Comparing the Best Airline Credit Card Offers
Updated: July 6, 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.
The Best Airline Miles Credit Cards of 2018
After analyzing over 140 airline credit card offers, we've hand selected these 10 best credit cards for airline travel. The Chase Sapphire Preferred card is an excellent all-arounder that can be used on any airline. Among co-branded airline cards, the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select Mastercard tops our list thanks to its generous sign-up bonus and premium perks.
|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 Airlines (large sign-up bonus)||4.3 / 5||60,000 Miles||$3,000 / 3 months|
|Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express||Delta Airlines (easy sign-up bonus)||3.2 / 5||30,000 Miles||$1,000 / 3 months|
|Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card||Southwest Airlines (low cost)||3.2 / 5||40,000 Points||$1,000 / 3 months|
|Blue Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express||Delta Airlines (no annual fee)||2.6 / 5||10,000 Miles||$500 / 3 months|
|Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card||Southwest Airlines (annual bonus)||3.2 / 5||40,000 Points||$1,000 / 3 months|
|United Explorer Card||United Airlines (sign-up bonus)||3.4 / 5||40,000 Miles||$2,000 / 3 months|
|British Airways Visa Signature® Card||British Airways (Avios bonus)||4.3 / 5||50,000 Avios||$3,000 / 3 months|
|Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®||American Airlines (business travelers)||3.6 / 5||50,000 Miles||$5,000 / 3 months|
|Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Credit Card||Alaska Airlines (transfer program)||4.2 / 5||30,000 Miles||$1,000 / 90 days|
Research methodology: how we chose the best cards
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
Editor's opinion on the best airline credit cards
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card: Best for all airlines and flexible travel rewards
Miles Earned per Dollar: 2X (points on travel)
Though the Chase Sapphire Preferred is not co-branded with any one particular airline, the Ultimate Rewards points you earn by using it can be redeemed for flights with a bevy of airline partners—making it an incredibly valuable tool in scoring travel rewards.
Spend $4,000 on the card in the first three months and you’ll get an extra 50,000 points, which equates to $625 towards travel in Chase’s Ultimate Rewards portal. On top of the sign-up bonus, you’ll earn 2X points on all dining and travel, broadly defined by Chase to include expenses like parking and Uber rides. Considering the 1X points on every other purchase made, it’s reasonable to assume that by the time you get your sign-up bonus, you’ll already have well over 4,000 points.
The CSP is a staple in the world of travel rewards; use it to book flights, hotels, and for picking up the tab at dinner and you’ll never be short of flexible Chase points. For similar cards, you can expect to pay an annual fee of several hundred dollars or more—the Chase Sapphire Preferred is only $95 annually, and that fee is waived the first year.
Bottom Line: A travel card with sensational point value and ample opportunities to earn them.
Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®: Best for American Airlines and large sign-up bonus
Miles Earned per Dollar: 2X (on gas, restaurants, eligible AA purchases)
If you already fly American, getting the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard will instantly upgrade your flight experience. Exclusive perks include: a free checked bag for you and up to four companions traveling with you on the same reservation, preferred boarding, and 25% off in-flight food and drinks when purchased with your card on American Airlines flights.
Holding this card won’t just improve your in-flight experience, it will help you save throughout the year, too. Every time you redeem your miles for a flight, you’ll automatically get 10 percent of them back. Since you’ll collect 60,000 bonus sign-up miles off the jump, you’ll have no problem off-setting the $99 annual fee, which is waived for the first 12 months, with that 10 percent rebate.
According to Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com, “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.”
Bottom Line: If American is your primary airline, you’ll really enjoy the special perks exclusive to this card.
Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express: Best for Delta Airlines and easy sign-up bonus
Miles Earned per Dollar: 2X (on eligible Delta purchases)
Whether or not you already fly Delta, the Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express will elevate your flying experience. Amex perks are arguably the best of any issuer—the partnership with Delta further demonstrates that with the Gold Delta card.
