Flying high: Best airline rewards credit cards

Baggage fees, security lines and lost luggage have many consumers seeing red. For some time now, airlines have been offsetting some of those inconveniences with more generous rewards on their credit cards.

That's been a boon for consumers, but with more choices comes more confusion. Once you've got your new credit card, you don't want to get buyer's remorse a few weeks later if you find a different card that offers even better rewards for a lower annual fee, for instance.

Fortunately, for those who want an airline card but can't quite get off the ground, CardRatings.com has surveyed and sifted the current crop of airline credit and charge card offers to present what we think is the very best that the airlines have to offer.

And the winner is…

You! Because here are all your choices side by side. And while we'd love to just name an absolute best credit card and be done with it, that's almost impossible to do. All these cards have something going for them, but the question is always whether a particular card offers what you want.

For instance, you might balk at the $175 annual fee (introductory annual fee of $0 for the first year, then $175) on the American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card, but if you spend enough on purchases to offset the annual fee with the card's 2X points per dollar on groceries spent at US supermarkets, 2X points per dollar at US gas stations and 3X points per dollar for flights booked directly with airlines, you may just change your mind. Terms and restrictions apply. Keep in mind this is a charge card, not a credit card and all purchases must be paid back in full each month by the due date on the statement.

Or, if what you want most is a low APR credit card, the next person won't care about that because they don't plan to ever carry a balance.

Still, if you want a quick snapshot of the best rewards credit cards for frequent travelers right now, here's what's out there.

Best signup bonus offer: Give a hand to the Chase Sapphire Preferred, with its 40,000 bonus points, provided you spend $3,000 on your card during the first three months from account opening. Even better, you get 20 percent off travel if you redeem travel through Chase's Ultimate Rewards, and take note for international travel there are no foreign transaction fees.

Best points/miles per dollar: This is a tough one because there are some other excellent airline cards out there, here's one that we'll give a special nod to:

Honorable mentions for best points/miles per dollar: The PenFed Premium Travel Rewards American Express Card offers 5 points per dollar on airfare purchases, 1 point on all other purchases. 

Best APR: No contest. Simmons First Visa Platinum Rewards has a variable purchase and balance transfer APR of only 9.25 percent and no annual fee. The only other card with a purchase APR this low, for those with excellent credit, is Iberiabank Visa Platinum, also with no annual fee.

Best CEO: No, we didn't really check this out. But we had you going for a moment, didn't we?

Best annual fees: Obviously, the card with the best annual fee is no annual fee, and happily, there are several cards that fit that bill, and so this could be quite a list, but here are the top-rated cards in this category:

  • Chase Sapphire Card
  • Iberiabank Visa Platinum
  • PenFed Premium Travel Rewards American Express Card
  • Simmons First Visa Platinum Rewards

Honorable mentions for annual fees: We'll also tip our hat to the following top-rated cards that offer an introductory annual fee of $0 for the first year, then the annual fee starts after the first year:

So those are the main features to look for when you're looking for the right airline credit card to be your travel companion. Just be sure to look at the fine print before you apply. No airline credit card is in the business of making their customers mad, but there's always something in the fine print--like needing to use the card at least once within 18 months--that you as a consumer should be aware of. The airline credit card skies may be friendlier than ever, but they can still be difficult to navigate.