Best airline credit cards of 2021



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It’s no secret that travel has been at a lull this past year — especially air travel. But, with the future looking brighter and planes filling up, now’s the perfect time to start accruing those frequent flyer miles to get you back in the air, even if you aren’t looking to fly until later this year or even next year.

With so many credit cards that earn airline points and miles, you’re probably wondering which one is best for you. We’ve analyzed all the cards out there and picked our favorites so you can see which ones are on top when it comes to not only racking up rewards but also having access to some great perks while flying.

Chase Sapphire Preferred Card: Best for beginners
Chase Sapphire Reserve: Best travel insurance protections
The Platinum Card® from American Express: Best for luxury travel
Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card: Best for Delta flyers
United Explorer Card: Best for United flyers
Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card: Best for Southwest flyers
Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®: Best for American flyers
JetBlue Plus Card: Best for JetBlue flyers
Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card: Best for flexible rewards

Why did we select these cards as our best airline credit cards for 2021? CNN Underscored’s comprehensive credit card methodology compares every aspect of each airline credit card to our “benchmark credit card” to determine which cards can potentially bring you maximum value. So dive into the details of each card with us, and see how they stack up.

You might be surprised to see a credit card on this list that doesn’t have a specific airline in its name, but that’s what makes this card so great. The Chase Sapphire Preferred earns Chase Ultimate Rewards points, and there are two different ways to redeem them when it comes to air travel.

The first option, which is the more flexible one, is to redeem your Chase points through the Chase travel portal. When you redeem this way, you can book any flight without having to worry about award availability or blackout dates — if you can normally pay for it with cash, then you can pay for it with points.

You’ll get 1.25 cents per point when you have the Chase Sapphire Preferred and redeem your rewards this way, and you’ll even earn airline miles for the flight because airlines consider these tickets as regular tickets, not award redemptions.

The second option is to transfer your Ultimate Rewards points to any of Chase’s airline or hotel partners. There are 10 different airline partners and three hotel partners, and they break down like this:

Airlines Hotels
Aer Lingus AerClub JetBlue TrueBlue World of Hyatt
Air France-KLM Flying Blue Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer IHG Rewards Club
British Airways Executive Club Southwest Rapid Rewards Marriott Bonvoy
Emirates Skywards United MileagePlus
Iberia Plus Virgin Atlantic Flying Club

Chase points transfer at a 1-to-1 ratio — meaning you’ll get 1,000 airline miles for every 1,000 Chase points you transfer — and you can then book your flight using the miles in that airline program. However, you’ll only be able to book seats that are available for award redemptions, which usually doesn’t include every flight.

Why would you book this way when you can get any flight using the first method? Because you can potentially get a lot more value for your points when you transfer them, especially if you’re looking to fly internationally in a first or business class cabin. That’s why frequent flyer website The Points Guy values Ultimate Rewards points at 2 cents apiece.

Related: 6 reasons to apply for the Chase Sapphire Preferred.

Transfer your Chase points to carriers like British Airways and redeem them for flights.

iStock

Transfer your Chase points to carriers like British Airways and redeem them for flights.

The incredible flexibility of Ultimate Rewards points is why the Chase Sapphire Preferred is our top airline credit card, and our favorite travel credit card for beginners. And right now, the sign-up bonus on this card is as high as we’ve ever seen it.

Right now, new Chase Sapphire Preferred card holders can earn 100,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 on the card in the first three months after opening the account. Those 100,000 points are worth a guaranteed $1,250 in travel if you redeem them through the Chase travel portal, and potentially much more if you transfer them to Chase’s airline partners.

Beyond the sign-up bonus, the Chase Sapphire Preferred earns 2 points for every dollar you spend on dining and travel, and 5 points per dollar on Lyft rides (through March 2022). For 2021 only, you can also earn up to $60 back on an eligible Peloton Digital or All-Access membership.

The annual fee on the Chase Sapphire Preferred is just $95 a year. Especially if you’re a beginner, paying less than $100 for a travel credit card is a great way to learn more about the various airline partner programs.

