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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here – Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express

Whether you’re just getting started as an award traveler yourself or trying to help a friend join the club, today TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Nick Ewen explains which travel rewards credit cards are best for beginners interested primarily in redeeming points and miles for award flights.

One of the most common concerns I hear from new award travelers is that it’s a complicated hobby. To some degree, they have a point. The process of earning and redeeming rewards can be hard to navigate at times — deciding where to begin is often a challenge in and of itself (and sometimes calls for a Points Intervention!). However, there are many ways to ease yourself into the points and miles game. Last month, I looked at the overall best starter cards for new points and miles enthusiasts, and in this post, I’ll rank what I think are the best starter credit cards when it comes to earning award flights.

Which credit card is the best starter card? Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Which credit card is the best for new award travelers looking to earn free flights? Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

First, I want to share my overall methodology for developing these rankings. I started by searching through the multitude of credit card products out there to make a list of 10 cards that are ideally suited for earning free flights (I personally have recommended several of these cards to friends or family members at some point). I then rated each card across five key categories on a scale from 1 to 3. These are the categories, along with the rating scale I used for each one.

1. Annual fee — When I first started earning points and miles, I stayed away from cards with annual fees like they carried the plague, and I’m sure many of you have felt the same way. However, I soon realized I was missing out on some valuable products with annual fees that were totally justified by the benefits that came with them. My list below includes a mixture of cards both with and without annual fees; I awarded more points for those with lower (or no) fees:

  • No annual fee = 3
  • Annual fee below $60 = 2
  • Annual fee above $60 = 1
  • Add 0.5 bonus points if the annual fee is waived for the first year

2. Value of points — You typically can’t compare points across programs using simple numerical analysis without considering their value. Two points in one currency might be worth five points in another. That’s one of the main reasons for TPG’s monthly valuations, which help illustrate the dollar value of each program’s currency. To rate point values, I used the following scale:

  • Points worth 2 cents or higher = 3
  • Points worth 1.5 – 2 cents = 2
  • Points worth less than 1.5 cents = 1

3. Sign-up bonus

Another key factor to consider is a card’s sign-up bonus. While these bonuses generally apply only in your first year as a cardholder, they still offer a compelling reason to choose one card over another, especially when you have a limited-time offer. I also used TPG’s most recent valuations to calculate the overall value of each card’s initial sign-up bonus, and to rate bonuses as follows:

  • Value of $750 or more = 3
  • Value of $500 – $750 = 2
  • Value of less than $500 = 1

4. Earning points

The sign-up bonus gives you an initial bounty of points or miles, but you’ll want a card that offers solid earning opportunities throughout the year. This may come in the form of a good earning rate on all purchases, or bonus points earned for purchases in certain categories. Here’s how I quantified earning potential:

  • Extensive bonus categories and/or high everyday earning = 3
  • Some bonus categories and/or decent everyday earning = 2
  • Few/no bonus categories and low everyday earning = 1

5. Other benefits

This final category is rather broad to include all manner of extra benefits that aren’t accounted for elsewhere. This includes items such as purchase protection, damage and collision waivers on rental cars and companion ticket benefits. Unlike my previous post, I decided to include no foreign transaction fees within this group rather than as a separate item, since almost every card on my list waives those pesky fees. Here’s how I rated the extras on each card:

  • Many perks = 3
  • Some perks = 2
  • Limited perks = 1
fds
Some cards won’t lock you into a specific carrier, but does that mean they offer better value?

In addition to including the popular airline co-branded cards, I also included some general cards that aren’t tied to a specific carrier but still offer a clear path to flying for free. Since this analysis is geared mainly toward travelers who are new to the points and miles hobby, I also chose to leave off more premium cards with annual fees of over $100 (like the Citi Prestige Card and American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card). While these cards do carry a lot of benefits, they generally don’t appeal to a neophyte just looking to get his or her feet wet!

Here’s a table that breaks down my ratings (with cards in alphabetical order):

Credit Card

Annual Fee

Value of Points

Sign-up Bonus

Earning Points

Other Benefits

TOTALS

Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Credit Card

1

3

2

1

2

9

BankAmericard Travel Rewards Credit Card

3

1

1

2

2

9

British Airways Visa Signature Card

1.5

2

3

1

2

9.5

Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

1.5

3

3

3

3

13.5

Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite MasterCard

1.5

2

3

1

2

9.5

Citi ThankYou Premier Card

1.5

2

3

3

2

11.5

Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express

1.5

1

1

1

2

6.5

Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Card

1

1

1

1

2

6

Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express

1.5

3

2

2

2

10.5

United MileagePlus Explorer Card

1.5

2

1

1

2

7.5

More importantly, here’s how the cards ranked according to my scoring system:

1. Chase Sapphire Preferred (13.5)
2. Citi ThankYou Premier (11.5)
3. Starwood Preferred Guest Amex (10.5)
4 (tie). British Airways Visa and Citi / AAdvantage Platinum MasterCard (9.5)
6 (tie) Alaska Visa and BankAmericard (9)
8. United Explorer Card (7.5)
9. Gold Delta Amex (6.5)
10. Southwest Visa (6)

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The Chase Sapphire Preferred is one of my favorite cards, so I wasn’t surprised to see it at the top of the list.

What Didn’t Surprise Me

This list has both expected and unexpected results. For starters, I wasn’t surprised at all that Chase Sapphire Preferred came out on top (as it did in my general starter cards post). This has been my go-to card for a number of years (and continues to be a TPG favorite, as well) for a variety of reasons, including the double points offered on travel and dining purchases and no foreign transaction fees. Opening the card and using it exclusively for just one year can open up some great redemption options.

