Smart Travel

The Best Credit Cards for Airline Miles

by Chris Wallace  |  Published February 12, 2018

These days the process of selecting a credit card is not a matter so simple as whether Visa or Mastercard is the best fit. There are many premium credit cards on the market, and they all offer incentives for new signups. For today’s purposes we’re going to focus on those cards that offer airline miles as part of the package.

What to consider when selecting your airline miles credit card

Variety and flexibility are key. First and foremost you’ll want a card that allows customers to accrue miles on not just one airline, but many. Second, you’re going to want to look at those cards whose airline miles never expire. There are few things worse for the international business traveler than finding out that a number of miles have evaporated into thin air simply due to inactivity.

Restrictions on miles are inconvenient as well. So make sure to choose a card offering miles with no blackout dates. Ditto for cards that place caps on the amount of miles the cardholder can accrue. It’s also savvy to look at those cards that offer incentives for their annual fee, such as 0% for the first year you own the card. The miles credit cards we’ve listed here all offer some combination of these incentives, as well as other attractive rewards.

Chase Sapphire Preferred

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Chase’s Sapphire card makes our list because it meets a number of the criteria mentioned above. It is consistently ranked as one of the most flexible travel rewards cards around, as evidenced by its airline miles flexibility. Cardholders earn points called Ultimate Rewards, and they earn two points for every dollar spent. These points represent about $1.25 cents each (most other rewards programs top out at a single cent), and can be redeemed for any number of travel rewards, including hotel stays and airline miles. And there are quite a few airline rewards programs that have partnered with Chase. These include:

  • British Airways Executive Club
  • Korean Air Skypass
  • Virgin Atlantic Flying
  • United Mileage Plus
  • Flying Blue Air France
  • Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer
  • Southwest Airline Rapid Rewards

So cardholders can redeem their points for miles from any of the providers listed above. Bear in mind that all transfers are in 1,000-point blocks. Chase Sapphire Preferred also offers a $625 signup bonus for those who spend $4,000 on the card in the first three months. This nets you 50,000 points, which represents $625. They’ll also wave the annual $95 fee for the first year.

United TravelBank Credit Card

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Continuing with the flexibility theme, United Airlines has partnered with Chase to offer a travel rewards credit card. It’s currently being marketed to younger consumers who are looking for a rewards card but don’t want to pay an annual fee. That’s right, the TravelBank card eschews yearly charges altogether, which makes it a more attractive option than United’s other rewards cards—Mileage Plus Explorer and the Mileage Plus Club Card—which charge hefty annual fees.

The TravelBank card does things a little differently in other areas as well. For example, instead of earning airline miles for making purchases on the card, each transaction nets the cardholder 1.5-2% cash back. These are called “TravelBank” dollars, and one represents one dollar in airfare. So cardholders can redeem their TravelBank bucks for airline tickets, seat upgrades and checked-baggage fees.

The card is also flexible in that folks don’t have to accumulate sufficient TravelBank dollars to cover the entire purchase; they can pay for a portion of it. For example, if a customer has enough TravelBank dollars to cover $150 of a $300 flight, he or she can pay the first half in TravelBank dollars and the rest on their TravelBank card. In general cash-back credit cards are attractive to many consumers, and the TravelBank card is one of the best.

Citi AAadvantage Executive Card

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American Airlines has partnered with Citibank to offer the Rolls Royce of travel rewards cards. Let it be known that the AAadvantage Executive Card is geared towards those with the means to pay steep annual fees—$450 per year, to be precise. But what cardholders get for that $450 is almost unparalleled. Some perks include:

  • Two miles for every $1 spent at American Airlines (one mile for every other purchase)
  • First bag checked free for up to eight passengers
  • Admirals Lounge access
  • TSA/Global Entry fee reimbursement

Other incentives include 75,000 bonus miles if you spend $7,500 on the card in the first three months. This translates into up to 10 awards flights, as 7500 miles represents about one one-way domestic flight. Those who’d rather bank their miles can do so, and once they’ve accumulated enough they can redeem them for first-class seat upgrades in any OneWorld partner airline—of which 15 airlines are members.