The Best Credit Card To Book Flights: Maximize Your Travel Rewards

The Best Credit Card To Book Flights: Maximize Your Travel Rewards

When booking a flight, most people reach for their airline’s co-branded credit card to pay for the purchase. But is that really the right move? Are you giving up more benefits than you’re getting by using an airline’s credit card?

Co-branded airline credit card might not be the best credit card to book flights. There are other cards that offer perks airline cards don't.

Benefits Of Using An Airline Credit Card

There are distinct advantages to purchasing your flight with an airline’s co-branded credit card. With most airline credit cards you’ll receive a free checked bag, priority boarding, and earn bonus miles for spending with the airline.

Resource: Learn more about Travel Rewards with the free ChooseFI Travel Rewards Course.

Free Checked Bag

Today’s travelers are conditioned to avoid checking a bag so they don’t have to pay the $30 checked bag fee. However, if you’re a cardholder of the airline’s co-branded credit card and use it to pay for your flight, your checked bag is free.

Depending upon the credit card benefits, multiple people on your itinerary may also receive a free checked bag as well. For a family of four, that’s a savings of $240 for a round-trip flight.

Airline1st BagBank IssuerCredit CardBaggage Fee Waiver
American Airlines$30 BarclaysAAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite MastercardOne for you and up to four companions
CitibankCiti AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite MastercardOne for you and up to four companions
CitibankCiti AAdvantage Executive World Elite MastercardOne for you and up to eight companions
Delta Airlines$30American ExpressGold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card From American ExpressOne for you and up to four companions
American ExpressPlatinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American ExpressOne for you and up to eight companions
American ExpressDelta Reserve Credit Card From American ExpressOne for you and up to eight companions
Hawaiian Airlines$30BarclaysHawaiian Airlines World Elite MastercardOne bag for primary cardholder only
JetBlue Airways$30BarclaysJetBlue PlusOne for you and up to three companions
Southwest Airlines $0 ChaseSouthwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit CardTwo bags free for each passenger
ChaseSouthwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit CardTwo bags free for each passenger
ChaseSouthwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit CardTwo bags free for each passenger
United Airlines$30ChaseUnited Explorer CardOne for you and one companion
ChaseUnited MileagePlus ClubTwo bags free for you and one companion

Remember that the free checked bag benefit for cardholders is generally limited to domestic flights. If you travel internationally, you'll often have to pay to check your bags.

Related: Airline Baggage Fees: How Much Are They And How To Avoid Them

Priority Boarding

Without elite status for the airline you’re flying, you could be one of the last people on the plane. If you’re like me and don’t like to check bags, this spells trouble because all of the overhead bin space could be gone by the time you board.

One of my favorite airline credit card perks is priority boarding. There’s something special about being able to cut to the front of the line to board before others.

Keep in mind that you won’t board before first class passengers or those with elite status, but you will be able to zoom past a big chunk of the other travelers.

Here are the latest boarding orders for American Airlines, Delta Airlines, and United Airlines.

Earn Extra Miles

Airlines want to reward customers for using their credit cards, so cardholders receive additional airline miles whenever they use the credit card to buy tickets from them.

In most cases, the airline credit cards will only earn you one extra mile for every dollar that you spend. It’s not life-changing, but it is better than nothing.

Read: How To Plan Your First Trip With Travel Rewards

Discounted Food And Drinks 

You don’t have to pay for your flight to use this benefit, but if you buy food or drinks mid-flight, it can save you a lot of money.

Airline credit cards from American, Delta, JetBlue, and United save you 20% to 25% off when you get hungry or thirsty and buy a drink or food in-flight. The JetBlue Plus card goes even further by saving cardholders a whopping 50% on food and drinks during their flight.

Why You Shouldn’t Use An Airline Credit Card

As great as those airline credit card benefits are, there are several reasons why you shouldn’t use an airline credit card to buy your plane ticket.

Flexibility Of Airlines, Departure Times, And Routes

If you are focused on one airline, you’re missing out on other options that could get you to your destination faster, cheaper, or at a more convenient time.

Additionally, there are no benefits to buying a plane ticket on a different airline with your airline credit card. For example, if you find a better flight on American Airlines, buying your ticket with the United Explorer Card doesn’t offer any advantages.

