With so many changes to airline mile award prices in recent years, and banks escalating what they pay in rewards, are miles or cash back a better bet for rewards on domestic flights? While using travel rewards for international flights often offers the most value, 88% of airline passengers in the U.S. are flying on domestic trips according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
MileCards.com ranked 38 travel rewards cards with points that can be used for domestic flights, including the primary airline mile cards of the 5 largest airlines, along with the bank point rewards cards from the 10 largest banks.
We ranked the travel rewards cards vs cash back using our recent study looking at actual award redemption prices for over 100,000 domestic award flights on the 100 most popular routes for award travel with the 5 largest airlines (Alaska, American, Delta, United, Southwest). Then we used Bureau of Labor Statistics data for average household category spending in common credit card categories to estimate how many points each card earns, and combined that with the award flight data to estimate flight awards earned over 3 years.
We factored both the number of points needed for an award in each mile and point program, and how fast each card earns points from spending, including special bonus categories. We benchmarked against a no annual fee 2% cash back card, such as the Citi Double Cash, which earns $1,687 in cash rewards over a 3 year period.
|Card||Flight Value Earned Over 3 Years|
|Barclaycard Arrival Plus||$2,104|
|Amex Everyday Preferred||$2,074|
|Chase Sapphire Preferred||$2,027|
|Chase Sapphire Reserve||$1,983|
|Capital One Venture||$1,969|
|U.S. Bank Altitude Reserve||$1,915|
|U.S. Bank FlexPerks Gold American Express||$1,899|
|U.S. Bank FlexPerks Travel Rewards Visa Signature||$1,865|
|Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier||$1,831|
|PNC Premier Traveler Visa Signature||$1,817|
|Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus||$1,787|
|Cash Back - 2%||$1,687|
Flight value earned based on 3 year flight value earned, less annual fees paid, plus annual travel credits. Award prices were based on a MileCards.com study of over 100,000 award prices on the most popular routes for award bookings in the U.S.
To calculate rewards points earned, card spending of $2,345 per month was used, and is based on average household expenditures reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in categories typically eligible for credit card purchases, and excluding categories such as housing payments and vehicle purchases. Bonus categories were factored when applicable.
11 of the 38 travel rewards cards ranked came out ahead of a no annual fee 2% cash back card for domestic flight rewards when factoring annual fees.
And three significantly outperformed.
The Barclaycard Arrival Plus works similar to a cash back card, with points that can reimburse any travel purchase made with the card. It earns 2x points on all spending, and offers a 5% rebate of points with every redemption, giving it a slight edge over similar cards. A large 50,000 point intro bonus worth over $500 in travel gives it a big head start.
The Amex Everyday Preferred and Chase Sapphire Preferred earn transferable points that can turn into real airline miles, as well as an option to use points like cash toward travel. The Sapphire Preferred’s ability to transfer points to Southwest Rapid Rewards, and the Amex Everyday Preferred’s ability to transfer points to Delta SkyMiles give them superior value for domestic flights.
With the Sapphire Preferred, a flight on Southwest costs 13,722 points on average on the routes studied, while with the Amex Everyday Preferred, transferring to Delta nets flights for 27,871 points on average. The Everyday Preferred benefits from earning 1.5x points on all spending when the card is used for 30 or more transactions in a billing period.
These cards also offer the possibility for savvy users to get even greater value by using other transfer partners, especially for international flights.
If you’re looking for domestic flight awards, sticking to a single airline card isn’t a good bet unless you fly enough to cover the annual fee with bag fee waivers or other perks. And even then, you’re often better off putting your spending on a different card.
Two things put airline cards at a disadvantage. First, most only earn a basic 1 mile per dollar spent with few bonus categories like dining or groceries. Second, excluding Southwest, the average price of a domestic award in miles is a high 37,332 miles round trip.
The American Airlines Barclaycard AAdvantage Aviator Red was the lowest ranked card in our study.
An average domestic award costs 47,017 miles with American AAdvantage, and when factoring annual fees the card earns just $669 in reward value toward domestic flights over 3 years. Traditional airline miles are generally a better value for international than domestic flights.
Southwest is the exception. With a generous sign on bonus and anniversary bonuses, plus very low prices of 13,722 points on average for a round trip flight, the flight value from its two credit cards, the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier, and Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus from Chase, beat a basic 2% cash back card.
When travel rewards are involved, an annual fee can pay off. All of the cards that came out ahead of a 2% cash back card carry an annual fee.
But for consumers who want to pay no annual fee, a 2% cash back card like the CIti Double Cash is usually a better bet than using a travel rewards card for domestic flight awards.
The Discover It Miles, with a generous first year offer that effectively offers 3x points on all spending, is the only no annual fee travel rewards card that matches a 2% cash back card for earning power.
Bank of America customers with high account balances can also get better than 2% rewards via the Bank of America Travel Rewards card using Bank of America’s Preferred Rewards program.
It’s important to take into consideration personal spending habits when evaluating a card. For people who spend more than the average $3,008 a year on dining away from home, a card with a 2x or 3x bonus on dining like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Reserve can outshine the Barclaycard Arrival Plus.
For example, a consumer who spends $6,000 a year on dining could earn $2,252 in flight awards net of fees over 3 years with a Chase Sapphire Reserve versus $2,104 with a Barclaycard Arrival Plus.
While our study used the average spending habits by category reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, using a calculator that calculates card rewards based on personal spending habits, like this on on MileCards.com, can help give a better sense of which cards will outperform.
