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The Best Cards for Summer Travel: If You’re Flying

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Planning to travel this summer? Today, TPG Points & Miles Editor Sarah Silbert walks you through some of the best credit card options to consider if your plans include hopping on a flight or two.

With most schools on break and warm weather to enjoy at many destinations, summer is a great time to travel. It’s also, unfortunately, the peak season — and that means higher prices for hotels, flights, car rentals and other related expenses. Luckily, there are plenty of travel rewards cards that can help you keep costs down thanks to their lucrative sign-up bonuses, not to mention other benefits that make your trip more enjoyable. Over the next few weeks we’ll be looking at the top cards based on your travel plans, starting with the best options for flying today.

ALASKA AIRLINES

Earn an annual coach companion fare with the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card.
Earn an annual coach companion fare with the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card.

Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card

If you’re planning on flying Alaska Airlines to Hawaii or any other destination this summer, this card could be a good option. It’s currently offering a sign-up bonus of 30,000 miles (enough for a round-trip economy award within the US) after you spend $1,000 in the first 90 days. You’ll earn 3 miles on eligible Alaska Airlines purchases, and 1 mile per dollar on everything else.

Cardholders also get an annual round-trip coach companion fare, which lets a friend or family member travel with you for free (you’ll need to pay $121 and up in taxes and fees). You can even pair this perk with a status match to Alaska Mileage Plan MVP Gold 75k to get guest upgrades and bump these companion fares up to first class, as TPG Editor-in-Chief Zach Honig did last year. This card has a $75 annual fee, and no foreign transaction fees.

AMERICAN AIRLINES

Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard

This card earns you 2 miles per dollar spent on American Airlines purchases, so even if you end up paying for your flight instead of redeeming miles you’ll earn valuable rewards toward a future redemption. Plus, you and up to four people traveling with you will enjoy a free checked bag on domestic itineraries and Group 1 boarding.

Cardholders also get 10% of their miles back when they redeem for an award flight, and get access to reduced-mileage awards. This card charges no foreign transaction fees, and the $95 annual fee is waived for the first 12 months. Currently, the sign-up bonus is 30,000 miles after you spend $1,000 in the first three months of account opening — that’s enough for a round-trip MileSAAver award within the US.

Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard

Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard holders get Admirals Club membership, among other nice perks.
Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard holders get Admirals Club membership, among other nice perks.

There’s another strong option for American flyers, though it comes with a $450 annual fee: the Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard, which includes full Admirals Club membership and a statement credit toward TSA PreCheck or Global Entry. You can also 10,000 elite-qualifying miles when you spend $40,000 on this card in a calendar year. This card is currently offering a sign-up bonus of 60,000 AAdvantage miles when you spend $5,000 in the first three months, and it doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees.

DELTA AIR LINES

Gold Delta SkyMiles Card from American Express

This card offers 2 miles per dollar on Delta purchases and 1 mile per dollar on everything else, and it currently has a sign-up bonus of 50,000 miles after you spend $2,000 in the first three months. (You also get a $50 statement credit after you make a Delta purchase with the card in the first three months.) Other benefits include priority boarding, a first bag checked for free and 20% off in-flight purchases. This card has a $95 annual fee that’s waived the first year, and no foreign transaction fees.

Platinum Delta SkyMiles Card from American Express

delta - featured
Delta co-branded cards offer perks like a free checked bag and the ability to earn MQMs toward elite status.

While the Gold Delta SkyMiles Card is a good option if you’re simply looking to earn miles and enjoy a few elite-like perks at the airport, the Platinum Delta SkyMiles Card from American Express could be a good pick if you’re working toward Delta elite status, since it offers 10,000 MQMs and 60,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 in the first three months. You can also earn a $100 statement credit if you make a Delta purchase within that same period. This card has a $195 annual fee and no foreign transaction fees.

JETBLUE

JetBlue Plus Card

JetBlue recently introduced three cards with its new issuer Barclaycard, and the JetBlue Plus Card is an especially strong option. For starters, you get 30,000 TrueBlue points after spending $1,000 on the card within the first 90 days, plus a 5,000-point bonus after each account anniversary. Even better, the card earns you a stellar 6 points per dollar on JetBlue purchases, in addition to 2 points per dollar at restaurants and grocery stores and 1 point per dollar everywhere else.

If you spend $50,000 on this card in a calendar year, you’ll enjoy TrueBlue Mosaic status. All cardholders also get a 10% points rebate on all redemptions, and 50% off in-flight purchases. This card has a $99 annual fee and no foreign transaction fees.

SOUTHWEST AIRLINES

Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier Card

southwestpremier
You can currently earn 50,000 points when you spend $2,000 in the first three months with the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Card.

Southwest may not have the biggest route network of all the US airlines, but if your summer travels take you somewhere within the States (or to Mexico or the Caribbean), you can get great value out of the carrier’s revenue-based program. Plus, the Southwest Companion Pass is a great perk, letting a designated friend or family member travel with you for free minus taxes and fees.

If you’re looking to work toward the Companion Pass or simply earn some miles toward award flights, the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier Card can come in handy. It’s currently offering a 50,000-point bonus after you spend $2,000 in the first three months, and you’ll earn 6,000 points after each cardmember anniversary — and all those points count toward the Companion Pass, which requires earning 110,000 points in a calendar year. This card earns you 2 points per dollar on Southwest purchases and 1 point per dollar on everything else, and it doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. You’ll be charged the $99 annual fee on your first billing statement.

