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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here – Chase Sapphire Reserve
Update 10/6/16: This post has been updated with additional credit card options.
If you’re paying for airfare in cash rather than miles, you should at least be earning valuable rewards on your spending. As TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Jason Steele explains, with some travel rewards credit cards you can earn up to 3 points per dollar on airline expenses — getting you closer to that award flight redemption.
The only thing better than purchasing a fantastic itinerary is booking an amazing award flight with your miles. I wish that I could use miles for all my airfare purchases, but there are still many times when I end up charging airfare and other airline purchases to my credit card. So in today’s post, I want to look at which cards will offer you the most miles when buying airfare for yourself or others.
Maximizing Rewards for Airfare Purchases
Since the creation of travel rewards credit cards, nearly every airline has offered its own co-branded option, and these products typically award double miles for airfare purchases from that airline. Double miles are considered to be a baseline, but there are two ways that you can do a lot better when making airfare purchases.
The first way is to earn double miles in a flexible point system that allows transfers to other airline and hotel partners. As TPG’s latest monthly valuations show, these type of reward programs typically offer much more value per point than airline miles.
Here are the current values for three of the major flexible point programs:
- American Express Membership Rewards — 1.9 cents apiece
- Chase Ultimate Rewards — 2.1 cents apiece
- Citi ThankYou Rewards — 1.6 cents apiece
On the other hand, here are the current values for a few of the major airlines:
- Alaska — 1.8 cents apiece
- American — 1.5 cents apiece
- Delta — 1.2 cents apiece
- Southwest — 1.5 cents apiece
- United — 1.5 cents apiece
So as you can see, it’s almost always better to earn double flexible points than to rack up double miles with a single airline.
The other way to maximize your rewards for airfare purchases is to earn more than 2x for your airline purchases. Thankfully, there are now several cards that offer 3x reward points for airfare purchases — and even one that offers 5x points.
Finally, keep in mind that some of these bonuses apply not just to airline ticket purchases, but also to other airline charges such as change fees, luggage fees, lounge memberships, as well as the taxes and fees paid to redeem mileage awards.
The 7 Best Cards for Airfare Purchases in 2016
You can now earn 5x points on airfare purchased directly with the airline with the Amex Platinum, making it an excellent choice for spending in this category. 5x Membership Rewards points equals a 9.5% return — higher than what you’ll get with any other card on this list, and especially impressive considering the Amex Platinum used to offer just 1 point per dollar on all purchases.
This card also offers a $200 annual airline fee credit, complimentary Hilton HHonors Gold and Starwood Preferred Guest Gold status, Centurion Lounge access and more. The sign-up bonus is currently 40,000 points after you spend $3,000 in the first three months, and there’s a $450 annual fee.
2. Chase Sapphire Reserve
This card launched in 2016 and became an instant hit with award travelers looking to earn valuable Ultimate Rewards points. The Reserve gets you 3x Ultimate Rewards on all travel — including airfare — and dining purchases (a 6.3% return compared to 4.2% with the Chase Sapphire Preferred). In terms of value, this falls a bit short of the Amex Platinum’s return, but you’ll have to compare the airline partners offered by the respective transferrable points programs to see which option (if not both) makes the most sense for you.
Other perks include a $300 annual travel credit and airport lounge access through Priority Pass Select. You can currently earn a sign-up bonus of 100,000 points when you spend $4,000 in the first three months. This card has a $450 annual fee.
This card is another fantastic choice for booking airfare, as it earns 3x points for flights booked directly with airlines, both foreign and domestic. It also offers 2x points at US gas stations, US supermarkets and US restaurants, and 1 point per dollar spent elsewhere. Points are earned in the American Express Membership Rewards program, and they can be transferred to airline programs such as Aeroplan (Air Canada), British Airways and Cathay Pacific.
Other benefits include a $100 annual statement credit toward incidental airline costs such as checked bags fees, change fees, lounge access and in-flight purchases. This card also comes with a range of travel insurance and purchase protection policies, including premium roadside assistance, purchase protection and return protection. The current sign-up bonus for this card is 25,000 points after new cardholders spend $2,000 within three months of account opening, though you may be targeted for a different offer. There’s a $195 annual fee that’s waived the first year, and no foreign transaction fees.
4. Citi ThankYou Premier Card
Citi’s ThankYou Premier offers 3x ThankYou points on all travel purchases, including those made with airlines. In addition, you’ll earn 3x points on all gas purchases. Points are worth 1.25 cents each toward airfare, hotels, cruises and car rental reservations made through the ThankYou Travel Center, and they also can be transferred to 12 airline partners as well as the Hilton HHonors program. Other benefits include worldwide rental car insurance, lost baggage protection and Citi’s Price Rewind price-protection program.
This card does not currently offer a sign-up bonus. There’s a $95 annual fee that’s waived the first year, and no foreign transaction fees.
Citi’s Prestige Card earns you 3 points per dollar for airline purchases and hotel charges. The card also gets you 2x points on dining and entertainment, and 1 point per dollar on everything else. Points can be transferred to 12 airline programs or Hilton HHonors, and they’re worth 1.6 cents toward flights purchased from American Airlines, and 1.33 cents toward airfare from other carriers (though both of these higher-value redemption rates will no longer be available as of July 23, 2017).
Benefits include access to American Airlines Admirals Clubs (not available to new cardholders) and Priority Pass Select airport lounges, a $250 annual air travel credit that applies to any airline charges including airline tickets, baggage fees and upgrades, and a $100 fee credit toward an application in the Global Entry program. This card also offers a complimentary fourth night free on paid hotel stays. Other benefits include trip delay protection damage, theft purchase protection and even medical evacuation coverage. There’s a $450 annual fee for this card, and no foreign transaction fees. For more information on the benefits of this card, see our post, Maximizing Benefits with the Citi Prestige Card in 2016.
There are many reasons why the Chase Sapphire Preferred should be your first card in 2016, and right up there is the double points in earns on travel, including all airline purchases. This bonus extends well past airlines to include hotels, car rentals, taxis, tolls and parking. Points are worth 1.25 cents each toward travel reservations made through Chase’s Ultimate Rewards travel portal, and they can also be transferred to six airline and four hotel programs.
The current sign-up bonus is 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points after you spend $4,000 within the first three months of account opening. You’ll also earn an additional 5,000 bonus points after you add the first authorized user and make a purchase within the same first three months of account opening. There’s a $95 annual fee for this card that’s waived the first year, and no foreign transaction fees.
If you charge airfare to your small-business credit card, this card offers outstanding value. You earn 3x Membership Rewards points from one category of your choice including airfare purchased directly from airlines. Other choices include advertising, gas, shipping and computer hardware and services. But if you select airfare as your 3x bonus category, you earn 3 points per dollar on all airfare purchases on up to $100,000 a year, and 2x on purchases from the other categories.
The current sign-up bonus for this card is 50,000 points after new applicants spend $5,000 within three months of account opening. There’s a $175 annual fee for this card that’s waived the first year, and no foreign transaction fees.
While it’s often more ideal to redeem miles for a flight, it’s great to know that there are several travel rewards cards that earn you valuable points every time you book a ticket or make any other airline purchases. And with the transferrable points you can rack up from these cards, you’ll have enough for an award flight in no time.
Which card do you use to pay for airline tickets and fees?
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.
- 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