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Frequent or even occasional travelers can use an air miles card to maximize rewards and benefits, which can lead to more free flights. Choose a card based on where your airline loyalty lies to get the most out of every trip.
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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.
Here’s a quick glance at our picks for the best credit cards for air miles.
|General Travel||Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card|
|Airlines and Hotels||Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card|
|Delta Air Lines||Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card|
|American Airlines||Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®|
|United Airlines||United℠ Explorer Card|
|Southwest Airlines||Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card|
|Alaska Airlines||Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Credit Card|
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 airline loyalty among passengers.
Cardholders can earn “miles” with the airline’s rewards program by:
Once you’ve earned miles, you can then use them to book airfare with 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.
Every travel rewards program values its frequent flyer miles/points a little bit differently, and even within a single rewards program, you’ll often get a different per-mile value depending on how you redeem. So there’s no simple answer here.
“Around 1 cent per mile” is a good starting point. Certain rewards programs, like Chase Ultimate Rewards, will give you a cent per point (or more) when you redeem through their respective portals.
But even then, if you transfer your points to a partner loyalty program, you might be able to squeeze more than a penny in value out of each mile. In fact, with many airline rewards programs (including popular picks like Delta SkyMiles, Southwest Rapid Rewards, and United MileagePlus) you may be able to score a value of 1.5–2 cents per mile or more.
Still, everything circles back to one important fact: Your redemption value will often vary depending on how you redeem. Different programs treat miles differently, and everything about a flight — from your preferred class to the route itself — can impact redemption value even further.
There are two basic types of air miles credit cards: co-branded airline cards and general travel cards.
Most major 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 travel 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:
If you want to carry a balance on your credit card, consider getting one with a 0% APR introductory offer.
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 signup bonuses by opening a card and spending a certain amount on it within three or four months. These bonuses can be quote large, often providing hundreds of dollars in value.
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.
Then, in addition to the intro 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 specific airline.
Just to be clear how this works, imagine a card that offers 60,000 bonus miles for spending $2,000 in the first three 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.
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.
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.
This metal card is one of the most popular general travel credit 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.
There’s an upgraded version of the Sapphire Preferred, the Chase Sapphire Reserve® (Review). It has a $550 annual fee but provides a $300 annual travel credit and an application fee credit toward Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, a rewards rate of 10X Ultimate Rewards points per dollar on Lyft rides, 3X points for travel and dining, and comes with a Priority Pass Select membership for airport lounge access. Both cards earn Chase Ultimate Rewards points, which can be transferred to any of Chase’s airline partners.
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 credit card offers excellent perks, including a free checked bag and priority boarding. Its hearty introductory bonus could also take you (literally) pretty far.
Read about other credit cards for flying Delta here.
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® (Review), at $450 per year. It includes Admirals Club membership, a fee credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓, and preferred service at airports.
For United fans, this card offers a generous 2X airline 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 Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card, please click here.
Susan is a freelance writer who specializes in turning complex financial topics into engaging and accessible articles. She's been writing about personal finance for six years, and was previously the senior writer at The Penny Hoarder and a staff writer at Student Loan Hero. Her personal finance writing has also appeared in publications like MarketWatch and Lifehacker.
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