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Best airline credit cards of 2023

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Even if you don't fly frequently, you can turn your everyday expenses into free flights by using the right airline credit card. That’s because the best airline credit cards don’t just reward you for booking trips; they also offer bonuses for spending in categories like groceries and dining.

When choosing a credit card, keep in mind that co-branded airline cards usually earn rewards at a higher rate for spending with a specific airline, while generic travel credit cards give you more flexibility in redeeming miles or points.

Venture Rewards from Capital OneChase Freedom UnlimitedSouthwest Rapid Rewards Priority CardDelta SkyMiles Gold American Express CardUnited Explorer CardCiti / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite MastercardCapital One Venture X
Our pick for Best overall No annual fee Southwest Airlines Delta Air Lines United Airlines American Airlines Airport lounge access
Minimum credit score Excellent Good to excellent Good to excellent Good to excellent Good to excellent Good to excellent Excellent
Checked bags None None No charge from Southwest for the first two checked bags First checked bag free for cardholder and up to eight companions First checked bag free for cardholder and one companion First checked bag free for cardholder and up to four companions (domestic flights only) None
Priority boarding None None Four Upgraded Boardings per year Board with Main Cabin 1 group Board with Group 2 Board with Group 5 None
Annual fee $95 $0 $149 $99 (waived the first year) $95 (waived the first year) $99 (waived the first year) $395

Our top 7 picks for airline credit cards

To find the best airline credit cards, we compared the earning power, welcome bonuses, airline benefits, travel protections, annual fees and other features among a number of credit cards. We assigned scores to each feature from each card to determine the best cards for each type of traveler.

Our picks may be Authorized Partners that compensate us. This does not affect our recommendations or evaluations but may impact the order in which companies appear. For more details on how we selected our top picks, read our full methodology.

SummaryLabelCompany nameLogoContact
Best overall airline credit card
  • Two miles per $1 spent on every purchase
  • Transfer miles to 15+ airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Guaranteed best prices through Capital One Travel

Venture Rewards from Capital On
venture rewards card from capital one

The Venture Rewards card is an excellent all-around airline credit card because you can earn and redeem rewards on any airline.

It also includes a generous welcome bonus, an earn rate of two miles per $1 on every purchase and five miles per $1 spent when you book hotels and rental cars through the Capital One Travel portal. Miles can be used to book travel, cover past travel purchases, transfer to airline and hotel partners and more.

To increase its value, the Venture Rewards card also includes two free airport lounge visits every year and up to $100 in reimbursements for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck once every four years.

Venture Rewards from Capital One is a solid card for any regular traveler because it offers the following features (among others):
  • Welcome bonus of 75,000 miles after spending $4,000 in the first three months
  • Two free airport lounge visits per year
  • Up to $100 in application fee reimbursement for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck
The card won’t be the perfect solution for everyone, given that:  
  • You must book travel through Capital One to earn at the card’s highest rewards rate.
  • Its included travel insurance protections are very limited.
Roberto from Georgia has had positive experiences with Capital One credit cards. He said: “The miles you earn may be used as statement credits for certain travel-related expenses, which allows for a wide breadth of expenses to apply points to (food and rideshare, for example). They also have an amazing, easy-to-use application and wonderful customer service.”

However, Willliam from Texas said he does not like the pricing offered through the Capital One Travel portal, and noted, "They advertise price matching but will not price match unless it meets ALL their conditions."

LabelCompany nameLogoContactSummary
Best airline credit card with no annual fee
  • Low intro annual percentage rate (APR) on purchases and balance transfers
  • Low minimum spending requirement for welcome bonus
  • Up to 5% cash back on travel

Chase Freedom Unlimited
Chase Freedom Unlimited

The Chase Freedom Unlimited is a very strong travel card for those who don't want to pay an annual fee. It earns an unlimited 1.5% back on every purchase, and cardholders can redeem rewards for cash back, travel, gift cards and more.

New cardholders can benefit from an introductory low APR offer that allows them to repay their balance over a 15-month period without incurring any interest.

