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How Do Credit Card Airline Miles Work?

Credit card miles are a great way to earn travel benefits such as free flights, hotel stays, car rentals, or event tickets.
Author: Baruch Mann (Silvermann)
Baruch Mann (Silvermann)

Writer, Contributor

Experience

Baruch Silvermann is a financial expert, experienced analyst, and founder of The Smart Investor, which helps consumers make better financial decisions.  Silvermann’s areas of expertise include investing, banking, and credit cards. Silvermann has contributed to Yahoo Finance and cited as an authoritative source in financial outlets like Forbes, Business Insider, CNBC Select, CNET, Bankrate, Fox Business, The Street, and more. Aside from being a finance expert, his background includes working as a business and financial analyst. Above all, he is passionate about teaching people how to manage their money and helping millions on their journey to a better financial future.

Review & Fact Check: Baruch Mann (Silvermann)

Baruch Mann (Silvermann)

Financial Expert, The Smart Investor CEO

Experience

Baruch Mann (Silvermann) is a financial expert and founder of The Smart Investor. Above all, he is passionate about teaching people how to manage their money and helping millions on their journey to a better financial future.
Author: Baruch Mann (Silvermann)
Baruch Mann (Silvermann)

Writer, Contributor

Experience

Baruch Silvermann is a financial expert, experienced analyst, and founder of The Smart Investor, which helps consumers make better financial decisions.  Silvermann’s areas of expertise include investing, banking, and credit cards. Silvermann has contributed to Yahoo Finance and cited as an authoritative source in financial outlets like Forbes, Business Insider, CNBC Select, CNET, Bankrate, Fox Business, The Street, and more. Aside from being a finance expert, his background includes working as a business and financial analyst. Above all, he is passionate about teaching people how to manage their money and helping millions on their journey to a better financial future.

Review & Fact Check: Baruch Mann (Silvermann)

Baruch Mann (Silvermann)

Financial Expert, The Smart Investor CEO

Experience

Baruch Mann (Silvermann) is a financial expert and founder of The Smart Investor. Above all, he is passionate about teaching people how to manage their money and helping millions on their journey to a better financial future.

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If you’re considering a rewards credit card, the chances are that you’re looking at one that offers miles. If you’re not familiar with airline loyalty programs, you may wonder whether this is a good reward option for you.

So, here we’ll explore the topic of how credit card airline miles work.

What Are Credit Card Miles?

Credit card miles are a form of reward currency. While some cards offer a percentage of your purchases as cash back or points rewards, miles are a popular reward for travel credit cards. As with points, you can accumulate your miles and then redeem them.

This is where there tends to be a greater difference between point rewards and credit card miles. Miles are typically redeemed for flights or other travel purchases. If you have a card that earns airline miles, you’ll get the best redemption rates when you book flights with that airline or its partners.

However, if the miles are associated with the credit card company,  your best redemption rate is likely to be any travel purchased via the card issuer’s travel portal.

airline credit cards and travel concept
(Photo by Africa Studio/Shutterstock)

How Much Are Credit Card Miles Worth?

There is no simple, straightforward answer to this question. Firstly, the miles for different programs can vary and additionally, you need to consider the redemption rate.

As we discussed earlier, miles redemption rates tend to favor flights, particularly when you’re booking with the associated airline. So, you always need to look at the cash value and miles required to get an accurate value of your miles.

For example, if a flight costs $1,000 or you need 20,000 miles, it means that your miles are worth 5 cents each. On the other hand, if you need the same 20,000 miles to get a $100 gift card, your miles only have a value of 0.5 cents each.

Unfortunately, many airline programs and credit card miles plans have dynamic pricing. This means that the miles cost of a flight can go up or down depending on the demand for the seats. So, if you’re booking a flight around the holidays, it is likely to cost more miles compared to traveling in October.

Which Airline Companies Have Credit Cards?

There are a number of airlines that have partnered with credit card companies to offer miles rewards.

The main companies include:

1. American Airlines

American Airlines operates its AAdvantage miles program and has partnered with Citi to offer a number of credit cards including the American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp℠ Card, Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®, and more.

American Airlines also has a partnership with Barclays, which provides the AAdvantage Aviator card line including Silver, Red, Blue and Aviator Business.

Each of these cards provides the opportunity to earn AAdvantage miles with your purchases. The specific number of miles you’ll earn will depend on the particular reward structure of your chosen card. Then, you can redeem AAdvantage miles for free flights, transfer it to another airline company or book a hotel through the AAdvantage program.

