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Savvy reader LeeAnn asked me for my opinion on how to choose an airline credit card.
“What’s the best credit card that will get me a free vacation in the next three months?”
To answer that question you should first find out what airline hub works best for you. If you live close to a major airport then you’re probably already signed up for a frequent flyer program that’s sponsored by one of the airlines. Each airline has a co-branded credit card that helps you earn miles through everyday spending. These cards tend to offer up to hundreds of thousands of miles in sign up bonuses that you can use for free award travel or seat upgrades within the first few months of being a card member. In many cases, one can also benefit from automatic status upgrades and other flight benefits when you use your card regularly.
There are also incredible bank issued travel reward credit cards that offer significant sign-up bonuses that give you vastly more redemption options for free travel. If you are savvy enough, you should find the co-branded airline credit card and combine it with your airline partner travel rewards credit card that has a higher earning rate on things like dining, groceries or gas. We have compiled a list of credit cards that provide the best value in the marketplace today.
Our top airline rewards credit cards for 2016.
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
The Skinny: The Sapphire Preferred® Card offers you flexibility to redeem your points for miles and book travel on all major airlines. The current sign up bonus gives you 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points after you spend $4,000 within the first three months from the account opening. That’s a lot. You will also earn an additional 5,000 bonus points after you add an authorized user to the account, and they make a purchase in the first three months from account opening. There is a $0 introductory annual fee for the first year then a $95 annual fee in the years following.
The Sapphire Preferred Card earns you 2X points on dining out and travel, and 1 point on every $1 spent elsewhere. You would be surprised at some of the everyday items that classify as travel purchases. Automatically billed tolls to a SmartPass or SunPass account, Uber rides, reloadable Metro or Subway cards in your hometown, and even trips to your favorite sandwich shop all count. All types of everyday spending can add up quickly so that taking that free flight happens even sooner than you think.
Redeeming through Ultimate Rewards is flexible and its one of the most valuable currencies in the market. You can book travel directly where your points are worth a value of 1.25 cents each, or you can transfer them to one of the 10 partner airlines including United, Southwest, and British Airways. When you transfer points to those select airlines, you can benefit from a valuation of up to 2.1 cents apiece. That’s an excellent valuation. The downside to the Sapphire Preferred Card is that the card does not offer airline specific perks like free checked bags and priority boarding that many co-branded cards offer. Otherwise this card is an exceptional choice if you are looking for the flexibility of many carriers and a variety of options.
Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard®
The skinny: The Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® is another great rewards credit card if you don’t want to be tied to a specific carrier. The reward structure for this card gives you 2 points for every dollar you spend on all purchases without any category restrictions. We have nicknamed this card the “no brainer” travel card. You’ll never be burdened by the choice of payment when you open your wallet. This card is best for anything that you buy including: vacations, groceries, dining or that bottle of wine that’s a must have on a Friday night. It earns you points on all your purchases and the biggest perk is that you can redeem your miles on ANY type of travel.
It comes with a 40,000 bonus points when you spend $3,000 in the first 90 days of card membership. That is a value of $400 that you can redeem for hotel stays, cruise travel, and any airline of your choice. Plus, there is a 5% redemption credit that you’ll earn when you redeem your points which then changes your ratio to a 2.1 value. You’ll never be left with an empty balance, as you’ll never feel depleted. What’s more, you can redeem your points for cash back if you want to apply toward your credit card bill.
There is an annual fee of $89, but you can enjoy your first year free. So whether you want to fly to Japan, take a train to New York, or drive to the beach and stay for the weekend – this card can take you there for free.
AAdvantage® AviatorTM Silver World Elite MasterCard®
The skinny: Despite the hefty annual fee of $195 the AAdvantage® AviatorTM Silver World Elite MasterCard® is the best card to carry if you are an avid American Airlines customer. It comes with a Global Entry application fee waiver (a $100 value), and you’ll earn 3 miles per dollar on American flights and purchases, 2 miles per dollar spent on hotel and car rentals, and 1 mile for every $1 spent on all other purchases.
