The Best Airline Credit Cards
- March 30, 2018 - Another former pick, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard®, has been discontinued. We still recommend the two Chase Sapphire cards for most travels, and we've also added the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card as a good choice for domestic travel.
- January 15, 2018 - As of 2018, the Virgin America Premium Visa Signature® Card is no longer available — the program has ended after Alaska Airlines acquired Virgin America in 2016. For now, we’ve removed that card from our top picks and updated our other recommended cards with the latest offers and perks. In the coming months, we’ll take a closer look at each of these cards and potential challengers and update our picks accordingly.
The Best Airline Credit Cards
- Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
Best for Most People
- Chase Sapphire Reserve℠
Best for Big Spenders
- Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card
Best for Domestic Travel
- United MileagePlus® Explorer Card
Best Travel Perks
- Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express
Best Airline Service
The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is our top pick for airline cards. With 2x points for a wide range of travel expenses from airfare to Uber rides, a low annual fee of $95, and strong bonus rewards, this travel rewards card simply offers more than its airline-specific competitors. We particularly like the 25% boost to our points when redeeming through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, if you redeem your points through the Ultimate Rewards portal a value of 50,000 points would increase to 62,500 (an extra $125 value). You can even transfer points to airline card accounts or loyalty programs, which means you have options when it comes to finding the best deal. In short, the card’s versatility and overall value make it the best bet for frequent flyers.
For bigger spenders, we recommend the Chase Sapphire Reserve℠. It offers everything our top pick does, along with a few additional benefits including 3x points for travel expenses and a 50% boost to point when redeemed through Chase Ultimate Rewards. The catch? An annual fee of $450. You can use a $300 annual travel credit to offset part of that cost. But to truly get the most value the card you will need to spend a significant amount on travel each year — extra incentive to spend $4,000 in the first three months to gain the sign-up bonus of 50,000 points. For most travelers, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® will offer a better balance of fees and rewards, but the Sapphire Reserve is a worthy upgrade.
The Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card is a strong companion to our Chase Sapphire cards and offers great value for domestic flights. The card offers 6,000 bonus points each year for simply having an account and a sizable sign-up bonus of 50,000 points for spending $2,000 in the first three months. Transferring points from a Chase Sapphire account to your Southwest card or loyalty program is also a breeze, which means makes it easy to redeem for better rewards. The card doesn’t waive the $99 annual fee for the first year like other industry leaders, and Southwest lacks a strong international presence — our other cards are better for redeeming international flights. But overall value makes the Southwest card a strong pick for anyone flying within the United States.
With unique travel perks, the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card continues to be one of the best airline cards on the market. This card provides a reward rate of 2x miles for United purchases for an annual fee of $95 (after the first year). But the card stands out for its travel perks, from free airline club passes to complimentary breakfasts at more than 900 hotels. That said, the airline doesn’t have the best reputation for customer service, which means you run the risk of a few uncomfortable or inconvenient flights (I.e. damaged luggage or flight delays). But for a card that provides great benefits outside of the airport and plane cabin, the United card is a solid choice.
The Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express from American Express is a good pick for those who want to commit to an airline with exceptional customer service. Better still, Delta has a large network of routes, which means you won’t have difficulty using your card to book flights and earn points. Speaking of points, you’ll earn the standard 2x miles for purchases made through the airline. You can also boost your points to 7 miles per dollar by redeeming through the Delta Skymiles loyalty program. That said, redeeming through the program can be a bit difficult, and the rates or policies are subject to sudden changes. But if you’re willing to put a little extra effort into maximizing your points, the Gold Delta SkyMiles® card will help you earn points toward flights with one of the best airlines available.
How We Found the Best Airline Credit Card
Chances are you’ve seen advertisements for airline credit cards in airports or on planes. The cards promise tempting rewards and perks for frequent travelers such as discounted airfares. But are they the best option for earning rewards for flights? Not necessarily. When researching airline credit cards, we noticed that many offered similar benefits to general travel rewards cards. So we compared the two types of cards and came to the conclusion that a general travel card is best for most people.
