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If you travel a lot, you probably rely on frequent flyer programs to get where you’re going at the best possible price. In the past, it made sense for globetrotters like you to get a credit card with a rewards program tied to your preferred airline – after all, why not rack up miles or points while doing your day-to-day spending?
But many popular airlines have significantly devalued their frequent flyer programs in recent years. All of a sudden, a co-branded airline card doesn’t seem like a good choice. So which travel credit card should you opt for? Let’s dig into the details below.
What are frequent flyer devaluations?
Frequent flyer devaluations come in a variety of flavors, but they have one thing in common: They're changes to frequent flyer programs that make it much more difficult or “costly” for average consumers to earn and redeem miles.
For example, both Delta Air Lines and United Airlines announced a 2015 switch to revenue-based earning structures in their frequent flyer programs. Although this will award customers who pay a lot for their tickets, this type of devaluation is bad news for travel hackers who are skilled at booking long-distance tickets at bargain prices. This news came on the heels of other devaluations by both airlines, including a significant increase in the number of SkyMiles or MileagePlus miles needed to book many award flights.
Southwest Airlines also announced a devaluation to its frequent flyer currency in March 2014. The value of each Rapid Rewards point dropped from 1.67 cents per point to 1.43 cents per point on its popular Wanna Get Away tickets.
In short, frequent flyer programs lost a lot of their luster.
How general travel rewards cards combat devaluations
Frankly, the best credit cards for combatting frequent flyer devaluations are cards that aren’t tied to a particular airline. General travel credit cards allow you to book the cheapest and most convenient flight available, regardless of the airline, and still use your rewards. Usually, this is accomplished by paying yourself back for your flight in the form of a statement credit.
This provides a lot of flexibility compared to co-branded airline credit cards. Plus, you won’t have to worry about an airline taking an overnight bite out of the miles or points you’ve built up when it decides to devalue its frequent flyer program.
Our favorite general travel credit cards
If you’re not familiar with the general travel credit cards on the market today, here are a few of NerdWallet's favorites:
If you hate annual fees: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
With the Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card, you’ll earn 1.5 points on every dollar you spend on purchases. This amounts to a 1.5% rewards rate, which is respectable for a card that also comes with no foreign transaction fee and an annual fee of $0. As an added bonus, it comes chip-enabled with PIN capability, so it’s a good choice if you’re traveling abroad.
The Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card allows you to book your travel however you choose, then pay yourself back in the form of a statement credit with the points you’ve racked up. All in all, earning and redeeming points is a cinch with this card.
Finally, the Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card comes with a signup bonus: 25,000 online bonus points after you make at least $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days of account opening - that can be a $250 statement credit toward travel purchases.
If you can’t completely quit frequent flyer programs just yet: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is a little different from the Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card when it comes to earning and redeeming credit card points. With it, you’ll be getting 5 points per dollar spent on travel booked through Chase, 3 points per dollar spent on dining in restaurants, streaming services and online grocery purchases (excluding Target, Walmart and wholesale clubs), 2 points per dollar spent on all other travel and 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases. Generally, Sapphire Preferred points are worth one cent apiece.
However, when it comes time to redeem, you have two options: Go through Chase Ultimate Rewards, which offers a Kayak-like travel portal and allows you to book on nearly any airline you choose, or transfer your points to a partner frequent traveler program. If you decide to book through Chase Ultimate Rewards, points are worth 25% more, which drives the value of each point up to 1.25 cents. The value of each point that you transfer to a frequent travel partner totally depends on the program itself and how savvy you are in booking award flights. But this card is a good compromise for people who are worried about devaluations, but don’t want to give up on frequent flyer programs altogether.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card also comes chip-enabled and doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee, both of which are musts for people traveling abroad.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card comes with a killer signup bonus: Earn 100,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,250 when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. Be aware that it charges a $95 annual fee.
The bottom line
Not all travel credit cards are affected when frequent flyer devaluations are announced. Consider a general travel card.