Credit Card Sign-Up Bonuses That You Can Redeem for Paid Airfare

Mar 31, 2016

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Award redemptions usually give you the most bang for your buck, but there are many programs that allow you to use your miles and points haul for paid airfares. Today TPG Contributor Cindy Gossett looks at the credit card sign-up bonuses that allow you to redeem miles and points for paid airfare.

While you’ll almost always get the most value out of your points and miles by transferring them to a partner for premium award travel, there are times when you may want to redeem your points for paid airfare. If your travel dates aren’t flexible, for example, you may not find award availability for the flight you need. And unlike with award travel, traveling on paid airfare means you can use your elite upgrades to travel in a higher class of service and — perhaps most importantly — accrue elite miles toward airline status.

Today I want to compare different miles and points programs and credit card sign-up bonuses to redeem for $400 paid airfare. Why $400? The number is somewhat arbitrary, but I think it’s necessary to pick a single number in order to compare apples to apples. Also, there seems to be a confluence around $400 for several sign-up bonuses, and it seems like a reasonable enough average number for many domestic round-trips within the US to start the comparison.

Card Standard Welcome Bonus (Miles/Points) Point Value for Paid Airfare
TPG Point Valuation (Cents) Points Needed
for $400 Airfare
Annual Fee
The Platinum Card® from American Express 60,000 1.0 1.9 40,000 $550
The Business Platinum Card from American Express 75,000 1.0 1.9 40,000 $450
Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard 40,000 1.05* 1.0 40,000 $89
(waived the first year)
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card 50,000 1.0 1.0 40,000 $95
(waived the first year)
Capital One
Spark Cash for Business
$500 cash bonus  1.0 1.0   $95
(waived the first year)
Ink Plus Business Card
60,000 1.25 2.1 32,000 $95
Sapphire Preferred
50,000 1.25 2.1 32,000 $95
(waived the first year)
Chase Sapphire Reserve 50,000 1.5 2.1 26,667 $450
Citi Prestige 50,000 1.6 AA
1.33 Other airlines
1.6 25,000 AA /
30,100 other airlines
US Bank
FlexPerks Travel Rewards Visa Signature Card
20,000 Varies; up to 2 N/A 20,000 $49
(waived the first year)

Let’s go through each program individually.

1. American Express

The Platinum Card from American Express is currently offerings 60,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $5,000 within the first 3 months and the Business Platinum Card from American Express has a  welcome offer of up to 75,000 points (50,000 after $10,000 spent and an extra 25,000 after you spend an additional $10,000 within the first 3 months). However, the Business Platinum card will leave you with many more points left over to start building to a second redemption (or a more expensive ticket). Not only is the welcome bonus higher, but the Business Platinum Card offers a 35% rebate when you pay for airfare on a preselected airline with your Membership Rewards.

Personally, I wouldn’t use my Membership Rewards for paid airfare unless I really needed to, since transferring those points to an airline or hotel program gives a much better value. In fact, that same $400 flight (assuming it’s on American) could cost you as little as 15,000 British Airways Avios round-trip (since 4,500-Avios redemptions ended in February) — or 18,750 Membership Rewards points transferred to British Airways. Still, paying for your airfare with Membership Rewards is an option if you absolutely need it.

2. Barclaycard

The Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard is an ideal option for redeeming for paid airfare, since the miles don’t otherwise transfer to travel partners. You’ll need 40,000 miles to get a statement credit for $400 airfare, but you’ll get 5% back, making the total outlay 38,000 points. Since the Arrival Plus card gives you a statement credit for any expense that Barclaycard codes as “travel,” you can also use the points for rental cars or even theme park tickets if you buy them through third-party travel websites like Expedia or Orbitz.

3. Capital One

Despite an extraordinarily effective ad campaign, Capital One’s rewards aren’t as necessarily as valuable as competing cards like Barclaycard Arrival Plus (with its 5% rebate). But there are some cards — including the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and the Capital One Spark Cash for Business — with sign-up bonuses that would allow for paid airfare at our $400 example (with the last being a simple cash-back card that could be used for any expense). If that’s your goal, the Capital One cards could be for you — but do keep in mind that Capital One is notorious for pulling credit reports from multiple bureaus, so factor that into your calculations when deciding to apply for its cards.

4. Chase

Consider Chase's great selection of transfer partners before deciding to redeem Ultimate Rewards points toward paid air travel.
Consider Chase’s great selection of transfer partners before deciding to redeem Ultimate Rewards points toward paid air travel.

The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card comes along with a 50,000-point sign-up bonus (after you spend $4,000 in the first three months). That bonus is enough to cover more than $400 in airfare. Meanwhile, the Ink Plus Business Card will net you 60,000 points after you spend $5,000 in the first three months. Factoring in the points you’ll receive for spending $5,000 as well, that bonus can be redeemed for two $400 airfares (at 1.25 cents per point). Finally, the recently introduced Chase Sapphire Reserve currently offers a sign-up bonus of 50,000 points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months. Since you can redeem points from this card through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal for 1.5 cents apiece (vs. 1.25 cents per point for the two other UR-earning cards mentioned here), the sign-up bonus can get you $750 in paid airfare.

That said, please don’t redeem points for paid airfare unless you truly have no other option; Chase Ultimate Rewards are so valuable because of the program’s transfer partners, and you’ll get much more value by transferring your points to a hotel program like Hyatt or airline programs like United and Korean Air, instead.

5. Citi

Citi recently upped its game in the rewards world, adding transfer partners such as Virgin America. But ThankYou points can also been redeemed for travel when booked directly through Citi. The Citi Prestige card comes with a 50,000-point sign-up bonus (after spending $3,000 in the first three months) that equates to $625 in general travel expenses, or $800 in airfare on American Airlines. Being able to redeem for two $400 airline tickets is pretty incredible. If you also have Prestige, you can redeem points for 1.6 cents each toward AA flights or 1.33 cents each toward airfare on other carriers; otherwise, you’ll get 1.25 cents in value for each point you redeem.

6. US Bank

US Bank FlexPerks is one of the smaller rewards programs, but it can still hold a lot of value. The current sign-up bonus of 20,000 points for the US Bank FlexPerks Travel Rewards Visa Signature Card equals $400 in airfare for each card. The drawback to the FlexPoints program is that the airfare you purchase must be less than $400 to be able to redeem the 20,000 points. In other words, if a ticket costs $401, you can’t spend 20,000 points and pay $1 — you have to redeem at the next tier, which is 30,000 points (otherwise worth up to $600).

Bottom Line

As you can see, there are plenty of options if your goal is to earn a welcome bonus to redeem for paid airfare. There are also two cards with welcome bonuses that equal two $400 tickets. And while this sort of redemption is rarely your best value, it’s a good option to have in your back pocket should you need it.

What’s your favorite card for redeeming points toward airlines?


Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the 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.