What To Look For In A Travel Rewards Card
Earn free flights when you choose the air miles card with the best rewards
If you travel often, you want to get rewarded for all the money you spend on airfare and other travel expenses.
And if you choose the right air miles card, those rewards can quickly add up to a free flight on your next adventure.
When you book a flight, you'll often get an offer for the airline's credit card—and it may be tempting to sign up on the spot to start earning miles ASAP.
If you're not careful though, you could end up with a credit card that doesn't even earn enough miles to make up for its high-interest rates or steep annual fee.
But if you know which air miles cards (sometimes called "air mile credit cards") are worth signing up for, you can save money on your next trip and earn extra perks along the way.
We researched some of the best air miles credit cards on the market to find which cards will help you earn and redeem miles swiftly and easily.
Here are some tricks on what to look for.
Consider how rewarding the card will be now and in the future
When choosing an air miles credit card, it's important to consider how miles are earned and whether that aligns with the way you travel.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself before deciding which air miles credit card is best for you:
Are you loyal to one airline? If you always fly the same airline for business or you live near a hub, a branded airline card (like the Gold Delta SkyMiles Card from American Express or the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card) might be right for you.
Otherwise, you may be happier with a more flexible card.
Do you love a bargain? If you enjoy the thrill of searching for the best deal on airfare, then you'll probably be happier with a more flexible credit card that lets you redeem your miles or points on any flight, with any airline.
Will you rack up points on everyday purchases? Air miles cards typically offer bonus points on airfare purchases—but if you only travel a few times each year, make sure you also understand how many points or miles you'll earn on everyday, non-travel related purchases.
Are there foreign transaction fees? If you're looking at air miles credit cards, chances are, you enjoy traveling—so you probably don't want a card that charges a foreign transaction fee when used outside the U.S.
Is it worth the annual fee? For most air miles credit cards, 100 miles can be redeemed for approximately $1 worth of travel. So if an air miles card has an annual fee of $95, you'll need to spend between $5,000-$10,000 just to recoup that cost.
"The truth is, there are a slew of ways to earn airline miles that don't require spending money on airfare or jumping through a lot of hoops," writes Holly Johnson at TheSimpleDollar.com.
Find an air miles reward card that rewards you on the ground—not just in the air—and you'll earn free nights faster.
Don't limit your options to specific airline credit cards
If you're loyal to one particular airline, a branded airline credit card can be a great way to earn bonus miles for the money you spend with that airline, along with perks like priority boarding or discounts on in-flight purchases.
But branded airline credit cards aren't the only way to fly.
Here's why you should shop around before committing to one airline's credit card:
Everyday rewards are weak. Typically, branded airline cards offer 1 mile per dollar on all non-airline purchases. So unless you fly on that airline several times a year, you'll cap out at earning 1 mile per dollar on your everyday purchases.
Bank cards have more flexible options. For example, you may find a cash back card that offers 5% back on purchases in certain spending categories or a flexible travel rewards card that offers 3x points on gas and dining.
Plus, you can still use those rewards to pay for airfare—you'll just earn them a lot faster.
"Airline cards typically aren't as generous with rewards as bank cards," writes ConsumerReports.org. "As a result, it can be difficult to accumulate enough points to get a free flight through purchases alone."
If you don't fly on one specific airline often enough to rack up mileage, a flexible credit card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Capital One Venture Rewards will be a better and more rewarding choice for you.
The best credit cards earn air miles quickly and make them easy to
redeem—that's how we picked them
When choosing the air miles credit cards with the best rewards, we considered a few key factors:
Generous sign-up bonuses. Unless you're a jet-setter, you'll probably rely on a big sign-up bonus to get you enough points for your first free ticket.
For example, the Discover it Miles credit card has flexible redemption and no annual fee—but there's no sign-up bonus, so you'd have to spend $20,000 or more just to catch up to other air miles cards.
