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The Best Airline Credit Cards for Both Loyal Fliers and Deal-Seekers

Condé Nast Traveler logo Condé Nast Traveler 1/12/2022 Ramsey Qubein

Condé Nast Traveler has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Condé Nast Traveler and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. We don't review or include all companies, or all available products. Moreover, the editorial content on this page was not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are entirely those of Condé Nast Traveler's editorial team.

Air travel is surging as people are making up for lost vacations and business travel. But when you look in your wallet, do you have any of the best airline credit cards—the ones that will maximize both your increased travel spending and your at-home buys? Or are you still using the first travel rewards credit card that caught your eye with minimal mileage-earning potential? If it’s the latter, you could be leaving free flights or a faster track to your favorite frequent flier program's elite status on the table.

When looking for the best airline credit cards, it’s also important to factor in the additional perks that come along with them (airport lounge access, free checked bags, upgrade priority on award tickets) as well as how easy it is to redeem the miles you earn. Among the dozens of mileage-earning cards, these rule the pack.

This article has been updated with new information since its original publish date.

Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card

Why we love it: If you fly Southwest Airlines frequently, this is the card for you, as it builds up points for free flights even when you’re on the ground. For its low $99 annual fee, its bonus point–earning categories, two Early Bird Check-Ins each year (worth as much as $50), and a fast track to A-List and A-List Preferred status based on annual spending are impressive.

How it earns miles: You’ll earn three points per dollar spent on Southwest flights, plus two points per dollar spent with any Rapid Rewards hotel or car partners. That’s not to mention the two points per dollar spent on local transit, including rideshare services. There are double-point categories, too, for spending on internet, phone, cable, and select streaming services. Each year on your card’s account anniversary, you’ll also earn 6,000 Rapid Rewards bonus points just for having the card. The best part is that points you earn with this credit card get you closer to the airline’s most lucrative benefit: the Companion Pass, which allows you to bring someone along with you on flights for free.

Additional perks: The card comes with two annual Early Bird Check-Ins each year, 1,500 tier-qualifying points towards status for every $10,000 you spend, and 25 percent back on in-flight purchases. On Southwest, all bags fly free, but if yours gets lost or delayed, you’re protected. The card comes with $100 per day for up to three days if your bag is delayed more than six hours plus a bigger sum if it gets lost completely. Extended warranty and purchase protection against damage or theft are further perks.

Annual fee: $99

Foreign transaction fees: None

Current welcome bonus: Earn 40,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 within the first three months from account opening.

How to spend the welcome bonus: A 40,000 bonus points can get you and a loved one round-trip tickets to Hawaii or most places in the United States mainland where Southwest flies.

Learn more about the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card.

United Explorer Card

Why we love it: This card packs a punch, offering perks that other airline cards do not include, such as access to more award ticket availability and space-available upgrades on award tickets for elite status fliers. Its low annual fee and long list of benefits make it a great value for United Airlines fliers.

How it earns miles: Cardholders score two miles per dollar spent at restaurants, hotels, and on United flights. All other purchases earn one mile per dollar spent. Those interested in United elite status can use the card for a head start to Premier status. After spending $24,000 within a calendar year, the card delivers 1,000 elite Premier Qualifying Points (PQP) to edge you closer to status. (In 2021, entry-level Silver status requires 3,500 PQP.)

Additional perks: This card comes with priority boarding, a free checked bag, two United Club passes each year, and a 25 percent discount on in-flight food and beverage purchases. When redeeming miles, cardholders have greater access to award inventory, which makes it easier to use miles for a free flight. You’re also covered with trip delay or cancelation, lost luggage, and car rental insurance.

Annual fee: $95 (waived the first year)

Foreign transaction fees: None

Current welcome bonus: After spending $2,000 within the first three months of account opening, you’ll earn 40,000 MileagePlus miles.

How to spend the welcome bonus: United and its Star Alliance partners fly all over the world. 40,000 miles is a good start towards a business or first-class ticket, but it is also enough to cover a round-trip, domestic economy class ticket.

Learn more about the United Explorer Card.

Capital One Venture X Card

Why we love it: For free-spirit travelers that like earning flexible points usable across multiple airlines, this new card can expedite your points earning. It’s easier to redeem for an expensive first- or business-class ticket since Capital One has more than a dozen airline transfer partners, many of which offer a higher value when redeeming points for seats at the front of the plane. The swath of benefits that come with the card can quickly tip the scales of the annual fee in your favor, too.

How it earns miles: Capital One Venture X cardholders earn the most miles when booking via Capital One Travel rather than directly with travel brands. The rewards include 10 miles per dollar spent on hotels and rental cars, and five miles per dollar on airfare. All other purchases earn two miles per dollar. 

