The Ultimate Guide to Air Miles Credit Cards (Plus Our 8 Favorites)

Susan Shain

Susan Shain | Blog

Sep 19, 2018

You’ve probably heard about people “traveling on points.” Somehow these friends, bloggers, and Instagrammers bounce around the world — and don’t pay for it?

If you’re wondering how air miles credit cards work — and which ones to choose — you’ve come to the right place.

Want to skip straight to our picks for the best cards? Go right ahead.

How Air Miles Credit Cards Work

Each airline has its own rewards system, often known as a “frequent flyer” program, that’s designed to instill loyalty among passengers.

You can earn “miles” with the airline’s rewards program by:

  • Taking flights
  • Spending money on a co-branded credit card
  • Making purchases with an airline partner, such as a car rental agency or online retailer

Once you’ve earned miles, you can then use them to book flights on that airline. The number of miles required depends greatly on distance, demand, and fare class.

Just to give you a ballpark estimate, however, you might fork over 25,000 miles for a roundtrip domestic economy flight, and 50,000 for a roundtrip economy flight to Europe.

Though you can’t transfer miles between airlines, you can use one airline’s miles to fly with one of its partners. If you earn American Airlines miles, for example, you could use them to fly on British Airways, since the airlines are in the same “alliance.”

You’ll sometimes see “blackout dates” mentioned; these occur when you can’t use miles, and can only buy tickets with cash. They’re most common around holidays.

Are Air Miles Credit Cards Right for You?

There are two basic types of air miles credit cards: co-branded airline cards and general travel cards.

Most airlines partner with credit card issuers to offer co-branded cards to their customers. American Express issues Delta’s cards, for example, and Chase issues Southwest’s. When you use these cards to make purchases with their associated airlines, you’ll earn extra miles on every dollar you spend.

These co-branded credit cards also often offer perks like free checked bags, priority boarding, airport lounge access, and discounts on in-flight purchases.

Other cards aren’t affiliated with a particular airline, and instead earn points from the credit card issuer. Though they don’t have the airline-specific perks of co-branded cards, you can use their travel rewards points on a variety of airlines, rather than just one.

Most travel rewards cards — whether airline-specific or general — come with high annual fees and interest rates (APRs).

That’s why we only recommend rewards credit cards for people who plan to pay off their cards each month. By paying your statement balance in full, you’ll avoid paying any interest on your purchases.

All in all, air miles credit cards might be good if you:

  • Fly frequently: If you find yourself flying one airline several times a year, it’s worth looking into a co-branded card. But if you fly a range of airlines, a general travel rewards or cash back card might be a better fit.
  • Have good credit scores: Rewards cards have stricter requirements than more basic cards. Check your credit scores, and only apply if they’re in the suggested range.
  • Will pay off your balance in full each month: Since travel rewards credit cards often come with high APRs, we strongly advise against carrying a balance on them. Paying interest can quickly negate any rewards you earn.
If you want to carry a balance on your credit card, consider getting one with a 0% APR introductory offer.

How Air Miles Credit Cards Help You Get “Free” Flights

Remember those travel hackers we mentioned? Well, we can pretty much guarantee they’re using credit card signup bonuses to cover their flights and hotels.

You can earn these bonuses by opening a card and spending a certain amount on it within 3 or 4 months.

As noted above, when we say “spend money on a card,” we don’t mean carrying a balance. We mean making purchases on the card, paying them off when your bill comes — and avoiding interest.

In addition to the signup bonus, you’ll earn miles for spending money on the card. Most cards earn at least one mile per dollar (commonly written as 1X mile/dollar) on all purchases, plus extra miles in particular categories — such as 2X miles/dollar when making purchases with that particular airline.

Just to be clear how this works, let’s look at an example. The Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card offers 60,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months.

  1. You apply for the card. A few weeks later, it arrives in the mail, and you activate it on March 1.
  2. The next few months, you put all your purchases — groceries, gas, gifts — on the card, earning 1X mile per dollar. Each month, you pay your bill in full.
  3. By June 1, you’ve put $3,000 in purchases on the card, earning you 60,000 bonus miles. You also earned 1X mile per dollar, for a total of 63,000 miles.
  4. You can now redeem those miles for a “free” Delta flight. When I looked, I found a great deal: a roundtrip from New York to Paris for 36,000 miles, plus $84 in fees.

