The Battle Of The Airline Credit Cards - The Informative Guide - Running with Miles
Best Point Earning Credit Cards

The Battle Of The Airline Credit Cards – The Informative Guide

airline credit cards
Written by Charlie

Advertiser Disclosure

The Battle of the Hotel Credit Cards proved to be a popular and helpful post with many people asking about a similar post for airline credit cards. While I had mentioned in the previous post that airline credit cards are pretty straightforward, they do present some different features beyond the usual sign-up bonus. So, this informative guide will give you the information you need for airline credit cards.

The Battle of Airline Credit Cards

airline credit cards

Which airline credit cards are best for you?

In this guide, we will look at the consumer versions of airline cards to see what they offer and how they stack up against each other, even within the same airline family (some airlines, like Delta, offer several different cards).

There are some airline cards, like the somewhat laughable JAL and ANA cards, that I am not including in this post since those are not even close to being the best airline cards/options for the majority of American travelers.

Sign-up Bonus

The first thing that many of us look at when we talk credit cards is what is the sign-up bonus for that card? That is the part that draws us to the card so it is natural for us to look at this part first.

Airline Credit Cards - Sign-Up Bonus
Airline Bank Credit Card Sign-up Bonus Required Spending
Alaska Airlines BoA Visa Signature 25,000 Miles and $100 Credit $0 (Spend $1,000 in 90 Days for Credit)
American Airlines Citi AAdvantage Gold 25,000 Miles $750 in 3 Months
American Airlines Citi AAdvantage Platinum 50,000 Miles $3,000 in 3 Months
American Airlines Citi AAdvantage Executive 50,000 Miles $5,000 in 3 Months
British Airways Chase Visa Signature 50,000 Points $2,000 in 3 Months
Delta Airlines Amex Gold 30,000 Miles and $50 Credit $1,000 in 3 Months
Delta Airlines Amex Platinum 5,000 Elite Miles, 35,000 Miles, and $100 Credit $1,000 in 3 Months
Delta Airlines Amex Reserve 10,000 Elite Miles and 10,000 Miles First Purchase
Frontier Airlines Barclays World MC 40,000 Miles $500 in 90 Days
Frontier Airlines Barclays No Fee World MC 10,000 Miles First Purchase
Hawaiian Airlines Barclays World Elite MC 35,000 Miles $1,000 in 90 Days
JetBlue Airways Amex JetBlue Card 20,000 Points $1,000 in 3 Months
Southwest Airlines Chase Premier 50,000 Points $2,000 in 3 Months
Southwest Airlines Chase Plus 50,000 Points $2,000 in 3 Months
Spirit Airlines BoA World MC 15,000 Miles First Purchase
United Airlines Chase MileagePlus Explorer 50,000 Miles $3,000 in 3 Months
United Airlines Chase United Club Card $100 Credit First Purchase
Virgin America Comenity Premium Visa Signature 15,000 Points $1,000 in 90 Days
Virgin America Comenity Visa Signature 10,000 Points $1,000 in 90 Days

There are sign-up bonuses on many of these cards that fluctuate from time to time to better offers (or, in some cases, worse offers). There are also bonuses that are targeted to various accounts. So, use this as a guide but always check my credit card tab for the best offer or login to your account to see if you have been targeted.

Annual Fee

Another thing that many travelers wonder about is the annual fee on the cards. Here is a breakdown on what cards have annual fees and which annual fees are waived the first year.

Airline Credit Cards - Annual Fee
Airline Bank Credit Card Annual Fee Waived First Year
Alaska Airlines BoA Visa Signature $75 NO
American Airlines Citi AAdvantage Gold $50 YES
American Airlines Citi AAdvantage Platinum $95 YES
American Airlines Citi AAdvantage Executive $450 NO
British Airways Chase Visa Signature $95 YES
Delta Airlines Amex Gold $95 YES
Delta Airlines Amex Platinum $195 NO
Delta Airlines Amex Reserve $450 NO
Frontier Airlines Barclays World MC $69 NO
Frontier Airlines Barclays No Fee World MC $0 N/A
Hawaiian Airlines Barclays World Elite MC $89 NO
JetBlue Airways Amex JetBlue Card $40 YES
Spirit Airlines BoA World MC $59 YES
United Airlines Chase MileagePlus Explorer $95 YES
United Airlines Chase United Club Card $395 NO
Virgin America Comenity Premium Visa Signature $149 NO
Virgin America Comenity Visa Signature $49 NO
With the major airlines of AA, Delta, and United, they each have an high-end card that does not waive the annual fee. The sign-up bonus is not what warrants the annual fee so we will break them down in the other sections of benefits.
It will depend on your use of cards as to whether or not the cards are worth paying the annual fee on the first year. With cards like the Alaska Airlines card, it is an easy move since that $75 gives 25,000 valuable Mileage Plan miles. With cards like the Hawaiian Airline cards, it may not be as clear.

