If you’re ready for a change of scenery but have limited travel funds, an airline credit card might be a dream come true. With an airline card, you’ll earn valuable frequent flyer miles you can use to book free airfare and seat upgrades. Some of the best co-branded airline credit cards even offer additional perks that make travel cheaper, such as free checked bags, companion ticket deals, and discounted award bookings.
But with so many airline credit cards out there, choosing one can seem overwhelming. Before you can truly benefit from an airline credit card, you need to learn about these cards and weed out the options that won’t work for you.
To get a handle on your choices, you should consider several factors including your airline preferences, your travel style, and your spending habits. Follow these steps, and you’ll have the ideal airline credit card in no time.
Step 1: Figure out which airlines you can fly
First things first. To pick the right airline credit card, you need to know which frequent flyer miles you can actually use.
To find out which airlines you should consider — and which you should mark off your list — check your local airport’s website. You might discover that nearly every major airline flies into your area, or that only a few do. Finding out which airlines fly out of your home airport is the best way to narrow down your options fast.
Step 2: Ask yourself where you want to go
Now that you know which airlines are at your disposal, you can ask yourself where you want to go. Maybe you have family that you fly to visit frequently, or you have a list of dream vacations that you want to tackle. Knowing where you want to fly in the near- to medium-term is key to narrowing down which airline’s frequent flyer program you’d like to concentrate on.
Larger and more established carriers such as American Airlines and United Airlines fly almost everywhere. Smaller regional carriers often offer limited travel schedules, but they may be the best option for your home airport or for the airports you’d like to fly into.
Searching airline websites for flight availability is the best way to figure out which local airlines offer fares to destinations you desire.
Don’t forget about airline partners. Some airlines are owned by the same parent company, which allows you to use points from one airline program to get award seats on another. In addition, most airlines are part of a larger network, which will also allow you to use points from one airline program for another. (See also: How Airline Partnerships Work and How to Use Them to Get More from Your Rewards Points)
Step 3: Compare credit card rewards earning programs
Once you know which airlines operate nearby and whether or not they fly to your preferred destinations, you can begin comparing airline credit cards in terms of their earnings structures and any bonus points you can earn by signing up for the cards.
Most airlines have several credit cards to choose from. They differ in the amount of rewards and perks each offers, and the more the card offers, the higher the annual fee. If you can take advantage of all those extra benefits, the annual fee will be well worth it. These cards let you earn miles faster, and give you a better travel experience. But if you aren’t a frequent flyer and just want to be able to slowly earn points through your usual spending, you’ll want to stick to their basic, no fee card.
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Compare each card’s earning structure to your regular spending to see which card(s) might leave you better off.
Step 4: Take a closer look at annual fees and perks
Plenty of other perks are worth considering as you narrow down the list. For example, some cards offer free checked bags for cardholders and a certain number of guests on domestic flights. If you plan to fly within the U.S. often, this perk can save you $50 per round-trip ticket, or more, each time you fly. Some airlines don’t charge for checked bags at all. Knowing some of this information ahead of time can help you determine which airline cards offer the best value. Other travel perks credit cards offer discounts on in-flight purchases, priority boarding, free upgrades, and airport lounge access.
Step 5: Choose the airline card that makes the most sense
Tally up the rewards points you’d earn with each card, consider the additional benefits and perks (and the costs), and decide which card will give you the most value. Sometimes it makes sense to pay that higher annual fee, if it’ll get you to your vacation sooner, and you’ll enjoy the extra benefits. But sometimes you can get the card that gives you fewer rewards, at a lower cost, so that you can save that annual fee for something else. (See also: How to Get a Free Vacation in 9 Months With Credit Card Rewards)
Alternative Option: Consider a flexible travel credit card
If you’re still unsure which airline credit card might leave you better off, a flexible travel rewards credit card is worth considering. These credit cards give you more options for redeeming rewards for travel. Some allow you to book travel through any airline or travel site, and you can redeem points as statement credit to pay for it. Others let you transfer your points to a selection of airlines at a favorable ratio. (See also: Airline Credit Card or Flexible Rewards Card: What’s the Best Way to Earn a Free Flight?)
See our guide to choosing the best travel rewards credit card if you are unsure which is the best for you.