Points and flight value earned over a 3 year period
|Card||Type||Flight Value Earned (3 years)||Average miles needed for a domestic roundtrip||Points earned (3 years)||No annual fee|
|Barclaycard Arrival Plus||Cash for travel||$2,104||33,734||228,448||-|
|Amex Everyday Preferred - Delta transfer||Transferable points||$2,074||27,871||187,202||-|
|Chase Sapphire Preferred - Southwest transfer||Transferable points||$2,027||13,722||148,411||-|
|Chase Sapphire Reserve - Book via Chase||Transferable points||$1,983||22,489||162,380||-|
|Chase Sapphire Reserve - Southwest transfer||Transferable points||$1,976||13,722||162,380||-|
|Capital One Venture||Cash for travel||$1,969||33,734||208,882||-|
|U.S. Bank Altitude Reserve||Cash for travel||$1,915||22,489||142,787|
|U.S. Bank FlexPerks Gold American Express||Cash for travel||$1,899||20,000||122,798||-|
|U.S. Bank FlexPerks Travel Rewards Visa Signature||Cash for travel||$1,865||20,000||116,486||-|
|Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier||Airline miles||$1,831||13,722||142,441||-|
|PNC Premier Traveler Visa Signature||Cash for travel||$1,817||33,734||198,882||-|
|Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus||Airline miles||$1,787||13,722||133,441||-|
|Discover it Miles||Cash for travel||$1,687||33,734||168,882||X|
|Cash Back - 2%||Cash back||$1,687||33,734||168,882||X|
|Amex Everyday Preferred - Book via Amex||Transferable points||$1,680||33,734||187,202||-|
|Chase Sapphire Preferred - Book via Chase||Transferable points||$1,663||26,987||148,411||-|
|First National Bank TraveElite American Express||Cash for travel||$1,598||33,734||160,008||X|
|U.S. Bank FlexPerks Select+ American Express||Cash for travel||$1,591||20,000||94,441||X|
|Amex Everyday - Delta transfer||Transferable points||$1,521||27,871||125,783||X|
|American Express Premier Rewards Gold - Delta transfer||Transferable points||$1,498||27,871||139,639||-|
|Merrill+ Credit Card||Cash for travel||$1,475||25,000||109,441||X|
|Bank of America Travel Rewards||Cash for travel||$1,465||33,734||146,662||X|
|Citi ThankYou Premier Card||Cash for travel||$1,447||29,867||145,124||-|
|Wells Fargo Propel||Cash for travel||$1,432||25,301||114,238||-|
|Starwood Preferred Guest American Express - Delta transfer||Transferable points||$1,423||22,871||109,441||-|
|TD First Class Visa Signature||Cash for travel||$1,372||33,734||137,380||X|
|PenFed Platinum Rewards Visa||Cash for travel||$1,335||33,734||133,611||X|
|Citi Prestige||Cash for travel||$1,294||25,364||142,584||-|
|Starwood Preferred Guest American Express - Book via SPG||Transferable points||$1,285||25,000||109,441||-|
|SunTrust Travel Rewards||Cash for travel||$1,275||33,734||127,584||X|
|Wells Fargo Propel 365 American Express||Cash for travel||$1,266||33,734||126,778||X|
|Wells Fargo Rewards||Cash for travel||$1,265||22,489||84,441||X|
|Amex Everyday - Book via Amex||Transferable points||$1,257||33,734||125,783||X|
|Capital One Venture One||Cash for travel||$1,254||33,734||125,551||X|
|Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card||Airline miles||$1,254||27,871||119,441||-|
|Blue Sky from American Express||Cash for travel||$1,225||25,301||91,941||X|
|Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card||Airline miles||$1,222||27,871||149,441||-|
|American Express Premier Rewards Gold - Book via Amex||Transferable points||$1,205||33,734||139,639||-|
|United MileagePlus Explorer||Airline miles||$1,110||42,613||164,441||-|
|Starwood Preferred Guest American Express - Alaska transfer||Transferable points||$1,077||29,102||109,441||-|
|PenFed Premium Travel Rewards American Express||Cash for travel||$1,043||33,734||104,441||X|
|Chase Sapphire Reserve - United transfer||Transferable points||$1,016||37,339||162,380||-|
|Chase Sapphire Preferred - United transfer||Transferable points||$984||42,613||148,411||-|
|Alaska Airlines Visa||Airline miles||$906||34,102||114,441||-|
|Cash Back - 1%||Cash back||$844||33,734||84,441||X|
|Starwood Preferred Guest American Express - American transfer||Transferable points||$732||40,000||109,441||-|
|The Platinum Card from American Express - Book via Amex||Transferable points||$693||33,734||144,441||-|
|Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select||Airline miles||$693||47,017||123,163||-|
|Barclaycard AAdvantage Aviator Red||Airline miles||$669||47,017||133,163|
Flight value earned based on 3 year flight value earned, less annual fees paid, plus annual travel credits. Award prices were based on a MileCards.com study of over 100,000 award prices on the most popular routes for award bookings in the U.S. from March 1 – October 31, 2017 with the following average roundtrip prices for each airline program:
Alaska: 34,102 miles
American: 47,017 miles
Delta: 27,871 miles
Southwest: 13,722 miles
United: 42,613 miles
To calculate total flight value, the average roundtrip airfare in our study of popular award routes of $337 was used, and for options that only use Southwest points, the value per ticket reflects the average airfare on Southwest routes studied of $205.
To calculate rewards points earned, card spending of $2,345 per month was used, and is based on average household expenditures