Best Credit Card to Buy Airfare

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Award taxes and airfare add up for everyone reading this blog, especially if you book yourself reimbursable tickets for work. What credit card should you use to pay the airfare and award taxes for your travel?

Credit card links have been removed from posts and added to the menu bar at the top of every page of MileValue under the heading Top Travel Credit Cards.

Bonus Spending

Many cards offer bonus points for “airfare” or “travel” purchases. In practice, these bonus any spending that an airline processes, which include:

  • airfare
  • award taxes
  • fuel surcharges on awards
  • fees (seat selection, upgrade, cancellation, baggage, etc)
  • onboard food

It also sometimes includes mileage purchases. American Airlines and LifeMiles, for instance, process their own mileage sales, so buying miles counts as an “airfare” or “travel” purchase with cards that offer those bonus categories. United and Alaska use points.com to process mileage sales, so purchases of those miles do not count as an “airfare” or “travel” purchase.

Five Best Cards for Airfare Spending

The five best cards to buy airfare with are the America Express Platinum cards (any personal version of it–like the Mercedes Benz Platinum, for example–or the Business Platinum if the ticket is booked on amextravel.com), Chase Sapphire Reserve card, American Express Gold cards, Citi Prestige® Card, and Citi ThankYou® Premier Card. The Amex Platinum offers five points per dollar and the other four cards offer three points per dollar on airfare spending (the business Gold only earns 3x if you designate it as your biggest spending category), and I value points from all three similarly.

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All five cards offer no foreign transaction fees, which is very important for airfare and award taxes, since you probably book with a lot of foreign airlines.

Amex Platinum Gets 5x Airfare, But NOT Award Taxes/Fees

For purchasing cash tickets directly from the airline or through the Amex Travel Portal, the Amex Platinum cards are far and away the best choice. The Amex Business Platinum card also earns 5x on airfare, but only when it’s booked through the Amex Travel Portal (amextravel.com).

If you’re just trying to maximize spending when booking an award, charge those fees to either the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, an American Express Gold card, Citi Prestige® Card, or Citi ThankYou® Premier Card which will all earn 3 points per dollar spent.

What About Online Travel Agencies?

If you are booking with an online travel agency–like Orbitz, Expedia, or Priceline–use your Sapphire Reserve, Citi Prestige® Card or Citi ThankYou® Premier Card. They earn 3x points per dollar when booking airfare through an online travel agency.

The Amex Platinum only earns 5x when booking directly with an airline or through the Amex Travel Portal, and the Business Platinum only when booked through the AmexTravel Portal The Amex Gold cards only earn 3x points when booking directly with an airline.

Airline Specific Cards

Most co-branded airline cards offer 2x miles on purchases with that airline. For instance, the United Explorer card offers 2x miles on United purchases. The Amex Platinum, Sapphire Reserve, American Express Gold cards, Citi Prestige® Card, and Citi ThankYou® Premier Card always offer a better return than 2x airline cards.

There are airline cards that offer 3x or more though:

  • JetBlue Plus Card offers 6x points on JetBlue purchases
  • Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Credit Card offers 3x points on Alaska purchases
  • British Airways Visa Signature Card offers 3x points on airfare British Airways purchases
  • Virgin America Visa Signature Credit Cards offers 3x points on Virgin America purchases

Virgin American points are worth over 2 cents each, so if you fly Virgin America and have its credit card, use it for Virgin America purchases. You also earn 5x points on top of that for being a member of Virgin America Elevate, their frequent flyer program, although the 5x bonus is only on the base fair of plane tickets flying actual Virgin America flights (not any of their partners).

Alaska miles are a close call. It just depends on whether you value Alaska miles, Membership Rewards, Ultimate Rewards, or ThankYou Points the most.

Avios are definitely worth less than ThankYou Points and Membership Rewards in general, but if you want to build an Avios balance, earning them at 3x can make sense, especially since Membership Rewards-to-Avios transfers devalued October 1, 2015.

