12 Benefits to Look for in an Airline Credit Card

Quick Answer

Airline credit cards offer many airline-specific perks that can make flying more pleasant and less expensive. From early boarding and free checked bags to annual companion passes, you might want to consider getting an airline credit card if you can use some of these 12 common benefits.

Female passenger waiting her flight at airport lounge

At Experian, one of our priorities is consumer credit and finance education. This post may contain links and references to one or more of our partners, but we provide an objective view to help you make the best decisions. For more information, see our Editorial Policy.

Many airlines offer several credit cards, ranging from an option without an annual fee to premium cards that cost several hundred dollars a year. The perks can also vary, but here are 12 benefits that you'll commonly find on airline cards. Depending on which benefits you'll use, an airline card might make sense, even if you only take one or two flights a year.

1. A Large Intro Bonus

One of the best ways to earn lots of airline miles or points is to open a new airline credit card with a large intro bonus. You generally need to meet specific spending requirements, such as spending a few thousand dollars within the first couple months with the card. If you do, you might receive enough rewards to book several award flights.

2. Competitive Rewards Rates

Airline cards often have tiered rewards rates, with different miles or points bonuses depending on where you shop. Generally, you'll earn the most rewards on flights you book with the co-branded airline. But if you plan to use the card for everyday spending, consider whether the rewards categories align with where you spend the most money.

If the bonus rewards categories on the cards from your preferred airline don't align with your spending, you could still open and use the airline credit card for your flights. However, you might want to get a different rewards card—such as one that offers flexible travel rewards—for your other purchases. Perhaps those rewards could go towards your hotel stays or a rental car.

See what credit cards you're matched with by signing up with Experian.

Find Out If You're Matched

3. Discounted Award Travel

Although you can often redeem airline miles for many types of rewards, a free flight tends to be the best option. If you have an airline credit card, you might receive access to lower-cost award tickets or get 10% to 15% off bookings made using your rewards miles.

4. Complimentary Airport Lounge Access

If you're looking for a quick break before or after a flight, an airport lounge might offer a little quiet, a bite to eat and complimentary drinks. Some lounges even have showers and quiet rooms where you can take a quick nap. Depending on the card, you might receive a few single-use vouchers or ongoing access to the airline's lounges—and sometimes to partner lounges as well.

Alternatively, several travel cards and hotel cards offer a complimentary membership in Priority Pass, which manages lounges in airports around the world. However, those lounges might be more crowded than an airline's lounge.

5. Travel Insurance and Protections

Many travel credit cards offer multiple purchase and insurance benefits. Some of these cover consumer purchases you make with the card, such as extended warranties and return protections. But the travel-related perks may include:

  • Baggage delay coverage: Could reimburse you if you need to buy essentials while waiting for a delayed bag.
  • Lost baggage coverage: Could reimburse you for expenses if your bags are lost or damaged.
  • Travel accident insurance: Provides accidental death and dismemberment coverage during the trip.
  • Trip delay reimbursement: Covers unreimbursed expenses, such as meals or a hotel, if your flight is delayed.
  • Trip cancellation and interruption insurance: Could help cover your costs or reimburse you for non-refundable expenses, such as the cost of your airline ticket or an unexpected night at a hotel. The insurance may apply if your trip is canceled or interrupted because of weather or medical emergencies.
  • Collision damage waivers on rental cars: Might cover your expenses if your rental car is damaged or stolen. Many cards include secondary coverage, which means you have to try to use your primary auto insurance coverage first.

These benefits generally cover you and your travel companions. However, the types of coverage, requirements and benefit amounts can vary depending on the card.

6. TSA PreCheck or Global Entry Statement Credits

Getting through airport security can be much simpler if you have a TSA PreCheck or Global Entry membership. In addition to potentially shorter security lines when you get to the airport, you won't have to take off your shoes or remove electronics from your bags. And Global Entry offers expedited clearance for reentry into the U.S.

These membership programs require a background check and fee, which is currently $78 or $85 for a new TSA PreCheck membership (depending on the provider) or $100 for Global Entry. You need to renew your membership every five years, and some airline cards will give you a statement credit that covers the initial and renewal fees.

7. Priority Screening and Early Boarding

Even if you don't have TSA PreCheck or Global Entry, some airline cards will get you into an airline-specific priority screening line at certain airports. You may also receive early boarding, giving you more time to find space for a carry-on bag and settle into your seat.

8. Free Checked Bags

Free checked bags have been a long-time benefit of airline cards. The rules and restrictions can vary, but you and your travel companions generally get to check one or two bags for free if you book the flights with your card. The savings on bag-check fees can stack up, particularly for families traveling together, which could be reason enough to get an airline card.

9. Elite Status

Most airline cards don't come with automatic status in a frequent-flier program, but they might help you earn it. For example, the card might give you extra miles or points toward elite status when you use the card to spend a certain amount of money—such as a bonus for every $500 you spend. Earning status through credit card purchases alone might require a lot of spending, but the extra rewards could help push you over the threshold if you frequently fly the airline as well.

10. In-Flight Discounts

You might receive a statement credit after making in-flight purchases using the airline credit card. The amount can range from 20% to 50% of what you spend depending on the card and airlines. Also review the fine print: Some benefits only apply to in-flight food and beverages, while others cover Wi-Fi purchases as well.

11. A Companion Pass

Some airline credit cards give you a companion pass each year. These passes might allow you to buy one ticket and get a discounted or free second ticket, not including applicable taxes and fees.

Companion passes can offer significant savings if you plan on flying with someone else at least once a year, especially if you book a round-trip flight. However, you'll have to book a flight on that airline, which might not be the cheapest option when you decide to fly. Companion passes also could have limitations, such as only applying to domestic flights or economy-class tickets.

12. Anniversary Benefits

A companion pass is one of the benefits that could renew each year, but some airline cards also offer other annual perks to help entice cardholders to keep their card—and keep paying the annual fee.

Extra miles or points, lounge passes and statement credits toward flights are three of the most common types of anniversary benefits. Although these can help justify paying an annual fee, review the terms carefully. In some cases, the passes or credits might expire if you don't use them before your next cardholder anniversary.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Credit card issuers generally don't publicize a minimum credit score requirement for specific cards. But airline cards are unsecured rewards cards, so you might need a credit score in the mid- to high-600s to qualify for most cards. Some of the premium cards—the ones with lots of benefits and high fees—might require a higher credit score.

  • Airline credit cards can be worth it for people who take at least a few flights each year and tend to fly on the same airline. You might even find it worthwhile to get an airline credit card if you'll use the companion pass or free checked bags once each year. But if you likely won't use the high-value benefits and tend to go with whichever airline offers the cheapest flight at the moment, a more general travel card might be a better fit.

  • You could be invited to apply for a new credit card during a flight, and the in-flight offers might give you a larger intro bonus than you could earn if you apply elsewhere. But still consider the pros and cons of the particular card.

    You might also want to see how the in-flight offer compares to previous intro offers on the card. Sometimes, you can only earn an intro offer on a card once every few years—or once in your lifetime. Even if the in-flight offer is the best right now, you might want to wait to see if a better online offer is available in the future.

Compare Airline Credit Card Offers

If you think an airline credit card might be a good fit, you may want to narrow down your options based on which airlines you frequently fly—or which fly out of your closest airport most often. From there, compare the airline's credit cards to see which offer the best benefits for the fees, and which travel cards might be good alternatives. You can also use your free Experian account to get matched with credit cards based on your unique credit profile.