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One question I hear often is “what is the best credit card for airline miles?” The answer like the answer to everything credit card related is that it depends. Different types of cards earn different types of miles which can be used in different types of ways. Luckily, you can simplify the search process by breaking down the different types of credit cards that earn airline miles. In this article, I’ll walk you through the the process of finding the best credit card for airline miles.
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How do airline miles work?
The way airline miles work is simple. You collect points for an airline and then redeem those points for flights on that airline or a partner airline depending on the award chart price.
While that’s simple enough it’s a little bit less clear how airlines miles work with respect to credit cards. However, there are basically three different ways that you can earn miles with credit cards: 1) transferrable points, 2) co-branded credit cards, and 3) statement credit “miles.”
Some of the best credit cards for airline miles are credit cards that earn points which can be transferred to different airlines. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred earns Ultimate Rewards that can be transferred to a number of quality transfer partners, such as United, Southwest, Singapore, British Airways, and others.
American Express is another solid transfer program that will earn you Membership Rewards that you can transfer out to other great airline partners like Delta, Aeroplan, Asia Miles, Emirates, and many others. In fact, Amex might even have better airline partners than Chase.
Earning transferrable points has two great advantages.
Transferrable points give you a ton flexibility since you can choose where you want your points to go at the right time. Award prices change, plans get shaken up, and you never know what else might happen so it’s a good idea to leave yourself with some options for redeeming your points.
One great thing about transferring points is that you can transfer to them to some of the most valuable loyalty programs to book amazing first class flying experiences at outsized value. For example, I recently transferred Chase Ultimate Rewards to Singapore Airlines to fly on one of the most premier first class cabins in the world.
Co-branded credit cards
Co-branded credit cards will earn you points for a specific loyalty program. For example, the Chase Southwest credit card will earn you Southwest Rapid Rewards that you can utilize on Southwest flights.
But you won’t just be limited to a single airline with every card. This is because you can utilize airline partners and alliances. For example, I recently used American Airlines credit cards to earn AA miles that I then used to book first class tickets on oneworld partner, Qatar Airways.
So with co-branded credit cards you get some flexibility and potential for outsized value, it’s just not as much as you do with transferrable points.
Cards that earn “Miles”
There are also credit cards that don’t miles for different airlines. Instead, these credit cards earn “miles” that act as a statement credit which can be applied toward airline purchases (or other travel purchases). You lose out on the ability to redeem points for outsized value on first class flights but you gain the simplicity and ease of redeeming points for a statement credit.
With these type of credit cards, you don’t have to worry about award inventory or blackout dates. You simply put a travel expense on your card and redeem your points for it. A perfect example of this type of credit card is the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card.
What is the Best Credit Card for Airline Miles?
Here’s my list of of the best credit cards for airline miles:
- Chase Sapphire Preferred
- Chase Sapphire Reserve
- The Platinum Card® from American Express
- Barclaycard Aviator Red
- United MileagePlus Explorer Card
- Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Plus Card (to be added below soon)
- Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express
- Capital One Venture
Most of the good credit cards for airline miles are going to require you to have good to excellent credit.
Chase Sapphire Preferred
- 50,000 Ultimate Rewards after spending $4,000 in 3 months (+ 5,000 after adding authorized user)
- 2X on dining and travel
- Great purchase and travel protections
- Low annual fee
The Chase Sapphire Preferred is arguably the best credit card for airline miles for the the masses. That’s because it comes with a low annual fee (waived the first year) and a strong sign-up bonus of 50,000 points (plus 5,000 when adding an authorized user. You’ll also be earning 2X the points on dining and travel which can add up fast.
Chase Sapphire Reserve
- 50,000 Ultimate Rewards after spending $4,000 in 3 months
- $300 travel credit
- 3X on dining and travel
- Priority Pass access
- Great purchase and travel protections
The Chase Sapphire Reserve is arguably the best travel rewards credit card. It comes with a solid 50,000 point sign-up bonus, earns 3X on dining and travel, allows you to redeem points for travel at 1.5 cents per point, gives you primary rental car coverage (along with other great purchase and travel protections), and comes with a $300 travel credit.
The Reserve also gives you (and your traveling companions) lounge access at over 1,000 lounges around the world with Priority Pass. All of these perks make it very easy to make up for the $550 annual fee of this card. And that’s why I feature the Reserve as my #1 travel rewards credit card in my list of top travel credit cards.
