Best Credit Card For Buying Airline Tickets

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Using the right credit card for airfare purchases can greatly impact your points balances, especially for those of us who spend a good amount on air travel. It’s important not just in terms of how many points various cards offer for airfare purchases, but also in terms of the protection the cards offer in the event of flight interruptions.

While many individual airline credit cards offer bonus points for airfare purchases, the good news is that the Citi, American Express, and Chase cards accruing their transferrable points currencies all offer a return at least as good as the co-branded airlines’ cards.

In my opinion the five most rewarding cards for airfare purchases are as follows:

All five of these cards have no foreign transaction fees, so are great regardless of which airline you’re booking a ticket with.


Which card offers the most points?

With that in mind, which of the cards offers the biggest points bonus for airfare purchases?

The American Express and Citi cards have the advantage, given that they offer more than double points on airfare purchases. I value Citi ThankYou points and Amex Membership Rewards points roughly the same (at least if you have the Citi Prestige® Card, since it makes ThankYou points more valuable), so on the surface there’s not much of an advantage to one card over the other.

The one major restriction I’d note is that with the Amex Platinum and Amex Gold, you only receive bonus points on airfare purchased directly with an airline, and not airfare purchased through a third party, like an online travel agency.

However, what matters is how the purchase is categorized, and not where you book it. Typically if you book a ticket on just one airline through Orbitz, the airline will directly bill the purchase, rather than the online travel agency. So in practice it may not be that important of a distinction.


Which credit card offers the best travel protection?

I recently wrote about the travel protection offered by the Citi Prestige® Card, which is the best offered by any of the above cards, in my opinion. These include coverage in the event of flight delays, medical emergencies, baggage loss, etc.

The catch is that protection with Citi only applies if you’re on a revenue ticket, and not on award tickets.

Of the above cards, only the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card offers travel protection benefits on award tickets. So it’s probably worth putting your award ticket purchases on that card.


Bottom line

Which credit card is best for airfare purchases is highly dependent on the following:

  • Your relative valuation of ThankYou points, Membership Rewards points, and Ultimate Rewards points
  • How much you value travel protection benefits, given that major interruptions are rare, but when they happen, can be costly
  • Whether you’re mostly booking award tickets or revenue tickets

To simplify my advice as much as possible:

  • Not factoring in travel protection, the The Platinum Card® from American Express is the best for airfare purchases in terms of the return on spend, but has a significantly higher annual fee
  • For award tickets the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is best; while you’re forgoing extra points per dollar spent, you’re gaining protection on your award ticket, which other cards don’t offer
  • When you factor in a combination of return on spend and travel insurance coverage, the Citi Prestige® Card is the most well rounded card for airfare purchases, in my opinion

Personally I’m just using my Citi Prestige® Card for virtually all airfare purchases nowadays. It offers a great combination of an excellent return on the purchases and also great coverage in the event something goes wrong.

What card do you primarily use for airfare purchases?

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  1. Be, I posted this on an earlier post but might be more relevant here. Re: Citi Prestige card–have you checked your retention offers recently? They bumped my earning by 4 additional TYP on airfare, car rental agencies, travel agencies, and hotels upto 35k additional points for six months after a call last week. Seven TYP for hotels and flights would be nice given how much you use the card!

  2. I just recently received the Citi Platinum Select AAdvantage M/C – my first airline card; it’s allowed me enough points to take my first transPacific flight in first class.

    Now that I’ve started following your blog, I’m hoping to take advantage of some of the other credit cards you recommend.

  3. Hi Ben, it would be helpful to have more information on how the two Thankyou cards compare here. You mention that the Prestige card offerd best insurance, but that is a $450 card. Many reader I expect will plump for the less costly Premier card of the two. In fact, given the Sapphire, Amex and Thankyou Premier are at a similar price point, a review of these specifically would be helpful. Does the Thankyou Premier have the better insurance? Cheers.

  4. I have been buying Southwest and American gift cards online (PayPal Digital Gifts, on Ebay) using my Chase Ink Bold and getting five times the points. I also buy Southwest cards at Staples or Office Depot with the Ink Bold card for five times the points. For United and other airlines, I use my Sapphire Preferred card.

  5. I’m confused, I just started following your blog. I have Amx platinum which airlines can I transfer points to. Have about 500,000 will use most for overseas. If want to fly first or business, should I buy upgradeable or just use miles??

  6. Very much depends on the airline/the flight. I recently booked a piddly 2 hour flight from JAX to LGA on DL – and the best card was the one that waived fees for checking bags (the DL AMEX card).

