Whether you’re planning to stay in the U.S. or take a trip abroad, credit card points and miles can help you cover most of the cost of your flight. But not all rewards are created equal, and each major frequent-flyer program has a different take on how many points or airline miles it takes to get from point A to point B.
If you’re considering getting a new airline credit card or want to transfer points from your general travel rewards program to a partner airline, here’s what you need to know.
How many points you need for a free flight
Airline rewards programs have a dynamic pricing system. This means that the value of your points or miles can vary based on several factors as well as the cash price of the ticket. In other words, you can’t expect to get one cent per point or mile every time you redeem like you can with some general travel rewards programs.
A dynamic pricing system can make things more complicated when you’re trying to find out how much value you’re getting from a redemption. But depending on how you plan your trip, you could squeeze much more value out of your rewards than you could with a fixed pricing system.
If you’re wondering how many points it takes to get a free flight, it can vary based on a few different factors, including:
- Airline: Frequent-flyer programs all differ, and each one determines how many points or miles are required for a flight. This means that if you’re booking a flight from Los Angeles to New York, the number of points or miles required to get there will vary from airline to airline.
- Destination: If you’re flying within the U.S., you’ll typically need fewer points or miles to book a flight than if you were traveling internationally. Also, some domestic short-haul flights may be cheaper than other flights within the U.S.
- Travel dates: If you’re planning to fly during a peak travel season, such as the summer or holiday weekends, you may need more rewards to book your trip than if you were to travel during off-peak times. Also, flying over the weekend may be more expensive than traveling during the week.
- Ticket class: Economy tickets tend to be the cheapest across the board, so if you’re planning to book a first- or business-class ticket, you can expect to fork over more points or miles to make it happen.
To give you an idea of how many points you’ll need for a free flight, here’s what to expect from the top U.S.-based airlines:
|Airline||Domestic flights (each way)||International flights (each way)||Recommended credit cards|
|Alaska Airlines||Economy: 5,000 to 50,000 miles
First class: 15,000 to 70,000 miles
(Includes flights from the U.S. to Canada)
|Economy: 10,000 to 100,000 miles
Premium economy: 35,000 to 60,000 miles
Business: 27,500 to 160,000 miles
First class: 30,000 to 210,000 miles
|Alaska Airlines Visa® credit card
|American Airlines||Economy: 7,500 to 50,000 miles
Premium economy: 25,000 to 85,000 miles
Business/First: 15,000 to 130,000 miles
|Economy: 12,500 to 90,000 miles
Premium economy: 40,000 to 155,000 miles
Business: 25,000 to 195,000 miles
First class: 50,000 to 260,000 miles
|Delta Air Lines||No award chart||No award chart|
|Hawaiian Airlines||Main cabin: 20,000 to 130,000 miles
First class: 40,000 to 130,000 miles
Inter-island flights range from 7,500 to 20,000 for main cabin tickets and 15,000 to 30,000 for first class
|Main cabin: 27,500 to 140,000 miles
Business class: 47,500 to 130,000 miles
|Hawaiian Airlines® World Elite Mastercard®|
|JetBlue Airways||No award chart for JetBlue-operated flights; points required are based on the cash value of the ticket||No award chart for JetBlue-operated flights; points required are based on the cash value of the ticket|
|Southwest Airlines||No award chart; points required are based on the cash value of the ticket||No award chart; points required are based on the cash value of the ticket|
|United Airlines||No award chart as of Nov. 15, 2019||No award chart as of Nov. 15, 2019
Alaska Airlines has one of the more complicated award charts among the major U.S.-based airlines. If you’re traveling within the U.S. or to Canada or Mexico, the number of miles you’ll need is based on the distance you’re flying in miles.
For other international flights, however, the cost in miles depends on the region and which of the airline’s partners you’re flying with. If you’re thinking of booking a flight with Alaska or one of its partners, check the Alaska Airlines award chart to find out which partners have the lowest mile requirements.
To rack up more miles with Alaska Airlines, consider signing up for the Alaska Airlines Visa credit card. With it, you’ll buy one ticket, get one for just the taxes and fees (plus 40,000 bonus miles) after making $3,000 in purchases within the first 90 days (limited time offer), plus get 3X miles on eligible Alaska Airlines purchases and 1X miles on all other eligible purchases. The card also offers a companion fare certificate every year for $121 ($99 plus taxes and fees).
You can also transfer rewards earned with the Marriott Bonvoy program to Alaska Airlines at a 3:1 ratio.
American Airlines’ award chart is relatively straightforward. Simply choose where you’re flying from and you’ll get a full list of miles requirements based on your destination, fare class, and fare type (MileSAAver or AAnytime).
While MileSAAver awards are cheaper, you may run into limited availability. And in my experience, you’ll also see more layovers and red-eye flights. With AAnytime, on the other hand, there are no award restrictions, giving you more flexible and favorable ticket options.
To earn American Airlines miles, you can apply for any of the airline’s co-branded credit cards, including:
- Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard
- Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard
- AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard®
Check out a full comparison of the best credit cards for American Airlines before applying.
You can also transfer Marriott Bonvoy points to American Airlines at a 3:1 ratio.
Delta Air Lines
Unlike the first two airlines on our list, Delta doesn’t have an award chart, which makes it difficult to plan and know whether you’re getting the best value.
