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How Do Credit Card Miles Work?

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We'd all love to travel for free, but most of us don't fly frequently enough to earn a large number of airline miles. Credit card miles mean you don't have to travel at all to earn free flights. So, how do credit card miles work? 

Credit card miles have gotten a lot of attention thanks to generous sign-up bonuses offered by some of the best travel rewards credit cards. It's not as simple as signing up and scoring free travel, but once you understand how credit card miles work, it's fairly easy to earn yourself a free flight.

What are credit card miles?

Credit card miles reward customers for spending money with specific travel companies (usually airlines). The reward points are often called "miles," but the term "miles" doesn't correspond to distance traveled -- instead, it reflects the amount a customer spends. Miles can be redeemed for free flights.

Each time you make a purchase with an airline credit card, you'll earn a certain number of credit card miles based on the amount of money spent. The best airline credit cards offer 1 reward mile per $1 spent on everyday purchases as well as bonus credit card miles on certain purchases. For example, you may earn 2 or 3 credit card miles per $1 spent on travel purchases.

How much are credit card miles worth?

The basic guideline for valuation is that each airline mile is worth $0.01. Some credit card miles are worth more, while others are worth less. Each airline and credit card rewards program has different redemption methods for credit card miles. This means the miles you earn from airline rewards programs differ in value.

How many credit card miles do you need for a free flight?

The value of your credit card miles depends on the program: Flights could cost anywhere between 20,000 and 80,000 miles (or more, or less). For example, you might encounter either of the following situations when redeeming your miles, based on the card and airline:

  • Flat rate of $0.01 per mile: 20,000 miles for a $200 flight
  • Flat rate redemption based on how far you're flying: 25,000 or 30,000 credit card miles for a cross-country, domestic round-trip flight in economy. Less for shorter flights.

International round-trip flights to Europe often start at 60,000 miles. A round-trip flight to Asia usually starts at 70,000 miles but more often costs 80,000 or more.

Flights in business class and first class will cost more.

If you're planning a trip out of the country, be sure to check out our best credit cards for international travel.

Which credit cards earn miles?

There are two types of cards that earn miles: co-branded airline credit cards and generic travel cards.

Co-branded airline credit cards

These cards are offered by a credit card company, such as Chase or American Express, in conjunction with an airline company, such as Delta, Southwest, or United. Co-branded credit cards earn extra credit card miles on purchases made with that airline. The miles earned can typically only be used on that airline. They may also come with travel perks, such as a free checked bag or priority seating.

Some of our favorite co-branded airline cards include:

As of May. 17, 2022
Image for
Image for
Image for

United℠ Explorer Card

Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card

Apply Now for Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card

On American Express' Secure Website.

Terms apply

Rates & Fees

Credit Rating Requirement:

Good/Excellent (670-850) Info Icon Circle with letter I in it.

Credit Rating Requirement:

Good/Excellent (670-850) Info Icon Circle with letter I in it.

Credit Rating Requirement:

Good/Excellent (670-850) Info Icon Circle with letter I in it.

Welcome Offer: Info Icon Circle with letter I in it.

70,000 miles

Welcome Offer: Info Icon Circle with letter I in it.

40,000 bonus miles

Welcome Offer: Info Icon Circle with letter I in it.

40,000 points

Rewards Program: Info Icon Circle with letter I in it.

1x - 2x miles

Rewards Program: Info Icon Circle with letter I in it.

1X - 2X miles

Rewards Program: Info Icon Circle with letter I in it.

1x - 3x points

Intro APR:

Purchases: N/A

Balance Transfers: N/A

Intro APR:

Purchases: N/A

Balance Transfers: N/A

Intro APR:

Purchases: N/A

Balance Transfers: N/A

Regular APR:

16.74% to 23.74%, variable

Regular APR:

16.49%-25.49% Variable

Regular APR:

16.24% - 23.24%, variable

Annual Fee: Info Icon Circle with letter I in it.

$0 intro fee

Annual Fee: Info Icon Circle with letter I in it.

$0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $99.

