Airline rewards miles are kind of like magic.
Find the flight you want. Choose your seat. Add on baggage or upgrades. Then, with one click and a quick payment for taxes, you’ve got your ticket. If only every flight we booked could be that easy…and, of course, that free.
Unfortunately, most of us have to break out a credit card to pay full price for our window seat to Barbados.
For the wise consumer, though, using a credit card is actually a good thing. There are plenty of airline rewards credit cards out there offering free miles to new customers who haven’t owned the card in the past two years.
Wouldn’t it be great if there was an easy way to know which of these cards was the best airline rewards card of 2016?
Well, we guess you’ve landed on this article for just that reason.
So, like we’ve done for travel rewards cards and hotel rewards cards, we’ve researched airline rewards cards and come up with a list of six cards:
- Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select (Citi)
- United MileagePlus Explorer (Chase)
- Gold Delta SkyMiles (American Express)
- Frontier Airlines World MasterCard (Barclays)
- Virgin America Visa Signature (Comenity Capital)
- Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier (Chase)
(HighYa does not receive any affiliate compensation for any of the links included in this article. We earn no money if you clink on a credit card’s link and sign up for it as a result of this article.)
Here’s the chart we used to organize each card’s benefits:
|Card||Sign-Up miles bonus||Spending requirement to get bonus||Miles for LA–NY round trip||Miles per dollar||Free checked bag?||Priority boarding?||Lounge access?||APR||Annual fee?||Best perk|
|Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select||30,000||$1K||25,000||2:1 AA buys, 1:1 on rest||Yes, up to 4||Yes, in first general boarding group||No||14.24%–22.24%||$95 ($0 1st year)||10% bonus on redeemed miles|
|United Mileage Plus Explorer||30,000||$1K||25,000||2:1 United buys, 1:1 on rest||Yes, up to 2||Yes, before general boarding||Yes, 2 free passes every year ($118 value)||16.24%–23.24%||$95 ($0 1st year)||10K miles bonus on $25K annual spend|
|Gold Delta SkyMiles||30,000||$1K||60,000||2:1 Delta buys, 1:1 on rest||Yes, up to 9||Yes, before general boarding||Yes, discounted entry ($29 instead of $59)||15.49%–19.49%||$95 ($0 1st year)||$50 statement credit w/Delta buy w/in 1st 3 months|
|Frontier Airlines World||40,000||$500||30,000||2:1 Frontier buys, 2:1 on rest||No||No||No||16.24%–25.24%||$69||$100 flight voucher w/$2.5K annual spend|
|Virgin America Visa Signature||10,000||$1K||18,657||8:1 on VA buys, 1:1 on rest||Yes, up to 2||No||No||16.23–25.24%||$49||25% off in-flight purchases|
|Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier||50,000 points||$3K||19,340||2:1 on SW buys, 1:1 on rest||Yes, 2||No||No||16.24%–23.24%||$99||6K anniversary miles|
And here’s a quick breakdown of how we scored this competition:
- We rated each card in ten different categories: sign-up miles, miles for a round-trip rewards flight, spending requirement to get the sign-up miles, miles per dollar spent, free check bag(s), priority boarding, lounge access, APR, annual fee and best added perk.
- If the card was #1 in the category, it received 6 points. If it was #2, it received 5 points and so on.
- We doubled the points value of four categories that we think are most important: sign-up miles, miles for a round-trip rewards flight, miles per dollar spent and free checked bags.
The card with the most points was the winner of Best Airline Rewards Card of 2016. We limited our contestants to cards with annual fees under $100, as cards with an annual fee over that amount tend to be luxury cards with a separate class of benefits.
Now, one quick note before we start our Best Of rankings. Much of an airline rewards card’s value lies in how much you’ll actually use it.
When we start talking about how many miles you’ll rack up each year, our baseline spending mark will be $25,000. We got that number from the average American household’s 2015 spending stats provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Best Sign-Up Miles Winner: Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier
Sign-up miles are the miles you get when you spend a certain amount of money on your card in the first three months you own it.
In fact, this type of “bonus” promotion is popular across all travel cards. The Chase Sapphire Reserve, for instance, whipped up a free-travel frenzy when they announced a 100,000-points bonus.
Hotel rewards cards also offer these kinds of bonuses – the Marriott Rewards Premier, for example, provides new cardmembers an 80,000-point bonus.
