As someone who has traveled to over 60 countries and who spent 13 years working in international equities, I appreciate fantastic travel. This article will look at the best airlines credit cards today.
While I was working in investment banking, I regularly racked up about 100,000 airline miles a year. As a result, I used those airline miles to then get two free round-trip tickets to Hawaii for my wife and I. It was a wonderful arrangement! Who doesn’t love to fly for free.
Now that my wife and I are retired, we continue to rack up airline reward points. Our goal is to visit 100 countries before we die. Here are the best airlines credit cards we’ve analyzed after spending hours looking at dozens.
The Best Airlines Credit Cards Today
Our top choices for the best airlines credit cards available are listed below:
- Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express
- Delta SkyMiles Blue Credit Card from American Express
- Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card (our favorite)
- United Explorer Card
- British Airways Visa Signature Card
There are literally hundreds of incredible rewards credit cards on the market today. The best airline credit cards all have great bonus miles and fantastic perks such as free checked bags, great introductory offers, and waived annual fees for the first year.
Your goal is to get the best airline credit card possible so you can travel in comfort and style. It feels great to know that every dollar you spend on your card is at least one extra rewards point towards free travel in the future. Now let’s review the top five best airlines credit cards we’ve found that will fit your travel needs.
1) Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express
With the Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express, you can earn 35,000 bonus miles after you use your new card to make $1,000 in purchases within the first three months.
The card’s introductory offer of 35,000 bonus miles is enough to buy a round-trip ticket to most places in the domestic US.
Redeeming miles using a Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express will ensure you get priority boarding and your first bag checked for free.
Being a Delta Gold cardholder allows you to join Delta Elite status. This helps in terms of boarding and getting the occasional upgrade when seats are available.
If you also like to travel internationally like we do, there are $0 foreign transaction fees. This is key because there’s often exchange rates to deal with already. Terms apply.
In summary, the Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express has three nice benefits:
- $0 waived annual fee the first year, $99 annual fee for year 2 onwards
- No foreign transaction fees
- Earn 35,000 bonus miles after spending just $1k
- Enjoy Main Cabin 1 Priority Boarding
- Receive one free checked bag per flight (up to a $240 value!)
2) Delta SkyMiles Blue Credit Card from American Express
Consider the Blue Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express as the little brother or little sister of the Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express. If you are a frequent Delta Airlines traveler, but don’t want to pay an annual fee ever, this card is for you.
Once you sign up, you get 10,000 Bonus Miles after spending $500 in purchases in your first 3 months. The 10,000 miles-welcome-bonus earns you approximately $130 to be applied to any trip in Delta’s airline network.
You’ll also enjoy 20% savings (as a statement credit) after you use your card on eligible Delta in-flight purchases of food, drinks, and headsets. Terms apply.
Summary of the Delta SkyMiles Blue Credit Card from American Express:
- It’s the only $0 annual fee card in the Delta family.
- Get 10,000 Bonus Miles after spending $500 in purchases in your first 3 months.
- Earn 2 miles per dollar at US restaurants and on purchases made directly with Delta.
- Earn 1 mile on every other eligible dollar you spend.
- Receive a 20% savings (as a statement credit) after you use your Card on eligible Delta in-flight purchases of food, drinks, and headsets.
3) Favorite Domestic Airlines Credit Card: Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card
Southwest is probably the friendliest airlines in the skies today. They are a budget, no frills airlines that goes to most places around the United States. Southwest’s flying network is actually one of the largest in the US.
With a Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier credit card, you can buy cheaper fares and earn great benefits.
Once you spend $2,000 in the first three months of opening your account, you earn a healthy 50,000 Southwest points.
If you spend $10,000 in the first nine months, you can earn an extra 30,000 points for a total of 80,000 bonus miles.
The bonus miles earned from the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit card’s introductory offer could also earn you the Southwest Companion pass.
The Southwest Companion pass lets you add a second person free of charge to any flight you book with Southwest. Just make sure there is another seat available for purchase. You’ll only need to pay taxes and fees for your companion’s flight, but not for the ticket itself. That’s a huge perk!
You’ll typically need to earn 110,000 qualifying points or take 100 qualifying one-way flights in a calendar year to earn a Companion Pass. The pass is valid for the rest of the year in which you earn it plus the entire following year. So if you meet the requirements by January 2021, for example, you’ll get the pass for the rest of 2021 plus all of 2022.
Points earned from Rapid Rewards credit cards do count toward the Companion Pass. At the time of writing, this includes any sign-up bonuses you receive from the cards.
Southwest Rapid Rewards Card Highlights
Here’s a summary of the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Card:
- Receive 2 points per $1 spent on Southwest purchases
- Earn 50,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months.
- Receive 6,000 bonus points on your cardholder anniversary each year.
- No foreign transaction fees.
- No seat restrictions or blackout dates to worry about.
- Points can be redeemed for airfare, hotels, gift cards, and more.
- Your points never expire as long as your account is active
4) United Explorer Card
United has the largest flight network in America, and one of the largest international flight networks out of all the airlines in the world. They bought Continental Airlines in 2010 for $3 billion.
With the United Explorer card, you can earn 60,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months your account is open. Plus, if you spend $6,000 in the first six months, you get an additional 10,000 bonus miles for a total of 70,000 bonus miles. If you are a regular United Airlines customer, the United Explorer card is the one for you.
