What are the top credit cards for economy travel?
It’s a question I get asked a lot in November and December as friends scramble to purchase tickets home to see family for Thanksgiving or Christmas. But it’s better to ask the question now and have the rewards in hand for free economy travel whenever you want to visit family or just take a quick trip.
To me, there are a clear best five cards for domestic economy travel, with each card better for different spending and flying patterns.
1. The Arrival Card
The most versatile card when you want to take an economy trip is the Barclaycard Arrival(TM) World MasterCard® – Earn 2x on All Purchases, which comes with 40,000 bonus miles (worth $456 in free travel) after spending $3,000 in the first three months.
The miles earned on the card can be used toward any flight, any time, on any airline without needing to search for award space. Redemption couldn’t be easier.
In addition to flights, Arrival miles can be used for lodging–any hotel, B&B, hostel, etc–and car rental if you need those when traveling.
It’s not just the redemption side where Arrival miles shine. The Arrival card earns 2 miles per dollar on all purchases, so it’s not a card that requires you to memorize ever-changing category bonuses.
Each Arrival mile is worth 1.14 cents on travel redemptions, so the card earns 2.28% back toward travel on all purchases, which no other card matches.
Add in free access to your FICO credit score and a free subscription to TripIt Pro (worth $49) and the Arrival card is a clear #1 in my mind.
The Arrival card has no annual fee the first 12 months then $89 thereafter.
- Application Link: Barclaycard Arrival(TM) World MasterCard® – Earn 2x on All Purchases
- My Review of Arrival Card
- Why I Got the Arrival Card
What are the other Top Five Cards for Economy Travel?
2. ThankYou Premier
The Citi ThankYou® Premier Rewards Card comes with the largest sign up bonus of any card on this list, though it is split over 15 months:
- Earn up to 50,000 bonus ThankYou® Points. Bonus points are redeemable for up to $500 in gift cards, up to $625 for airfare or other great rewards
- Earn 20,000 points after $2,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
- Earn an additional 30,000 points after another $3,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of your second year of being a cardmember
ThankYou points are worth 1.25 cents each toward any flight on any airline without restriction.
Unlike the Arrival card, the ThankYou Premier has big category bonuses:
- 3x ThankYou points on dining out and entertainment (including sports promoters, theatrical promoters, movie theaters, amusement parks, tourist attractions and museums, record stores, and video rental stores)
- 2x ThankYou points on airfare and hotels
- 1x ThankYou points on all other purchases
I plan to use my ThankYou Premier card for my frequent dining and entertainment charges to get 3.75% back toward flights on all of them!
The ThankYou Premier card has no annual fee the first 12 months, then $125 thereafter.
- Application Link: Citi ThankYou® Premier Rewards Card
- My Review of the ThankYou Premier Card
- Why I Got the ThankYou Premier Card (coming soon)
3. Blue Cash Preferred
The Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express offers 100 Reward Dollars, redeemable for a $100 statement credit, after you make $1,000 in purchases with your new Card in the first three months.
Plus, get one year of Amazon Prime after you sign up for a new membership with your Card and meet the spending requirement in the same time period.
The Blue Cash Preferred Card is a cash back card. Cash can obviously be used for any flight, any time, on any airline and is usually a better currency to use than traditional airline miles (like United or Delta miles) for domestic economy flights.
The Blue Cash Preferred has massive category bonuses!
- You get 6% cash back on your first $6k spent on groceries each annual reward year. That’s $360 Rewards Dollars back if you max out the benefit. (“An annual reward year is 12 billing periods in a row starting with the one that begins in January.”)
- You get 3% cash back at US gas stations and select department stores
- You get 1% cash back on all other purchases
Putting gas and groceries on the card will result in some big statement credits. With the money saved, you can buy your next flight home.
The Blue Cash Preferred has a $75 annual fee.
- Application Link: Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express
- My Review of the Blue Cash Preferred
Full offer detail:
- Get 100 Reward Dollars, redeemable for a $100 statement credit, after you make $1,000 in purchases with your new Card in the first three months.
- Plus, get one year of Amazon Prime after you sign up for a new membership with your Card and meet the spending requirement in the same time period.
- As an Amazon Prime member, you get unlimited FREE Two-Day Shipping on millions of items.
- Earn Cash Back: 6% US supermarkets up to $6,000 per year in purchases, 3% US gas stations & select US dept stores, 1% other purchases. Terms and limitations apply.
- Cash back is received in the form of Reward Dollars that can be redeemed as a statement credit.
- 0% intro APR on purchases and balance transfers for 15 months, then a variable rate, currently 12.99% to 21.99%, based on your creditworthiness and other factors.
- Terms and Restrictions Apply.
4. Southwest 50k Offers
Southwest currently has four cards offering a 50k point sign up bonus after spending $2k in the first three months.
Starting March 31, 2014, all Southwest redemptions will cost 70 points per dollar, meaning Southwest points are worth about 1.43 cents each.
The sign up bonus worth $715 is a big draw, but this card isn’t higher for four reasons.
- Its points can only be used on Southwest flights. Arrival miles, ThankYou points, and cash back can be used on any airline’s flights.
- Southwest doesn’t fly everywhere.
- Southwest’s ticket prices are really high! Southwest has been coasting on its low-fare reputation for years, but it is currently more expensive than the legacy carriers whenever I check southwest.com. Of course the price does include two checked bags and free changes and cancellations.
- The cards earn only one point worth 1.4 cents per dollar on all purchases other than Southwest purchases. The cards above offer either a way better base rate or some huge category bonuses.
Those points aside, if you want to fly Southwest for your next domestic trip, these cards are definitely worth considering. The cards have a $69 annual fee.
Application Link: Chase Southwest Personal Card
Application Link: Chase Southwest Business Card
5. British Airways Card
The British Airways card comes with 50,000 bonus Avios after spending $2,000 in the first three months. Avios can only be used domestically on American Airlines and Alaska Airlines flights with Saver award space.
If you can find the Saver award space, the prices on short, direct flights are attractive:
- up to 650 miles flown: 4,500 Avios + $2.5
- 651 – 1,151 miles flown: 7,500 Avios + $2.5
- 1,152- 2,000 miles flown: 10,000 Avios + $2.5
- 2,001 – 3,000 miles flown: 12,500 Avios + $2.5
Remember that these are per segment, so if you are going from San Francisco to Tampa via Dallas, you pay San Francisco to Dallas (10k) plus Dallas to Tampa (7.5k). That would be 17,500 Avios + $5 one way, which is not a good deal.
But if you want to fly to/from an AA or Alaska hub, Avios might be ideal. For instance, if you want to fly Dallas to El Paso, it would only be 9k Avios + $5 roundtrip if you can find American Airlines MileSAAver award space.
The British Airways card has a $95 annual fee.
Application Link: British Airways Signature Visa
The top five rewards cards for domestic, economy flights so that you can get home for the holidays are the:
- Barclaycard Arrival(TM) World MasterCard® – Earn 2x on All Purchases
- Citi ThankYou® Premier Rewards Card
- Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express
- Multiple Southwest Cards (See Above)
- British Airways Signature Visa
The Arrival, ThankYou Premier, and Blue Cash Preferred are the most flexible, since Arrival miles, ThankYou points, and cash back can be used to book any flight.
The Southwest card and British Airways card are more niche because their miles can only be used on Southwest flights and American/Alaska flights respectively.
Match your spending and flying patterns to the card that is best for you, and you’ll be on your way to free domestic travel.