Here are the main American Airlines cards:

Card
Rewards
Bonus
Annual Fee

aadvantage mile up card art

American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp℠ Card
1X – 2X 2 AAdvantage miles per dollar on grocery stores and eligible American Airlines purchases, and 1 mile per dollar on other purchases
10,000 miles 10,000 miles and $50 statement credit if you spend $500 in first 3 months
$0

aadvantage_platinum_mastercard

Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®
1X – 2X 2 AAdvantage® miles for every $1 spent at gas stations and restaurants, and 2 AAdvantage® miles for every $1 spent on eligible American Airlines purchases
50,000 Miles 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles after $2,500 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
$99 Waived for the first 12 months

AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®

AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®
Up to 2x miles 2 miles for every $1 spent on eligible American Airlines purchases and 1 mile for every $1 spent on other purchases
50,000 miles 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles after spending $5,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
$450

2. Delta

The Delta SkyMiles loyalty program is only associated with one credit card issuer; American Express. There are four Delta SkyMiles American Express Cards; Blue, Platinum, Reserve, and the most popular Delta card – Delta Skymiles Gold American Express Card. 

3 out of those 4 cards have an annual fee, but there are varying benefits from no foreign transaction fees to free checked bags on Delta flights and complimentary or reduced-price access to the Delta SkyClub airport lounges. There are many options to redeem Delta points such as free flights, upgrades, or transferring to another airline company.

Here are the main Delta cards:

Card
Rewards
Annual Fee

Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express Card Review

Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express Card
1X – 2X 2X miles on delta purchases, at restaurants worldwide (including take-out and delivery in the U.S) and at U.S. supermarkets, and 1x miles on all other eligible purchases
$99, $0 intro first year (Rates & Fees)

Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express

Delta SkyMiles Blue American Express Card
1X – 2X 2X miles for every dollar spent at restaurants worldwide and Delta purchases and 1X miles for every dollar spent on other eligible purchases

Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card

Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card
1X – 3X 3X miles per dollar on eligible Delta flights and Delta Vacations® with 1X miles on all other purchases

Amex Delta SkyMiles Platinum card

Delta SkyMiles Platinum American Express Card
1X – 3X 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels, 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide including takeout and delivery in the U.S., and at U.S. supermarkets and 1X Miles on all other eligible purchases

3. United Airlines

United has a partnership with Chase to offer Mileage Plus rewards on your purchases. There are currently four United credit cards.

The United Gateway card is a more basic rewards card with no annual fee, but you can earn miles on flights, gas, local transit, and commute. The top-of-the-line United card is the United Club Infinite card, which offers premium benefits including United Club membership, free checked bags, and the potential to earn miles on all your purchases.

While United miles are worth 1.4 cents per mile, you can redeem United miles for United flights including business and first class, partner flights, or Star Alliance upgrades. 

Here are the main United cards:

Card
Rewards
Bonus
Annual Fee

united infinite card

United Club℠ Infinite Card
Up to 4x miles 4x miles on United Airlines purchases, 2x miles on all other travel purchases, dining and eligible delivery services and 1x miles on all other purchases
80,000 miles 80,000 bonus miles after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening
$525

United Quest℠ Card

United Quest℠ Card
Up to 3x miles 3 miles per $1 spent on United purchases immediately after earning your $125 annual United purchase credit, 2 miles on all other travel and select streaming services, 1 mile on all other purchases
70,000 miles 70,000 bonus miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open
$250

United Gateway card

United Gateway℠ Card
1X – 2X 2X per $1 spent on United® purchases, at gas stations and on local transit and commuting and 1X on all other purchases
20,000 miles 20,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open
$0

United Business Card

1X – 2X 2X per $1 spent on United® purchases, dining (including eligible delivery services), at gas stations, office supply stores, and on local transit and commuting and 1X on all other purchases
75,000 miles 75,000 bonus miles after spending $5,000 on purchases in the first three months
$99
united explorer
United Explorer Card
1X – 2X 2x per $1 spent on United purchases, hotel accommodations, restaurants & eligible delivery services and 1x per $1 spent on all other purchases
50,000 miles 50,000 miles after spending $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open
$95 ($0 first year)

4. Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines has four partnership credit cards with Chase. All the cards can help you to get to A-List status faster, with TQPs awarded according to your card spending and money back on your inflight purchases.

However, each tier of card offers additional benefits. The Rapid Rewards Priority card offers upgraded boarding and annual travel credit. The Rapid Rewards Premier and Rapid Rewards Plus both also offer two EarlyBird Check-ins per year.

5. Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines has partnered with Bank of America to offer the Alaska Airlines Visa.

This card has a modest annual fee, but you can enjoy a companion fare each year, free checked bags for you and up to six travel companions and no foreign transaction fees.

Travel vs Co-Branded Airline Credit Cards: How They Compare

While we’ve discussed co-branded airline credit cards, it is important to point out that you can also earn travel rewards with travel credit cards. These are cards that are not tied to a particular airline or airline loyalty program.

If you’re particularly loyal to an airline and always fly with them, it makes sense to have a co-branded airline credit card. If this does not apply to you, then you may be better with a travel credit card.

Essentially, travel credit cards offer more generic rewards. Rather than receiving miles for a particular airline’s loyalty program, you’ll receive points or the credit card company’s own miles.

You can then redeem your rewards for travel purchases, with preferential redemption rates when you book your travel via the credit card company’s travel portal.

Some travel credit cards also allow you to redeem your rewards for statement credit, gift cards, and other things, such as magazine subscriptions, but these are generally at a lower redemption rate.

Here are some examples of the most popular travel cards:

Card
Rewards
Bonus
Annual Fee

chase_sapphire_preffered

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
2X – 5X 5x total points on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards, 3x points on dining and online grocery purchases and 2x on other travel purchases. Plus, earn 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases
60,000 points 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening
$95

TD First Class Visa Signature Credit Card Review

TD First Class Visa Signature
1X – 3X 3X First Class miles on travel and dining purchases and 1X First Class miles on all other purchases
25,000 miles 25,000 miles on $3,000 spent in first 6 cycles
$89 (waived first year)

Venture X Rewards

Capital One Venture X Rewards
1X – 10X 10 miles per dollar on hotels and rental cars when booking via Capital One Travel, 5 miles per dollar on flights and 2 miles per dollar on all eligible purchases
75,000 miles 75,000 bonus miles once you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first 3 months from account opening
$395

citi_premier_card

Citi Premier® Card
1X – 3X 3X points per dollar on restaurant, supermarket, gas station, hotel and air travel purchases, and 1X points per dollar on all other purchases
60,000 points 60,000 points after you spend $4,000 in the first 3 months of account opening
$95

Chase Sapphire Reserve®
1X – 10X 5X total points on air travel and 10X total points on hotels, car rentals when you purchase through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, immediately after earning your $300 annual travel credit. Also, earn 3x points on dining at restaurants and travel (after meeting the $300 travel credit), then 1x points per dollar spent on all other purchases
60,000 points 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening
$550

amex platinum

The Platinum Card® from American Express
1X – 5X 5X points on up to $500,000 spent on directly-booked airfare and flights and prepaid hotels booked through American Express Travel (per calendar year), 2X points on prepaid car rentals through American Express Travel and 1X points on all other purchases
80,000 points 80,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $6,000 on purchases on your new Card in your first 6 months of Card Membership

Travel vs Co-Branded Airline Credit Cards: How To Choose?

So, to decide if you would be better off with a travel credit card or a co-branded airline credit card, you’ll need to think about your travel preferences and your ideal travel experience.

If you tend to always fly United or won’t use anything other than American Airlines, you’re likely to appreciate not only the miles, but also the other travel perks associated with a co-branded card.

However, if you don’t want to be tied to an airline, but still want access to some great travel rewards and perks, consider a travel credit card.

The Pros and Cons of Airline Miles Credit Cards

As with all financial products and services, there are both positives and potential negatives associated with airline miles credit cards. It is important to be aware of the pros and cons before you make a decision.

Pros
Cons
Generous Perks
Tied to a Specific Airline
Elite Status
Minimal Redemption Methods
Free Flights

With an airline miles credit card, the perks tend to be tailored toward that airline. This means that you can enjoy some generous perks even if you’re not qualified for the premium cards.

Some of the more basic airline cards not only offer miles, but also lounge day passes, free checked bags, and other perks that can enhance your travel experience.

Many airlines operate an elite status program and having a co-branded credit card can help you to accumulate more points to improve your status rank.

Some of the cards provide an elite point bonus if you meet a spending requirement each year, which could make the difference between a basic and higher level.

An airline miles card is one of the easiest ways to score some free flights. You can accumulate your miles until you have sufficient to book your preferred flights.

Since the cards are co-branded to an airline, you are somewhat tied to that airline.

Although it may be possible to transfer your miles to a partner airline, this can incur costs. So, you need to be fairly brand loyal to make the most of this type of card.

