Today Americans fly year-round, especially with so many airline specials last-minute fares. With all the holidays behind us and with the start of 2020, indeed many of us are already thinking about and/or planning our next trip in the coming year.
For sure, collecting frequent flyer miles is still a profitable pastime for road warriors and occasional travelers alike—take a flight, earn airline miles and eventually collect enough to redeem for a free ticket.
But pro travel hackers know the best way to earn miles is on the ground, not in the air, by taking advantage of credit cards that award miles upon sign-up and again with every purchase.
What are credit card miles?
Credit card miles—the same thing as points—are the currency of loyalty programs attached to certain travel rewards credit cards.
With these rewards credit cards, you earn miles or points that you can later redeem for airfare, hotel stays, or other travel expenses. Under most programs, you’ll earn miles or points for every dollar you spend as well as bonus miles or points for spending in certain categories or spending a minimum amount of money within a certain period of time after opening a new account.
Credit card miles are different than airline-specific frequently flyer miles. Both, however, can be redeemed for free travel.
Credit card miles vs. frequent flyer miles
Airline-branded credit cards will award frequent flyer miles that are only good for travel on that airline. For example, Delta SkyMiles American Express cards earn SkyMiles that can be redeemed for flights on Delta or partner airlines. There are other ways to redeem SkyMiles, but you’re limited to companies Delta has partnered with.
Generic credit card miles can be redeemed with any airline, hotel chain or another travel provider.
In general, credit card miles give you a lot more flexibility when you go to redeem them but tend to have a fixed value-per-mile. With frequent-flyer miles you are subject to restrictions like individual airlines and black-out dates but you may be able to redeem the same number of miles for a more valuable reward, like an international business class ticket.
Credit card miles vs. cash back
With travel credit cards, you’re limited to redeeming points or miles on travel-related purchases, while other cards give you cash back that you can apply to any purchase on your statement, or even transfer to your bank account.
Why choose credit card miles over cash back?
Cash back credit cards are simple and straightforward—earn cash and use it for anything. But miles credit cards can give you more for your money if you know how to use them.
How much is a credit card mile worth?
On average, one credit card mile is worth approximately one cent.
A penny per mile—that’s the benchmark. So, with most programs, if you have 10,000 miles, you have $100 in rewards.
It doesn’t matter if you’re earning miles, points or cash back, if you earn 1% on every purchase, you would need to spend $1,000 to earn $10 in rewards.
Some inferior point-based rewards credit cards make you spend more points to get cash or a cash equivalent rewards (for example, a Visa gift card) than to get branded gift cards or merchandise, lessening the points’ value. No thanks.
What you want to look for are opportunities to redeem miles for more than a one cent each. If you can redeem your miles at a rate of two cents-per-mile, that’s good. If you can redeem them at a rate of three cents or more per mile, you’re entering serious travel hacking category.
This is one of the reasons the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card has been so popular among miles-cards enthusiasts. It offers a 25% redemption bonus if you redeem points for travel through Chase Ultimate rewards, upping the value-per-mile to 1.25 cents (60,000 points becomes worth $750 instead of $600). But the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card also lets you transfer points to certain frequent flyer and hotel programs 1:1. And that opens up a realm of possibilities.
How much is a frequent flyer mile worth?
While credit card miles are usually worth about a penny-per-mile, the value of frequent flyer miles is all over the map—it all depends on how you redeem them.
The value of frequent flyer miles is a mixed bag. Can you snag an award ticket for 25,000 miles that’s worth $300 or more? Perhaps, although it’s not easy. If, however, you use miles to travel internationally—or, in first class seats—credit card miles can actually be worth $0.05 or more apiece.
Frequent flyer miles are worth more per mile when redeemed for long-haul flights and business or first class seats.
Hypothetical airline mile redemption values
|Redemption||Cash value||Miles required||Value-per-mile|
|Cash rewards||300||30000||1 cent|
|Domestic coach||300||40000||0.75 cents|
|Domestic first class||1000||80000||1.5 cents|
|Trans-Atlantic coach||1500||95000||1.6 cents|
|Trans-Atlantic business||3000||200000||1.5 cents|
|U.S.-Asia coach||2000||130000||1.5 cents|
|U.S.-Asia business||2000||130000||3 cents|
If you simply redeem frequent flyer miles for a domestic ticket that normally would only cost a couple hundred bucks, the results are terrible — you get less than a penny per mile! Worse that if you just earned 1% cash back.
But look what happens when you cash in miles for a more expensive ticket. The value per mile goes up to a penny and a half or even three cents if you save them up for a trip across the Pacific in business class. (Depending on the route and schedule, these seats can sell for $10K or more).
When do airline credit cards make sense?
Despite the higher potential value-per-mile, unless you frequently and religiously fly one particular airline, credit card miles that can be used on any airline may be more valuable than airline-specific frequent flyer miles.
