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Best Airline Credit Cards

If you’re a frequent flyer who uses a credit card, it only makes sense to get an airline rewards credit card and get back some of what you spend on everyday purchases. Imagine being able to travel without breaking the bank. This is possible with the right credit card in your wallet, but only if you know how to maximize your reward points.

What is an Airline Credit Card?

With an airline credit card in your pocket, you’ll earn points or miles for every dollar spent, which can be redeemed for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises. Depending on the card, you’re also allowed to redeem these rewards for cash back, merchandise, gift cards or a statement credit – a major perk if you are low on cash. Use the credit card to pay your statement balance, or redeem for a gift card if you’re giving someone a gift.

As you compare options you’ll find generic airline credit cards which aren’t tied to a specific airline. In this case, your miles or points can go toward purchasing a ticket on any airline, whether you fly Delta, American or United.

On the other hand, some airline credit cards are co-branded and have partnerships with specific airlines. And unfortunately, these miles or points are only redeemable with certain carriers.

If you choose a co-branded credit card, there’s a smaller pool of airlines you can book with, but these cards aren’t a bad choice when chosen wisely. To get the most out of a co-branded credit card, you’ll need to choose one that partners with airlines flying to and from your city.

Discover the Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards

How to Earn Miles With Airline Credit Cards?

Since airline credit cards reward you for being a frequent flyer, every airline purchase you make with these cards earn a reward. But booking airfare isn’t the only way to earn points or miles. You’ll also earn miles when using the card for everyday purchases—although airline purchases typically earn more miles per dollar.

Let’s say you signed up for the United Mileage Plus Explorer credit card. Whereas every restaurant, grocery store, retail, and gasoline purchase with this card earns one mile per dollar, you’ll also earn two miles per dollar when using the card to book airfare with United Airlines.

This card also rewards you with bonus miles. Earn 40,000 bonus miles when you spend $2,000 in the first three months of opening the account. And if you add an authorized user, you’ll earn an additional 5,000 bonus miles.

To ensure you spend enough to earn the bonus miles, use an airline credit card instead of paying with cash or debit card when buying groceries, paying for entertainment, fueling your car, and shopping online. Another option, put your bills on autopilot and use the credit card for these payments (auto insurance, utilities, cell phone, etc.). Just make sure you pay off the card each month.

How Much Airline Miles Worth?

Airline miles, also known as frequent flyer miles, are the heart of an airline credit card. You might wonder, however, how much is an actual mile worth?

This is an excellent question, and in a perfect world, every accumulated mile would be the equivalent of one dollar in travel rewards. But it doesn’t work this way, nor is it that simple.

The value of a frequent flyer mile varies depending on the cash value of the airfare and the number of miles required to redeem a ticket. On average, expect the value to fall somewhere between $0.01 and $0.02 per mile.

Let’s say you’re flying from New York City to Los Angeles and the cash value of a roundtrip ticket is $450. And let’s say you need 25,000 miles before you can book this trip. In this scenario, your frequent flyer miles are worth $0.018, or just under $0.02 per mile (450/25,000).

Do Airline Credit Card Miles Expire?

The short answer is maybe.There’s no industry standard regarding the expiration of frequent flyer miles. Some credit card miles never expire whereas other miles expire after a period of inactivity. At the end of the day, you don’t want to lose miles you’ve earned, so utilize every opportunity to keep your account active.

Booking a flight is one of the easiest ways to prevent miles from expiring. If you’re not in a position to travel, redeem your miles for a low-value gift card, shop from your credit card’s online portal or provide your frequent flyer number when renting a car or booking a hotel room. As a rule of thumb, never stop learning or using accumulated miles.

