What’s The Best Credit Card For Domestic Flights?

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We spend a lot of time here talking about international first and business class award redemptions. While that’s great and will often get you outsized value for your points, that’s not how most people are looking to redeem their points. So I figured the following question by reader Paul G in the Ask Lucky forum is worth addressing here:

I am very new to airline credit card traveling, and I was wondering what is the best offer right now for just domestic traveling via economy but also for business class?

Based of the alliance information, the miles accrued cannot be used for low-cost carriers, am I right?

Don’t earn airline miles if the goal is domestic travel

As a general rule of thumb, if your goal is to earn credit card rewards for domestic travel, you don’t want to be earning airline miles. Why?

  • Specific airline miles greatly limit your flexibility in terms of which airlines you can fly, as you’ll want the flexibility to fly the “big three,” the ultra low cost carriers, Southwest, and more
  • For the most part, domestic saver level award availability is very limited, so it’s unlikely you’ll be able to snag the flights you want with miles
  • If you’re earning miles with American or United, you’ll be subjected to a close-in ticketing fee of as much as $75 if booking last minute, which takes away a lot of the value
  • With the way the Delta SkyMiles program has changed, the value you can get per SkyMile is getting closer and closer to one cent per mile, which isn’t great


Spirit’s “Big Front Seat” is a great way to travel domestically

Don’t get me wrong, there are situations where you can get value out of redeeming miles for domestic flights. But in terms of general strategies for earning credit card rewards for domestic travel, I’d highly recommend against earning a specific airline mileage currency.

Earn cash back or flexible points instead

If your goal is to be rewarded with domestic travel, I tend to think you’re best off using a credit card that earns cash back or flexible points:

  • Cash back is money that you can use to just outright purchase a ticket, including anything ranging from a $9 ticket on Spirit, to a $600 JetBlue Mint ticket
  • Flexible points give you the flexibility to either redeem points as cash towards the cost of an airline ticket, or transfer the points to an airline partner for the ideal redemption


JetBlue Mint is the most comfortable way to fly domestically, and is often a good value

Either of these options gives you flexibility, which is exactly what you want when booking domestic travel, since you want to be able to book just about any airline.

The best cash back cards for domestic travel

Nowadays if you’re using a card that earns cash back (or the equivalent of cash back), you’ll want to earn at least 2% back. You have a few different options, depending on whether you want to pay an annual fee, whether you want a card with a big welcome bonus, and whether you want a card with additional perks, like no foreign transaction fees, and potentially more.

So let’s look at a few of the best options:

Citi® Double Cash Card

I consider the Citi® Double Cash Card to be the gold standard of no annual fee cash back cards. The card offers 1% cash back on every purchase, and then an additional 1% cash back when you pay for those purchases. That’s cash back that you can then spend however you’d like, including for domestic airfare.

Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card

It could make sense to instead get a card like the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card. This card has a $95 annual fee that’s waived for the first year, and offers a welcome bonus of 50,000 miles after spending $3,000 within three months. Each mile can then be redeemed for one cent towards the cost of a travel purchase. The card offers 2x miles per dollar spent, meaning that for each dollar you spend you’ll earn two cents towards travel.

Yes, you pay a $95 annual fee starting the second year, but you also earn a welcome bonus that’s worth $500.

Barclaycard Arrival® Plus World Elite Mastercard®

Some might also find the Barclaycard Arrival® Plus World Elite Mastercard® (see terms) to be worthwhile. This card has an $89 annual fee, and offers a welcome bonus of 60,000 miles after spending $5,000 within 90 days.

Each mile can then be redeemed for one cent towards the cost of a travel purchase, and you get 5% of your miles back whenever you redeem them. The card offers 2x miles per dollar spent, meaning that for each dollar you spend you’ll earn two cents towards travel, not factoring in the 5% refund.

As you can see, all of these cards more or less offer a return of 2%. It just comes down to whether you prefer having a no annual fee card, or having a card with an annual fee that offers a big welcome bonus, which will potentially more than cover the annual fee for several years.

The best flexible points cards for domestic travel

As you can see above, you should be earning a minimum return of about 2% on your everyday spend. That’s the absolute minimum, though you can potentially do even better than that. One of the ways you can do so is by getting a card that earns you transferable points, which can give you a lot of flexibility. These are points you can redeem as cash towards the cost of an airline ticket, or even transfer to an airline partner for redemptions that way.

So let’s look at a couple of the best options:

Citi Premier℠ Card

One of the hottest welcome bonuses right now is on the Citi Premier℠ Card. This card has a $95 annual fee that’s waived for the first 12 months, and offers a welcome bonus of 60,000 ThankYou points after spending $4,000 within three months.

