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Are airline credit cards worth it anymore?


Airline credit cards have evolved alongside frequent flyer programs for over several decades. Initially, they offered simple bonuses for free flights, but now more options are available to consumers, including transferable points and fixed-value points programs.

The increasing number of airline credit cards has made it difficult for consumers to compare their value. Additionally, these cards are subject to constant changes in benefits, bonuses, fees and program restructuring.

So you might wonder if airline credit cards are worthwhile, especially premium ones with high annual fees.

However, there are still excellent airline credit cards with tailored perks for different types of travelers. So, consider these factors before deciding if an airline card is right for you.

Welcome offers

When evaluating an airline card, you’ll want to ensure you find an advantageous sign-up bonus. Take note of the spending requirements and assess if they are feasible. For instance, the Southwest® Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card currently offers 80,000 points, but you need to spend $5,000 in the first three months to earn the sign-up bonus.

A credit card welcome bonus can help you earn points and miles. KYLE OLSEN/THE POINTS GUY

Additionally, it’s important to research and compare the value of different welcome offers, as they often change. For example, the United Club Infinite Card currently offers an elevated sign-up bonus of 90,000 miles after spending $5,000 in the first three months.

Lastly, it’s crucial to have a clear plan for how you intend to use the miles you earn. While earning 70,000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles after spending $7,000 in the first three months from the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard® (see rates and fees) is significant, ensure it aligns with your travel and redemption goals.

Related: Here are the best credit card welcome offers

Annual fees

Consider your card’s annual fee. Some airline credit cards, like the Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card (see rates and fees) and the JetBlue Card, don’t have annual fees. However, these are exceptions. These cards can be suitable for occasional travelers who want to accumulate miles inexpensively without prioritizing day-of-travel perks.

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Credit card annual fees can be worth it when you’re able to get outsized value. KYLE OLSEN/THE POINTS GUY

On the higher end, cards like the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card (see rates and fees), the United Club Infinite Card and the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard® (see rates and fees) have annual fees of over $500. These fees may be worthwhile for frequent flyers who can make the most of the additional benefits like lounge access and earning elite-qualifying miles or points based on spending.

Most popular airline credit cards charge around $100 per year. Examples include the AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard ($99), the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card (see rates and fees, $99 after the first year), the JetBlue Plus Card ($99), the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card ($99) and the United Explorer Card ($95, waived the first year). The Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard costs $99 per year, and the Alaska Airlines Visa® credit card costs $95 per year.

Some cards offer anniversary bonuses to soften the blow of the annual fee. For instance, the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card provides 6,000 bonus points on your account anniversary, and the JetBlue Plus Card grants 5,000 TrueBlue points each year upon renewal.

When your annual fee is due, consider if your card’s perks offset the cost of keeping it for another year. And make sure to ask for a retention offer.

The information for the AAdvantage Aviator Red, JetBlue, JetBlue Plus and Hawaiian Airlines World Elite cards has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Related: Best Delta credit cards

Earning categories

In the past, airline cards tended to earn double miles on purchases with their associated airline. However, to compete with non-airline travel rewards cards, many airline credit cards now offer multiple miles per dollar at various merchants like restaurants and grocery stores.

Make sure you earn more than 1 mile per dollar on purchases when possible. ZACH GRIFF/THE POINTS GUY

When considering or already having an airline credit card, check the bonus miles categories and see if they align with your spending habits. For example, it’s probably not worth having a card that earns 2 miles per dollar on dining if you primarily spend on groceries.

Some top earners include the United Explorer Card, which earns 2 miles per dollar on hotel and dining purchases. The Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard® card earns 2 miles per dollar at gas stations and restaurants, while the JetBlue Plus card gives 2 points per dollar at restaurants and grocery stores.

Related: The best rewards credit cards for each bonus category

The information for the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Travel benefits

Airline credit cards offer various benefits for travel, including waived annual fees, sign-up bonuses and money-saving perks. These perks can include free checked bags, priority boarding and discounts on inflight purchases like food and Wi-Fi.

CHRIS DONG/THE POINTS GUY

For instance, the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card has an annual fee of $99 after the first year but offers a free checked bag for the cardholder and up to eight companions on the same reservation. This benefit alone could save up to $640 on a round-trip domestic itinerary. Even if you save just a few hundred dollars a year, it can still be worthwhile.

Regarding onboard discounts, the JetBlue Plus and JetBlue Card provide 50% savings on food and beverage purchases. You’ll also get 25% back on onboard purchases when you use the United Explorer Card.

These benefits are valuable based on how much you utilize them, and while some potential savings may seem substantial, they may not apply to everyone’s usage patterns.

Related: 8 elite status benefits you’re not using but should

Elite status

Airline elite status is important to many travelers, and using a cobranded airline card can help bridge the gap if you’re close to falling short. However, only a few airline credit cards offer elite-boosting opportunities, usually with high annual fees. But if you’re a frequent flyer aiming for the next status tier, it could be worth carrying an airline card.