Annual Fee:

$149

Highlights:

  • Earn up to 70,000 bonus miles. Earn 60,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. Plus, earn an additional 10,000 miles after you spend $6,000 total on purchases in the first 6 months your account is open.
  • $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95.
  • Earn 2 miles per $1 spent on dining, hotel stays, and United® purchases
  • Up to $100 Global Entry or TSA PreCheck® fee Credit
  • 25% back on United® inflight purchases
  • Check your first bag for free (a savings of up to $140 per roundtrip) when you use your card to purchase your ticket
  • Enjoy priority boarding privileges and visit the United ClubSM with 2 one-time passes each year for your anniversary
  • Earn 2 miles per $1 spent on dining including eligible delivery services

Highlights:

  • Earn 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months.
  • Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.
  • Earn 2X Miles on Delta purchases, at U.S. Supermarkets and at restaurants worldwide, including takeout and delivery in the U.S.
  • Earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases.
  • $100 Delta Flight Credit: After you spend $10,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, receive a Credit to use toward future travel.
  • Enjoy a $0 introductory Annual Fee for the first year, then $99.
  • Terms Apply.

Highlights:

  • Earn 40,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months.
  • 7,500 anniversary points each year.
  • Earn 3X points on Southwest® purchases.
  • Earn 2X points on local transit and commuting, including rideshare.
  • Earn 2X points on internet, cable, phone services, and select streaming.
  • $75 Southwest® travel credit each year.
  • 4 Upgraded Boardings per year when available.
  • No foreign transaction fees.
Apply Now for Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card

On American Express' Secure Website.

Terms apply

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The information related to United℠ Explorer Card has been collected by The Ascent and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer.

Generic travel credit cards

A travel card earns points or miles that can be used for a wide variety of travel purchases. These include flights, hotels, and often transportation and tours. Some have transfer partners that include a number of airlines, so you can convert your points into airline miles.

Some of our favorite generic travel cards include:

As of May. 17, 2022
Image for
Image for
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Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card Citi Premier® Card The Platinum Card® from American Express
Apply Now for Citi Premier® Card

On Citi's Secure Website.

Apply Now for The Platinum Card® from American Express

On American Express' Secure Website.

Terms apply

Rates & Fees

Credit Rating Requirement:

Good/Excellent (670-850) Info Icon Circle with letter I in it.

Credit Rating Requirement:

Good/Excellent (670-850) Info Icon Circle with letter I in it.

Credit Rating Requirement:

Good/Excellent (670-850) Info Icon Circle with letter I in it.

Welcome Offer: Info Icon Circle with letter I in it.

80,000 points

Welcome Offer: Info Icon Circle with letter I in it.

60,000 ThankYou® Points

Welcome Offer: Info Icon Circle with letter I in it.

100,000 Membership Rewards® Points

Rewards Program: Info Icon Circle with letter I in it.

1x - 5x points

Rewards Program: Info Icon Circle with letter I in it.

1x - 3x points

Rewards Program: Info Icon Circle with letter I in it.

1x - 5x points

Intro APR:

Purchases: N/A

Balance Transfers: N/A

Intro APR:

Purchases: N/A

Balance Transfers: N/A

Intro APR:

Purchases: N/A

Balance Transfers: N/A

Regular APR:

16.24% - 23.24% Variable

Regular APR:

16.74% - 24.74% (Variable)

Regular APR:

See Pay Over Time APR

Annual Fee:

$95

Annual Fee:

$95

Annual Fee:

$695

Highlights:

  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,000 when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
  • Enjoy benefits such as a $50 annual Ultimate Rewards Hotel Credit, 5x on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, 3x on dining and 2x on all other travel purchases, plus more.
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,000 toward travel.
  • With Pay Yourself BackSM, your points are worth 25% more during the current offer when you redeem them for statement credits against existing purchases in select, rotating categories
  • Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more.

Highlights:

  • Earn 60,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 60,000 Points are redeemable for $600 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
  • No expiration and no limit to the amount of points you can earn with this card
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases

Highlights:

