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These are the airline credit cards with miles that never expire

CNBC Select reviewed the airline credit cards with travel rewards that won't expire as long as you are actively using your account and making payments on time.

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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.

Miles and points expiration terms by airline

Airline When points expire
Alaska Airlines2 years from last account activity
American Airlines 18 months from the date of your most recent activity
DeltaMiles never expire
Frontier Airlines180 days or 6 months from last account activity
Hawaiian Airlines 18 months from last account activity
JetBluePoints never expire
SouthwestPoints never expire, unless you close your account
UnitedMiles never expire

As you can see, just a few airlines — Delta, JetBlue and United — guarantee that their points do not expire. Southwest also has never-expiring points, given that your account remains open. 

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.

Best airline credit cards with points that don't expire

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:

AirlineDeltaJetBlueSouthwest AirlinesUnited
Credit cardDelta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express CardDelta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express CardJetBlue Plus CardJetBlue Plus CardSouthwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit CardSouthwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit CardUnited℠ Explorer CardUnited℠ Explorer Card
Annual fee$250$99$149$0 first year, then $95
RewardsEarn 3 miles per dollar spent at hotels, 3 miles per dollar spent on Delta purchases, 2 miles per dollar spent at restaurants, 2 miles per dollar spent at U.S. supermarkets, and 1 mile per dollar on all other eligible purchases6X points on every $1 spent on JetBlue purchases; 2X points at restaurants and grocery stores; 1X points on all other purchases2X points on every $1 spent on Southwest purchases; 1X points on all other purchases2X miles per $1 spent on United purchases; 2X miles per $1 spent at restaurants and hotels; 1X miles earned on every $1 spent on all other purchases
Welcome bonusEarn 40,000 bonus miles and 5,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $2,000 in purchases on your new card in your first three months. Plus, earn a $100 statement credit after you make a Delta purchase with your new card within your first three months40,000 bonus points after you spend $1,000 in the first 90 days and pay the annual feeEarn 65,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open60,000 bonus miles after you make $3,000 in purchases in the first three months from account opening
See our methodology belowLearn MoreOn American Express's secure siteLearn MoreInformation about the JetBlue Plus Card has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.Learn MoreOn Chase's secure siteLearn MoreOn Chase's secure site

While the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card comes with the highest annual fee (at $250), it is a good choice for Delta loyalists who understand the ins and outs of the airline's frequent flier rewards program. New cardmembers earn 40,000 bonus miles and 5,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $2,000 in purchases on your new card in your first three months. Plus, earn a $100 statement credit after you make a Delta purchase with your new card within your first three months. And now, with Status Boost™, you can earn 10,000 MQMs after you spend $25,000 in purchases on your card in a calendar year, up to two times per year, getting you closer to Medallion Status.

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 JetBlue purchases, 2X points at restaurants and 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 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 is not quite as robust as the others: Cardmembers earn 2X points per every $1 spent on Southwest flights. However there is a welcome bonus of 65,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first three months your account is open —  not to mention four priority boarding upgrades per calendar year, 20% rebate on in-flight purchases and no foreign transaction fees.

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, as well as at restaurants and hotels booked through the hotel's website. All other purchases earn 1X miles per $1 spent. Plus, there's a welcome bonus: Earn 60,000 bonus miles after you make $3,000 in purchases in the first three months from account opening.

Learn more: Read a full breakdown of our best airline credit cards.

Our methodology

To determine which cards will put the most money back in your pocket, CNBC 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.

CNBC 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. CNBC 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 CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer prior to publication.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the CNBC Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.