Every year you’ll get 5,000 elite-qualifying miles when you spend $20,000 in annual purchases (a maximum of 10,000 miles each year.) You’ll also get a 10% mileage rebate -up to 10,000 miles per calendar year on award redemptions, and a companion certificate good for up to 2 guests at $99 each- issued annually after your account anniversary when you spend $30,000 or more in purchases. So if you are an AAdvantage member and live in Dallas, New York or Chicago, or just love American Airlines, this is a fantastic card that offers great travel perks.
Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card
The skinny: The Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card is the top choice for those families living in a Southwest hub city. The spending requirement for the sign-up bonus is low and the sign-up bonus is generous. You’ll get 50,000 points after you spend $2,000 in purchases in the first 3 months of opening your account. Southwest continues to love you and offers 6,000 points after your Cardmember Anniversary, regardless of your spending. Earn 2 points per $1 spent on Southwest Airlines® purchases made directly with the airline, and on Rapid Rewards hotel and car rental partner purchases. Earn 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases. There are so many benefits when you are loyal to Southwest. There are no blackout dates or seat restrictions when you redeem with points, your bags fly free®, and there are no change fees.
If you complete 100 qualifying one-way flights or earn 110,000 qualifying points in a calendar year, you can earn the coveted companion status. This allows you to name one guest that can travel with you for free. This is a great deal, and is valid for the remainder of the calendar year in which you qualify and the year after.
Eventhough this card has a $99 annual fee and does not waive their annual fee for the first year, as some other credit cards do, its low spending threshold to earn the 50,000 bonus points combined with all of the other benefits make this a great card for the frugal Southwest Airlines Flyer.
JetBlue Plus Card
The skinny: It may be worth leveling up to the JetBlue Plus Card if you are a frequent traveler and have access to JetBlue flights close to home. The sign-up bonus is a valuable one. You’ll earn 30,000 bonus points after spending only $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days. You’ll also earn 6 TrueBlue points for every dollar spent on JetBlue purchases, and 2 TrueBlue points for every dollar spent at restaurants and grocery stores. Plus, you’ll earn 1 TrueBlue point per $1 spent on all other purchases. One Free checked bag for you is included in membership along with one for up to three additional passengers. In addition, you’ll automatically get 50% off in-flight purchases made on your card. This includes cocktails, food, movies, and more.
Another benefit is the 5,000 bonus points per calendar year that you receive, and a 10% redemption bonus when you cash in your TrueBlue points for flights. if you spend a hefty $50,000 or more on purchases annually you’ll gain access to the benefits for JetBlue’s preferred flyer program, Mosaic. This in itself gives you access to a whole host of benefits and services for the next calendar year.
The JetBlue Plus card is an affordable and rewarding option for people on the go, and provides their TrueBlue member another valuable path to free travel.
The bottom line:
You don’t have to fly frequently to rack up serious miles or points when you decide to carry the credit card that fits your lifestyle. Think about the city where you live, the loyalty programs you belong to, and your aspirational travel goals. Combine these and then choose a card or cards that get you in the air for free, faster.
Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard®
- Enjoy 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 90 days – that’s enough to redeem for a $400 travel statement credit toward an eligible travel purchase.
- Earn 2X miles on all purchases
- Get 5% miles back to use toward your next redemption, every time you redeem
- Miles don’t expire as long as your account is open, active and in good standing
- No foreign transaction fees on purchases made while traveling abroad
- 0% introductory APR for 12 months on Balance Transfers made within 45 days of account opening. After that, a variable APR will apply, 16.99%, 20.99% or 23.99%, based on your creditworthiness. There is a fee for balance transfers.
0% Intro APR for 12 months
16.99%, 20.99%, or 23.99% variable
$0 first year; then $89