When you're just getting started with miles and points to travel more for less, it's easy to assume that an airline-specific credit card is the best option. You might say, “I live in Atlanta, so a Delta SkyMiles card makes the most sense.” Or maybe you want a United credit card because you live in Chicago, a large United hub.
But most travelers will be better served by going in a different direction … at least initially. Rather than springing for a co-branded airline card, free-agent cards from banks like Chase, American Express, Capital One, and others come with more flexible credit card points. You typically earn points even faster, and you can use them to book travel on almost any airline – plus other travel expenses like hotels, rental cars, and more.
We'll break down these three cards, and why they are the best options for travelers looking to book cheap flights with their points, regardless of the airline. The bigger bonuses you can currently get on each card sure don't hurt.
Find the Cheap Cash Fare First
Each of these cards works a bit differently when it comes time to use your points for a flight – we'll break that down shortly.
But no matter which credit card you have, the key to getting the most out of your points is starting with a cheap flight. Whether you find a deal using Google Flights, here at thriftytraveler.com, or in your inbox through our Thrifty Traveler Premium flight deal subscription service … the cheaper the flight, the fewer points it will take to book.
Let's start with a flight deal we sent to our Thrifty Traveler Premium members earlier this week. You can fly from Chicago (ORD) to Cancún, Mexico (CUN) for $175 round trip through March 2022.
But if you have one of these three credit cards and enough points in your account, you can use those points to make this same flight free. Read on to learn how you can book this (or almost any) cheap flight deal with these points.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card
We consider the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card the best card for beginners thanks to its low $95 annual fee and the value of the points it earns. You can these points to book cheap cash flights or transfer them to a number of different hotel and airline partners to potentially squeeze even more value out of them.
To start with, you'll earn 60,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points after spending $4,000 in the first three months. That's enough to cover at least $750 in travel.
Click Here to get more information about the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card.
If you want a simple way to use your points from the Preferred card, just head to the Chase travel portal available within your account. Generally, you should be able to find flights at the same price as you see on Google Flights. Just navigate to the portal, tap in the details of the flight you want to book, and see what you find.
But here's the kicker: When booking a flight through the Chase portal with your Chase Sapphire Preferred card, each point is worth 1.25 cents. So to book that $175 ticket to Cancún, you only need 14,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points.
As luck would have it, this same flight is actually pricing out slightly cheaper through Chase, at just $167. That means you only need 13,354 Ultimate Rewards points to cover the fare.
As an added bonus, you'd still earn American Airlines miles on the flight you just booked for free so long as you include your American account number when you book the ticket. That's not the case if you booked this same flight with American AAdvantage miles or any other airline mileage program. But from Chase's perspective, you're using your points to pay for a cash ticket – and that means you can earn miles and credits toward elite status, regardless of which airline you're flying.
To figure out how many points you will need to book any ticket with your Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, just take the cost of the ticket in cash and divide it by 0.0125. In our example, $167 / 0.0125 = 13,354 points.
The Chase Sapphire Reserve
Think of the Chase Sapphire Reserve® as the superior sibling of the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. While the Sapphire Reserve earns the same Ultimate Rewards points, it offers a number of premium benefits that push the card's annual fee to $550 a year.
Just for holding the card, you'll get an annual $300 travel credit that can be used for any travel expense. It also offers a credit of up to $100 every four years to cover the cost of either Global Entry or TSA PreCheck and provides a Priority Pass lounge membership that will get you into thousands of airport lounges and restaurants across the world, among many other premium benefits.
You'll also earn 60,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points after spending $4,000 within the first three months – enough to redeem for at least $900 towards travel.
Click Here to learn more about the Chase Sapphire Reserve.
But perhaps the most important distinction between the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Sapphire Reserve is that you get even more value when booking travel through Chase. Every point from your Reserve card is worth 1.5 cents when booking through the Chase travel portal – up from 1.25 cents on the Preferred Card.
That means you can book the exact same Cancún flight from the example above for just 11,129 Chase Ultimate Rewards points if you hold the Sapphire Reserve.
And like the Preferred version discussed above, you will earn American Airlines miles on the flight. Again, as far as the airline is concerned, you paid cash for the flight.
T0 figure out how many points you will need to book a ticket, you can simply divide the cost of the flight by 0.015. In our example, $166.94/0.015 = 11,129 points.
The Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card
The Capital One Venture Rewards X Rewards Credit Card is the new kid on the block and another great option for travel rewards beginners and those looking for some flexibility in how they use their miles.
Just for opening the card and spending $4,000 in the first three months of card membership, you will earn 75,000 Capital One Venture Miles. Enough to redeem for a $750 flight.
The card has a $395 annual fee that is not waived for the first year of card membership. But with that, you'll get a ton of awesome travel benefits. And we feel the annual fee shouldn't scare you off.
Click Here to learn more about the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card.
The popular and older Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card is another option here – the process of booking flights using miles is identical to the new Venture X. But given its bigger bonus and far better perks at a reasonable price tag, we think the Venture X is the smarter option.
Though it's now possible to transfer Capital One Venture miles to partner airlines, the easiest and best way to use them will be to use miles to cover travel purchases or booking flights through the Capital One Travel Portal.
Using either method, you can use Capital One Venture miles to cover many travel expenses – be it a flight, hotel room, cruise, or Airbnb stay – all at a rate of one cent per mile. That means a stash of 75,000 miles is worth $750 towards travel.
Using Purchase Eraser couldn't be easier – it might be our favorite method on this list, period. There's no need to deal with portals: You'll just buy your airfare as normal.
Simply purchase your travel as you normally would directly through the airline or hotel and put it on your Venture X card. To book that same flight to Cancún, we can click through the Google Flights link and go directly to the American website. Once you are there, you can check out and pay for the $175 flight with your Capital One Venture X Rewards card.
Once that charge hits your account, you can use your Venture Miles to erase the purchase from your statement. Each mile will be worth one cent, so the $175 flight will require 17,500 Venture miles.
Just like both Sapphire cards discussed above, you will still earn American miles on the flight!
Booking through the Capital One Travel portal? Your miles will still be worth one cent each. But Capital One's new and improved travel portal offers some unique features like the ability to freeze the price of a flight, set price alerts, get refunded when prices drop after booking, and much more.
Just like using Purchase Eraser with your Capital One miles, they will always be worth one cent each. So to figure out how many miles you will need to book a ticket, just take the cost of the ticket and divide it by 0.01. In our example, $175 / 0.01 = 17,500 miles.
While these points aren't quite as valuable as Chase Ultimate Rewards, the ease and simplicity of using your points for free travel make this card worth a lot. And critically, you'll be able to book directly through the airline when using the Capital One Purchase Eraser feature.
See our full guide on how to use Capital One Purchase Eraser.
All three of these cards are a great option to book flights with points. The process is straightforward and allows you to book with almost any airline. And that gives you some unparalleled flexibility.
While airline-specific credit cards certainly have their place, most travelers will be best suited starting off with one of these cards.