Here’s the list of sign-up miles rankings at the time of our research:
- Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier – 50K
- Frontier Airlines World – 40K
- Citi AAdvantage Platinum/ United Mileage Plus/ Gold Delta SkyMiles – 30K
- Virgin America Visa – 10K
Southwest is alone at the top with 50,000 miles, with Frontier 10,000 miles behind. There’s a log-jam at the 30K mark, and Virgin America brings up the rear with a meager 10,000 miles.
However, we need to remember that not all miles are created equal. If a round-trip rewards flight on Southwest costs 50,000 miles, then their 50K sign-up miles aren’t that high of value.
So, to get a clear sense of what kind of deal you’re getting from each card, we’ll have to look at how many miles a round-trip rewards flight costs.
Round-Trip Rewards Flight Winner: Southwest Rapids Rewards Premier
This category can be tricky because the cost of a round-trip rewards flight is only valuable relative to how many sign-up miles you get and how much you spend on your card each year. Those sign-up rewards miles, as you saw in the last section, vary by airline.
We chose to look at flights from Los Angeles (LAX) to New York (LGA) on Oct. 24., which is a pretty popular route and each carrier we analyzed offered this flight.
Here are the rankings, based on awards flights available 33 days before departure. The round-trip rewards cost is first, followed by the total number of trips you can take with the card’s sign-up bonus, then leftover points (LP):
- Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier: 19,340 miles (2, w/12K LP)
- Frontier: 30,000 miles (1, w/10K LP)
- United/ Citi AAdvantage: 25,000 miles (1, w/5K LP)
- Virgin America: 18,657 miles (0)
- Delta: 60,000 miles (0)
The Southwest Rapid Rewards Visa knocks it out of the park on this one, with enough sign-up points to get you two round-trip flights between LAX and LGA. You’ll also have enough leftover points to book an extra one-way ticket from LAX to LGA.
Frontier takes the second spot because you get one round-trip flight with your bonus and 10,000 leftover points. The United and American Airlines cards are in third, and the last cards of the group that gets you a round-trip ticket with your bonus miles.
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Virgin America and Delta’s sign-up miles can get you to New York, but you’re going to have to figure out a way to get back because their intro miles can’t pay for a round-trip ticket.
The Delta flight proves our point that miles are relative: 30K with United or American gets you a round-trip for free (minus $11.20 in taxes) and 5K extra miles, while 30K on Delta gets you a one-way ticket.
Now, on to a more simple category: spending requirement.
Spending Requirement Winner: Frontier Airlines World
Travel cards usually offer sign-up perks, but you can’t get those perks unless you spend a certain amount of money in the first three months of owning your card.
Based on the data we’ve read from the BLS, the average household in America won’t have a hard time spending $3,000 in three months, so, most of the time, spending requirements are easy to reach.
Here’s the list of finishers:
- Frontier Airlines World: $500
- AAdvantage/ United/Delta/ Virgin: $1,000
- Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier: $3,000
Frontier makes it really easy for you to hit your spending requirement, which means you’ll get your rewards points quicker than you would with the Southwest Rapid Rewards card.
Either way, as we said a few seconds ago, you’ll probably be able to surpass the $3,000 mark whether you have the Frontier card or the Southwest card.
Miles Per Dollar Winner: Virgin America
You’re going to rack up miles anytime you swipe your airline rewards credit card. Unlike travel and hotel cards, however, airline cards will only reward you with juiced-up mile bonuses if you book a flight or other products through their website.
For example, the Citi AAdvantage Platinum card will get you double points on purchases through AA.com, but everything else is one mile per one dollar.
The Hyatt Visa (hotel card), on the other hand, gives you triple miles on purchases made at Hyatt properties and double miles on restaurants and travel.
Here are the best miles-per-dollar cards:
- Virgin America: 8:1 on VirginAmerican.com purchases, 1:1 on everything else
- Everyone else: 2:1 on their respective airline sites, 1:1 on everything else
This category is really simple. Virgin America offers four times the rewards for in-house flight purchases compared to the other airline rewards cards.
Related: Chase Slate Credit Card Review
Virgin has a pretty small sign-up bonus, so their 8:1 miles bonus on Virgin bookings is a nice consolation prize for people who love the airline and want the card.
