Score cheap flights with these credit cards for budget airlines

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In a Nutshell

A credit card from a budget airline, such as the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card or JetBlue Card, could help you earn cheap flights. Just be aware that some budget airlines don’t put a premium on comfort.

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Credit card rewards aren’t always about flying first class or staying at luxury hotels. In some cases, they can help you score cheap fights with your preferred low-cost airline.

Perhaps you’ve heard of premium travel credit cards like Chase Sapphire Reserve® and the Platinum Card® from American Express. While we’re quick to sing the praises of such cards, we also recognize they’re not for everyone. Some people simply want the cheapest travel available — if they can save money by stacking credit card rewards with a low-cost ticket, all the better.

This article is for those people. You won’t find any debates between first class and business class here, but you will find a list of credit cards that can help you stretch your travel budget even further.

FAST FACTS

How did we determine what constitutes a “budget” airline?

A budget airline, also known as a “low-cost carrier,” typically offers cheaper flights than traditional airlines. There’s no universal criteria to determine what qualifies an airline as “low cost,” but you can typically expect lower fares and fewer amenities.


The best credit cards for budget airlines

When we reviewed the credit cards from top budget airlines in the U.S., we found Southwest Airlines the clear winner with its Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card and Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card.

JetBlue Airways and Frontier Airlines also have competitive offerings, with the JetBlue Plus Card and the Frontier Airlines World Mastercard®, respectively. We were less impressed with Spirit Airlines, for reasons we’ll detail below.

But first, let’s take a closer look at our overall rankings.

  1. Southwest Airlines (Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card and Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card)
  2. JetBlue Airways (JetBlue Card and JetBlue Plus Card)
  3. Frontier Airlines (The Frontier Airlines World MasterCard®, with and without an annual fee)
  4. Sun Country Airlines (Sun Country Airlines® Visa Signature® Card)
  5. Spirit Airlines (Spirit Airlines™ World Mastercard®)

How we found the best credit cards for budget airlines

As you’ll see in the chart below, we took several factors into consideration when determining the best credit cards for budget airlines.

The card’s annual fee matters, but we also wanted to know how you earn points or miles with each card — and what those points or miles can get you.

To figure that out, we looked at how many round-trip or one-way flights between New York and Los Angeles you could earn with the sign-up bonus from each credit card. Since we were interested in finding the absolute cheapest flights possible, we scoured fare calendars to find the cheapest ticket each airline offered for this route in 2018.

Our goal was to see how far you could stretch your points, so some of the flights we chose are not the most convenient. In some cases, the flight takes off in the middle of a workday. Other times, you might have to put up with red-eye flights. Keep in mind, if your schedule is not that flexible, you might end up paying more.

The best credit card sign-up bonuses of 2018

We picked this route because it’s one of the most heavily trafficked in the U.S., but your actual redemption value may vary depending on your route, when you fly, and how far in advance you book your flight.

If you’re interested in crunching the numbers for yourself, here’s how to do it.

  1. Select one of the five airlines mentioned above.
  2. Go to that airline’s website and select the route and dates you’d like to fly.
  3. See the chart below to determine how many points or miles you can earn if you qualify for the sign-up bonus offered by that airline’s credit card.
  4. Divide the number of points or miles you’ll earn after qualifying for the sign-up bonus by the points/miles it costs to book that flight.

Here’s what we found for a trip from New York to Los Angeles. Keep in mind, the ticket prices and point valuations in the below table are approximate and subject to change. Sign-up bonuses are current as of April 2018.

Ticket price (points/miles) Sign-up bonus Potential flights earned per sign-up bonus Annual fee
 Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card 15,406 (round-trip) 40,000 points after spending at least $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months after account opening

2 round-trip flights

 

$99

 

 Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card 15,406 (round-trip) 40,000 bonus points after spending at least $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months after account opening

2 round-trip flights

 

$69
JetBlue Plus Card 17,000 (round-trip) 40,000 Bonus Points after spending at least $1,000 on purchases in the first 90 days after account opening 2 round-trip flights $99
Frontier Airlines World Mastercard® 20,000 (round-trip) 40,000 bonus miles after spending at least $500 on purchases during the first 90 days after account opening 2 round-trip flights $69
Sun Country Airlines® Visa Signature® Card 27,060 (round-trip) 30,000 points after spending at least $1,000 on purchases within the first 3 billing cycles after account opening 1 round-trip flight $69, $0 in first year
JetBlue Card 8,500 (one way) 10,000 Bonus Points after spending at least $1,000 on purchases in the first 90 days after account opening 1 one-way flight $0
Frontier Airlines World Mastercard® (No Annual Fee ) 10,000 (one-way) 10,000 bonus miles after your first purchase 1 one-way flight $0
Spirit Airlines™ World Mastercard® 15,000 (one-way) 15,000 bonus miles after your first purchase 1 one-way flight $59, $0 in the first year

1. Southwest Airlines

You may have heard of the “Southwest effect.”

