If you're a frequent flyer, get a card that rewards you for spending on flights! Airline credit cards offer generous rewards and perks like free checked bags or airport lounge access with specific airlines. We analyzed 148 airline credit cards to find you the best recommendations - these are the 10 best airline credit card offers from our partners that will have you racking up miles in no time. If you're looking for general travel rewards, check out our travel credit cards.
See the best airline credit card offers from our partners below. If you're looking for general travel rewards, check out our travel credit cards.
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Updated: May 23, 2018
Choosing a credit card can be difficult, and choosing the “right” one for your needs can be even more of a challenge. If you fly often, you’ll want to make sure the card you select helps you maximize your opportunity to earn airline status as you spend money on flights.
We’ve compiled a list of the best airline credit cards for your needs, and this guide will walk you through how to select the right one for your needs.
So, whatever your travel goals, we’ll help you decide if an airline card works best for you.
After analyzing over 140 airline credit card offers, we've hand selected these 10 best credit cards for airline travel. The Gold Delta SkyMiles card from American Express and the British Airways Visa Signature card top our list because of their generous sign-up bonuses and valuable transfer partners.
Airline credit cards analyzed: 148
Criteria used: Rewards rates, rewards categories, airline alliance partners, other transfer partners, sign-up bonus, point values, redemption options, redemption flexibility, elite status, annual fee, travel credits, airport lounge access, miscellaneous travel benefits, rates and fees, customer service, credit needed, upgrade and downgrade options
Best for: Flexible travel rewards
Although it is not a pure co-branded "airline" card per se, the Chase Sapphire Preferred offers so much value in travel rewards that we felt compelled to include it here. The CSP offers a very competitive rewards rate of 2X on all types of travel – airfare, hotels, and even taxis.
Additionally, you'll have access to the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal where you can redeem points for 1.25x their nominal value. For example, the 50,000 sign-up bonus points would equate to $625 when redeemed using the portal. In many ways, the fact that the CSP is not tied to one specific airline is a point in its favor – it means you can take advantage of its flexible redemption options at any airline you want.
With a meaty sign-up bonus, solid reward rate of 2x points per dollar on travel and dining, and flexibility in redemption through the Ultimate Rewards portal, the Chase Sapphire Preferred has established itself as one of the best credit card options not only for airline ticket purchases but all things travel. Don't forget that the $95 annual fee is also waived for your first year.
Bottom Line: An all-arounder with the best value in travel rewards
Best for: Large sign-up bonus
If you often fly American Airlines, the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard is your best friend. This card offers one free checked bag not just for you, but for up to four companions on your reservation – even if you pay for the tickets with a different credit card. You’ll also receive preferred boarding privileges, and 25 percent back on any in-flight food and beverage purchases. This card also doesn’t charge any foreign transaction fees on purchases, which means you can continue spending with the World Elite Mastercard at any destination your travels take you.
But the best benefit of this card is the 10 percent redemption rebate program: Every time you book an award flight using your American Airlines miles, the airline will give you back 10 percent of the miles you spent, up to 10,000 miles per calendar year. Citi waives its annual fee for first-year card holders, and the $99 annual fee is easily offset by the value of this mileage rebate.
Bottom Line: sample text
Best for: Easy sign-up bonus
Delta owns three of the cards on our “best-of” list, and the first one we’ll review is the Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express.
One of the best perks of having a Delta co-branded card is to waive the Medallion Qualification Dollar (MQD) requirement for Delta elite status. This means that you don’t have to spend a certain amount on Delta flights to reach the next tiers of elite status.
The Gold Delta SkyMiles credit card will net you 2 miles per eligible dollar on all airfare bought directly from the airline. In addition, this card gives you bonus spending categories, in which you will earn 1 mile for every eligible dollar spent on other purchases. If you plan to do a lot of everyday spending with this card, this is your best bet for a card within the Delta family. The $195 annual fee is waived the first year.
Bottom Line: The top option for Delta flyers
Best for: Low cost
Travelers concerned about remaining loyal to a single airline often worry that there will be too few opportunities to book award flights. Southwest Airlines puts that issue to rest by offering one of the most flexible point-redemption options in the industry.
Southwest uses a revenue-based, fixed-value redemption system in which the number of points you need to redeem for your ticket is proportional to the cash value of that ticket. You’ll also be able to choose between using cash or using points for every ticket you book with the airline.
The Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus airline card allows you to earn 2 points per dollar spent with Southwest, and 1 point per dollar on any other purchase. You also receive 3,000 bonus points after your card member anniversary each year, which offsets the $69 annual fee. In addition, the points you earn from spending on this card count toward earning the Southwest Companion Pass, which is easily one of the most valuable benefits available from any airline.
Do keep in mind that the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus charges a 3 percent transaction fee on all foreign purchases, so this is not the best card to use overseas. Also, Southwest does not partner with any other carriers, so your Rapid Rewards points will only be redeemable through this airline.
Bottom Line: Easily worth its relatively small annual fee
Best for: Annual bonus
As with the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus card, this Southwest Airlines card opens up your mileage options with one of the most flexible point-redemption options in the industry.
The Rapid Rewards Premier card has a generous initial bonus, currently 40,000 points, plus 3,000 bonus points after that each year on the anniversary of opening the card. The initial 40,000-point bonus becomes yours after you spend $1,000 on the card in the first three months after opening the account.
The Premier card earns 2 points for every dollar spent with Southwest, and 1 point on all other purchases. It carries a $99 annual fee, applied to your first billing statement.
Southwest flies to 14 cities in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, so if you find yourself in need of a fresh pair of flip-flops in Aruba, you can safely pull out the Premier card: It carries no foreign transaction fee.
Bottom Line: On par with the Rapid Rewards Plus
Best for: Sign-up bonus
United Airlines offers many significant perks for loyal cardholders. First, United is a member of the Star Alliance, which offers a variety of redemption opportunities with the airline’s international partner carriers. In addition, cardholders can access “hidden” additional award space on United flights, which expands your options for redeeming those hard-earned miles.
The card also allows you to check one bag for free on every flight booked with your MileagePlus Explorer card – a $75 value. You’ll also hold priority boarding privileges, and receive two United Club passes each year on your sign-up anniversary date. The MileagePlus Explorer card doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees, so this is a card you can use fee-free anywhere in the world. At a low annual fee of $95, this card is a no-brainer if you regularly fly United Airlines, particularly to Asia or Europe.
Bottom Line: Sign-up bonus has relatively high required spend, but points carry very high value for business class redemptions
Best for: No annual fee
The Blue Delta SkyMiles credit card is the baby of the Delta SkyMiles credit card family. This no-fee Delta card earns you points on all types of spending, not just on flights: While every dollar you spend on Delta flights will earn you two miles, you will also earn 2 miles per dollar at US restaurants, unlike most co-branded airline cards which only offer bonus miles for spending with that airline.
You’ll earn 1 mile per dollar on every other eligible purchase, and there is no annual fee on this credit card so it’s a great option to keep in your wallet long-term. The Blue Delta SkyMiles card also gets you 20 percent off eligible in-flight Delta purchases such as food and drink, awarded as a statement credit.
This card is a great beginner option for travelers who are relatively new to the points and miles game, since it waives an annual fee and offers relatively few perks that might otherwise be confusing – no free checked bags and no priority boarding. But earning two miles on the dollar at U.S. restaurants is a great perk, especially for a no-fee card, and you earn the same number of Delta miles with this card as you would with any other Delta card in the family lineup.
Bottom Line: A light version of the Gold Skymiles card, with lower rewards but no annual fee
Best for: Transfer program
Alaska Airlines offers a vast range of partner airlines as well as a very reasonable awards redemption chart, making this airline and its co-branded credit card a great investment. Alaska Airlines merged with Virgin America in early 2018, meaning that you can now use Alaska Airlines miles to book Virgin America flights. You could redeem 25,000 Alaska Airlines miles to book yourself a first-class flight on Virgin America with excellent award flight availability!
Even if you fly on Alaska Airlines only once or twice a year, this $75-annual-fee card will more than pay for itself if you ever need to check bags. The card offers one free checked bag for you and up to six companions on your travel reservation – an immediate savings if for family travel. In addition, Alaska’s highly valuable annual $99 Companion Fare allows you to book a buddy or family member for just $99 + taxes and fees once every calendar year. There are no blackout dates for the Companion Fare, and you can use it for one-way, round-trip, open jaw or multistop itineraries.
Again, this is another card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees, making Alaska one of the most cost-appealing cards with high rewards benefits for you to consider.
Bottom Line: Very flexible card with one of America's best airlines
Best for: Business travelers
We’ve established that not all airline co-branded credit cards do equal work for you in your wallet. The Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard stands out for American Airlines frequent flyers, while also offering nonloyalists an opportunity to break into the OneWorld airline alliance and diversify the miles in their award portfolio.