As we’ve discussed, these cards typically offer the best redemption methods when you book flights.

However, you may find some cards are lacking in other redemption methods or the values make them unfeasible.

How to Choose an Airline Miles Credit Card

If you’re seriously considering an airline miles credit card, you need to know how to choose the right one for you.

While there may be plenty of airline card options on the market, there are a few factors that you can consider to narrow down the choices.

  • Your Credit: First and foremost, you need to check your latest credit score and only apply for cards that are appropriate for your credit. There are some basic airline miles credit cards that are available even if you have less than perfect credit. However, the credit requirements are far more stringent if you’re looking at the premium cards.
  • The Airline: This may be obvious, but it is the easiest way to narrow down the credit card options. Think about which is your favorite airline and which one you tend to use regularly. It is also worth paying attention to where the airlines have hubs and if you have one nearby.
  • Rewards Rate: Ideally, you should be able to earn the maximum number of miles from your credit card without needing to change your spending habits and patterns. So, you should look for a credit card that fits your habits. If you travel frequently, a card that focuses on travel purchases is a solid choice, but for the less regular traveler, a card that rewards everyday purchases such as gas or grocery shopping would be better.
  • Annual Fee: Generally speaking, the more perks a card offers, the higher the annual fee you can expect to pay. So, you’ll need to assess the value of those perks to you. There is no point in paying hundreds of dollars in an annual fee, if you’ll only visit an airport lounge once a year and rarely travel with many bags.
  • Other Fees and Charges: Finally, it is worth assessing the fees and charges that will apply to your account. If you tend to travel abroad, look for a card with no foreign transaction fees. Unless you typically settle your account in full every month, prioritize a card with a low APR.

When It May Not Make Sense to Choose an Airline Miles Card?

As we’ve covered, airline miles cards are tied to a specific airline, so it doesn’t make sense to choose one if you have no brand loyalty. If you typically shop for the best flight deals regardless of the carrier, you may prefer a more general travel credit card.

It also may not make sense to choose an airline miles card if you don’t live anywhere near a hub city. If you need to use connecting flights to access the benefits of your card, it may not be worthwhile to you.

Airline Miles Credit Card Alternatives

If you’re still unsure whether an airline miles credit card would be the best choice, it may be worth exploring the alternatives. These include:

  • Travel Credit Cards: These are an excellent alternative for those who want to access travel perks but don’t want to be tied to a particular airline. These cards can still offer great benefits, but you may miss out on more airline-specific perks, such as free checked bags. However, you may be able to access airport lounge networks and get a statement credit for in-flight or travel purchases, which could offset anything you miss out on.
  • Rewards Credit Cards: Although these may lack travel-specific perks, you can still accumulate rewards for your vacation plans if you don't tend to travel regularly. Most credit card companies have a travel portal that allows you to use your points to book flights, hotels, or car rentals. In some cases, you may even be able to exchange your points for miles with partnership airline programs.

FAQs

This depends on a number of factors including your travel dates, destination, elite status and more.

Many airline loyalty programs also have special offers periodically, so you will simply have to search and compare flights to get a rough idea of how many miles you’ll need for your possible itinerary.

Most airline-specific credit cards are available for those with good to excellent credit, so you may struggle if you only have fair credit.

In this scenario, you may need to look at more general reward cards or work on your credit until you have a better chance of qualifying.

Not typically, but some airlines do have partnerships with other airlines which may allow you to access some benefits.

No, it is quite difficult to get any type of rewards card with bad credit, particularly airline miles credit cards. You would need to focus on rebuilding your credit before you could attempt to obtain a miles credit card.

Generally, the annual fee is a good indicator of the benefits and rewards offered with the card.

So, it is unusual to find an airline miles credit card with no annual fee, but there are some exceptions such as the Amex Delta SkyMiles Blue card or the AAdvantage MileUp.

Baruch Mann (Silvermann)

Baruch Mann (Silvermann)

Baruch Silvermann is a financial expert, experienced analyst, and founder of The Smart Investor, which helps consumers make better financial decisions.  Silvermann's areas of expertise include investing, banking, and credit cards. Silvermann has contributed to Yahoo Finance and cited as an authoritative source in financial outlets like Forbes, Business Insider, CNBC Select, CNET, Bankrate, Fox Business, The Street, and more. Aside from being a finance expert, his background includes working as a business and financial analyst. Above all, he is passionate about teaching people how to manage their money and helping millions on their journey to a better financial future.