The Chase Freedom Unlimited is a great entry-level travel card because it offers:
  • Unlimited 1.5% back on every purchase without an annual fee
  • Intro 0% APR on purchases and balance transfers for 15 months
  • Some travel and purchase protections
The card does, however, have its limitations.
  • You must book travel through Chase to earn at the card’s highest rewards rate.
  • The card charges a 3% foreign transaction fee.
  • Rewards points cannot be transferred to airline or hotel loyalty programs.
Arthur from Tennessee said he’s happy that he was approved for the Chase Freedom Unlimited card after working to rebuild his credit for many years. He’s hoping to achieve a credit score of 800 and said, "Chase is helping me get closer to that goal."
LabelCompany nameLogoContactSummary
Best airline credit card for Southwest Airlines
  • Annual $75 Southwest travel credit
  • Generous welcome bonus
  • Annual bonus of 7,500 points

Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Card
Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Card

If you "LUV" to fly Southwest, then the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Card is for you. Although it has the highest annual fee of any personal Southwest credit card, its benefits make up for that.

It comes with an annual $75 credit toward Southwest purchases and gives cardholders 7,500 points every year. The card also reimburses Priority Boarding charges up to four times per year, so you can get one of the first 15 seats on your flight.

The Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Card’s annual fee may be worthwhile for those who will use the card for most of their spending, given that:
  • Spending counts toward earning A-List status.
  • Regular spending and the welcome bonus count toward earning a Companion Pass.
  • Points are earned in a variety of everyday spending categories.
Some of the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Card’s limitations include:
  • Its travel protections only cover lost or delayed luggage.
  • The priority boarding benefit is limited to four times per year (when available).
  • It has a higher annual fee than many airline credit cards in its peer group.
There are no ConsumerAffairs reviews for the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Card as of publication.
LabelCompany nameLogoContactSummary
Best airline credit card for Delta Air Lines
  • Savings of 15% on Award Travel with Delta
  • Delta flight benefits
  • No annual fee for the first year

Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express Card
gold delta skymiles credit card

Frequent Delta travelers get excellent value from the Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express Card.

Cardholders get the first checked bag free for themselves and up to eight travel companions, priority boarding and in-flight discounts on food and beverages. Additionally, you'll save 15% of the miles needed to book Award Travel on Delta.

A number of features make the Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express Card a smart choice for regular Delta customers, including:
  • It earns two miles per $1 spent at U.S. restaurants and supermarkets, as well as on purchases made directly with Delta.
  • There’s an extended timeframe of six months to meet the minimum spending requirement for the card’s welcome bonus.
  • You’ll get a free checked bag, as well as priority boarding and in-flight discounts on Delta flights.
The card isn’t ideal for all travelers for the following reasons.
  • It does not include flight or luggage protection benefits.
  • Its maximum rewards earning rate is lackluster compared with competing travel cards.
  • There are no options for earning elite status through spending.
There are no ConsumerAffairs reviews for the Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express Card as of publication.
LabelCompany nameLogoContactSummary
Best airline credit card for United Airlines
  • Two free passes to United Club lounges each year
  • Travel benefits when flying with United
  • Waived annual fee for the first year

United Explorer Card
United explorer card

The United Explorer Card offers tremendous value for travelers who fly United Airlines. 

The card provides the first checked bag for you and one travel companion for free, as well as priority boarding and discounts on in-flight food, beverage and Wi-Fi purchases. It also includes two one-time United Club entrance passes each year and upgrades on award tickets for those who have MileagePlus Premier status.

The card's annual fee is waived the first year, so you can try its benefits for 12 months before having to pay a fee.

A few of the United Explorer Card’s most notable features are:
  • Free checked bag, priority boarding and discounts on in-flight purchases
  • Robust travel protections
  • Two complimentary United Club airport lounge visits each year
Some drawbacks of the United Explorer Card include:
  • The card has underwhelming earning power for miles.
  • Checked bag benefits are limited to the cardholder and one travel companion.
  • You must have MileagePlus Premier status to receive complimentary upgrades on award tickets.
Francisco from Florida said that the United Explorer Card is "very comprehensive and gives you lots of advantages since the beginning. Miles, discounts, access to VIP lounges — more reward for each $ spent."
LabelCompany nameLogoContactSummary
Best airline credit card for American Airlines
  • Earn AAdvantage status via purchases
  • Travel benefits when flying with American Airlines
  • Waived annual fee in the first year
change this

Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard
Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard

Travelers who prefer American Airlines should consider the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard.

It offers a generous welcome bonus and waives the first year's annual fee. Additionally, cardholders get preferred boarding, the first checked bag free for the cardholder and up to four companions on domestic flights and a 25% discount on in-flight purchases.