Additional perks: This is where things get more interesting. Cardholders receive a $100 statement credit toward TSA PreCheck or Global Entry and a $300 credit toward anything travel-related. This shaves off the majority of the annual fee. Unlock airport lounge access for the cardholder and two guests via Priority Pass and its more than 1,300 global lounges—plus, you’ll get access to a fledgling list of soon-to-open Capital One–branded lounges. For now, there is only one in Dallas/Fort Worth, but lounges in Denver and Washington’s Dulles are on the horizon. Cardholders can add up to four authorized users, giving them access to Capital One lounges when they travel independently, too. Each year, a 10,000-mile anniversary bonus is a pleasant surprise, and you’re covered with trip delay or cancellation protection, lost luggage reimbursement and primary car rental insurance when you use the card to pay for travel. There are no foreign transaction fees either.

Annual fee: $395

Foreign transaction fees: None

Current welcome bonus: After spending $10,000 within the first six months of account opening, you’ll earn 100,000 miles. Also, in the first year of card membership, for a limited time, the card is offering a $200 statement credit for Airbnb or Vrbo vacation rentals. Cha-ching!

How to spend the welcome bonus: Capital One points can be redeemed at a rewards rate of a penny per mile. That’s decent, but the best way to use these points is to transfer them to an airline program (once you find a redemption flight with space available). Among the best options are Air Canada’s Aeroplan, Avianca LifeMiles, and Turkish Miles & Smiles programs, all of which charge minimal fees and generally price their award tickets lower than U.S. carriers. A coast-to-coast business-class ticket on United using Aeroplan's reward program could cost only 25,000 points (far less than United’s 50,000+ miles). You could also get a 45,000-mile, one-way, business-class ticket to Europe using Turkish miles, too. (United would charge at least 70,000 miles each way for that same flight.)

Learn more about the Capital One Venture X Card.

Chase Aeroplan Card

Why we love it: Surprisingly for U.S.-based travelers, Air Canada’s Aeroplan is a superior program to most domestic frequent flier programs because, in many cases, it offers lower redemption rates for long-haul business and first-class tickets. Cardholders of the new Chase Aeroplan card automatically receive Air Canada’s entry-level elite status (Aeroplan 25K) for the first full calendar year of holding it, too. That status comes with free checked bags, priority boarding and seats, upgrade credits, and lounge passes.

How it earns miles: If you’re hungry for points, Aeroplan has lots of earning opportunities. You’ll earn three points per dollar spent at grocery stores and dining outlets (including delivery services). Air Canada purchases, like flights, also rake in three points per dollar. All other purchases earn one point per dollar. Unique to this card are spending bonuses that award 500 bonus points for every $2,000 spent (up to three times per month). 

Additional perks: This card’s benefits are most valuable to those that fly Air Canada, but they can still be beneficial to other airline loyalists. For starters, cardholders will receive a $100 statement credit toward TSA PreCheck, Nexus, or Global Entry. Eco-conscious fliers will appreciate that Air Canada will cover carbon offsets for award redemptions for cardholders and their companions. Plus, using the card for travel purchases includes trip cancellation insurance, roadside assistance and bag delay coverage. Note that to keep Aeroplan 25K status after the first year, cardholders need to spend at least $15,000 within the calendar year—and spending $50,000 gives a boost to the next elite status tier. To incentivize more spending each year, Aeroplan offers half-off Priority award redemptions if you meet certain spend thresholds, starting at $100,000 per year. 

Annual fee: $95

Foreign transaction fees: None

Current welcome bonus: After spending $4,000 within the first three months of account opening, cardholders earn two “welcome flight rewards.” These awards, valid to use as long as you keep the card and valued at 50,000 points each, are good toward flight redemptions.

How to spend the welcome bonus: Aeroplan uses a distance-based chart to determine the cost of an award flight. Still, it has plenty of sweet spots where you can spend fewer points for a business-class flight than through U.S.-based programs and their mood-swing-style pricing. For example, a one-way business-class flight from the East Coast to Portugal costs 60,000 points, while a one-way business-class flight from the East Coast to the Middle East is only 10,000 points more. This is excellent value, especially when compared to more expensive programs like United MileagePlus and Delta SkyMiles.

Learn more about the Chase Aeroplan Card.

Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

Why we love it: While you won’t be earning airline miles with this card, it deserves attention for its freestyle Ultimate Rewards points that can be transferred to various hotel and airline rewards programs. The flexibility that comes with being able to transfer to different programs or use points outright to pay for airfare makes this one of the top cards to have in your wallet, especially if you’re not loyal to any specific airline.

How it earns miles: Cardholders earn one Ultimate Rewards point for every dollar spent. Bonus categories are plentiful including five points per dollar spent on travel purchased through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal or on Peloton equipment, three points per dollar spent on dining (including delivery services and takeout meals) and certain streaming services, and two points per dollar spent on other travel purchases.