Simply put, general travel cards allow you to earn more points on a wider range of travel expenses — you won’t be restricted to particular airline and its affiliates — and some offer better opportunities to boost your rewards. Our top recommendations for best airline card are two of our top picks for general travel cards — both of which offer at least 2x rewards for travel and dining related purchases as well as excellent travel perks. For information on how we chose our general travel cards, we recommend visiting our review of the best travel credit cards.
The Two Travel Rewards Cards We Pit Against Airline Cards
- Chase Sapphire Preferred®
- Chase Sapphire Reserve℠
That said, airline cards can still offer a lot of value if you spend a substantial amount of money on flights each year and are loyal to a particular airline. Cards from major airlines are co-branded — you’ll only be able to redeem miles through the airline itself or its partners (think: affiliate hotels and restaurants). But redeeming miles will give you access to some of the best flying perks available such as waived baggage fees and priority boarding. In short, an airline credit card can save frequent flyers both time and money. With this in mind, we made it our goal to see if any airline credit cards could stack up against our favorite general travel cards.
Due to the rewards that airline (as well as general travel) cards provide, they often require strong credit scores — generally 650 or above. Some cards will award approval for lower scores if you have other financial strengths like a high salary, but for the most part, the score requirements are fairly strict. If your score is low or you don’t have credit, we recommend building your credit history with a general credit card first.
We started by looking for cards from leading airlines.
We focused on finding the best card from airlines that people were most likely to use. We compared lists of major airports from sites like TripSavvy and the U.S. Department of Transportation to find the busiest locations across the United States. Then we consulted data to determine which airlines dominated the most active airports in each region of the country. For example, someone who frequently flies in and out of LAX in Los Angeles will benefit more by choosing a card from American Airlines, Southwest or Delta. Travelers flying in and out of JFK in New York will want a card from American Airlines, Delta, or JetBlue.
With this in mind, we centered our search for the best airline card on the most popular airlines. To find the best cards each offers, we checked financial websites such as U.S. News and World Report and CreditCards.com to find 9 options that are highly regarded for their exceptional reward rates and travel perks.
The 9 Airline Credit Cards We Compared
- Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Credit Card
- British Airways Visa Signature Card
- Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®
- Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®
- Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express
- JetBlue Card
- Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express
- Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card
- United MileagePlus® Explorer Card
While there are other widely celebrated airline rewards cards, we wanted to find the best options for most people. For that reason, we focused on cards from leading providers.
We Closely Compared Our Cards Across Rewards, Costs, and Customer Satisfaction
Choosing the best airline credit card will depend on your particular travel needs and spending habits. For example, some cards will offer high reward rates but lower sign-up bonuses and vice versa. The key is to find the card that offers the best balance of a few specific criteria.
We looked for cards that offered the best rewards for your purchases.
A standard airline card earns you one mile or point (on average a 1 cent value) for every dollar you spend. The best airline credit cards will offer 2x miles or points for purchases made through the airline — an industry standard for leading providers.
All of the airline credit cards on our list offer 2x miles, except for two. The Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Credit Card offers 3x miles for expenses made directly through it or its subsidiary, Virgin America. Owners of the British Airways Visa Signature card also receive 3x Avios (points) for purchases made through the airline. While the reward rates are impressive, Alaska mainly serves customers on the West Coast, and British Airways isn’t a leading provider of flights at most airports. Both are great options for anyone in the flying regions of those airlines, but not for most travelers.
Then, we compared fees to find cards that don’t overcharge for access to their rewards.
Airline credit cards often charge an annual fee that can cut into the potential value of your rewards. The Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard charges $450 each year. To offset the cost, you would need to earn 45,000 points by spending $22,500 with American Airlines. Unless you’re a big spender and frequent flier, cards like these put you at risk of losing money. Others like the Gold Delta SkyMiles®card and the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card charge a more reasonable $95 and also waive the first year of fees.
That said, cards with higher fees often have better rewards and perks. The Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite Card offers access to the American Airlines Admirals Club lounges, allows you and eight others to check your first bags for free, and 10,000 bonus miles if you spend $40,000 in a year. However, these benefits and their requirements are a bit excessive for the average traveler — most of us don’t reserve flights with eight other travelers on a regular basis, and $40,000 is a hefty price to pay for any bonus. In short, a general airline card offers the better potential value for most people.