Even if you don’t regularly fly American Airlines, having access to this carrier’s award miles gives you access to fly with American’s partner airlines. The most valuable way to redeem AAdvantage miles is by booking with one of its premium-cabin partners, such as business or first class on Cathay Pacific, Etihad, Finnair, Iberia and other carriers rated highly for international, long-haul service.
The card carries a hefty annual fee of $450, which is offset by an Admirals Lounge membership, which gives you access to more than 50 premium lounge locations worldwide for you and your authorized users, even when you aren't with them. This is another airline card that charges no foreign transaction fees. You’ll earn 2 AAdvantage miles for every dollar spent on eligible American Airlines purchases, and 1 AAdvantage mile per dollar on all other spending, with no cap on how many miles you can earn in a year.
Additional benefits of this card include priority boarding privileges and one free checked bag for you and up to eight companions traveling on your same reservation, and 25 percent back on any in-flight food and beverage purchases. And you’ll also be eligible for the 10 percent redemption rebate program, just as with the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite MasterCard. Every time you book an award flight using your American Airlines miles, the airline will give you back 10 percent of the miles you spent, up to 10,000 miles per calendar year.
Bottom Line: On the expensive end but can be worthwhile if you fly frequently for work
Best for: Avios bonus
The British Airways Visa Signature Card is fantastic for avid travelers, and its varied and generous benefits perfectly mitigate the relatively high annual fee.
You might not like the $95 annual fee, but if you love saving money on travel, the British Airways Visa Signature Card from Chase is worth the price of admission. The annual fee is a small investment, considering what you get out of this product. Such perks include an excellent sign-up bonus and great earnings scheme.
Plus, you get one of the best frequent flyer programs in the world, with a global reach that goes beyond flying on one airline. No matter where you go in the world, Avios – the British Airways Executive Club currency – will help you get airborne even if British Airways doesn’t fly there. Not everything about the British Airways Visa Signature Card – and the airline itself – is peachy, but savvy globetrotters know how to thrive on the “good” and steer clear of the “bad.”
You can use Avios on other airlines around the world, including American Airlines in the U.S. and Canada, Alaska Airlines to fly to Hawaii, LAN Airlines in Latin America; British Airways or Aer Lingus in Europe, Cathay Pacific in Southeast Asia, Japan Airlines in Japan, and Qantas Airways in Australia. If you don’t mind doing some research, you can learn how to redeem Avios wisely. This helps you maximize the benefits and minimize the cost. Redemption begins with just 4,500 Avios, or 7,500 Avios for flights originating or terminating in the U.S.
The British Airways Visa Signature Card earning scheme is above average as well. You earn three points per dollar on British Airways purchases and one point per dollar on everything else. If you frequently buy tickets on British Airways, you will rack up a substantial number of Avios in no time.
Bottom Line: The obvious choice for those who prefer British Airways
Lisa Gerstner, contributing editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance
Favorite airline card: Alaska Airlines Visa Signature card
“With an annual fee of $75, the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature card folds in a host of enticing benefits for flyers at a lower price than similar cards from other airlines, which often charge about $95.”
Johnny Jet, travel expert
Favorite airline card: Alaska Airlines Visa Signature card
“They give you a [discounted] companion ticket each year with no blackout dates. Also, Alaska’s miles are worth more than American’s.”
Holly Johnson, personal finance expert
Favorite airline card: Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard
“While all three cards on the list are strong options for someone trying to rack up airline miles, the Citi AAdvantage card pulls out ahead in terms of value.”
Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com
Favorite airline card: Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard
“It's got a strong sign-up bonus, gives you a free checked bag for you and four of your travel companions and also gives you preferred boarding on American flights. That all adds up to a pretty good deal.”
Daniel Ray, Editor-in-Chief at CreditCards.com
Favorite airline card: British Airways Visa Signature card
“There can be a high learning curve with this card. You need to learn its network of partners and how to reduce or avoid the dreaded ‘carrier surcharges,’ but once you do, you’ll be able to sort the program’s money-saving features from its pricey ones.”
First, let’s briefly discuss frequent flyer programs offered by airlines, because the whole point of an airline co-branded credit card is to accelerate your mileage accrual with your carrier of choice. Frequent flyer loyalty programs are very straightforward: they allow airlines to incentivize travelers like you to keep your business with that airline by offering you credit for every mile you fly with that airline. Once you accumulate enough miles, you can then redeem them for free travel with that airline in the future.