Plus, you'll receive a $125 discount on a future American Airlines flight if you make $20,000 or more in purchases in a one-year period and renew your card membership for the next year.

The Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard is an advantageous travel asset for a few reasons, including:
  • Purchases earn points toward AAdvantage status.
  • You’ll earn a $125 American Airlines discount after making $20,000 in purchases during one year.
  • The card doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees on purchases.
The card won’t suit everyone, considering:
  • It earns extra miles in a limited number of spending categories.
  • It doesn’t include travel insurance.
  • It doesn’t come with free airport lounge passes.
Don from Virginia likes that his AAdvantage card is easy to use. “Website is easy to navigate, and customer service reps are knowledgeable and helpful,” Don said.

However, Felix from Florida canceled his Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard due to his disappointment with changes to the value of AAdvantage miles. He was also disappointed with the card’s customer service after he canceled. "I asked they return the annual fee since I would not use the card in 2023. They said that 37 days had passed since the charge in December, and they could not return the fee because the card was used more than 30 days. Besides that, they charged interest on the $99.00," said Felix.

LabelCompany nameLogoContactSummary
Best credit card for airport lounge access
  • Complimentary lounge access for cardholders and two guests
  • Up to 10X miles on purchases
  • Up to $300 in travel credit and 10,000 bonus miles annually
change this

Capital One Venture X
capital one venture x rewards card

Airport lounges make the airport experience considerably better with complimentary or discounted food and drinks, comfortable seating and other amenities.

The Capital One Venture X includes unlimited complimentary access for the cardholder and up to two guests per visit at Capital One lounges and lounges in Capital One’s partner lounge network, which includes Priority Pass and Plaza Premium Group lounges.

Additionally, the card earns 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel. Its flexible miles can be redeemed for travel expenses or transferred to airline and hotel loyalty programs.

You'll receive up to $300 in travel credit and 10,000 miles every year you renew the card, which can make up for its $395 annual fee.

Regular travelers can get substantial value from the Capital One Venture X, particularly if they maximize the following features:
  • Complimentary access to Capital One, Priority Pass and Plaza Premium Group lounges
  • Extra miles earned on flights booked through Capital One Travel
  • No foreign transaction fees
The Capital One Venture X likely won’t be a good match for those who either travel infrequently or value flexibility when making their travel arrangements, considering that:
  • It has a high annual fee, which can be hard to justify for the occasional traveler.
  • You must book through Capital One Travel to earn miles at the card’s highest rate.
William from Texas was disappointed with Capital One’s travel price-matching policy and said, “They advertise price matching but will not price match unless it meets ALL their conditions."

Compare airline credit card offers

CardTravel features
Venture Rewards from Capital One Two miles per $1 on every purchase; transfer miles to 15+ travel loyalty programs
Chase Freedom Unlimited Up to 5% cash back on travel; some travel and purchase protections included
Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Card Annual $75 Southwest travel credit; 7,500 points when you renew the card
Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express Card 15% off Award Travel; free checked bag, priority boarding and in-flight purchase discounts
United Explorer Card Two free lounge passes each year; free checked bag, priority boarding and in-flight purchase discounts
Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard $125 discount on an American Airlines flight after spending $20,000 in one year; preferred boarding, free checked bag on domestic flights and in-flight purchase discounts
Capital One Venture X Unlimited complimentary lounge access; 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel; up to $300 in travel credit and 10,000 bonus miles every year

What is an airline credit card?

An airline credit card offers special benefits for traveling with a specific airline. These co-branded credit cards reward travelers with perks like waived baggage fees, priority boarding and discounts on in-flight purchases. Some may also include complimentary or discounted airport lounge access when flying with the airline.

Select airline cards also offer accelerated elite status based on your annual spending with the card.

» MORE: Best hotel credit cards

How to use airline credit cards

With an airline credit card, you can earn miles, redeem miles for flights and save money. Understanding all of your card's benefits enables you to maximize the value you receive in exchange for its annual fee.

