Airline Credit Cards vs. Travel Credit Cards

If you generally stick with one airline, then an airline card could earn you bigger rewards than a general travel credit card.

Anisha SekarApril 28, 2015
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When you’re choosing a travel credit card, you’re usually presented with a choice: a general travel card like the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card, or an airline- or hotel-specific one like the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card. Both generic travel and airline credit cards can be lucrative, but the one that's right for you depends on your goals and habits. We’ll break down the relative benefits of both so you can make the right choice for your travel needs.

Why you should get a general travel rewards credit card

The benefit of a general travel card is that you can earn and/or redeem rewards on broader categories than you can with an airline-specific one. For instance, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card earns two Ultimate Rewards Points per $1 spent on travel (airlines, hotels, etc.) and one per $1 elsewhere.

The Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card earns two miles per $1 on all purchases, and miles can be redeemed as a statement credit against any travel expense. Airline credit cards, on the other hand, tend to earn bonus rewards only when you spend with the airline itself and pay out in miles for its frequent flyer program.

A travel credit card is best for people who aren’t loyal to one airline and prefer the maximum amount of flexibility when redeeming their rewards. For example, let’s say you book your flights based on whichever airline offers the lowest ticket price. With the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card, you can redeem your rewards for an American Airlines flight one day and United the next.

You also have more flexibility in how much you redeem. That is, there's no minimum redemption requirement when redeeming for a statement credit against a travel purchase. Airline miles can come with blackout dates and can have variable redemption rates, so if you want something that’s versatile and has a constant value, a general travel card is the way to go.

Why you should get an airline credit card

While general travel cards are jacks-of-all-trades, airline-specific ones are highly specialized, offering great rewards related to the airline itself and fewer options elsewhere. For example, you’ll often see airline cards offering two miles per $1 spent on the airline and one per $1 elsewhere, so your overall rewards rate may be lower than that on  a general card. Plus, you typically redeem in the form of award flights. So if you’re more constrained, what’s the point of an airline card? Here are three major advantages:

  • Many cards offer pretty sweet perks. From priority boarding to companion passes, airline credit cards usually add a lot of benefits. Waived baggage fees can be particularly enticing. Depending on how often you check bags, the savings on fees can sometimes outweigh the card’s annual fee.

  • Some offer elite status accelerators. If you frequently fly on one specific airline, having the branded credit card can provide a boost on your journey to elite status.

  • Redeemed right, airline miles can be really valuable. Typically, general travel rewards are worth a flat rate, whether it’s one cent per point or a little more. Some frequent flyer miles have variable rewards rates, giving them a higher value than flat-rate rewards in some cases and a lower value in others. If you time your award ticket right, the dollar value of your miles can be double or even triple that of generic travel miles.

In a nutshell, airline credit cards are best if you often fly on one airline, are willing to put in the work to redeem your miles at a high value, or will take advantage of the card’s perks.

Ready to see your options?

Check out NerdWallet’s picks for the best travel rewards cards and airline credit cards.

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