Even with a low annual fee, you’ll find many useful travel insurance benefits come with the Chase Sapphire Preferred. For example, when you pay for travel with the card, you’ll be covered if your trip is canceled for any covered reason, up to $10,000 per person and $20,000 per trip. You’ll also be reimbursed for any covered out-of-pocket expenses, up to $500 per person, if your flight is delayed by at least 12 hours or requires an overnight stay.

Read CNN Underscored’s review of the Chase Sapphire Preferred.
Learn more and apply for the Chase Sapphire Preferred.

When it comes to redeeming credit card rewards for air travel, the Chase Sapphire Reserve works very similar to the Chase Sapphire Preferred, but with a few nuances.

Both cards earn Ultimate Rewards points, so you can redeem them the same way: at a fixed rate through the Chase travel portal, or by transferring them to Chase’s partners at a 1-to-1 ratio. The big difference is that your points are worth a higher 1.5 cents apiece when you redeem them via the Chase portal with the Sapphire Reserve, versus 1.25 cents per point with the Sapphire Preferred.

Related: Chase Sapphire Preferred vs. Chase Sapphire Reserve: Which is best for you?

Despite the Chase Sapphire Reserve’s $550 annual fee — which is admittedly quite high — the card comes with a $300 yearly travel credit, complimentary Priority Pass Select airport lounge access, up to $60 back in statement credits on DoorDash purchases in 2021 and up to $120 back on eligible Peloton Digital or All-Access Memberships in 2021.

All those credits effectively lower the Sapphire Reserve’s annual fee, lowering your net cost for the card if you can take advantage of them. And new card holders can currently earn 60,000 bonus points on the Chase Sapphire Reserve after you spend $4,000 on the card within the first three months after opening the account, which are worth a guaranteed $900 when you redeem them for travel via the Chase travel portal.

Related: Is the Chase Sapphire Reserve worth the increased annual fee?

Redeem points from the Chase Sapphire Reserve for a great beach vacation.

iStock

Redeem points from the Chase Sapphire Reserve for a great beach vacation.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve also offers a great earning rate on airfare. You’ll earn 3 points for every dollar you spend on travel and dining, and the travel category is extremely broad. It includes not just air travel, but hotels, car rentals, cruises, ride-share services and even parking and tolls. Plus, for a limited time through March 2022, you’ll also earn 10 points per dollar spent on all Lyft rides.

Finally, if you’re looking for travel insurance, the Chase Sapphire Reserve is the best card when it comes to travel protections. In fact, it’s the only card that offers all seven major types of coverage: Trip cancellation/interruption insurance, trip delay reimbursement, lost luggage reimbursement, baggage delay insurance, rental car protection, travel accident insurance and emergency evacuation assistance.

Related: Having a credit card with trip insurance could save you thousands on your next vacation.

And while it’s a benefit we hope you never have to use, the Chase Sapphire Reserve insures you for up to $1,000,000 in case of accidental death or dismemberment when you’re traveling. Most other credit cards that offer this coverage only insure you for half that amount at most.

Read CNN Underscored’s review of the Chase Sapphire Reserve.
Learn more and apply for the Chase Sapphire Reserve.

The Platinum Card from American Express also isn’t tied to a specific airline, but instead earns points that can be redeemed directly for any flight or transferred to many airlines and hotels — but with a set of partners that’s different than Chase’s credit cards.

When it comes to earning points on airfare, the Amex Platinum has the highest earning rate of any credit card on our list. You’ll earn 5 points for every dollar spent when booking directly with the airline. That’s more than the 3 points per dollar you’ll earn with the Chase Sapphire Reserve, but you’ll earn bonus points on many other travel purchases with the Chase card, while the Amex Platinum only earns elevated points on airfare, as well as hotels and flights booked through American Express Travel.

But the Amex Platinum is best known for its luxury perks. For starters, just by being a card member, you’ll have complimentary access to thousands of airport lounges around the world, including the exclusive American Express Centurion Lounges, Delta Sky Clubs when flying Delta, and Priority Pass airport lounges (but not Priority Pass restaurants).

Related: Travel with luxury perks using the American Express Platinum.

Use your Amex Platinum card to access the new Amex Centurion Lounge at New York's LaGuardia airport.

