When You Should(n’t) Use Airline Co-Brand Credit Cards To Pay For Airfare

by joeheg

All of the larger airlines in the U.S. offer co-brand credit cards. These cards, which provide extra benefits to cardholders, range from ones with no annual fees to premium cards costing up to $695 per year. While you’d think using a co-branded card would be the best choice for earning points with your flight purchase, that’s usually not the case. For most airlines, you don’t earn any extra points for airfare purchases for having a more expensive card.

In most cases, instead of using a co-brand card, it’s better to use a card that earns flexible points like Membership Rewards, ThankYou Points, or Ultimate Rewards. These cards provide the opportunity to earn more points and the flexibility of being able to use those points on multiple airlines, only needing to transfer points into your airline mileage account when you need them.

Here are the earnings multiples on airfare for the main flexible points cards from each bank:

American Express (Membership Rewards)

  • Platinum card ($695 annual fee) – 5x points on flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel
  • Gold card ($250 annual fee) – 3x points on flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel

Chase (Ultimate Rewards)

  • Sapphire Reserve ($550 annual fee) – 5x total points on flights when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards and  3x points on travel worldwide (including airfares purchased from airlines or travel agencies/websites)
  • Sapphire Preferred ($95 annual fee) – 5x total points on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards and 2x points on travel worldwide (including airfares purchased from airlines or travel agencies/websites)

Citi (Thank You Points)

  • Citi Prestige ($495 annual fee) – 5x points on purchases at airlines and travel agencies
  • Citi Premier ($95 annual fee) – 3x points on purchases at airlines and travel agencies

The AMEX Platinum and Citi Prestige offer 5x on airfare, but the AMEX card only counts purchases directly from the airline or their website. Of the $95 cards, the Citi Premier earns the most points on airline purchases at 3x.

However, Citi has removed all of the travel protections from its products, such as trip delay and baggage delay, making them less favorable choices for airfare purchases. On the other hand, American Express has added trip delay coverage to the Platinum and Gold cards while Chase cards always offered travel coverages. If you value additional travel insurance coverage, it might be best to use the AMEX or Chase cards.

So how many miles will you earn by using an airline co-brand card to purchase airfare, and when does it make sense to do so? I’ve indicated which airlines are partners of one (or all) of the flexible currency cards so you can compare earnings potential between cards.

Alaska Airlines

$75 annual fee – 3x points

Allegiant Air card

$59 annual fee – 3x points

American Airlines cards issued by Barclays

  • No annual fee – 1x points
  • Blue – $49 annual fee – 2x points
  • Red – $95 annual fee – 2x points
  • Silver – $195 annual fee – 3x points

American Airlines cards issued by Citi

  • Mile Up – No annual fee – 2x points
  • Platinum – $99 annual fee – 2x points
  • Executive – $450 annual fee – 2x points

Delta Airlines (Membership Rewards transfer partner)

  • Blue – No annual fee – 2x points
  • Gold – $99 annual fee – 2x points
  • Platinum – $250 annual fee – 3x points
  • Reserve – $550 annual fee – 3x points

Frontier Airlines

$79 annual fee – 5x points

Hawaiian Airlines (Membership Rewards transfer partner)

$99 annual fee – 3x points

JetBlue (Membership Rewards, Thank You and Ultimate Rewards transfer partner)

  • JetBlue card – No annual fee – 3x points
  • JetBlue Plus – $99 annual fee – 6x points

Southwest Airlines (Ultimate Rewards transfer partner)

  • Plus – $69 annual fee – 2x points
  • Premier $99 annual fee – 3x points
  • Priority – $149 annual fee – 3x points

Spirit Airlines

$59 annual fee – 3x points

Sun Country Airlines

$69 annual fee – 3x points

United Airlines (Ultimate Rewards transfer partner)

  • Gateway – no annual fee – 2x points
  • Explorer – $95 annual fee – 2x points
  • Quest – $250 annual fee – 3x points
  • Club – $525 annual fee – 4x points


Airline co-brand credit cards have stepped up and increased the bonuses for purchasing airfare with the card. The JetBlue Plus Card and the Frontier credit card lead the pack but there still are not many cards that pay over 3x.

So which co-brand airline card would I consider using?