The card earns triple points on travel and gas, and double points on dining and entertainment. Each point can be redeemed for 1.25 cents towards an airfare purchase, meaning you’re earning 3.75 cents towards an airfare purchase for every dollar spent on travel and gas, 2.5 cents towards an airfare purchase for every dollar spent on dining and entertainment, and 1.25 cents towards an airfare purchase for all other purchases.

But you also have a lot of flexibility, because you could transfer those points to one of the Citi ThankYou transfer partners, where you could also get significant value for redemptions.

Chase Sapphire Reserve®

The Chase Sapphire Reserve® is one of the other best options out there. This card has a $450 annual fee, and is offering a welcome bonus of 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points after spending $4,000 within three months.

While the card’s $450 annual fee sounds high, in reality the card shouldn’t cost you nearly that much. That’s because it has a $300 annual travel credit, and also offers a Priority Pass membership. The card offers triple points on dining and travel, which covers a lot of the purchases that many of us would make while abroad.

The great thing is that points earned on this card can be redeemed for 1.5 cents each towards a travel purchase, meaning you’re earning a return of 4.5 cents per dollar on dining and travel, and 1.5 cents per dollar on all other purchases.

If you complement this with the Chase Freedom Unlimited, you could be earning a return of 2.25 cents per dollar on non-bonused spend.

Then you could still transfer these points to airline partners, if that’s a better value for your particular redemption.

Bottom line

As a general rule of thumb, you don’t want to collect a specific airline mileage currency if your goal is to redeem points for domestic flights. It’s just not a good option due to the lack of saver award availability and the lack of flexibility. For that matter, in general I don’t recommend using an airline credit card for your everyday spend.

With that in mind, you’ll want to use a card that earns you rewards that can be redeemed as cash towards the cost of a travel purchase.

On the most basic level you could get something like the Citi® Double Cash Card, offering 1% back when you make a purchase, and 1% back when you pay for that purchase.

Personally I think there could be value in going for a premium card, like the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card. While it has a $95 annual fee (waived the first year), the card offers a big welcome bonus, no foreign transaction fees, and lots of other great benefits.

But I think the best option of all is to get a transferable points currency card like the Citi Premier℠ Card or Chase Sapphire Reserve®. These cards have big welcome bonuses, great bonus categories, and give you the flexibility to redeem points as cash towards a travel purchase, or they can be transferred to an airline partner.

If you’re brand new to credit cards, I think the Citi Premier℠ Card is a great place to start, given the waived annual fee for the first year, the big welcome bonus (worth $750+ of airfare), and the bonus categories.

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Comments

  1. But wouldn’t you also recommend having an airline card for the airline one is likely to fly most often (especially if a hub captive) that provides priority boarding, a free checked bag, etc.?

  2. When travelling domestically with my wife, I almost always use the Chase Ritz card–the $100 off each round-trip almost always trumps what I would earn if I used my Amex Plat or CSR.

  3. Would you not recommend the BA Visa? Massive signup bonus, low number of miles necessary for nonstops, and no close-in fees. Not perfect, but a decent offer for Stateside domestic flying given how expensive it can be.

  4. @ Tommy L — It’s a great card that I’d get for the welcome bonus, but long term it’s not that rewarding for everyday spend. I’d rather use the Chase Sapphire Reserve long term so I could transfer to Avios or redeem points for 1.5 cents each towards the cost of a travel purchase.

  5. @ Jim F. — Definitely worth it for the benefits, though keep in mind the rules vary by card with regarding to having to pay with the card in order to get the benefits. For example, with United you have to actually pay with the card to get the benefits, while that’s not the case with American.

  6. The answer should always be “it depends.”

    I tend to agree that a Citi Double Cash is likely a solid way to go without a lot more detail about a specific person’s specific goals. More than 1 or 2 roundtrip flights a year and I think an optimal strategy could really start to change.

    With rules like Chase’s 5/24 limitations, it’s important to always point out that if someone could ever be interested in Chase Ultimate Rewards, Southwest or United cards, they need to be careful applying for cards.

    1. Consider the home airport and specific destination. SFO-EWR may have a different recommendation than PDX-OGG.
    2. How many flights per year and what time of year. If one wants to make 3x flights to Vegas for weekends from time to time vs. someone who just wants a flight home for Christmas at a good value is going to have different needs.
    3. How many people traveling. A single person, a couple or family with kids could all have different needs.
    4. Interest in first class. I’m not going to want Southwest points if Jet Blue Mint is a goal.
    5. Existing credit cards with application dates in the last 24 months. Important because of Chase rules.
    6. General spending that can go on a card each month. Important for signup bonuses.
    7. A general idea of credit history and FICO. Something like Creditkarma makes this super easy to help people understand.

