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Are frequent flyer credit cards worth it?

minute read

    If you’re enrolled in a frequent flyer program, you may be wondering if opening a credit card with that airline would help you maximize the amount of airline miles or rewards points you can redeem toward your travel expenses. There are different types of credit cards for frequent fliers, each with their own benefits and potential drawbacks. Let's unpack some of the differences and why you may choose one over the other.

    Airline credit cards vs. travel credit cards

    “Frequent flyer credit cards” is a somewhat broad term that includes programs like airline credit cards and travel credit cards. Both of these credit cards allow you to earn frequent flyer miles (or points to convert into miles, depending on your program) through eligible spending on that particular credit card, but there are some key differences between the two card offerings.

    Travel credit cards

    These credit cards allow you to earn miles or points through eligible purchases outlined in the card's terms and conditions. Travel credit cards are typically flexible and might allow you to earn points or miles on purchases outside a specific airline at an accelerated earning rate — sometimes, even on non-travel-related purchase categories like grocery store purchases. Typically, travel credit cards also provide benefits that extend to non-flight related expenses.

    Airline credit cards

    These credit cards are offered by specific airlines and allow you to earn miles or points that can be redeemed for flights or other travel expenses specifically through that airline or its partners. If you’ve joined a frequent flyer program for an airline that also offers a credit card, the two are generally linked together, allowing the miles or points accumulated from your airline credit card to transfer into those accumulated from your frequent flyer program. Where travel cards allow you to redeem points or miles for non-flight related purchases, airline credit cards typically only allow you to earn and redeem airline miles through travel expenses.

    Pros and cons of frequent flyer travel credit cards

    Travel credit cards are typically most advantageous if you fly with multiple airlines or are looking for a more diverse way to earn and redeem rewards. Here are some of their pros and cons to consider.

    Pros of travel credit cards

    • Flexibility: Travel credit cards may come with flexibility by allowing you to earn points or miles across multiple spending categories, even if the purchases are not with a specific airline. You may also be able to redeem those points or miles more leniently across different airlines and non-flight related travel expenses, like hotel rooms, cruise ship tickets and rental cars.

    • Balance transfer offers: Depending on the card’s sign-up offers, you may be able to transfer high-interest debt from other credit cards to your new travel credit card at a lower interest rate.

    • No foreign transaction fees: Many travel credit cards don’t have foreign transaction fees when you use your card outside of the United States. This may be particularly beneficial for those who tend to travel abroad.

    Cons of travel credit cards

    • Annual fees: You may find that many travel credit cards charge an annual fee as a recurring cost of membership.

    • Credit requirements: Typically, travel credit cards require a good to excellent credit score to be considered for approval.

    • Devaluation of rewards point or miles: Travel credit cards may allow you to use your points or miles with multiple airlines, but the value may change depending on each airline’s policies.

    Pros and cons of frequent flyer airline credit cards

    Airline credit cards typically offer a fair share of travel benefits if you’re an airport regular, but like travel credit cards, carry a few cons to consider at the same time.

    Pros of airline credit cards

    • Airport perks: Airline credit cards generally offer some attractive airport perks when you fly through that particular airline. These perks may include priority boarding, free checked bags, complimentary seat upgrades and access to that airline's airport lounge.

    • Discounted in-flight purchases: Once you’re in the air, airline credit cards may offer discounts on in-flight purchases such as food, beverages and Wi-Fi.

    • Bonus miles: Many airline credit cards include a bonus mile offer for new cardmembers. Depending on your cardmember agreement, you may need to meet a minimum spending requirement to earn the bonus, which can then be used towards travel expenses through that airline.

    Cons of airline credit cards

    • Annual fees: Just like travel credit cards, you’ll typically find airline credit cards tend to carry recurring annual fees.

    • Foreign transaction fees: Many airline credit cards charge a foreign transaction fee for purchases made outside of the United States.

    • Earning limitations: Typically, airline credit cards only allow you to earn points or miles through purchases made with that specific airline or its partners.

    • Redemption limitations: Like earning restrictions, airline credit cards typically only allow you to redeem points or miles for travel-related expenses through their airline.

    How to choose between frequent flyer credit cards

    Both types of frequent flyer credit cards described above could be potentially beneficial for your on-the-go lifestyle, but here’s some general guidance if you’re struggling to choose the best type of card for you.

    Travel credit cards may be better if...

    • You prioritize flexibility: Travel credit cards may allow you to earn points or miles on non-travel purchases. Refer to your terms and conditions to understand which purchase categories are included.

    • You want to redeem rewards from different categories: If you don’t frequent the airport that much, travel credit cards usually allow for different redemption options like hotel room credits, gift cards and even sometimes cash back.

    • You’re less concerned about travel-related perks: You may not be able to access some travel benefits, like free bag checks, with a travel credit card. If you’re not that frequent a flyer, however, losing those perks may be less consequential.

    Airline credit cards may be best if...

    • You’re loyal to one airline: If you’re a frequent customer along a certain route or airline, airline credit cards may help you earn miles or points when you spend on airfare or use your associated credit card on in-flight purchases.

    • You value air-travel perks: Airline travel credit cards may allow you more air-travel benefits, like in-flight perks and lounge access, which could be advantageous if you’re a frequent flyer.

    In summary

    Opening a frequent flyer credit card may be a helpful way to maximize the amount of points or miles you’re able to redeem towards your travel-related expenses. There are different types of frequent flyer credit cards, and it could help to reflect on your travel habits when trying to decide which frequent flyer credit card is best for you.

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