Based on our research, however, we found reports of main cabin fares as low as 4,500 miles each way within the U.S. and 25,000 miles each way for a trip to Korea. In first-class, we found international flights costing as much as 320,000 miles each way.
If Delta Air Lines is your preferred carrier, it may take some more research to make sure you’re getting the most bang for your buck. It can help if you’re flexible on your dates and even your destination. If you are, take some time to check different itineraries to see which one will give you the best result.
Also, after you submit your itinerary, click on “Price Calendar” at the top of the page to get five weeks’ worth of prices in one place.
If you’re looking to earn more Delta SkyMiles, you can rack them up easily with one of the following credit cards:
- Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card
- Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card
- Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card
- Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card
Check out the full comparison of the best Delta credit cards before choosing.
You can also transfer your American Express Membership Rewards points to Delta SkyMiles at a ratio of 1:1.
Hawaiian Airlines’ award chart has different rates for inter-island flights than it does for ones to the mainland U.S. and international flights. One quirk you won’t find with other airlines is that Hawaiian has up to eight levels in its main cabin, each progressively more expensive.
Also, you may qualify for a discounted award ticket, and you can upgrade to business or first class with miles.
To earn Hawaiian Airlines miles, consider the Hawaiian Airlines® World Elite Mastercard®. You’ll earn 70,000 bonus miles after spending $2,000 on purchases in the first 90 days, plus 3X miles on eligible Hawaiian Airlines purchases; 2X miles on gas, dining, and grocery store purchases; 1X miles on all other purchases.
You can also transfer Membership Rewards points at a 1:1 ratio and Marriott Bonvoy points at a 3:1 ratio.
JetBlue Airways doesn’t have an award chart for flights it operates, instead opting for a cost-based approach. In other words, the number of points required to book a flight is directly tied to the cash price of the ticket. Reward flights can be redeemed for as few as 5,000 points or less.
On JetBlue flights operated by Hawaiian Airlines, however, there is an award chart. On these flights, one-way economy fares range from 6,000 to 30,000 points within the U.S. and 30,000 to 50,000 points for international destinations.
If you’re flying business class, you’ll need 12,000 to 70,000 points for domestic flights and 70,000 to 120,000 for flights abroad.
You can earn JetBlue points with the JetBlue Card or the JetBlue Plus Card. Alternatively, you can transfer points from Amex Membership Rewards at a rate of 250:200 or transfer your Chase Ultimate Rewards at a rate of 1:1.
Like JetBlue, Southwest Airlines doesn’t have an award chart, instead basing its award flight values on the cash price of the fare.
For example, a one-way flight from Salt Lake City to Las Vegas might cost you $49 or 2,671 points, and a one-way flight from Dallas to Los Angeles could run you the same. With both those flights, you’re getting about 1.8 cents per point.
This setup can make it difficult to book award flights when tickets are expensive. But this also means award flights get cheaper when the airline runs fare sales.
You can earn Southwest points with the following credit cards (check out our full comparison of the best Southwest credit cards):
- Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card
- Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card
- Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card
You can also transfer Ultimate Rewards points to Southwest at a 1:1 ratio and Marriott Bonvoy points at a 3:1 ratio.
United Airlines no longer has an award chart. You'll need to search different routes and dates to find the best fares. In our searching, we found one-way domestic economy flights for as little as 5,000 points. We also saw a one-way economy ticket to Japan for about 35,000 points and one-way economy to London for 20,000 points.
You can earn United Airlines directly with the United Explorer Card or the United Quest Card. You can also transfer points to United from your Chase Ultimate Rewards account at a 1:1 ratio or Marriott Bonvoy account at a 3:1 ratio.
How do you use your credit card points for airline tickets?
Many credit card rewards programs offer points that can be redeemed for travel. Redeeming those points typically happens through the rewards portal of your applicable program. For example, Chase Ultimate Rewards points can be redeemed for flights, hotel stays, and more through the Chase travel portal.
In some cases, you may be able to transfer credit card points to the frequent flyer programs of different airlines. This option for using points would also typically be available in your credit card loyalty program’s rewards portal.
What are the best credit cards for airfare?
The best credit cards for airfare are typically cards that earn bonus points on travel purchases and offer travel redemptions that include flights. Here are a few cards to choose from:
- Chase Sapphire Preferred
- Chase Sapphire Reserve
- The Platinum Card® from American Express
- United Quest Card
To learn more about these types of cards, check out our list of the best airline credit cards.
How much does a round-trip flight cost when you use points?
The award cost for a round-trip flight depends on a variety of factors, including the type of rewards you use, which airline you fly, and what your flight route is.
For example, a round-trip flight from Los Angeles, U.S. to Las Vegas, U.S. could cost as little as 10,000 United miles or around 8,500 Ultimate Rewards points if you’re a Chase Sapphire Preferred cardholder and you book the same flight through the Chase travel portal. Read our full Chase Sapphire Preferred review for more information.
The bottom line
Depending on where you want to fly, one airline may be better than another. That’s why the best travel credit card might be a general one that earns rewards in programs such as Amex Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards. These rewards programs allow you to transfer your points to multiple airlines, so you can always take advantage of the best deal.
This arrangement gives you a lot of flexibility when trying to find the right price for a flight, especially if you’re traveling internationally. And remember, if you’re ever short just a few thousand miles, you do have the option to buy the difference, though this strategy is often best used sparingly.