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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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
In addition to the introductory 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 from American Express offers 60,000 bonus miles after spending $2,000 in the first 3 months.
Since the Delta card’s annual fee is waived for the first year (Rates & Fees), 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?
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.
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, introductory 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 seven of our favorites — plus a few other card offers that frequent travelers might find more appealing.
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 Aer Lingus AerClub, British Airways Executive Club, Flying Blue AIR FRANCE KLM, Iberia Plus, JetBlue TrueBlue, Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer, Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards®, United MileagePlus®, and Virgin Atlantic Flying Club, as well as IHG Rewards Club, Marriott Bonvoy, and World of Hyatt.
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.
For frequent Delta flyers, this card offers excellent perks, including a free checked bag and priority boarding. Its hearty introductory bonus could also take you (literally) pretty far.
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.
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. You’ll also get a host of additional travel benefits that help this card earn a spot as one of the best for United enthusiasts.
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.
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. But even aside from the Companion Fare, there are plenty of reasons why the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature is a worthy addition to your wallet.
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.
For rates and fees of the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express, please click here.
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