The Credit Cards Every Frequent Flier Should Have In Her Wallet

Photo: flickr/ben_salter

Summer is the perfect time to travel. The warm weather probably has you itching for a nice vacation to the beach, where you can play in the sun and sip your favourite cocktail. Hitching a plane ride there can be easier, and cheaper, if you have the right credit card.Some credit cards are better than others when it comes to giving you points for airline miles, says Bill Hardekopf of “Mileage cards are probably more abundant or lucrative than they were a few years ago, especially for people with excellent credit scores,” he says.

In addition to the mileage, these cards come with a number of other perks. “The most significant perk of airline cards is the frequent flyer benefits. The Chase United MileagePlus Explorer waives the first checked bag fee, saving $50 roundtrip; the Delta Gold Skymiles gives priority boarding to cardholders,” says Alicia Jao, vice president of travel media at, a credit card comparison website. “Other cards provide in-flight savings, accelerated elite status, and priority check-in.”

[See 11 Easy Ways to Slash Travel Costs.]

If you don’t pay your bill off in full each month, these cards probably aren’t for you, Hardekopf says, since many of them charge a high interest rate and an annual fee. But if you will use the card a lot—and responsibly—and are able to rack up points for free flights, consider getting one of these expert-recommended airlines miles credit cards:

Starwood Preferred Amex. “Talk about generous,” says Liz Weston, author of Your Credit Score. Although it’s not an airline card per se—the card lets you accrue points that can be worth 3 to 4 cents (sometimes more) when you cash them in for Starwood hotel rooms, like the Westin Resort in Maui and the Excelsior luxury hotel in Florence, Italy—the card can be used for frequent flier programs for 30 different airlines.

Just keep in mind that transferring points from hotels to airlines generally reduces the value of your points, says Jao.

Capital One Venture Rewards Card. Weston says she’s a big fan of this card, which allows you to buy any airline ticket. The card reimburses you from the points you earn. “I think it’s a great fit for those who aren’t elite frequent flyers, since you don’t have to deal with blackout dates or limited supply,” she says. The card will allow you to earn two miles to the dollar on all spending.

“You can really rack up some pretty good points for that,” Hardekopf says. There’s a $59 annual fee (waived the first year), but Hardekopf says if you spend enough money, you’ll make up for the fee.

[See How to Travel on a Budget.]

Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. There’s a $95 annual fee (waived the first year), but you get 40,000 bonus points if you spend $3,000 in the first three months. “That’s a very nice bonus,” says Hardekopf. You get two points for every dollar spent on travel and dining, and one point for every dollar spent on all other purchases.

Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Card. “If you’re looking for a particular airline rewards card, Southwest comes out ahead,” says Gerri Detweiller, director of consumer education at Southwest is currently offering a promotion where if you sign up for the card, you receive a free trip. Points range between 6 and 12 per dollar for Southwest flights based on what type of flight you choose. You earn two points per dollar if you use a hotel or car rental purchase, and then one point per dollar on all other purchases. With this card, Southwest waives the annual fee of $69 the first year. You also get 3,000 bonus points when you renew the card.

PenFed Premium Travel Rewards from American Express. Anyone can join the credit union by donating $20 to NMFA or volunteering for the Red Cross. The card gives you five points per dollar you spend on airfare, and one point per dollar you spend on other purchases. You get 20,000 bonus points ($200 for a round-trip ticket) if you spend $650 in the first three months. There’s no cap on the rewards you can earn, and the card also has a low interest rate of 9.9 per cent. There are no foreign transaction fees and no annual fee.

[See 8 Insider Secrets to Booking Cheap Airfare]

Chase United MileagePlus Explorer Card. This card has a nice sign-up bonus of 25,000 miles. You get some perks, like priority boarding, a free checked bag, and passes to use its airport lounge. The second year, you pay a $95 annual fee, so you’ll have to see if the card is worth it, Detweiller says. “If you fly it twice a year, you’ve made up for that annual fee if you’re going to check a bag,” she says.

Citi Platinum Select American Airlines AAdvantage Card. You get two miles for every dollar you spend on American Airlines purchases, and one mile per dollar on all other purchases. You and up to four travel companions get your first checked bag free. “That’s a nice perk that will save you some money,” Hardekopf says. You also get 30,000 bonus miles if you spend $1,000 on the card in the first three months. There is an annual fee of $95, but it’s waived for the first year.

Each card offers something different. Some give more mileage points for your spending but come with higher annual fees, so just be sure to pick the card that’s right for your spending habits.

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