Are in-flight credit card offers worth it?

Understanding the pros and cons of airline credit cards

An illustrated image of a paper airplane made out of a credit card flying through the clouds
For many frequent fliers, a travel rewards credit card can make more sense than an airline credit card
(Image credit: Colin Anderson Productions pty ltd / Getty Images)

If you've flown recently, there's a decent chance you've heard an offer for an airline credit card while you were on the plane. Usually, after the announcement is made over the intercom, you'll see flight attendants start walking up and down the aisle passing out credit card applications. And often, the credit card being offered boasts a special sign-up bonus or other generous rewards — but sometimes you have to act fast or else you'll lose out. That may leave you wondering whether taking advantage of an in-flight credit card offer is a good idea.

Does an airline credit card make sense for you?

Take the time to assess whether an airline card — not just this one, but any airline card — actually makes sense for your spending and travel habits. "You'll get the most value out of an airline card if you travel often enough to earn bonus points on airfare and earn back its annual fee," said The Balance. Other indicators that an airline credit card might be a good fit is if you often spend a lot on baggage fees, you're worried about "comfort and convenience when you travel" and like to be among the first to board the plane, and you're looking to rack up extra airline miles.

However, for many frequent fliers, a travel rewards credit card can make more sense. Whereas airline credit card benefits are reserved for a specific airline, a travel rewards credit card "earns points that can be used for a variety of travel," explained CNBC Select. This can include flights, hotels, and rental cars.

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Is the credit card offer good, and are you eligible?

If you determine that you are in the market for an airline credit card, you won't just want to apply for the first one that comes your way. Rather, it's important to shop around to find the most competitive offer available to you, as well as a credit card that truly suits your needs.

Sometimes in-flight offers can have "higher sign-up or welcome bonuses than you'd get from the public offer," said The Ascent, whether that's "more airline miles, a waived annual fee, or even an extra statement credit." However, it's also true that an in-flight offer "could be the same — or even worse — than what you'd get on the issuer's website."

Ideally, you'd be able to take the application home with you, do your research, and then determine whether or not to move forward with applying. If you can't do that, "the one time" it might make sense to submit a credit card application on a plane is if "you've already researched offers in advance and can tell that this particular one stands out as a good choice for you," Nerdwallet said.

That said, a good offer is just that — a good offer — if you can't actually qualify for it. Consider "reading the terms and conditions carefully to determine whether you're even eligible for the sign-up bonus, because sometimes other restrictions apply," Nerdwallet added.

Also note that you'll usually need "good to excellent credit to qualify," said The Balance. Plus, because airline credit cards tend to have steep annual percentage rates (APRs), you'll want to consider if you're in a situation to pay off your balance in full each month.

Can your credit handle a hard inquiry right now?

When you apply for a new card, the lender will usually review your credit report as part of the process. This will result in a hard inquiry. These stay on your credit report for up to two years, and they do affect your credit score. The impact is "is typically minimal (a few points at most)," according to The Ascent, but "it can get worse the more inquiries you rack up." In other words, if you've applied for another credit card or form of credit recently, you may want to think twice before moving ahead with an application for that in-flight credit card offer.

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It's also worth considering what else is going on in your financial life at the moment. If you're about to apply for a mortgage, for instance, you might not want your score to drop by even a few points. As such, you might hold off on applying for that credit card.

Do you understand the fine print and any applicable fees?

The fine print is important to review to ensure you're actually eligible for whatever sign-up bonus is being offered. But it's also important to take a look through the small text to familiarize yourself with any annual or other fees that a card carries.

"Most airline credit cards charge an annual fee, often ranging from $75 to $95 a year or more," according to The Balance, though some cards might waive that fee for the first year. Cards that offer the most lucrative benefits can have even higher annual fees. Although "paying an annual fee isn't necessarily a bad thing, it's important to remember to stay within your budget and not pay for a new card when you won't be able to maximize all its benefits," CNBC Select explained.

Also be sure to take a look at any other fees, such as foreign transaction fees or late payment fees, as well as what the card's APR is, especially if you may ever need to carry a balance.

Are you calm enough in-flight to make a sound financial decision?

For many people, flying is a stressful experience — meaning you might not be in the right headspace to make a sound financial decision. "Anything where you have a limited period of time to make a decision is putting you at risk," consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow told Nerdwallet, and that anxiety abounds during travel. "There's anxiety about getting your bag, getting off the plane, catching your next flight, and getting to your new destination. Even if you have no fear of flying, you're emotionally distracted," Yarrow told Nerdwallet.

Consider whether the card is something you actually need, or if you're bored and enticed by what seems like a lucrative offer. "Missing out on a few extra miles is a small price to pay for being sure you're not making a financial mistake," said The Ascent.

Becca Stanek has worked as an editor and writer in the personal finance space since 2017. She has previously served as the managing editor for investing and savings content at LendingTree, an editor at SmartAsset and a staff writer for The Week.

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Becca Stanek

Becca Stanek has worked as an editor and writer in the personal finance space since 2017. She previously served as the managing editor for investing and savings content at LendingTree and an editor at SmartAsset. Prior to that, she was a staff writer at The Week. She's freelanced for publications including SoFi, Forbes, LendingTree, Finance of America Mortgage, and Policygenius while she earns her MFA in creative writing from Queens University in Charlotte. She currently lives in Valatie, New York.