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airline miles credit cards

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Specific airline credit cards are always a tricky proposition. A frequent flyer, of course, may get a really good value out of sticking with his tried-and-true carrier of choice. But for someone who hops around from line to line, books frequently on discount sites, or flies to enough different places that one airline won’t cover the lot of it, a more general travel credit card might be preferable. Here are a few considerations to keep in mind when choosing which airline credit card (if any) is right for you.

How often you fly on the airline: This one may seem obvious, but consider the likes-jeans-buys-dresses fallacy: “If I buy these, I’ll wear them more often.” Similarly, if you don’t fly very often on one particular airline, you probably won’t change your behavior once you have their branded credit card. No matter how juicy the signup bonus is, keep in mind that you’ll have to actually use the credit card to get value out of it.

Where you fly and how you book: Do you travel overseas often? Generally, people book trips abroad farther in advance, and are more likely to settle on one airline for routes they travel frequently. In that case, a branded airline credit card may make more sense. On the other hand, domestic travelers might prefer greater flexibility, with the ability to choose where, when and at what time they fly, and to book on discount travel sites like Expedia. These travelers might be better served by a travel credit card that issues rewards in the form of a statement credit to offset travel expenses.

Whether you fly internationally: Most credit cards carry a foreign transaction fee, a 3% charge on all overseas transactions that can easily top $100 over the course of a year. However, a number of traveler-friendly credit cards will waive this fee, saving you quite a bit of heartache and often making up for the annual fee by themselves. Check out our running list of credit cards with no foreign transaction fee.

How much you enjoy traveler perks: The high-end cards will give you nifty travel-related perks like lounge access or accelerated elite status. The heavy-hitter of these is the American Express Platinum, whose $450 fee is negated with a $200 airline incidentals credit, global Priority Pass Select lounge access valued at $399, and more. Of course, killer travel perks aren’t limited to the Platinums of the world: most mid- to high-end Visa, MasterCard and AmEx credit cards have benefits like travel accident insurance, lost baggage reimbursement and global assist hotlines (Discover’s perks are comparatively spare).

Whether you want elite status: Some credit cards will give you an added boost towards getting the coveted Gold/Platinum/other rare metal status that brings first-class seating, free champagne and other goodies. Check out our infographic on airline elite status and waived bag fees to see which cards accelerate your elite status miles.

A baseline comparison for rewards and fees

To help you in your decision-making, here are some general rules of thumb we’ve culled from years and years of nerding:

  • The standard rewards rate is 2-3 miles per $1 spent on the airline or its partners, and 1 mile per $1 spent elsewhere.
    • Exceptions: The Virgin America credit card gives 1.5 miles/$1 base and 3 miles/$1 on Virgin
  • A 25,000-mile signup bonus is about average, but don’t get excited about anything short of 50,000. Every so often, someone will roll up with a 50k or even 100k-mile signup bonus, so we recommend waiting around for a big one.
  • Most airlines will let you earn and/or redeem miles on their partner airlines, so it’s worth checking out which airlines are affiliated with each other (Virgin Atlantic has a pretty extensive network, while Continental, United and US Airways form an American trinity).
  • You can also often earn bonus miles if you stay at partner hotels or rent from partner car companies.