Although it may be hard to pinpoint when, somewhere along the line, flying turned from an experience into an ordeal. Yes, the fact is, between the magically shrinking seats, ever-growing list of security hoops to jump through, and apparent collective decision to adopt yoga pants as the official passenger uniform, flying simply isn’t as special as it used to be.
With the help of the right airline rewards program, however, you can join the fight against the continued degradation of the flying experience. Airline rewards programs come in all shapes and sizes, often providing exclusive perks and benefits that can not only make your next flight more affordable — but can also make it a whole lot more enjoyable.
Best “Overall” Airline Rewards Programs
When adjusted for inflation (and not including service fees), the average cost of a domestic trip has actually decreased over the last two decades. Of course, with that said, the current average of $352 per airline ticket is still a hefty expense for the average traveler, making free flights a major selling point for any airline rewards program.
One of the biggest hurdles many face when it comes to redeeming their free flights is the inherent limitation on when and how you can fly that comes with branded rewards, like those offered by frequent flyer programs. For many, the best way to combat these restrictions is to select a flexible, overall travel rewards program that allows you to redeem your rewards for any flight, on any airline, at any time. Check out our favorite picks to get started.
Overall travel rewards programs also provide the opportunity to save on more than just airfare. Indeed, these programs will typically allow you to redeem rewards for a variety of travel-related expenses, including hotel stays and ground travel, rather than being used solely to cover flights. Rewards can also be used to pay for things not usually covered by traditional miles, like taxes and fuel surcharges.
Perhaps the best part of an overall travel rewards program, though, is that you can often use your rewards in conjunction with other airline rewards, such as frequent flyer miles, to really make the most of your savings. For instance, you can book your flight using branded airline miles, then use your Capital One Venture Rewards to cover the associated fees and in-flight purchases.
Best “Transfer Partners” Airline Rewards Programs
The same way rush-hour traffic can sometimes make the most convoluted way home actually the fastest course, there are some cases in which the best path to savings will take the “scenic” route. In terms of airline rewards, you can often get tons of savings from programs that don’t actually reward you airline miles at all — at least, not directly.
The key to these out-of-the-way deals is the complex web of partnerships and conglomerations formed by various major travel brands and credit card issuers. Because of these ties, some rewards programs — like our top-rated selections below — will allow you to transfer your rewards to partner airlines, converting those rewards into usable, branded miles to supplement (or seed) your current stash.
At the top of our list, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® card is an excellent example of getting great deals by taking advantage of the program’s transfer partners. The Ultimate Rewards from your Preferred card can be transferred to any of Chase’s airline partners, often converting to miles at a 1:1 ratio.
5. Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express
Cardholders of the Starwood Preferred Guest credit card earn Starpoints, which can be a lucrative pick for those who like to travel far and wide. The Starwood Preferred Guest program allows members to transfer their Starpoints to 30 frequent flyer programs, including American Airlines’ AAdvantage program and Delta’s SkyMiles program. Most convert 1:1, and, as an additional perk, you’ll earn bonus Starpoints every time you convert to miles.
- Transfer your Starpoints to 30 frequent flyer programs
- Earn a bonus 5,000 Starpoints for every 20,000 points you transfer to a partner airline
- Pay no annual fee the first year, then $95
The fastest way to earn Starpoints is to take advantage of the great signup bonus offered by the Starwood Preferred Guest credit card, provided you can meet the spending requirement within the first 90 days. Additionally, cardholders can earn 2X Starpoints per $1 on branded purchases made with their card — on top of the Starpoints you already earn by being a member of the program — and 1X per $1 on all other purchases.
6. The Amex EveryDay® Credit Card from American Express
The American Express Membership Rewards earned with your Amex EveryDay® credit card can be transferred to any of 17 airline partners, including popular brands like British Airways and Delta, most at a 1:1 rate. You can jump-start your collection with the solid signup bonus, which has an attainable spending requirement.
