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As awesome as using points and miles are to book flights, sometimes you have to pay cash for your flights. Whether you found a great deal on airfare, or there just isn’t award availability and you’re absolutely itching to take a trip, sometimes paying for flights just works better. When you’re looking to buy a flight, you should be using the best credit card to buy a flight.

Even when you are booking an award flight, there are inevitable taxes and fees that you just can’t avoid.

But that’s easier said than done. What are the best credit cards to buy flights? What about the best credit cards to pay the taxes and fees on award flights? These questions have some overlapping, but sometimes different answers. Let’s explore the criteria to decide what your best credit card options are when paying for your next flight.

Costs You Should Consider Regarding Flights

Travelers often forget that there are costs associated with flying that you may incur beyond just paying for the flight. Using a card that offers bonus points when purchasing anything from the airline are simply points left on the table.

Costs processed by an airline include the following:

  • Airfare
  • Award taxes
  • Fuel surcharges on award flights
  • Seat selection fees
  • Paid upgrades
  • Cancellation fees
  • Baggage fees
  • Onboard purchases

Additionally, it sometimes might just make sense to buy points. Maybe you’re just a couple points shy of a redemption, or the cost of buying the points is less than paying for the ticket outright. Whatever the case, buying points can be worthwhile.

Most airlines outsource the purchase of points, which means the processor doesn’t necessarily code as travel or an airline purchase. Most airlines use Points.com to sell their miles, but a few sell their miles directly meaning they count as an airline purchase. Specifically, American Airlines and LifeMiles sell their points directly, so if you purchase points from them, they’ll most likely count as a travel expense.

Knowing in advance whether your purchase counts as a travel expense from the airline or not is important when deciding what the best credit card to use is.

Cards That Earn Bonus Points on Travel and Airline Expenses

One of your best options when you’re looking for the best credit card to buy flights are cards that earn bonus points on travel and airline expenses, and there are many options. In practice these cards offer more points for every dollar spent that is processed by an airline. 

There are a few that are standout winners that will help you get the most benefits possible on your next flight or airline purchase. 

The Platinum Card® from American Express

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. Terms Apply.

Plus, earn 10x points on eligible purchases on the Card at restaurants worldwide and when you Shop Small in the U.S., on up to $25,000 in combined purchases, during your first 6 months of Card Membership.

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The Platinum Card® from American Express

One of the best cards to make airline purchases with is The Platinum Card® from American Express. The Amex Platinum earns 5X points on airfare purchased through American Express Travel or directly with the airline, up to the first $500,000 spent a year.

Keep in mind that the bonus points earned on airfare with the Amex Platinum are limited to airfare purchases only. If you’re purchasing a seat upgrade or paying for a seat selection, it might not code properly to grant 5X points, but your mileage may vary. In fact, change and cancellation fees are explicitly denied as counting in the terms and conditions of the card, and the wording is vague regarding award taxes and fees.

Chase Sapphire Reserve®

Chase Sapphire Reserve®

Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. 

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Chase Sapphire Reserve

The Chase Sapphire Reserve® is a popular card amongst travelers, and if you’re buying flights it can help you rack up some points.

If you’re paying for airfare directly, and not an award ticket, consider checking out the Chase Travel Portal. Chase Sapphire Reserve card holders earn 5X points on flights purchased through Chase after you’ve used up your $300 travel credit.

For those taxes and fees, or other ancillary fees, the Chase Sapphire Reserve will still earn 3X points on all travel after the $300 travel credit is used. 

Chase Sapphire Preferred

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.

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Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

It’s time for the little brother to shine! The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is the mid-tier Chase card, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that it is packing any less punch than the Chase Sapphire Reserve.

If you’re booking a cash flight, the Chase Sapphire Preferred earns 5X points on all travel booked through the Chase Travel Portal. So if you have a CSP rather than a CSR, don’t worry, you can earn the same amount of bonus points when booking through the Chase portal.

When you’re paying for anything else from an airline, the CSP falls a little short, earning only 2X points on travel purchases.

Citi Premier® Card

Earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening.

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Citi Premier Card

The Citi Premier® Card is often overlooked in favor of cards from Chase and Amex, but it really should be on your radar as one of the best credit cards to buy flights if you’re looking to get the most bonus points on your purchase.

The Citi Premier Card offers 3X points on all travel. This means all of your purchases, whether it is a cash ticket or a glass of your favorite drink on board, will earn 3X points.

American Express Green Card

If you’re looking for an alternative to the Amex Plat that has a bit more flexibility in flight purchases then the American Express Green Card is calling your name. 