Another consideration: Some credit cards charge a foreign transaction fee for purchases made outside the United States. These fees can cost up to 3% of every purchase, which would counteract the rewards you gain. We made sure none of our contendenders (airline-specific or general) charge the fee.
The annual percentage rate (APR) is the yearly interest rate you pay for borrowing money with your card. Most airline as well as general travel cards have APRs that range from around 16-26% — including all our contenders. Because the APR you get will depend on your credit score (the higher your score, the lower your rate), we didn’t use it as one of our determining criteria. And remember that you can avoid paying interest altogether if you pay your bills in full each month.
Next, we compared additional rewards including sign-up bonuses and travel perks.
Most airline credit cards offer a large amount of miles or points as a sign-up bonus. The catch is that you have to spend a certain amount within the first few months before the bonus is added to your account For example, spending $2,000 within the first 3 months of opening a United MileagePlus® Explorer Card account will earn you 40,000 bonus miles (a $400 value). The Gold Delta SkyMiles®card will offer 50,000 miles for the same spending cutoff.
Cards with a higher spending cutoff usually offer more bonus points. The upgraded Platinum Delta SkyMiles card offers 70,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months (though the annual fee is $195). While the higher bonus is tempting, higher cutoffs put you at risk of carrying a balance. Financial experts advise against carrying a balance, because it will cut into both the bonus and potential value of your card. So, we gave preference to options like the Gold Delta SkyMiles®card, which offer a more reasonable spending cutoff for bonus miles.
The best airline credit card should also include helpful perks that earn you additional rewards, save you money, or simply help you relax while traveling. Whether the perks included waived baggage fees or travel protection such as trip cancellation insurance, we looked for the cards that offer the most worthwhile benefits.
The United MileagePlus® Explorer card earned high points for perks including travel protections (e.g. trip cancellation insurance as well as trip delay and lost luggage reimbursement) and hotel benefits. We were particularly impressed by the hotel benefits — you can get a complimentary breakfast for two as well as potential room upgrades at more than 900 hotels. Other options like the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite card offer 25% savings on in-flight food and beverage purchases. The price for food and drinks on a plane are often high, and we like paying a more reasonable price for snacks when we get a little hungry on long flights.
Finally, we prioritized cards with airlines that have high customer satisfaction ratings.
We compared customer satisfaction for airline cards when looking for contenders, but we also wanted to see which airlines offered the best flight experience. Choosing an airline card is also making a commitment to a particular airline, and the best card shouldn’t come at the cost of uncomfortable cabins, lost luggage, or late flights. So, we compared customer satisfaction ratings from the 2017 J.D. Power Airline Satisfaction Study to find which airlines outperformed the rest.
Providers such as Alaska Airlines, Delta, and Southwest impressed us with high satisfaction scores. Other providers such as United scored below the industry average with customers reporting lower levels of satisfaction. The general trend? Some providers offer a significantly better experience than others, but overall customer satisfaction with airlines is at a high — good news for airline credit card owners.
We used these criteria to find the best airline credit card that would suit most people’s needs. Overall, most airline cards offer similar rewards and perks. We highlight three picks that offer a strong flight experience and a few unique perks, but we recommend comparing bonuses from other airlines against our picks if you fly with them. In any case, our picks will offer a strong balance between rewards and costs.
Our Picks for the Best Airline Credit Cards
While the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is a general travel card, it’s actually the best option for most frequent flyers. The 2x reward rate for all travel-related expenses (regardless of airline) and ability to boost your rewards for maximum value led us to one conclusion: the overall strengths of this card exceed the value of airline-specific perks.
