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How to Choose the Best Airline Credit Card for You

Published May 31, 2023
4 min read

Key points about: rewards credit cards for airline travel

  1. A co-branded airline card may offer bonus miles for eligible purchases with a specific airline but may require you to redeem your rewards with that airline.

  2. General travel rewards credit cards may offer more rewards for everyday purchases and flexible redemption options.

  3. Certain travel cards offer low introductory interest rates that can help you manage large travel expenses like airfare.

Looking at flights for your next vacation or business trip? You may wonder what credit card you should use to get the most rewards when purchasing airline tickets. Booking your flight with the right rewards credit card can help you maximize your savings, mile by mile. So let’s compare travel reward cards for airline travel and explore rewards programs, fees, and introductory offers to help you choose a credit card for future flights—wherever they take you.

Compare co-branded airline credit cards and travel rewards credit cards

Choosing the best credit card for your airline travel starts with understanding your options. Airline credit cards and general travel rewards credit cards offer different benefits worth comparing.

Airline credit cards are typically co-branded in partnership with a credit card issuer and a specific airline. This type of card lets you earn extra airline miles when you use your airline card on eligible purchases with that brand. They may also offer brand-specific perks like free checked luggage and priority boarding. Co-branded airline cards could give you the best value if you book a lot of flights with the same airline, making them a good option for brand loyalists.

General travel rewards credit cards don’t associate with a specific brand, so you’ll usually earn the same rewards rate or percentage of travel rewards across multiple airlines. But these travel cards may offer more flexible rewards programs than co-branded airline cards, making them a good option for those who typically travel with different airlines or who don’t fly regularly.

Compare rules for earning and redeeming rewards

Both co-branded airline cards and non-branded travel rewards cards have rules and restrictions that may apply to how you can earn and redeem rewards. That means how you use your travel rewards credit card impacts which card is right for your airline purchases, whether booking a few or several flights a year. Comparing each card’s rewards program with your travel and spending habits can help you choose the best travel credit card for your preferences.

A co-branded airline credit card lets you earn airline miles on everyday purchases but usually a higher rewards rate for purchases made with the card’s airline. However, co-branded airline cards typically only let you redeem your rewards with that specific airline. If you regularly purchase tickets with the same airline, redeeming your rewards for discounted or free flights may be right for you.

With a general travel rewards card, you may earn a higher percentage of rewards on everyday purchases than with an airline card, and you may enjoy more redemption options. For example, instead of limiting your redemptions to free flights or other airline-specific options, you may be able to redeem rewards for things like gift cards, retail purchases, and statement credits.

If you don’t book many flights with the same airline, you may get more value for your rewards by using a non-branded travel credit card for your airline travel expenses.

Compare fees

When choosing between co-branded airline credit cards and non-branded travel credit cards, you may also want to understand the fees associated with each card. Here are some common credit card fees to consider before deciding:

  • Annual fee. An annual fee is a cost some credit card issuers charge for card membership. Annual fees vary widely, but some cards with premium rewards may have a higher fee—you’ll have to redeem enough rewards to offset the yearly expense. If you can’t justify the fee, a credit card with no annual fee may be the way to go.
  • Foreign transaction fee. A foreign transaction fee is a surcharge that some credit card companies apply when you use your card outside the United States or shop online in a foreign currency. It’s usually a small percentage of each transaction. But foreign transaction fees can add up quickly-frequent overseas fliers may want to choose cards with a low or no foreign transaction fee. For example, Discover has no foreign transaction fee.
  • Balance transfer fee. Some borrowers use credit cards to consolidate debt by moving existing balances from one or more cards with higher interest rates to a lower-interest card, which usually includes a balance transfer fee. This fee is often a percentage of the amount transferred but can vary based on the card and lender. 
  • Cash advance fee. You may already know that you can use your credit card to withdraw cash from an ATM—called a cash advance. Credit card issuers usually charge a fee for this service. The fee may be a flat amount or a percentage of the amount withdrawn.
  • Late payment fee. Most credit card companies charge a late payment fee when you don’t make your minimum payment on time.

Compare introductory offers

Some credit cards may also have introductory offers that make them an attractive choice. You may find a travel rewards credit card that charges low or 0% interest for several months. Low interest rates can help you save if you pay off purchases by the end of the promotional period.

For example, when you’re ready to purchase plane tickets for your next vacation, a new travel rewards credit card may offer 0% interest for 15 months, giving you time to pay for your flights without paying interest.

Did you know?

Depending on the rewards program for the travel credit card you chose, you may be able to earn bonus miles for a limited time. For example, with the Discover it® Miles Card, we’ll automatically match all the Miles you’ve earned at the end of your first year. There is no limit to how much we’ll match.1

There’s lots to consider when choosing the best travel credit card for your air travel. Comparing rewards programs, fees, and special offers can help you decide and make the most of every mile.

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  1. Discover Match®: We'll match all the Miles rewards you've earned on your credit card from the day your new account is approved through your first 12 consecutive billing periods or 365 days, whichever is longer, and add it to your rewards account within two billing periods. You've earned Miles rewards only when they're processed, which may be after the transaction date. We will not match: rewards that are processed after your match period ends; statement credits; rewards transfers from Discover checking or other deposit accounts; or rewards for accounts that are closed. This promotional offer may not be available in the future and is exclusively for new cardmembers. No purchase minimums.
  • Legal Disclaimer: This site is for educational purposes and is not a substitute for professional advice. The material on this site is not intended to provide legal, investment, or financial advice and does not indicate the availability of any Discover product or service. It does not guarantee that Discover offers or endorses a product or service. For specific advice about your unique circumstances, you may wish to consult a qualified professional.