Travelers can use airline credit cards in numerous ways to earn extra miles and save money on travel expenses. Here are a few examples of how you can maximize your credit card benefits:
  • Book flights and pay for airline fees. Make sure to use your airline credit card when booking flights, as you might earn miles at a particularly high rate. Also, use the card when paying airline fees for flight upgrades, checked bags and in-flight purchases.
  • Use discounts on in-flight purchases. Airline credit cards may offer discounts of up to 50% on in-flight purchases, such as alcohol, snacks and Wi-Fi.
  • Eliminate checked bag fees. Avoid paying for your checked bags by using your airline credit card to book your flight. Some airline credit cards cover a checked bag for up to eight passengers on the same reservation, so this benefit can potentially save a large group of travelers about $500 or so for a round-trip flight. The number of free checked bags varies by airline and credit card, so compare benefits.
  • Get on the plane quicker. Cardholders may receive priority boarding that allows them and their travel companions to board before other travelers.
  • Access airport lounges. A premium airline credit card may offer unlimited complimentary access to the airline's airport lounge or to lounges in the airline’s partner lounge network. Other cards with lower annual fees may include a limited number of free lounge passes each year.
  • Earn rewards on everyday expenses. Airline credit cards may earn a high number of miles for purchases made in certain spending categories. For purchases made outside those categories, you'll earn at least one mile per dollar spent.
Airlines often have numerous redemption options for your miles. However, booking an award flight is typically the highest-value redemption you can make. Redeeming miles for business- or first-class tickets may offer particularly high value, as can redeeming miles for flights during the holiday season.

To redeem miles with most airlines, you can just search for flights on the airline’s website as you normally would. Enter your travel dates, departure and destination cities, number of passengers and fare class. Choose “miles” instead of “cash” in the search box before executing your search. Some airlines allow you to click back and forth between cash and miles, while others have a dedicated search process for award flights.

Always compare a flight’s regular cash price with what it costs in miles. It helps to understand the value of your miles so that you can decide whether to pay cash or redeem miles for the reservation. Typically, you want to receive a value of at least $0.015 or so per mile on your redemption.

To determine the value you’re getting for each mile, divide the flight’s cash price by the number of miles required. For example, a $500 flight that costs 25,000 miles has a value of $0.02 per mile. That is considered a good redemption for most airlines.

Pros and cons of airline credit cards

Airline credit cards can be a great way to save money for frequent flyers who typically fly with one specific airline. But they might not be a great fit for those who travel occasionally or with a variety of airlines.

Here are some of the advantages and disadvantages of using an airline credit card rather than a standard credit card.

Pros

  • Purchases with the card’s affiliated airline usually earn a lot of miles.
  • A passenger will usually get special benefits when flying with the airline or one of its partners.
  • You might get accelerated elite status based on your annual spending level.

Cons

  • Miles are generally only redeemable through the card’s affiliated airline.
  • Annual fees may not be worthwhile for all travelers.
  • Some of the card’s benefits may overlap with benefits offered by the loyalty program’s elite statuses.

What to look for in an airline credit card

Before applying for an airline credit card, you should compare different options to determine which one matches your needs, spending patterns and travel style. Many benefits of these cards are valuable if they’re used frequently. If you won't use them, they won't offer any value to you.

Keep the following features in mind.

  • Welcome bonus: How many miles can you earn, and how much do you have to spend to earn the bonus? Additionally, how long do you have to meet the minimum spending requirement? Are there any eligibility restrictions?
  • Earning power: How many miles per dollar can you earn on your purchases? Which spending categories give the most miles back? Are there any annual spending limits to keep in mind?
  • Airline benefits: Does the card offer special perks when flying with the airline, such as free checked bags or priority boarding? Are there any limits on how many travel companions can receive the benefits?
  • Airport lounge access: Does the card include airport lounge access? Are the lounges available at the airports you travel to frequently? Can you bring guests into the lounge with you for free or at a low cost?
  • Travel protections: Is travel insurance included when booking travel with the card? What are the limits and exclusions of the card’s insurance coverage?
  • Ease of redemption: How easy is it to redeem your miles for travel? Are there any additional fees required when booking award travel?
  • Annual fees: How much is the card's annual fee? Are the card’s cumulative benefits worth more than its annual fee?

It can also be useful to compare airline credit cards with general travel cards. Airline credit cards typically offer benefits when flying with a specific airline, while travel credit cards may offer more general benefits that could be applicable to a variety of airlines and hotels.

Additionally, airline miles are usually the most valuable when booking flights with the card's co-branded airline. Flexible points earned with general travel cards may be used to book travel, get cash back, buy gift cards or transfer to airline and hotel partners.

While some travelers may be put off by an airline card’s annual fee, experts advise that a fee will most likely be worth it.