  • Earn 100,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $6,000 on purchases on your new Card in your first 6 months of Card Membership. Apply and select your preferred metal Card design: classic Platinum Card®, Platinum x Kehinde Wiley, or Platinum x Julie Mehretu.
  • Earn 5X Membership Rewards® Points for flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year and earn 5X Membership Rewards® Points on prepaid hotels booked with American Express Travel.
  • Get $200 back in statement credits each year on prepaid Fine Hotels + Resorts® or The Hotel Collection bookings, which requires a minimum two-night stay, through American Express Travel when you pay with your Platinum Card®. And if you fly, you can receive up to $200 in statement credits per calendar year after you select a qualifying airline and incidental fees are charged by the airline to your Platinum Card®.
  • $240 Digital Entertainment Credit: Get up to $20 back each month on eligible purchases made with your Platinum Card® on one or more of the following: Audible, Disney+, The Disney Bundle, ESPN+, Hulu, Peacock, SiriusXM, and The New York Times. Enrollment required.
  • $155 Walmart+ Credit: Cover the cost of a $12.95 monthly Walmart+ membership with a statement credit after you pay for Walmart+ each month with your Platinum Card. Cost includes $12.95 plus applicable local sales tax. Plus Ups are excluded.
  • American Express has expanded The Centurion® Network to include 40+ Centurion Lounge and Studio locations worldwide. There are even more places your Platinum Card® can get you complimentary entry and exclusive perks.
  • $200 Airline Fee Credit: Get up to $200 in statement credits per calendar year in baggage fees and more at one select qualifying airline.
  • $200 Uber Cash: Enjoy Uber VIP status and up to $200 in Uber savings on rides or eats orders in the US annually. Uber Cash and Uber VIP status is available to Basic Card Member only.
  • $300 Equinox Credit: Get up to $25 back each month on the Equinox+ digital fitness app, or eligible Equinox club memberships when you pay with your Platinum Card®. Enrollment required.
  • $189 CLEAR® Credit: Use your Card and get up to $189 back per year on your CLEAR® membership. CLEAR® is available at select airports and stadiums.
  • $695 annual fee.
  • Terms Apply.
Apply Now for Citi Premier® Card

On Citi's Secure Website.

Apply Now for The Platinum Card® from American Express

On American Express' Secure Website.

Terms apply

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How to earn airline miles with a credit card

The basic premise of earning points and airline miles with a great credit card is this: the more you spend, the more you earn. In reality, there are lots of different ways to earn airline miles through your airline credit card, and they don't always require you to spend money. Understanding how do credit cards work means you can maximize your points.

Get the right airline credit card for you. The most important step is getting an airline credit card that best fits your spending habits. If you spend a lot of money on one particular airline, it's probably wise to get that airline's credit card. If you split your spending between multiple different airlines or don't travel by air often, it might be a better idea to get a generic travel credit card. You'll also have to decide if you're willing to pay an annual fee. You might be hesitant to get a credit card with an annual fee, but keep in mind that annual fee credit cards earn bonus miles at a higher rate.

Look for sign-up bonuses. These are bonus miles that you can earn for spending a certain amount on eligible purchases within the first few months of opening a new credit card. Sign-up bonuses are one of the best ways to accelerate your airline mile earnings. A typical sign-up bonus might offer 50,000 miles if you can spend $3,000 in the first three months of opening your airline miles card.

Refer friends. Your rewards credit card might offer a referral program. You can refer friends to your airline card using your own unique link. If they're approved for the card you'll get bonus miles deposited into your account.

Couple up your cards. If you spend enough and prefer travel rewards, it might be a good idea to get more than one travel credit card. For example, you can pair an airline credit card with a generic travel credit card that lets you transfer your credit card points to that airline and switch them out depending on what you're purchasing for maximum earning.

How to redeem credit card miles to travel

The redemptions system for each rewards program is different, but almost all rewards credit cards have a portal where you can redeem your rewards. You should be able to access this portal by either logging into your credit card account or your frequent flyer account, depending on whether you're earning through a generic travel credit card or a frequent flyer program.

Once logged in, you'll be able to find the right redemption option. With most programs, there will be some dates when redemptions are not available or cost significantly more than usual. Here are some tips for getting the most out of your redemptions.

Book in advance. It's important to search for redemptions at least a couple of months in advance whenever possible. Not only will this help you select dates that offer lower redemption costs, but booking last minute often incurs additional fees.

Be flexible. This is one of the best ways to make the most out of your miles. If you're flexible with your travel dates, it's easy to work around popular and expensive dates to book the low-cost options.

Fly with travel partners. Many frequent flyer programs have airline partners. You can also redeem miles with an airline partner. If you can't find a low-cost flight through your primary airline, consider searching with some of their partner airlines. You may be able to use your miles to book with them instead.

Research transfer partners. If you're earning transferable points, make sure to research flight prices with each transfer partner before booking your flight. This will allow you to find the lowest price, and then you can transfer your points to that airline and book.

The best credit cards for airline miles

Choosing the right airline credit card for you will depend on your spending, travel habits, and travel goals. You want to be able to earn credit card miles quickly, but you also want to make sure the miles you're earning can be redeemed for the travel you have planned. It helps to have a specific travel goal in mind. That way you can work toward earning miles for that trip.

Comparing travel cards

The first decision you need to make is whether you want a co-branded airline credit card or generic travel credit card that will earn points you can transfer to a number of different airlines. If you fly with a specific airline more than a few times per year, it's often worth it to get that airline's credit card so you can earn frequent flyer miles at a higher rate. You might still want to get a generic travel credit card to use for travel purchases outside of that airline.