Redeeming Airline Credit Card Miles

The redemption process for airline miles varies slightly depending on whether you have a generic airline credit card or a brand-specific credit card. Once you’re ready to cash in your miles, here’s what you can expect:

  1. Log into your credit card’s rewards program portal and view the number of points available for redemption
  2. Choose the option “book travel” and begin searching for flights, hotels, car rentals and cruises.
  3. Once you narrow down an itinerary, select “pay with miles” and book your travel. It’s that simple.

Keep in mind that while accumulated points and miles cover the cost of airfare, hotels and other travel, you’re responsible for certain fees and taxes. These out-of-pocket expenses are roughly the same regardless of class, so you might get more bang for your buck when redeeming miles for a first-class ticket.

Who Should Get an Airline Credit Card?

Even though these credit cards have their advantages, they aren’t the right fit for everyone. If you don’t travel frequently, chances are you won’t accumulate enough points for free travel.

Remember, airline credit cards reward customers with a greater number of points and miles when they use the card to book airline purchases. So ideally, you’ll want to be a frequent flyer and book many flights a year.

Think back to the example of traveling from Los Angeles to New York. Considering how the distance between these two cities is roughly 2,789 miles, you would have to pay for 4 1/2 roundtrip tickets to and from these destinations before you’re eligible for a single free roundtrip ticket.

That’s a lot of travel, and in all honesty, it doesn’t make sense to get a travel rewards card if you only fly one or two times a year. In this case, you might do better with another type of rewards card, such as a cash-back credit card.

Is an Airline Credit Card Rewards Right for You?

Not only should you assess how often you travel, but also your credit habits. In other words, how often do you use credit, and are you disciplined enough to pay off your balances each month?

Being a big spender can help you score the most reward miles. But frequent credit card usage isn’t without dangers. There’s the risk of accumulating debt, which can trigger financial problems and drive down credit scores.

So while you’ll want to use your airline credit card, take steps to minimize debt and protect your credit score too. Only charge what you can afford, and then pay off new charges in full every month. Come up with a spending plan at the beginning of each month, and monitor your credit card usage throughout the month to stay on budget.

How to Choose the Best Airline Credit Card?

Even though all airline credit cards work the same, no two cards are alike. When choosing a card, consider whether you’re loyal to a specific airline, or whether you choose airline carriers based on which one has the lowest price. If the latter applies to you, a generic airline credit card might work.

Then again, maybe you travel frequently between your city and a city with a major hub, resulting in flying with the same carrier each time. In this situation, an airline-specific credit card is worth looking into. You’ll earn more reward miles per airline purchase, plus receive a few airline perks along the way.

Here are tips for choosing the right credit card include:

  • Calculate your earning potential. Estimate how long it’ll take to accumulate travel miles based on where you travel and how often you travel, and then calculate redemption values based on the average price of airline tickets to frequent destinations.
  • Compare sign-up bonuses. Some credit cards give sign up bonus miles after you’ve spent a certain dollar amount within the first three months. These dollar amounts vary but can range from $2,000 to $5,000. Know the requirements for qualifying for bonus miles, and apply only for a card if you can realistically spend this amount in a short span of time.
  • Compare annual fees and travel benefits. Annual fees can be $100 a year or more. Read the fine print of credit card applications and know your cardmember benefits. Make sure annual fees justify the benefits you’re receiving.

Pros and Cons of Airline Credit Cards

There are good and bad things about airline credit cards, so it’s important to know what you’re getting into to avoid surprises. We’ve discussed some of the pros, but to reiterate:

  • Earn points or miles redeemable for travel (hotels, car rentals, cruises, and tours). Some airline credit cards also allow customers to redeem points for cash back, statement credit and gift cards.
  • Receive airline discounts when booking travel with the card (free checked bag, free Wi-Fi onboard, and discounts on food and drinks).
  • Enjoy airline privileges such as priority boarding and access to priority lounges.
  • Travel perks and protection. Receive complimentary travel protection which reimburses expenses incurred from a canceled flight or lost luggage, plus some cards include car rental insurance at no extra cost.