Ultimate Rewards points are also among the most flexible and valuable loyalty currencies out there — TPG pegs them at 2.1 cents apiece for good reason. You can transfer them to a variety of loyalty programs (including Hyatt, Southwest and British Airways) or redeem them directly for travel, earning points and/or miles plus elite status credit like you would on regular paid itineraries. You can even combine points from multiple household accounts to help you stockpile rewards more quickly.

Sapphire Preferred is usually near the top of my list of recommendations for friends and family (I actually just helped my sister apply for one last month). It does come with a $95 annual fee, though it’s waived for the first year. While it takes a little time to learn the ins and outs of the program and redeem your Ultimate Rewards points for maximum value, once you’ve turned them into luxurious travel experiences like a free stay at the Park Hyatt New York, you’ll be hooked.

60,000 Ultimate Rewards points is enough for two nights at top-tier Hyatt properties like the Park Hyatt Sydney.
Ultimate Rewards points can be transferred to partners such as Hyatt to unlock valuable redemptions like the Park Hyatt Sydney.

The next three entries on the list also aren’t surprising to me, as each one of these cards offers some tremendous value. The Citi ThankYou Premier is currently offering a sign-up bonus of 50,000 ThankYou Points after making $3,000 in purchases within the first three months of account opening, and the program’s addition of transfer partners has given cardholders several new ways to redeem ThankYou points for maximum value. As with the Sapphire Preferred, you can get a lot out of holding this card for just one year.

The SPG Amex is also a solid product, mainly because it earns such valuable points that can be transferred to 34 airlines (like the recently added Korean Air). TPG values Starpoints at a whopping 2.4 cents apiece (tops on his list), so while the bonus categories on this card aren’t exciting, the standard earning rate can still open up some lucrative redemption options (and TPG actually recommends the SPG Amex for purchases that don’t fall into any bonus spending category on another card). Finally, this card is offering an increased sign-up bonus of 30,000 points after spending $3,000 in the first three months, so now is a particularly good time to apply. For more information, check out Richard Kerr’s post on redeeming Starpoints for maximum value.

jw-marriott-venice-resort-and-spa
With non-airline travel cards, you aren’t locked into flights, and can instead redeem points for hotel stays (among other things).

What Did Surprise Me

When I first set out to write this post, I figured that the airline co-branded cards would give the general cards a run for their money. That didn’t turn out to be the case at all. While two of the cards did crack the top five (the British Airways Visa Signature Card and the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard), the three bottom spots are all occupied by airline cards. These products do come with nice benefits like waived checked bag fees, but they don’t offer the same value as cards like the Sapphire Preferred.

A lot of this boils down to flexibility. Having a variety of redemption options increases the value of a given loyalty program’s currency, and when you’re restricted to a specific carrier and its partners, you lose a significant amount of that flexibility. Remember, too, that both the ThankYou Premier and Sapphire Preferred cards allow you to redeem points directly for flights, and you’ll then earn both redeemable and elite-qualifying miles on those trips. You can also use those points for hotels (through transfers or by booking directly) and other travel expenses, so you aren’t locked into award flights.

Another big reason for the low scores of airline cards is the lack of extensive bonus categories. Earning double points or miles on purchases with a specific carrier is nice if you regularly book flights with that airline, but it isn’t nearly as rewarding as earning double points on dining or on all travel purchases. This relative lack of earning power also hurts the airlines’ offerings.

American Airlines is running a fare sale with $44 flights
Depending on your location, you may be better off with an airline’s co-branded credit card.

Final Thoughts

Diving headfirst into award travel can seem daunting, but if you’re reading this post, you’ve already taken the important first step of figuring out the best way to get started! This analysis is one way of identifying the best starter cards for airline travel, but it doesn’t paint the full picture:

  • You might live in a hub city and prefer a co-branded airline card to take advantage of benefits on both paid and award travel.
  • You might have a very specific redemption in mind, and would rather open a card to help achieve your goal.
  • You might get a targeted offer in the mail that gives you a better sign-up bonus than whatever is publicly available.
  • You might simply want cash back and don’t prefer not to deal with the hassle of redeeming points (in which case you should check out Jason Steele’s post on the top cards for cash back and statement credits).

However, if you’re thinking about getting into the points and miles hobby and don’t know which card you should open first, then the analysis above will help you decide. You might value certain features more than others, so feel free to adjust the scoring system to suit your needs!

What card would you recommend to someone who is new to award travel and primarily interested in free flights?

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Even after the introduction of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is still a fantastic choice if you want to avoid the Reserve’s $450 annual fee, earn 2x on all travel & dining and earn a 50,000 point sign up bonus.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $625 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Named Best Credit Card for Flexible Travel Redemption - Kiplinger's Personal Finance, July 2016
  • 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • Earn 5,000 bonus points after you add the first authorized user and make a purchase in the first 3 months from account opening
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 50,000 points are worth $625 toward travel
  • No blackout dates or travel restrictions - as long as there's a seat on the flight, you can book it through Chase Ultimate Rewards
Intro APR on Purchases
N/A
Regular APR
16.49% - 23.49% Variable
Annual Fee
Introductory Annual Fee of $0 the first year, then $95
Balance Transfer Fee
5.00%
Recommended Credit
Excellent Credit

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.