But if you have a personal Amex Platinum card and can book directly with the airline or through the Amex Travel Portal, purchasing airfare with it trumps all other options.

Let Me Preempt Your Questions about Other Cards

The American Express Platinum cards are the number one option for purchasing airfare. The 5x category bonus does not, however, apply for award taxes or airline fees.

After the Platinum, and other than 3x airline cards when purchasing from that airline, yes, the Sapphire Reserve, American Express Gold cards, Citi Prestige® Card, and Citi ThankYou® Premier Card are the best cards to purchase airfare, and they are the top options for paying award taxes or airline fees.

They are better than the Chase Sapphire Preferred, which earns 2 Ultimate Rewards per dollar, worth about 2 cents each.

They are better than the Citi® Hilton HHonors™ Reserve Card, which earns 5 Hilton points per dollar on airfare and car rentals, because Hilton points are only worth 0.4 cents each to me.

Bottom Line

The American Express Platinum cards (personal and business versions), Sapphire Reserve, American Express Gold cards, Citi Prestige® Card, and Citi ThankYou® Premier Card are the best cards to purchase airfare, pay award taxes, or pay airline fees. The Amex Platinum cards earn 5x points per dollar spent on airfare booked directly with the airline or through the Amex Travel Portal, and the other four earn 3x points per dollar on airfare, award taxes, and airline fees. The Amex Platinum nor American Express Gold cards earn bonus points if you book through an online travel agency like Expedia or Orbitz, but the Sapphire Reserve and Citi cards do.

When not purchasing British Airways, Virgin America, or Alaska Airlines airfare, you should be using one of these five cards. Which one exactly depends on whether you value Ultimate Rewards, ThankYou Points, or Membership Rewards more.


Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

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30 COMMENTS

  1. Here’s another strategy: use the Chase Ink Plus to buy gift cards on Pay Pal Digital Gifts (on ebay via portal for cash back and ebay bucks or directly with PayPal) to get AA or Southwest gift cards. These code as 5x on the Ink Plus, earning you 5x UR points, rather than 3x Citi TY or Amex MR points. The same applies for Hyatt, rather than using the Hyatt card and getting 3x, use the Ink and get 5x URs and then transfer to Hyatt. The only disadvantage is that you lose the travel protection benefits offered (trip delay, baggage delay, etc).

  2. Scott-do you consider trip insurance/protection in your decision or go strictly on point return when making this decision? For eg. the CSP will offer protection on award tickets where I don’t think the Prestige does.

    • I don’t factor in trip insurance/protection at all though surely I should assign some very small value to it.

      • My wife just spent 3 days trying to get back home to Tucson from Portland, OR on Southwest. 5 delayed flights later she finally made it. I paid the $5.60 with my CSP and she was covered for $500 in extra, expenses. They would cover 3 nights in hotel and food for 3 days up to $500. She was at her mom’s, so no need for hotel, but I told her to go out and eat good and keep her reciepts. Sent it in to Chase and will soon have a check. On award tickets anyways imho it is a no brainer to use my CSP. Getting an extra 10 or 20 points doesn’t mean jack compared to trip insurance. On a side note I used my CSP to buy a drone for Christmas from China. The next day I found the same one on another website for $50 less. Took a screen shot of new price and sent that and a screen shot of my reciept to Chase and 5 days later I got a check for $ 50 in the mail. You have 90 days for the price to drop. If it drops again I can resubmit the new price and get another check for the difference. Great card

        • Agreed that the Chase Sapphire Preferred is a great card for many things, including travel protection. And yes, especially during times like the holidays when you can almost expect delays, it’s probably smarter to put your award taxes on a card that will cover expenses when delayed.

  3. […] If she hadn’t had any Arrival miles left, the best strategy would have been to use either of the American Express Gold cards, the Citi Prestige® Card, or the Citi ThankYou® Premier Card. All four cards offer three points per dollar on airfare spending (the business Gold only earns 3x if you designate it as your biggest spending category), and I value points from all three similarly. Read more here about the best card to use when purchasing air fare. […]

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