If you haven’t, research suggests it works like this: When Southwest Airlines begins flying to a new city, passenger traffic increases and fares decrease across other airlines operating in that city. The result? Airfare that’s more affordable for everyone.

According to a study published in 2017 by the Darden Business School at the University of Virginia, the Southwest effect saves domestic airline passengers more than $9 billion each year, including an average savings of about $17 to $45 per one-way flight depending on a number of factors, such as whether Southwest serves nonstop flights in the particular market.

This alone might be enough to make Southwest the ultimate low-cost carrier — but the airline has some pretty great credit card options, too.

You can take advantage of Southwest’s low prices with the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card or Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card. Each card offers 40,000 points after spending at least $1,000 on purchases during the first 3 months after account opening.

Southwest Rapid Rewards credit cards: Which one is best for you?

Depending on when you book, that’s enough points to earn two round-trip flights between New York and Los Angeles. We figured this out by dividing the sign-up bonus (40,000) by the least number of points we found to book one round-trip flight (15,406), as noted in the chart above.

Want to make your points go even further? Earn 110,000 qualifying points in a calendar year and you may qualify for the Southwest Companion Pass, which allows you to bring a guest along any time you fly for around $5.60 in taxes and fees on a one-way domestic flight for the remainder of the year that you earn the Companion Pass and the following calendar year.

9 airlines that offer companion tickets or discount codes

With Southwest, your points won’t expire as long as you earn qualifying Rapid Rewards® points once every two years. You can do that making new purchases on a Southwest credit card, booking a Southwest flight, or shopping through the Rapid Rewards® portal.

What sets Southwest apart from the competition is that it doesn’t succumb to the same pitfalls that trip up other budget airlines. While some low-cost carriers, like Sun Country Airlines®, have a stronger regional presence, Southwest flies to 100 destinations across the U.S. and 10 additional countries. Travelers receive two free checked bags, and they can change their flight without paying an extra change fee on top of the fare difference.

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2. JetBlue Airways

JetBlue is another budget airline known for delivering amenities a step above the competition.

The New York–based carrier flies to more than 100 destinations across North and South America, with a particularly strong concentration of stops along the East Coast.

JetBlue offers two credit cards you can use to earn points for your next flight.

JetBlue Card vs. JetBlue Plus Card: Which is the better way to fly Blue?

With the JetBlue Plus Card, you’ll earn 40,000 bonus TrueBlue points after spending at least $1,000 on purchases in the first 90 days after account opening. In our experience, that’s enough points for two round-trip flights between New York and Los Angeles. As with the Southwest example mentioned above, we figured this out by dividing the sign-up bonus (40,000) by the minimum number of points we found to book this flight (17,000).

You’ll also receive a free checked bag on each JetBlue flight you book with your card, and 5,000 TrueBlue bonus points each year after your account anniversary, which helps offset the $99 annual fee.

If you’d feel more comfortable with a no-annual-fee card, the JetBlue Card offers 10,000 bonus TrueBlue points after spending at least $1,000 on purchases in the first 90 days after account opening. That’s enough for a one-way flight from New York to Los Angeles, which you may be able to purchase with as few as 8,500 points, as noted in the chart above.

Rest assured, the TrueBlue points awarded to your membership account don’t expire.

Both cards also include a 50% discount on eligible in-flight purchases.

3. Frontier Airlines

Frontier Airlines flies to more than 80 cities in the U.S., Mexico and the Caribbean.

The Denver-based low-cost carrier offers two credit cards that can help you save money on travel.

The Frontier Airlines World Mastercard®, which carries a $69 annual fee, features a welcome offer of 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $500 or more on purchases during the first 90 days after account opening, after paying your annual fee. Depending on when you fly, that may be enough for two domestic round-trip flights.

As a card member, you may also earn a $100 flight discount voucher each 12-month period after you spend at least $2,500 in purchases on your account by your account anniversary date.

The no-annual-fee Frontier Airlines World Mastercard®, on the other hand, comes with 10,000 bonus miles after your first purchase. Depending on when you fly, that could be enough for a one-way domestic flight.