The biggest strength of the the Chase Sapphire Preferred® is its versatility. You can redeem your points toward a variety of travel expenses including airline fares (not restricted to one airline), not to mention hotel bookings and rental cars. Redeeming through Chase Ultimate Rewards will also boost your points by 25%. For example, if you redeem 50,000 points (a $500 value) through the service, the amount will increase to 62,500 (a $625 value). You can also transfer the points you earn to a loyalty program or a co-branded airline card account at a 1:1 rate. That means you can combine your Chase Sapphire rewards with the miles you earn from a loyalty program or a co-branded card. Although you won’t receive the 25% boost because you aren’t redeeming with Chase Ultimate Rewards, it gives you the chance to redeem points with whichever option provides the most value. Translation? Out of all the cards we compared, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® gives you the best opportunities to maximize your points for travel.
While you can’t transfer Chase points to American, Alaska, or Delta directly, there are transfer partners that will allow you to book awards with the three airlines. To book awards with American and Alaska, you can do so through British Airways Avios. Delta awards are bookable through Korean Skypass and Virgin Atlantic Flying Club. The reason for this has to do with codeshare agreements and airline alliances — agreements between airlines to cooperate as business partners. Complicated, we know.
The downside is that you won’t have access to airline-specific perks such as waived baggage fees or priority boarding. We’ll also admit the sign-up bonus cutoff is a bit steep. You’ll need to spend $4,000 in the first three months for 50,000 bonus points. But the card still offers travel perks including baggage delay and trip cancellation insurance — benefits that leading co-branded competitors like the Gold Delta SkyMiles®card lack.
In any case, the card allows you to decide how you want to earn as well as redeem points, and the 2x rate for travel expenses including dining, hotels, and transportation ensures that the amount you earn is high. A low annual fee of $95 (the first year is free) makes this a strong pick for any traveler whether they’re loyal to a specific airline or not.
The Chase Sapphire Reserve℠ is essentially an upgrade of the Chase Sapphire Preferred®. The card has a high annual fee of $450, but in exchange you gain access to 3x the points for travel-related expenses and a few additional perks.
For starters, the card provides a 50% bonus on points when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards, which is double what the Chase Sapphire offers. In addition, you receive 3x the points on travel and dining purchases — that makes a large difference on more expensive items like airline tickets (both the Reserve and Preferred offer 1x rewards on all other purchases). Plus, you can still transfer points to a co-branded or loyalty program account, and any authorized user on your account will gain access to over 1,000 airport lounges worldwide. In short, the Chase Sapphire Reserve℠ offers some of the most elite and lucrative travel benefits.
That said, the high annual fee makes this card a better bet for big spenders. While an annual travel credit of $300 will help offset the annual fee, we would prefer using it for other travel expenses. Adding an authorized user to your card (a common strategy for boosting someone else’s credit score or earning more points) will cost you an annual fee of $75 for each person you add. But if you have the ability to spend an amount that offsets the costs and can pay your bill on time, the Chase Sapphire Reserve℠ offers the best travel rewards on the market.
The Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card is an excellent option for those who want to increase their earning potential. The card offers 2x points for purchases made directly through the airline and with partner hotel or car rental companies including Hyatt and Hertz. Southwest’s card is a great option for domestic travelers.
The biggest draw of the card is its ability to earn you rewards. The card offers a 50,000 point bonus if you spend $2,000 in the first three months as well as 6,000 points each year for simply owning the card. Being able to earn rewards for purchases at hotels and car rental companies adds even more value — other airline cards such as the United MileagePlus® and Gold Delta SkyMiles®limit rewards to purchases through the airline. In addition, you can transfer points from a Chase Sapphire account for even greater rewards. That means more easy points in your pocket.
That said, the card isn’t perfect. Unlike other airline cards, the Southwest Rapid Rewards® card doesn’t waive the annual fee ($99) for the first year, and the airline doesn’t have a large international presence (the airlines for our other picks are a better choice for traveling outside of the U.S.). In addition, the number of points you need to get a free flight changes according to the cost of the airfare rather than sticking to a fixed amount, which means you likely won’t get the largest savings possible. Even so, this ensures that you can get a free domestic flight at any time as long as seats are available, and the ability to earn bonus points offsets the first year of fees.