You’ll get priority seating, a free checked bag for you and up to eight companions traveling on the same reservation, purchase protection, discounts on Sky Club passes, and much more. The 30,000-mile welcome bonus after spending just $1,000 in the first three months is a nice added incentive to fliers already a part of the SkyMiles program.
If reaching Delta Medallion status is more important to you than bonus miles, you may want to consider the Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card, which comes with a 5,000 Medallion Qualification Miles welcome bonus (25,000 MQMs are needed to reach the first level of Delta’s Medallion status).
Bottom Line: If you’re Delta-loyal but not ready to pay the $195 annual fee for a Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card, the Gold Card is a worthy substitute at $95 annually (waived the first year).
Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card: Best for Southwest Airlines and a low cost card
Miles Earned per Dollar: 2X (on Southwest purchases)
Southwest’s rewards points are valuable to its loyal customers, whom are rewarded for getting the Rapid Rewards Plus card with a 40,000-point sign-up bonus (with $1,000 spend on purchases in first 3 months of account ownership). If you’re already a Rapid Rewards member, you know that the Companion Pass is one of the holy grails of airline rewards—a free ticket for a companion every time you redeem points for a flight. You’ll need to rack up 110,000 points to get there, which is achievable with this card’s intro bonus.
Southwest will give you an additional 3,000 bonus points every year on your Cardmember anniversary, providing a little extra incentive to stick around. Beyond that, you’ll earn 2X points on Southwest airfare and 2X points on hotel and rental car bookings through their partners.
If you rarely fly Southwest, it doesn’t make sense to seek out their rewards points, as they’re not transferable to other airlines. Also keep in mind that this card comes with a 3% foreign transaction fee and may not be the best card for international spending.
Bottom Line: Southwest loyalists can make good headway toward Companion Pass privileges pretty quickly by using this card on most travel purchases.
Blue Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express: Best for Delta Airlines and no annual fee
Miles Earned per Dollar: 2X (on US restaurants, eligible Delta purchases)
If you’re new to airline rewards programs, or you happen to be a fan of flying Delta but don’t want to pay an annual credit card fee, check out the Blue Delta SkyMiles Card from American Express. The 2X miles rate on Delta flights is what you’d expect, but the 2X miles at US restaurants is a nice surprise for an airline card.
Signing up for the card gets you a bonus 10,000 miles that you’ll only have to spend $500 over the course of the first three months to receive. If you haven’t already signed up for Delta’s Skymiles dining program, do so. It’s free and will give you an opportunity to double down on miles when you pay with this card.
Though technically a lower-tier airline rewards card due to its more modest welcome bonus and lighter perk package than the Gold Delta SkyMiles Card, the Blue Card offers plenty of value to new rewards cardholders and frequent Delta fliers alike.
Bottom Line: Join Delta’s SkyMiles dining program and use this card at US restaurants to quickly build an impressive stockpile of mileage.
Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card: Best for Southwest Airlines and an annual bonus
Miles Earned per Dollar: 2X (on Southwest purchases)
The Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card carries all the benefits of its Plus Card counterpart, but with a heftier annual fee and point bonus. You’ll pay $99 every year for the Premier (for Plus, you’ll pay $69), but you’ll also collect 6,000 bonus points after your Cardmember anniversary instead of 3,000.
In addition, there is no foreign transaction fee when using the Premier card. If you’re planning on vacationing abroad and would like to continue growing your sum of Rapid Rewards points, you’re better off going with the Premier, which won’t zap the value from your points with foreign fees.
Expect a similar experience as you would from the Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card, but with a more ample reward for staying Southwest-loyal every year. As always, bags fly free and you’ll never experience seat restrictions or blackout dates.
Bottom Line: Flying on Southwest internationally with this card is a great way to work your way towards Companion Pass privileges. The annual points bonus is unmatched anywhere.
