[CNBC, GETTY IMAGES]
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 Airlines||2 years from last account activity|
|American Airlines||18 months from the date of your most recent activity|
|Delta||Miles never expire|
|Frontier Airlines||180 days or 6 months from last account activity|
|Hawaiian Airlines||18 months from last account activity|
|JetBlue||Points never expire|
|Southwest||Points never expire, unless you close your account|
|United||Miles 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 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
Compare features between cards
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 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 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 40,000 bonus miles after you make $2,000 in purchases in the first three months from account opening.
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.
By Megan DeMatteo