Most airline cards come with an annual fee. But they also usually come with signup bonuses worth more than the annual fee — and the difference in earnings between no-fee cards and fee cards is usually enough to justify the fee. (Many airlines offer no fee cards that only earn 1 mile for every 2 dollars for instance). So the cheapest card isn’t always the best — it just depends on how much you use the card and how you value miles versus money.
One no-fee airline card exception is the Lufthansa Visa (which also offers a 6000 mile signup bonus).
Right now, Northwest is offering a 15,000 mile signup bonus and fee waived the first year but this offer expires August 31. Call (800) 360-2900, extension 2677.
Delta offers fee waivers on it’s Amex quite frequently, but the most recent one I know of expired May 15.
On the other hand, hotel programs often offer no-fee cards. Hilton offers both a no-fee Visa and a no-fee Amex. The Visa has a slightly better signup bonus (10,000 points versus 7,500) but doesn’t earn as many points per dollar spent (2 rather than 3).
Personally, I find the best mileage earning card to be the Starwood American Express which is free the first year and $30 thereafter, comes with a nice signup bonus, and offers points which can be used for hotel stays or converted 1:1 into most airline programs (not United though — that’s 2:1).
Another deal worth mentioning is the United Visa with a 20,000 mile signup bonus. The fee is $60. Once you get the card, you can upgrade to the “Gold Class” Visa for another 5000 (and a percentage of an extra $25 depending on how many months until your card renews). You can also get additional fee-free cards on the account and be rewarded with 2500 miles per card.
But as far as what card is best for you — well that depends on what your award goals are. After all, different airlines fly to different places and offer awards at different point levels. Want to go to Hawaii? Delta awards are generally less expensive (but check out Mexicana’s Star Alliance award chart — only 40,000 miles for a first class ticket from anywhere in the U.S.).
Another thing to consider is whether you pay your card off each month. Many of the mileage earning cards have high APRs. (The United Visa is > 14%. The LH Visa is nearly 10%. Gary Steiger’s website lists a no fee card with 0% interest on balance transfers but no miles. Of course if you aren’t going to pay the bill you could make charges on a mileage earning card and then transfer the balances to the 0% card.)
Hope this helps. But if you have any specific questions, please ask away.