Credit Cards The Basics

Best Credit Cards for Domestic Award Travel – Part 1

Best Credit Cards Domestic Award Travel
Written by Charlie

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I get questions from people all the time concerning what is the best card for miles and points. The correct answer is that there is no “best” card for miles and points. The term “best credit card” is very subjective depending on the consumer, spending habits, travel plans, travel habits, etc. Most bloggers prefer the Chase Sapphire Preferred as the best all-around consumer card. I love that card as well, but I also recognize that there are other people that have different things they want out of a card. I want to help break it down a little bit to help people based on the type of travel they are wanting to do, especially for the runner to identify which card they should get to help them in their race travel.

Best Credit Cards for Domestic Award Travel

Thoughts about Domestic Award Travel

Before we pick the best credit cards for domestic award travel, there are a few things that I would like to explain.

For airline award travel in the US on the legacy airlines (American Airlines, Delta Airlines, United Airlines, and US Airways), you will need 25,000 award miles for a round-trip ticket (with a couple of exceptions). As a result of that number, it is important to know that you will have enough miles from the Chase Sapphire Preferred to get one award ticket and be just shy of the second ticket. That is the same with many mile earning cards – the miles they give for signing up are enough for one ticket but not quite enough for two.

For domestic award travel, miles are not always the best reward currency to use since it is hard to get the same type of value out of your miles that you could with international travel. For example, it takes 60,000 United miles (transferred at 1:1 from Ultimate Rewards) to get a round-trip ticket to Europe from the US. When I use those miles for a trip like that, I am getting a value of at least 2.2 cents per mile based on the price I would have to pay anyway (this is actual value since this is a trip I would need to go on and these miles are for coach). To get that same type of value on a domestic ticket, the trip would have to cost $550! It is hard to find a ticket in the US that costs that much (though I have seen tickets for the Fargo Marathon come close to that).

For that reason, I like to keep my miles saved for international trips. I realize that not everyone has plans or desire to travel internationally so only plan on using their miles for domestic travel. Though that is fine to do (they are “your” miles and points – you can use them however you want, even when others think it is a bad idea 🙂 ), there are other cards that are better to use for those domestic awards than the Chase Sapphire Preferred.

My Picks for Best Credit Cards for Domestic Award Travel – #1

These picks may be a bit surprising given how lucrative some of the mainstream credit card offers are, but I will show you why these are my picks and what type of value you can extract from them. Both of these cards earn points (miles) that can be redeemed at fixed values – that means that you will get a particular value for the points no matter what type of ticket you use them on. This helps to be able to put a value on the card offer presented as well as knowing what type of travel you can get from the card.

Southwest Airlines Credit Cards – Personal Premier and/or Personal Plus

Best Credit Cards Domestic Award Travel

These two cards offer 50,000 Southwest Airlines Rapid Reward points as a sign-up bonus and they offer this amount a couple of times during the year. Other times, they sit at the lower 25,000 point level. Southwest claims these points are worth a maximum of $833 per card (so, 50,000 Rapid Reward points would be worth a max of $833). While that is legally true, that is not technically true because of the taxes that are eliminated when booking with points.

Southwest Airline Point Value

With a couple of examples I have tried, those 50,000 points can actually be worth over $900! This is because of how the taxes are structured on a paid ticket vs award ticket (the award tickets only charge a $5 fee which I deduct from the actual ticket cost to calculate the value of the points). When I booked my trip to Washington, I actually received almost 2 cents per point instead of the 1.8 cents per point I was finding in my examples. Realistically, you could expect to get at least $900 of actual ticket value from one sign-up bonus of 50,000 Rapid Reward points.

