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5 Ways to Use Credit Card Rewards to Buy Airline Tickets (Feb. 2024)

How To Use Credit Card Rewards To Buy Airline Tickets
Erica Sandberg

Written by: Erica Sandberg

Erica Sandberg
Erica Sandberg

Erica Sandberg is a consumer finance expert and journalist whose articles and insights are featured in publications such as the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, MarketWatch, Forbes, and MSN Money. An experienced media host, she's led many financial programs, including her podcast, "Adventures With Money." She's appeared on Fox, CNN, "EconTalk" and "The Dr. Drew Podcast," and has been the resident money and credit authority for KRON-4 News in San Francisco for more than 10 years. She's the author of "Expecting Money: The Essential Financial Plan for New and Growing Families" and recipient of the 2024 Financial Literacy and Education in Communities (FLEC) Award for National Excellence.

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Edited by: Lillian Guevara-Castro

Lillian Guevara-Castro
Lillian Guevara-Castro

Lillian Guevara-Castro brings more than 30 years of editing and journalism experience to the CardRates team. She has written and edited for major news organizations, including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the New York Times, and she previously served as an adjunct journalism instructor at the University of Florida. Today, Lillian edits all CardRates content for clarity, accuracy, and reader engagement.

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Reviewed by: Ashley Fricker

Ashley Fricker
Ashley Fricker

Ashley Fricker has more than a decade of experience as a finance contributor and editor, and has specialized in the credit card industry since 2015. Her credit card commentary is featured on national media outlets that include CNBC, MarketWatch, Investopedia, and Reader's Digest, among many others. She has worked closely with the world’s largest banks and financial institutions, up-and-coming fintech companies, and press and news outlets to curate comprehensive content and media. Ashley holds a bachelor's degree in multimedia journalism from Florida Atlantic University.

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Advertiser Disclosure

No matter your destination, the price of airline tickets can be steeper than you may expect now. April 2022 data collected by the travel app Hopper found that domestic airfare is up 40% from the beginning of the year. But you can turn to your credit card’s rewards program to ease the financial pain. 

You can use your rewards to pay for airfare as long as you have enough rewards accumulated. And if you don’t currently have enough rewards for the full fare, some issuers will let you redeem the rewards you have to reduce your total airfare cost. 

You can use rewards for flights in several ways. The credit card issuer and type of card you have dictates at least part of the process. Some credit card issuers refer to the rewards as points or miles, and you trade them in (redeem) to make the purchase. Other card issuers give cash as rewards, which you can use instead. 

Whichever type of rewards card you have, here is your guide to using your rewards for airfare. 

1. Book With the Card Issuers Travel Portal 

Some general travel cards offer miles as rewards, including the Discover it® Miles and Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card.

Co-branded cards affiliated with a specific airline also offer travel rewards, such as the Southwest® Rapid Rewards® Premier Business Credit Card and American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp℠ Card. 

Other credit cards express rewards as points, including the Citi Strata Premier℠ Card and Chase Sapphire Reserve®

However the rewards currency is expressed, in many cases, you can redeem the miles or points for flights by using the issuer’s shopping or travel portal. Issuer portals include:

To redeem your rewards for airfare via the shopping or travel portal, simply login to the site and search for the flights you’re interested in. You will see how many rewards the airfare you want requires. 

If you don’t have enough rewards, you can usually use your credit card to cover the remaining cost of the ticket. Once done, you can book the flight with your points or miles.

In most cases, you will have plenty of other options from which to choose, such as upgrading your seats to a more premium class, as you book your flight.

2. Book With Your Credit Cards Website

If your credit card doesn’t have a separate portal, as is the case with the U.S. Bank Altitude® Reserve Visa Infinite® Card, log onto your account website. Although the card issuers have slight differences, the process is usually similar to what it is for U.S. Bank:

  • Select “My Accounts” at the top of the page, then “My Rewards,” then “Redeem Rewards & Access Card Benefits.”
  • Select “Travel” from the top menu.
  • Select the flight you like from the search screen, complete the required fields, and select “Search.”
  • Make your travel selections and continue through the checkout process to reach the itinerary confirmation.  

It is a straightforward process that shouldn’t be any more complicated than booking directly on the airline’s website, which we’ll cover next.

3. Book With the Airline and Be Reimbursed

Yet another option is to simply charge the flight you want with your credit card. Booking and redeeming your rewards is a simple two-step process:

  1. Book the flight directly from the airline’s website or via a third-party booking website, such as Travelocity and Priceline. 
  2. Log on to your card issuer’s website and navigate to your rewards. It should be easy to apply your rewards as a statement credit to cover eligible travel expenses. Cards that operate this way include the Discover it® Miles and Capital One Venture line of cards.
You can redeem rewards as a statement credit toward eligible travel purchases on the issuer’s website, as is the case with the Capital One Venture cards. Photo credits: The Points Guy

The credit is usually applied within 48 hours. And Voila! The flight is paid for with your rewards.

Be aware that you’ll need to complete this process usually within 90 days of the charge for it to be eligible for reimbursement.  

4. Book With Cash Back 

Cash back credit cards are popular because they offer maximum flexibility. After all, you can use cash anywhere, including on airline tickets. One point is typically valued at one cent. When you have accumulated enough cash to cover the price of an airline ticket, you can use it to book your ticket. 

You may be able to get your cash in various forms, depending on the card and issuer. It may be offered as a statement credit, so the money you earned goes into your account to use as a credit. Or you may be able to request the funds be delivered as a direct deposit into your bank account or have a check mailed to you. 

