An airline credit card that gives you airline miles or points whenever you use your card is an unbeatable option for the avid traveler. Broadly speaking, such credit cards can be divided into two categories: (1) credit cards co-branded with specific airlines, and (2) credit cards not aligned with specific airlines. For the first group, co-branded airline credit cards let you earn miles which are credited directly into your account with that airline's frequent flyer program. For the second group, such credit cards offer flexibility in the sense that the reward points you earn can either be used to offset your travel purchases, or be transferred to frequent flyer programs of your choice. I used both types of airline credit cards to help me reach my One Million Air Miles goal in 2016 which I used to redeem for US$54,000 worth of air tickets.

What is an Airline Credit Card?

There are many airline credit cards that give you special airline privileges and let you earn miles or points through the airline loyalty program. If there are 1 or 2 airlines that you always fly with, then using an airline-specific credit card can be a good way to earn miles fast. Most of these cards let you earn miles on every purchase you make.

If you always fly with different airlines, then a more general travel credit card like Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card could work better. This card lets you earn points (2X points per $1 spent on travel and restaurant dining worldwide, 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases) that can be redeemed to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs at full value (1:1 point transfer). So 1,000 points converts to 1,000 frequent flyer miles/points with partner airlines.

Airline-branded cards usually let you earn actual frequent flyer miles or points with one airline. Other more flexible travel cards have more complicated miles reward programs.

Here we highlight some of the most popular credit card rewards programs:

1. Chase Ultimate Rewards

The Chase Ultimate Rewards program is one of the best rewards programs in the US. Only certain Chase credit cards participate in this program. You get 1:1 point transfer when you convert the points you earn with Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card to frequent flyer programs such as Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club, Singapore Airlines, Korean Air SKYPASS and British Airways Executive Club. This means you get to enjoy flexibility of your points without them losing value.

Alternatively you can also convert points to Marriott Rewards, The Ritz-Carlton Rewards and Hyatt Gold Passport.

Transfer to frequent flyer programs cannot be reversed, so only convert your points to miles when you are sure which airline you are flying with. You can also choose to redeem your points for gift cards, merchandise, or cash back. And points never expire as long as your account is in good standing. All things considered, Chase Ultimate Rewards is a pretty good travel rewards program.

2. Capital One® Rewards

This rewards program is used by certain Capital One® travel cards like Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card. You can choose to book travel through the Capital One rewards program. You can also choose to book travel yourself, and then just redeem your miles for a statement credit towards the cost of your travel purchases.

That makes this a very flexible travel rewards program to use. Cardholders will also have the option to transfer their miles to participating airlines. Miles can be transferred at a rate of 2 Venture miles to 1.5 airline miles to the following partners: Accor Live Limitless, Alitalia (MilleMiglia Program), Asia Miles, Avianca (LifeMiles), Etihad Airways (Etihad Guest), Aeromexico (Club Premier), Air Canada (Aeroplan), Air France KLM (Flying Blue), EVA Air (Infinity MileageLands), Finnair (Finnair Plus), Hainan Airlines (Fortune Wings Club), JetBlue (TrueBlue) Qantas (Qantas Frequent Flyer) and Qatar Airways (Privilege Club). Venture miles can also be transferred at a rate of 2 Venture miles to 1 one airline mile to Emirates (Emirates Skywards) and Singapore Airlines (KrisFlyer).

On the whole, this is a very flexible program that also lets you redeem miles for merchandise, gift cards (minimum 1,000 miles to redeem for a $10 gift card) or cash back.

3. FlexPerks℠ from U.S. Bank

This program lets you earn FlexPoints℠, which can be redeemed for airline tickets, travel gift certificates, cash back, merchandise and gift cards. You will have to book your tickets through the FlexPerks Rewards Center (powered by Travelocity®) when redeeming points for flights. It's easy and convenient, but you have to redeem points for travel through FlexPerks only, so it isn't as flexible as other programs.

