Are Airline Credit Cards Worth It?

Quick Answer

Airline credit cards may offer many airline-specific benefits, such as free checked bags, lounge access and companion passes. You might want to get an airline card if you often fly with the same airline or can use these benefits. Otherwise, a general rewards card might be better.

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You might want to consider an airline credit card if you regularly fly with the same airline, have a specific flight you're saving for or will use the airline-specific perks. If you usually compare options and go with whichever flight is cheapest, a general travel rewards credit card might be a better option. However, airline-specific credit cards reward loyalty and often offer benefits that you won't receive from standard rewards cards.

Benefits of Airline Credit Cards

Many airlines offer branded credit cards with different annual fees, rewards rates and cardholder benefits. Some of the perks you might look for when considering an airline credit card are:

  • An intro bonus: New cardholders might be eligible for a large intro bonus. Once you qualify, you might receive enough miles (or points, with some frequent-flier programs) to book several rewards flights.
  • Earn miles on purchase: You'll also earn miles when you use your credit card for purchases. The amount can vary depending on the card and where you shop.
  • Free checked bags: You and your travel companions might receive one or two free checked bags.
  • Airport lounge access: Some cards give you vouchers or ongoing access to airport lounges.
  • Priority access: Your airline credit card might give you access to special security lines and early boarding on your flight. Some cards also offer a statement credit for a TSA PreCheck or Global Entry membership.
  • Discounted award travel: Current cardholders might receive access to more award availability or discounted award flights.
  • In-flight discounts: If you might receive a discount or statement credit when using the credit card to purchase Wi-Fi, snacks or drinks during your flight.
  • Anniversary benefits: Some cards will give you benefits that renew every cardholder anniversary, such as a companion pass, discounted companion ticket or statement credits for airline-related purchases.

Generally, the benefits only apply when you're flying with the corresponding airline, and sometimes you have to use your card to book the flight. However, similar to other travel cards, airline cards might offer purchase protections and travel insurance benefits that cover you even if you're flying with a different airline.

Downsides of Airline Credit Cards

Although airline credit cards can be a good fit for many people, there are some downsides to consider before applying.

  • Annual fees: Many of the airline credit cards that offer the most rewards and perks also charge an annual fee. Although it can be worth paying an annual fee to receive better rewards, you might feel extra pressure to book with that airline.
  • Rewards rates may be relatively low: Airline cards might offer bonus miles on select purchases, but the rewards rates could be lower than you'll receive from a general rewards card. Some rewards cards also let you transfer rewards to partner airline loyalty programs.
  • Stuck with one airline: Most of the cardholder benefits that airline cards offer require you to pay for a flight on the specific airline using your airline credit card. However, the airline might not offer the most convenient or least expensive flights for your trip.
  • Limiting frequent-flier programs: Although you can often redeem airline miles for things other than flights, the best value tends to come from booking a reward flight. However, you might feel stuck if there aren't award tickets available on your preferred flight or if the program suddenly increases how many miles you need to book a flight.

Should I Get an Airline Credit Card?

An airline credit card might help you save money on flights and make the airport experience more enjoyable. Consider applying if:

  • You're planning a special trip. If you have a once-in-a-lifetime trip coming up, you might want to open an airline credit card and try to use the welcome bonus to book a business or first-class flight.
  • You tend to fly with the same airline. You might have a favorite airline or tend to fly with the same airline because they fly most of the routes from your local airport. If you're going to be a repeat customer anyway, it might make sense to have the airline's credit card.
  • You frequently check bags. Paying for checked bags can quickly add up, especially if you're flying with a large family. Even if you don't use the card for anything else, getting free checked bags might be enough to justify an airline credit card.
  • The card offers a companion pass. A companion pass also might be enough of a reason to open an airline credit card, especially if you know you'll be able to use the companion pass when booking an annual trip.

If you frequently travel and don't want to be tied to a specific airline, a general travel rewards card might be a better fit.

Some general rewards cards also have benefits that can help you get through airport security faster, access airport lounges and get travel-related insurance. Additionally, a general rewards card might offer better rewards rates and let you book various types of travel or transfer your rewards to multiple airline and hotel loyalty programs.

How to Choose an Airline Credit Card

If you decide an airline credit card is a good idea, the next step is to compare the cards the airline's credit card offers to see which card will be best.

  • Compare annual fees. Most airline credit cards offer a card without an annual fee and several cards with a fee. Compare the cards' benefits with your travel plans to figure out if the fee is worth it. If you find the fee isn't worth it, you can close the card or try to downgrade to the version without the annual fee. However, you might want to wait until you've had the card for at least 12 months. Otherwise, the card issuer might try to take back the rewards.
  • Review the cardholder benefits. The cardholder benefits can vary significantly between cards, with airline cards that have higher annual fees also offering more benefits. But more isn't necessarily better if you don't frequently travel. Review the benefits to see which ones you'll most likely use, and think about how much value you'll get from the benefits.
  • Read the fine print on the benefits: Also, be sure to read the fine print on the cardholder benefits you plan to use. For example, you might be excited about a companion pass until you realize it will only work on certain routes and for economy-class tickets.

How to Get the Most Benefit From Your Airline Credit Card

Have a plan for using your airline card and the rewards you earn to get the most out of your new card.

  • Take advantage of the intro bonus. Figure out how you're going to meet the spending requirements for the intro bonus—ideally without overspending or paying interest. You might want to apply when there's a large expense coming up that you're going to have to pay anyway.
  • Learn about the frequent-flier program. There are often ways to maximize your redemptions by finding discounted rewards flights and booking rewards on partner airlines. You can look for blogs or programs that can help you find sweet-spot redemptions.
  • Remember to use the card when booking flights. Some of the benefits require you to use your card to pay for your flight. With others, you'll receive the benefit simply for keeping the credit card open and in good standing.
  • Don't hoard your miles. Building up a large stash of airline miles might make sense if you have a plan for booking an international or first-class flight that will require a lot of miles. But airlines also regularly devalue their rewards programs by requiring you to use more miles for the same flight, which can make saving up miles risky.

Get Matched With Airline Credit Card Offers

Even if you think an airline credit card will be a good fit, you still need to have the income and creditworthiness to qualify for the card. If you're not sure where your credit stands, you can check your credit score and credit report for free from Experian. You can also log in to your account and get matched with airline credit cards based on your unique credit profile.