The concept is simple enough, but every airline differs in its program management, accrual schedule, and redemption availability for award flights. For instance, just because you fly 1,504 miles from San Francisco to Austin doesn’t mean that you have now earned enough miles for another trip; rather, the 1,500-odd miles you just flew have earned you a mere fraction of what you’ll need to book an award flight.
Credit cards offered directly through an airline give you the chance to multiply your mileage earnings: The same flight between Austin and San Francisco might now earn you three times as many miles. Let’s say you paid $200 for that one-way flight using a co-branded credit card from the airline operating your flight. You could earn the 1,504 miles from the actual distance traveled, as well as an additional 2 miles per dollar spent on the card, for a total earning of 1,904 miles. Not too bad for an expense you had to incur anyway!
In addition, most airline credit cards offer generous rewards and perks such free checked bags, or airport lounge access, as well as accelerated progress toward elite status. Furthermore, many cards offer a sizable sign-up bonus of mileage points when you first open your account, which usually can get you far toward an international round-trip ticket or a couple of domestic round-trip flights.
A good airline card should combine a high value rewards program with enough exclusive perks to make it worth your loyalty. When comparing airline cards, keep an eye on the fine print for restrictive redemption policies, stingy rewards, or miles with a low redemption value.
Many airline cards offer free checked bags, priority boarding and free or sharply discounted companion tickets that reward card-carrying travelers for their loyalty to the carrier. Some even offer additional bonuses for your everyday spending, making it easier to rack up miles when you aren’t traveling.
To get the most value from an airline card, you typically need to fly often with your airline of choice to earn enough miles to recoup the card’s annual fee.
To summarize, an airline credit card will be a great fit for you if:
If you’re wondering how a card like the United MileagePlus Club card compares against or differs from the Chase Sapphire Reserve or the American Express Platinum, you’ve come to the right place for clarification.
There are three general-use travel programs offered by major credit card companies that offer travelers a wide range of flexibility in redemption options:
Chase Ultimate Rewards
American Express Membership Rewards
Citi ThankYou Rewards
These programs are owned directly by the credit card company issuing the cards, and the points earned within these programs allow you to transfer points directly into any and all of their airline frequent flyer or hotel member programs, usually at a 1:1 ratio. Therefore, general-use travel credit cards are fantastic for infrequent travelers, and other travelers for whom the ability to transfer points into whichever airline is offering the best redemption opportunity is of serious appeal.
Airline credit cards differ in their focus on loyalty to a single brand. With the United MileagePlus Club card, for example, you earn a certain amount on every dollar you spend, but you earn bonus miles for every dollar spent on United or United-related purchases.
When choosing between an airline co-branded card and general-purpose travel credit cards, keep in mind that airline cards will be most beneficial for travelers who fly often with a single airline, and have built up brand loyalty. Here are some of the other differences, listed in one handy chart:
|Airline co-branded cards||General-purpose travel cards|
|Build credit||Build credit|
|Typically an annual fee||Sometimes no annual fee|
|Generous rewards for brand loyalty||Rewards for most spending|
|Partnerships with other brands||Fly any airline|
|Sign-up bonus, ongoing rewards||Sign-up bonus, ongoing rewards|
|Often free first checked bag||No blackout dates|
|No foreign transaction fee||No foreign transaction fee|
To further break down these differences, an airline card may look like more cost upfront, because you typically have to pay an annual fee. However, the benefits are significant as long as you continue to travel with that airline, because the perks add up: a free checked bag can save you up to $75-100 on each flight you book, while soft rewards long-term often include accelerators for racking up miles and status, as well as elite access to airline lounges and similar VIP treatment.
The miles you earn through an airline’s co-branded card are awarded by the airline to incentivize you to redeem them for future flights with that carrier. In comparison, generic points or miles earned through a general travel rewards credit card are more of a cash-back substitute than a loyalty reward.
Generic travel reward benefits are often called "miles," but they're really more like cash-equivalent points that you can spend on flights, as well as hotels and car rentals.
The Capital One Venture card is a well-known example of this type of general travel-focused credit card, because it is not tied to a specific airline carrier. The popular “two miles per dollar spent” slogan simply means you earn two points per dollar which can be transferred to a variety of partners.
If you rarely fly, and buying the cheapest flight is your typical priority, a general travel credit card may be a better fit for you. As a rule of thumb, the cheaper the flight, the more bang you'll get for your generic miles -- the exact opposite of using frequent flyer miles.
