in different parts of the world.

Find Your Perfect Airline Rewards Credit Card

If you are looking for the best credit cards available today, make sure to check out some of the reviews on BestCards.com. We have a comprehensive collection of all the leading credit cards, including impartial reviews and a detailed run-down of all the key facts and figures you need to make an informed decision.

Related Article: The Ultimate Guide to Airline Credit Cards

Featured photo by Sarah Pflug/Burst
About: Cory
Cory Santos

Cory is BestCards.com's "Jack of all trades" and resident credit expert, covering all facets of the credit card space. In addition to credit cards, Cory finds that jogging, cats, and memes are essential parts of a balanced day.