  • Frontier card – Earning 5x points on Frontier for airfare is the best way to earn points with that program. If you fly Frontier regularly, it does make sense and having the card also allows you to keep your Frontier miles from expiring if you go more than 6 months between flights.
  • Alaska card – Alaska miles are valuable. Not to use for Alaska flights but for flying on any of their many partners. Since Alaska miles are hard to earn any other way besides flying, using the co-brand card to earn 3x Alaska points for airfare is a deal many can’t pass up.
  • United Explorer card – The United card isn’t the best way to earn miles, and I’d usually suggest using a Sapphire card and earning 2-3x Ultimate Rewards points. However, United requires using the credit card for your airfare if you want to take advantage of the free checked bag benefit. This only matters if you don’t otherwise get free checked bags from having United status.
  • American Airlines cards – For whatever reason, even though Citi issues co-brand American cards, you couldn’t transfer Citi ThankYou points into your American account until recently. If that’s not an option and you need to build up your American balance for an award, using one of the American cards from either Barclays or Citi is a sensible choice.

None of the reasons to use a co-brand card is because they earn the most amount of points. You use co-brand cards to earn points in a specific program that is not a transfer partner of any bank. If you have a goal and are working towards a particular redemption, using a co-brand card for airfare makes sense, even if doing so means you’re going to earn fewer points than you could have otherwise.

Want to comment on this post? Great! Read this first to help ensure it gets approved.
Want to sponsor a post, write something for Your Mileage May Vary or put ads on our site? Click here for more info.

Like this post? Please share it! We have plenty more just like it and would love it if you decided to hang around and sign up to get emailed notifications of when we post.

Whether you’ve read our articles before or this is the first time you’re stopping by, we’re really glad you’re here and hope you come back to visit again!

This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary


Christian March 28, 2019 - 3:27 pm

A big consideration for me is travel protection for delays/cancellations. As one example, Amex gives none while CSP covers you really well even on award tickets if you pay the taxes with the card.

joeheg March 28, 2019 - 4:22 pm

I almost exclusively use the Prestige for travel bookings because of the coverage and there’s no excuse not to now that it pays 5x on airfare.

Adam March 28, 2019 - 3:47 pm

The legacy Chase United MileagePlus Select offers 3X on United flights and 2X on *A flights along with up to 5k PQMs but does not offer trip delay/travel insurance.

joeheg March 28, 2019 - 4:11 pm

I didn’t include cards which aren’t available through a new application or thru a PC. People who have those cards are more than familiar with their benefits.

Steve March 28, 2019 - 3:58 pm

This story is certainly incomplete since you at only looking at mileage earning. Points and miles are generally valued at a penny each or thereabouts. If you use the Alaska card for you and six others on your reservation, you can save $490.00 in bag fees on a round trip. In my book, $490.00 saved is $490.00 earned.

joeheg March 28, 2019 - 4:20 pm

You’re correct that the article just looks at mileage earning. To look into every variable, the article would need to be the length of a short story. But to take your example, with Alaska Airlines you only need to be traveling on the reservation and have your Mileage Plus number on file to get the free baggage credit for you and up to six others. It is not necessary to actually pay with the card, although as I mentioned in the article you still might want to due to the value of Alaska miles. The only airline who strictly follows the policy of requiring you to pay for the ticket with the card to get free bags is United.

DaninMCI January 15, 2020 - 9:52 am

Good post on this. One additional thing that I fail to remember is that the value of airline points varies by carrier. For example I have a Spirit Airline card that I can earn 2x when I book with it on Spirit but I’d likely be better off using my CSR for this purchase unless I “need” more Spirit miles.

beachmouse November 13, 2021 - 12:05 pm

One thing to monitor in the Delta AmEx realm is special offers for airfare purchases. IIRC my Skymiles Platinum card is signed up to get 5x Skymiles on Delta purchases through the end of the year and there was a good cash rebate offer there for Air France ticket purchases with that card earlier this fall.

JohnB November 13, 2021 - 12:51 pm

American makes you to use their AA cards as well, to get free bags. I know because P2 has an AA card and while my tickets were charged on that card, AA made me, solo, pay for bags. For us, we don’t use AA anymore.


Leave a Comment