Best credit cards for the summer air traveler

Jet taking off with sun and red sky in background

With summer nearly upon us, now is the time to consider getting an airline credit card, as the deals are sky-high for travelers who know how to use credit wisely.

Not only can you rack up the frequent-flier miles, you can also get traveling perks such as free checked bags, priority boarding and entry to airport lounges.

The best new deal may be a jump in the number of miles given for signing up. They’ve increased nearly 20% over last year’s mileage deals.

That's enough miles to take a free flight right away, just in time for summer vacation.

Here are a few of the latest deals:

The Chase British Airways Visa Signature Card (creditcards.chase.com), the first card to introduce the 100,000 points bonus, has brought it back.

You’ll now receive 50,000 bonus points after your first purchase, another 25,000 points after you’ve charged $10,000 within your first year of membership and a final 25,000 points if you spend $20,000 in the first year.

If you spend $30,000 in a year, you’ll also receive a "travel together" ticket good for two years to bring along a companion on your reward flight for free (although you’ll have to pay the taxes).

The annual fee is $95.

Even if you don’t fly British Airways, you can still use your points to redeem awards through its Oneworld alliance partners, which include American Airlines, Qantas, Cathay Pacific and Iberia.

This comes in handy for domestic flights on American, as that airline’s Milesaver awards are around 25,000 miles for short-haul trips, meaning you could possibly get up to four round-trip domestic award flights with your 100,000 miles.

If you travel on American Airlines exclusively, the carrier and Citibank have added extra perks to the Platinum Select AAdvantage Card (creditcards.citi.com).

Cardholders can earn more miles faster with a 10% bonus on up to 10,000 redeemed miles per year. So if you use your AAdvantage miles to book a 50,000-mile round-trip flight, you’ll get 5,000 miles put back into your account later.

As for the airport perks, you and up to four companions on the same flight get priority boarding and your first bag checked free of charge, and 25% off in-flight food and drinks if you use the card to pay.

The annual fee is $95.

Now that the merger of United and Continental Airlines is complete, Chase has introduced a new United MileagePlus Club Card.

The annual fee is a whopping $395. Included is club membership for you and a travel companion to all of the airline’s airport lounges worldwide (AmEx Platinum cardholders no longer get this for free), which is worth $475 in itself.

You also get two free checked bags for you and your companion, and priority check-in, screening and boarding.

You’ll also receive 1.5 United MileagePlus miles for every dollar spent, a 50% bonus above the one-mile-per-dollar ratio on most other airline cards. Other travel extras include "elite" status to Hyatt Hotels’ Gold Passport Platinum Elite program and the Avis President’s Club.

Chase’s Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Plus Card lets new cardholders earn 25,000 bonus points with their first purchase, even if it's a pack of gum. That’s worth more than $400 in "Wanna Get Away" fares.

Bonus rewards points earned can be redeemed at a rate of 60 points for $1 in "Wanna Get Away" fares.

That means a $400 ticket that would normally cost 40,000 points on other airline cards would only require redemption of 24,000 points on Southwest’s card.

The annual fee for this card is $69.

Drawbacks to airline credit cards

Despite the soaring rewards, airline credit cards still have drawbacks, such as high annual fees and high interest rates. They’re best for those with good credit who pay off their card balance every month.

But even with those characteristics, only certain types of travelers will reap the ultimate benefits of this type of card.

If you tend to fly one specific airline, you’ll gain access to the benefits you wouldn’t get otherwise, like the free checked bags and priority boarding, and come out ahead of the annual fee with just one round-trip flight each year.

Also, look at the terms of the deal.

Initial offers might not look so great if the rewards are short term or the deal comes with too-high spending strings, like British Airways’ $30,000 minimum spending limit in a year to gain the 100,000 bonus points.

In terms of redeeming the miles, some airlines make it easier than others for you to do so, and some of those award tickets might be subject to costly fuel surcharges and fees that greatly reduce their values.

And don’t expect to be able to redeem those miles when you want to go on, say, a flight to the Caribbean for the holidays.

Awards bookers, even those with elite card status, still go to the bottom of the list of people booking fares, especially during peak travel times.

If you’re looking for deals on any airline, or you live near a big airport with plenty of airline options, you might be better off with a cash-back or standard travel rewards card.

You can earn rewards to put toward a fare and still shop around for the best airline deal.

Two good travel rewards cards include the CapitalOne Venture, which is offering new cardholders 10,000 bonus miles, worth $100 in free travel.

It also offers two miles for every dollar spent, and the $59 annual fee is waived for the first year.

Like all Capital One cards, there are no foreign transaction fees.

New Chase Sapphire Preferred cardholders get 40,000 bonus points (worth $500 in airfare alone) at sign-up and $500 worth of travel rewards after spending $3,000 in the first three months.

You get a 7% bonus on all points you earn annually, and the $95 annual fee is waived for the first year.

If you're not a big flier, a cash-back credit card is probably your best bet, because the cash rewards are far more flexible to use than points or miles, and you can spend the rewards on any type of trip you take this summer.

And, like airline rewards cards, the initial bonuses on cash-back cards are sky-high compared to years past, so take advantage of them when planning for your next vacation.