If you have been around enough people who rely on rewards for travel, you have probably heard someone espouse the benefits of airline credit cards. Unlike rewards credit cards that dole out cash back or "points," airline credit cards let you earn airline miles for a particular airline loyalty program.
If you find yourself flying on the same airline frequently or wish you could fly for free more often, an airline credit card might seem like the perfect fit. In reality, however, airline credit cards are mostly suited to a specific type of flyer. Whether or not you'll benefit more with an airline credit card depends a lot on which type of traveler you are, and how you plan to use your rewards.
The Pros of Airline Credit Cards
Before we get into any potential disadvantages, let's talk about the benefits airline credit cards offer. Here are a few of the perks that keep people signing up for airline credit cards in droves.
Airline credit cards let you earn "miles" for a specific airline
If you fly a specific airline and want to rack up as many rewards as you can, an airline credit card is often your best bet. By using your airline credit card for all purchases, you can usually rack up anywhere from 1 – 2 miles for every dollar you spend. And don't forget, that's on top of the huge signup bonus you might earn your first year.
Some airline cards give you special status, priority boarding, or other travel perks
Some airline credit cards offer special perks for travelers who are also cardholders. The Citi®/AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard®, for example, gives you Group 1 boarding on all domestic flights plus a free checked bag for you and up to four companions on certain itineraries. Plus, you'll get 25 percent savings on eligible in-flight food and beverage purchases made with your card.
Among different types of rewards, airline miles usually offer more "bang for your buck"
The biggest benefit that comes with airline credit cards is the fact that the miles you earn can be a lot more lucrative than cash back. For example, a round-trip flight to Europe from the United States that would normally cost $1,200 or more can be "purchased" for as little as 45,000 American AAdvantage miles plus airline taxes and fees if you travel off-peak, which is any time between October 15th and May 15th.
Why You Might Not Want an Airline Credit Card
Airline credit cards offer lucrative rewards, yes, but that doesn't mean they're right for everyone. Here are a few reasons you might choose a different option when it comes to rewards.
Airline miles are only good for one airline
If you aren't loyal to a specific airline, getting a co-branded airline credit card might not be a smart idea. With an airline credit card, you'll only be able to use your miles on that specific airline or their partner airlines. If you prefer a flight on a different airline, you'll be out of luck.
Airline miles aren't always flexible
While some airline loyalty programs let you redeem your miles for other travel experiences like hotel stays and rental cars, you'll generally get a lot less value out of your points that way. Plus, most airline loyalty programs don't let you redeem your miles for cash back under any circumstances.
Award availability can be hard to find
With airline credit cards and airline miles, your travel plans are dependent on award availability. If a reward flight isn't open on the date or at the time you want to travel, you may not be able to use your points at all.
Most airline credit cards charge an annual fee
Where some general travel credit cards don't charge an annual fee, most airline credit cards charge a fee equal to $95 or higher. If you don't travel often or aren't spending enough to rack up a lot of rewards, it might become harder to justify that fee over time.
Airline credit cards are the ideal tool for certain travel enthusiasts, but a poor option for others. If you're unsure where you stand, make sure to compare other credit cards on the market to see how they stack up. When you're uncertain how your travel plans might shake out, it is often smarter to get a flexible travel credit card or cash back card instead.
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