5 Signs You Need an Airline Credit Card

by Brittney Myers | Updated July 21, 2021 - First published on June 25, 2021

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A man pushing a luggage cart through an airport with a cheering woman on top.

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Please follow the signs to your destination.

Anyone diving deep into the rewards credit card game is sure to come across co-branded airline credit cards. Offered by most major airlines, these cards earn frequent flyer miles that can be redeemed for free flights and upgrades. They can also come with any number of extra perks that can make your flying experience better and more affordable.

As useful as airline credit cards can be, however, they're not necessarily for everyone. Even the airline cards with no annual fees may not be worth going after if you're not going to make use of them. If you're looking for a new credit card, take a look at this list to see if an airline card might be for you.

1. You regularly fly the same airline

This one may seem a bit obvious, but it's worth stating, as it's at the heart of everything else on the list. You'll really only get the full benefit of an airline credit card if you regularly fly with that airline.

For one thing, the miles you earn will only be useful with that airline -- or with an airline in that alliance or partnership. Additionally, most airline cards have a range of perks that you can only use when you fly with them. For example, priority or preferred boarding is often a perk for credit cardholders, and many airline cards offer discounts on in-flight purchases.

On the other hand, if you tend to fly out of a large airport and have a free choice of airlines, the opportunity to make use of your airline credit card may be slim. It's probably better to focus on more general travel rewards credit cards that have flexible rewards.

2. You often check a bag on domestic flights

If you're tired of paying those infamous checked bag fees, then an airline credit card could be a good solution. One of the most common perks of airline credit cards is at least one free checked bag, which could save you $25 or more per flight.

What's more, most cards allow you to apply the free checked bag perk to multiple people in your party -- four people is common, but some cards offer free bags for up to eight travel companions. The only real drawback is that the perk is generally limited to domestic flights only.

3. You use an airport lounge multiple times a year

Flying is stressful enough if all you need to do is slog through a long security line and schlep your bags across the airport. But when you do all that just to find that the seats -- and outlets -- at the gate are taken, well, then you're left standing and staring at your dying phone as you kill the longest hour of your life.

Or, you could make your way to the airline's lounge. There, you're greeted with full buffets, free bars, luxury seating -- and all the power outlets you can handle.

Alright, some lounges are better than others. But, they're all indisputably better than waiting at the gate; there's a reason lounge day passes can cost as much as $50 a day. It's the same reason that many top-tier airline credit cards -- the ones with $450+ annual fees -- come complete with branded lounge memberships. If you're likely to visit your airline's lounges at least a few times a year, the lounge access could easily make the card worthwhile.

4. You plan to fly international business class

With only a few exceptions, the absolute best value you can get from airline miles is when you redeem them for international business class flights. Turning 60,000 miles into a $3,000 business class seat not only offers you $0.05 per mile in value, but it provides a flying experience miles above (pun intended) your cramped coach flight.

Many of the best airline credit cards come with huge sign-up bonuses that can equal enough miles for a one-way business class ticket to Europe. With a redemption like that, even a $450 annual fee could be worth paying, but you could also score those types of rewards with the more affordable $95-a-year cards.

5. You want to earn miles on everyday purchases

Truthfully, this is more of a secondary benefit than a direct one in many cases. That's because many of the purchases you make every day fall into the popular bonus categories of regular credit cards -- bonus categories that will usually offer higher rewards rates than you'll get with an airline credit card.

For example, your airline credit card might offer 2x miles per dollar on dining, but perhaps your favorite transferable rewards card offers 4x points per dollar. In that case, you're much better off using the regular rewards card to earn your points, then later transferring those points to your frequent flyer account for redemption.

That said, if you don't already have -- or plan to get -- a rewards card with a better rate on your purchases, your airline credit card could be a good option. As a side benefit, the miles you earn with your airline card can help keep your existing frequent flyer miles from expiring.

Double check the math on annual fees

If you're seeing a lot of yourself in our list of signs, then an airline credit card is likely a good addition to your wallet. But there's a lot of variation even in the niche realm of airline cards, both in perks -- and in annual fees.

While you can certainly find airline credit cards without annual fees, these cards will understandably offer the fewest benefits. Mid-tier airline cards tend to have annual fees in the $75 to $100 range, while luxury airline cards charge $450 or more. Make sure to compare credit cards before you decide. And if you choose an airline card with a fee, it's best to do a little math to make sure you'll get your money's worth.

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