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How to Choose the Best Airline Miles Credit Card 

Choosing the best credit card for airline miles can depend on many factors, including picking an airline, taking fees into consideration, and more.

By Samuel Greengard | American Express Credit Intel Freelance Contributor

6 Min Read | March 18, 2020 in Cards

 

At-A-Glance

With airline credit cards, you accumulate air miles that you can redeem for flights with a specific airline or its partners. 

Many airlines offer different tiers of credit cards with varying fees, sign-up bonuses, and perks such as airport lounge access and companion tickets.

A general-purpose travel credit card may be a good alternative if you want more flexibility to use miles on different airlines or as points toward other travel options.

If you like the idea of a free flight to your dream vacation hotspot, an airline miles credit card may help you achieve your goal. Airline miles credit cards help you accumulate points, called “air miles,” that you can redeem for free or discounted flights, although you still need to pay the standard taxes and fees. Some airline miles credit cards also offer an array of other benefits, including a free checked bag, priority boarding, and even a “companion” ticket that lets a family member or friend fly with you.

 

Airline miles credit cards are often a popular choice among frequent flyers. In reality, the benefits may appeal even if you travel less often and are simply looking for a way to earn free flights.

 

What are Airline Miles Credit Cards?

Many airlines offer airline miles credit cards, in partnership with credit card companies or banks. When you use one of these credit cards for purchases, you can earn air miles in the airline rewards program you’ve joined. Typically, every dollar you spend with the card gets you one air mile, but you may earn air miles at a higher rate when you buy flights or other items from the airline. You can also earn air miles in other ways, including, of course, flying with the airline.

 

Once you’ve earned enough air miles you can redeem them for flights with the airline or within an “alliance” of partner airlines. Today, many airlines apply what’s known as dynamic reward pricing, in which the number of air miles you need for a flight depends on the dollar price that you would have to pay for that ticket. You might need anything from a few thousand air miles for a quick domestic hop to well over 100,000 miles for some international flights.

 

5 Tips for Choosing the Best Airline Miles Credit Card

Choosing the best airline miles credit card depends on factors such as how often you travel, how and where you go, and which perks matter most to you. Here are five tips for choosing the best airline miles credit card for your needs.

 

 

1. Pick an Airline and Alliance That Flies Where You Want to Go

When choosing your airline miles credit card, it’s vital to think about where you want to go because you can generally only use your air miles for flights with one airline or its partners. Consider which airlines service the airport nearest to your home, and which routes they fly. One airline may whisk you to your domestic or international destinations much faster and more conveniently than a competitor.

 

2. Consider Baggage Fees

One of the key benefits of many airline miles credit cards is that you can check one bag free, helping you avoid baggage fees that can otherwise cost $30 or more. If you often check bags, this perk alone can offset the credit card’s annual fee. If you’re traveling as a family of four, for example, booking the flight with your credit card could save you $240 in baggage fees on a single round trip (assuming one checked bag per person, each way: 4x2x$30). But free baggage benefits don’t always extend to all the members of your party, so check with your card issuer. And, of course, if you typically take short flights and bring only a carry-on bag, this credit card benefit may not save you much money.

 

3. Take Advantage of Sign-up Bonuses

Some airline miles credit cards offer sign-up bonuses of 30,000 air miles or more if you meet spending requirements within a specific period. In some cases, that may be enough air miles for an international flight—helping you fulfill your dream of traveling to Paris or Cancun. Experts estimate that some bonuses can be worth $1,000 or even more.1 However, bonuses can vary widely, even for the same credit card—so keep an eye open for promotional offers.

 

4. Analyze Which Credit Card Tier Offers the Best Deal

Once you’ve decided which airline’s credit cards best suit your needs, it’s time to look at credit card tiers. Airlines may offer several tiers of credit cards with varying annual fees, bonuses and rewards. When choosing between them, it’s important to consider how well the benefits and annual fees at each credit card tier match your travel and spending goals. Basic credit cards with no annual fee accumulate air miles but may not offer some of the other key benefits of higher-tier cards.

 

Airline miles cards in the lowest tier typically offer benefits such as:

  • A free checked bag
  • Priority boarding
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • Insurance for trip delays or cancellations
  • Car rental insurance
  • Discounts or fee credits on in-flight purchases

 

Airlines miles cards in higher tiers may offer additional benefits including:

  • An annual companion ticket that lets you travel with a family member or friend, although taxes and fees are usually extra
  • Credits against fees for the U.S. Global Entry program, which streamlines entry into the U.S. from abroad, and the TSA PreCheck program, which includes priority security screening
  • Complimentary or discounted access to selected airport lounges, including food and beverages

 

5. Consider Alternative Types of Travel Credit Card

Although branded airline miles credit cards may suit you if you regularly fly with the same airline, they may not be as good a fit if you use a variety of airlines or if you’re looking to earn other types of reward such as hotel stays. Alternatives include general-purpose travel credit cards, which earn points that you can redeem for flights on participating carriers, typically without restrictions such as blackout dates. Some general-purpose travel cards also offer higher points earning rates of two-to-five points per dollar for specific types of spending. However, these credit cards may lack some of the perks offered by airline miles credit cards. Other options include hotel credit cards, which can earn points toward hotel stays.

 

The Takeaway

To choose the best airline miles credit card that meets your needs, invest some time analyzing how often you travel, where you’d like to go, and which perks matter most to you. The right credit card can help whisk you off to exotic locations faster, for less money, while reducing travel-related stress.

Samuel Greengard has traveled to 62 countries and 49 states while writing about business, technology and finance for numerous magazines and websites. He is the author of Virtual Reality (MIT Press, September 2019).

 

All Credit Intel content is written by freelance authors and commissioned and paid for by American Express. 

 

 

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