We have a love-hate relationship with airline mileage credit cards. The airlines and the banks know we’re suckers for the prospect of a “free” trip to anywhere.
At the same time, many of us have been burned when our promised awards are consistently unavailable at the lowest mileage rates – so we’re forced to give up on our “free” trip or pay double miles or more.
Nevertheless, there’s still value in airline mileage credit cards, but only for those who are savvy enough to use the best ones. The top cards should offer miles that are actually redeemable at the lowest mileage levels and benefits such as checked baggage fee waivers and priority boarding.
Here are the best airline miles cards available now:
The perks: For each dollar you spend, earn one point in the Rapid Rewards program of Southwest Airlines. Each point is worth 1.4 cents towards fares in their “Wanna Get Away” fare class, and points can be redeemed for any unsold seat – and are fully refundable. Cardholders, and everyone else, always receive two free checked bags on Southwest Airlines.
Annual fee: $99, but you receive a 6,000-point bonus every year.
Bottom line: With no bag fees, no change fees, and fully refundable award bookings, this card offers rewards that are immune from many of the worst airline charges.
The perks: Get one mile per dollar spent and double miles for purchases from American. You also receive your first bag checked free, priority boarding, and a 25 percent discount on in-flight purchases.
Thankfully, American Airlines is known for offering the best award availability of all the legacy carriers, and cardholders receive a further 10 percent of their redeemed miles back each year, up to 10,000 miles.
Annual fee: $95, which is waived the first year.
Bottom line: Good award availability and great perks make this one of the top airline credit cards out there.
The perks: Virgin American has staked out a reputation for offering stylish cabins on both transcontinental routes and those along the coasts. Its new credit card offers one point per dollar spent in its Elevate frequent-flier program, and those points are worth about two cents towards any ticket – with no blackout dates.
Better yet, you earn triple points on charges to Virgin America, receive your first bag checked free, and have any change fees waived on all paid tickets.
Annual fee: $149, but you receive a $150 discount of a companion ticket every year.
Bottom line: Another great card for those who want to earn valuable rewards while avoiding change fees and baggage fees.
The perks: Earn one mile per dollar spent and double miles for purchases from Frontier Airlines. You need only 20,000 miles for roundtrip award flights within the continental United States and even Alaska. In addition, you can redeem companion tickets for 5,000 fewer miles, making a round trip for two only 35,000 miles. By comparison, most other carriers charge a minimum of 50,000 miles.
Annual fee: $69
Bottom line: You can earn more awards in a shorter time with this card than you can most others.
The perks: Earn 1.5 miles for each dollar spent and two miles per dollar for purchases from United. Also receive a membership in the United Club lounges, which normally costs $500 per year.
When traveling, you’re entitled to priority check-in, security screening, boarding, and baggage handling privileges, as well as two free checked bags for yourself and one other traveling companion. Finally, you’re upgraded to elite status with Hyatt hotels and Avis car rental.
Annual fee: A steep $395
Bottom line: This high-end airline reward card has the benefits to match its price.
Every Wednesday, Debt.com researches the nation’s best credit card offers and shares the results in plain English. Unlike other sites, we don’t get paid to recommend any card. Please note that perks and fees can change on a moment’s notice and without warning. Got a credit card question? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.