But you can book tickets with no blackout dates on over 150 airlines as long as you have a minimum of 20,000 FlexPoints. FlexPerks has 16 different redemption tiers which let you get up to 2 cents in value for every point you redeem. That means you could redeem 20,000 points for an airline ticket that costs up to $400.

If you redeem 30,000 points, you can receive up to $600 in airfare. You can get a lot of travel for your points if you play these cards right. Most other programs give you 1 cent for every 1 point you redeem, which would only be $200 in airfare for 20,000 points.

With FlexPerks, you can get up to double that amount. Unfortunately, FlexPoints have a lifespan of 5 years, after which they expire. So if you want to save up a huge amount of points for a world tour, this may not be the program to use.

4. Citi ThankYou® Rewards

This rewards program actually earns points that can be redeemed in many different ways. One big travel perk that you get with some Citi cards is that you can convert points to these frequent flyer programs at a 1:1 rate (minimum 1000 points): Malaysia Airlines Enrich, Garuda Indonesia Frequent Flyer, Etihad Guest, EVA Air Infinity MileageLands and Asia Miles, Flying Blue Award Miles, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club, Thai Airways Royal Orchid Plus, Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer, Qatar Airways Privilege Club, Qantas Frequent Flyer.

Airline Card Benefits

First Checked Bag Free

Some airline credit cards let you get a certain number of checked bags free when you use them to pay for your booking.

Travel Insurance

When you pay for travel bookings using some airline credit cards, you automatically receive travel insurance coverage for your trip. The most common types of coverage you receive are travel accident insurance (covers death or severe injury on a common carrier) and a secondary auto rental collision damage waiver which adds coverage above what your auto insurance policy gives you.

Better cards give you more comprehensive insurance coverage. Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, for example, gives you trip cancellation/trip interruption insurance, trip delay reimbursement, lost luggage reimbursement, baggage delay insurance and a primary auto rental collision damage waiver.

Here is a summary of what types of travel insurance coverage you might want to look for when choosing an airline credit card.

  • Travel Accident Insurance

    This type of travel insurance is offered by many credit cards. If the plane, cruiseship or other common carrier you travel on is involved in an accident, you can receive compensation for injuries, loss of mobility and more.

  • Trip Interruption/Cancellation Coverage

    This is one of the most useful types of travel insurance to have. Unfortunately not very many cards give you this coverage. This insurance covers you if a qualifying emergency like an unexpected illness of you or a family member/business partner forces you to cancel your trip.

    This insurance may also refund certain expenses like hotel stays or restaurant meals when a trip is interrupted unexpectedly (unexpected bad weather or technical difficulties, for example). This coverage and reimbursement only applies to purchases made with your card.

  • Luggage Loss/Damage Insurance

    This is pretty self explanatory. If your luggage gets lost or damaged by a common carrier, you will get reimbursed up to a certain limit.

  • Rental Car Loss/Damage Waiver

    Rather than paying extra for auto rental insurance when you rent a vehicle, just pay for the rental using a credit card that gives you this insurance coverage. Many airline cards give you secondary auto rental insurance, and this may be limited to only a certain amount of coverage.

    But some cards like Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card give you primary coverage up to the actual cash value of the vehicle. In every case, this coverage applies to collisions (and usually theft), but may not include things like windscreen damage or mechanical breakdowns.

  • Emergency Medical Evacuation Insurance

    This is a very useful insurance to have, but here again, this coverage only comes with a few credit cards. When you use a card that offers this insurance to pay for your travel bookings, you will be covered for the cost of transporting you to certified medical facility or even back to the US for care.

  • How we rate Airline Credit Cards

    At GET.com, we look at the miles you earn, if miles expire or not, and how much those miles are really worth in travel. We also look at the airline benefits that these cards offer, such as free checked bags, priority boarding, lounge access and on-board credit. We pay a lot of attention to bonus offers as well.

    Other important factors are flexibility in how you can earn and redeem rewards, and introductory low APR periods. Other benefits like travel insurance, shopping perks and travel discounts also feature highly in our rating process.

    We also consider the annual fee, standard APR, foreign transaction fees and compare these to the benefits the card offers to give you a clear picture of what each airline card really gives you.