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Airline Rewards Credit Cards: How to Pick One

Jason Steele

Credit cards that offer airline miles are some of the oldest and most popular types of reward cards, and people are lured into these products by the tantalizing prospect of a free flight. But how do cardholders pick the right reward credit card? Here are a few of the most important questions to answer when considering one of these cards.

Which airline do you use most?

The obvious choice is the airline that you fly the most often so that you can combine miles earned in the air with those gained as credit card rewards. In addition, most airline mileage cards now offer valuable perks such as priority boarding, discounts on in-flight purchases and free checked bags.

What is the annual fee?

Most airlines offer several different credit cards. Those with the lower fees return the fewest perks and benefits while the higher fee cards tend to offer elite qualifying miles and even lounge club memberships. Occasional travelers will find the lower fee cards to be adequate while only the most frequent travelers will be able to exploit all of the benefits of the high-fee cards.

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What is the sign-up bonus? 

For many years, the standard sign-up bonus has been 25,000 miles, enough for a domestic round-trip award flight. But today, most cards offer even more miles than that.

Are flexible reward cards a better choice? 

Travelers who are not loyal to a particular airline will want to consider a credit card that offers flexible reward points that can be transferred to miles. The Ultimate Rewards program from Chase, the Membership Rewards program from American Express, and the Starwood Hotels Preferred guest program all feature co-branded credit cards, which earn points that can easily be converted to miles with various airlines. These programs allow savvy award travelers to locate scarce award seats first, and then transfer points to miles.

A Few Good Credit Cards That Offer Airline Miles

United MileagePlus Explorer card from Chase

This card offers new applicants 30,000 bonus miles after spending $1,000 within the first three months of opening an account. Cardholders then earn one mile per dollar spent on all purchases, and double miles for spending on United. Perks include priority boarding, free checked bag fee waiver and two day passes to United Club lounges every year. There is a $95 annual fee that is waived the first year.

American Express Gold Card

For each dollar spent, cardholders receive one point in American Express’s Membership Rewards program. Points can be transferred to miles with more than a dozen different airlines. Cardmembers also receive several travel insurance and purchase protection policies. There is a $125 annual fee for this card that is waived the first year.

Citi Platinum Select AAdvantage Visa Signature card

American Airlines and Citi offer this card with a 30,000 mile sign-up bonus to new applicants who spend $1,000 within three months of opening a new account. Cardholders receive one mile per dollar spent on all purchases, and double miles on transactions with American Airlines.  Other benefits include a priority boarding, traveler’s first bag checked free, and a $100 flight discount each year. There is a $95 annual fee that is waived the first year.

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