Best Airline Credit Cards

September 29, 2011

The best airline credit cards not only earn you the most airline miles but also make it easy to use your frequent flyer miles.  You have two main choices when it comes to airline rewards, go with an airline specific card or a card that has a flexible travel rewards program.

If you prefer to always fly the same airline then an airline specific card like those from Delta, Continental, and Southwest can be good for racking up free flights the fastest.  Airline branded cards from can also earn you extra perks and can help waive some fees.

On the other hand, travel cards like the CapitalOne Venture card, or Blue Sky from American Express offer more flexibility since you can use them across airlines.  Another benefit of these types of cards is that they often don’t have blackout dates or travel restrictions.

First we’ll take a look at some airline cards and then we’ll go over some of the travel cards that are airline independent.

Airline Credit Cards

Gold Delta SkyMiles

Gold Delta SkyMiles from American Express – Delta actually has three cards, the Gold, Platium, and Reserve.  All three cards earn miles at the same rate, double miles on purchases from Delta and 1 point for every dollar you spend elsewhere.  The Delta Reserve and Platium cards can earn you extra Medallion Qualifying Miles (MQMs) that come with extra benefits and additional SkyMiles.  However, the annual fees for the Reserve and Platinum cards are higher and they require certain annual spending limits to reach those reward levels.

The Gold SkyMiles card does have an annual fee, $95, but its the lowest of the three and it’s waived for the first year.  It typically features a new card promotion where you earn bonus SkyMiles with your first purchase. 

As I referred to earlier, airline specific cards do come with additional benefits, the Gold Delta SkyMiles card will get you your first bag checked for free.  The Delta cards also have a feature that you mostly only find in airline independent cards, the ability to use your miles with no blackout dates.  Use the “Pay With Miles” feature and you can apply your miles towards a plane ticket without restrictions.

Southwest Rapid Rewards Card

Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards – Southwest airlines gave their rewards program a major makeover earlier this year and offers two airline rewards cards, the Rapid Rewards Plus and the Rapid Rewards Premier.  Both the Rapid Rewards Plus and Premier cards earn the same amount of points – double points for spending with Southwest or it’s partner programs, one point for for each dollar spent elsewhere.

Both cards earn points instead of miles, part of the Rapid Rewards overhaul was a switch from miles to points. One of the goals of the change was to make it easier to earn Rapid Rewards points by adding more partners into the network (giving you more places to earn double points).  Southwest has also seen the light and updated their program so that your points don’t expire.  They do have some requirements though, you either have to fly or spend with one of their partners every 2 years to keep your points safe.

The main difference between the Rapid Rewards Premier and Plus cards is the amount of bonus points you can earn.  You earn points every year you’re a member, the Premier card earns twice as many as the Plus card.  There is downside, the annual fee for Premier card is higher, $99, compared to $69 for the Rapid Rewards Plus.  Both cards give you enough bonus points with your first purchase to earn a free round trip flight on Southwest.

Travel Credit Cards

Capital One Venture

CapitalOne Venture – The benefit of the Venture card is that you earn 2 miles for every dollar you spend on anything.  Above we looked at how Discover earns double miles on all travel spending, which is better than the airline cards.  In comparison, the Venture card earns 2 miles for every dollar, not just travel, which is even better. 

Unfortunately, the Venture card doesn’t share the zero annual fee policy of the Discover card.  You pay $59 a year as Venture cardmember, however, the fee is waived for the first year.  I’ve seen the Venture card offer bonus miles for opening a card in the past but it seems they don’t offer new card members a sign up bonus as often as many of the other airline and travel cards.

After you book your travel using the Venture card you call in or go to their website to redeem your existing miles, they’ll give you a credit on your next statement.  The redemption policy is comparable to Discover , every 10K miles earns you a $100 credit.

Blue Sky

Blue Sky from American Express – Like the Miles card, the Blue Sky card doesn’t charge an annual fee.  Unlike the Discover card, the standard Blue Sky card doesn’t offer double points on travel purchases.  However there is a Preferred version of the card ($75 annual fee) that earns 2 points for dining, hotel, and car rental.

The Blue Sky card does have a nice feature that other cards don’t offer, the Blue Savings program.  The “Blue” family of cards, Blue Cash and Blue Sky, have a partner network of companies that offer you a discount if you buy with a Blue card.  There are hotels (Marriott, Renaissance) and rental car companies (Alamo, Enterprise, Hertz) in the program.  So if you pay for your hotel or rental car with the Blue Sky you get a discount (5–20%) and you earn miles.

There are bonus miles for opening a Blue Sky card if you open the Preferred version but none for the standard version of the card.

Airline Card Considerations

If you’re not a frequent traveler and you only fly during the peak seasons (like Thanksgiving and the Christmas holidays) then an airline credit card might not be the best choice.  Ticket prices tend to go up during those times, offsetting the value of miles earned.  There’s also a higher likelihood that your flight will fall under restrictions during peak times and you might not be able to take full advantage of your frequent flier miles.

If that’s the case, you might look into a cash back credit card where you can maximize your earnings throughout the year and then use some of that cash back to help pay for your airline ticket.

On the other hand, if you are able to find a card with a big enough sign up bonus to earn you a free flight – and you can get the annual fee waived – then an airline card could still come in handy.


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Miranda writes about personal finance almost every day. An experienced freelance writer, she's covered your money online and in print from every angle and is always looking for new ones.

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6 Responses to Best Airline Credit Cards

  • Christian

    I’m a Delta Gold Skymiles guy myself. Since I live in ATL, which is a delta hub, it makes a ton of sense for me. I also travel a lot for work so paying for and earning double miles adds up pretty quick. It’s also nice when my wife and I travel we get to check our bags for free. We also get a $100 voucher every year to use on a flight.

    Downside: There is a $95 fee every year after the first year…

  • christine

    Why are you reviewing a card from Continental, which in the near future won’t even be an airline, rather than United, which is offering a new card with a free checked bag for two passengers, early boarding, no mileage expiration, and other perks? I don’t work for United but it seems like a much more appropriate card to include here.

  • Lisa

    I never even considered all these options for airline credit cards. Do you know if they have something for cruises? Thanks.


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