You don’t have to fly a lot to earn a lot of airline miles or points (let’s just say “miles,” regardless of what each airline calls them). In fact, if you fly mainly on low-fare coach tickets, you can probably earn miles more quickly when you aren’t flying than when you are.
The main way to earn miles without flying is by using a credit card that earns miles as often as you can. Every U.S. airline co-brands at least one such credit card with a major bank. In addition, a few banks issue credit cards that earn miles or points that you can transfer to a handful of participating airlines. And you can also earn miles through shopping portals.
Airline Miles Credit Cards
All main U.S. airlines co-brand at least one credit card that earns miles in that airline’s program. The usual formula for such cards is one mile for each dollar you charge to the card, but most airline cards offer extra credit—two to five miles—per dollar charged on the sponsoring airline. Some cards also offer extra credit for other travel-related charges. The frequent flyer blogosphere values miles at somewhere around 1.5 cents each, based on the value of air travel that the miles can buy. And air tickets are by far the best way to “spend” miles; the cash value or value toward other uses is usually somewhere around a half cent each.
In addition to miles, most airline cards offer other benefits, ranging from free checked bags and companion tickets on the base level cards to lounge membership, dollar credits, elite status, and other valuable extras on top-level cards. These days, most airline cards offer big one-time mileage sign-up bonuses of up to 100,000 miles, provided you charge a lot to the card in the first few months you have it. And almost all travel-related cards now charge no foreign transaction fee.
Below I list each airline’s least-expensive card that provides at least standard mileage credit, along with links to either the travel credit card sites or Airfarewatchdog (SmarterTravel’s sister site) comparisons of them. The Delta and United premium cards, at annual fees of $450 to $550, offer higher mileage earnings and a bunch of other credits and features, and most notably unlimited lounge access.
Mile-Transfer Credit Cards
AmEx, Capital One, and Chase each issue at least one credit card that earns miles or points you can transfer to some airline programs and combine with the miles you earn by flying and through the airline’s credit card:
- AmEx Green, Gold, and Platinum cards earn “Membership Rewards” at the base rate of one point per dollar charged for most purchases, with bonus points up to five per dollar on airfares charged directly through the airline or AmEx and up to four per dollar on other travel, dining, and supermarket charges. You can transfer AmEx points to Air Canada, Delta, Hawaiian, Aeromexico, Air France/KLM, Alitalia, ANA, Avianca, British Airways, Emirates, Etihad, Iberia, Qantas, Singapore, and Virgin Atlantic at the rate of 1000 points to 1000 miles or points; to JetBlue at the rate of 1,000 points to 800 points; and to El Al at 1000 points to 20 points. The premium-level cards charge hefty annual fees–$250 for gold and $550 for Platinum—and offer lots of extras.
- Capital One Venture Rewards Visa earns two points per dollar on all charges and transfers points to Air Canada, Avianca, Etihad, and Singapore at the rate of 1000 points to 1100-1200 points/mile and to Aeromexico, Air France/KLM, Alitalia, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, EVA, Hainan, JetBlue, Qatar, and Singapore at the rate of 1000 points to 750 points/miles.
- Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Sapphire Reserve Visa cards offer two and three points per dollar charged, respectively, on many purchases, and you can transfer points to JetBlue, Southwest, United, Aer Lingus, Air France/KLM, British Airways, Singapore, and Virgin Atlantic at a rate of 1,000:1,000.
All posted airlines have established partnerships with a handful of travel-industry partners, most notably hotel chains and rental car companies. Mileage earning is usually modest, but certainly worth getting when you use one of the partners.
Airline Shopping Portals
Most listed airlines operate shopping portals with links to prominent—and usually nationwide—retailers that offer extra airline miles on purchases at various rates, usually at least two per dollar and sometimes as high as 10 per dollar. You do not have to use the airlines’ own cards to use these portals, although you get the airline cards’ credit along with the portals’ when you do.
Bank Travel Cards
Several large banks issue cards that earn points or maybe even so-called “miles” you can use to buy tickets. These miles have nothing to do with airline miles; they’re simply credits that you can use to buy tickets. The points have a fixed cash value and you pay the equivalent cash value toward whatever fare you want to buy. The programs are simply a subset of conventional cash-back cards, but a few add a twist: If you use bank points to buy tickets or other travel services through the bank’s system, you get a higher cash value than you get on other purchases or on a cash credit.
Among the top options: Chase Sapphire cards earn two points per dollar charged on travel and dining, along with a 25 percent premium when you use points to buy travel services through Chase’s own agency. The Black Card by Mastercard values each point at 1.5 cents cash or two cents when used to buy air tickets.