You'll also have to decide if you're willing to pay an annual fee for additional benefits or if you'd prefer a travel credit card with no annual fee. Keep in mind that a rewards card might come with a hefty annual fee, but that's often offset with a statement credit and other perks. If you're not willing to pay an annual fee, though, your options will be limited.

Choosing a credit card

Don't you wish you could take a peek inside a credit card expert's wallet sometimes? Just to see the cards they carry? Well, you can't look in anybody's wallet, but you can check out our experts' favorite credit cards. Get started here:

Other factors to consider are the card's travel perks. These can include a sign-up bonus, benefits like travel protection and rental car insurance, and luxury passes like Global Entry, TSA PreCheck, and airport lounge passes.

Finally, pay attention to credit score requirements. A good airline card will usually, though not always, require good credit.

Ultimately, choosing the right credit card is a personal decision that only you can make. With a little planning, you'll be earning free flights with an airline card in no time.

Some of our favorite credit cards for airline miles:

As of May. 17, 2022
Image for
Image for
Image for
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card
Apply Now for Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card

On American Express' Secure Website.

Terms apply

Rates & Fees

Credit Rating Requirement:

Good/Excellent (670-850) Info Icon Circle with letter I in it.

Credit Rating Requirement:

Good/Excellent (670-850) Info Icon Circle with letter I in it.

Credit Rating Requirement:

Good/Excellent (670-850) Info Icon Circle with letter I in it.

Welcome Offer: Info Icon Circle with letter I in it.

80,000 points

Welcome Offer: Info Icon Circle with letter I in it.

25,000 points

Welcome Offer: Info Icon Circle with letter I in it.

40,000 bonus miles

Rewards Program: Info Icon Circle with letter I in it.

1x - 5x points

Rewards Program: Info Icon Circle with letter I in it.

1.5 points per dollar

Rewards Program: Info Icon Circle with letter I in it.

1X - 2X miles

Intro APR:

Purchases: N/A

Balance Transfers: N/A

Intro APR: Info Icon Circle with letter I in it.

Purchases: 0%, 15 billing cycles

Balance Transfers: N/A

Intro APR:

Purchases: N/A

Balance Transfers: N/A

Regular APR:

16.24% - 23.24% Variable

Regular APR:

14.24% - 24.24% Variable

Regular APR:

16.49%-25.49% Variable

Annual Fee:

$95

Annual Fee:

$0

Annual Fee: Info Icon Circle with letter I in it.

$0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $99.

Highlights:

  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,000 when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
  • Enjoy benefits such as a $50 annual Ultimate Rewards Hotel Credit, 5x on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, 3x on dining and 2x on all other travel purchases, plus more.
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,000 toward travel.
  • With Pay Yourself BackSM, your points are worth 25% more during the current offer when you redeem them for statement credits against existing purchases in select, rotating categories
  • Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more.

Highlights:

  • Earn unlimited 1.5 points per $1 spent on all purchases, with no annual fee and no foreign transaction fees and your points don't expire.
  • 25,000 online bonus points after you make at least $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days of account opening - that can be a $250 statement credit toward travel purchases.
  • Use your card to book your trip how and where you want - you're not limited to specific websites with blackout dates or restrictions.
  • Redeem points for a statement credit to pay for travel or dining purchases, such as flights, hotel stays, car and vacation rentals, baggage fees, and also at restaurants including takeout.
  • 0% Introductory APR for 15 billing cycles for purchases. After the intro APR offer ends, 14.24% - 24.24% Variable APR will apply.
  • If you're a Preferred Rewards member, you can earn 25% - 75% more points on every purchase. That means you could earn up to 2.62 points for every $1 spent.
  • Contactless Cards - The security of a chip card, with the convenience of a tap.
  • This online only offer may not be available if you leave this page or if you visit a Bank of America financial center. You can take advantage of this offer when you apply now.

Highlights:

  • Earn 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months.
  • Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.
  • Earn 2X Miles on Delta purchases, at U.S. Supermarkets and at restaurants worldwide, including takeout and delivery in the U.S.
  • Earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases.
  • $100 Delta Flight Credit: After you spend $10,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, receive a Credit to use toward future travel.
  • Enjoy a $0 introductory Annual Fee for the first year, then $99.
  • Terms Apply.
Apply Now for Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card

On American Express' Secure Website.

Terms apply

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