Free Checked Bag Winner: Gold Delta SkyMiles
Google “baggage fee outcry” and you’ll see why free checked baggage is such a big deal. Here’s a sample of the headlines:
- Delta Changes Policy After Outcry Over Charging Soldiers
- IATA Bags Controversial Carry-On Plan After Outcry
- Airline Fees Will Reach $11 Billion in 2015
- Airfare Is Cheaper Now … But Cheap Comes at a Heavy Cost
With this in mind, here are the rankings for free baggage (each airline charges $25 for the first checked bag):
- Gold Delta SkyMiles: Free 1st bag for up to 9 people on cardmember’s reservation.
- Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select: Free 1st bag for up to 4 people on cardmember’s reservation.
- United/Virgin: Free 1st bag for up to 2 people on cardmember’s reservation.
- Southwest: Free 1st and 2nd bag.
- Frontier: None
The Delta SkyMiles baggage perk is crazy – so crazy, in fact, we triple-checked their terms and conditions to make sure.
The Citi AAdvantage Platinum finished second with free 1st bags for up to four people.
We put United and Virgin above Southwest because their baggage perks are available only to cardmembers, whereas Southwest’s no-fee checked baggage is available to everyone.
Frontier comes in last because cardholders don’t get any free bags. In fact, Frontier charges $30 for a carry-on and $25 for the first checked bag during the low season (Aug.–Oct./ Jan.–Feb.) and $5 more during the high season.
Priority Boarding Winner: United MileagePlus Explorer/ Gold Delta SkyMiles (tie)
Getting on the plane first is a wondrous perk – you can store your baggage in empty overhead compartments, you don’t have to queue up to a long line in the gangway (not fun on a hot day) and you can settle into your seat before dozens of passengers emerge into the main cabin.
Here’s our rank of what each airline rewards card offers:
- United MileagePlus Explorer/ Gold Delta SkyMiles: On a plane before general boarding.
- Citi AAdvantage Platinum: On a plane with first general boarding group.
- Frontier/ Virgin America/ Southwest Rapid Rewards: No priority boarding.
While the top three airlines all claimed to offer their cardmembers priority boarding, only United’s Explorer and Delta’s Gold SkyMiles cards actually lived up to the claim.
Both airlines let their cardholders board before general boarding, whereas the Citi AAdvantage cardholder boards in the first group of general boarding.
Lounge Access Winner: United MileagePlus Explorer
Most major non-discount airlines have lounges in certain airports in the United States and abroad. Those lounges offer a variety of perks, including drinks, snacks, a bar and, in some cases, showers. They’re a great place to relax before you board your flight.
Now, for the rankings:
- United MileagePlus Explorer: 2 free lounge passes per year ($118 value).
- Gold Delta SkyMiles: $29 entry instead of $59.
- Frontier/ Virgin America/ Southwest/American: None.
Our decision to rank United’s MileagePlus Explorer card over the Gold Delta SkyMiles card is based on statistics. According to a 2015 article by travel website Skift, nearly 6 out of 10 Americans took less than five vacation days in 2014: about 42% took 0 days, and 16% at least one day but less than five.
We see that data as an indication that Americans are taking, at most, one vacation a year, which means they’ll most likely use an airline’s lounge once a year. In this situation, United’s MileagePlus yearly club passes are best for the average American.
For this reason, we rated it higher than Delta’s reduced entry. Now, if you’re one of the lucky 28.8% of people who take ten or more vacation days a year, the Delta SkyMiles card would make more sense.
APR Winner: Gold Delta SkyMiles
Your annual percentage rate applies to any balances you don’t pay off in full every month. The percentage rate is multiplied by your balance and then divided by 12 to determine how much you’ll pay every month.
Here are our rankings for APR on these airline cards:
- Gold Delta SkyMiles: 15.49%–19.49%
- Citi AAdvantage Platinum: 14.24%–22.24%
- United/ Southwest: 16.24%–23.24%
- Virgin America Visa: 16.23%–25.24%
- Frontier Airlines World: 16.24%–25.24%
Though the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select card has a lower bottom-end interest, it’s top-end rate is 3% higher than the Gold Delta SkyMiles card. For this reason, we ranked the Delta card ahead of the American Airlines card.
United and Southwest’s cards have the standard Chase APR, while Virgin America and Frontier occupy the APR cellar in this category.
Annual Fee Winner: Virgin America Visa
When it comes to airline rewards credit cards – or almost any travel card, for that matter – you have to pay an annual fee to get the perks you want. Some fees, as you’ll see, are higher than others:
- Virgin America Visa: $49
- Frontier Airlines World: $69
- United/ Citi AAdvantage/ Gold Delta: $95 ($0 first year)
- Southwest Rapid Rewards: $99
Virgin America is easily the winner here with their $49 fee. Of course, that low annual fee is offset by the card’s poor sign-up miles offer.
