When you’re just getting started with miles and points, it’s easy to assume that an airline-specific credit card is the best option. You might say, “I live in Atlanta, a Delta hub city, 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 cars 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 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 Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) to Nashville (BNA) for $117 round trip through June 2021.
But if you have one of these three credit cards and enough points in your account, you can book this same flight for 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’ve named 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.
And now it’s even better thanks to a bigger bonus. You’ll earn 80,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points after spending $4,000 in the first three months – up from the norm of 60,000 points. That’s enough to cover at least $1,000 in travel.
Click Here to learn more about the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card.
If you want a simple way to use your points from the Preferred card once you earn them, just head to the Chase travel portal available within your Chase online account. The portal is powered by Expedia – though that will change soon – and generally, you should be able to find flights at the same price as in Google Flights.
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 $116.80 ticket to Nashville, you only need 9,344 Chase Ultimate Rewards points.
And as an added bonus, you’ll still earn Delta SkyMiles on the flight you just booked for free so long as you include your SkyMiles account number when you book the ticket. That’s not the case if you booked this same flight with Delta SkyMiles 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 and divide itby 0.0125. In our example, $116.80 / 0.0125 = 9,344 points.
The Chase Sapphire Reserve
Think of the Chase Sapphire Reserve as the older 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. And through the end of 2021, you can even use the credit at the gas station and the grocery store. 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.
And Chase has recently rolled out a bigger bonus on the Reserve card, too. You’ll now 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. The typical offer on the card is 50,000 points for the same spending requirement.
Click Here to learn more about the Chase Sapphire Reserve.
But perhaps the most important difference 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. Plus you earn points faster: You get 3x points per dollar spent on dining and travel (compared to 2x on the Preferred).
So you can book the exact same Nashville flight from our example above for just 7,786 Chase Ultimate Rewards points if you hold the Sapphire Reserve.
And like the Preferred version discussed above, you will earn Delta SkyMiles 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, $116.80/0.015 = 7,786 points.
The Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
The Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card is 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 $3,000 in the first three months of card membership, you will earn 50,000 Capital One Venture Miles. Enough to redeem for a $500 flight.
But it can potentially get much better. For a limited time, if you spend another $17,000 in the first year of card membership ($20,000 total), you’ll get another 50,000 Venture miles for a total of 100,000 miles! And since the card earns 2x miles for every dollar you spend, you would end up with 140,000 miles if you met the full $20,000 spending requirement.
The card has a $95 annual fee that is not waived for the first year of card membership and even provides a credit of up to $100 every four years to cover the cost of either Global Entry or TSA PreCheck.
Click Here to learn more about the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card.
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 their Purchase Eraser feature. Using this function, you can use Capital One Venture miles to cover almost any travel experience – be it a flight, hotel room, cruise, or Airbnb stay – all at a rate of one cent per mile.
And you don’t need to go through a special portal to make a booking and use your points. Rather, you simply purchase your travel as you normally would directly through the airline or hotel and put it on your Venture card. To book that same flight to Nashville, we can click through the Google Flights link and go directly to the Delta website. Once you are there, you can check out and pay for the $116.80 flight with your Capital One Venture Rewards card.
Once that charge hits your account, you can use your Venture Miles to erase the purchase from your statement. When you do this, each mile will be worth one cent so the $116.80 flight will require 11,680 Venture miles.
And like both Sapphire cards discussed above, you will still earn Delta SkyMiles on the flight!
When booking an airline ticket with Capital One Venture Miles, they will always be worth one cent each. So to figure out how many points you will need to book a ticket, just take the cost of the ticket and divide it by 0.01. In our example, $116.80 / 0.01 = 11,680 points.
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 the Capital One Purchase Eraser.
As you can see from the examples above, 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. Unfortunately, Chase doesn’t offer many budget carriers through the portal.
While airline-specific credit cards certainly have their place, most travelers will be best suited starting off with one of these cards. And that’s more true than ever, as all three are out with massive new welcome bonuses.