United Explorer Card: Best for United Airlines and a sign-up bonus
Miles Earned per Dollar: 2X (on restaurants and purchases from United)
United points have good value for airline credit card rewards; the 40,000 bonus miles you’ll earn out of the gate for spending $2,000 in the first three months is a nice prize for being airline-loyal. A hidden value of United’s rewards system is its transferability to a network of 28 partnering airlines.
If you often fly out of one of United’s hubs (currently: Chicago ORD, Houston IAH and Newark EWR, among others), chances are, you won’t necessarily need to transfer your points; but if you live elsewhere, you’ll have no trouble doing so. Like many other airline cards, you’ll earn 2X points for on-brand flight purchases and 1X for everything else. With the United MileagePlus Explorer Card, you’ll also score a free checked bag on flights booked with your Card, and two one-time United Club passes each year for your anniversary.
Perks here are on par with what you can expect from other airline cards—what it really comes down to is where you live and where you’re going. United’s rewards have especially good value when flying to North America, Central America, and the Caribbean.
Bottom Line: Whether you use a United hub airport or not, you can pull good value from the Explorer Card’s sign-up bonus because of United’s many partnering airlines.
British Airways Visa Signature® Card: Best for British Airways and a large Avios bonus
Miles Earned per Dollar: 3X (Avios on British Airways purchases)
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. 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
Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®: Best for American Airlines and business travelers
Miles Earned per Dollar: 2X (on eligible AA purchases)
American’s credit card designed for international business travelers and fans of luxury flying, the Executive World Elite Mastercard offers free Admirals Club access for you and up to 10 authorized users, even when they are not traveling with you. As club access would normally cost you $475 or more, this perk is the primary reason for getting the card.
The 50,000 bonus miles are a nice introductory offer, but you’ll need to spend $5,000 in the first three months to get them, which is doable for the international business traveler but may dissuade some others from applying.
American has tons of airline partners, making their rewards system flexible for frequent business travelers. If you fly often for work, you’ll most likely be able to get good use out of this particular card.
Bottom Line: Access to more than 50 Admirals Club locations worldwide makes this card worthwhile for American Airlines travelers.
Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Credit Card: Best for Alaska Airlines and a good transfer program
Miles Earned per Dollar: 3X (on direct Alaska purchases)
If you live on the West Coast or travel there often from a major US city on the East Coast, you’re probably already aware of Alaska Airlines’ stellar reputation. Regarded as one of the country’s finest airlines, Alaska continues to dole out nice perks with their very own Visa Signature credit card.
Value across the board is better than average, with 3X miles on Alaska flights and a 30,000-mile sign-up bonus after you spend $1,000 or more in purchases within the first 90 days of account opening. Lisa Gerstner, contributing editor at Kiplinger's Personal Finance, names the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature as her favorite airline 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.”
Alaska acquired Virgin America in 2018, creating more opportunities for you to use the card and fly Alaska, especially if you live in California, Oregon, Washington, or Western Canada. This card doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees, either, making it a no-brainer if you often travel between Canada and the US or Mexico.
Bottom Line: Alaska is one of America’s favorite airlines—with its signature credit card, you’ll have no problem pulling big value out of its points and perks.
What are airline credit cards and how do they work?
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:
- You spend a significant amount of money specifically on air travel every year. If you don’t travel often, or if the destinations you frequent aren’t offered through your airline and associated partners of choice, you might want to consider getting a generic travel credit card that allows you to transfer points to your travel program of choice. The Chase Sapphire Preferred is one of the most popular cards in this category.
- You have good or excellent credit. You will want to have a FICO credit score of at least 670 before applying for an airline rewards credit card, which typically requires great credit. You can use the free credit check tool at CreditCards.com to check your credit score at any time without triggering a credit score hit.
- You are able to pay off your balance each month. Interest charges are no joke, and can quickly cost you far more than your rewards are worth. Ideally, you should be debt-free and always avoid carrying a balance on any credit card you hold.
