There are many kinds of travel rewards credit cards available, but most people still think about credit cards for airline miles, sometimes referred to as “mileage credit cards,” with their tempting offers of a “free flight.” Over time, the value of these reward flights have generally decreased as airlines continue to increase the number of points or miles needed, as well as the surcharges imposed when you redeem your miles. Nevertheless, there are still some good values offered by the latest airline credit cards. Of course, which card is best for you depends on a few factors: Do you fly a particular carrier every time you hit the skies? Do you spend enough to justify a big annual fee? Here, we’ll go over when an airline credit card may be right for your wallet and review our picks for the credit cards for miles.
How to Pick the Best Airline Credit Card
There are now two different types of credit cards that offer airline miles. The traditional kind are those that are co-branded with the airline and offer miles in their program. The rewards that these cards offer are only as strong as the frequent-flier program they are attached to, so it’s important to understand exactly how easy it is to use the miles before you decide to earn them. But, in addition, traditional airline credit cards can also offer benefits such as free checked bags, credit toward elite status and discounts on in-flight purchases.
The other type of credit cards that offers airline miles are those that offer points that can later be transferred to airline miles in one of several different programs. Many credit card users gravitate toward these kind of credit cards so they can redeem their miles with different airlines depending on their travel needs.
Which Type of Card Should You Pick?
If you are loyal to a single airline and want to earn the most possible miles with that carrier, you will probably want a traditional airline mileage credit card. This can also be a good choice for infrequent travelers who are looking for additional benefits on that carrier.
But if you are looking to avoid being tied to the terms of a single frequent-flier program, you should consider a card that offers points that can be transferred to multiple airlines. This is also a great option for sophisticated award travel enthusiasts who know how to find the best deals among the numerous airline partners that participate in these programs.
Before you start narrowing the field to pick an airline miles credit card, you should check your credit, because you generally need a good score to qualify for some of these rewards cards’ benefits. You can view two of your credit scores for free, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com. Also, it’s important to read the terms and conditions within the fine print of the card’s agreement so you know what you’re signing up for.
With that in mind, here are our picks for the best airline miles credit cards based on rewards value, annual fee, interest rates and more. We’ve broken the picks into two categories: Co-branded airline-specific credit cards and general purpose travel rewards credit card offering miles that can be used at various partner carriers.
Our Picks for the Best Co-Branded Airline Credit Cards
Why We Picked it: This card offers a whopping six times the points for JetBlue purchases, double points for purchases from grocery stores and restaurants and one point per dollar spent elsewhere. Benefits include a free checked bag, 50% off all in-flight purchases and the ability to earn Mosaic elite status after spending $50,000 on your card in a calendar year. Points can be pooled between family members and you even get a 10% rebate on the points you redeem, as well as a 5,000-point bonus every year on your account anniversary.
Signup Bonus: Cardholders can earn 30,000 bonus points after they spend $1,000 in purchases within the first 90 days of getting the card.
The Costs: There’s a $99 annual fee for this card and no foreign transaction fees.
Annual Percentage Rate (APR): Variable 12.24%, 20.24% or 25.24%, depending on creditworthiness.
Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card
Why We Picked it: The Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier credit card from Chase (see full review here) offers cardholders two times the points on Southwest purchases, plus one point everywhere else. Cardholders get 6,000 points on their card anniversary, plus a free first and second checked bag and no flight change fees. But the real kicker with this card is its signup bonus, which is the highest on this list when it comes to airline-specific cards and can get extra mileage, so to speak, because Southwest is a discount carrier.
Signup Bonus: Cardholders earn 40,000 bonus points if they spend $1,000 during their first three months.
The Costs: The card carries a $99 annual fee and no foreign transaction fees.
APR: Variable 16.24% to 23.24%
Why We Picked it: The Starwood Preferred Guest card offers reward points in the loyalty program of Starwood hotels, yes, but you can transfer these points to miles with more than 30 frequent-flier programs. Cardholders earn just one point per dollar spent on all purchases, but additional bonuses (up to five Starpoints per dollar) 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.
Signup Bonus: Cardholders get 25,000 bonus Starpoints after they spend $3,000 within the first three months.
The Costs: There is a $95 annual fee for this card, which is currently waived the first year, and no foreign transaction fees.
APR: Variable 15.49% to 19.49%
Our Picks for the Best Miles Credit Cards
Chase Sapphire Preferred
Why We Picked it: The Chase Sapphire Preferred (see full review here) offers two times the points back on travel and dining and one point back everywhere else. These points can be redeemed as statement credits or transferred to a number of partnering frequent flier and hotel loyalty programs, including United MileagePlus, Southwest Rapid Rewards and Marriott Rewards, at a one-to-one value. You also get ancillary benefits, like trip delay reimbursement and baggage delay insurance and, oh yeah, there’s a sweet signup bonus.
Signup Bonus: Cardholders can earn 50,000 bonus points if they spend $4,000 in their first three months — a bonus worth $625 if you redeem those points through Chase’s travel portal.
The Costs: There’s a $95 annual fee, waived the first year, and no foreign transaction fees.
APR: Variable 16.24% to 23.24%
Why We Picked it: Another solid general-purpose miles credit card, the Venture Rewards credit card (see full review here) offers unlimited two times the miles back on every purchase. One hundred miles equals $100 in travel rewards. Cardholders also receive complimentary concierge service, travel protection and room upgrades, early check-in and late checkout when available at partnering hotels.
Signup Bonus: Cardholders can earn 40,000 bonus miles (equal to $400 in travel) if they spend $3,000 in their first three months.
The Costs: There’s a $59 annual fee, waived the first year, and no foreign transaction fees.
APR: Variable 13.24% to 23.24%
Why We Picked it: Cardholders earn two times the miles back on all purchases, plus 5% miles back when they redeem, which can be used for their next redemption. Miles can be redeemed for travel or cash back statement credits. There’s also a sweet signup bonus.
Signup Bonus: Cardholders can earn 50,000 bonus miles — enough for a $500 travel statement credit — if they spend $3,000 in their first 90 days.
The Costs: There’s an $89 annual fee, waived the first year, and no foreign transaction fees.
APR: Variable 16.24%, 20.24% or 23.24%
At publishing time, the JetBlue Plus card from Barclaycard, Starwood Preferred Guest Card From American Express, Capital One Venture Rewards and Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard credit cards 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.
Note: It’s important to remember that interest rates, fees and terms for credit cards, loans and other financial products frequently change. As a result, rates, fees and terms for credit cards, loans and other financial products cited in these articles may have changed since the date of publication. Please be sure to verify current rates, fees and terms with credit card issuers, banks or other financial institutions directly.
Jason Steele contributed to this article.