Cons of airline credit cards

  • The reward structure can be incredibly complex with some cards only offering rewards for certain purchases or implementing tiered rewards based on how much you spend. Carefully read the fine print of applications to understand how rewards work.
  • After the initial sign-up period, promotional offers become few and far in between with fewer opportunities to earn bonus miles or points.
  • Reward cards have higher costs than other cards, including annual fees which add up over time. Compare annual fees to minimize your costs.
  • Higher interest rates on purchases and balance transfers is another downside to airline credit cards. To get around this extra cost, get into a habit of paying off your credit card balances in full every month.
  • Some airline credit cards require an established credit history and high credit scores, which make these cards harder to get if you have less-than-perfect credit. Before applying for a card, call the credit card company and ask about minimum credit requirements for approval.
  • You might deal with earning and redemption restrictions depending on the card. Some reward credit cards only give miles or point on certain purchases, and they have a long list of blackout dates, which are dates when rewards aren’t available for redemption. Consider when you’re most likely to travel, and then make sure the credit card allows travel redemptions during this period.

How to Use an Airline Credit Card to Save Money?

Count the cost of getting an airline credit card. Annual fees can be $100, $200 or higher, so consider how often you’ll use the card and then determine whether the fee is worth it. Don’t get an airline credit card just for the sake of having one – get one only if you’ll benefit.

Ask yourself, do I use credit cards for everyday purchases, or only for emergencies? If you only use credit for emergencies, you’ll do better with a no-frills credit card. These credit cards don’t have a rewards programs, and in most cases, they don’t have an annual fee either.

Here’s how to maximize your savings…

  1. Consolidate or combine your credit cards.

If you’re currently spreading purchases across several reward credit cards, you might never accumulate enough miles or points for a reward. But if you transfer all your credit card balances to a single card and only use this card for purchases, you’ll rack up rewards quicker. Before transferring balances, shop around and compare balance transfer fees and interest rates

Keep in mind, however, you won’t earn points on balance transfers, nor do balance transfers count toward bonus miles.

  1. Sign-up with a loyalty program that partners with your credit card.

It might come as a surprise, but you’re allowed to double dip and maximize your savings. If your credit card partners with an airline or hotel loyalty program, you might be eligible to transfer points between your credit card and your loyalty program.

For example, you could sign up for the Delta SkyMiles credit card from American Express and then link this account with your Starwood Preferred Guest account. Under this partnership, you’ll earn Delta miles on Starwood Preferred Guest purchases—two miles for every dollar spent with Delta, and one mile for every dollar spent on hotels under the SPG program. Contact credit card companies before applying for a card to see if they have partnerships with other loyalty brands.

  1. Earn extra rewards with bonus categories.

Make sure you’re taking advantage of opportunities to earn bonus miles or points, which includes spending the minimum required to qualify for sign-up bonuses. This jumpstarts your reward balance putting you closer to a redemption. Additionally, keep an open eye on opportunities to maximize your rewards earnings. Your credit card company may occasionally run promotions offering bonus points on purchases with specific retailers or within certain categories. Call your credit card company every few months to see if they’re running any promotions.

Learn More about Travel & Airline Credit Cards

Conclusion – Final Tips on Airline Credit Cards

An airline miles credit card is an excellent way to save on travel, but these credit cards aren’t for everyone. You need to be a frequent traveler and a regular credit card user, or else you could end up paying annual fees and higher rates for nothing.

The takeaway:

  • Assess your spending habits to see if you’re a good candidate for these reward programs.
  • Familiarize yourself with different cards to learn their strengths and weaknesses. What is the annual fee? What is the card’s restriction? Does the card offer promotional bonuses?
  • Know the company’s travel policy. Are there times of the year when you’re unable to redeem travel rewards? Do miles expire? Can you earn miles on every purchase or just airline purchases?

Choosing an airline credit card is a big decision, so make sure you understand how specific cards work before sending in your application.