Best Credit Card To Use For Airfare Purchases

Update: This offer for the Citi ThankYou® Premier Card is expired. Learn more about the current offer here.

Reader stvr asked if I could write an updated post of the one I wrote a bit over a year ago about which credit cards to use for airfare purchases.

I spend a good amount on airfare every year (after all, flying 400,000+ miles per year doesn’t come free!), so making sure I’m getting the best return on airfare spend is pretty important to me. Fortunately you have lots of choices as a consumer, as there are plenty of cards offering great category bonuses for airfare spend.

But which are the best?

The four best cards for airfare spend

Nowadays there are four cards which I’d consider to be the all around best for airfare purchases. Here’s the return they offer on airfare spend, and also what I value the return at:

Credit CardEarning RateValue/PointReturn
Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express3 points/dollar1.8 cents5.4%
Citi Prestige® Card3 points/dollar1.6 cents4.8%
Citi ThankYou® Premier Card3 points/dollar1.6 cents4.8%
Chase Sapphire Preferred2 points/dollar1.8 cents3.6%

All four of the cards have no foreign transaction fees, meaning you can get that great return with no fees, regardless of whether your airfare purchase is billed in USD or not.

Lufthansa-747-8
Even travel not billed in USD can qualify for bonus points without foreign transaction fees

When it comes to charging airfare onto cards, one important distinction between the above cards is how different cards define travel and airfare. Specifically:

So the major distinction is that while the Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express only offers bonus points for airfare when purchased directly with the airline, the other three cards offer it even if you book through a travel agency, including Orbitz, Expedia, etc.

Orbitz
Not all cards give you bonus points for airfare purchased through a travel agency

There are some other non-airline credit cards which offer bonus points on airfare, but I don’t think any of them rival the value offered by the above cards.

For example, the Hilton HHonors Citi Reserve offers 5x points on airfare purchases. That being said, I only value Hilton HHonors points at ~0.4 cents each, so at best you’re looking at a return of ~2.0%, which can’t even begin to compete with the above. So I’m aiming to share what I think are the best bonus categories here, as opposed to just listing them all out.

Bonuses on airline branded cards?

A vast majority of airlines offer bonus points for airfare spend booked through them directly. That makes sense, given that airlines obviously want to incentivize you to use their own co-branded card for purchases on their flights.

But how many co-branded airline cards actually offer a compelling return for airfare spend? For what it’s worth, there are only three airline branded credit cards which offer more than double points on airfare, as far as I know:

Alaska-737

I value Alaska miles at close to two cents each, so that’s a case where it could make sense to put airfare spend on the card. The same is true for Virgin America points. In the case of British Airways, I still think you’re almost always better off going with one of the cards in the above section.

But aside from that — for the cards which simply offer 2x points on airfare spend — you’re much better off accruing transferrable points with the Premier Rewards Gold Card from American ExpressCiti Prestige® CardCiti ThankYou® Premier Card, or Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card.

Bottom line

It’s fantastic that all three major transferrable points currencies offer bonus points on airfare nowadays, and in a vast majority of cases they’re the best options. At the moment all my airfare spend purchased directly with an airline is going onto the Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express, while airfare purchased through an online travel agency is going onto the Citi Prestige® Card.

Which credit card are you using for airfare spend nowadays?

Comments

  1. One other consideration is that the Chase Sapphire Preferred offers insurance on award tickets. I’m not sure about the rest.

  2. I recall you’ve said before that you do not worry about trip interruption cover on credit cards so focus in the miles gained. Or at least you’ve not had many issues over the years so the better deal was to focus on the miles cards. I was curious about that, whether is still the case? I forget, if award tickets are booked with taxes paid by credit card does that give trip insurance cover. Might seem with for small miles gains to go for the extra cover, if so.

    (On different – i am just looking at one of your other pages. Can I request a program comparison for awards between Europe and Asia some time :). )

  3. Great summary, Ben! To echo (and put a finer point on) Christian’s observation, isn’t it important to also factor in the amount of protection offered by each card? Another consideration is redemption utility — both the number of transfer partners as well as the redemption value (e.g., ThankYou flights on AA)?

  4. Nice summary of what card to use. I actually just booked a BA award and used my Barclay Arrival card to pay for the fees. Normally I would not do this, but given that the benefits of the Arrival Plus card have been slashed, I am getting rid of all of my built up points so I can cancel in the next month or so.

  5. Are insurance benefits the same for all cards, e.g., Trip Interuption, Trip Cancellation, Lost Luggage, etc?

  6. @ Jim F. — Correct, definitely worth considering the number of transfer partners, though that’s something I factor into the value of the points. And yes, protection is also an important topic when it comes to purchasing airfare, so I’ll cover that in a separate post.

