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 (ATL), 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 (ORD), a large United hub. But most travelers will be better served by going in a different direction – at least initially.
We’re talking about cards that earn flexible credit card points. These cards typically earn points even faster, and allow you to simply book travel on almost any airline. Unlike airline-specific cards, you can also use them for lodging, cruises, and other travel experiences.
We’ll break down why they are the three best options for travelers looking to book cheap flights with their points, regardless of the airline.
Find the Cheap Cash Fare
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 to show the power of how these points will work, we’ll start with a flight deal we sent to our Thrifty Traveler Premium subscribers last week.
You could fly from Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) to Amsterdam (AMS) for $457 round trip through February of 2020. The price has gone up since then, and available dates are dwindling. But it’s still possible to book a one-stop flight from $483.
Thrifty Tip #1: We find international flight deals from over 100 U.S. departure airports. Sign-up and try our Premium service for free today.
But if you have one of these three cards and enough points in your account, you won’t need to pay any cash at all. Read on to learn how.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card
We’ve named the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card the best card for beginners for a number of reasons, including the low, $95 annual fee, and the value of the points it earns. Not only can you use these points to book cheap cash flights, but you can also transfer them to a number of different hotel and airline partners to potentially reap even more value out of them.
Just for opening the Sapphire Preferred card and spending $4,000 in the first three months of card membership, you will receive 60,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points. That’s enough to redeem for at least $750 towards 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, you can simply head to the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal, available within your Chase online account. The portal is powered by Expedia, and generally speaking, you should be able to pull up the same cash rate in the portal as you did in Google Flights.
But here is the kicker. When booking a flight through the Chase portal with your Chase Sapphire Preferred card, each point is worth 1.25 cents. That means, to book the $482.33 ticket to Amsterdam, we only need to use 38,586 Chase Ultimate Rewards points.
And as an added bonus, as long as you include your United frequent flyer number when you are completing your reservation, you will still earn United miles on the flight! That’s not the case if you booked the flight with United miles. On their end, it will appear as if you booked a cash ticket and thus you’ll be eligible to earn miles and qualifying credit towards elite status, regardless of the airline you are flying.
So when booking an airline ticket this way, your Chase Ultimate Rewards points will always be worth 1.25 cents each. And to figure out how many points you will need to book a ticket, you can simply take the cost of the ticket divided by 0.0125. That means in our example $482.33 / 0.0125 = 38,586 points.
The Chase Sapphire Reserve
Think of the Chase Sapphire Reserve as the older brother of the Chase Sapphire Preferred. 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 credit that can be used for any travel expense. The credit happens automatically and makes it easy to trim down that annual fee to just $250 a year if you can use it.
It also offers a credit of up to $100 every four years to cover the cost of either Global Entry or TSA PreCheck. It also 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.
The card earns 50,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards Points after spending a total of $4,000 in the first three months of card membership.
Click Here to learn more about the Chase Sapphire Reserve.
But perhaps the most important differences between the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Sapphire Reserve is the rate at which they earn and redeem points. The Sapphire Reserve earns 3x points per dollar spent on dining and travel (compared to 2x on the Preferred) and it redeems Ultimate Rewards points through the Chase portal at a rate of 1.5 cents each (compared to 1.25 cents each on the Preferred).
That means the exact same Amsterdam flight can be booked for just 32,155 Chase Ultimate Rewards points if you hold the Sapphire Reserve.
And like the Preferred version discussed above, you will earn United miles on the flight! Because again, as far as the airline is concerned, you paid cash for the flight.
So when booking an airline ticket this way, your Chase Ultimate Rewards points will always be worth 1.5 cents each if you carry the Sapphire Reserve. And to figure out how many points you will need to book a ticket, you can simply take the cost of the ticket divided by 0.015. That means in our example $482.33/0.015 = 32,155 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.
The card has a $95 annual fee that is 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 – 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 and put it on your Venture card. So in our example above, we can click through the Google Flights link and go directly to the United Airlines website. Once you are there, you can check out and pay for the $482.33 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 $482.33 flight will require 48,233 Venture miles.
And like both Sapphire cards discussed above, you will still earn United miles on the flight!
So when booking an airline ticket with Capital One Venture Miles, they will always be worth one cent each. And to figure out how many points you will need to book a ticket, you can simply take the cost of the ticket divided by 0.01. That means in our example $482.33 / 0.01 = 48,233 points.
While these points aren’t quite as valuable as Chase, the ease and simplicity of using your points for free travel make this card worth a lot.
Thrifty Tip #2: 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.