Best Credit Cards Domestic Award Travel

The cost of our sample ticket with cash purchase

Best Credit Cards for Domestic Award Trave

Cost of the same ticket when purchased with points

I know, that can be very confusing! As a numbers person, I love to get in and work with them to find the values of everything. I realize not everyone is like that but I do like to put that information here as well for the people who have to understand it all before they will make a move – I know many of those people personally so like to satisfy all readers! 🙂

Here is an easy version: If you sign-up for a Southwest Airlines credit card, you will receive 50,000 Rapid Reward points (Southwest Airlines award currency). These points have a fixed value – this means that the value of the points is tied directly to the ticket cost. So, if a ticket costs $400, you would expect to need to use around 22,000 Southwest points. If the ticket cost $98, you would expect to pay around 5,400 Southwest points.

That is a huge difference from using something like United miles where it would cost you 25,000 miles for either ticket. With Southwest Airlines, you can book a ticket with points even if it is the last ticket. This is different again from something like United where their award seats are capacity controlled. For more information on Southwest Airlines and their program, check this post (including information on the Companion Pass – Southwest Airlines Credit Cards

Reasons to apply for Southwest Airline card(s) instead of Chase Sapphire Preferred, American Airline, Delta Airline, or United Airline cards for domestic award travel

  • The value of the sign-up bonus is significantly higher with Southwest – $900 vs $500 of value from these other cards
  • Southwest points can be used to book a seat even if there is only one seat left on the plane – award miles with other airlines work with capacity controlled tickets
  • Southwest Airline points allow you to book award tickets on cheap tickets at lower point prices than other airline prices – I have obtained round-trip tickets on Southwest for 4,000 points when it would cost 25,000 with American, Delta, United, or US Airways

For the runner who is only interested in traveling domestically for races (or really anything), if your home airport is served by Southwest Airlines, it is a lot better of a value to apply for Southwest Airline credit cards vs other airline co-branded cards.

Why the Southwest cards over the Chase Sapphire Preferred?

The Chase Sapphire Preferred offers a sign-up bonus of 40,000 Ultimate Reward points. These points can be transferred to many travel partners or can be used towards travel through the Ultimate Rewards travel portal. When they are used like that, those 40,000 points are actually worth $500 since they count as 1.25 cents per point towards travel. That is a great deal. However, with the Southwest points, you are receiving between 1.6 cents per point and 1.9 cents per point. On the face of it, you are receiving a lot more value from your Southwest points when traveling on Southwest. On top of that, I just prefer to instead transfer my Ultimate Reward points to United to use for international redemptions. As a result, I view the Chase Sapphire Preferred to be a inferior card for someone who only wishes to do domestic travel when Southwest Airlines can serve the cities needed for travel.

Southwest Airlines Personal Premier Card – 50,000 Points after $2,000 Spend in 3 months –application link (I do not receive a commission)

Southwest Airlines Personal Plus Card – 50,000 Points after $2,000 Spend in 3 months – application link (I do not receive a commission)

Editorial Note - Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, hotel, airline, or other entity. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of the entities included within the post.

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About the author

Charlie

Charlie has been an avid traveler and runner for many years. He has run in marathons around the world for less than it would cost to travel to the next town - all as a result of collecting and using miles and points. Over the years, he has flown hundreds of thousands of miles and collected millions of miles and points.
Now he uses this experience and knowledge to help others through Running with Miles.

3 Comments

  • […] Yesterday, I started Part 1 of Best Credit Cards for Domestic Award Travel by discussing some thoughts on the valuations of points and miles and what makes for a good card to get for use on domestic award travel. I wrote a lot about it so make sure you go back and read yesterday’s post to get my thoughts on it before we head into my 2nd pick for the best credit card for domestic award travel. […]

  • Seems like the post ignores the fact that UR points also transfer to Southwest points. Obviously, the signup bonus is higher on the Southwest card, but the CSP has dining and travel bonus categories that could make the card more lucrative than the SW card.

    • Yes, it’s true that there are bonus categories for the Sapphire Preferred but the point of the post is to suggest what is the best card for domestic travel. Given that UR transfers to United and you can only get the bonus once, it would make the Sapphire Preferred a better card for international travel (even after the devaluation).

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