Several card issuers also allow you to apply your cash balance toward travel on their travel booking sites. So if you have $100 of cash back saved up, you could apply it toward your next flight when you book through the issuer’s travel portal.

Whatever the case, the money is yours, and you can spend it on whatever you want, including airfare. 

5. Transfer Points to Partner Airlines 

If you can’t find the flight options you want through the credit card’s website or portal, you can also transfer your rewards to one of the company’s partner airlines. American Express, for instance, has nearly 20 partners, including Aer Lingus, Delta, Air France, JetBlue, and Hawaiian Airlines. 

Screenshot of Amex Travel Partners
American Express has more than 20 travel partners, including airlines and hotels, that you can transfer your rewards to. You link your accounts and then book with the accomodation provider, not your card issuer.

The general process for transferring points to a partner airline is to log onto your credit card account website and select the transfer points option. The site will present you with an array of different airline partners. Link the airline’s loyalty account to your credit card account.

Usually, you only need your account number and name to complete the transfer, and some transfers occur instantly. Others may take up to two days.

Once done, you can book directly on the airline’s website with your miles. If you don’t have quite enough miles saved, you can usually pay the difference with a credit or debit card.

Mind the Rewards Value

Some credit cards offer higher reward values than others, even with the same credit card issuer, when you redeem them for travel. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card’s points are worth 1.25 cents each, while those for Chase Sapphire Reserve® are 1.5 cents. The card’s annual fee typically reflects the difference.

In general, you’ll want to purchase the flight that requires the lowest number of points or miles. After all, you earned those rewards with your savvy buying and repaying system, and there’s no reason to waste them. 

The amount of rewards it takes to purchase a flight can vary tremendously. An economy flight from New York to Los Angeles can require between 12,000 and 33,000+ miles. Search for the flight that suits your needs and requires the least number of points or miles. 

Screenshot of Delta Airfares
Most airlines let you see the fare in miles or cash, and allowing flexible dates can help you get the most value for your trip.

Also, check out how much the same flight will cost with cash. If you have the money to spare and want to earn more rewards on a card that gives an especially high rewards value when you use the cards for airfare, you may consider charging it and then paying the balance in full. 

With The Platinum Card® from American Express, for instance, you will earn 5X the points when you book with the airline directly or through American Express Travel. That means a $1,000 flight will generate an additional 5,000 points that you may want to use for another trip. 

Tips on Redeeming Rewards For Flights

Using the rewards you have accumulated to get a free flight is exciting. The money you saved can be spent on a lavish meal, an upgraded hotel room, or souvenirs. Now make sure you get the most out of the process.

  • Keep your balance at zero. No matter how much you earn in rewards, their value will never make up for the amount you pay in interest on revolving debt that accrues finance fees. Only charge what you can repay in full when the bill comes due. 
  • Careful of the expiration date. Some rewards expire if you don’t use them within a set time frame, so check your issuer’s policy. 
  • Transfer rewards only when you’re ready. In almost all cases, once you transfer your credit card rewards points to a partner airline, you can’t go back. Before you transfer them, be sure that you want to fly with that airline and that you’re sure you can’t get a better deal elsewhere. 
  • Dont overbuy rewards. When you want to use your credit card rewards to book a flight, but don’t have enough, be mindful of the costs. Purchasing points and miles can be expensive. So if you’re short just a few, no big deal. But if you only have a minimal number of rewards saved up, buying them most likely won’t be worth the expense.

Tips For Building More Rewards in a Hurry

If you really want to deepen your rewards pool so you can purchase a flight at no cost, here are a few ways you can get there:

  • Make a few large (affordable and necessary) charges. This may be the perfect time to buy that new laptop, racing bike, or kitchen appliances. As long as you can and will repay the balance in full quickly, you can also bulk up your rewards bank. 
  • Open a new card with a high signup bonus. Many credit cards offer new account holders huge rewards if they meet the minimum spend (usually a couple hundred or thousand dollars within three months of opening the account). The signup bonus can be enough for two round-trip domestic flights or one international flight, depending on the card. 
  • Fund a groups expenses, then collect. If you were to go out to dinner, a sporting event, concert, or do any other high-ticket-value experience with several people, consider charging it all to your credit card and have them reimburse you immediately with a payment app. Once done, you pay down the balance and walk away with the extra rewards. 
  • Make a trusted someone an authorized user. It can be hard to accumulate enough rewards when only you are using the credit card. Add another person — or even more than one — to your account as an authorized user. Their card purchases can increase the number of rewards you accumulate. Just make sure you trust them to repay you for what they charged so you’re not stuck with the bill.

Fly High For Less While Staying Financially Grounded 

Once you have bought your airline ticket with your credit card rewards, you can continue to use the card as you normally would. 

If you are traveling internationally, make sure that the card you use does not charge foreign transaction fees. You will be overpaying every time you use the card if it does. 

Become familiar with your credit card’s reward program and work it strategically. If it has a flat rate reward system, you’ll get the same number of points or miles or amount of cash back each time you make a charge. Use it for everything you can afford to repay in full. You can increase your reward accumulation by charging certain expenses if it has a tiered reward structure. 

Finally, keep your eye on spending. You may feel a little too free to charge and accumulate debt because you got the flight without having to dip into your checking or savings account. Instead, commit to using your credit card to stockpile even more miles, points, or cash for your next trip — without financing fees that eat into their value. 

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