The best credit card for airline miles largely depends on your airline loyalty (or lack thereof) and how flexible you want your rewards to be. There are two types of credit cards for airline miles: co-branded airline credit cards and general travel credit cards that allow you to book flights directly with airlines or via points transfers.
While all that might sound complicated, it’s important to understand the nuances of airline cards to ensure you get the best one for you. Here’s how to find the best credit card to help you fly for free — as well as some things to consider.
Earning vs. redeeming miles
When it comes to airline credit cards, it’s important to understand the difference between the value you get in earning miles and redeeming them. If you’re looking to rack up miles directly with your favorite airline, a co-branded airline credit card may be the best fit.
But if you want to focus on redemption options and flexibility, you may be better off with a general travel rewards card that allows you to transfer your hard-earned rewards to multiple airlines. That setup gives you more options for your specific itinerary and the chance to potentially squeeze more value out of each mile you redeem.
Best credit cards to earn airline miles
If your priority is to focus on earning points or miles with one airline, your best bet may be to get one of the airline’s co-branded credit cards. If you’re not loyal to any one airline but want to be, here are some cards to consider.
|Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express Card
||$99 (waived first year)|
|Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard
|$99 (waived first year)|
|Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority
||$95 (waived first year)|
Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express Card
Annual fee: $99 (waived first year)
Welcome offer: Earn 35,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months.
Rewards: 2X miles on purchases made directly with Delta, at restaurants, and at U.S supermarkets; and 1 mile per $1 spent on all other eligible purchases. Delta SkyMiles are generally worth about 1.2 cents each, on average.
Other benefits: As a Gold Delta SkyMiles credit cardholder, you’ll get one free checked bag for you and up to eight others on your reservation. You’ll also get a 20% discount on inflight purchases, priority boarding, no foreign transaction fees, and more.
Learn more about credit cards for frequent Delta flyers.
Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard
Annual fee: $99 (waived first year)
Welcome offer: Earn 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage bonus miles after spending $2,500 in the first 3 months. The card’s big sign-up bonus gives new cardholders an incredible opportunity to earn a lot of American Airlines miles fast.
Rewards: 2X miles at gas stations and restaurants, and on American Airlines purchases; and unlimited 1X miles on all other purchases. AAdvantage miles are worth roughly 1.4 cents apiece, on average.
Other benefits: In addition to a big sign-up bonus and the chance to rack up bonus miles on select everyday-spending categories, you’ll also get plenty of perks with the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard. For starters, you’ll get one checked bag free for you and up to four others on your reservation, preferred boarding, and a 25% discount on eligible inflight purchases.
You’ll also earn a $125 flight discount when you spend $20,000 in a year and renew your account. The card charges no foreign transaction fees.
Annual fee: $99
Welcome offer: Earn 40,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 on purchases in the first 90 days.
Rewards: 6X points on JetBlue purchases, 2X points at restaurants and grocery stores, and 1X points per $1 spent on all other purchases. JetBlue points are worth about 1.3 cents apiece, on average, and if you fly a lot with the airline, you’ll earn rewards much faster than most other airline cards.
Other benefits: JetBlue Plus cardholders can earn Mosaic status, which includes free changes and cancellations, two free checked bags, early boarding, complimentary alcoholic beverages, and more, after you spend $50,000 in a year.
You’ll also get 5,000 bonus points every year, a 50% discount on select inflight purchases, a free first checked bag for you and up to three others on your reservation, and a $100 annual credit toward a JetBlue Vacations package of $100 or more. The card has no foreign transaction fees.
Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card
Annual fee: $149
Welcome offer: Earn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months.
Rewards: 2X points with Southwest and on Rapid Rewards hotel and car rental partner purchases and 1X points on all other purchases. Depending on where you look, Rapid Rewards points are worth between 1.3 cents to 1.5 cents each, on average. While the card’s rewards aren’t the most generous on the market, you’ll also receive 7,500 bonus points every year.
Other benefits: In addition to a decent sign-up bonus and annual bonus points, Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority cardholders get an annual $75 Southwest travel credit. You’ll also be reimbursed for up to four upgraded boardings — that’s positions A1 through A15 — but only if you purchase the upgrade at the departure gate or ticket counter on your departure date. The card doesn’t have any foreign transaction fees.
United Explorer Card
Annual fee: $95 (waived first year)
Welcome offer: Earn 60,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months.
Rewards: 2X miles at restaurants and delivery services, hotel accommodations booked directly with the hotel, and eligible United purchases; and 1X miles on everything else. MileagePlus miles are generally worth between 1.3 and 1.4 cents apiece, on average, depending on how you redeem.
Other benefits: While the United Explorer Card offers chances to earn MileagePlus miles quickly, it provides a lot more value through its perks. As a cardholder, you’ll get one free checked bag for you and one other person on your itinerary, priority boarding, a 25% inflight discount, and two complimentary United Club passes each year that you can use to get into the airline’s lounge.
You’ll also get an application fee credit for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry, complimentary upgrades for Premier members, primary rental car insurance, and several other trip protections. There are no foreign transaction fees.
