Selecting an Airline Miles Card

Like The Points Guy says: “There’s a reason that dozens of all-encompassing, detailed resources exist for maximizing points and miles: this is a complicated hobby. If you’re new to all this, you’re withstanding the proverbial fire hose of information and trying to navigate potential pitfalls and mistakes — which probably feel like they’re everywhere.”  It’s true; there is an obscene amount of information and complicated programs to wrap your mind around.   I know a few data analysts that are constantly juggling about 70 cards at a time to maximize their points and rewards but that almost becomes another Job.  Let this post be a starter guide to getting travel rewards, not an all-encompassing manual to points hacking.  For that you should check out The Points Guy. 


It’s really important to consider a number of factors before making a decision on what card(s) to apply for.  Many companies try to dangle something that seems like a large up-front benefit to you in exchange for the long-term gain they stand to make.  These are usually department store credit cards financed by a monster like HSBC.  I’ve seen everything from: “$70 off the {{retargeted item}} when you sign up for financing” to “Take 15% off on your first order after opening a {{store}} credit card” all the way to the insulting “Free soft-drink with a {{store}} credit card sign-up”.  


When doing your research you will want to find a card that has a decent rate, acceptable annual fee, and recurring perks that you can use.  Cards that seem to hit all three of these are closely affiliated with another company, whether that is an airline, or major online distribution platform.  

You can think of points as foreign cash currencies, just like the Euro or the Yen.  You can buy the same things with different currencies but each has a different purchasing power parity.  Some companies call them miles, some call them points, and some call them something dumb that I’m not even going to acknowledge here.  But the takeaway is that they are not all the same value, and to dive into exactly how much really gets into the weeds, but keep this idea fresh in your mind. 

The Points Guy has a system for evaluating them based on what it were to cost if he paid USD to purchase additional points.

Using this system, the United points are worth 1.4¢ per mile and Alaska’s worth 1.9¢.  This is useful information for evaluating how much your miles bank is worth, but not for picking cards because the rate at which you accrue miles is different for each card.  These valuations are extremely useful for determining the cash value of the points that you want to redeem and is helpful for comparing when to use points vs when to just pay in cash and accrue new miles. 

On that note, there are a few times where it is almost always better to use cash instead of points.  Those are: Very short flights, most domestic travel, or when the value of the flight is much lower than the cost to redeem in points.

I’m a huge fan of airline cards.  If you have to travel for work you can get the miles on your card and expense it (depending on your company’s travel policy).  If you travel for work it may also be possible to land status benefits for traveling with your preferred airline, but you shouldn’t go out of your way to spend personal resources to achieve this.  Even if you don’t use the card regularly and you just have it for the baggage fee waiver it pays for itself in 1-2 flights.  (A typical United States domestic flight baggage charge is $25-50, and if you had planned to fly anyway but didn’t have the card that would be approximately the same rate as your annual fee.)


The United Milage Plus Explorer card is one of those that I like.  It has an annual fee of under $100 (waived the first year), gives you priority boarding, the first checked bag is waived for yourself and one companion.  They issue you two United Club passes every year on the anniversary of your card signup date.

Although the most important benefits are the miles perks.  When you use this card to purchase anything from united you will get 2x the miles, and as long as you keep the account open, your United miles never expire.  So even if your spend amount is super low you aren’t forced into a use-or-lose situation.  Unfortunately they are just about to get rid of the best promotion for this card; When you sign up for this card and spend $2,000 in the first three months on purchases they award you a bonus 40,000 miles.  (That’s about 1.3x the amount that you need for a flight from San Francisco to Europe) If you add an authorized user to the card they give you an additional 5,000 miles.  This might seem like a significant amount to spend but it’s really easy to hit that spend amount if you funnel regular everyday spending like gas or food purchases where you would normally pay cash into the card and pay it off immediately so you don’t have to pay the interest.  

The United Card offers a few other benefits that are nice but you probably won’t use much.  They provide rental car collision damage waiver (just extremely basic collision coverage), If your luggage is delayed they reimburse you for any clothing or toiletries you have to buy on the card. If the bags are lost, they will cover up to $3000 in the value of the contents, and if your flight is delayed they will cover meals/lodging/etc up to $500/ticket.


 Something that’s great about this card and a few other airline cards is that there is no international charge fee to use this card abroad.  That might seem inconsequential but it’s really adds up when traveling internationally.  If I were to use my ATM card to make a purchase I would first have to pay an international charge fee of somewhere between $5 and $25 and then the bank would convert the currency at a rate that is far from favorable for me, and then if it was an out-of-network ATM, they would charge me an ATM fee.  All of this would happen EVERY SINGLE TIME I used my card in that country.  

Using a credit card for purchases abroad is significantly safer because debit and credit cards are treated differently by consumer protection laws. Your personal liability for fraudulent charges on a credit card can't exceed $50 under federal law. But use your debit card and you could be liable for $500 or more, depending on how quickly you report it.  Credit cards are super easy to temporarily turn off, get alerts, and almost always have a 24-hour support line (which is great if you are in another timezone)

Another card I really like is the Alaska Airlines Mileage Card.  It has a similar sign-up bonus of 30,000 miles with $1,000 in purchases within 90 days of opening the account.  It offers the same free first checked bag for up to six passengers on the same reservation, no international purchase fees, and the companion fare deal (where you can add a companion once per year for $99 plus taxes and fees).  

Between the Alaska card and the United card I can get miles and fly just about everywhere with partner airlines.   Ultimately though if it’s a difference between $100 cheaper to fly another airline you don’t have a card with versus paying more just to get the miles, just go with the cheaper ticket.  


Full disclosure: While I make a few recommendations, I was not paid for or will receive any special treatment from these companies for my words here. (Call me, United 📞

Also my lawyer says that I should also mention that The information provided here should not be considered legal or financial advice. You should consult with a professional to determine what may be best for your individual needs.