Elite status can help you get upgrades to first class. KYLE OLSEN/THE POINTS GUY

For example, the JetBlue Plus and JetBlue Business cards grant automatic Mosaic status to cardholders who spend $50,000 or more in a calendar year.

The information for the JetBlue Business Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

The Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card and Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card provide 1,500 tier-qualifying points toward A-List status for every $10,000 spent (drops to every $5,000 spent from Jan. 1, 2024.)

In 2024, the United Quest Card will let you earn 25 Premier qualifying points (PQPs) per $500 spent up to 6,000 PQPs per year (an improvement from 500 PQPs per $12,000.)

Likewise, most American Airlines credit cards earn 1 Loyalty Point for every dollar you spend.

These are just a few examples. If you’re unsure about this benefit or already achieved your desired elite status independently, consider exploring another airline to enjoy elite-style perks when not flying your primary carrier.

Related: Credit cards that can help you earn airline elite status

Companion tickets

Carrying an airline credit card can provide significant value through companion ticket benefits. These benefits vary among airlines and cards, so reviewing the details is crucial.

The Alaska Airlines credit card offers an annual companion fare upon renewal, starting from $122 ($99 fare, plus taxes and fees from $23) for economy class. This benefit alone can save you hundreds of dollars each year.

KYLE OLSEN/THE POINTS GUY

The Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard includes a one-time 50% discount on round-trip coach travel between Hawaii and North America and $100 off a companion ticket for round-trip coach airfare after each account anniversary.

The Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card and the Delta SkyMiles Reserve American Express Card provide annual companion certificates.

Additionally, earning points with Southwest’s credit cards, such as the Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Credit Card and the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card, contributes toward obtaining the highly sought-after Companion Pass (which may be included as an introductory offer with these cards).

If you frequently travel with a partner, family member or colleague, it’s worth considering a card with companion benefits for significant savings.

Related: 43 real-world family travel tips that actually work

Award chart devaluations

We recommend evaluating the airlines’ frequent flyer programs to ensure their long-term value. Many programs, including Delta SkyMiles, United MileagePlus and Alaska Mileage Plan, have undergone significant devaluations in recent years. Some airlines, such as Lufthansa Miles & More and Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer, have also changed their award charts.

KYLE OLSEN/THE POINTS GUY

Many programs have eliminated their award charts and now dynamically price tickets. Before committing to a new frequent flyer program and signing up for a credit card, research how the program has evolved in recent years. This will help determine if the miles you earn from welcome offers and everyday spending will provide your desired travel rewards.

Related: Dynamic airline award pricing is out of control — here are some ways to beat it

Application restrictions

Major credit card issuers have implemented restrictions to prevent excessive card churning, which may impact your ability to open new cards and earn sign-up bonuses. Knowing these rules is important to avoid being denied or ineligible for bonuses.

KYLE OLSEN/THE POINTS GUY

Chase’s 5/24 rule is well-known, affecting cards like the United Explorer Card and Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card. Generally, if you’ve opened five or more personal credit cards (from any bank) in the past 24 months, Chase may not approve you for a new card.

Amex has become stricter with eligibility rules, especially for popular cards like the Delta lineup, limiting bonus eligibility to once per lifetime on each product. However, they have a welcome bonus qualification tool to check eligibility before applying.

Citi has specific limitations for its AAdvantage cards. If you’ve opened or closed another Citi / AAdvantage card within the past 48 months, you won’t receive the bonus on a new card. If you have one open for over 24 months, it’s advisable to apply for another before closing it to avoid disqualifying your application.

Related: The ultimate guide to credit card application restrictions

Transferable points as an alternative

To quickly accumulate frequent flyer miles without relying on specific travel benefits, consider applying for a card that earns transferable points instead of an airline card.

United Airlines Polaris business class on the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. KYLE OLSEN/THE POINTS GUY

Several transferable points programs are available, such as American Express Membership Rewards, Bilt Rewards, Capital One miles, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards and Marriott Bonvoy. These programs allow you to transfer points to various airline partners, providing flexibility and protecting you from sudden award chart devaluations.

Furthermore, credit cards associated with these programs offer bonus-earning opportunities across multiple categories like gas, groceries, dining and general travel purchases, not just airfare. This makes them superior earners compared to many airline credit cards.

Related: Here’s why the Venture X and Amex Gold are the only 2 cards in my wallet

Bottom line

Deciding whether to carry an airline credit card depends on a few important factors.

First, evaluate whether the welcome offer provides compelling value. Then, consider if the ongoing benefits, such as day-of-travel perks and discounts, are valuable enough to outweigh the annual fee. Lastly, evaluate if a rewards card earning transferable points aligns better with your spending habits and travel preferences.

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