The process for purchasing flights, or hotel stays or car rentals, with generic miles is as simple as charging something online using a credit card. You purchase your flight through your credit card portal online, using your stash of banked points or miles to defray the total cost.
If, on the other hand, you fly often and are interested in building brand loyalty and elite status with an airline carrier such as United, Delta or American Airlines, your best bet is to opt for a credit card with one of these airlines. Many of the major carriers are part of airline alliances that allow you to carry over the same status you enjoy with your primary airline, so that even when you fly on partner airlines, you will enjoy the same perks and rewards for your paid travel that you have with your airline of choice.
A lot of people consider airline miles to be comparable to cash. However, airline miles are a little bit more like currency from different countries: Many places will not allow you to pay with money from another country, even if it’s a place with similar currency and value such as between the United States and Canada.
Similarly, you can’t transfer points between frequent flyer programs in most cases, even if the airlines are partners. Partnerships such as OneWorld, Star Alliance, and SkyTeam typically allow you to earn miles when you fly on one airline, and redeem those miles you earn for flights on a carrier within the same network. However, most of those airlines won’t allow you to transfer miles directly from one carrier to another, because there is no financial benefit to them for doing so.
But there are some exceptions to the rule. British Airways and Iberia are a classic example. The two airlines share the Avios frequent flyer program. So while your points in each program remain separate and distinct, you can transfer them freely between the two so long as both accounts are at least three months old. Again coming back to the analogy of currency, this is akin to having two bank accounts within the same country. It doesn’t matter where your money sits, so long as no cross-conversion is required.
Just because you can’t transfer points back and forth, however, doesn’t mean that you are stuck with a single carrier for life. Most airlines within the major alliances will allow you to use your mileage stash with that brand to book award flights on partner airlines.
For example, an American Airlines frequent flyer can use AAdvantage miles to book a flight on British Airways, and the cost of that ticket will be based on the American Airlines mileage award chart. So even though that traveler will physically fly on a British Airways flight, the passenger is subject to all of American’s ticketing rules; responsible for paying any change or redeposit fees to American; and must contact American – not British Airways – with any problems or issues that may arise before departure.
You might be wondering, “Why would anyone bother to do that?” There are a number of reasons that make sense: The most obvious one has to do with differing value.
British Airways is notorious for charging an incredibly high number of points for redeeming seats in first and business class. A first-class seat on Cathay Pacific between Boston and Hong Kong, for example, will cost an astronomic 200,000 Avios. In comparison, partner carrier American Airlines requires just 67,500 AAdvantage miles for that exact same flight.
On the other hand, an American Airlines economy flight from Chicago to Washington, D.C. will cost 12,500 AAdvantage miles each way, while that same flight costs only 4,500 Avios. So you might begin to see some of the considerations award travelers must keep in mind when deciding which airline to fly with, as well as which points or miles to use.
U.S. News surveyed 1,255 airline credit card holders regarding how they use their airline credit cards and rewards program. The survey found that most cardholders use their earned rewards to take free flights, and a lot of people utilize loyalty perks such as free checked bags and priority boarding. Over 50 percent of cardholders earned more than $200 in rewards within the last 12 months of the date the survey was conducted. And around one-fifth, or 20 percent, of airline credit card holders carry a balance month to month, earning less in airline loyalty rewards than they pay in annual credit card fees.
This section contains a list of important criteria that you should to evaluate when choosing an airline card, as well as a list of tips for maximizing your rewards:
If you don’t mind sticking with the same airline for all or most of your travel, or if you already have status and loyalty toward a particular carrier, signing up for that airline’s credit card will allow you to cash in on your loyalty, and earn special perks for repeat travels. Some of these perks can be work a good deal more cash than just, say, casual food and drinks here or there: Airport lounge access can be worth upward of $50 per day, for instance, and free checked bags can make the savings add up very rapidly.
It’s also helpful to remember that the airline that will bring you the most value offers nonstop and/or connecting flights to the destinations you most frequently visit - in other words, if you live in Houston, you’ll most likely want to consider United because George Bush International Airport is one of United’s hub airports. If you live in Atlanta, it makes a lot of sense to make Atlanta-based Delta your carrier of choice.
