You’ve probably heard about people “traveling on points.” Somehow these friends, bloggers, and Instagrammers bounce around the world — and don’t pay for it?
If you’re wondering how air miles credit cards work — and which ones to choose — you’ve come to the right place.
Here’s a quick glance at our picks for the best credit cards for air miles.
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|Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
|Airlines and Hotels
|Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
|Delta Air Lines
|Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card
|United℠ Explorer Card
|Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card
|Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Credit Card
What Are Credit Card Miles?
Each airline has its own rewards system, often known as a “frequent flyer” program, that’s designed to instill airline loyalty among passengers.
Cardholders can earn “miles” with the airline’s rewards program by:
- Taking flights
- Spending money on a co-branded credit card
- Making purchases with an airline partner, such as a car rental agency or online retailer
Once you’ve earned miles, you can then use them to book airfare with that airline. The number of miles required depends greatly on distance, demand, and fare class.
Just to give you a ballpark estimate, however, you might fork over 25,000 miles for a roundtrip domestic economy flight, and 50,000 for a roundtrip economy flight to Europe.
Though you can’t transfer miles between airlines, you can use one airline’s miles to fly with one of its partners. If you earn American Airlines miles, for example, you could use them to fly on British Airways, since the airlines are in the same “alliance.”
You’ll sometimes see “blackout dates” mentioned; these occur when you can’t use miles, and can only buy tickets with cash. They’re most common around holidays.
How Much Is a Credit Card Mile Worth?
Every travel rewards program values its frequent flyer miles/points a little bit differently, and even within a single rewards program, you’ll often get a different per-mile value depending on how you redeem. So there’s no simple answer here.
“Around 1 cent per mile” is a good starting point. Certain rewards programs, like Chase Ultimate Rewards will give you a cent per point (or more) when you redeem through their respective portals.
But even then, if you transfer your points to a partner loyalty program, you might be able to squeeze more than a penny in value out of each mile. In fact, with many airline rewards programs (including popular picks like Delta SkyMiles, Southwest Rapid Rewards, and United MileagePlus) you may be able to score a value of 1.5–2 cents per mile or more.
Still, everything circles back to one important fact: Your redemption value will often vary depending on how you redeem. Different programs treat miles differently, and everything about a flight — from your preferred class to the route itself — can impact redemption value even further.
Are Air Miles Credit Cards Right for You?
There are two basic types of air miles credit cards: co-branded airline cards and general travel cards.
Most major airlines partner with credit card issuers to offer co-branded cards to their customers. American Express issues Delta’s cards, for example, and Chase issues Southwest’s. When you use these cards to make purchases with their associated airlines, you’ll earn extra miles on every dollar you spend.
These co-branded credit cards also often offer travel perks like free checked bags, priority boarding, airport lounge access, and discounts on in-flight purchases.
Other cards aren’t affiliated with a particular airline, and instead earn points from the credit card issuer. Though they don’t have the airline-specific perks of co-branded cards, you can use their travel rewards points on a variety of airlines, rather than just one.
Most travel rewards cards — whether airline-specific or general — come with high annual fees and interest rates (APRs).
That’s why we only recommend rewards credit cards for people who plan to pay off their cards each month. By paying your statement balance in full, you’ll avoid paying any interest on your purchases.
All in all, air miles credit cards might be good if you:
- Fly frequently: If you find yourself flying one airline several times a year, it’s worth looking into a co-branded card. But if you fly a range of airlines, a general travel rewards or cash back card might be a better fit.
- Have good credit scores: Rewards cards have stricter requirements than more basic cards. Check your credit scores, and only apply if they’re in the suggested range.
- Will pay off your balance in full each month: Since travel rewards credit cards often come with high APRs, we strongly advise against carrying a balance on them. Paying interest can quickly negate any rewards you earn.
If you want to carry a balance on your credit card, consider getting one with a 0% APR introductory offer.
How Can Air Miles Credit Cards Help You Get “Free” Flights?
Remember those travel hackers we mentioned? Well, we can pretty much guarantee they’re using credit card signup bonuses to cover their flights and hotels.