Frontier typically charges a redemption fee when you use points to book a flight. The good news is that you can waive this charge by paying for the flight’s taxes and fees with your Frontier Airlines World Mastercard®.

Another thing to keep in mind: You won’t be able to participate in the rewards program if your credit card account is inactive for at least six consecutive billing cycles.

4. Sun Country Airlines

Sun Country Airlines is a popular choice for Midwestern travelers looking to escape to warmer destinations during the winter.

The Minnesota-based low-cost carrier offers regional flights from Minneapolis to places like San Diego; Orlando; Mexico; and the Caribbean.

With the Sun Country Airlines® Visa Signature® Card, you’ll earn 30,000 points after spending at least $1,000 on purchases within the first three billing cycles. That may be enough for one round-trip flight.

You can also redeem your points for other perks you’d typically have to pay extra for, such as checked bags and seat upgrades.

The Sun Country Airlines® Visa Signature® Card comes with a $69 annual fee, which is waived the first year. But if you spend $10,000 or more in eligible purchases in 12 consecutive billing cycles — about $834 per month — you’ll receive an additional 10,000 bonus points.

Your Sun Country points won’t expire as long as you earn or redeem points once every three years through a qualifying activity.

5. Spirit Airlines

Spirit Airlines invented what’s known as the unbundled Bare Fare™.

This means the Florida-based budget airline offers low ticket prices by charging more for “frills” — like bags, seat assignments and refreshments — that traditional airlines generally account for in ticket prices.

With the Spirit Airlines™ World Mastercard®, you’ll qualify for 15,000 bonus miles after you use your new account to make a purchase on your credit card (excluding fees associated with the card).

So how much are those miles actually worth? The answer is not exactly cut-and-dry.

Spirit uses a complicated award redemption chart based on when and how far you fly. Theoretically, the sign-up bonus could be enough miles for three short round-trip flights during off-peak months, which can cost as few as 2,500 miles one way.

But in reality, you’d be lucky to score a one-way flight across the country. That’s because it costs 20,000 miles to book a standard peak flight for a distance of 2,500 miles or more, such as the flight from New York to Los Angeles.

The Spirit Airlines™ World Mastercard® also offers an anniversary bonus of 5,000 bonus miles each year. If your account is open and in good standing on your account anniversary and you have a total spend of at least $10,000 in net purchases (excluding card fees), you’ll qualify for the bonus. This can help make up for the card’s $59 annual fee, which is waived the first year.

Another nice perk is that cardholders will also receive priority boarding on Spirit flights.

Just beware that your points will expire if your account is inactive for as few as three months.


What are the trade-offs for scoring cheap flights?

You might be wondering, “What’s the catch?”

While finding cheap flights can be an appealing prospect for many travelers, there are a few things to keep in mind before opening a credit card with a budget airline.

Location, location, location

Where you fly is just as important as the cost of the ticket. Typically, budget airlines fly fewer routes than the major carriers. They may also fly to airports a bit more out of the way than some of the major hubs.

Before applying for a credit card from a budget airline, figure out whether that airline flies out of an airport near you — and if it flies to places you actually want to visit.

Don’t fall victim to hidden fees

Most budget airlines compensate for steep discounts on airfare by charging for services that may be complimentary when you fly with other airlines.

For example, Spirit may charge between $35 and $65 for a carry-on bag, while Frontier may charge a redemption fee of as much as $75 when you book a flight with miles.

If you don’t want to be hit with expensive baggage fees, be prepared to pack only your essentials in a small backpack.

Be flexible

The best ticket prices may only be available for early or late flights, or other flights on off-peak days or dates. If you’re flexible about when you fly, you’ll likely score better deals (and be less disappointed when you get stuck on the 1 a.m. to JFK).

Know how much your points are worth

Think of your points and miles as currency. Just like the U.S. dollar and the euro, the miles or points offered by each airline rewards program may have values that fluctuate over time and that differ from one another.

We tried to demonstrate this in the table at the top of this article, which shows how much a ticket from each airline costs in miles or points as of mid-March 2018. But figuring out how much your miles are worth also depends on your style of travel.

Don’t let your points expire

It’s not uncommon for rewards programs to nullify your points if you don’t use your credit card or hold a balance for an extended period of time. But the miles offered by some budget airlines expire after as few as three months of inactivity.

Redemption fees

Some budget airlines (such as Frontier) may charge you a fee to redeem your points toward a flight.


Bottom line

Budget airlines don’t always provide the most convenient flights.

But if you don’t mind being flexible on luggage, seat space, and travel times and dates, a credit card from a budget airline could help you save money on your next trip.