Additional perks: With a low annual fee and a plethora of perks, this is one of the best travel credit cards for those that want value for money. You’ll be protected when traveling with trip cancellation, car rental and lost luggage insurance. An annual $50 hotel credit is available to those booking through Chase Ultimate Rewards, and cardholders can get as much as $60 back on Peloton digital or all-access membership. A free subscription to the DoorDash Dash Pass means you pay no fees on food delivery services.

Annual fee: $95

Foreign transaction fees: None

Current welcome bonus: Earn 60,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 within the first three months of card opening.

How to spend the welcome bonus: You can transfer 60,000 points to United MileagePlus, which is often enough to redeem for a roundtrip economy class ticket to Europe. For maximum flexibility, you can also redeem 60,000 points through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal for $750 worth of travel. This means you can travel on any flight or book any hotel or vacation rental listed on the website, and use points to shave $750 off the total bill.

Learn more about the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. 

AmEx's Platinum card will get you access to Centurion lounges. © Brad Feinknopf AmEx's Platinum card will get you access to Centurion lounges.

The Platinum Card from American Express

Why we love it: Like the Chase Ultimate Rewards, the flexibility of American Express Membership Rewards points and the long roster of general travel-related benefits make the Platinum Card a premium choice for frequent fliers. Rather than aligning with a particular airline, this card provides maximum flexibility when it comes to redeeming points for free flights.

How it earns miles: This card can pile on the points. For starters, you’ll earn 10 points per dollar spent when dining—and during the first six months of card membership, you also earn 10 points on Shop Small (small businesses) purchases in the United States. Cardholders earn five points per dollar spent on flights and prepaid hotel bookings purchased through the Membership Rewards portal, too.

AmEx's Platinum card will get you access to Centurion lounges. 

Additional perks: Despite a high annual fee, the benefits more than outweigh the cost if you know how and when to use them. Access to Centurion lounges and studios in more than 40 airports is a huge perk for frequent travelers while complimentary Priority Pass Select membership picks up the slack in other terminals without a Centurion lounge. Instant Gold elite status with both Hilton Honors and Marriott Bonvoy are additional perks, which means complimentary breakfast and premium internet. You’ll get a $200 hotel credit to use each year for Fine Hotels + Resorts or The Hotel Collection properties booked via American Express. Entertainment fans can take advantage of a $20 monthly credit to Peacock, Audible, SiriusXM, and The New York Times (enrollment required, terms apply). That’s in addition to $200 in annual Uber and airline credits valid for things like bag fees, onboard food and drinks or seat assignments. Cardholders also get a refund for Clear membership (expedited airport security valued at $179) and $25 per month to use at Equinox gyms. For all of these perks, enrollment is required and terms apply.

Annual fee: $695 (see rates and fees)

Foreign transaction fees: None

Current welcome bonus: This is one of the most lucrative welcome bonuses on the credit card market today. After spending $6,000 within the first six months of card membership, you’ll earn 100,000 Membership Rewards points.

How to spend the welcome bonus: This hefty bonus is transferable to other airline and hotel loyalty programs (AmEx has a long list of partners including British Airways, Emirates, Hilton, Marriott, Qantas, Radisson and Virgin Atlantic among others) or can be used to directly purchase $1,000 worth of travel via the Membership Rewards portal.

Learn more about the American Express Platinum card.

Delta SkyMiles Platinum American Express Card

Why we love it: We don’t love the low value of Delta SkyMiles, since you sometimes need double, triple, or quadruple the miles compared to what other airlines charge for mileage tickets. But, we do love the opportunity to earn Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) toward elite status by meeting certain spend thresholds. If it’s Delta elite status you’re after, this is a must-have for your wallet.

How it earns miles: You’ll earn three SkyMiles for every dollar you spend on Delta flights, two miles on dining and U.S. supermarket purchases, and one mile on everything else. After spending $10,000 on the card, you will earn 10,000 bonus MQMs, and another 10,000 MQMs after reaching $20,000 in annual spend. That’s helpful since it only takes 25,000 MQMs to reach entry-level Silver Medallion status.

Additional perks: A free checked bag when flying Delta is one of the perks, as is a statement credit to offset the cost of TSA PreCheck or Global Entry membership (enrollment required, terms apply). Another popular benefit is a companion certificate that allows cardholders to bring along a fellow flier for free (plus tax).

Annual fee: $250 (see rates and fees)

Foreign transaction fees: None

Current welcome bonus: You can earn 75,000 SkyMiles and 10,000 MQMs toward elite status after spending $3,000 within the first three months of opening the account.

How to spend the welcome bonus: Delta prices its award tickets at sometimes exorbitant rates, but there are still some good deals from time to time. A recent award fare sale priced economy class tickets to Europe at 34,000 miles round-trip. Most of the year, however, the mileage cost of award flights on Delta and its partners can be rather inflated compared to other airlines, which means those 75,000 miles will definitely come in handy, no matter where you want to fly.