Julian Kheel

Use your Amex Platinum card to access the new Amex Centurion Lounge at New York’s LaGuardia airport.

Card members also get complimentary Gold elite status with the Hilton and Marriott hotel chains, which can get you a late checkout, bonus points when staying on a paid rate, space-available upgraded rooms and complimentary breakfast at select properties. You’ll also have Preferred elite status with Hertz, Avis and National Car Rental.

Now, the Amex Platinum doesn’t come cheap. In fact, the annual fee just went up to a whopping $695 per year (see rates and fees). Fortunately, the card comes with many yearly credits that can help offset the fee if you can take advantage of them.

This includes up to $200 in airline incidental fees, up to $200 in Uber credits (distributed in portions of $15 per month with an extra $20 in the month of December), up to $240 in digital entertainment credits (which come in portions of $20 per month), up to $100 in Saks Fifth Avenue credits (broken into $50 for each half of the year) and up to $179 for an annual Clear membership.

If you can use all of these Amex Platinum credits each year, you’ll get a total of $919 in value, which would more than cover the $695 annual fee. But not everyone will be able to take advantage of all these credits, so it’s important to consider which credits you’re likely to use and if the net effective cost of the card is worth it for you.

And if you don’t already have the Amex Platinum, now’s a great time to get it, as it’s offering new card members 100,000 bonus points after you spend $6,000 in your first six months after opening the account. Plus, new card members earn 10 points per dollar on eligible purchases at restaurants worldwide and when you Shop Small in the U.S. during your first six months, on up to $25,000 in combined purchases.

Read CNN Underscored’s review of the Amex Platinum Card.
Learn more about the Platinum Card from American Express.

With seven different Delta credit cards available — four personal and three business — there’s a Delta card for all types of flyers. But for the occasional flyer, the Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express Card will likely suit you the best.

The Delta Gold Amex has no annual fee for the first year, then a $99 fee starting with your second year and beyond (see rates and fees), so you can try out the card for a year to see if it’s right for you. And right now for a limited time until July 28, 2021, new card members can earn 70,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 in purchases in the first three months after opening the account, plus a $200 statement credit after you make a Delta purchase with your new card within the first three months.

Related: These are our favorite credit cards for Delta flyers.

You can get extra perks when you fly Delta and have the Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express card.

iStock

You can get extra perks when you fly Delta and have the Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express card.

You’ll earn 2 miles per dollar on purchases made directly with Delta with the Delta Gold Amex, as well as at restaurants worldwide (including takeout and delivery) and U.S. supermarkets. You’ll also get priority boarding on Delta flights, a free checked bag when flying Delta, and 20% off on Delta in-flight purchases.

Also, if you spend $10,000 on the Delta Gold Amex card in a calendar year, you’ll earn a Delta flight credit worth up to $100. So if you’re able to spend this much on your credit card each year, that alone will make up for the card’s annual fee.

Related: Delta flyers receive a free checked bag with the Delta SkyMiles Gold credit card.

However, if you expect to be in the air a lot more often as the pandemic wanes, you might instead want to look at the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card or the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card. Both of these higher-end cards will help you earn Delta elite status quicker and come with more Delta perks, including an annual companion certificate after your first year.

The Delta Reserve card also provides access to Delta SkyClub and Amex Centurion Lounges when flying Delta. But of course, both of these premium Delta credit cards come with significantly higher annual fees, so the benefits may or may not justify the cost depending on how often you travel.

Read CNN Underscored’s review of the Delta Gold Amex card.
Learn more about the Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express Card.

If you’re a United fan, the United Explorer Card comes with no annual fee for the first year, then a $95 fee starting in the second year, allowing you to essentially try out the card for no cost while determining whether or not the card works well for your spending and travel habits.

You’ll earn 2 miles for every dollar you spend on United with the United Explorer Card, as well as at restaurants (including eligible delivery services) and on hotel stays booked directly with the hotel, plus 1 mile per dollar on everything else. That’s not bad, but keep in mind that the Chase Sapphire Preferred earns 2 points per dollar on dining and all travel, and you can transfer Chase points to United.