Airline credit cards incentivize brand loyalty by offering you higher rewards for spending with them or their business partners. Knowing your spending habits will help you determine which card offers the best earning potential based on where you spend the most money. If you plan to sign up for a single credit card and put the bulk of your expenditures on this card, an airline-specific travel card may not give you the best return on your investment – you might want to sign up for a generic travel credit card instead.
The biggest boost to your mileage stash often happens right in the beginning, when you first sign up for the credit card. Card issuers now offer generous sign-up bonuses that can be worth several hundred or even more than a thousand dollars in travel value – but only after you meet certain spending requirements: usually several thousand dollars over three months. The rules are pretty strict around the requirements, so plan ahead to make sure you don’t accidentally mess up.
Check our rewards chart to see what our top recommended credit cards currently offer by way of sign-up bonuses.
Airline credit cards may offer an equivalent cash value of from 1 to 5 cents per mile you earn, but it's difficult to consistently quantify the value because award flights and availability are dynamic - always changing based on demand, flight prices, routes and other factors.
Some airlines like Southwest do not publish a fixed award chart; instead, the cost of an award flight fluctuates to match the cash sticker price of the paid fare equivalent. On the other hand, airlines like American and United have fixed-rate award charts that make it easier to understand how far your miles will get you.
Are you getting $95, $195, or $450 worth out of your airline credit card each year? Calculate the potential earnings against your annual fee. For example, although $195 a year for may sound astronomical to pay for the privilege of holding a credit card, the benefits of premium lounge access and the savings in checked bag fees may easily offset that $195 fee.
In the interest of staying competitive, airline credit cards may offer additional perks that aren’t directly correlated to plane tickets. These may include:
Airline credit card perks that are on the premium side may include:
It’s important to understand that every person will realize a different value from their airline redemptions, because their individual needs differ. For instance, checked bags and flight cancellation flexibility is very important for families with young children, but may not matter at all to a single young professional who travels frequently both for work as well as for leisure.
At the end of the day, the most data-driven way of valuation is to look at the fair market price tag of the ticket, when converted to points. Many airlines offer the opportunity to purchase additional miles at a promotional rate, and our partner website ThePointsGuy.com offers a monthly valuation to help guide your calculations.
As a general rule, The Points Guy suggests that you should make sure you’re earning the equivalent of 1 cent or more per mile in value from your airline miles. You can calculate this by combining of how much you would have to pay to buy the points if given the opportunity, and the overall value you would get from redeeming them in lieu of cash fare.
The value math is pretty straightforward, according to Tim Winship, editor-at-large for SmarterTravel.com and founder of FrequentFlier.com.
“Miles earned in an airline program and redeemed for flights are generally worth between 1.5 and 2 cents apiece,” he explained. “However, when those miles are redeemed for consumer goods or hotel stays, they're typically worth far less than a penny apiece.”
Our own CreditCards.com research found in most cases, airline credit card rewards are worth twice – if not three times – as much when put toward flights or other travel redemption options. Our guide here will assist you in evaluating the value of individual airline miles or points
Travel writer Jenny McIver Brocious and her husband recently bought flights to the Caribbean for February and were able to cut flight costs significantly by redeeming miles.
“The best fare on Delta was $750, but a mileage ticket was only 35,000 miles. That one is a no-brainer,” she said. “Assuming a $100 value per 10,000 miles, we got those flights to the Caribbean for less than half the normal price using our miles.”
Meanwhile, “A $250 Delta gift card goes for 35,700 miles, while a $250 Tiffany & Co. gift card goes for a whopping 52,000 miles,” she added. “In both cases, you’d get a much greater value for the miles by redeeming them for flights.”
Also, don’t forget that you must spend money in order to earn miles. Most major airline credit card programs give cardholders 2 points or miles for each dollar spent on airline-branded purchases and related travel expenses, but then only 1 mile or point per dollar spent everywhere else.
For example, if you’re a Frontier Airlines World Mastercard holder and only use your card for Frontier travel purchases, you’ll have to spend $17,599 to earn enough miles for a $100 Target gift card. If you use that card for non-Frontier travel purchases, a $100 Target gift card could cost you upward of $30,000. Suddenly that “free” gift card isn’t so free after all.
However, there may be some circumstances in which redeeming travel rewards for nontravel purchases makes sense. Maybe you can’t spend enough money to achieve the travel award you want before your points expire, or maybe you just aren’t a frequent traveler anymore. Utilizing your miles and point redemption options for other types of purchases allows you to take advantage of the rewards you earned.
