Airline Credit Card vs. Flexible Points: Which One is Best?

Earning airline miles, hotel points and flexible points helps travelers save money when booking trips. There are dozens of travel rewards credit cards to choose from, so it can be challenging for people to decide between an airline credit card and flexible points cards. Both types of rewards cards have a lot to offer, but they also have downsides. Here’s how to choose the best travel credit card to match your goals.

What Is an Airline Credit Card?

An airline credit card is a rewards credit card that earns airline miles for a specific airline. These cards also offer exclusive benefits for cardholders when flying that airline, which typically mimics elite status perks. These benefits may include the first checked bag free, priority boarding, discounts on in-flight purchases and more. Some airline credit cards can also accelerate your path to elite status based on your annual spending.

Airline credit cards typically have different price points ranging from no annual fee to several hundred dollars per year. Typically, as the price increases, you’ll earn higher rewards and receive additional benefits.

Premium versions of these cards may also include a complimentary airline lounge membership for an annual fee that is lower than buying the membership directly. For example, the United Club Infinite Card has an annual fee of $525 and includes complimentary entrance to the United Club lounges for the cardholder and their eligible travel companions. By comparison, purchasing a United Club lounge membership costs $550 to $650 (depending on elite status) and includes access for just the member.

[Read: Best Airline Credit Cards.]

What Is a Flexible Points Credit Card?

A flexible points credit card is a card that earns points from an issuer rather than a hotel or airline loyalty program. These travel rewards credit cards are not affiliated with a specific program, which makes them ideal for people who are looking for the best travel deal rather than focusing on a single brand.

Flexible points have multiple redemption options, including booking travel through the issuer’s travel portal, getting cash back or a statement credit, online shopping and more. Most flexible points programs also have a dozen or more airline and hotel transfer partners. However, Wells Fargo just launched the ability to transfer points to partners in April 2024, and it has just one hotel and five airline options — but the bank says more are coming soon. When you transfer points to these programs, the rewards combine with your existing miles and points balances so you can book an award reservation sooner.

Banks also offer multiple versions of flexible points credit cards with annual fees ranging from $0 to almost $700. The earning power, category bonuses, annual fees, benefits and other features vary among issuers and which card you choose. While these cards don’t offer specific airline or hotel benefits, they offer a range of general travel perks and protections. For example, you may receive an annual credit for travel spending, airport lounge access and protections that include trip delay, baggage insurance and rental car protection.

Before paying a higher annual fee, make sure that you’ll get at least that much value from the card in order to justify paying the fee.

Are Points and Miles the Same?

While many travelers use the terms points and miles interchangeably when referring to travel rewards, they aren’t the same. Points generally mean the rewards earned from a hotel credit card such as the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card or a flexible rewards credit card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. Miles usually mean the rewards earned from an airline credit card, like the United? Explorer Card.

However, some airlines and banks confuse consumers by switching these terms up themselves. Rewards earned from Southwest and JetBlue airline loyalty programs are points, while rewards earned from Capital One Venture cards and Spark Miles cards are miles.

The major difference between the two is that airline miles are generally redeemed for booking flights, while flexible points have multiple options. Flexible points can be turned into cash back, statement credits, gift cards, online shopping and more. Most flexible points programs also have airline and hotel partners where you can convert rewards into airline miles or hotel points.

[Read: Best Rewards Credit Cards.]

Which One Is Worth More?

The value of airline miles and flexible points varies by program and how they are redeemed. Typically, airline miles are more valuable than points earned by hotel credit cards, and flexible points have the highest value. Flexible points are often the most coveted rewards because they can be used in many different ways, including transferring to airline and hotel partners to book award travel.

How to Calculate the Value of Points and Miles

The value of miles and points varies based on how they are redeemed. Most people consider it a good redemption if you can get more than the average value. However, the best redemptions are the ones you’re happy with. Remember that airline miles and hotel points typically decline in value over time as those loyalty programs update pricing to book award flights and hotel rooms.

Before redeeming your travel rewards, perform a simple calculation to determine the value of the redemption you’re considering. This will help you decide whether you should redeem them now or save them for another time.

