There are two essential things when choosing which frequent flyer miles to use. And there are two essential things in choosing what airline credit card to get.
This is a post on what I consider “the essentials”. Right now in the frequent flyer world this is “the” thing that’s working well. And although I write these concepts in many posts, I want one post to lay it all out there.
Choosing the right credit card is definitely beginner material for a lot of people here, but it’s still really important. And yet, it’s surprisingly simple.
The things everyone hates about using most frequent flyer miles are fees and finding seats.
Fuel surcharges are the fees that adds up. Most all non-US airlines pass “fuel surcharges” (and taxes) on to an award ticket. Which is ridiculous because these “fees” would make up the majority of a revenue ticket. So when using these miles, you’re barely getting a discount sometimes.
Two airline frequent flyer programs do not pass fuel surcharges on when using their miles:
- United Airlines Miles
- American Airlines Miles*
*Although AA does pass on fuel surcharges when flying British Airways.
The other problem is finding award availability. But what most newbies tend not to know is that you can book on partners. Then again, newbies don’t even know who the airlines’ partners are.
If you’re confused by this, look at the Airline Alliance InfoGraphic.
If you’re past that and looking for more info, check out the Master Chart of What Sites Search Airline Award Availability.
See, very few airlines’ websites in the past have had comprehensive tools for searching and booking partner award tickets. However, I think you’ll find United and American both really easy to use and full of partners too. Especially United.com as it has well over 20 partners available for award booking.
With United.com you just fill out your flight details like you would any airline search website, but then just check the box “Award Travel”. This will show prices in miles instead of dollars. It will show routes and availability on tons of partners. Super easy.
With AA.com you just fill out the flight details and then check the box “Redeem Miles”. Similarly it will show lots of flights on many partners.
But I will warn that AA.com doesn’t show nearly as many partners as United.com. It’s missing Iberia, JAL, LAN, TAM, Malaysia, and Qatar, but all of these airlines can be found on BritishAirways.com (if you sign up for their free Executive Club rewards program). Still it’s pretty good.
Two Most Important Things About Redeeming Frequent Flyer Miles
But in my opinion, only two things determine what miles I’m going to use:
- If the miles pass on fuel surcharges.
- If the mileage prices are good.
AA miles are the best miles in terms of prices. Across the board they continually are in the top few mileage programs for best mileage prices.
United still has great economy prices and rather uncompetitive premium cabin prices. But they more than make up for it with their stopover policy. See United Stopover and Routing Secrets. But what I really care about most is a good deal, economy or not.
United and AA are good deals. Check out the prices yourself:
What Makes A Good Travel Rewards Credit Card
1) What’s the value of the bonus/card
The first thing that matters is what currency you’re earning. As I heard Travis from EPOP say, “if I offered you 100 Japanese Yet or 100 USD you’d first find out what they are worth.” Mile values are not equal.
Just because you’re getting a ton of miles doesn’t mean you’ll be able to get as many flights out of them, and it doesn’t mean it will be fee free. This goes right back to what makes a good miles program.
In order to figure out what the best value is, we need to know the value of the miles, and how many miles. Even if United miles were worth a little less than AA miles, if I were offered twice as much, I’d take them.
I don’t have a hard rule on “values”, but use the list of award charts and a destination you want to fly to as a way to measure. If your goal is to go to Europe, how many roundtrips would you get to Europe?
2) Cost of the card
Nowadays any good rewards card is not going to get me to sign on unless they waive the “annual fee” for the first year. I always want to keep a card for at least 12 months, so why would I go with a card that will cost me $90 when there are similar cards that will charge $0 for the first year.
Although, I will say that #1 can outweigh #2. That is, if a card has a big enough bonus, I will potentially pay for that many miles.
Therefore 4 cards: 2 Programs
- Citi AAdvantage Platinum MasterCard
- CitiBusiness AAdvantage Platinum MasterCard
- Chase Sapphire Preferred
- Ink Plus
Consistently these cards have bonuses around 50,000 miles/points and are my favorite cards. (Two of them are business card versions (here are MMS’ tips for applying for a business card)).
The first two earn AA miles and the second two earn Chase Ultimate Rewards Points. But in my opinion the best use of Chase Ultimate Rewards points is transferring to United miles (which is easy and can be done online with either of these cards).
After it’s all said and done, you’ll have over 100,000 AA miles and 100,000 United miles.
The beautiful thing about that is… well the obvious is that you can fly anywhere in the world with 100,000 miles in either program. Really. But it’s also good practice to have miles in two different programs and alliances.
AA is a member of the OneWorld alliance, and United is a member of Star Alliance. Both have a ton of airlines and flights but have different routes and therefore different availability. You might check and find that one has better availability on the dates than the other. That’s okay because both offer oneway awards at half the price of roundtrip.
If you were completely new to miles and wanted to get some reward cards today, these would be good picks for so many reasons it took me 1,000+ words to say it.
The best credit cards offer a ton of miles, in a good program, with low/no costs. A good program is based on fees and prices. So when you make your credit card decisions, make sure you’re keeping both of those factors in mind.