    And to Mike Bennett (and similar). A lot depends on where you live – the airlines that offer the best service in your area – and where you want to go. I generally use my AMEX points on Delta. Which works out best for me. But I have friends who live elsewhere who like to use them on other airlines to get to where they want to go (like British Airways IIRC). Here is a list of all the AMEX “miles partners”.

    I know a lot of people go through a lot of contortions dealing with non US carriers to get this/that/the other thing. When I travel abroad – I just like to deal with a single domestic US carrier. Makes my life easier flying in/out of JAX (pretty small local airport).. Perhaps if I lived in a city with a big international hub – like New York or Los Angeles or similar – I would take a different approach. Robyn

  7. “Citi, American Express, and Chase cards accruing their transferrable points currencies all offer a return at least as good as the co-branded airlines’ cards.”

    Herein lies my question. If the returns are in the 3x points or (3%) return range on co-branded airline cards and that cards that Ben mentions above. Does it simply come down to the non-points perks (and annual fees) that cards offer? Or are something like 3 Thank You Points given seen as more desirable due to their ‘flexibility’?

    I know that in general the idea is that YMMV for any such perks. But I am curious as to the nature of how other mile-flyers (and Ben) see this. 😀

  8. I have a question about the free bag benefit airline cards have. My understanding is that this only applies when you purchase a paid fare on that particular card and doesn’t apply to award travel. Is that true?

    So for those of us without status, if making a paid fare we either need to chose between free bags or travel benefits on the above cards? For award travel, paying fees with a card such as CSP still gives the travel benefits.

    Does this sound correct?

  9. DW – I recently ran into this booking a “main cabin” reward ticket on Delta. I paid like $10 in fees for the ticket. Asked Delta whether I got one free bag with my AMEX Delta card. And the agent said yes – I just had to show my card when I checked in to get the baggage fee waived. I haven’t booked a main cabin reward ticket in a long time. But – IIRC – this is the way things worked last time I did so (just showed the card when I checked in and got the fee waived). Don’t know how other airlines/credit cards work..

    Note that if you’re booking a reward first or business class ticket on Delta (UA too on our last reward flight) – you’ll get free checked bags (number allowed and size depends on the airline/the route). Robyn

  10. Does the. American Express Gold give you 3x on related purchases with the airline like Baggage fees, in flight purchases, miles?

    I use Mileage Plus X app very often and bought Dominos gift card using my Amex SPG card and it coded as United Airlines – Airline purchase which I suspect will be the same on the Amex Gold Card as well possibly earn 3x points, comparatively purchasing the same using Chase Sapphire card coded as as Domino’s purchase – Restaurants and Fast Food and got 2x points. This is apart from the united miles you get by using the app.

  11. Foxlore – It really is a case of YMMV. For example – we have 3 AMEX cards. The one we use most of the time is the Everyday Preferred card ($95/year) – because of the 50% bonus. But we have a Delta AMEX card too ($95/year). Because it doesn’t have FOREX fees (we take at least one international trip a year and I sometimes buy things on Ebay from international sellers). Also – we use the “free baggage” feature of the card (although not often). We also have an Everyday card (free). Got it for the signup bonus. Basically don’t use it now.

    We have 1 Visa card (Chase UA card – $95/year). That we use at places that don’t accept AMEX. We used to have 2 Chase Sapphire cards – but decided we didn’t need 3 Visa cards. So we canceled them. There aren’t many places that don’t take AMEX. But a biggie for us will be Costco (when it switches from AMEX to Visa in a few months). We will reevaluate our situation then.

    Delta is our most convenient carrier – and it is the only airline we’ve used for a few years. I realize its FF program is far from the best these days (especially when it comes to redeeming points/miles for front of the plane international tickets). But – the older we get – the more emphasis we put on convenience. For example – we used up almost all of our UA miles on 2 FC tickets to Singapore in 2014. And hubbing through Chicago was pretty bad compared to hubbing through Atlanta. Also – we’ve managed to buy some good business class tickets on Delta (to places we wanted to go with good connections) when they were “on sale”. So the FF program is becoming less important to us.

    Like I said at the beginning – it really is a case of YMMV. Where you live. Where you want to go (anywhere versus specific places – domestic or international flights or both). The carrier(s) you like. Do you travel alone or with others (I often had problems finding 2 reward tickets on UA). Do you mind getting reward tickets that have less than desirable routings – 2 stops instead of 1. Etc. And – once you figure that out – which credit cards work best for you in terms of accomplishing your goals. Note that when my husband and I were younger – we were content traveling on many international flights in the “main cabin” – especially in planes with 2-3(4)-2 configurations. But – as we got older (more aches and pains and we’re less flexible) – and we started to travel to Asia (13 hour flights) – that option became undesirable. I still see some pretty decent main cabin availability on Delta on international long haul flights. It’s those front of the plane seats that are a tough ticket.

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