Credit
September 20, 2018

Best Airline Credit Cards 2018

Simple. Thrifty. Living.

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Nearly everyone has a dream destination to which they’d love to travel — ideally for free. According to advertisements and well-known points gurus, travel credit cards can be a way to make this happen. Consider a few key factors, though, before you start packing your suitcase.

There is a multitude of airlines, and with that, even more airline credit cards. Each has a rewards schedule based on dollars spent, points or miles earned, and redemption value. They all are generally structured in the same way but it can be difficult to determine under which card your dollars spent go the farthest (almost literally). At Simple. Thrifty. Living., we’re focused on finding ways to make the most of your money, so we decided to dig into the numbers behind travel credit card rewards.

First, we rounded up the most common airlines based in the United States and selected each one’s most common consumer rewards credit card. Here are the cards we used, including their overall travel reward earnings:

  • United Explorer MileagePlus: 2X miles on restaurants, hotel stays, and United purchases. 1X miles on every other purchase. Learn more.
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier: 2X miles on Southwest purchases and Rapid Rewards Hotel and Car Rental Partner purchases. 1X miles on every other purchase. Learn more.
  • JetBlue True Blue: 3X miles on JetBlue purchases. 2X miles on restaurants and grocery stores. 1X miles on every other purchase. Compare to other cards.
  • Blue Delta SkyMiles: 2X miles on Delta purchases and US restaurants. 1X miles on every other purchase. Learn more.
  • Alaska Airlines Visa Signature: 3X on Alaska Airlines purchases. 1X miles on every other purchase. Compare to other cards.
  • AAdvantage Platinum Select: 2X miles on gas stations, restaurants, and American Airline purchases. Compare to other cards.
  • Spirit Airlines World Mastercard: 2X miles on every purchase. Compare to other cards.
  • Frontier Airlines World Mastercard: 2X miles on Frontier Airlines purchases. 1X miles on every other purchase. Compare to other cards.
  • Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard: 2X miles on Hawaiian Airlines purchases. 1X miles on every other purchase. Compare to other cards.

We found the typical number of points/miles you’d need to redeem for the most common round trip flight across the US: Los Angeles, CA to New York, NY. We then calculated how much you’d have to spend on the credit card to earn such a flight using each card’s reward earnings schedule. With the JetBlue True Blue card, for example, you earn 3x points on JetBlue purchases and 2x points on money spent at restaurants and grocery stores, so we factored this into our calculations.*

It turns out that the budget airlines don’t always give you the best deal. When ranking the rewards credit cards based on how much you have to spend to earn a free cross-country, round-trip flight, Spirit Airlines landed at the top by a significant margin. You’d need to spend an estimated $37,500 to earn 75,000 miles to be able to cash in. The JetBlue True Blue card gives consumers the best value when looking at this metric, requiring them to spend less than half of what Spirit requires ($18,370). The rest of the credit cards landed somewhere between $18,000 and $30,000.

Many travel credit cards offer an early spending bonus when you spend a certain amount of money with your card within the first three months of having it. For example, the United Explorer card offers 40,000 bonus miles if you spend $2,000 in purchases in the first three months. That would be enough to earn you a free flight based on our study. Here’s a breakdown of the early spending bonuses each card offers:

  • United Explorer MileagePlus: 40,000 miles if you spend $2,000 in purchases in the first three months, as well as another 25,000 bonus miles after you spend $10,000 total on purchases in the first six months. Learn more.
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier: 40,000 miles if you spend $1,000 in purchases in the first three months. Learn more.
  • JetBlue True Blue: 10,000 miles after spending $1,000 in purchases in the first three months. Compare to other cards.
  • Blue Delta SkyMiles: 10,000 bonus miles after spending $500 in first three months. Learn more.
  • Alaska Airlines Visa Signature: 30,000 miles after spending $1,000 in purchases in the first three months. Compare to other cards.
  • AAdvantage Platinum Select: 50,000 miles after making $2,500 in purchases within the first 3 months. Compare to other cards.
  • Spirit Airlines World Mastercard: 15,000 miles after your first purchase. Compare to other cards.
  • Frontier Airlines World Mastercard: 10,000 bonus miles after making your first purchase. Compare to other cards.
  • Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard: 35,000 bonus miles when you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first. Compare to other cards.

