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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.
The best airline credit cards for 2021
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.
Chase Sapphire Preferred: Best for beginners
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:
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.
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.
Chase Sapphire Reserve: Best travel insurance protections
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.
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.
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.
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: Best for luxury travel
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, and enrollment is required for Priority Pass).
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 Cash to use on Uber Eats orders or rides in the U.S. (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. Enrollment is required when you get the card before you can use these benefits.
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.
Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express Card: Best for Delta flyers
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.
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.
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.
United Explorer Card: Best for United flyers
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.
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.
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.
Southwest Priority Credit Card: Best for Southwest flyers
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.