Frontier is next with its reasonable $69 yearly fee.
We chose to put the United, American Airlines, and Delta cards ahead of the Southwest card because their fee-free first year is a great perk. Over the course of three years, you’ll pay $190 in fees with these cards, as opposed to $297 with the Southwest Rapid Rewards card.
Best Added Perks Winner: Frontier Airlines World
This is the final category in our competition. These perks are not included in any of the categories we mentioned.
Several of the airlines offered free anniversary miles, vouchers or statement credits.
So, to figure out which of these mileage/cash perks was best, we judged the miles/money by how much they’d cut the cost of a one-way flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco, the most popular airline route in the United States.
Frontier doesn’t offer service from LAX to SFO, so we substituted a flight from Orlando to Atlanta.
Here’are the rankings for our last category:
- Frontier: $100 flight voucher buys three one-way tickets between ATL and MCO
- Southwest (6K): Anniversary miles get free one-way flight from LAX to SFO
- United (10K): Bonus miles get free one-way flight from LAX to SFO
- Delta SkyMiles: $50 credit pays for a little less than half of round-trip LAX to SFO
- Citi AAdvantage: 10% bonus on miles redemptions
- Virgin America: 25% off in-flight purchases
Frontier’s $100 voucher is great for the short flights we used for our criteria – round-trip flights from MCO to ATL were under $60 when we searched 32 days before the departure date.
Coming in second was Southwest, whose miles were good enough to get us a free one-way flight from LAX to SFO when we searched 32 days before the departure date.
Related: Capital One Venture Card Review
We ranked this airline rewards card ahead of United because the 6,000 anniversary miles are free, while you have to spend $25,000 in a cardmember year to get the 10,000 bonus miles. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American household should have no problem hitting that $25,000 mark.
Delta’s SkyMiles was a close third, as their $50 credit paid for just under half of an L.A. to S.F. flight.
The Citi AAdvantage 10% bonus was pretty average (if you spend 10,000 miles on their site, you get 1,000 back), while Virgin America’s in-flight discounts weren’t worth much.
And the Best Airline Rewards Card of 2016 is... The United MileagePlus Explorer
After adding up all the points each card scored in the 10 categories we listed, we’ve got a definite winner.
Here are the final standings. Double-point categories are indicated by bold font:
- United MileagePlus Explorer: 63 [8, 8, 5, 10, 8, 6, 6, 4, 4, 4]
- Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select: 60 [8, 8, 5, 10, 10, 4, 4, 5, 4, 2]
- Gold Delta Skymiles: 59 [8, 2, 5, 10, 12, 6, 5, 6, 2, 3]
- Frontier Airlines World MasterCard: 58 [10, 10, 6, 10, 2, 4, 4, 1, 5, 6]
- Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier (Chase): 57 [12, 12, 1, 10, 4, 4, 4, 4, 1, 5]
- Virgin America Visa Signature: 48 [2, 4, 5, 12, 8, 4, 4, 2, 6, 1]
The United and American Airlines cards were locked in a tight battle at the end of five rounds, but as we moved through the final five categories, the Explorer card surged ahead with its priority boarding, two annual free lounge passes, and solid 10K miles perk.
The Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select eked out a victory over the Gold Delta SkyMiles card because its miles are more valuable than Delta’s.
Frontier and Southwest, the two budget airlines, offer some great perks and were just one and two points, respectively, behind the Gold Delta SkyMiles card.
The Virgin America card finished in last by 9 points; there just weren’t that many benefits to the card.
As you decide which card you’re going to apply for, remember that these airlines rewards cards are changing their offers all the time. For instance, in the months leading up to our “Best Of” contest, the United MileagePlus Explorer card was offering 50,000 bonus points.
Also, each time you apply for a credit card, you’ll see your credit scores drop one or two points. This isn’t too big of a deal, but it helps to keep track of these changes.
If you want to learn more about how to keep your credit scores up (it has a lot to do with your credit card balances and payments!), check out our comprehensive guide to credit scores.
This article will help you understand how credit bureaus calculate your scores. Once you know that, you’ll have the tools you need to increase your scores, get low APR’s and take advantage of great offers from banks, credit card companies and mortgage lenders.
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