How to choose the right airline card and maximize rewards
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:
- Make sure you choose the rewards program that best fits your lifestyle
- Calculate the earning potential of your spend
- Don’t forget to earn your sign-up bonuses!
- Know the redemption value of the miles you earn
- Weigh the above perks against the annual fee
- Be aware of additional bonus benefits associated with the card
1. Pick the right rewards program for you
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.
2. Calculate your earning potential
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.
3. Make sure you hit the spend required to earn your sign-up bonus
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.
4. Know the redemption value of your earned miles
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.
5. Weigh your perks against the annual fee
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.
6. Know about additional bonus benefits that may come with your card
In the interest of staying competitive, airline credit cards may offer additional perks that aren’t directly correlated to plane tickets. These may include:
- No foreign transaction fees
- Trip cancellation insurance
- Auto rental insurance
- Lost baggage protection
- Roadside assistance
- Extended warranties
- Extended return periods
- Concierge services
Airline credit card perks that are on the premium side may include:
- Discounts on inflight purchases
- Companion tickets
- Access to airport lounges with free snacks, drinks and Wi-Fi
How much are airline miles worth?
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.”
Ultimately, what and how much you can get with your airline card's miles 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.
Here are a few examples of what your miles are worth with some popular airlines and their co-branded credit card sign-up bonuses.
What can you get with 30,000 SkyMiles?
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.
Delta SkyMiles redemption options
|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|
Best ways to spend 40,000 MileagePlus miles
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:
United MileagePlus redemption options
|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.
Best way to use the Southwest Rapid Rewards cards’ sign-up bonus
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.
Southwest Rapid Rewards redemption options
|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|
How many miles do you need for a free flight?
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.
How do I redeem airline miles?
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!
- You’ll start by heading directly to your airline’s website.
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:
- Enter your rewards number, and search for the flight you want to take
- Your search results will show the number of miles needed to book the flight, as well as any additional cost per ticket (most flights will include taxes and fees which, by law, cannot be discounted). Also, airlines often charge a fee for booking tickets last-minute, so you’ll want to plan ahead by at least a few weeks whenever possible.
- Book your ticket!
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.
Can you transfer miles between airlines?
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.
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:
- American Airlines
- British Airways
- Cathay Pacific Airways
- Japan Airlines
- LATAM Airlines
- Malaysia Airlines
- Qatar Airways
- Royal Jordanian
- S7 Airlines
- SriLankan Airlines
Skyteam includes 20 partner airlines:
- China Airlines
- China Eastern
- China Southern
- Czech Airlines
- Garuda Indonesia
- Kenya Airways
- Korean Air
- Vietnam Airlines
Star Alliance includes 27 partner airlines
- Air Canada
- Air China
- Air India
- Air New Zealand
- Asiana Airlines
- Brussels Airlines
- Copa Airlines
- Croatia Airlines
- Eva Air
- Polish Airlines
- Shenzhen Airlines
- Singapore Airlines
- South African Airways
- Swiss Air
- Turkish Airlines
Airline vs. travel rewards cards
If you’re wondering how a card like the Gold Delta SkyMiles 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
- Chase Sapphire Reserve
- Chase Sapphire Preferred
- Chase Ink
American Express Membership Rewards
- American Express Premier Rewards Gold
- American Express Platinum
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 Citi AAdvantage cards, for example, you earn a certain amount on every dollar you spend, but you earn bonus miles for every dollar spent on American Airlines 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 vs. general-purpose travel cards
|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.
Check out our reviews
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.
We encourage an active and insightful conversation among our users. Please help us keep
our community civil and respectful. For your safety, we ask that you do not disclose confidential or personal
information such as your bank account number, phone number, or email address. Keep in mind that anything you
post may be disclosed, published, transmitted or reused.
The comments posted below are not provided, reviewed or approved by the card issuers or
advertisers. Additionally, the card issuer or advertiser does not assume responsibility to ensure that all posts
and/or questions are answered.