In addition to earning up to 70,000 bonus miles with your initial offer, you also get access to priority boarding. Further, you’ll receive two United Club passes annually. The value of an annual membership for one United Club pass is $650 or 85,000 miles.
Flying well is all about being able to relax in a private lounge before your flight takes off. During long layovers, the United Club is a godsend.
Cardholders also enjoy the flexibility of unlimited free checked bags, which is huge because check-in bags now costs $35 and up for each piece.
United Explorer Card Highlights
In summary, here are the benefits of the United Explorer Card:
- $0 waived annual fee for the first year, $95 for year 2 onwards.
- Earn 60,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.
- Plus you can earn an extra 10,000 bonus miles if you spend $6,000 total on purchases in the first 6 months your account is open.
- Earn double the miles per every $1 spent on restaurants, eligible delivery services and hotels.
- Enjoy up to $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck.
- Receive 25% cash back on all inflight United purchases.
- Free first checked bag when you book your flight with your card.
- Priority boarding access
- Enjoy the United Club every annual anniversary with 2 one-time passes
- Get 2X miles for United purchases and 1X miles for all others
5) Best International Airlines Credit Card: British Airways Visa Signature Card
British Airways is one of the most luxurious international airlines in the world. If you sign up for the British Airways Visa Signature Card, you earn 50,000 Avios (airline miles) after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months. You can then earn an additional 50,000 bonus Avios after you spend $20,000 on purchases in the first year.
Earning 100,000 airline miles is huge! Given each rewards mile is valued at 1.5 cents, we’re talking $1,500 in rewards for spending $23,000. That’s like getting 6.5% cash back, which is 4.5% higher cash back than the highest cash back card I’ve ever seen. Generally, the best cash back cards are 1.5% for all purchases, with 3% cash back on specific category purchases like dining out.
In addition to incredible bonus miles, this card offers $0 foreign transaction fees. But the one thing you need to watch out for are carrier surcharges when trying to get a free ticket with your rewards points. You always have to pay taxes, fees, and surcharges. Make sure you know what they are.
British Airways is also a member of the Oneworld Airline Alliance. This means you can use your Avios to book flights on 10+ world class partners such as American Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Finair, LATAM, Malaysian Airlines, Qantas, Qatar Airways, Royal Jordanian, Sri Lankan Airlines, JAL (Japan Airlines), S7 Airlines, and Iberia Airlines. Essentially, you’ve got the world covered thanks to the Oneworld Airline Alliance.
British Airways Visa Signature Card Highlights
Here’s a summary of the British Airways Visa Signature Card:
- Huge sign-up bonuses: Get 50,000 Avios after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months, PLUS earn an additional 50,000 bonus Avios after you spend $20,000 on purchases in the first year. Total value of the miles is $1,500.
- 10% off British Airways flights starting in the USA
- For every calendar year you make $30,000 in purchases, you earn a Travel Together Ticket that’s good for two years.
- Earn 3X Avios for purchases with British Airways, Iberia, Aer Lingus, and LEVEL.
- Earn 2X Avios when you purchase hotel stays.
- 1X Avios on all other purchases.
- Earn a Travel Together Ticket every calendar year you spend $30k.
- No foreign transaction fees.
- Tap to pay whenever you see the contactless symbol at checkout.
Take Advantage Of The Best Airlines Credit Cards
If you are a frequent flier, then you must take advantage of at least one airlines credit card. Not only will you rack up travel rewards points quicker to buy you free flights, you’ll also get luxury privileges like priority boarding, baggage protection, free upgrades, and access to airline lounges to make flying more enjoyable.
Nothing feels better than earning enough rewards to get a free flight to one of your favorite destinations in the world. I suggest signing up for one of these hand-picked best airlines credit cards if you travel two or more times a year. If you’re going to spend money anyway, you might as well get an airlines rewards credit card.
The best airlines credit cards in my opinion are by Southwest and United Airlines.
Arline Travel Tips For 2021
As of summer 2021, travel is back and bustling. Although there are still some COVID-19 hot spots in some parts of the world, things are much improved in the US. Many domestic flights are full and people are more comfortable flying again with the vaccine rollout.
Some airlines still have special travel protocols, and social distancing and mask requirements vary by city and state. Be respectful of the people around you and follow the local rules where you are traveling.
Airlines are doing everything they can. Many of them still require the use of masks by passengers and crew. Despite their efforts, there is still the risk of contracting the virus on board a flight. Here are some tips you can follow.
- The CDC recommends that all people wear masks or face coverings in public places.
- You should always check for restrictions yourself based on your specific trip itinerary.
- Travelers who return to the US will experience standard customs processing, plus additional entry screening to inquire about their medical history, current condition, and contact information for local health authorities.
- Bring hand sanitizers and antibacterial wipes in your carry-on luggage for easy access.
- Stay healthy, hydrated, and well rested.
Ready, Set, Go Travel!
As each day passes, we are all one step closer to defeating this virus for good. It’s time to get excited about traveling again like we used to!
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About the Author: Sam worked in investment banking for 13 years at GS and CS. He received his undergraduate degree in Economics from The College of William & Mary and got his MBA from UC Berkeley. In 2012, Sam was able to retire at the age of 34 largely due to his investments that now generate roughly $250,000 a year in passive income. He spends most of his time playing tennis, traveling, and taking care of his family.
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Disclosure: Credit card terms and features are subject to change.