For flights, you’ll take the cash price of the airline ticket and divide it by the number of miles required. To get the best possible answer, you should also subtract any taxes and fees that the airline charges for booking the award flight. For example, airlines typically charge a $5.60 fee for each direction you’re traveling on a domestic flight. A $300 flight that costs 15,000 miles has a value of 2 cents per mile, which is a good value for almost any airline loyalty program.

When booking a hotel award, you should add taxes and fees to the list price of the hotel room to get a total cash price. Divide that total by the number of hotel points required to book the room. For example, a hotel room that costs $325 (including taxes) or 40,000 points has an award value of 0.8125 cent per point. This redemption is a solid value for Hilton and IHG hotels, but it is a subpar value for Marriott and Hyatt hotels.

How to Choose Your Card

Choosing between an airline credit card and a flexible points card is easier once you narrow down what rewards and perks are most important to you. While these cards may have some crossover, benefits from airline credit cards tend to focus on the issuing airline, while flexible points card benefits are more general in nature.

Anthony Losanno, a travel expert at The Bulkhead Seat, says, “The decision between airline credit cards and flexible points cards varies by traveler. Those with elite status might find the benefits useless or lessened on an airline card if they’re already getting the perks with their status.”

[Read: Best Cash Back Credit Cards.]

Who Needs an Airline Credit Card?

Airline credit cards are best for travelers who want to focus on earning airline miles and receiving perks when they fly. These cards typically earn extra miles when buying flights or upgrades and paying fees with that airline. They may also include exclusive benefits that mimic elite status, such as free checked bags, priority boarding and in-flight discounts.

Moli Aggarwal, a credit card expert at Maple Miles, says that an airline credit card’s perks have more value in the long run. “An airline-specific credit card provides benefits when flying with that airline, such as a free checked bag, lounge access or any form of priority service,” Aggarwal says. “Flexible points cards might offer travel credits to buy those services directly. However, those credits might only cover one or two round-trip flights. An airline credit card extends its benefits to every flight taken with the airline.”

When you fly on one airline regularly, having that airline’s credit card can help you earn miles faster. Plus, you can save money and time by taking advantage of the card’s perks. Depending on the airline and credit card, you may be able to achieve elite status more quickly based on your spending.

Who Needs a Flexible Points Credit Card?

Flexible points credit cards are best for travelers who aren’t loyal to a specific airline. They want to find the best deal or departure time when searching for flights, even if it means flying on different airlines each time they travel. These travel rewards credit cards offer multiple redemption options, including getting cash back, buying gift cards, booking travel and more.

Losanno argues that their “flexibility is the greatest advantage. Being able to transfer to a host of airline and hotel partners has tremendous value.”

Transferring points to airline and hotel partners is also common with flexible points credit cards. Most programs have more than a dozen transfer partners to choose from. This benefit makes it easier to find award availability for flights and hotel rooms to match your needs versus an airline credit card, which only earns miles in one airline loyalty program.

[Read: Best Hotel Credit Cards.]

Card Comparison

Credit card annual fees, redemption options and benefits vary widely based on the issuing bank and associated loyalty program. Additionally, travel rewards credit cards with higher annual fees tend to offer higher earning power, additional redemption options and more valuable perks.

This chart highlights the main differences between airline credit cards and flexible points credit cards.

Airline Credit Cards Flexible Points Credit Cards
Annual Fees Starting at $0 Starting at $0
Best Redemption Options Flights, upgrades Travel, cash back, transfer to airlines and hotels
Potential Benefits Free checked bags, priority boarding, in-flight discounts, lounge access, elite status Annual credits, travel protections, lounge access, flexible redemption options

Should You Get Both?

Many travelers choose to have both airline credit cards and travel rewards credit cards in their wallets. This allows them to get the best of both worlds by having access to the earning power, redemption options, benefits and other features of both types of cards. When you don’t want to fly a particular airline, you still have flexibility in redeeming rewards with your flexible points card.

When comparing which flexible points cards to get, seek out travel rewards cards whose points transfer to your preferred airline. This allows you to combine rewards to book award travel more quickly. Plus, the benefits from the airline credit card may be able to save money on baggage fees and in-flight purchases or get you on the plane faster with priority boarding. Either card may also include airport lounge access, travel protections and other benefits that improve your travel experience.

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Airline Credit Card vs. Flexible Points: Which One is Best? originally appeared on

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