The Ultimate Guide to Air Miles Credit Cards (Plus Our 8 Favorites)

Since the Delta card’s annual fee is waived for the first year, you just got a $500+ ticket for nothing more than fees. And don’t forget the card’s other perks, like a free checked bag and priority boarding.

When the card’s annual fee rolls around, you can decide to keep it — and pay the fee — or close the account, and pay nothing. Because you earned the miles with an airline (rather than points with a credit card company), you’ll be able to keep them either way, as long as your account remains active.

Now you see how it can be addictive?

How Air Miles Credit Cards Affect Your Credit Scores

Though it might surprise you, the truth is your credit scores won’t suffer too much when you apply for a new airline card (if they’re already in good shape). Applying for new credit dings your credit slightly due to the hard inquiry, but opening new cards can actually decrease your credit utilization (which is a good thing for your credit scores).

However, every time you open a new account you’ll shorten your average age of accounts and reset the time since your most recent account was opened. The only thing that can improve these credit score factors is time, so avoid opening several new cards in a short period if you want to improve your scores. Thankfully, these factors play a relatively small role in your credit scores compared to utilization and payment history.

If you’re considering an airline card, or any new card, make sure you understand credit scores inside and out — and keep careful track of your cards, statement due dates, and renewal dates. If you’re not getting enough value from an annual fee, consider closing the card.

And avoid applying for new credit if you want to get a large loan, such as a mortgage, in the next two years. In that case, every extra point on your credit scores could save you money.

As with any credit card, airline credit card issuers will check your credit before approving or denying your application. If you have poor or limited credit, you likely won’t qualify for a rewards credit card — and should instead focus on building or repairing your credit.

The 8 Best Air Miles Credit Cards

When choosing an air miles credit card, the most important step is determining which airline you fly the most. If your home airport is a hub for a particular airline, that’s a good place to start.

If you don’t fly one airline often, then consider a general travel rewards card.

Or consider getting both: Many people hold an airline card for its perks, plus a travel rewards card for its broad earning potential.

When deciding which card to get, you should analyze its annual fee, signup bonus, perks, and potential to earn rewards. Most airline cards come in several versions, with annual fees that range from low to high.

You should also try to avoid cards with foreign transaction fees, which you’d pay when making purchases in another currency. (Unless otherwise noted, the cards below don’t charge foreign transaction fees.)

When you’re ready to apply for an air miles credit card and start earning rewards, here are eight of our favorites — plus a few other card offers that frequent travelers might find more appealing.

  • Annual fee: $95, $0 first year
  • Signup bonus: 50,000 points after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months
  • Rewards: 2X points per dollar on travel and dining; 1X on everything else
  • Perks: Premium travel and purchase protections, such as car rental and trip delay coverage
  • Purchase APR: 17.74%–24.74% Variable

This metal card is one of the most popular general travel cards — and for good reason.

Instead of being limited to one airline, you can transfer its points at a 1:1 ratio to a variety of frequent flyer programs, including British Airways Executive Club, Korean Air SKYPASS, Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer, Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards®, United MileagePlus®, and Virgin Atlantic Flying Club, as well as Amtrak Guest Rewards®, Hyatt Gold Passport®, Marriott Rewards®, and IHG®Rewards Club.

There’s an upgraded version of the Sapphire Preferred, the Chase Sapphire Reserve (Review). It has a $450 annual fee but provides a $300 travel credit, offers 3X points for travel and dining, and comes with a Priority Pass Select membership for airport lounge access.
  • Annual fee: $95, $0 the first year
  • Signup bonus: 50,000 miles after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months
  • Rewards: 10X miles/dollar at Hotels.com; 2X on everything else
  • Perks: $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓
  • Purchase APR: 13.74%, 19.74% or 23.74% Variable

With the ability to earn 2X miles per dollar on everything, this card is a solid contender. You can redeem your miles through Capital One’s travel booking portal, where you’ll receive $0.01 of travel for every mile.

 

  • Annual fee: $95, $0 the first year
  • Signup bonus: 60,000 miles after spending $3,000 in the first 4 months (offer ends 9/19)
  • Rewards: 2X miles/dollar on Delta purchases; 1X on everything else
  • Perks: Free first checked bags, priority boarding, 20% discount on in-flight purchases, $29 access to Sky Club lounges
  • Purchase APR: 17.49–26.49% Variable

For frequent Delta flyers, this card offers excellent perks, including a free checked bag and priority boarding. Its hearty signup bonus could also take you (literally) pretty far.

