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Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced millions of Americans to shelter in place, many people are reconsidering their travel rewards credit cards. In response, many premier travel card issuers (including Amex, Chase, Citi and Capital One) have updated their rewards programs to offer limited-time redemptions on groceries, streaming and takeout.
Likewise, cobranded hotel loyalty cards, like The World of Hyatt Credit Card and most Marriott Bonvoy cards, have modified their promotions to temporarily allow both existing and new customers to boost their loyalty status faster under these new conditions.
But what about airline credit card miles? Usually, most airline credit card miles expire within a few months to two years. But there are a few airlines with points that never expire.
Below, CNBC Select breaks down each airline's credit card point expiration policy, and we share our top picks to add to your wallet.
As you can see, just a few airlines — Delta, JetBlue and United — guarantee that their points do not expire. Southwest points also don't expire as long as your account remains open and in good standing.
Alaska Airlines' two-year expiration policy is also quite generous. If you frequently travel in the Pacific Northwest, you may want to consider this as a viable option during an era when airline travel is so uncertain. Alaska Airlines' major hubs include Anchorage, Los Angeles, Portland, Oregon, San Francisco and Seattle.
While the travel industry rebounds and reimagines how we use our most trusted credit cards, consumers will be glad to have an airline card with flexible travel rewards.
We picked our top four flexible airline credit cards from the list above, and here are the best of the bunch:
- Best for Delta: Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card
- Best for JetBlue: JetBlue Plus Card
- Best for Southwest Airlines: Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card
- Best for United Airlines: United℠ Explorer Card
While the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card comes with the highest annual fee at $250 (see rates and fees), it is a good choice for Delta loyalists who understand the ins and outs of the airline's frequent flier rewards program. New card members can earn 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 6 months. Terms apply.
Of the cards on this list, JetBlue Plus Card cardholders earn the highest rewards rate on airline purchases: Earn 6X points for every $1 spent on eligible JetBlue purchases, 2X points at restaurants and eligible grocery stores and 1X points on everything else. What gives this card a leg up on other airlines is you get a 10% rebate on all the TrueBlue points you redeem. So if you redeem 20,000 TrueBlue points for a qualifying flight, you'll get 2,000 points back.
If you frequently fly Southwest, the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card is worth considering for its $75 Southwest statement credit and 7,500 bonus points you earn each account anniversary. Its reward program recently got a revamp: Cardmembers earn 3X points per every $1 spent on Southwest flights, 2X points on local transit and commuting, including rideshare, 2X points on internet, cable, phone services and select streaming and 1X points on all other eligible purchases.
Plus, there is a welcome bonus: earn 50,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.
Finally, United lovers will benefit most from the United℠ Explorer Card, which offers a variety of benefits, including one-time airport lounge access twice per year. Cardholders earn 2X miles per $1 spent on United® purchases; 2X miles per $1 spent on dining (including eligible delivery services) and hotel stays; 1X miles earned on every $1 spent on all other purchases.
Plus, there's a welcome bonus: 60,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.
To determine which cards will put the most money back in your pocket, Select evaluated popular rewards credit cards offered by major banks, financial companies and credit unions that allow anyone to join and offer bonus rewards on airline-related purchases. We compared each card on a range of features, including travel rewards (points and miles), annual fee, welcome bonus, introductory and standard APR, one-time perks, annual perks, redemption rates, as well as factors such as required credit and customer reviews when available.
Select teamed up with location intelligence firm Esri. The company's data development team provided the most up-to-date and comprehensive consumer spending data based on the 2019 Consumer Expenditure Surveys from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. You can read more about their methodology here.
Esri's data team created a sample annual budget of approximately $22,126 in retail spending. The budget includes six main categories: groceries ($5,174), gas ($2,218), dining out ($3,675), travel ($2,244), utilities ($4,862) and general purchases ($3,953). General purchases include items such as housekeeping supplies, clothing, personal care products, prescription drugs and vitamins, and other vehicle expenses. Select used this budget to compare cards that reward specific purchases and estimate how many rewards the average consumer might earn.
We then estimated how much the average consumer could earn in rewards (in the case of airlines cards, it's usually "points" or "miles") over the course of a year, two years and five years, assuming they would attempt to maximize their rewards potential by earning all welcome bonuses offered and using the card for all applicable purchases.
Our final picks are weighted heavily toward the highest five-year returns, since it's generally wise to hold onto a credit card for years. This method also avoids giving an unfair advantage to cards with large welcome bonuses.
While the five-year estimates we've included are derived from a budget similar to the average American's spending, you may earn a higher or lower return depending on your travel habits.
Information about the JetBlue Plus Card has been collected independently by Select and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer prior to publication.
For rates and fees for the Delta SkyMiles Platinum American Express Card, click here