Elite Miles/Points

Unlike the hotel cards, airline credit cards do not give elite status, even low tier. But, some of the higher end cards do offer the ability to earn elite miles/points through spending.

Airline Credit Cards - Elite Miles/Points
Airline Credit Card Elite Miles/Points Spending Required
Alaska Airlines Visa Signature N/A N/A
American Airlines AAdvantage Gold N/A N/A
American Airlines AAdvantage Platinum N/A N/A
American Airlines AAdvantage Executive 10,000 Miles $40,000
British Airways Visa Signature N/A N/A
Delta Airlines Gold N/A N/A
Delta Airlines Platinum 10,000 Miles (X2) $25,000 (X2)
Delta Airlines Reserve 15,000 Miles (X2) $30,000 (X2)
Frontier Airlines World MC N/A N/A
Frontier Airlines No Fee World MC N/A N/A
Hawaiian Airlines World Elite MC N/A N/A
JetBlue Airways JetBlue Card N/A N/A
Southwest Airlines Premier 1,500 Points (X10) $10,000 (X10)
Southwest Airlines Plus N/A N/A
Spirit Airlines World MC N/A N/A
United Airlines MileagePlus Explorer N/A N/A
United Airlines United Club Card N/A N/A
Virgin America Premium Visa Signature 5,000 Points (X3) $10,000 (X3)
Virgin America Visa Signature N/A N/A

In the table above, when it references a X? figure, that is how many times of that amount they can earn. The spending is required in a calendar year to earn the bonuses.

Card Perks And Benefits

airline credit cards

Airline credit cards can give you free baggage on your next flight

Airline credit cards offer some very general perks while other benefits are more exact depending on the annual fee of the card. This table will list some of the general benefits as well as the more exact ones.

For the baggage column, the number in parenthesis is the number of passengers on the same reservation that will also get the free bag benefit.

Airline Credit Cards - Card Perks And Benefits
Airline Credit Card Free Baggage Club Access Priority Boarding Other Benefits
Alaska Airlines* Visa Signature 1 Bag (X6) No No N/A
American Airlines AAdvantage Gold No No No Reduced Mileage Awards/No Blackout
American Airlines AAdvantage Platinum 1 Bag (X4) No Yes Reduced Mileage Awards/No Blackout
American Airlines AAdvantage Executive 1 Bag (X8) Yes Yes Reduced Mileage Awards/No Blackout
British Airways Visa Signature No No No N/A
Delta Airlines Gold 1 Bag (X8) No* Yes Pay-with-Miles
Delta Airlines Platinum 1 Bag (X8) No* Yes Pay-with-Miles
Delta Airlines Reserve 1 Bag (X8) Yes Yes Pay-with-Miles
Frontier Airlines World MC No No No Award Redemption Fee Waiver
Frontier Airlines No Fee World MC No No No Award Redemption Fee Waiver
Hawaiian Airlines World Elite MC 1 Bag No No Receive Miles From Friend and Family
JetBlue Airways JetBlue Card No No No N/A
Southwest Airlines Premier N/A No No Companion Pass w/110,000 Points Earned
Southwest Airlines Plus N/A No No Companion Pass w/110,000 Points Earned
Spirit Airlines World MC No No No Save 15,000 Miles On Awards
United Airlines MileagePlus Explorer 1 Bag (X1) No* Yes Use Miles For Last Seat
United Airlines United Club Card 2 Bags (X1) Yes Yes Use Miles For Last Seat/No Close-In Booking Fees
Virgin America Premium Visa Signature 1 Bag (X1) No No No Change/Cancel Fees
Virgin America Visa Signature 1 Bag (X1) No No N/A

There are some exceptions on the list. For example, with the Delta Gold and Platinum cards, you do not get free club access but you do receive it at a reduced rate of $29 (instead of $50). With the United MileagePlus Explorer card, you do not receive free club membership but you do receive 2 free club passes each member year.

With baggage, Southwest does not include that benefit because you always get 2 free bags on Southwest no matter what anyway. But, they do offer the invaluable Companion Pass for earning 110,000 points in a year. You do not need to redeem those points for the Pass but once you earn that many points in a calendar year, you will have also earned the Companion Pass.

Anniversary Bonus

Airline Credit Cards

Many airline credit cards give you a bonus each year on the card anniversary

Unlike hotel credit cards, airline credit cards and their anniversary bonuses are not quite as cut-and-dried. There is a general offering of some type of companion ticket but that is not across all the cards. Here is what the cards offer for an anniversary bonus.

