Choosing Airline Credit Cards
If you find it hard to pick the right airline credit cards, you’re not alone. Many find it the toughest plastic to choose. So let’s break down the process so as to simplify it.
The first decision you have to make is whether you’d be better off with a card that’s branded with an airline’s name, or a general travel card. As a rule, you can usually expect a lower reward-earning rate but more perks (priority check-in and boarding, perhaps, or your first checked bag flying free) with airline-branded cards, and a higher earning rate but fewer privileges with a mainstream card issuer.
There are, of course, some exceptions to that rule. For example, a Platinum Card® from American Express provides endless travel and other perks, including complimentary access to many airport lounges, and up to $200 a year toward baggage charges and other flying expenses. It can even give you a $100 statement credit toward your subscription to the federal government’s Global Entry program, which permits low-risk travelers expedited re-entry to the country through customs and immigration. But it has, like most cards with valuable travel perks, a high annual fee: an eye-watering $450 in its case. Unless you spend a great deal of time in airports, you might find that off-putting.
Many airline-branded cards come with higher interest rates than mainstream ones, so it’s probably better to avoid the ones that do unless you’re going to zero your balance every billing cycle, or very nearly as regularly.
Although they’re less common than they once were, it’s still important to make sure a card you apply for doesn’t have “blackout” dates — or, at least, that you’re not bothered by them if it does. These stop you from redeeming your miles or points for flights scheduled around peak travel times, often including Thanksgiving, Christmas, the start of school vacations and so on.
Some Good Airline-Branded Cards
One of the most attractive characteristics of these cards is their often-generous sign-up bonuses. These are free miles or points you receive just for opening an account, although you usually need also to reach a minimum spending threshold within a set period. These two products have, at the time of writing, particularly good offers:
- Citi® Platinum Select® / AAdvantage® World MasterCard®: Exactly the same deal as the Delta card, both for bonus miles and the annual fee.
- The US Airways Premier World MasterCard®: 30,000 bonus miles for making any purchase on your card. Earn at a rate of a mile to a dollar up to another 10,000 if you make a balance transfer within 90 days of opening the account. There’s an introductory 0-percent APR on balance transfers and purchases for the first year. The annual fee is $89.
While you’re checking those out, also look for perks. Some offer airport line cutting and free checked bags and/or additional discounts or occasional free flights for an accompanying passenger.
Mainstream Travel Cards
Although the advent of carrier alliances has made the earning and redeeming of rewards more flexible than they once were, an airline-branded card is likely to restrict your opportunities both to acquire miles or points, and to use them. The advantage of general travel cards is that you can usually get and spend your rewards on every flight you take — providing you book according to your plastic’s rules. If that sounds appealing, there are two products that are well worth exploring further:
- Barclaycard Arrival™ World MasterCard®: 40,000 bonus miles (worth $400 off a trip) just for spending $1,000 on your card during the first three months after the account’s opened. You also get an introductory rate of 0-percent APR on your purchases during your first year. Annual fee: $89, waived in first year.
- The Premier Miles & More World MasterCard®: 50,000 bonus miles (enough for a round-trip flight to the Caribbean, parts of Europe or Hawaii) if you make $5,000 in purchases within the first 90 days of account opening. Annual fee: $79.
Four of the five cards listed above offer a mile/point for each dollar spent on all purchases, plus a bonus mile/point for those associated with eligible aspects of air travel. The Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard is alone in offering two miles for every dollar spent.
If you travel overseas a lot, you also need to watch out for foreign transaction fees. Over a period, these can add up to a significant burden. Some cards, including the Barclaycard and Premier Miles & More products don’t charge them.
As noted at the beginning of this article, choosing airline credit cards isn’t easy. Even with the help provided here, that remains the case. If you want to be sure you’re picking the perfect product, you still need to click on some Terms and Conditions links on issuers’ websites to be sure you’re going to get everything you’re expecting. But, especially if you travel a lot, it’s usually worth it.