Credit cards that offer airline miles were some of the first rewards credit cards offered and, to this day, there are few rewards more alluring than the prospect of a free flight. At the same time, consumers’ biggest complaint about these airline miles credit cards is that it can be extremely difficult for cardholders to redeem their miles for award flights at the lowest advertised levels.
To maximize your chance of earning a ticket with your rewards, there are two different types of airline credit cards that you can use. Many rewards credit card users now favor cards that allow them to earn points that can be transferred to many different frequent-flier programs. Furthermore, each airline program will then allow miles to be redeemed for flights on their own aircraft, as well as flights operated by their partners. This strategy can result in credit card rewards that can ultimately be redeemed for award flights on dozens of different carriers. This strategy expands your options.
But some cardholders still look to use cards that are co-branded with a single airline. This choice can make sense when travelers are already loyal to a specific airline, but also because airline credit cards can offer valuable perks when traveling with that carrier. These benefits can include free checked bags, priority service and access to the airport lounges. In fact, these additional benefits have become increasingly important as airlines reduce the services that they offer for free to all passengers.
How to Choose an Airline Miles Credit Card
Before you start shopping for a credit card, you must decide if you are looking for a card that offers points that can be transferred to miles with many different carriers, or a card that only earns miles with a single carrier. For those who are planning on flying a single carrier, or its partners, that company’s mileage card can be the best choice. But for those who prefer to earn rewards points that can be transferred to a number of different carriers, then it makes sense to avoid the airline-branded cards and focus on cards that offer flexible point systems that are tied to the card issuer, not an airline. Finally, you can also consider hedging your bets by accumulating miles from airlines that you fly, and complementing that balance by also earning bank rewards that can be transferred to those airlines.
Here are the winners of this year’s Best Airline Miles Credit Cards in America.
Why It Won: This card offers bonus levels of American Express Membership Rewards points that can be transferred to 16 different frequent-flier programs, and it also features attractive bonuses for spending.
The Rewards: Cardholders can earn triple points for up to $6,000 of annual spending at U.S. supermarkets, double points at U.S. gas stations, and one point per dollar spent on all other purchases. In addition, American Express offers cardholders 50% more points when they make at least 30 purchases during a single statement period (less returns and credits), which allows cardholders to receive 4.5 points per dollar spent at supermarkets, three points per dollar at U.S. gas stations and 1.5 points per dollar spent on all other purchases. This is a superior rate of return for points that can be transferred to frequent-flier miles with airlines such as Delta, Air Canada and Virgin America.
The Costs: There is a $95 annual fee for this card, and a 2.7% foreign transaction fee imposed on all charges processed outside of the U.S.
1st Runner-Up: United MileagePlus Club Card From Chase
Why It Won: This card is a leader of the pack by offering an exceptional amount of miles per dollar spent as well as superior benefits.
The Rewards: Cardholders earn double miles on all United ticket purchases, and 1.5 miles per dollar spent on all other purchases. Customers also receive unlimited access to United Club airport lounges as well as two free checked bags for themselves and a single companion. Other benefits include priority check-in, security screening (where available), boarding and baggage handling privileges. Finally, cardholders receive a waiver on their “close-in” award booking fees (booking a flight too close to the travel date), which are normally $75 per ticket.
The Costs: There is an annual fee of $450 for this card, and no foreign transaction fees.
2nd Runner-Up: Starwood Preferred Guest Card From American Express
The Rewards: The Starwood Preferred Guest card offers miles in the loyalty program of Starwood hotels, but many people use this card as an airline rewards card since it allows transfers of points to miles with nearly 30 frequent-flier programs. Cardholders earn just one point per dollar spent on all purchases, with additional bonuses for spending at Starwood properties, which include Westins, Sheratons and other brands. This program also offers a 5,000-mile bonus when members transfer 20,000 points at once so the effective rate of return is 1.25 miles per dollar spent. In addition, points can also be redeemed for free nights at Starwood hotels.
The Costs: There is a $95 annual fee for this card, which is currently waived the first year, and new this year are no foreign transaction fees.
Most of the best airline credit cards require good to excellent credit scores in order to qualify. You can check your credit scores for free every month on Credit.com to see where you stand.
Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.
At publishing time, the American Express Everyday Preferred and the Starwood Preferred Guest Card From American Express are offered through Credit.com product pages, and Credit.com is compensated if our users apply for and ultimately sign up for any of these cards. However, this relationship does not result in any preferential editorial treatment.
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