credit cards frequent flyer miles free flights

Using Credit Cards to Earn Free Flights

How to use Swiss credit cards to earn frequent flyer miles and enjoy free travel.

More and more merchants are hopping on the airline miles bandwagon. Rental car companies, insurance companies and even stores are offering Frequent Flyer Miles as rewards to their loyal customers. But miles credit cards probably provide the most flexible and effortless miles-earning experience of all.

Credit cards with reward miles

There are dozens of Swiss credit card which let you earn airline miles. The exact number and type of frequent flyer miles you receive as rewards for your spending is different on each card. A credit card comparison is an easy way to find out how many miles you can earn.

The moneyland.ch credit card comparison lets you sort cards by the airline miles they offer using the “Frequent flyer miles” sort option.

Miles & More and Flying Blue

Most Swiss airline credit cards work with the Miles & More frequent flyer program, which is used by SWISS, Switzerland’s largest airline. Other airlines which use the Miles & More program include Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines, Condor, LOT Polish Airlines and a number of others. Aside from Miles & More, you can also earn Flying Blue miles with the Flying Blue World MasterCard (Air France, KLM) issued by Viseca or British Airways Aveos with the Diners Club British Airways Card, British Airways Classic MasterCard or the British Airways Gold MasterCard, all issued by Cornèrcard.

Difference in miles programs

The way in which you earn miles depends on the credit card you use. While co-branded SWISS credit cards from Cornèrcard let you earn Miles & More miles directly into your frequent flyer account, the rewards you earn with some other cards, such as the Membership Rewards you earn with many American Express cards, will have to be transferred to a frequent flyer program (2 Membership Rewards points for 1 mile with most frequent flyer program). Some other credit cards, like the Liberty Card from BonusCard, let you redeem your points for SWISS vouchers.

Miles as a welcome bonus

The majority of miles credit cards offer a one-time “welcome bonus” in airline miles when you sign up. Taking advantage of these bonus offers is one of the easiest ways to get “free” flights.

For example, after you successfully apply for the Flying Blue World MasterCard you receive a bonus of 5000 Flying Blue Miles in your Flying Blue account. The high-end SWISS Miles & More Platinum from Swisscard has a 10,000-mile welcome bonus.

The Conèrcard British Airways Classic comes with a welcome bonus of 5000 Aveos. Both the Conèrcard British Airways Gold and the Diners Club British Airways Card come with 10,000 Aveo welcome bonuses.

Earn miles on purchases

All airline credit cards in Switzerland let you earn miles when you charge purchases to your card. It is important to note that you only earn miles on purchases. You normally do not earn miles on returns and credits, cash advances, fees and interest payments.

Different credit cards reward you with different amounts of miles on your spending, and choosing the right card is the key to earning maximum miles for your purchases.

For example, the Miles & More MasterCard credit cards from Cornèrcard reward you with 1 mile for every 2 francs you spend, while the SWISS Miles & More American Express Platinum credit card from Swisscard rewards you with 2.4 award miles for every 2 CHF spent (equal to 1.2 mile per 1 franc in purchases).

The British Airways Classic and Gold MasterCard cards from Cornèrcard lets you earn 1 Aveo per 2 francs of purchases, while the Diners Club British Airways Card gives you 1 Aveo per 1 franc of purchases, or double the miles for the same spending.

Annual miles bonuses

In addition to the welcome bonus and the miles you earn with each purchase, many airline credit cards also reward you with a bonus every year when you renew your contract. With some cards, the bonus you get is based on the amount of spending you have charged to the card over the previous year.

Example of a fixed annual bonus: Swisscard delivers a 2500-mile annual bonus to holders of its SWISS Miles & More Gold credit card duo (Amex and MasterCard). The Platinum version has a 9500-mile annual bonus.

Example of a spending-based bonus: Cornèrcard Miles & More Classic gives you a 750-mile annual bonus when you charge at least 10,000 francs to your card over the previous year, 1500 miles if you make 20,000 francs of annual purchases using your card, and 2500 if you charge 30,000 francs or more over one year. The annual bonuses you get with the Gold version are up to 100% higher.

Watch out for expiry dates

The miles you earn with many Swiss credit cards expire after 3 years, which makes it difficult to collect enough miles to cover a major trip. Fortunately, some airline credit cards do not stamp an expiry date on your miles.

The frequent flyer miles you earn with the Flying Blue World MasterCard, Cornèrcard Miles & More and the SWISS Miles & More from Swisscard never expire, but only as long as you use your card to make at least one miles-earning purchase every month.

Consider the annual card fee

When choosing the right credit card for collecting miles, it is important to look at how much you will pay just to use the card. A card may have a great miles-earning rate and neat bonuses, but if you pay hundreds of francs per year for that card, you may not be saving money at all.

From a purely miles-collecting point of view, you will want to compare the annual fee which you pay for a credit card with the value of the total miles which you expect to earn every year, to judge whether or not you will make a “profit” by using the credit card.

Example: An airline credit card has an annual fee of 150 francs and gives you 1 mile for every 2 francs you spend. It also has a 1000-mile annual bonus. If you charge an average of 10,000 francs per year to the card, you would earn a total of 6000 miles annually. A SWISS economy-class return flight from Zurich to Barcelona (average 350-franc price tag) would cost you around 20,000 miles (September 2016 prices), plus additional miles to cover fees and taxes. In this case you would pay 600 francs for your credit card over the 4 years it would take you to earn a 350-franc flight, so you won't be saving money at all.

Of course, airline credit cards also come with many benefits like complimentary travel insurance coverage, purchase protection and airline perks. High-end cards often include complimentary airport lounge access, concierge services and even credits towards airline travel or hotel stays. All these perks can actually save you money if you use them to the full. The moneyland.ch credit card comparison makes it easy to sort credit cards based on the benefits they provide.

Credit cards for miles collectors

So which Swiss credit cards deliver the best value for frequent flyer miles maniacs, taking welcome offers, annual bonuses and miles for purchases into account? Here, moneyland.ch looks at the most potent miles-earning credit cards for both occasional card users (3600 francs in annual purchases) and frequent credit card users (20,000 francs in annual purchases) based on a 2-year period:

Cornèrcard Miles & More

For the occasional car user, the Cornèrcard Miles & More Classic would be one of the most rewarding, delivering 8600 miles over the two-year period.

Cornèrcard Miles & More Gold

The frequent credit card user will currently earn the most miles with the Cornèrcard Miles & More Gold (36,000 miles over the 2-year period) or the SWISS Miles & More Gold American Express from Swisscard (44,000 Miles).

Only the high-end platinum cards (which have high annual fees) top the gold airline credit cards for frequent card users. The SWISS Miles & More Platinum MasterCard (49,000 miles) and the SWISS Miles & More Platinum American Express (69,000 miles), both from Swisscard, are two of the most powerful miles-earning machines.

More on this topic:
Frequent flyer programs: making the most of your miles
Swiss credit card comparison
10 ways to get cheaper flights

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The moneyland.ch magazine provides accurate, unbiased information on topics related to finance and money. In addition to research and expert interviews, the magazine contains numerous financial guides.