Learn more about the Delta SkyMiles Platinum American Express card.

Look for award fare sales to get the most out of your Delta miles. © Courtesy Delta Airlines Look for award fare sales to get the most out of your Delta miles.

Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card

Why we love it: Alaska Airlines is the only major domestic airline to award miles based on distance flown rather than how much you spend on a ticket. This makes it easier to rack up Alaska miles, even on cheap tickets. In March, Alaska joined the OneWorld alliance, but the carrier also has a long roster of other international airline partners where you can earn and redeem miles. The low annual fee and plethora of benefits deliver great value.

How it earns miles: The card awards three miles per dollar spent on Alaska flights and one mile on everything else.

Additional perks: Fliers can check their first bag free and save 20 percent on in-flight food and beverage purchases. For a little relaxation before a flight, a day pass to the Alaska Board Room lounge is half price for cardholders.

Annual fee: $75

Foreign transaction fees: None

Current welcome bonus: After making $2,000 in purchases within the first 90 days of opening the card, cardholders earn 40,000 miles as well as an annual companion pass, which allows someone to travel with you for only $99 plus tax.

How to spend the welcome bonus: Alaska outpaces its competitors by still offering an award chart, which helps frequent fliers know how many miles they need for a free flight. For example, a one-way, first-class ticket to Hawaii from the U.S. mainland starts at 40,000 miles, according to the airline’s award chart.

Learn more about the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature card.

Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard

Why we love it: If you’re an American Airlines flier, this card piles on the perks. Perhaps its biggest asset is Admirals Club lounge access for you and two guests (or your immediate family). American AAdvantage and its OneWorld partners offer a huge network of flights and some impressive premium cabins that can make flying a real treat. Qatar Airways, with its fully enclosed Qsuite business class seat, and Cathay Pacific, with its swanky first-class seats and lounge, are a great use of AAdvantage miles.

How it earns miles: Cardholders earn two miles per dollar on all American flights, and one mile per dollar on all other purchases. While there are no additional bonus categories, it comes with a fast track to elite status, earning 10,000 Elite Qualifying Miles (EQM) after spending $40,000 in a calendar year. Entry-level AAdvantage Gold status requires 25,000 EQMs.

Additional perks: The card comes with priority boarding and a first checked bag for free. Onboard, you’ll save 25 percent on food and beverage purchases. If you use the card to pay for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry, you’ll receive a statement credit to cover the cost, too.

Annual fee: $450

Foreign transaction fees: None

Current welcome bonus: New cardholders will earn 50,000 AAdvantage miles after spending $5,000 within the first three months of holding the card.

How to spend the welcome bonus: The current welcome bonus is enough for a roundtrip, domestic first-class ticket or roundtrip economy class to Hawaii. It will also get you most of the way to a one-way business class ticket in Qatar Airways’ Qsuite, which costs 70,000 miles each way to the Middle East, India, and Thailand, among other places.

Learn more about the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard.

Use your AAdvantage points to book onto partner airline Qatar. © Getty Use your AAdvantage points to book onto partner airline Qatar.

Emirates Skywards Rewards Premium World Elite Mastercard

Why we love it: This is one of the easiest ways for U.S.-based fliers to redeem miles for Emirates first class while also enjoying instant elite status. The Skywards program is a transfer partner with other travel credit card points programs, too, like American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards. That means you can top off your account easily without charging a fortune to this card.

How it earns miles: Earn three miles per dollar spent on Emirates or FlyDubai flights and double miles on other travel-related purchases including airfare, hotel, and car rental purchases. The card awards one mile per dollar on everything else. After spending $30,000 within a calendar year, you’ll earn a 10,000-mile bonus.

Additional perks: Unlike other cards, this one gives new cardholders instant Gold elite status on Emirates for the first year of holding the card. After the first year, cardholders can keep the same status tier after spending $40,000 per year. Gold status comes with business class lounge access, bonus miles on Emirates flights, and free seat selection. The card also comes with Priority Pass Select membership, which opens the door to more than 1,000 airport lounges. The card offers a statement credit when using it to pay for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry.

Annual fee: $499

Foreign transaction fees: None

Current welcome bonus: Earn 60,000 miles after spending $3,000 within the first 90 days of being approved for the card.

How to spend the welcome bonus: Mileage redemptions for Emirates first and business class flights are not cheap, but recently the carrier lowered the fees associated with them. A round-trip first class ticket between New York and Dubai costs 272,500 miles, but the signup bonus will have you well on your way.

Learn more about the Emirates Skywards Rewards Premium World Elite Mastercard.

See rates and fees for the American Express Platinum Card; Delta SkyMiles Platinum American Express Card.

Condé Nast Traveler has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Condé Nast Traveler and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers.

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