Learn more about credit cards for frequent United flyers.
Best cards to redeem airline miles
While co-branded airline credit cards are great for earning miles, they may not provide the most value on the redemption end. Frequent flyer miles can be devalued at the airlines’ discretion, and if you stay loyal to just one airline, your rewards could lose their value over time.
Also, if you move to a different city where another airline has a bigger presence or you simply switch your loyalty to another company, having dedicated all of your energy toward earning with just one airline could make the switch more difficult.
As a result, some credit card users may be better off with a general travel credit card that allows you to transfer your rewards to a range of airlines, giving you the chance to diversify your rewards and potentially get more value with certain redemptions. Here are our top picks.
|The Platinum Card from American Express
|American Express Gold Card
|Capital One® Venture® Rewards
|Chase Sapphire Reserve
The Platinum Card from American Express
Annual fee: $550
Welcome offer: Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $5,000 in the first 3 months.
Rewards: 5X points per dollar spent on eligible airfare and hotel purchases, and 1X points per dollar on all other eligible purchases.
When redeeming your points, you can transfer them to one of many domestic and international airlines, including Delta Air Lines, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Singapore Airlines, Air France / KLM, and more.
Other benefits: The main value of The Platinum Card from American Express — a luxury charge card — lies in its perks. Cardholders will get an annual $200 airline fee credit, up to $200 annually in Uber credits, up to $100 in Saks Fifth Avenue credits, an application fee credit for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry, complimentary access to multiple airport lounge networks, elite status and benefits with select hotel and car-rental companies, and more.
Even if you’re not using the card primarily for its rewards program, you could likely still get enough value to make up for its annual fee.
American Express Gold Card
Annual fee: $250
Welcome offer: Earn 35,000 Membership Rewards points after you make $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months.
Rewards: 4X Membership Rewards points at U.S. supermarkets (up to $25,000 per year) and at restaurants worldwide, 3X on flights booked directly with airlines or on Amextravel.com, and 1X on all other eligible purchases.
As with The Platinum Card from American Express — and also a charge card, like the Amex Platinum — you’ll have your choice to transfer points to one of many domestic and international airlines, giving you plenty of options regardless of your destination.
Other benefits: In addition to some incredible rewards on everyday spending categories, the American Express Gold Card also offers up to $120 annually in dining credits at select restaurants and food delivery services, a $100 annual airline fee credit, special benefits with The Hotel Collection, and no foreign transaction fees.
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Annual fee: $95
Welcome offer: Earn 50,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months.
Rewards: 2X miles on every purchase, every day. You can redeem your miles for just about any type of travel or transfer them to one of 15 airline partners, including JetBlue, Air France / KLM, Asia Miles, Qantas, Singapore Airlines, and more.
Other benefits: The Capital One Venture Rewards card also offers an application fee credit for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry and doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees.
Chase Sapphire Reserve
Annual fee: $550
Welcome offer: Earn 50,000 points after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months.
Rewards: 10X points on Lyft rides, 3X points on travel (excluding $300 travel credit), 3X points at restaurants, and 1X points per $1 spent on everything else.
You can use your points to redeem flights through Chase Ultimate Rewards and get 50% more value out of your rewards or transfer them to one of several airline partners. Examples include British Airways, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, and more.
Other benefits: The Chase Sapphire Reserve also offers a $300 annual travel credit, complimentary access to Priority Pass lounges, an application fee credit for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry, a $60 annual DoorDash credit in 2020 and 2021, a complimentary year of Lyft Pink membership, and other premium travel perks.
Annual fee: $495
Welcome offer: Earn 50,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 within 3 months of account opening.
Rewards: 5X points on airline purchases and restaurants; 3X points on hotels and cruise lines; and 1X points on all other purchases. You can transfer your hard-earned rewards to several airlines, including JetBlue, Virgin Atlantic, and Singapore Airlines.
Other benefits: The Citi Prestige also provides users with other elite benefits, including a complimentary fourth night free on hotel bookings of four or more consecutive nights, a $250 annual travel credit, complimentary access to Priority Pass lounges, an application fee credit for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry, and more.
How to choose the best credit card for airline miles
With so many airline credit cards available, it’s important to think about your travel habits and preferences. If, for example, you anticipate staying loyal to one airline, getting the airline-specific benefits from a co-branded card may be the way to go.
But if you like the idea of being a free agent and always getting the best deal possible, you may be better off picking a card that gives you that flexibility. In some cases, it may also be worth considering having more than one of these cards in your wallet. Many of them offer bonus rewards on different spending categories and valuable perks that you can combine to gain a better overall travel experience.
If you’re considering that path, however, run the numbers to make sure the cards’ annual fees aren’t stopping you from getting value.
Best Luxury Travel Benefits
- 60,000 Membership Rewards point welcome offer
- 5X points on eligible flights and hotels
- $15 in free U.S. Uber rides each month ($20 in December)
- $200 airline fee credit each year
- Access to Centurion and Priority Pass airport lounges
- Terms apply