You can earn signup bonuses by opening a card and spending a certain amount on it within three or four months. These bonuses can be quote large, often providing hundreds of dollars in value.
As noted above, when we say “spend money on a card,” we don’t mean carrying a balance. We mean making purchases on the card, paying them off when your bill comes — and avoiding interest.
Then, in addition to the intro bonus, you’ll earn miles for spending money on the card. Most cards earn at least one mile per dollar (commonly written as 1X mile/dollar) on all purchases, plus extra miles in particular categories — such as 2X miles/dollar when making purchases with that specific airline.
Just to be clear how this works, imagine a card that offers 60,000 bonus miles for spending $2,000 in the first three months.
- You apply for the card. A few weeks later, it arrives in the mail, and you activate it on March 1.
- The next few months, you put all your purchases — groceries, gas, gifts — on the card, earning 1X mile per dollar. Each month, you pay your bill in full.
- By June 1, you’ve put $3,000 in purchases on the card, earning you 60,000 bonus miles. You also earned 1X mile per dollar, for a total of 63,000 miles.
- You can now redeem those miles for a “free” Delta flight. When I looked, I found a great deal: a roundtrip from New York to Paris for 36,000 miles, plus $84 in fees.
Since the Delta card’s annual fee is waived for the first year , you just got a $500+ ticket for nothing more than fees. And don’t forget the card’s other perks, like a free checked bag and priority boarding.
When the card’s annual fee rolls around, you can decide to keep it — and pay the fee — or close the account, and pay nothing. Because you earned the miles with an airline (rather than points with a credit card company), you’ll be able to keep them either way, as long as your account remains active.
Now you see how it can be addictive?
How Air Miles Credit Cards Affect Your Credit Scores
Though it might surprise you, the truth is your credit scores won’t suffer too much when you apply for a new airline card (if they’re already in good shape). Applying for new credit dings your credit slightly due to the hard inquiry, but opening new cards can actually decrease your credit utilization (which is a good thing for your credit scores).
However, every time you open a new account you’ll shorten your average age of accounts and reset the time since your most recent account was opened. The only thing that can improve these credit score factors is time, so avoid opening several new cards in a short period if you want to improve your scores. Thankfully, these factors play a relatively small role in your credit scores compared to utilization and payment history.
If you’re considering an airline card, or any new card, make sure you understand credit scores inside and out — and keep careful track of your cards, statement due dates, and renewal dates. If you’re not getting enough value from an annual fee, consider closing the card.
And avoid applying for new credit if you want to get a large loan, such as a mortgage, in the next two years. In that case, every extra point on your credit scores could save you money.
As with any credit card, airline credit card issuers will check your credit before approving or denying your application. If you have poor or limited credit, you likely won’t qualify for a rewards credit card — and should instead focus on building or repairing your credit.
When choosing an air miles credit card, the most important step is determining which airline you fly the most. If your home airport is a hub for a particular airline, that’s a good place to start.
If you don’t fly one airline often, then consider a general travel rewards card.
Or consider getting both: Many people hold an airline card for its perks, plus a travel rewards card for its broad earning potential.
When deciding which card to get, you should analyze its annual fee, introductory bonus, perks, and potential to earn rewards. Most airline cards come in several versions, with annual fees that range from low to high.
You should also try to avoid cards with foreign transaction fees, which you’d pay when making purchases in another currency. (Unless otherwise noted, the cards below don’t charge foreign transaction fees.)
When you’re ready to apply for an air miles credit card and start earning rewards, here are seven of our favorites.
- Best for General Travel: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
- Best for Airlines and Hotels: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
- Best for Delta Air Lines: Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card
- Best for United Airlines: United℠ Explorer Card
- Best for Southwest Airlines: Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card
- Best for Alaska Airlines: Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Credit Card
Enjoy the Journey
Once you start traveling, you’ll probably never want to stop — and air miles credit cards can help you get there. But due to the addictive nature of the miles and points game, you should only dive in if you’ll use your cards responsibly. Treat your credit cards well, and they’ll reward you with plenty of exciting experiences and “free” travel opportunities.