Because this card so valuable and it’s subject to 5/24, it’s usually one of the first credit cards I recommend for people with established credit profiles.
The Platinum Card® from American Express
- 60,000 miles after spending $5,000 within the first 3 months (75K offer in Google Incognito and there are even methods to get 100K offers)
- Priority Pass, Centurion lounge, and Delta SkyClub access (when flying Delta)
- Hilton Gold and SPG Gold elite status
- 5X on airfare and 5X on hotels booked through the Amex Travel
- TSA Pre-Check/Global Entry $100 credit
- Annual fee: $550 (NOT waived first year)
Even the 60,000 offer on The Platinum Card® from American Express is among the highest bonus offers compared to the competition. And that’s worth a lot of points since American Express has arguably better transfer partners than Chase. With American Express, you can transfer Membership Rewards to airlines like ANA, Aeroplan, Cathay Pacific Asia Miles, British Airways/Iberia, Flying Blue, Delta, JetBlue, Etihad, Emirates, and several others.
If you’re able to utilize the $200 annual travel credit and the $200 in Uber credits, you’re looking at an effective annual fee of $150, which is fantastic considering the benefits listed above.
Barclaycard Aviator Red
- Earn 50,000 AAdvantage miles after your first purchase.
- Earn 2X on eligible American Airlines purchases
- First checked bag free for the primary cardmember and up to 4 companions on eligible bags when traveling on domestic itineraries operated by American Airlines
- Preferred boarding for the primary cardmember and up to 4 companions on their reservation
- Annual fee $95 (not waived)
The Barclaycard Aviator Red is definitely one of the best credit cards for airline miles. That’s because it offers a high sign-up bonus after just making a single purchase. You can buy a stick of gum and earn enough miles for a roundtrip to anywhere within the US in first class!
This offer is a bit like paying $95 for 50,000 AAdvantage miles, which is a great deal. This offer does at times rise to 60,000 so you might want to hold off until that higher bonus rolls around.
United MileagePlus Explorer Card
- High sign-up bonus (varies over time)
- Annual United Club lounge pass for two people
- Free checked bag and priority boarding
- Increased award inventory
The United MileagePlus Explorer card often comes with a high sign-up bonus of 40,000 miles or higher. In fact, the offer can be as high as 60,000 or 70,000 if you receive a special targeted offer. I personally love this airlines credit card because it comes with an annual United Club lounge pass for two people. So you can relax in a United Airlines lounge and enjoy complimentary drinks and food/snacks.
You’ll also get benefits like free checked luggage and priority boarding along with increased award inventory.
Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express
- Offers may be up to 60,000 miles
- $100 statement credit sometimes offered
- $95 annual fee waived the first year
- 2X on Delta purchases
The Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express is one of my favorite credit cards for quickly earning airline miles. I personally would wait until the 60,000 offer comes around (which is quite often). 60,000 Delta miles will put you on your way to earning enough miles for a one-way business class award to Europe.
I recently used 85,000 Delta miles to book a business class ticket on Virgin Atlantic and only ended up paying $5.60 for a $8,000 flight! This credit card often comes with a statement credit worth up to $100 which you can use to cover incidentals.
Capital One Venture
- 50,000 points after spending $3,000 within the first 3 months
- 2X on all purchases (redeemed towards travel)
- 10X at Hotels.com
- $59 annual fee waived the first year
The Capital One Venture is one of the best credit cards for airline “miles” because it gives you 50,000 points worth $500 as a sign-up bonus. So that’s $500 that you can use toward any flight on pretty much any airline. I’ve used the Capital One Venture on numerous occasions, including covering the high surcharges on award tickets like those on Emirates.
If you don’t want to hassle with learning how to transfer points or you don’t want to worry about searching for open award seats, then the Capital One Venture can be one of the best cards for earning miles.
Final word on the best credit card for airline miles
The best credit card for airline miles is one that comes with a decent sign-up bonus, strong bonus earning potential, and will earn you miles that you’ll actually use. If you can focus narrowing down your options by focusing on obtaining a good sign-up bonus on a card that will earn you lots miles that you know you’ll put to use, you’ll be able to find the best airline credit card for you. And as Consumer Reports suggests, don’t forget to consider cash back credit cards.
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Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and creator of the digital smart wallet, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned full-time credit card rewards/travel expert and has earned and redeemed millions of miles to travel the globe. His content has been featured in major publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, US News, and Business Insider. Find his full bio here.