  7. I think the us bank altitude and the new Wells Fargo propel Amex offer a great flexible rewards program, maybe even better than Sapphire Reserve. Both offer 3x points on travel. The Propel gives 3x points on gas and streaming as well a dining with no annual fee. The altitude gives 3x on contactless and 12 Gogo passes. The annual fee on the Wells Fargo is zero, while the net annual fee on the altitude is $75.

  8. Similar to Sounder’s response, I think a lot of it depends on how often you fly, how advance you buy tickets, and from what home base (if any).

    While I aim to get outsized rewards by reedeming my points for premium international travel, if I were to aim for domestic rewards, I would choose certain cards over others since I travel for work frequently on 1-2 day notice using a personal card and get reimbursed (in other words, $500-1000 round trip domestic tickets 30-50x per year). I also fly out of DCA.

    Having said that, my preferred cards are some combination of an American Airlines card and the Amex Platinum card, with recent emphasis on the latter since Ive built up an American Airlines balance to use when it makes sense and can earn 5x points on flights with the Amex to fly other airlines when that makes sense. I also love the Centurion lounge benefit since I often fly to LGA, MIA, DFW, LAX (soon!) while my American World card gets me Admirals club access.

  9. Got JetBlue card last year when there was a signup bonus that was double normal, but AF not waived. 2X for groceries great as that is a lot of our spending and JetBlue flies from our city in Northeast direct to Boston and JFK. That means a lot to be able to catch international flights from major hubs without taking Delta or UA or American and having to connect. That said I have just applied for and received the CSR and when it arrived I felt like it was Christmas early. For those that live in or right by major hubs domestic carrier credit cards I get will not be a priority.

  10. Oh Amex Biz Plat 50% MR back, how I miss thee. That was the killer app for domestic travel, the cash price almost became irrelevant. I flew $500ish domestic J all the time without any care or worry about award availability, and at 25k MR, the price was the same as the legacy saver awards.

  11. Thank you Ben. This is perfect timing. For the past 5 years we have been using the hobby for aspirational business class travel and have checked off most of our bucket list! Now I am switching my focus to paying for a lot of domestic tickets for our expanding family to get to Maui every year. I will keep my several Alaska cards for the companion pass and the checked bag fee waived saves more than the annual fee.

  12. Lucky,

    This advice is somewhat backwards IMO. When it comes to domestic flights, it really depends on the person’s natural flying patterns. Some of us fly 50,000 or more domestic miles a year for work, family, etc. So by definition the we can’t not “earn airline miles.” Being able to top off natural miles earned for whatever use is critical. In addition, many cards have domestic companion passes and other benefits. In addition, if you need to top off Delta miles because you live in Minneapolis or whatever, UR points may not be as helpful. Finally, I’ve been able to redeem for 3-4 cents per mile domestically for certain have to go trips (Thanksgiving, Christmas, wedding, etc), so domestic redemptions can be useful.

    I think one of the better card options for domestic frequent fliers is the Delta Amex Platinum or the Delta Reserve. Both of them provide decent redeemable mileage earning when hitting spend thresholds, MQM bonuses and companion passes. However these cards are only worth it if you can reach the 25K/30K spending thresholds. Other good options include the Southwest card (I believe they have a companion pass). The Alaska Card was great for domestic flying when they had their AA and Delta partnership (and they had a companion pass) but that seems to have been devalued a bit.

  13. I would just say sometimes it’s not just points, but vouchers. $99 companion fare to Maui once a year with Alaska is a fantastic value. The points you get on the card are gravy compared to that unless you’re spending a lot of money, which most of us aren’t

  14. I did not see it stated at the beginning but by domestic you are referring to domestic within the USA. I guess if this were written about any other (foreign) country (which it would not have in the first instance) then you would have stated that, or the continent. It must be useful that the universe revolves around the USA and that everywhere is secondary to it; see the series of articles about getting the best in rates at various worldwide regions from a USA prespective.

  15. Time to rein in your high horse, Tom. Why wouldn’t a US blogger writing about US credit cards use US-centric language? He’s an American with an intended audience of Americans. Next thing, you’ll be complaining that Lucky’s posts use the $ to indicate USD without clarifying…

  16. I dunno if I agree, lucky. I accumulate a lot of Delta points, and sometimes getting rewards flights (even from, say, the east coast to LAX) can be cheaper than the cash fare if you consider Delta points to be in the 1-1.5 cent range, which is mostly what you’d be getting from your cashback points. Can’t speak as to American and United’s availability, of course, though I heard it’s awful.

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