That’s why the real reason to have the United Explorer Card is getting perks when flying on United. You’ll receive priority boarding and earn 25% back on in-flight purchases when you’re on a United flight, and you can check your first bag for free (as well as one for a traveling companion). You’ll also receive two United Club lounge day passes per year.

Those looking to earn United elite status can also get 500 Premier Qualifying Points (PQPs) for every $12,000 spent on the card, up to a maximum of 1,000 PQPs per year. And you’ll also be reimbursed up to $100 for a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck membership application fee, which is a nice benefit on a travel card that only costs $95 a year.

You'll get a free checked bag and other perks when flying United with the United Explorer Card.

You’ll get a free checked bag and other perks when flying United with the United Explorer Card.

The United Explorer Card is currently offering new card holders up to 70,000 bonus miles: 60,000 miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first three months after opening the account, plus an additional 10,000 miles after you spend $6,000 in the first six months. But if increasing your mileage balance is a top priority, there are actually two other United credit cards that you might look at instead.

You can earn up to 100,000 bonus miles with the new United Quest Card — 80,000 miles after you spend $5,000 in the first three months after opening the account, plus an additional 20,000 miles after you spend $10,000 in the first six months. This is a more expensive card at $250 a year, but it also comes with more perks, including up to $125 in annual statement credits for United purchases charged to your card.

Related: United Airlines just launched a new credit card with up to 100,000 bonus miles.

Or, if you’re a road warrior, the United Club Infinite Card can score you 75,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on the card within the first three months after opening the account. While this is also a great offer and the card includes a United Club lounge membership, it does come with a hefty price tag, as the annual fee will set you back $525 each year.

Read CNN Underscored’s roundup of the best credit cards for United flyers.
Learn more and apply for the United Explorer Card.

If Southwest is your airline of choice, having one (or more) of the five Southwest credit cards in your wallet is a great way to increase your point balance, reap some cool flight perks and even potentially earn the coveted Southwest Companion Pass.

Although the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card is the most expensive of the Southwest personal credit cards at $149 each year, we like it the most because it comes with the most benefits, and you can easily come out ahead with the card year after year.

You’ll get a $75 Southwest travel credit each year with the Southwest Priority card, which can be used for Southwest flights, along with four upgraded boarding positions annually, 7,500 bonus points each anniversary year starting with your second year as a card holder, 20% back on inflight drinks and Wi-Fi and no foreign transaction fees.

Related: Earn a sign-up bonus on these five Southwest credit cards.

The perks on the Southwest Priority card can easily make up for its $149 annual fee.

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The perks on the Southwest Priority card can easily make up for its $149 annual fee.

Since Southwest points are worth about 1.4 cents each, the annual 7,500 bonus points on the Southwest Priority are worth $105. Add that to the $75 in travel credits and your $149 annual fee is more than covered for each year starting with your second year — and that’s before even considering all of the card’s other benefits.

Also, the points you earn on the Southwest Priority card — including the sign-up bonus — count as qualifying points toward the Southwest Companion Pass. Having the pass can save you thousands of dollars, as it allows a companion to fly with you for free (plus the minimal costs of taxes and fees) for the rest of the year you earn the pass, plus the entire following year.

Read CNN Underscored’s roundup of the best credit cards for Southwest flyers.
Learn more and apply for the Southwest Priority Card.

For the occasional American Airlines flyer, the Citi AAdvantage Platinum is a great card to have, especially since there’s no annual fee for the first year, then only $95 per year thereafter. While it isn’t the best card to use on everyday spending, you can save money on baggage fees and even be privy to discounted award flights just by having it.

All Citi AAdvantage Platinum card holders get a free checked bag on domestic American flights for not only themselves, but up to four additional companions on the same reservation. With baggage fees starting at $30 per bag, a family of four can easily save $240 roundtrip by flying just one flight per year, making the annual fee well worth it.

You'll get a free checked bag for you and up to four companions on the same reservation with the Citi AAdvantage Platinum card.

iStock

You’ll get a free checked bag for you and up to four companions on the same reservation with the Citi AAdvantage Platinum card.

