7 Things to Consider When Picking an Airline Credit Card

by Ann deBruyn

If you’re new to the world of airline loyalty programs, travel credit cards, and points and miles, it’s easy to feel swamped with all of the options and information out there. Knowing what to look for in an airline credit card that’s right for you can be overwhelming — but not impossible.

Here’s how to determine which card best suits your travel style.

Why get a co-branded airline credit card

If you’re wondering why you might want to consider getting an airline-specific credit card in the first place, there are plenty of reasons. For starters, points and miles credit cards offer the fastest route to award travel (that is, "free" air travel booked with rewards currencies).

Co-branded airline cards often include impressive sign-up bonuses and perks like:

  • Flight discounts on cardmember anniversaries.

  • Fast tracks to elite status.

Generally, airline credit cards are the most rewarding for travelers who tend to be loyal to a specific airline.

What to consider

Choosing an airline loyalty program in conjunction with your airline credit card can help streamline your spending, which could also improve your chances to earn elite status or other perks reserved for frequent flyers. Here's what else to consider:

1. Where the airline flies

The first factor to weigh when choosing an airline credit card is the airline itself and where it flies. Signing up for a co-branded credit card with an airline that doesn’t travel from your nearest airport or to the destinations you want to go to means any miles or perks you earn from that card won’t do you a lot of good. Selecting a card from an airline you’ll actually be able to travel with is the best way to take advantage of all the perks the card will provide.

Choose an airline that flies to and from your most frequented or desired destinations.

2. The sign-up bonus

A quick way to rack up easy points is to look for a credit card that offers a large sign-up bonus. Some cards offer upwards of 50,000 bonus miles or points in the first several months after you spend a certain amount on the card, while other cards offer even more after you reach a spend threshold in the first year. The higher the bonus, the faster you can book award travel.

3. The earnings rates

Consider the ongoing earning potential of a card you're considering. The sign-up bonus isn’t the only benefit to getting an airline credit card. Since you get it only once, it behooves you to consider the long-term earning potential of a card via everyday spending, too. Not every card will offer the same return on investment for every kind of spending.

For example, one card might offer 2 points or miles per dollar spent on airfare, but only 1 point or mile per dollar on everything else. If you don’t fly that often, or usually opt for the most budget-friendly tickets, the earning potential of that card will be low for you.

On the other hand, if you dine out frequently or spend regularly to fill up the family car, then a card that offers 3 points per dollar for gas or dining means you’ll earn more for your spending.

For most cards, however, gas and groceries are where the bonus spending categories end, save for the odd extra point for a car rental or hotel booking. It’s common to earn 1 point or mile per dollar on most other purchases.

Take a good look at spending categories and opt for a card that fits your spending habits and lifestyle for the highest earning potential in the long run.

4. The value of its rewards currency

How much are the points and miles that the card earns worth? Don’t forget to consider how much travel points and miles are worth if you’re trying to decide between one airline credit card and another, because not all points and miles are created equal.

Check NerdWallet valuations to see what a mile should be worth on any given airline, and aim to get a value of at least 1 cent per mile. The higher the value, the farther those miles will take you.

5. Additional perks and benefits

Check for additional perks and benefits to increase the potential value of a given card.

  • Many cards come with a suite of additional beneficial features whether you’re traveling or not. The Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card , for example, comes with a statement credit if you sign up for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck. Terms apply.

Some cards even give you perks and discounts even when you’re not flying. The United℠ Explorer Card , for example, comes with a free year of DashPass.

Many airline cards also offer a series of travel protections and benefits. These can include rental car coverage, trip cancellation coverage and lost luggage insurance.

Whether these additional perks and benefits are worth it depends on your travel style and, often, what annual fee you're willing to pay.

6. The annual fee

In general, cards with higher annual fees also tend to come with the most airline-specific perks and benefits, like:

  • Higher welcome bonuses.

  • Free checked bags.

  • Expedited paths to elite status.

  • Discounted companion passes.

But the extras aren’t worth it for everyone. If you rarely check a bag or only fly a few times a year and aren’t reaching for elite status, then a card with a high annual fee that offers those perks likely isn’t worth it for you.

If, however, you would be paying for those services and amenities on a regular basis anyway, a higher annual fee may actually turn out to be a good deal.

7. If a general rewards card would be a better fit

If you have access to an airport that is serviced by multiple domestic airlines and you generally prefer to purchase flights based on cost more than carrier, a general travel credit card, like the  Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card , might be a better fit. The card earns points that can be  transferred to several partner airlines like Southwest Airlines, United Airlines and Emirates Airlines, among others.

This is a good option if you're not sure you want to be loyal to a single airline. A card like this could free you to redeem your points and miles for the best deal, period, rather than for the best deal in the airline of your co-branded credit card.

The bottom line

Now that you've considered the important factors, you're ready to learn how to choose an airline credit card . If you’re new to the world of points and miles and airline credit cards, take these factors into consideration when choosing the right one for you.

How to maximize your rewards

You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2021 , including those best for: