Which Card You Should Use to Purchase Airline Tickets? [2020]

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While the goal in award travel is accumulating miles to redeem for free flights, the reality is that most of us will need to purchase tickets with cash during the year. Every purchase you make is a chance to earn rewards using your credit cards, and with travel coding as a category bonus for most major travel credit card providers, it begs the question; what is the best credit card to use when purchasing airfare?

AA 787

There are a few factors to take into account before deciding which card to charge your flights to:

  • Think about your travel goals and what points or miles will get you there. If you’re collecting American miles and you’re close to your redemption target, collecting Membership Rewards or Ultimate Rewards isn’t going to be of much use, as they don’t transfer to AA. You’d be better off paying for your flights with the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard® and earning 2x AA miles.
  • Do you need to pay with the card to use the benefits? If you want to claim your free baggage allowance as a United℠ Explorer Card member, you need to pay for your flights with the card. As opposed to the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card which provides free bags as a cardholder even when paying with another card.
  • What travel protections does the card offer? While most travel-focused rewards cards offer some form of the trip protection, the coverage varies card-to-card, as does the time it takes for those benefits to kick in. If you depend on your credit card for flight delay or baggage delay coverage, the card you swipe can make a big difference when things go wrong.
  • Are there any promos, portals, or transfer bonuses that can get you to your goal faster? Regular transfer bonuses offered by frequent flyer programs can net an additional 20/50% in bonus miles when transferring flexible points to airline programs. If you’re looking to stack deals for extra value, these bonuses can dictate short-term strategies when buying flights.

The credit card you use to purchase flights has a significant impact on more than just the number of points or miles you'll earn. Added perks such as trip and baggage delay protection, or free bags, can also be a deciding factor in which card to use.

What Is the Best Credit Card for Airfare Purchases?

With so many factors at play, we've put together some handy charts showing the different features of each card, including when each card should be pulled out for airfare purchases.

The first table lists the best cards to earn miles in each airline’s frequent flyer program.

AirlineBest Card To Earn Miles In Program
American Airlines• 2x Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®
• 2x AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard®
Delta• 5x The Platinum Card® from American Express
• 5x The Business Platinum Card® from American Express
(Transferred to SkyMiles)
United• 4x United Club℠ Infinite Card
• 3x Chase Sapphire Reserve®
(Transferred to MileagePlus)
Southwest• 3x Southwest Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card
• 3x Chase Sapphire Reserve®
(Transferred to Rapid Rewards)
JetBlue• 6x JetBlue Plus Card
Alaska• 3x Alaska Visa Card
Other Airlines• 5x The Platinum Card® from American Express
• 5x Citi Prestige® Card
• 3x Chase Sapphire Reserve®

Why choose the Amex pairing for Delta flights and the Sapphire Reserve over Chase’s United cards? The highest-earning Delta co-brand card earns just 2x miles/$1 when purchasing airfare, whereas the The Platinum Card® from American Express earns 5x MR points when booking through Amex Travel or direct with Delta, which transfer 1:1 to SkyMiles. That’s an extra 3 miles per dollar!

With the exception of the Southwest Performance Business Card and the United Club Infinite, the Southwest and United cards are in the same boat, earning just 2X points/miles per dollar spent on airfare when the Chase Sapphire Reserve® earns 3x Ultimate Rewards points for the same purchase, which transfer to MileagePlus and Rapid Rewards at 1:1. The only case that warrants using the United℠ Explorer Card over the Sapphire Reserve is if you want the free checked bag for you and your companions.

This second table goes into a bit more detail for each card, adding travel protection benefits and airline-specific perks.

Credit CardRewards Earned On AirfareBest For Which Airline PurchasesTrip & Baggage DelayOther Airline Perks
The Platinum Card® from American Express &
The Business Platinum Card® from American Express
• 5x Membership Rewards Points
• Highest MR earning cards on airfare
• Delta (transfers to SkyMiles 1:1)
• If buying through AmexTravel.com
• 6 hours / $500
• No Baggage Delay
• Centurion®, American Express, Delta Sky Club®, Airspace, Priority Pass lounge access (Terms Apply)
Citi Prestige® Card• 5x ThankYou Points
• Highest ThankYou Rewards earning card on airfare
• If trying to earn ThankYou PointsAs of 09/22/2019
• No Trip Delay
• No Baggage Delay
• Priority Pass lounge access
Citi Premier Card• 3x ThankYou Points• If trying to earn ThankYou PointsAs of 09/22/2019
• No Trip Delay
• No Baggage Delay
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card• 2x Ultimate Rewards Points• If trying to earn Ultimate Rewards• 12 hours / $500
• 6 hours / $100 per day (max $500)
Chase Sapphire Reserve®• 3x Ultimate Rewards
• Highest Ultimate Rewards earning card on airfare
• Southwest (transfers to Rapid Rewards 1:1)
• If trying to earn Ultimate Rewards
• 6 hours / $500
• 6 hours / $100 per day (max $500)
• Priority Pass lounge access
United Club℠ Infinite Card• 4x United MileagePlus miles
• Highest United miles earning card
• United• 12 hours / $500
• 6 hours / $100 per day (max $500)
• United Club membership
• Free first and second checked bags
• 25% back on United inflight purchases
• Global Entry/TSA Precheck fee credit
Southwest Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card• 3x Rapid Rewards points on Southwest purchases• Southwest• Unknown
• 6 hours / $100 per day (max $300)
• 9K anniversary points each year
• Four Upgraded Boardings per year
• Inflight WiFi Credits
Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®• 2x AAdvantage Miles
• Highest AA miles earning card
• American AirlinesAs of 09/22/2019
• No Trip Delay
• No Baggage Delay
• First checked bag free for cardholder + 4 companions
• Priority boarding
• 25% discount on in-flight purchases
Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Credit Card• 3x Mileage Plan Miles
• Highest Alaska earning card
• Alaska• No Trip Delay
• No Baggage Delay
• First checked bag free for cardholder + 6 companions
• Free companion fare
JetBlue Plus Card• 6x TrueBlue Points
• Highest JetBlue points earning card on airfare
• JetBlue• 6 hours / $300
• 12 hours / $300
• Free first checked bag for cardholder + 3 companions
• 50% discount in-flight food & beverages
• 5K anniversary points each year

Final Thoughts

If you’re chasing highest net return on spend, the Amex Platinum and Business Platinum Card cards win the battle of maximum points earned per dollar spent, and the addition of new travel protection benefits can be a genuine wallet saver when everything goes pear-shaped.

For the best overall mix, we recommend the Sapphire Reserve as the best credit card to purchase airline tickets, both for the valuable points you’ll receive and the extensive travel protection offered.

If you have any questions, please reach out in the comments below.

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  • Albert Davis says:

    Question. Can you buy a airlines ticket with the plan amazon cards and or get cash back of the same value of the card

    • Hey Albert, I’m sorry I don’t understand your question. What do you mean by “plan amazon cards” and “get cash back of the same value of the card”?

  • EasternTraveler says:

    Only problem with this article is that it is missing travel cards. It needs to include:
    UBS Infinite Visa
    US Bank Altitude Visa
    CNB Crystal Visa
    The World of Hyatt Credit Card
    Chase Ink Business Preferred Credit Card
    Barclays AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard
    United Explorer Visa
    Wells Fargo Propel American Express
    PenFed Pathfinder Rewards American Express

  • For airline specific cards. delta stinks, Barclay aviator is ok. I guess I am partial to my Starwood card. Then I have choice on which airline to allocate points. Best for keeping points alive.

  • Second question (Thank you):

    I have 80000 Marriott points and about the same in Amex SPG points.
    With the merger, what should I do to maximize my value?

  • I wound up with the AA Hilton card and also the Amex Hilton, realized that the AA was a no fee ever and the Amex had a fee, so dropped the Amex
    Hilton. Was I confused or was that the reality?

    • Tomk, not sure what you’re asking here. I think you mean the Citi Hilton card? Both Citi and Amex each had a no fee and a fee Hilton co-branded card. The Citi cards are no longer issued but Amex still has a no fee and fee Hilton card.

  • For me the Capitol one venture card is good overall. Redemption is easy and fair. Best customer service I have found.

  • For anyone who has the Citi Dividend card (quarterly categories), 2017 Q3 airline purchases earn 5% cashback if you sign up in advance.

  • This really helps! I am always trying to find out exactly what gives me American Airlines miles. They really need to get away from American Express…oh well. I saw the promo for the barclay card with them. It’s pending so we’ll see if I get to have it. I’ve opened a few cards this year. Not something normally I do, probably a pleasant hazard from belonging to AwardWallet ;o)

    I am nervous about getting it and then canceling it after the year, since I have to pay the annual fee and buy something to get the 60k bonus. I will probably try for the Hilton Amex once they do not have the Citi anymore. I will be taking a break from getting anymore cards for a little while. It all makes me nervous playing around with credit cards and my credit score. It probably won’t hurt it but I’m a nervous nelly with that.

  • I use a cash back card for everything but travel purchase. Those are always made on my Sapphire Reserve card. I’ve found that works best for me.

  • Thank you, Father Rappaport.
    No penance by me.
    : )

  • What is the easiest way to cancel a card before the first annual fee is posted?
    I feel uncomfortable, as if I am cheating them.
    So I pay the first annual fee and then cancel the card.
    Is that crazy?

    • Tomk, honestly what it comes down to is “are you using the card and getting value out of it?” Card issuers provide the card without an annual fee the first year as a “try before you buy”. It is a marketing technique. They know what they’re doing. If you’re getting value from the card, pay the fee and keep it. If you don’t feel paying the fee is worth it for you, please don’t keep it because you “feel guilty”. If it isn’t for you, it just isn’t for you and you should close it (or consider a possible product change to something more relevant.)

  • Can you transfer points from your Southwest Visa credit card to your Chase Sapphire Reserve card? If so is it dollar for dollar?

  • Useful round-up. Thanks!

  • For me I weigh points earning and trip delay insurance. Good reference.

  • Mike Hendrickson says:

    The above credit card recommendations are great but the best way to get points is to be always working on your next bonus. I recommend you get another credit card every 3 months and receive approximately 50,000 points in one shot.

  • I’ve been getting about 2 cents per point on southwest with award flights. ( 3000 points for $59 ticket). Short haul only. The CSR is really working well for me here, so another vote for CSR even if you are a hardcore SW fan.

  • Its funny how the “right card” isn’t always the correct answer when it comes to points and miles due to transfer partners. Good overview! Thanks

  • AmEx Plat is great for earning 5x on airfare, and that great if one has other reasons to hold it. However, I do not, and therefore 5x on airfare is not nearly enough to justify its hefty AF. For me, the best all-around high-earning ‘keeper’ card, which still offers a good return on airfare purchases, is the Sapphire Reserve.

  • Bertrand Say says:

    cash back cards for me

  • jason picker says:

    It is also important to know which credit cards offer health insurance should you require a doctor or hospitalization whilst abroad.
    Not all cards offer the same coverage.

  • If nothing else mattered in the decision, would you rather have a card with Admiral’s club membership or Priority Pass?

    • That would solely depend on which airports I’m traveling from/through/to.

      • I understand. I guess what I’m asking is: Do you tend to like Admiral’s Clubs or Priority Pass lounges better? I know there are 10 times more of the Priority Pass lounges worldwide perhaps, but I just was interested in knowing if you like one over the other. What about if you travelled only to airports that had both? which one would you prefer to go into?


        • If I was flying AA I’d go to AA clubs because of the added value of having AA agents available in the case of IRROPS. Otherwise, Priority Pass — but it really depends on the locations because not all Priority Pass lounges are created equal and for the most part all AA lounges are very similar.

  • The Citi Prestige and the Citi Thank You • 3 hours / $500 • 3 hours / $500 • 12 hours / $500
    • 6 hours / $100 respectively on the trip and baggage delay. That’s a “no-brainer” of course, all other things being equal. But, what exactly does this actually mean? Does it mean if your flight is delayed for more than the time frames mentioned you get the money, or, just that if you spend up to that amount because of the delays, then they will refund up to that amount?

    Has anyone ever utilized any of these benefits? What is necessary to receive these benefits?



  • I use my Aviator Red for AA flights, but I wish they’d offer 3x on airfare once in awhile, especially now that i’s revenue-based. That’d be a bonus more worthwhile. Otherwise, I can earn more miles through online shopping than I can flying.

  • mario pedicini says:

    the starwood amex is always a good fallback if you don’t have any of the airline co-branded cards, just because of the fact that they can be converted to many airline programs….

  • amex platinum is the clear winner here

  • Great use of tables. This post really helps clarify things for me.

  • Is there a way to “split the benefits”? For example, could I buy flights on my Sapphire and then buy preferred seating on the United card to get both the free bag and the travel protection?

    • As we understand it you much purchase your ticket using the United card, not just a seat upgrade, to receive the free bag benefit. Insurance/benefits seem to be one area where there are strict limits on how to receive the benefit.

  • The longer I experience life having the Chase Sapphire cards, the more I am sold on them. I think what I like the most is I know right off the bat, w/o considering if I’m getting 3x or 2x or 1x, that these cc’s are working for me, benefit me, and will stay in my wallet a long time.

  • Sapphire Reserve is one of the best all round cards for travel and dining

  • My husband and I both have been fairly loyal to AA and we both have the AA/Citi branded cards, but I sure do longing look at the miles earning potential from some of these other non-branded cards that offer 5x or 3x miles over the Citi cards we have. I guess that’s the price of loyalty. We are at least looking at swapping out our Marriott-Chase card for the SPG card now that Marriott and SPG have merged. Again, we are loyal to Marriott so any way we can earn extra points there is awesome. And hey, with the SPG card I think there are some other places we could transfer the points if we wanted. That at least opens the doors to other airlines award potential.

  • Just got the Alaskan card and hope to use it for future travel and booking of flights. Interested to look into Sapphire card and see if it’s worth it for me.

  • Patrick Ohearn says:

    what about earnings for Premier status (e.g. Delta Medallion or Untied Mileage Plus points)- does the card used matter for accelerated accrual? and also what about purchases with the airlines not specific to flights, such as the Airline store or incidentals purchased on the flight, or even purchases not at all related to the airline? would either card give you more Premier points for regular purchases such as groceries, gas or other every day spending?

    • If you’re looking to earn Medallion miles with Delta or EQM with United, those benefits aren’t tied specifically to travel purchases and you earn them on the dollar amount spent on a card. For example with the Delta Reserve cards you earn 15,000 bonus MQMs after you spend $30,000 on the credit card in a calendar year (and another 15k after you spend $60k total in that same year) — it doesn’t matter where you make those purchases.

  • I opened up a US Bank checking this week and the banker mentioned the Altitude card since I like traveling but since I just got a new card I should sit on it. However the benefits of that card seem quite generous alongside the other premium cards mentioned

  • Donald McCullough says:

    Thanks for pointing out the fact that AmEx Plat cards don’t provide trip or baggage delay insurance, I had assumed they did. I’ll keep that in mind, thanks!

  • What is the best card u recommend to accumulate points .. to travel dtw-bom I travel twice a year I would like business class.. so many air lines goes there . Which transfer partner I can get a bang for my buck

    • DTW-BOM is pricey no matter how you do it — even with miles. Your best bet is probably SPG points due to all the transfer partners, though I would also look at Membership Rewards with their transfer partners as well.

  • Courtney Webb says:

    The best credit card for Southwest Airlines is the Chase Southwest plus, now that the sign up bonus is 60, 000 miles again.

  • My question about the one year mark…if I stay with the card, then I get the yearly fee. If I ditch the card…do I lose the points? If so, can you switch them out to another card or program or something. I did 8 cards so far and in A few months they will all be coming do every month or so. I will keep some, but what about the rest?

    • Jamie, it depends on the card and rewards you earn.

