What is a mile on a credit card?
A “mile” on a credit card is a unit of currency used in the card’s rewards program. Each mile is worth a set amount that you earn based on the number of actual miles you fly or the amount you spend on your credit card. These “miles” are then redeemed to buy airline tickets, often for free or at extremely reduced prices. Airline miles may also be referred to as frequent flyer miles or travel points and rewards.
What’s the difference between credit card rewards and miles?
The main difference is how you earn and use the rewards vs. miles. In general, credit card rewards can be earned based on the dollar amount spent on a wide variety of everyday purchases — from groceries to gas to dining and more, including travel. These rewards are then redeemed for cash back, a statement credit, travel rewards, and more, depending on the card. Airline miles are usually earned through a frequent flyer program with a specific airline, or through an airline credit card that offers rewards miles. With frequent flyer programs, you’ll earn miles for each flight you take and then redeem them for a free flight after accumulating enough miles. An airline credit card operates similarly to the best cash back credit cards or best rewards credit cards. With an airline credit card, you’ll earn rewards based on the dollar amount spent on certain purchases that can later be redeemed for travel rewards, such as a free flight or hotel stay.
Getting the most out of your airline credit cards
Which card (or card combination) offers the best deal overall? Here’s a look at some pros and cons and potential strategies for maximizing your travel rewards:
An airline card affiliated with a particular carrier may reserve its most generous rewards rate for purchases made directly from that airline. You might see a return of 2-3 points (or miles) for every dollar spent on airline tickets, while the rates for other purchases are commonly 1 point per $1. Other cards are sometimes more generous with rates for everyday purchases.
What about cards that aren’t affiliated with specific airline brands but still offer rewards points for travel purchases? The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is one example, offering 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide and 1X point on all other purchases.
Here’s a recap of the rewards rates for purchases offered by our top five airline credit cards:
|Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card||
|Discover it® Miles||
|Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express||
|Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card||
|JetBlue Card (offer no longer available)||
As you can see, not all airline cards have one-dimensional rewards programs. As for which type of card offers your ideal rewards rate, a great deal depends on your spending habits and goals.
Looking at the five cards profiled on this page, you see a bit of variation on annual fees:
- Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card: $95 (waived 1st year)
- Discover it® Miles: $0
- Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express: $95 (waived 1st year)
- Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card: $69
- JetBlue Card: $0
If an annual fee (or lack of one) is your central concern in choosing a credit card, remember that many cards have generous rewards programs that can offset the cost of the fee. A lot depends on how frequently you plan to use the card and earn rewards.
For a quick comparison of signup bonuses, here’s a similar rundown of our top cards:
- Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card 50K points (spend $4K first 3 months)
- Discover it® Miles N/A
- Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express 30K points (spend $1K in first 3 months)
- Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card 50K points (spend $2K in first 3 months)
- JetBlue Card 5K points (spend $1K in first 3 months)
Some signup bonuses are more generous than others, and some easier to obtain than others. One way to approach a large bonus with a correspondingly large spending requirement could be to put a long-awaited big purchase on the card early on. This strategy is most advisable when the card also has a 0% introductory APR so you can avoid interest while paying off that big-ticket item.
Here’s one thing to note about the Discover it® Miles: Although the card doesn’t have a signup bonus like the others on this list, it does offer to automatically match all the miles you’ve earned at the end of your first year as a cardholder.
As with any type of credit card, it’s best to think about the value of the signup bonus and whether your spending habits make it easily attainable.
As you might expect, benefits such as free checked luggage and priority boarding are often central to airline/travel cards and not offered by more general rewards cards. (For travelers who want to stay connected while conserving their wireless data, travel perks for the Discover it® Miles include a $30 in-flight Wi-Fi credit.)
Best airline credit cards for 2018
- Discover it® Miles : Best travel rewards for everyday spending
- Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card : Most flexible travel rewards
- Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express : Best travel perks
- Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card : Great signup bonus