Will an Airline Credit Card Actually Save You Money?

Airline credit cards have been popular for years – but are they really worth it? Find out what we’ve discovered about this unique industry.

Traveling is a fantastic way to find rest and relaxation, but it’s also one of the best ways to learn more about the world. Do you like to go back to the same place year after year? Or would you rather explore a new destination every few months? 

Depending on how often you travel and where you go, signing up for an airline credit card could help you save money in the long run. As with any credit card, make sure you only charge purchases that you know you can pay off. Don’t get trapped into paying interest! 

Here’s how to tell if you would benefit from an airline credit card, plus a look at our list of the top airline credit cards of 2022.

Will an Airline Credit Card Actually Help Me?

You may not need a specific airline credit card. If you have a credit card now that offers great rewards, whether that’s points or cash back, you may want to just stick with that card. 

But let’s say you don’t currently have a credit card with great rewards. Should you sign up for a credit card from an airline? 

Here are three questions you should ask before you apply for an airline credit card:

  • Do you travel – or will you travel in the future – a lot with one airline?
  • Are you willing to pay the annual card fee? (It’s usually about $100.)
  • Do perks matter to you, like free checked bags, priority boarding, seat upgrades, discounts on in-flight refreshments, and even access to airport lounges?

If you answered yes to two or all three of these questions, then you may want to seriously consider signing up for an airline credit card.

Remember, Loyalty Pays

Man holding up loyalty card in front of laptop

Whether it’s buying lunch from the same sandwich shop nine times and getting your tenth sub free or flying with the same airline over and over again, the old adage is true: it pays to be loyal. 

Earning miles with your favorite airline is easier to do with a credit card from the airline itself. But if the airline doesn’t fly to the places that you want to go, then loyalty will get you nowhere. 

That means that if your idea of the perfect vacation is going to the same destination every year, then it’ll definitely pay to be loyal. Signing up for a credit card from an airline with a direct flight from your home city to the airport that’s closest to your favorite place may be the smartest decision.

Even if you don’t travel back to the same vacation destination year after year, if there are several different places that you like to visit – and one airline flies to them all – you may want to consider signing up for a card from that airline. 

For example, say you enjoy going to Albuquerque in the winter. You also visit your sister in Boston once a year, and you occasionally fly to Austin for a concert. Southwest flies to all three of those cities, so a Southwest Plus or Priority credit card would be an efficient way to build up points.

Here’s another situation where you might want to consider signing up for an airline credit card sooner rather than later. Parents of teenagers, if your child (or children) decide to go to college out of state, you might want to consider signing up for an airline credit card. Especially if your child is going to school on the opposite coast or hundreds of miles away, you might be paying for a lot of flights – for both your kid and yourself to go visit. Think about signing up for that airline card before freshmen year begins.

It pays to be loyal – but does it pay enough?

Are the Perks Worth the Annual Fee?

People waiting by suitcases at the luggage pick up

If one of the main reasons you’re considering signing up for an airline credit card is because of the perks, like free checked bags, take some time to do the math before you apply for that card. 

Just like any other credit card, airline cards come with annual fees. While they’re typically waived the first year, that fee can be an unexpected financial burden if you forget that it’s coming, which is easy to do with annual fees. What’s worse is if you don’t use the card enough to make it worth the annual fee.

But, if you fly twice or more a year, the perks will probably cover the cost of that annual fee. For example, say you would normally pay to check a bag on two or more flights a year. In this case, the amount of the card’s annual fee will (probably) be less than all those checked bag fees. 

But if you’re only flying once or twice a year, it may be cheaper to just pay to check your bag for those flights. 

Similarly, if priority boarding or seat upgrades are why you’re considering signing up for the credit card, do the math first. Calculate how many times a year you’ll be traveling and the total cost of those perks. If that cost is less than the annual fee, just pay to upgrade your seat or pay for priority boarding. You’ll save money in the long run.

Read More: Understand Credit Card Rewards Basics and Find the Best Card for You

Going from Perks to Miles

The main reason people sign up for an airline card is that it’s easier to earn airline miles – and therefore get free or discounted flights. If you’re looking to play this numbers game, then take some time to do the math on your preferred airline’s credit card rewards. You might find out that the dollars to miles ratio isn’t as good as you were expecting – or you might be pleasantly surprised.

Man at airport counter speaking to woman

The Top Airline Credit Cards

You’ve estimated how many flights you’re going to take per year. You’ve compared the cost of the annual fee to the cost of paying for perks. You know it’ll be worth it to sign up for an airline credit card – but which one?

We’ve looked at what experts around the web have found out about airline credit cards. These are the top four cards with fantastic rewards.

United Explorer Card

I know I’ve had great experiences flying United. The annual fee for the United Explorer card is waived the first year, and then after that, it will cost you $95 a year. With this card, you’ll receive your first checked bag free for both you and a companion who’s flying on your reservation. 

You’ll also earn 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months your account is open. So if you spend around $1,000 a month normally on purchases, then this could be an easy way to earn a ton of miles. Take a look at more details about the United Explorer card here

Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express Card

Like United, Delta provides a free bag for a companion – but Delta runs with this idea. With this card, you can check not only your first bag and your companion’s first bag for free but also the first bag of up to eight others on your reservation. If you have a big family or you travel in a big group, this card could be the best one for you!

The annual fee is $0 the first year and then $99 every year after that. And to earn 40,000 bonus miles, you only have to spend $1,000 in purchases on your new card in the first three months.

Delta plane flying above clouds

Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus or Priority Credit Card

Just like the Delta SkyMiles Gold card, to rake in the miles on these Southwest Rapid Rewards cards, you’ll need to spend a set amount on purchases in the first three months to earn the sign-up bonus points.

The annual fee is $69 for the Plus and $149 for the Priority card. On your account anniversary every year, you’ll automatically earn points. One advantage of flying Southwest is that the airline offers a companion pass program where you can earn free flights for your companion once you’ve reached a certain level of spending. Look here for more details about Southwest’s Plus and Priority credit cards.

Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard

Fans of American Airlines, this card may be the one for you. The first year after you sign up for a Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard, there’s no annual fee, and then it’s $99 a year. You’ll earn 50,000 AAdvantage bonus miles after qualifying purchases, and you’ll earn 1 mile per $1 spent.

Keep Customer Service in Mind

Stack of airline and travel credit cards

These days, flying isn’t the same smooth travel experience that it once was. Pilots and airline staff are underpaid, there aren’t enough luggage handlers, and ground crews are working long hours.

Some airlines are handling these issues better than others. When an airline can’t adapt and their flights are consistently delayed, even if they serve the areas that you need to fly to, that may not be a good enough reason to give them your loyalty and sign up for a credit card. Keep customer service in mind as you decide whether to sign up for an airline’s credit card.

Read More: Best Credit Cards For Travel Points

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