Also, throughout the year, American offers reduced mileage awards exclusively to its credit card holders, which provide up to a 7,500-mile discount on round-trip award flights. Typically, the airline releases a four-month calendar in advance listing which select routes throughout North America receive the discount. It’s a nice added perk if you happen to be booking an eligible route.

Now, if you fly American regularly, you might prefer the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard® instead, as it comes with an Admirals Club lounge membership and additional benefits such as the opportunity to earn bonus Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs). But the card isn’t cheap at $450 a year, so it’s probably best only for those who expect to be on an American plane at least monthly.

Learn more and apply for the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Mastercard.

If you live in a JetBlue hub city, you’ll want to make sure that you have a place for the JetBlue Plus credit card in your wallet. It’s not the top card for everyday spending, but it comes with some great perks that can improve your experience when flying JetBlue.

With the JetBlue Plus card, you’ll earn 6 points per dollar on JetBlue purchases, 2 points per dollar at restaurants and grocery stores and 1 point per dollar on everything else. JetBlue points are typically worth about 1.3 cents each according to The Points Guy, which means you’re earning a 2.6% return at restaurants and grocery stores, though just a 1.3% return on all your other everyday purchases.

While this isn’t nearly as good as some other cards, you’ll likely save money with it if you fly JetBlue even once in a while. Being a JetBlue Plus card holder gives you and up to three companions on the same reservation a free checked bag when flying JetBlue, which can easily save you hundreds of dollars with just one trip.

JetBlue flyers get a free checked bag for themselves and up to three companions with the JetBlue Plus Card.

iStock

JetBlue flyers get a free checked bag for themselves and up to three companions with the JetBlue Plus Card.

And while this card comes with a $99 annual fee, you’ll earn 5,000 bonus points each year starting with your first account anniversary (meaning a year after you first get the card). These 5,000 points are worth about $65 according to The Points Guy, which offsets roughly two-thirds of the cost of the card.

Finally, if you’re interested in JetBlue elite status, you can earn the airline’s top-tier Mosaic status when you spend $50,000 or more on your card within a calendar year (and in 2021 only, you can also earn status by spending $30,000 on your card plus earning 4,000 Mosaic qualifying points by flying throughout the year). So if you aren’t able to earn status by flying — especially this year — being able to enjoy status through your credit card is a nice-to-have benefit.

The Capital One Venture card takes the cake when it comes to flexibility. This straightforward travel card earns 2 miles for every dollar you spend on it — no need to worry about bonus categories. You can then redeem your miles for any travel purchase at 1 cent per mile, which means you’re getting a 2% return on all your purchases, which is comparable to the best credit card options on the market.

Redeeming your miles is incredibly easy using the Capital One Venture’s “Purchase Eraser” feature. All you have to do is charge any travel-related purchase to your Venture card, and then within 90 days, go online and choose to redeem your miles for that transaction instead of paying for it with cash.

Now, if you’re an expert when it comes to frequent flyer programs, you can also transfer your Capital One miles to 19 different travel partners, including JetBlue, British Airways, Air Canada, Avianca and Wyndham Rewards. You’ll need to do your homework if you go this route, but you can potentially get a lot more value for your miles, which is why frequent flyer website The Points Guy values Capital One miles at 1.7 cents each.

Related: Capital One adds new airline and hotel partners to its credit cards.

You can transfer Capital One miles to Wyndham Hotels and 18 other travel partners.

Wyndham Hotels

You can transfer Capital One miles to Wyndham Hotels and 18 other travel partners.

This is also a great time to apply for the Capital One Venture card, as now through July 19, new card holders can earn up to 100,000 bonus miles. It breaks down into two tiers — you’ll earn 50,000 miles when you spend $3,000 in the first three months after opening the account, and another 50,000 miles when you spend $20,000 within the first 12 months. That’s an admittedly-high minimum spending requirement, but if you can meet it, it’s an easy $1,000 in miles to put straight toward your next vacation.

Read CNN Underscored’s review of the Capital One Venture card.

Looking for a new credit card? Check out CNN Underscored’s list of the best credit cards of 2021.

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