      Anything that is tied specifically to the card, like Membership Rewards, Ultimate Rewards, Barclaycard Arrival Miles are lost if you don’t have those rewards tied to a credit card. On the other hand with Delta, United, Hyatt, Hilton, etc, the points/miles are in your account already and as long as you have met the terms of the program/bonus/etc, they’re yours to keep. Hope this clears it up.

      • I have 3-4 chase ultimate cards, can i combine to one account and then cancel the others?

        • If you’re the primary cardholder you can absolutely consolidate the points earned and if you choose to want to reduce the number of cards you have you can, of course, close them. That said, be sure to review the benefits/earning that they each provide and choose what is best for you.

        • If any of the UR cards you’re thinking of canceling can be converted to a Freedom 5x card I would do that. One at a time.

          With 2, 3 or 4 Freedoms that has quite a bit of potential even with only using during one quarter. Plus like with the current Chase Pay 10x at Walmart.com a nice easy way to get URs in bunches.

          Plus no fee.

      • Tim Fischesser says:

        If your spouse has a chase card, or you have another chase card, and you cancel a Chase card, you can transfer your points to that Ultimate account, in addition to one of the partners like southwest. So try to transfer points before you cancel a card.

      • we were just told by Chase that the bonus points my husband accrued with a United Mileage credit card would expire if we didn’t use them before 18 months and renew the card and pay the annual fee. They told us that even though his other UA miles would stay in his United account as long as he has activity before they expire these particular miles would expire. I had never heard of this.

  • I really prefer the Sapphire Reserved card for all travel purchases. It gives me the most flexibility and bang for the buck (no dealing with saver vs. standard awards).

  • I have a question about the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Sapphire Reserve Cards. I believe both offer travel insurance protection. I am curious if the travel insurance benefits differ between the Preferred and the Reserve. I am planning on using my Preferred card to purchase my cruise tickets and am wondering if I should use my Partner’s Reserve card instead for this reason. Additionally, I am curious if I use either card to purchase my cruise tickets, do I then need to also purchase the cruise company’s additional travel insurance or is it unnecessary after using the CSP or CSR?
    Thank you!

  • I find this still puzzling. What is the best rewards card that accumulates points/mileage fastest and gives the broadest choice of carriers with no
    blackout dates.

    Hopefully that will be no more then a $100 card.

  • So………what is the best rewards card that accumulates points/mileage fastest and gives the broadest choice of carriers, with no blackout dates?

    Hopefully that will be no more an annual $100 card

  • Of all the $450 cards I have, Ritz, Prestige, Amex Bus., and Reserve, the Reserve is the only making it past the 1 year mark. $300 travel credit on anything that is in the air, on the water, or on the land. Plus great insurance. Even if you fly 2x per year, getting that lounge free for you and family is awesome. This card is a great value. It is the only one we can get from Chase and those points are very valuable. The Prestige is good, but reduced their free things, the Amex card did the same, and I only got the Ritz on the last day for its 3 free nights. Heading to DC to watch those blooms in the spring with the Ritz hotel stays.

  • jimravello says:

    Am I missing something or did you have the AS Visa card at 3X and later 2X?

  • For the trip delay, 3 hours on the citi card is solid. Do you know what this covers? Can I run up a 500 tab for me and my traveling companions in the best airport restaurant for example?

  • Just checked the 3x Sapphire Reserve card, I use United when I can, $450 fee is too hefty for an occasional “payer” like me. I have the old United card and seem to get the same recognition as the new model, with a lower fee though. Got 2x miles on my last purchase for United.

    • Kathie, be sure to look at all the benefits of the Sapphire Reserve. yes, it is more expensive but the $450 fee is an effective $150 after the $300 travel statement credit. Just don’t want you to get scared away by a big fee.

      • Depends on if you use the reserve for all your spend or not. I prefer to not use one card for everything unless i am working on a sign-up bonus

    • There was an “old” Mileageplus card which has no fee, which I still have. I wonder if it gives me anything much (but one mile per $2 on all purchases, which makes it not worth using). I suppose the ability to easily keep my miles active without using the shopping, dining or other programs or offers is the only reason I keep it.