UNITED AIRLINES

United MileagePlus Explorer Card

Officially, this card offers a sign-up bonus of 30,000 miles after spending $1,000 in the first three months — enough for a round-trip economy award in the US if you’re able to find Saver availability. However, Chase currently appears to be offering an elevated offer of 50,000 miles after you spend $3,000 in the first three months via this link. Additionally, you may be targeted for an offer to earn 70,000 miles with the same spending requirement — to see if you’re eligible, visit this page and log in to your MileagePlus account.

This card also offers priority boarding for the cardmember and companions on the same reservation, a free checked bag (for the cardholder and one companion) and two United Club passes per year. You’ll earn 2 miles per dollar on United ticket purchases and 1 mile per dollar on everything else, plus you can get 10,000 bonus miles when you spend $25,000 on the card in a calendar year. This card charges no foreign transaction fees and has an annual fee of $95 (waived the first year only with the 30,000-mile offer).

United MileagePlus Club Card

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Enjoy United Club membership with the United MileagePlus Club Card.

If you’re open to spending a bit more, the United MileagePlus Club Card with its $450 annual fee could be a good option since it includes full United Club membership — a nice benefit when you have a long connection or simply want somewhere to relax and catch a bite before or between flights. This card also earns you 1.5 miles per dollar spent on non-bonus category purchases (you still get 2 miles per dollar on United flights) and you get the first two bags checked for free. Finally, holders of both the United MileagePlus Explorer Card and the United MileagePlus Club Card benefit from better award availability at the standard and Saver levels.

CARDS THAT EARN BONUS TRANSFERRABLE POINTS

American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card

This card’s worth considering if you plan to book paid plane tickets rather than redeem miles or points, since it’ll earn you a solid 3 Membership Rewards points per dollar spend on airfare purchased directly from the airlines. You’ll also earn 2x points at US restaurants, gas stations and supermarkets and 1x on everything else. This card also offers an annual $100 airline fee credit which can be used toward incidental fees like checked baggage costs or in-flight purchases. Plus, it includes a baggage insurance plan that covers you for up to $1,250 for carry-on luggage and up to $500 for checked luggage when an eligible item is stolen, lost or damaged and you charge the entire airfare purchase to the card.

The Premier Rewards Gold Card is currently offering a sign-up bonus of 25,000 points after you spend $2,000 on the card in the first three months. (Note that you may be offered a larger targeted bonus via the CardMatch tool.) You can redeem your points with a variety of Membership Rewards transfer partners, including British Airways, Cathay Pacific and Virgin Atlantic. This card has a $195 annual fee that’s waived the first year, and no foreign transaction fees.

Citi ThankYou Premier Card

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Despite the pulled sign-up bonus, the Citi ThankYou Premier Card could be worth considering thanks to its travel protection benefits.

Citi currently isn’t featuring a sign-up bonus for this card, whereas it previously had an offer of 50,000 points after you spent $3,000 in the first three months. While that’s a bummer, the ThankYou Premier Card is still worth a look thanks to the expanded travel protection benefits Citi recently added. These include trip delay and cancellation coverage for tickets paid for in part with the Citi Prestige Card or Citi ThankYou Premier Card (previously only tickets paid for in full with these cards were eligible for coverage). If a trip is canceled, interrupted or extended for a covered reason, you can be reimbursed for each covered traveler.

You’ll earn 3x points on travel (including airfare), 2x points on dining out and entertainment and 1x points on everything else. This card charges no foreign transaction fees.

Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

The final card on this list earns you 2x Ultimate Rewards points on a wide variety of travel and dining purchases. Ultimate Rewards points are quite valuable, as you can redeem them with 11 transfer partners at a 1:1 ratio, including Hyatt and United in addition to the recently added Flying Blue program used by Air France and KLM.

The main reason the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card is a solid pick for airfare purchases, though, is that it offers solid travel interruption perks, including up to $10,000 in coverage per covered trip when your travel is cut short by sickness, severe weather or other eligible situations. This card is currently offering a sign-up bonus of 50,000 points when you spend $4,000 in the first three months, and you can earn another 5,000 points when you add an authorized user and they make a purchase within the first three months. There’s a $95 annual fee that’s waived the first year, and no foreign transaction fees.

BOTTOM LINE

All of these cards offer sign-up bonuses that can be used toward free flights, and several of them feature other useful benefits like priority boarding, a free checked bag and lounge access. The best options for you depend on your airline of choice or, if you’re not loyal to a specific carrier or alliance, which points or miles will get you to your desired destination. In any case, though, there are plenty of card options that help you keep costs down by offering lucrative sign-up bonuses that can be redeemed toward free flights.

Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock.

What cards will you be using to redeem or purchase flights this summer?

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

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  • 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 a 'Best Credit Card' for Travel Rewards by MONEY Magazine
  • 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 Regular APR Annual Fee Foreign Transaction Fee Credit Rating
N/A 16.24%-23.24% Variable Introductory Annual Fee of $0 the first year, then $95 0% Excellent Credit