Based on our study and the current offers from each credit card, you would be able to earn a free flight from United, Southwest, Alaska, and American Airlines based on the cards’ early spending bonuses.

After finding how much to spend to earn a free flight on each airline, we also wanted to put this in terms of time. To do so, we estimated how many months of credit card use it would take to spend the amount required to earn point for a flight. This is based on an estimate of consumers charging $2,500 to their card each month. The Spirit Airlines World Mastercard again ranked first for requiring 15.0 months (1 year and 3 months) on average. All other cards typically require less than a year, from the Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard at 11.9 months to the JetBlue True Blue card at only 7.3.

Finally, we decided to put these airline rewards in terms of big purchases that everyone makes. We represented each big purchase as a percentage of a free flight for each card. The largest purchases earn you the most on a flight, as you would expect. For example, purchasing an engagement ring (retailing on average online at $3,145) would earn you 10.7% of a rewards flight on average, whereas a television ($389) would only earn you 1.3%. The only exception is the purchase of an airline ticket, since you earn more miles/points per dollar on these for every airline credit card besides the Spirit Airline World Mastercard.

If you live near a certain airlines hub or find yourself flying the same airline over and over again, airline loyalty credit cards can be a great way to earn free flights. If you fly several different airlines or just want to earn more miles for your everyday purchases, you could try a general travel rewards credit card that rewards you with up to 2X the miles for everyday purchases. With these cards, instead of using miles to purchase a flight, you buy the flight first and use the miles to earn statement credits to pay for the flight, which eliminates any worry around limitations or blackout dates. Here are a few of the top general travel rewards credit cards:

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

  • Best for: People who travel a lot or like to eat out. Learn more.
  • Welcome offers: The card offers 50,000 bonus points after you spend $e,000 on purchases in the first 3 months. That’s $500 toward travel when you redeem through the cards website.
  • Rewards: You get 2X miles on every purchase, as well as 10X miles on thousands of hotels when you book at Hotels.com.
  • Features: You get up to $100 for your application fee to Global Entry or TSA-Precheck. There is no limit to the miles you can earn and the miles won’t expire as long as you have your account. There are also no blackout dates or travel restrictions.
  • Fees: The annual fee is $95, which is waived for the first year, and there is no foreign transaction fee.
  • Why get this card: It was named “The Best Travel Card” by CNBC.
  • Learn more about this card here.

Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

  • Best for: People who travel a lot or like to eat out. Learn more.
  • Welcome offers: The card offers 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months. That’s $625 toward travel when you redeem through the cards website.
  • Rewards: You get 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide and 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • Features: One of the great benefits of the card is you get 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs. You also get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. There are also no blackout dates or travel restrictions when you book through Chase Ultimate Rewards.
  • Fees: The annual fee is $95, but there is no foreign transaction fee, which is great for travels.
  • Why get this card: It was named a ‘Best Travel Credit Card’ by MONEY® Magazine.
  • Learn more about this card here.

Overall, we found that while the structure of rewards cards is largely the same across airlines, what you earn isn’t. Of course, there is a unique set of benefits for each card that may make the exact monetary differences unimportant to you. Alternatively, you may simply enjoy flying a specific airline, which may be enough of a reason to sign up for its associated travel credit card. Whichever one you choose, there is undeniable value in earning rewards for purchases you’re making anyway.

* Methodology: We determined the typical number of points/miles required to redeem a round trip flight between the selected cities (Los Angeles CA and New York NY), then applied each card’s reward earnings schedule to calculate how much one would need to spend to reach the number of points/miles needed. We approximated the spending in each purchase category (dining, gas, etc.) to factor in the extra points earned (e.g. 2X miles on restaurant purchases). These were broken down as follows: groceries 15%, dining 15%, hotels 3%, airline spending 5%, and gas 10%. The amount needed to spend to earn a flight was calculated using function of these percentages, with the leftover spending (outside of the noted categories) falling under the “all other spending” category, which equated to a single point/mile earned for each card.
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