Flexibility. As we mentioned above, branded airline credit cards tend to accrue miles slowly on everyday purchases—so before you apply for an airline credit card, see what other perks (like waived baggage fees or in-flight discounts) you'll get elsewhere.
Reasonable interest rates. If you carry a balance from month to month, a high APR can chip away at any air miles rewards you've earned. Look for a low-interest credit card to maximize your rewards.
For example, if you spend $5,000 on an air miles credit card, you'll earn about $50 toward travel expenses.
But according to the a minimum payment calculator, if you only pay the minimum payment on that $5,000, it'll take more than a decade to pay off and you'll rack up $4,771 in interest, which isn't worth it.
When it comes to the best credit cards for any type of travel rewards, it's hard to beat the flexibility of the Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card.
Earning points with this travel reward card is easy, and you can redeem your points for airline miles or statement credits.
Chase Sapphire Preferred
Takes the guesswork out of earning and redeeming points
Not sure where you'll be traveling this year, let alone which airline you'll be booking with? No worries—Chase Sapphire Preferred offers more options than its competitors. (And you're not limited to just airfare.)
Here are a few standout features:
Impressive sign-up bonus. Get a one-time bonus of 50,000 bonus points when you spend $4,000 in the first 3 months.
Stack your bonuses. Get a 25% bonus when you redeem points for travel purchases. If you apply your sign-up bonus to a hotel booking, for example, your statement credit will be worth $625 instead of $500.
Redeem points easily. Use the points you earn for airfare, hotels, car rentals, cruises, and more. You can even turn your points into miles—more on that below.
People rave about the points-to-miles transfer
When it comes to flexible travel rewards cards, there are a few strong contenders—so what sets Chase Sapphire Preferred apart? The clincher is its points-to-miles transfer option, which adds even more flexibility.
1:1 points-to-miles transfer. With Chase Sapphire Preferred, you can exchange 1 Chase rewards point for 1 mile in several airline loyalty programs, including Southwest Rapid Rewards and United MileagePlus.
Give your frequent flier miles a boost. Say you need 500 more miles on your Rapid Rewards account to earn a free Southwest flight. Spend $250 on dining this month on your Chase Sapphire Preferred card, and you'll earn 500 points.
Transfer them to your Rapid Rewards account, and you're ready to book that free flight.
Get free flights right away. Once your bonus points clear your account, you'll have enough points to reimburse yourself for $625 worth of travel—that's enough for a round-trip economy trip to many destinations in the U.S.
Consider how much you spend on travel and dining
Before you apply for the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card, make sure you can take full advantage of the bonus points earned on travel and dining.
Earning 2 points per dollar on those purchases is the best way to maximize how many points you earn.
If you rarely spend in those categories, you may be more interested in the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard or the Capital One Venture Rewards credit card, both of which offer 2 points per dollar on every purchase.
The Capital One VentureOne Rewards card
The best air miles card with no annual fee
Annual fees are common among air miles credit cards, but they can be a dealbreaker for some customers. If you're on a tight budget, it may be hard to justify spending $100 a year just to keep a card in your wallet—no matter how good the perks are.
That's where the Capital One VentureOne Rewards credit card stands out.
Capital One VentureOne is the perfect "starter" card for earning air miles
If you're not sure whether you'll earn enough miles to make an air miles credit card worth the annual fee, the VentureOne card is a great way to get started in earning miles.
It's a flexible travel rewards card, so your miles can be redeemed for a statement credit. And with no annual fee, you won't have to worry about spending enough to recoup the fee.
Here are the main benefits of this card:
No annual fee. That one was obvious, right?
Decent sign-up bonus. Earn 20,000 bonus miles when you spend $1,000 in the first 3 months.
This one-time bonus isn't huge, but it's easy to hit the spending threshold, and it equates to $200 in travel credits—not bad for a free card.
Reliable rewards. Earn 1.25 points for every dollar you spend. Again, it's not huge, but it's a solid earn rate.