Airline-branded credit cards will award that airlines’ frequent flyer miles (for example, Delta SkyMiles American Express cards earn SkyMiles) whereas other travel rewards credit cards will award credit card miles that can be redeemed for flights on any airline, hotel stays and more.
If you fly frequently enough on one particular airline, then carrying that airline’s branded credit card may make sense. Most of the benefits of an airline credit card come not from the miles you earn, but from additional perks like:
- Free checked bags
- Priority boarding
- Reaching elite status faster
For example, I fly Delta just enough that carrying a Delta SkyMiles Amex gets me into their Gold Medallion level. That perk gets me priority customer service and—every now and then—a free first class upgrade.
The best airline miles rewards credit cards
Unless you’re a frequent traveler chasing elite status, a travel rewards credit card that gives you miles good on any airline is probably your best bet.
There are several advantages to earning airline credit card miles:
- Airline Miles can be redeemed as a statement credit toward any travel purchase (tickets on any airline, hotels, rental cards, cruises, etc.
- There are no blackout dates or other restrictions.
- Unlike many frequent flyer miles programs, you don’t need to accumulate the miles needed for an entire flight—you can redeem in increments as low as $50 to defray your travel purchases.
- Most credit card miles do not expire as long as your account is open and in good standing. (Some frequent flyer miles will expire if you don’t take a flight on that airline every year.)
The good news is you have several great options—most of which offer generous sign-up bonuses worth up to $625 if you can spend a certain amount within a few months of signing up.
What we like:
Earn 100,000 bonus miles when you spend $20,000 on purchases in the first 12 months from account opening, or still earn 50,000 miles if you spend $3000 on purchases in the first 3 months
2X miles earned for $1 spent on all purchases
Receive up to $100 application fee credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓®
- Earn 100,000 bonus miles when you spend $20,000 on purchases in the first 12 months from account opening, or still earn 50,000 miles if you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months
- Earn unlimited 2X miles on every purchase, every day
- Miles won't expire for the life of the account and there's no limit to how many you can earn
- Receive up to $100 application fee credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓®
- Redeem on travel—from vacation rentals to car rentals and more. Plus transfer your miles to over 10+ travel loyalty programs
- No foreign transaction fees
We believe the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card has the best rewards rate—earn 2x miles per dollar spent on every purchase. There’s a signup bonus of 100,000 bonus miles when you spend $20,000 on purchases in the first 12 months from account opening, or still earn 50,000 miles if you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months.
What we like:
A monster of an up-front bonus. 60,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 in the first three months
2x points per dollar spent on all travel and dining at restaurants, worldwide
Points are worth 25% more when you redeem travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards
- Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
- 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide, eligible delivery services, takeout and dining out & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
- Get 25% more value when you redeem for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 60,000 points are worth $750 toward travel.
- With Pay Yourself Back℠, your points are worth 25% more during the current offer when you redeem them for statement credits against existing purchases in select, rotating categories.
- Get unlimited deliveries with a $0 delivery fee and reduced service fees on orders over $12 for a minimum of one year on qualifying food purchases with DashPass, DoorDash's subscription service. Activate by 12/31/21.
- Earn 2x total points on up to $1,000 in grocery store purchases per month from November 1, 2020 to April 30, 2021. Includes eligible pick-up and delivery services.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card has the most generous sign-up bonus—60,000 bonus points.
But you’ll need to spend $4,000 in purchases within the first three months.
Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
The Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card might not as flashy as some other travel rewards cards, but it is one of the best—especially if you want to avoid an annual fee. It offers decent (and simple) rewards, $0 annual fee, and no foreign transaction fee.
It’s perfect for anyone who wants to travel internationally but isn’t ready to splurge for one of the premium travel cards.
Discover it® Miles
The Discover it® Miles offers a competitive choice for consumers with good credit who want to earn a better-than-average rewards rate without an annual fee.
While other travel rewards cards feature large sign-up bonuses, the Discover it® Miles will match your rewards in your first year instead. The card is very strong product that stands out in an extremely competitive market.
Finding the best card for you
Not sure you want any of the cards above? Finding the right credit card for you is much simpler if you know your credit score, and can narrow your search to only the cards you know you’ll get approved for. We’ve made it easy for you. If you don’t already know your score, use our quick and free Credit Score Estimator tool – then find the perfect card for you!
- Best credit cards for a credit score over 750
- Best credit cards for a credit score between 700 – 749
- Best credit cards for a credit score between 650 – 699
- Best credit cards for a credit score between 600 – 649
- Best credit cards for a credit score under 599
With a travel rewards credit card, you’ll earn credit card miles with every purchase, which you can redeem for any future travel purchases on that card. When redeemed as a statement credit, credit card miles are usually worth one cent per mile.
Frequent flyer miles that you earn when you fly—or by using an airline’s branded credit card—must be redeemed when you purchase an award ticket on that airline or its partners. You’re much more limited in how you can redeem frequent flyer miles, but they can be worth much more than a penny a piece if you’re strategic.