The Amex Green Card earns 3X points on travel, regardless of how you book. No matter what you’re paying for with the airline, you’ll get 3X Membership Rewards on all of your flight purchases.

All information about The American Express Green Card has been collected independently by MileValue. The American Express Green Card is no longer available through MileValue.

Chase Ink Business Preferred Credit Card

100,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards Points after you spend $15,000 spend in 3 months

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Chase Ink Business Preferred Credit Card

Small business owners should look to the Chase Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card as one of the best credit cards to buy flights with. 

Ink Preferred card holders earn 3X points on the first $150,000 a year spent on travel, shipping, advertising with social media and search engines, internet, cable and phone services. All of the various charges that you’d make with an airline would qualify as travel and earn 3X points.

Consider Card Benefits When Choosing the Best Credit Card to Buy Flights

Although the bonus points are a worthwhile pursuit, you should also consider the additional travel benefits that you get from your card when choosing which one to use to buy flights.

Common benefits include:

  • Trip interruption insurance
  • Trip cancellation insurance
  • Baggage insurance
  • Emergency evacuation insurance

These types of insurance are ones that you hope to never need to use, but you’ll be glad to have if you need them. By choosing the right card you’ll get these benefits included at no extra cost.

Keep in mind, you’ll only get these benefits when you pay for airfare or taxes and fees for award tickets on these cards. Paying for secondary services such as seat selection fees won’t make you eligible for these benefits.

Amex Platinum

Amex has really upped the insurance available on the Platinum Card over the past few years, making it a great choice as one of the best cards to buy flights with.

When you pay for your cash flight, or your taxes and fees on award tickets with your card you’ll be eligible for a number of travel protections including:

  • Trip delay insurance
  • Trip cancellation and interruption insurance
  • Baggage insurance

Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Sapphire Reserve

Again making the list, both flavors of the Chase Sapphire cards offer a number of travel benefits when you pay for at least part of your flight with the card, which include:

  • Trip cancellation insurance
  • Trip interruption insurance
  • Trip delay insurance
  • Delayed baggage insurance
  • Lost luggage insurance
  • Travel accident insurance

The biggest difference between the cards is the amount of coverage you get and when those coverages kick in. For example, trip delay insurance kicks in on the Sapphire Reserve when your trip is delayed for six hours while Sapphire Preferred takes 12 hours to set in.

U.S. Bank Altitude Reserve Visa Infinite Card

Although not known for its points, the U.S. Bank Altitude Reserve Visa Infinite Card has a fairly powerful suite of trip protections available to you when you book your flight with your card.

The U.S. Bank Altitude Reserve Visa Infinite Card offers the following trip protection benefits:

  • Trip cancellation insurance
  • Trip interruption insurance
  • Trip delay reimbursement
  • Lost luggage reimbursement
  • Emergency evacuation and transportation coverage

When To Use an Airline Co-Branded Card

You may have noticed that so far none of the best credit cards to buy flights are co-branded cards. That’s because you’ll often find the best opportunity to earn more points and better travel protections with bank cards rather than with airline cards.

However, some airline co-branded cards require you to pay with the card to receive benefits such as free checked bags and priority boarding. For example, United requires you to pay with the card to receive your complimentary checked bags while American Airlines and Delta Air Lines cards don’t — the benefits are tied to your frequent flyer account rather than if you book with the card.

Of course, other benefits do require you to pay with the card. Many co-branded airline cards offer discounts on in-flight purchases. In-flight purchase discounts only apply when you pay with the card.

Best Credit Card to Book with an Online Travel Agency

If you’re booking with an online travel agency like Orbitz or Expedia, you’ll be much better off using a card that earns points on travel as a general category. Cards like the Amex Platinum won’t offer bonus points for flights booked through an online travel agency.

Keep in mind that the Chase travel portal is run by Expedia, so rather than booking on Expedia you should be able to get the same prices in the Chase travel portal. If the prices match, you can book with your Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or Chase Sapphire Reserve to receive 5X points on your flights.

Final Verdict

If you’re looking for just one card to be the best card to buy flights with, I’d look to either the Amex Platinum, the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or the Chase Sapphire Reserve. Although the Citi Premier Card offers a valuable earning rate, Citi slashed many of their travel protections over the past few years.

Choosing one of these three cards will allow you to earn a lot of bonus points while receiving some valuable travel purchases. If you’re making in-flight purchases, keep your co-branded airline card handy to potentially receive some valuable benefits.