- Transfer your Membership Rewards to 17 frequent flyer programs
- Enjoy 0% APR on new purchases and balance transfers for the first 12 months after account opening
- Pay no annual fee
Accruing Membership Rewards with your Amex EveryDay card is simple, with cardholders earning 2X points per $1 spent on purchases at US supermarkets (up to $6,000 a year), and 1X per $1 on all other eligible purchases. Earn 20% extra points by making 20 or more purchases during a single billing period.
Best “Frequent Flyer” Airline Rewards Programs
At the end of the day, of course, all the redemption flexibility in the world does you no good if you don’t have access to the options. Many smaller cities, for example, may only be serviced by one or two airlines, limiting your options for “favorite airline” considerably. Or maybe you’re simply a loyalist, devoted to your favorite airline thanks to years of great service.
Either way, there are perks to going with the branded option. For one, few airline rewards programs can offer the same specific perks provided by branded frequent flyer programs, which often include things like free checked bags or access to airport lounges. You’ll also typically score the best deals on luxury upgrades, such as flying first class instead of coach, when redeeming branded miles through the airline’s system.
7. Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express
Cardholders of the Gold Delta SkyMiles® credit card can swipe and earn their way to free flights to any of the more than 325 travel destinations Delta flies. Domestic flights start at 5,000 miles and international travel will cost you 17,500 miles and up.
- Earn 2X miles per $1 spent on Delta purchases and 1X mile per $1 on other eligible purchases
- Your first checked bag is free on all Delta flights
- Pay $0 annual fee the first year, $95 thereafter
You can earn your way to a free flight within your first 90 days by meeting the spending requirement for the signup bonus, which will award you with a nice chunk of miles. You’ll also be eligible for a second bonus if you meet the additional spending requirement within the first six months.
8. Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® Card
The AAdvantage miles earned with your Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® Card can be redeemed toward flights to over 50 countries and 350 destinations. Domestic trips start at 7,500 miles and (off-peak) international flights can be had for 12,500 miles or more.
- Earn 2X miles per $1 spent on American Airlines purchases and 1X miles on other eligible purchases
- Your first checked bag is free on domestic American Airlines fights
- Pay $0 annual fee the first year, then $95 each year
The AAdvantage Platinum Select card comes with a signup bonus that can have you in the air in no time. Even better, redeeming your points will actually earn you points, as you’ll receive bonus miles equal to 10% of your redeemed miles.
9. British Airways Visa Signature® Card
British Airways Visa Signature® cardholders can earn miles good for British Airways flights, which can get them to any of the airline’s 183 destinations around the world. The cost of rewards flights are based on the distance you fly, with off-peak, short-distance trips (650 miles or less) starting at 4,000 Avios miles.
- Earn 3X Avios per $1 on British Airways purchases and 1X Avios on other eligible purchases
- Receive a Travel Together Ticket for spending $30,000 in a year
- Pay no foreign transaction fees
The signup bonus that comes with your British Airways credit card is nothing to laugh at, offering enough Avios rewards to earn a free flight more than 7,000 miles away. Plus, earn even more Avios by meeting the additional spending requirement within your first year.
Make the Most of Your Miles in the Sky
While few of us will be wearing three-piece suits and sipping free drinks while heading off on our next flight, we can all enjoy a bit of the lost luxury of airline travel with the help of the right travel rewards program. Or, should I say, programs? That’s right, when it comes down to getting the best perks and rewards while still enjoy flexible redemption options, the best program is actually to combine programs and rewards.
Mixing and matching rewards programs, such as pairing the flexibility of Chase’s Ultimate Rewards with the in-flight discounts of American Airline’s AAdvantage credit card, can not only provide a way to maximize your benefits, but it’ll also open up a whole new world of earnings options. Each individual card can provide new ways to rack up points, including the particularly lucrative signup bonuses that have become so delightful popular.
Editorial Note: Opinions expressed here are the author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.