Jon Nickel-D'Andrea, a blogger with the travel hacking siteNo Mas Coach, said: "It is easy for most travelers to cover the cost of an airline credit card's annual fee. You can break even on the $100 annual fee with the savings from three one-way flights on most airlines. That doesn't include other benefits, like priority boarding, that are harder to assign a value to."

» MORE: Best travel insurance companies

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    FAQ

    Are there any fees associated with airline credit cards?

    Airline credit cards may charge fees in certain situations. Many cards have annual fees, and you should make sure you're getting enough value from the card to justify that annual cost. While airline credit cards often waive foreign transaction fees, some charge fees up to 3% of your international purchases. Airline credit cards may also charge standard credit card fees for late payments and going over your card’s credit limit.

    What are the restrictions of airline credit cards?

    Most airline credit cards offer their best benefits when the cardholder travels with the card’s co-branded airline. When you travel on a different airline, you generally won't receive the same benefits, like priority boarding, free checked bags or in-flight discounts. Additionally, airline miles offer the best value when redeemed for flights with their associated airline or its partners. You can't redeem them for flights on competing airlines, which may offer lower prices or better routing to meet your travel needs.

    Can I use airline benefits for other travelers?

    Many airline credit cards allow cardholders to extend benefits to others traveling on the same reservation. Depending on the card you have, these benefits may include complimentary flight upgrades, priority boarding, free checked bags, airport lounge access and more. However, you usually can’t gift card benefits to others if you aren't traveling with them.

    Can I redeem my airline credit card miles for flights on any airline?

    Most travel loyalty programs require that you redeem your miles through the loyalty program’s sponsoring airline or one of its partners. If you want the flexibility to book with any airline, you're better off using a general travel credit card or a cash-back credit card.

    Bottom line

    If you fly with a specific airline on a regular basis, you should consider using one of that airline’s credit cards to access rewards and benefits like free checked bags, priority boarding and in-flight discounts. Some airline credit cards include airport lounge access or an accelerated path to elite status that improves your travel experience.

    But if you're not loyal to a specific airline, consider getting a general travel card, which may offer more flexible benefits and award redemptions that are not restricted to a single airline.

    Methodology

    To make our top picks, the ConsumerAffairs team compared more than 60 different cards from major financial institutions — including American Express, Bank of America, Chase, Capital One, Citibank, U.S. Bank and Wells Fargo — that offer airline credit cards and general travel credit cards.

    We reviewed these cards for a variety of factors, including fees, earning power, welcome bonuses, airline benefits, travel protections and consumer reviews.

    • Fees: We compared cards with a variety of annual fees. The level of benefits that cards offer often varies based on the fee cardholders pay each year.
    • Earning power: All cards chosen earn extra miles or points when making purchases from a co-branded airline partner specifically or from any airline generally. We also selected cards with strong earning power in other common purchase categories to maximize the rewards you can earn on everyday spending.
    • Welcome bonus: We searched for cards that offer generous welcome bonuses for new cardholders. These bonus incentives encourage cardholders to shift their daily spending to their new card in order to meet the minimum spending requirements.
    • Airline benefits: We considered perks like free checked bags, priority boarding, airport lounge access and companion fares, as these ongoing benefits may offer significant value in exchange for paying the card's annual fee.
    • Travel protections: These insurance benefits protect travelers in case of delayed or canceled flights, an interrupted trip, lost or damaged bags, rental car damage and other unexpected incidents that can occur while traveling.

    ConsumerAffairs writers primarily rely on government data, industry experts and original research from other reputable publications to inform their work. Specific sources for this article include:
    1. Southwest Airlines, "Checked baggage." Accessed June 15, 2023.
    2. Delta Air Lines, "Boarding Priority." Accessed June 15, 2023.
    3. United Airlines, "Boarding process." Accessed June 15, 2023.
    4. American Airlines, "Boarding process." Accessed June 15, 2023.
    5. Capital One, "Capital One miles transfer partners." Accessed June 20, 2023.
    6. Southwest Airlines, "2023 Rapid Rewards Qualifying Transactions for 2023-2024 Status." Accessed June 21, 2023.
    7. Delta Air Lines, "Baggage & Travel Fees." Accessed June 21, 2023.
    8. Capital One, "Capital One Lounge: A modern airport oasis." Accessed June 21, 2023.
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