You don't have to spend a lot to get rewarded
If you're not a big spender, this card is a perfect way to earn slow-and-steady rewards. Here's what customers love about it:
No need to offset an annual fee. Say you're earning 2 points per dollar on a flexible travel rewards card. If that card has a $95 annual fee, you need to spend $4,750 just to earn back that $95.
Low spending threshold. Big sign-up bonuses usually require big spending—typically $1,000 or more per month for the first 3 months. The $1,000 threshold on Capital One VentureOne is much easier to hit—it's about $333 per month.
Charge your cable bill, your family phone plan, and one week's groceries to the card, and you're probably good to go.
Interest-free balance transfers. CapitalOne VentureOne Rewards offers an introductory 0% APR on balance transfers for the first 12 months, which gives you a year to lower your debt without racking up interest.
You might just save enough in interest to pay for your next trip.
Reasonable interest rates. Even after the introductory period is over, VentureOne is a low-interest credit card with rates as low as 12.99% APR, depending on your credit history.
The low "earn rate" can be frustrating
Capital One VentureOne Rewards is perfect for people who are on a tight budget or still building their credit history.
But if you have excellent credit and typically spend enough to offset a $95 annual fee, you may want to consider applying for the Capital One Venture Rewards credit card instead.
A step up from the VentureOne card, Venture offers a 40,000-mile sign-up bonus and extends 2 points per dollar on all purchases.
When deciding which card is better for you, consider how much you spend each month. If you spend $10,000 or less per year, stick with VentureOne so you don't have to worry about recouping the annual fee.
Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard
The best for earning free flights fast
The Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard combines a consistent earning structure and easy-to-redeem miles for an all-around solid air miles credit card.
Flexible redemption lets you take advantage of airfare bargains
Here's the thing about most airline credit cards:
If you've ever scored a $34 plane ticket at a promotional rate from one of the discount airlines, it's kind of hard to get excited about redeeming 60,000 frequent flier miles for a one-way domestic ticket.
The Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard is the perfect fix. Here's why:
Book anything, at any rate. Your miles can be used to book not just airfare and hotels but also a rental villa, timeshare, or campsite.
If it shows up on your statement as a travel purchase, you can apply your miles toward it.
When you see a bargain, grab it. No need to stick with a particular airline or worry about blackout dates—with the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard, if you see a crazy-low airfare deal, you can book it now and apply your miles for a statement credit later.
Your miles go a lot further. You'll only need to "burn" 3,400 miles to get a statement credit for that $34 plane ticket we mentioned.
Cardholders love how easy it is to earn miles
The Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard gives you multiple ways to accrue miles quickly:
Straightforward earning. Earn 2 miles per dollar on every purchase, in any spending category.
Bonus points for travel spending. Earn an extra 5% when you redeem for travel. For example, the 40,000-mile sign-up bonus, usually worth $400, is worth $420 when you apply it toward a travel purchase.
Earn miles by being helpful. Share your travel stories at BarclaycardTravel.com and you'll earn miles without spending a dime.
Beware: Barclaycard "miles" aren't really miles
Before you apply for the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard, it's important to understand that Barclaycard miles are really more like typical rewards points—in other words, your miles don't transfer directly to any airline.
To redeem your miles for a free flight, you'll need to book your airfare using your Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard, then apply your miles as a statement credit for the purchase.
It's no big deal—and fast rewards more than makeup for that one little snag.
Capital One Spark Miles for Business
The best for business travelers
If you travel often for business, it's especially important to find an air miles credit card that rewards you for your time on the road—er, in the air—so you can reward yourself with free flights when vacation time rolls around.
Get bonus points for business travel
In many ways, the Capital One Spark Miles for Business is a lot like the CapitalOne Venture and VentureOne cards—but there are a few key reasons it earned its own spot on our list.
Even bigger sign-up bonus. Get 50,000 miles when you spend $4,500 in the first 3 months.