You can expect other travel perks, including your first two bags checked for free and access to a companion pass if you earn 110,000 miles — a benefit that allows one person to fly with you for free, excluding taxes, for the following full calendar year and remainder of the year in which you earn it (though points earned through a Chase card don’t count toward the total). To sum it up, the card offers a great way to earn rewards that you can put toward domestic flights.
- Earn 50,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.
- 6,000 bonus points after your Cardmember anniversary
- 2 points per $1 spent on Southwest® purchases and Rapid Rewards® Hotel and Car Rental Partner purchases
- 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
- Earn unlimited points that don’t expire as long as your card account is open
- No foreign transaction fees
- No blackout dates or seat restrictions, Bags fly free® and no change fees
- Redeem your points for flights, hotel stays, gift cards, access to events and more
The United MileagePlus® Explorer Card has all the makings of an excellent airline credit card. The annual fee is a low $95 (the first year is free), and you can earn 2x miles per dollar spent on tickets purchased from the airline. The sign-up bonus of 40,000 points only requires $2,000 of spending within the first three months, which means quick and easy points. But where the card truly stands out comes down to travel perks.
Out of all the co-branded airline credit cards we compared, none could top the variety of perks the United MileagePlus® Explorer card offers. Each year, cardholders receive two free passes to United Club lounges where you can enjoy complimentary drinks and snacks. In addition, the card will earn you Chase Cardmember Benefits at over 900 hotels. The benefits include a complimentary breakfast for two, early check-in and late check-out, and even a room upgrade (if available). We appreciate that the benefits from our card aren’t limited to the time we spend on a plane.
That said, the in-flight service you receive may not be the best out of our contenders. We’ll be upfront — United is one of the lowest ranked airlines for customer satisfaction. Consumer responses from the J.D. Power Airline Satisfaction study confirms, and news stories report complaints ranging from broken property to long delays. But for those who find themselves traveling frequently, pairing the card with a Chase Sapphire card can provide great value.
- 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open
- $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95.
- Check your first bag for free (a savings of up to $100 per roundtrip) when you use your Card to purchase your ticket
- Enjoy priority boarding privileges and visit the United Club℠ with 2 one-time passes each year for your anniversary
- No foreign transaction fees
- Earn 2 miles per $1 spent on tickets purchased from United, and 1 mile per $1 spent on all other purchases
- Your miles don’t expire as long as your credit card account is open, with no limit to the number of miles you can earn
The Gold Delta SkyMiles®Card is a no-nonsense card that offers a strong 2x reward rate for purchases made through the airline and essential flight perks that will save you money. The card isn’t the most versatile option available, but for frequent travelers who simply want a card specifically designed for flying, the Gold Delta SkyMiles®card is an excellent choice.
Like most other credit cards, the Gold Delta SkyMiles®credit card offers a $95 annual fee that is waived for the first year. While the reward rate offers 2x miles, pairing it with the Delta SkyMiles loyalty program will earn you an additional 5 miles for every dollar spent — a total of 7 miles per dollar spent. Spend $2,000 in the first three months and you’ll also earn 50,000 bonus miles — one of the most generous sign-up offers on the market. Better still, Delta often holds special offers that include additional bonus opportunities.
The downside is that the Delta loyalty program doesn’t have the best reputation. The airline’s website has no awards chart, which makes it difficult to see how much your miles are currently worth, and policies can suddenly change. In addition, transferring points to Delta from other accounts, such as a Chase Sapphire account, is a bit tedious. However, the overall reach of the airline and a little patience during the process of redeeming miles can provide a good value. For this reason, U.S. News and World Report ranked Delta’s rewards second among major airlines.
The real draw of a Delta rewards card lies in customer service. The airline ranked second (only behind Alaska Airlines) in both the J.D. Power Airline Satisfaction study, and a rewards card will amplify the service you receive. For instance, the card allows you and nine other travelers on your reservation to check your first bags free at no additional cost. Most people probably don’t travel with nine companions, but most airlines only offer coverage for up to four bags or fewer — that means families with more than four members will have to pay baggage fees. For those who want a dedicated card for flying with a widely celebrated airline, the Gold Delta SkyMiles®Card is a solid option.
