Airline credit cards, mileage plans and getting the most bang for your travel buck

Loyalty plans are extremely important for travel companies. And travelers love them, too.

Everyone’s got one: the airline, the hotel, the car rental company, the credit card company, the cruise line — even the corner coffee shop.

A couple of months ago, I applied for a new credit card because I had a $10,000 purchase on the horizon. The credit card company, Chase, was offering 100,000 points, as long as I charged at least $8,000 on the new card within 90 days. There’s a $95 annual fee.

After making the purchase, the 100,000 bonus points showed up in my account. With this particular plan, Chase Ultimate Rewards, I’m able to move the points to one of several airline or hotel loyalty plans. Right now, Hyatt has a favorable exchange rate. Those 100,000 points will cover five nights at the Hotel Telegraph in Singapore, which sells for $438 per night. Or, I can cash in 90,000 points for three nights at the Hyatt Regency in Kauai. Hyatt sells the room for $847 per night.

Another particular advantage when you’re using points to pay for Hyatt: You don’t have to pay any resort fee. In Kauai, the resort fee is $55 per night.

Hyatt is not the only hotel program where you can use Chase points. You also can move them to your loyalty accounts with Intercontinental Hotel Group (IHG) or to Marriott Bonvoy.

Although I especially like the hotel redemption plan, if you have Chase points, you can move them to several airline plans: Singapore Air, Emirates, United, Virgin Atlantic, British and Air France/KLM, among others.


[Where to travel in 2024, without crowds]

Chase is not the only credit card company that has a bundle of vendors that will accept your points. American Express was first out of the gate with this concept with the Membership Rewards scheme. Choose from a suite of cards in various colors: green, gold, rose and platinum, each with their own bells and whistles. Transfer partners include Hilton Hotels and Choice Privileges (Radisson and Quality Inn). Airline partners include Hawaiian, All Nippon (ANA), Delta, Qantas, Etihad and Emirates.

If you’re a frequent flyer on Delta Air Lines, you probably already have an American Express card. American Express puts out a bunch of Delta SkyMiles cards, including the gold card, which offers 70,000 points after spending $3,000 in six months. The card is free for the first year, then $150 per year.

The American Express partnership is important to Delta. In fact, in the second quarter of 2023, Delta earned $1.7 billion in commission from American Express. That makes American Express Delta’s largest customer.

Both Chase and American Express offer cards that include airport lounge access. Not all the cards offer equal access, so you have to read the fine print. Chase includes the Priority Pass lounges, while American Express has its chain of Centurion Lounges, in addition to Delta’s SkyClubs.

Other “flexible spend” plans include Capital One’s Venture Cards, which offer a 75,000-point signup bonus. Transfer partners include Turkish Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Avianca and Air Canada. Hotel partners include Wyndham, Choice and Accor (Best Western).

For travelers who pay rent, you might consider signing up for a Bilt card. The card is designed specifically for travelers who want to earn travel rewards from their rent payments (up to $100,000 per year). You can’t earn points for mortgage payments, but points are available for when you make a down payment on a house.

Airline partners for Bilt cardholders include American Airlines, Avianca, Hawaiian Air, Turkish Airlines, United Air, Virgin Atlantic and AirFrance/KLM, among others. Hotel partners include Hyatt and Marriott Bonvoy.

There is no annual fee for the Bilt card.

The most popular credit card in Alaska is the Alaska Airlines Visa card from Bank of America. Right now, Alaska Air is offering a 70,000-mile bonus when you get a new card. There’s a $95 annual fee, and you must charge at least $3,000 in purchases within 90 days.

Included in the offer is a $99 companion fare certificate. Travelers have to pay the additional taxes on the companion ticket, which range from as little as $23 to more than $200. To receive an annual companion fare certificate after the first year, new cardholders must charge at least $6,000 on their card throughout the year.

The Bank of America Visa card program is foundational to Alaska Air’s loyalty plan — and to the airline’s profitability. In 2023, Alaska Airlines received more than $1.6 billion in commissions from the bank, which contributed to the carrier’s total 2023 revenue of $10.4 billion.

Alaska Airlines continues to award bonus miles and other benefits to cardholders and their top-tier elite travelers. For example, during 2024, you can charge your way to MVP status. There’s no registration required, so you may already be earning bonus miles.

But these bonus miles are better since they’re elite qualifying miles, or EQM. When you charge $10,000 on your credit card, you’ll receive 4,000 EQMs, up to a maximum of 20,000 EQMs. That’s enough to qualify for Alaska’s MVP status.

Alaska’s mileage plan is getting sweeter for some, but budget travelers are getting less from the airline.

Last year, Alaska Airlines began awarding fewer miles to those travelers who purchased the cheapest “Saver” fares.

Now, in addition to being the last to board (and compete for space in the overhead bins) and waiting until the last minute for an assigned seat (usually in the middle), Saver ticketholders only earn 30% of the miles flown.


Ever since the Saver, or basic economy, fares were introduced, airlines have worked hard to make them less attractive to travelers.

The Saver fares are specifically designed to be displayed online to travelers who are shopping for the best deals. Then the pitch for add-ons begins: to the main cabin or premium seats, and so forth.

[Flight deals out of Alaska are popping up where you may least expect to find them]

In addition to getting more EQMs for using a credit card, Alaska Airlines is growing its family of partner airlines. Alaska Airlines officials stated at the time the airline joined the Oneworld Alliance that the No. 1 benefit for Alaska travelers is the transferability of tier status (MVP, MVP Gold, etc.) to American Airlines.

Right now, travelers earn between 25% and 100% of actual miles flown when traveling on American. Similar earn rates apply to other Oneworld partners, including British Airways, Japan Air, Qantas and Qatar.

Alaska Airlines also has bilateral agreements with other airlines not in the Oneworld Alliance, including Condor, Icelandair and Air Tahiti Nui.

While it’s easy to earn miles, it’s important to burn them as well. That’s because your frequent flyer miles and points are worth more today than they will be tomorrow.

Using Alaska Airlines points, it’s fairly simple to score economy seats both domestically and on most partner airlines. But the best value for miles, I think, is using the points for seats in the forward cabin.


My favorite redemption right now is between Anchorage and Frankfurt on Condor. The seasonal flights to Germany start on May 18. I’m still finding business class seats (lie-flat) for 55,000 miles each way. On June 11, I couldn’t find bsiness class on the outbound nonstop. But for 55,000 miles (plus $49), you can fly Alaska Air to Portland in first class. Then, after a 9-hour, 24-minute layover, you can relax in a lie-flat seat over to Frankfurt.

On a return trip for June 18, no business class seats were available on the nonstop back to Anchorage. But the premium economy seats were, for 45,000 miles (plus $177). These are not lie-flat seats, but they’re much nicer than the economy seats, with extra legroom.

Another sweet spot for trips to Europe is using Air Tahiti Nui’s nonstop from Seattle to Paris. On June 26, fly from Anchorage to Seattle with Alaska Airlines and wait for 7 hours and 6 minutes. Then fly Air Tahiti Nui to Paris in premium economy for 45,000 miles. Return seats are available in premium on July 14.

Availability for award seats changes frequently. It’s one thing to collect a variety of bonus miles by flying around and charging a bunch of stuff on credit cards. It takes some special skill to dig deep for those premium award seats. But when it comes together, it’s a key ingredient for a great holiday.

Scott McMurren

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based marketing consultant, serving clients in the transportation, hospitality, media and specialty destination sectors, among others. Contact him by email at Subscribe to his e-newsletter at For more information, visit