How to Choose the Best Frequent Flyer Rewards Card

by Jessica Sommerfield · 2 comments

Having moved from the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest, I’ve been exploring my options for earning frequent flyer miles to offset our trips back home during the year.

We’ve always practiced a strict no-credit card policy to avoid the temptation of excess debt, but now we’re considering the advice that a rewards credit card, used responsibly, could earn us points as well as award airline tickets.

If you’re looking for ways to maximize your travel plans into cash back or airline rewards, consider these tips.

There are a few different ways to do this, including:

  • Joining an airline-specific frequent flyer program
  • Opening a frequent flyer rewards credit card

Here’s what I’ve learned about the differences between these two options, and how each affects various lifestyles and flying habits.

Airline Programs: Tips, Pros, and Cons

Major airlines such as United, American, Delta, and Southwest Airlines offer their own frequent flyer programs. If you decide this is the best option for you, choose carefully which airline to go with. Be sure to check Consumer Reports to get information on fees, services, reputation, and other stats (other than your personal experience) to help you determine which is the best choice.

There are also many differences among major airlines — how they determine point values/their actual usability, how frequently they honor reward tickets, and the number of routes and destinations they offer.

For instance, Southwest ranked highest last year for its percentage of awards tickets per flight. This is partially due to less restrictions on reward redemption. United, Delta, and American Airlines, on the other hand, possess the largest number of destinations and routes, but tend to charge the most transaction fees and place the most restrictions on award ticket usage.

Here are a few more tips for using airline cards:

  • Generally, the earlier you book your tickets (up to 7 months in advance), the better availability of reward ticket seating. Some airlines offer greater availability for last-minute booking, but also charge higher fees.
  • If you purchase infrequent or cheap flights, you could be at a disadvantage in programs that have switched to points based on dollars spent rather than miles traveled. As of now, American Airlines and Southwest still use the mileage system, but could switch in the future.

General Frequent-flyer Rewards Credit Cards

Because of the restrictions or disadvantages of airline-specific rewards cards, many people choose to earn their miles through purchases on a rewards credit card that offers a 1:1 point transfer to any airline, or a family of airlines. This is a great option if you don’t fly frequently but still want to earn points. With most cards, every $1 you spend translates to 1 point/1 flyer mile.

The #1 reason for using a frequent flyer rewards card is to take advantage of the large sign-on bonuses.  Some cards offer up to 80,000 bonus points for signing. The higher the sign-on bonus, the higher the annual credit card fee. Speaking of annual fees, it’s possible to avoid them by downgrading your card before the fee is due, or, if you’re bold enough, negotiating to have the fee waved.

Choosing the right rewards credit card depends on your flying habits. offers guidelines for which card will be the best fit for you depending on whether you travel domestically, internationally, regionally, or prefer other perks like hotel and restaurant chain awards.

Tips for Earning Points When Traveling

If you fall shy of enough miles to earn a reward ticket, don’t buy them. You’ll spend more per mile in points than it’s worth. If you have at least enough miles to pay for one-way, do so and pay the rest. This is widely accepted, and will earn more points for you in the long run.

Browse travel guru blogs such as, or Twitter by following people who regularly scout and post amazing short-window ticket deals.

I’m using this advice as I research the best frequent flyer rewards option for our family, in order to get the best deals possible.

What other tips do you know that allow travelers to earn points and airline miles? How do you choose the best rewards credit card?

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  • John says:

    it does work, but takes work, to play these games. My wife and I leave Sunday for Paris on United – one way tickets – $5.60 each using rewards miles and return on Icelandair, using the CapitalOne “eraser” after we get home to pay for most of the return tickets.

  • Jordan says:

    These are some awesome tips on getting a card for frequent flyer miles. Flying can be SO expensive, but I know of a lot of people who’ve taken advantage of programs like these to make travelling easier. Thanks for sharing!

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