- Limited Time Offer: Earn 50,000 Bonus Miles after you spend $2,000 in purchases within the first 3 months and a $50 statement credit after you make a Delta purchase with your new Card within your first 3 months.
- Plus, earn an additional 10,000 bonus miles after you spend an additional $1,000 with your new Card within your first 6 months. Offer expires on 4/11/2018.
- Earn 2 miles on every eligible dollar spent on purchases made directly with Delta. Earn 1 mile for every eligible dollar spent on other purchases.
- Check your first bag free on Delta flights – that’s a savings of up to $200 per round trip for a family of four.
- Settle into your seat sooner with Priority Boarding.
- Enjoy a $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95.
- Terms Apply.
Other Cards to Consider
The Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Credit Card was nearly our top pick and consistently ranks at the top of customer satisfaction ratings. But its small route network gave us pause. As a small airline, it mainly serves those on the West Coast, which means finding award flights with it or the recently acquired Virgin America will be more difficult for some. We wanted to find cards that were tied to airlines that people would be most likely to fly with. However, for those who fly with Alaska Airlines, the card is an excellent choice. The annual fee is a low $75 (though the first year isn’t waived), and the card offers 3x miles for Alaska or Virgin America purchases. Spending $1,000 in the first three months will earn you 30,000 bonus miles and a free ticket (excluding taxes) when you purchase a ticket of your own. Like Southwest, the airline also offers companion benefits and allows you to buy one heavily discounted ticket for a friend or family member each year. We can’t recommend the card for everyone, but for those who fly in and out of the West Coast, the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature card is smart and worthwhile investment.
- Special Introductory Offer: Buy 1 ticket, get 1 for just the taxes and fees with Alaska’s Famous Companion Fare™ Offer.
- Get 30,000 bonus miles after you make $1,000 or more in purchases within the first 90 days of your account opening.
- Enjoy another Alaska’s Famous Companion Fare™ every year from $121 ($99 plus taxes and fees from $22) on your account anniversary valid on Alaska and Virgin America flights booked on alaskaair.com.
- Save with a free checked bag on Alaska and Virgin America flights for you and up to six other passengers on the same reservation.
- Earn 3 miles for every $1 spent directly on Alaska Airlines and Virgin America purchases and 1 mile for every $1 spent on all other purchases. No foreign transaction fees.
- There are two types of cards: the Visa Signature® card and the Platinum Plus® card. The card you receive will be determined by several factors including your income and credit history.
- The benefits and bonus miles above apply to Visa Signature cards only. The Annual Fees, benefits and bonus miles for Platinum Plus® cards are different.
- For more information on the differences, see the Features section accompanying the application.
The JetBlue Card is an excellent alternative for those who fly in and out of the East Coast. Like the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature card, the reach of JetBlue was a bit too localized for us to use as a national recommendation, but the card still offers a solid value. Unlike all the other cards on our list, the JetBlue card has no annual fee and offers 3x points on JetBlue purchases as well as 2x points at restaurants and grocery stores. You even get 50% in-flight savings on cocktails and food. The card offers an underwhelming 10,000 bonus points for spending $1,000 in the first three months, but overall we were pleasantly surprised to see a card with no annual fee offer some of the best reward rates on the market. If you want a card that offers strong earning potential for East Coast flights, the JetBlue card is a great option.
- Earn 10,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 on purchases in the first 90 days
- 3X points on JetBlue purchases 2X points at restaurants and grocery stores and 1X points on all other purchases
- 50% inflight savings on cocktails and food purchases
- Points awarded to your TrueBlue account don’t expire Redeem anytime. Your points will be waiting
- $0 Fraud Liability protection means you’re not responsible for unauthorized charges you report to us
A few tips on how to maximize your airline miles.
The best way to get value out of an airline card is to maximize the miles you can earn or redeem without having to spend more money. Most airlines have a loyalty program that offers additional rewards for signing up, which can help you earn more for your points. If you have an airline-specific card, you’ll be automatically enrolled in a loyalty program to help maximize your points. Owners of general travel cards will need to open an account on their own — we recommend doing so to gain opportunities for greater rewards.