Airline Credit Cards - Card Perks And Benefits
Airline Credit Card Anniversary Bonus Cost
Alaska Airlines* Visa Signature Companion Ticket $99 plus taxes
American Airlines AAdvantage Gold No N/A
American Airlines AAdvantage Platinum 10% Back On Awards N/A
American Airlines AAdvantage Executive 10% Back On Awards N/A
British Airways Visa Signature Companion Ticket Spend $30,000 plus taxes on the ticket
Delta Airlines Gold No N/A
Delta Airlines Platinum Companion Ticket Taxes
Delta Airlines Reserve First Class Companion Ticket Taxes
Frontier Airlines World MC No N/A
Frontier Airlines No Fee World MC No N/A
Hawaiian Airlines World Elite MC $100 Companion Discount/5K Miles N/A
JetBlue Airways JetBlue Card No N/A
Southwest Airlines Premier 6,000 Points N/A
Southwest Airlines Plus 3,000 Points N/A
Spirit Airlines World MC 5,000 Miles Spend $10,000
United Airlines MileagePlus Explorer 2 Club Passes N/A
United Airlines United Club Card No N/A
Virgin America Premium Visa Signature $150 Companion Discount N/A
Virgin America Visa Signature $150 Companion Discount N/A

As you can see, there are not as many companion tickets as one might think. Delta offers the strongest companion ticket offer but the fees are high. Probably the best card on the list for the companion ticket when it comes to cost is the Alaska Airlines card. The fee is $75 and you need to pay $99+taxes, but that still comes out lower than the Delta cards and you only spend that $99 if you want the ticket.

The Southwest card has a decent offer since you are basically paying the redemption value of the points in the annual fee. The United card is the most surprising by only offering the club passes. But, this is a good lesson to take with all cards with annual fees – you can always call in and ask about some type of statement credit, etc. With the United card, they will just about always give you a statement credit of $100 that will wipe out your annual fee and you get the 2 free club passes.

Spending And Earning

airline credit cards

Airline credit cards offer bonus miles on airline spending but not much else.

This is another area that is important with these cards. Of course, each airline is going to want you to use their card when purchasing tickets with them. That means they bump up the earnings a bit with that. But, remember that many cards will give you those bonuses on airline purchases and allow the flexibility of transfer partners (Chase Sapphire Preferred, for example).

Airline Credit Cards - Spend and Earning
Airline Credit Card Airline Bonus Bonus Categories Everyday Points
Alaska Airlines* Visa Signature 3 Miles N/A 1 Mile
American Airlines AAdvantage Gold 1 Mile N/A 1 Mile
American Airlines AAdvantage Platinum 2 Miles N/A 1 Mile
American Airlines AAdvantage Executive 2 Miles N/A 1 Mile
British Airways Visa Signature 3 Points N/A 1 Point
Delta Airlines Gold 2 Miles N/A 1 Mile
Delta Airlines Platinum 2 Miles N/A 1 Mile
Delta Airlines Reserve 2 Miles N/A 1 Mile
Frontier Airlines World MC 2 Miles N/A 1 Mile
Frontier Airlines No Fee World MC 1 Mile N/A .5 Mile
Hawaiian Airlines World Elite MC 2 Miles Up to 10X At Partners 1 Mile
JetBlue Airways JetBlue Card 2 Miles N/A 1 Mile
Southwest Airlines Premier 2 Miles 2 Miles On RR hotel and car partners 1 Mile
Southwest Airlines Plus 2 Miles 2 Miles On RR hotel and car partners 1 Mile
Spirit Airlines World MC 2 Miles N/A 2 Miles
United Airlines MileagePlus Explorer 2 Miles N/A 1 Mile
United Airlines United Club Card 2 Miles N/A 1.5 Miles
Virgin America Premium Visa Signature 3 Points N/A 1 Point
Virgin America Visa Signature 3 Points N/A 1 Point

Unlike most cards, airline credit cards do not offer much in the way of category bonuses. Most of these cards are not that good for daily spending. The only real reasons you would want to put a lot of spending on an airline card is if you are trying to earn some of the threshold bonuses for elite miles.

One card that offers something a little different from others is the United Club card. It offers 1.5 United miles on all spending. That is a nice way to generate United miles on spending that does not fit in bonus categories with Ultimate Reward cards (which could be transferred to United).

Summary

Airline credit cards are pretty standard but they also have little bits that try to set them apart from their competitors. For the most part, airline credit cards are great to get for the bonuses but they may not be the best cards to keep for spending or for year after year ownership.

There are other cards that give better bonuses for spending, but if you want things like the free bags, the cards can easily pay for their annual fee with that benefit alone.

If you are interested in applying for any of these cards, check out my Airline Credit Card page for all of the offers.

Editorial Note - Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, hotel, airline, or other entity. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of the entities included within the post.

Some of the links on this site are affiliate links that will support this site. Thank you for your support.

About the author

Charlie

Charlie has been an avid traveler and runner for many years. He has run in marathons around the world for less than it would cost to travel to the next town - all as a result of collecting and using miles and points. Over the years, he has flown hundreds of thousands of miles and collected millions of miles and points.
Now he uses this experience and knowledge to help others through Running with Miles.

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