 

  • Annual fee: $99, waived the first year
  • Signup bonus: 50,000 miles after spending $2,500 in the first 4 months
  • Rewards: 2X miles/dollar at American Airlines, gas stations, and restaurants; 1X on everything else
  • Perks: Free first checked bags, priority boarding, 25% discount on in-flight purchases, reduced mileage awards, $100 American Airlines flight credit when you spend $20,000 in a calendar year
  • Purchase APR: 17.74–25.74% Variable

If you live near an American Airlines hub, this card is certainly worth a look. Unlike many other airline credit cards, it offers bonus miles on gas stations and restaurants, plus a slew of AA perks.

The premier card for flying AA is the Citi®/AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®, at $450 per year. It includes Admirals Club membership, a fee credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓, and preferred service at airports.

 

  • Annual fee: $95, $0 the first year
  • Signup bonus: 40,000 miles after spending $2,000 in the first 3 months, plus 5,000 for making a purchase and adding an authorized user during that period
  • Rewards: 2X miles/dollar at United, hotels, and restaurants; 1X on everything else
  • Perks: Free first checked bags, priority boarding, 25% discount on in-flight purchases, two United Club passes per year, $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓
  • Purchase APR: 17.74%–24.74% Variable

For United fans, this card offers a generous 2X miles per dollar at hotels booked directly through hotel websites (not through Expedia or Booking, for example), as well as at restaurants. On long layovers, the two annual United Club passes also come in handy.

Always flying United? Check out the upgraded United MileagePlus® Club Card (Review). For $450 per year, it offers a full United Club membership, with free first and second checked bags.

 

  • Annual fee: $149
  • Signup bonus: 40,000 miles after spending $1,000 in the first 3 months
  • Rewards: 2X points/dollar on Southwest and hotel and car rental partners; 1X on everything else
  • Perks: $75 Southwest credit, 7,500 bonus points, and four upgraded boarding passes annually; 20% discount on in-flight purchases; 1,500 tier qualifying points (TQPs) for each $10,000 in purchases (up to $100,000)
  • Purchase APR: 17.74%–24.74% Variable

Southwest is one of the country’s most beloved airlines, and with this card, you’ll get even more out of your ticket purchases. Note that because basic luggage is already free for all Southwest customers, this card doesn’t advertise free checked bags.

Read about other Southwest credit cards here.

 

  • Annual fee: $75
  • Signup bonus: Spend $1,000 in the first 3 months to earn 30,000 bonus miles and a Companion Fare
  • Rewards: 3X miles/dollar on Alaska Air purchases; 5X miles at select restaurants; 1X on everything else
  • Perks: Annual Companion Fare and free first checked bags
  • Purchase APR: 16.74-24.74% Variable

If you live on the west coast, you’ve probably flown — and loved — Alaska Airlines. It’s most famous for its annual Companion Fare, which lets you take a friend for free on a roundtrip economy ticket. All you pay is the taxes and fees (up to $121 for the annual Fare), which, if used strategically, more than wipes out the card’s annual fee.

 

  • Annual fee: $25
  • Signup bonus: 3,500 miles after your first card use
  • Rewards: 2X miles/dollar at grocery stores and gas stations; 1X on everything else (including Aeromexico tickets)
  • Perks: Companion fare for travel to Mexico (worth $99), free first checked bags
  • Purchase APR: 24.74% Variable
  • Foreign transaction fee: 3%

If you want to get a rewards card without a solid credit history, this secured card is a stellar option for Aeromexico flyers. It offers excellent rewards and benefits for a secured card, including a free companion ticket to Mexico every year. Even better, after building your credit with this card, you’ll be able to apply for an unsecured card.

Looking for an unsecured card for flying Aeromexico? Check out the Aeromexico Visa Signature® Card, which offers 2X miles at Aeromexico, one free upgrade per year, and a deal to buy three tickets and get the fourth for free.

Enjoy the Journey

Once you start traveling, you’ll probably never want to stop — and air miles credit cards can help you get there. But due to the addictive nature of the miles and points game, you should only dive in if you’ll use your cards responsibly. Treat your credit cards well, and they’ll reward you with plenty of exciting experiences and “free” travel opportunities.

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