That said, there are additional strategies for getting the most out of the miles in a loyalty program. We found a few that may help you when redeeming:
Booking flights early when redeeming awards is a good way to avoid peak pricing or mile requirements on award flights. If traveling during the holidays, you will want to book months in advance to ensure you get a seat for a reasonable amount of miles. In addition, award seats can be limited, so the earlier you book, the greater the chance of you getting an award seat at the time and on the route you want.
Learning how to redeem points effectively ensures you get the most value out of your miles. As we stated earlier, each airline offers different award amounts or systems for redeeming points. That means the value of your miles or points will vary depending on your preferred airline, destinations, and the time of year. But learning how to calculate the worth of your points or miles will help you take advantage of great deals when they arise. For example, when we looked up the price for a ticket to Seoul from Los Angeles, the price was 1,197 or a 119,700 mile value. But if we were able to find an award seat at a standard rate through the AAdvantage loyalty program, we would only need to pay 35,000 miles for a free seat, which means our miles would be worth an overall savings of $847. You can find great deals with any of the cards on our list and their respective airlines, but it pays to keep a close eye on ticket prices throughout the year to see when you can get the most value.
Redeem for long or international flights to help you redeem points effectively. These flights are typically expensive, but the mile requirements for earning a free seat are generally low compared to the actual price. As the previous bullet demonstrates, you stand to save a lot of money if you redeem at the right time. The only caveat? Not everyone has time to travel internationally, and while you can always save for a dream vacation, using miles or points on domestic flights may be a more valuable for some.
Transfer points from a general travel rewards card to your loyalty program to combine points or miles and maximize your rewards. As we’ve mentioned, but general travel cards, including our top two picks, allow you to transfer points or miles to a co-branded card or loyalty program. The benefit of doing so lies in reward rates — a good general travel card earns you 2x points or miles for a variety of expenses, not just purchases made through a particular airline. Combining the two will help you earn more rewards that you can put toward free flights and more.
There are numerous ways to earn even more points, such as taking advantage of airline alliances, but these strategies are best for those who are more familiar with airline cards. The tips here will help you get started with maximizing your rewards, but we recommend visiting online guides and financial sites such as The Points Guy for more advice.
Redeeming Points is Different for Each Airline
Redeeming airline miles can be a complicated process. Different airlines and their respective loyalty programs use different systems when it comes to exchanging miles and points for airfare. Most systems fit into one of three categories:
- Zone-based systems are the most common. These systems separate geographical regions into zones and require a specific amount of miles to travel from one region to another. All the mile requirements within a zone are the same regardless of where you are traveling to. For example, any trip to a location in Europe whether it is London or Madrid will require the same amount of miles. This makes zone-based systems a good match for those who are traveling long distances. Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta, and United all use zone systems.
- Cost- or revenue-based systems are those where the amount of miles required for an award seat is tied to the cost of the flight. The more expensive the flight, the more miles you will need. Sharp price increases may devalue the points you earn (even if you have a lot of miles, it may end up not being enough). The trade-off? Because cost-based systems use miles to directly pay for airfares, you can get a tickets as long as seats are available. Most other airlines have a limited number of award seats available, which can make it more difficult to find a flight at the time and date you want. A cost or revenue-based system is a good option for those who travel short distances — ticket prices are usually lower, allowing you to use fewer points to book a flight. This system used by JetBlue and Southwest.
- Distance-based systems set their mile requirements in terms of the actual distance you travel. In simpler terms, a short trip would require fewer miles than a longer one. These flights work well for those who are traveling shorter distances (think: flights less than four hours) or for when short flight prices are high. British Airways is the only provider on our list that uses this system.
The key takeaway is that redeeming your miles or points can depend on a lot of factors: your preferred airline, your destinations, and even the time of year. In that sense, we took redemption rates into account, but any differences we found weren’t dealbreakers. In most cases, all of the cards on our list can offer a good value for customers of their respective airlines. So we shifted our focus toward other factors that would affect the potential value of each card.