“While travel is aspirational, you also have to be realistic about your lifestyle,” Papadatos said. If you’re routinely seeking nontravel reward redemption options from an airline credit card, it might be time to apply for a new rewards credit card that better fits your spending habits, such as a general cash back credit card.
“If you travel for business, airline programs probably make sense, especially if you fly or spend enough to reach the highest status tiers where you truly get recognized,” Papadatos said.
Airline miles are also known as frequent flyer miles or travel points, and are offered as an incentive from airlines to keep you loyal to their brand.
In this section, we’ll show you how you can redeem your miles. While it is possible to redeem your miles for gift cards, we very rarely suggest doing so as this is one of the least valuable redemptions out there. Instead, since you’ve focused on building up brand loyalty to a single airline and its partners, it’s best to stick with redeeming your miles for travel purchases through that brand.
Once you have your frequent flyer account set up, your airline co-branded credit card in hand, and some miles in your stash, it’s time to book your next vacation for free!
Redeeming your miles for flights is usually quite straightforward. On your airline website’s reservations page, there usually will be an option for you to select “book awards flights” or “use miles.” For instance, on the United.com website, the page looks like this, with a little checkbox to search for award travel below the ticket quantity field:
The Delta.com website offers a toggle with options for paying by “money” or “miles” right above the “find flights” button:
The American Airlines website offers the option of “redeeming miles” in the top right corner of the booking form:
Finally, Southwest also offers the option to select between booking with dollars or booking with points, directly at the top right of the reservations widget:
There may be other considerations as you book. Airlines typically only offer a certain number of award seats per flight, so your itinerary options will be more limited than if you were paying cash for your ticket. Furthermore, blackout dates may apply during peak travel times such as holidays or summer break, so you will want to check early and often for available flights as soon as you know the dates you want to travel.
The number of miles you will need for a free flight will vary based on the airline, as well as your origin and destination airports. Miles are not equal – the value depends on the airline, the trip, the date and the type of seat.
You can also do your own check to see how many miles you need from the airline’s website: Just look under the reservations page, and search for the section that mentions award flights. Most will offer a chart showing the regions to which they travel – usually broken down by continents – as well as a schedule showing how many miles it takes to get from one region to another.
For instance, the lowest one-way domestic fares on American Airlines will cost you 12,500 AAdvantage miles within the continental U.S., although the same flight will only cost you 4,500 Avios when booked through OneWorld partner carrier British Airways.
While you want to make sure your credit card miles are worth at least one cent per mile, credit card miles can actually be worth five cents or more apiece. Frequent flyer miles are worth more per mile when redeemed for long-haul flights, or for business or first-class seats.
The answer to this question will vary based on each individual airline’s redemption and valuations.
To get the most value of your hard-earned airline rewards, it’s usually best to use miles and points for what they were designed for: travel.
“Each airline or credit card provider will determine what the value proposition or benefits are for their own card, but flight rewards can indeed be advantageous in an airline credit card partnership since the airline is in control of its own costs and the credit card it is subsidizing,” said Caroline Papadatos, senior vice president of global solutions for LoyaltyOne.
Here are a few examples of what your miles are worth with some popular airlines and their co-branded credit card sign-up bonuses.
While Delta offers a variety of redemption options for your SkyMiles – including merchandise and gift cards – your best option, by far, is redeeming SkyMiles for airfare on Delta or with one of Delta’s 19 SkyTeam alliance partners. The number of required miles is closely linked to the cost of the fare, and you will find a good value with most flights and fare levels. We value SkyMiles at 1.35 cents per miles on average, so 70,000 miles can get you around $945 worth of airfare on Delta.
|Redemption Option||Average Mile Value||Value of 30,000-Mile Intro Bonus|
|Flight upgrades||2.2 cents||$660|
|Delta Sky Club membership||1.1 cents||$330|
|Car rentals||0.6 cents||$180|
|Gift cards||0.3-0.5 cents||$90-$150|
|Charity donation||1.35 cents||$405|
You can go a long way with 40,000 miles on United. Not only can you use them to travel all around the world on United flights, but you can use them for flights on one of United’s Star Alliance partners (28 partners in total) for a good value. MileagePlus miles are very valuable – worth 1.52 cents per mile by our estimates – but the value can vary depending on how you use them.