That's the steepest spending threshold on this list, but it's not out of the question if you charge your business expenses to the card.
Easy earning structure. Add Capital One Spark Miles for Business to the list of cards that offer 2 points per dollar, across the board.
Enjoy travel benefits. Cardholders receive Visa Business Benefits, including car rental insurance, purchase security, and emergency assistance.
Got employees? Earn even more. Add additional cardholders for free, and you'll earn miles on all of their purchases, too.
Customers love turning business expenses into personal perks
Investing in your business is important, but staring at expense sheets can be a little less painful when you know your rewards are piling up. Capital One Spark Miles for Business customers say they love that the card lets them earn miles toward their next vacation.
"I am a contractor and I use the card for all of my business and personal purchases," one reviewer writes in a review of the Spark Miles for Business card at the Capital One website. "I find the time and you help me find the money for a wonderful vacation."
Your credit limit may be lower than you'd like
Don't expect a sky-high credit limit when you apply for the Capital One Spark Miles for Business credit card—some customers report starting limits as low as $500.
Of course, this will depend on a number of factors, like your annual earnings and your credit history—but be prepared to start with a low limit and work your way up.
The American Express Gold Delta SkyMiles Card
It has the best perks for an airline card
With so many options for booking travel online, we believe travel rewards cards are usually the best type of card for earning air miles.
However, among air miles credit cards linked to a specific airline, the Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card—specifically its perks—stands out from the pack.
Earn SkyMiles even faster with the Gold Delta SkyMiles credit card
If you fly Delta frequently, the Gold card can help you earn frequent flier miles on everyday purchases, so you'll score free flights even faster. Here's how:
Two-tier sign-up bonus. Earn 50,000 SkyMiles when you spend $2,000 in the first 3 months, and an additional 10,000 SkyMiles when you spend another $1,000 in the first 6 months.
Earn double points on airfare. Get 2 SkyMiles per dollar spent at Delta, and 1 SkyMile per dollar everywhere else.
It's not the most generous reward structure—but this is geared toward frequent Delta customers.
The Gold Delta SkyMiles credit card gives frequent flyers the VIP treatment
The biggest perk of the Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card isn't just the ability to earn SkyMiles with everyday purchases—it's the special treatment you get when you fly Delta.
Get "extras" when you travel. No need to pay for priority boarding or your first checked bag—cardholders get those perks for free.
Discounted lounge access. Gold card customers can get access to the Delta Sky Club airport lounge for a discounted rate of $29 per person.
It's also worth noting that Delta offers a Delta Reserve credit card with a $450 annual fee.
The Reserve card offers free unlimited Delta Sky Club lounge access for the year—but other than that, the Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card has the same earning structure and a higher sign-up bonus, and it's only $95 per year.
If you don't fly Delta often, don't bother
The Gold Delta SkyMiles credit card only earns 1 mile per dollar outside of Delta purchases, so if you're not a frequent Delta flier, you probably won't get the most miles from this credit card.
But if you're a loyal Delta customer, you may want to apply for the Gold Delta SkyMiles credit card at the American Express website and start saving your SkyMiles toward free flights.
When choosing the best air miles credit card for you, consider the long-term rewards
When you book a flight, it can be tempting to sign up for the airline's credit card and start earning miles towards your next flight right away.
But if you don't fly often, you could end up unhappy with how slowly your miles are adding up.
Even worse, your annual fee could be higher than your earnings.
In that case, you may be happier with a flexible travel rewards card that doesn't limit you to one specific airline.
You'll earn more miles on your everyday spending, and those miles can be redeemed for a statement credit on any travel booking, without worrying about blackout dates—which means you'll be packing your bags for that free flight much sooner.
Do you have an air miles credit card you love?
Is it an airline card or a travel rewards card?
How has the company worked out for you?
Any great tips (or nightmares) to share with the rest of us?
Let us know in the comments below.