Best Earning Options for Each Airline
You can earn airline credit through each airline’s credit card. All airline cards earn at least two miles per dollar charged with the sponsoring airline and earn obe mile per dollar on most other charges. In many cases, one of the mileage-transfer cards earns more than the airline’s own card, on airfares and on some other purchase categories. Here’s where you can do better than one mile or point per dollar in each airline’s program:
Alaska: The Alaska Visa gets three miles per dollar for Alaska charges
Transfer cards: AmEx Platinum, five points per dollar on all airfares; AmEx Gold, three points per dollar on all airfares and four points per dollar on dining and at supermarkets. Shopping portal: Mileage Plan Shopping
Allegiant: Allegiant World Mastercard gets three points per dollar for Allegiant charges, two points per dollar on dining charges
American: AAdvantage MileUp gets two miles per dollar on American charges and at supermarkets. Shopping portal: AAdvantage eShopping
Delta: Delta SkyMiles AmEx gets two miles per dollar on Delta charges and on dining. Delta SkyMiles Reserve AmEx, three miles per dollar on Delta charges
Transfer cards: AmEx Platinum, five points per dollar on all airfares; AmEx Gold, three points per dollar on all airfares and four points per dollar on dining and at supermarkets. Shopping portal: SkyMiles Shopping
Frontier: Frontier Mastercard gets five points per dollar on Frontier chares, three points per dollar on dining.
Hawaiian: Hawaiian Mastercard gets three miles per dollar on Hawaiian charges, two points per dollar on dining, at supermarkets, and on gasoline and oil.
Transfer cards: AmEx Platinum, five points per dollar on all airfares; AmEx Gold, three points per dollar on all airfares and four points per dollar on dining and at supermarkets. Shopping portal: HawaiianMiles Marketplace
JetBlue: JetBlue Plus Mastercard earns 6 points per dollar on JetBlue charges; two points per dollar on dining and supermarkets.
Transfer cards: Chase Sapphire Preferred two points per dollar on any travel service and dining; Chase Sapphire Reserve three points per dollar on any travel service and dining. Shopping portal: TrueBlue Shopping
Southwest: Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus gets two points per dollar on Southwest charges.
Transfer cards: Chase Sapphire Preferred two points per dollar on any travel service and dining; Chase Sapphire Reserve three points per dollar on any travel service and dining. Shopping portal: Rapid Rewards Shopping.
Spirit: World Mastercard gets two points per dollar on all charges.
Sun Country: Visa Signature earns three points per dollar on Sun Country charges, two points per dollar on supermarket and gas/oil charges.
Transfer cards: Chase Sapphire Preferred two points per dollar on any travel service and dining; Chase Sapphire Reserve three points per dollar on any travel service and dining. Shopping portal: MileagePlus Shopping.
Best Earnings for Other Charges
Another way to look at the data is to see which card(s) offer the highest earnings for charges in each of several important purchase categories:
Airfares: AmEx Platinum, five points per dollar; Chase Sapphire Reserve, three points per dollar
Hotels: Chase Sapphire Reserve, three points per dollar, and Chase Sapphire Preferred, two points per dollar. AmEx Platinum offers five points per dollar charged, but only on prepaid hotels booked through AmEx—really, not much of a deal. And if you charge a lot to hotels, you may be better off with a hotel card.
Rental Cars: Chase Sapphire Reserve gets three points per dollar, and Chase Sapphire Preferred gets two points per dollar charged.
Dining: AmEx Gold and Chase Sapphire Reserve, three points per dollar charged
Supermarkets/groceries: AmEx Gold, four points per dollar charged.
Gas and oil: Capital One, two points per dollar charged.
Overall spend: United Club is the only airline card that offers 1.5 points for every dollar charged. Capital One offers two points for every dollar charged, but you get full value only if you use the points to buy travel services through the bank’s agency.
My fundamental conclusion about airline miles hasn’t changed much over the last decade or two:
- If your aim is to fly in a premium cabin, airline miles are usually the best—and often the only—way to avoid astronomical posted fares. Try to vacuum up as many genuine airline miles as you can.
- But if your primary objective is a “free” flight in coach/economy/the “main cabin,” you’re usually better off with a credit card that gives you as much as a two cent cash-value return on each dollar you spend, which you use to buy a ticket through the bank’s agency.
- Whatever your travel style preference, put as much spending as possible on a credit card that earns the kind of mileage you want.
- If you fly a lot on one or two airlines, one of those lines’ credit cards is probably a good bet, both for the earning and the many extras you get.
- Don’t ignore those pricey premium cards. The extras you get with AmEx Platinum, American AAdvantage Platinum Select, Delta Skymiles Reserve, and United Club Visa can go a long way to offset the $450 to $550 annual fees: lounge access, credits for Global entry and some airline fees, status, and such.
More from SmarterTravel:
- How to Choose the Best Travel Credit Card
- Everything You Need to Know About Travel Insurance
- Is Any Travel Rewards Card Worth a $550 Annual Fee?
Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.
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