These are cards that earn miles directly into your account with one airline, like a Delta SkyMiles American Express. Theyâ€™re usually not the fastest way to earn miles, but they often come with other benefits like a free checked bag.
Our rule of thumb is you should only consider airline miles if you typically spend $2,000 or more in a month on a credit card, so you can earn enough miles for an award in a reasonable amount of time. Otherwise, stick with a cash back rewards card.
But spending $2,000 a month isnâ€™t the only factor. You should also be able to answer YES to at least one of these three questions:
If you can answer YES to one of them, then airline miles are a good choice for getting the most out of your card spending.
They can get you luxurious flights. If youâ€™re really flexible with dates and times, a good chunk of real airline miles can get you flights that would otherwise cost thousands of dollars in cash.
You can build on miles you earn from flying.
If you fly more than a few times a year, this can be really lucrative since the miles you earn from your credit card get to build on the ones you already have, getting you to an award ticket a lot faster than spending on a card that just earns regular cash rewards.
They have big intro bonuses
Often, the most generous deals that offer you a bonus to open a new account are on cards that offer travel rewards, rather than regular cash rewards. Thatâ€™s because travel rewards are more restricted, and not appealing to everyone.
If you donâ€™t have a big balance, they can be hard to use. To get the most out of airline miles, you really need to pay attention to things like what airline partners you can use with which miles, where to search for award seats, and how many miles is a â€˜goodâ€™ price to pay.
They can expire. Many airline miles expire after a year or so if you leave your account dormant. Itâ€™s easy to avoid it by earning or spending just one mile, but a lot of people forget and end up losing their miles, so unless youâ€™re willing to make them a habit, stay away from regular airline miles.
You need a lot of them to get a good value award. Hereâ€™s how much you can expect to pay for flights with miles:
Thatâ€™s a lot of miles. And if youâ€™re just sticking to one credit card, donâ€™t fly much, and
They have annual fees. Most cards that can earn you real airline miles carry a hefty annual fee, which isnâ€™t worth it if you donâ€™t travel much.
Youâ€™re locked into one program. Miles you earn via a traditional airline miles card are stuck in that one program, so if the airline suddenly raises prices or changes rules youâ€™re stuck. Instead, consider convertible points (below) which we prefer over plain airline miles.