  7. You forgot to mention that going through Amex travel will resuld in 4pts per $ and throgh chase UR 3pts (until Dec.31)

    Also If the fare you are purchasing is a regular published fare than Amex will treat it as a regular airline charge even if buying on OTA therefore its will result 3pts per $

  8. I think Amex Business Gold is also one to consider… their foreign exchange fees come off in a few weeks…

  9. Ditto on the Aviator Silver at 3x for airfare. While the AF is a little steep, I find the $99 companion certificate (at $30K spend) very compelling as well as the 10K EQM’s for $40K spend and 10% rebate on AA award travel.

  10. You can’t beat the Citi Prestige if you have a Private Bank relationship, which gets you an additional 25% bonus on your points annually — so it ends up netting 3.75 points per dollar spent with airlines. Plus the trip delay protection kicks in after only 3 hours of delay. Incredible.

  11. Could you please explain why do you think that MR points worth 1.8 cents each? I guess you can’t. Anyway it looks like Citi Prestige wins. 3 points / dollar and up to 1.6 cents redemption value compared to Amex’s 1 cent is awesome. Nice post except you’re clearly promoting Amex despite it’s only comparable to the Chase Sapphire Preferred.

  12. As mentioned above, CSP gets 3x through the main page of the UR portal. There’s really no reason to purchase airfare directly with the airline with the CSP you’re leaving points on the table.

  13. @Bangkokiscool — Until a trip last winter, I would have completely agreed with you that the best option is to book through Chase Travel to maximize points. In late February, however, I had to get from NYC to Nashville for a bachelor party, and I had booked via Chase. Right before I left NYC, Nashville got hit with one of the worst winter storms it had had in years. While I booked through Chase, the flight was on Delta, and I was a Gold Medallion. So I called to switch things around with Delta, but they couldn’t touch the ticket because it was booked through Chase. Chase, unfortunately, does not provide the same level of customer support or flexibility that Delta could have provided to its own Medallion elites. Now, I book all airfare directly with airlines with my Citi Prestige.

  14. Sure, but the Barclays Silver isn’t offered anymore unless you already have the Red. I’m hesitating because, as noted above, the real value proposition is the Companion Pass and that takes $30K of spending. So for now I just have the Red. Also, I only value AA points at 1.5 cents, and so the Presitige + Citi Private Account still wins with me (circa 5.5% cash back).

    On that latter point, I’m glad the Citi bank accounts synergy with the Prestige is getting play in the comments.

    And remember that 1.6 cents on TYPs isn’t a lock unless you have the Prestige; and 1.8 cents on Amex points is NEVER a lock. My personal Amex use was for Avios, and that just got effectively devalued from a 1.4x transfer ratio down to 0.8x. So, yes, that makes me no longer an Amex points fan.

  15. Jet Blue’s amex offers 8X points if you purchase on their website. Redemption is revenue based though.

  16. Lest not forget the Qantas offer on certain AMEX accounts for “Spend $2000 or more, get $400 back” and the “Save On Your Air Travel Purchase Spend $300 or more, get $50 back” offer.

  17. @ Natalie — Just to clarify, the card itself only offers 2x points. The other 6x points are ones you’d earn anyway, regardless of which card you paid with.

  18. Please hurry that travel insurance, etc. piece. I have to book a Bali to Singapore flight for September, and with that fussy volcano, I’m suddenly paying lots of attention to trip interruption benefits!

  19. Lucky,

    As an *infrequent* flyer, I have status with no one. So the free checked baggage through my Citi AAdvantage card is particularly valuable to me. Probably not the same for many frequent flyers. I’m curious how you value free checked baggage compared to bonus miles from some of the cards you mentioned.

    Someone please check my math, but the way I see it, I would need to get at least 2778 more points (ie. round trip = 2 bags = $50 = 5000¢ / 1.8¢/point = ~2778 points) through one of these other cards to make up for having to pay for my bags. Since I get 2x miles via Citi on AA purchases, the round trip ticket would have to be ~$2778 for me to break even. Of course this is making a lot of assumptions about the value of miles/points, baggage fees, and an AA flight.

  20. My favorite for United flights is the grandfathered Chase UA MP Select card. 3x UA RDM miles. And 1x PQM miles up to $5000 per year. I’m never cancelling this card unless I stop flying United completely.

  21. @ Matt S. — I could be mistaken, but I believe there’s no requirement to actually pay with the American credit card to get the first checked bag free benefit. Instead you just need to have the card, and have it be linked to the AAdvantage account for which the reservation is being made. So you should be able to get the benefit while paying with a different card.

  22. @Lucky,

    After going back and reviewing the fine print, it looks like you’re right. I don’t see anything about having to actually use the card.

  23. Will be interesting to see the post on travel insurance coverage bundled with different cards. Personally I value that coverage for the CSP more than an extra MR point. Maybe TY will be a good alternative for max earning plus insurance coverage.

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