6 Common Airline Credit Card Mistakes Worse Than Flight Delays

Consider how a given airline card will fit your situation and travel habits before signing up.
Alisha McDarris
By Alisha McDarris 

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If you’re new to airline credit cards, the options may seem overwhelming, especially when you consider there are dozens of airlines and often multiple card options from each one. And since most airline cards offer tempting sign-up bonuses and perks like free checked bags, it’s easy to get drawn in.

But not every airline credit card is right for every traveler. Here’s how to avoid common airline credit card mistakes when considering a new card.

1. Signing up for a card from an airline that doesn’t fly to or from your home airport

It’s easy to get drawn in to airline credit cards with massive sign-on bonuses, especially if credit card verbiage promises the total points you’ll earn right off the bat will be worth a couple of round-trip flights. Why would you not apply?

But don’t be swayed into signing up for a card from an airline that doesn’t offer routes that you actually want to fly. For example, all those Rapid Rewards miles won’t do you a lot of good if Southwest doesn’t fly out of the airport nearest to you or the destinations to which you want to fly. So stick to airline cards that offer miles you can actually use.

2. Forgetting about the annual fee

Many airline credit cards come with an annual fee. Some waive that fee the first year, but many cardholders sign up for a travel credit card and then forget about the annual fee when the first twelve months are over.

That’s not a big deal if you use the card often and have a plan to utilize all the points or miles you’ve earned, but if you were just signing up for the card to snag the sign-up bonus, use the points and miles and stash the card just for airline purchases, or you don’t use the card as often as you thought you would, forgetting to cancel the card before the annual fee rolls around can be a costly mistake. So mark your calendar or set a reminder on your phone so you don’t forget to cancel in time. And if you don’t earn as many miles as you could purchase with the same amount as the annual fee or use all the perks that come with it, ditch it.

3. Neglecting to earn the sign-up bonus

One of the biggest benefits of carrying an airline-specific credit card is the ability to earn a large number of points or miles for one airline. And the fastest way to do that is with a sign-up bonus.

But the high-number bonuses have to be earned, usually by spending a certain amount of money within the first few months of owning the card. The United℠ Explorer Card, for example, offers a handy sign-up bonus: Earn 60,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. So before you sign up, make sure you know what the requirements are, how long you have to meet them and whether you can actually spend that amount of money in the allotted time frame.

Neglecting to achieve that spending threshold is one of those credit card mistakes that could cost you a free flight.

4. Choosing a card with limited benefits

When it comes to choosing an airline credit card, some are more valuable than others. The Frontier Airlines World Mastercard®, for example, does have a welcome bonus: Earn 40,000 bonus mile after spending $500 on purchases and paying the annual fee in full, both within the first 90 days. Earn an additional 20,000 bonus miles after spending $2,000 on purchases within the first 6 months with the Frontier Airlines World Mastercard But it doesn’t come with benefits like checked bags or lounge access. This may not be a big deal if you only fly with the airline once or twice a year, but if you plan to fly often with the airline, extra perks like credits for TSA PreCheck and companion fares are important things to consider.

5. Choosing a card that doesn’t fit your travel style or needs

Not every card is right for every traveler. For example, if you regularly check luggage, you’ll probably want to prioritize a card that offers free checked bags with every booking. Or if you want to be able to pool points with multiple family members, choosing a card that doesn’t allow that may result in disappointment down the line.

Likewise, if you don’t fly more than a couple of times a year, a higher annual fee card that offers a fast-track to elite status may not be worth it if there’s still no way you could reach the flight segment threshold. But if your flights tend to be long with multiple layovers in hub cities, paying that fee may be worth it if your airline card offers lounge access. So choose a card that will suit your lifestyle and travel style in the long run, not just for the sign-up bonus.

6. Not considering everyday spending

Yes, those shiny, big-value bonuses are tempting, but after they’ve been earned and redeemed for award travel, what are you left with? Is it a card that offers valuable point-per-dollar earning potential on everyday purchases or in categories in which you actually spend money on a regular basis? Or will racking up points and miles be an impossibly slow slog?

Sure, the potential to earn 3x points on airfare bookings is great, but if you only earn 1x points on everything else and the majority of your spending will be on groceries or gas, it may not be the most beneficial card for you. Additionally, consider whether you can use the card abroad and if there are foreign transaction fees.

There are many options when it comes to airline credit cards. But before signing up, make sure to consider factors other than sign-up bonuses, like where airlines fly, if there’s an annual fee, what other benefits the card offers and more.

How to maximize your rewards

You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2023, including those best for:

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