As you can see from our redemption chart below, you have many redemption options beside airfare, but most other options have a very poor value:
|Redemption Option||Average Mile Value||Value of 40,000-Mile Sign-up Bonus|
|Saver airfare – economy||2.3 cents||$920|
|Saver airfare – business/first class||3.5 cents||$1,400|
|Everyday airfare – economy||1 cent||$400|
|Everyday airfare – business/first class||1.2 cents||$480|
|Car rentals||0.9 cents||$360|
|Magazine subscription||2.2 cents||$880|
|Newspaper subscription||2.5 cents||$1,000|
|TSA PreCheck||1 cent||$400|
|In-flight Wi-Fi||0.7 cents||$280|
|United Club membership||0.8 cents||$320|
|Charity donation||1.52 cents||$608|
|Membership fee reimbursement||0.8 cents||$320|
When it comes to United, it’s all about Saver awards. You can get more than 2 cents of value out your miles with an economy-level Saver fare. And Business class Saver fares offer an exceptional value at 3.5 cents per mile on average. In fact, the pricing on Business class Saver awards is so reasonable that cardholders who normally couldn’t afford business class could easily rack up enough United Miles to fund a round-trip ticket to Europe or Asia in business class.
That said, business-class flights across the Atlantic start at 60,000 miles for a one-way ticket, so you’ll have to save up a few more miles to afford a round-trip fare.
While the Southwest cards offer a few different redemption options, airfare is by far the best option. Southwest has three fare tiers: Wanna Get Away, Anytime and Business Select, with Wanna Get Away fares providing the best value.
The value per point varies by flight, but averages around 1.6 cents per point for a Wanna Get Away fare. You can get even higher values if you are flexible, shop carefully for your ticket and buy your ticket far in advance while the best-priced fares are still available. Business Select fares have a very poor value – less than 1 cent per point on average. Note, the points cover the base fare and do not include taxes and fees.
Through the More Rewards site, you have more redemption options, including gift cards, cruises, car rentals, hotels and merchandise. These have a poor value – hotels are by far the worst at a mere 0.2 cents per point. Your best option on the More Rewards site is gift cards, which are worth 1 cent per point when you buy them in $100 increments or larger. However, if you want to get the most out of your bonus points, you should stick to redeeming them for airfare.
|Redemption Option||Average Point Value||Value of 50,000-Point Sign-up Bonus|
|Wanna Get Away fare||1.6 cents||$800|
|Anytime fare||1.1 cents||$550|
|Business Select fare||0.9 cents||$450|
|$100 gift card||1 cent||$500|
|$50 gift card||0.83 cents||$415|
|Car rental||0.7 cents||$350|
Earlier, we mentioned that Partnerships such as OneWorld, Star Alliance, and SkyTeam typically allow you to earn miles when you fly on one airline, and redeem those miles you earn for flights on a carrier within the same network. However, most of those airlines won’t allow you to transfer miles directly between carriers, because there is no financial benefit to them for doing so. Instead, you will have to look for co-shared flights directly through the airline with which you hold mileage accounts. You can book these co-share flights through the website or by calling in to the airline’s agents.
These are the three major alliances and their partner airlines:
OneWorld includes 13 carriers:
Skyteam includes 20 partner airlines:
Star Alliance includes 27 partner airlines
|Credit Card||Airline & Best Use||CreditCards.com Rating||Sign-Up Bonus||Required Spend|
|Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card||All airlines (flexible travel rewards)||4.2 / 5||50,000 Points||$4,000 / 3 months|
|Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select World Elite™ Mastercard®||American (large sign-up bonus)||4.3 / 5||60,000 Miles||$3,000 / 3 months|
|Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express||Delta (easy sign-up bonus)||3.2 / 5||30,000 Miles||$1,000 / 3 months|
|Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card||Southwest (low cost)||3.2 / 5||40,000 Points||$1,000 / 3 months|
|Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card||Southwest (annual bonus)||3.2 / 5||40,000 Points||$1,000 / 3 months|
|United MileagePlus® Explorer Card||United (sign-up bonus)||3.4 / 5||40,000 Miles||$2,000 / 3 months|
|Blue Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express||Delta (no annual fee)||2.6 / 5||10,000 Miles||$500 / 3 months|
|Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Credit Card||Alaska (transfer program)||4.2 / 5||30,000 Miles||$1,000 / 90 days|
|Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®||American (business travelers)||3.6 / 5||50,000 Miles||$5,000 / 3 months|
|British Airways Visa Signature® Card||British (Avios bonus)||4.3 / 5||50,000 Avios||$3,000 / 3 months|
If you're interested in learning more about airline credit cards, check out our reviews section where we go into detail about our top picks and several others.
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