For the ultimate in flexibility, you are better off buying a ticket with the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard than using your points to eliminate the charge. Or you can use points from the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or Ink Business Preferred Credit Card via the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal to buy the ticket.

Related: How Chase Ultimate Rewards Actually Work

Earn More Points Per Dollar Spent

Airline credit cards max out at 2 miles for every dollar that you spend with their airline. However, with the right credit card, you could be earning up to 5x points on that same flight!

Premium reward credit cards offer anywhere from 3x to 5x the points when you spend on travel. Those points can transfer to partner airlines, purchase travel like cash, or be cashed out to your bank.

Credit CardTravel bonusTransfer partnersAnnual credit
The Platinum Card From American Express5x flights and hotels18 airlines$200
Chase Sapphire Reserve3x travel & dining9 airlines; 4 hotels$300
Citi Prestige Card5x flights & dining; 3x hotels15 airlines$250
US Bank Altitude3x travel & mobile paymentsNone$325

Read: How To Save Money On Travel With The Right Credit Card

Additional Benefits That Airline Credit Cards Don't Offer

Although flexible points-earning credit cards don’t offer free checked bags and priority boarding, they have some great perks that airline cards do not.

Premium credit cards usually offer Priority Pass airport lounge access, multiple bonus point spend categories, and annual travel credits. See the chart above for examples of the annual travel credits offered by these premium credit cards.

Rewards Can Be Used For Other Airlines

When you use an airline credit card, the problem is that those miles can only be redeemed to fly on that airline or one of its partners. It is always better to have points that can be used in multiple ways, including transferring to your favorite airline.

AirlineCredit CardAlternative
American AirlinesCiti AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite MastercardMarriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card; redeem for Marriott Flight & Hotel Packages
Delta AirlinesGold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American ExpressAmerican Express Gold Card
Southwest AirlinesSouthwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit CardChase Sapphire Reserve
United AirlinesUnited Explorer Business CardChase Sapphire Reserve

No Blackout Dates

One of the main reasons why so many consumers have been turned off by airline miles is that they can be hard to use. The problem is that the flights they want to book are either blacked out or they are too expensive.

When you spend on a credit card that earns flexible rewards points, your options are much greater. You can book a flight using your points, transfer to an airline partner, or redeem for cash. These options virtually eliminate being blacked out for the date, destination, or departure time that you want to fly.

Read: Travel Rewards Vs. Cash Back: How To Choose

The Best Credit Card To Buy Airplane Tickets

There are so many credit card options that it can be difficult to pick the one best credit card to book flights. When people ask me which credit card is the best one, I tell them it depends upon their goals. Where do they want to fly to and how do they want to fly?

Which Credit Card Gives The Best Air Miles?

To me, the best airline credit card is the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card for two reasons. The signup bonus and spending on the credit card can earn the Southwest Companion Pass. And the benefits reduce the $149 annual fee close to zero.

Additionally, cardholders receive a $75 per year travel credit, four priority boarding passes each year, and 7500 Southwest points upon renewal.

Related: Why You Definitely Want The Southwest Companion Pass

Which Credit Card Gives The Best Travel Rewards? 

The Chase Sapphire Reserve has been the popular choice since its introduction a few years ago. However, I believe that frequent travelers will get more value out of the Citi Prestige Card. This travel credit card provides 5x points on flights and dining and 3x on hotels and cruises. The points are worth 1.25 cents towards travel, and there are 15 airlines that you can transfer points to.

Additionally, cardholders receive the 4th night free on paid hotel reservations and a Priority Pass Select airport lounge membership. Each calendar year you'll also receive a $250 travel credit that can be used for any travel purchases on the Citi Prestige Card.

When booking a flight, it might seem, on the surface, like your co-branded airline credit card is the best choice to use. However, it's worth examining whether other cards offer more options like flexibility in flight times, no blackout dates, more points earned, and onboard perks. You want to get the best value for your dollar; you might as well start when you book your flight.

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If you really want to maximize your travel rewards check out ChooseFI's free travel rewards course.

The Best Credit Card To Book Flights: Maximize Your Travel Rewards

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Affiliate Disclaimer

ChooseFI seeks to uncover helpful services that help you be financially resilient. However, we may receive compensation, at no cost to you, from the issuers of some products mentioned in this article, including from CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Opinions are the author’s alone, and this content has not been provided by, reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of these entities. See our disclosures for more info.

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