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Frequent Fliers, Look Beyond the Airline Credit Card

April 15, 2015
Airline Credit Cards, Credit Cards
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When people think about travel credit cards, they often think of cards that earn frequent flier miles. But even if you spend a lot of time in the sky, there are other travel cards with great benefits you don’t want to miss.

Depending on your travel needs, you should consider the pros and cons of airline credit cards before applying.

Benefits of a co-branded airline credit card

  • Earning rewards is pretty straightforward. When you use your card, the miles you rack up are added directly to your frequent flier account to use for a flight of your choice. There are no revolving bonus categories or tricky earning techniques to memorize.
  • Many airlines offer cardholders extra perks such as free checked bags, lounge access, priority check-in and seat upgrades. If you like to be pampered, you’ll love these features.
  • Airline credit cards typically come with a hefty sign-up bonus. Depending on the card, some are good for one round-trip flight and others may be worth multiple round-trip flights.

Drawbacks of a co-branded airline credit card

  • Reward redemption lacks flexibility and is usually limited to flights with that airline partner. Your rewards can also lose value over time if airlines choose to devalue the points or miles in their frequent flier programs.
  • Some airlines have restrictions or blackout dates for passengers using frequent flier miles. This can make it difficult to use your rewards to visit family over the holidays or to get a seat on a flight with little availability for award travelers.
  • After the sign-up bonus, reward earning potential isn’t as high as with other travel credit cards. With most airline cards, you’ll get bonus points for using the card on purchases with that particular airline partner but only a basic one mile per $1 spent on other purchases.

Airline cards may be common, but there are plenty of other great travel credit cards on the market. If you’re still undecided, consider these three alternatives:

If you want maximum flexibility: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

One of the best travel credit cards in the business, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card fills in where many co-branded airline cards are lacking. The main reason is flexibility. The Chase Ultimate Rewards travel platform helps you search and book flights, hotels, rental cars, excursions and more with no blackout dates or restrictions, all at a 20% points discount. You can also choose to transfer your points to one of Chase’s 11 travel partners, including airlines, hotel chains and a train operator.

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card also has one of the best sign-up bonuses out there: Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $625 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. It also has no foreign transaction fee, a must-have for international travelers. Something to consider, though: It charges an $0 for the first year, then $95 after that.

If you want a big sign-up bonus and high ongoing rewards: Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card

The Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card is a great alternative to co-branded airline cards because of its high ongoing rewards of 2X miles on every purchase. It also offers an impressive sign-up bonus: Enjoy a one-time bonus of 50,000 miles once you spend $3,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $500 in travel.

You’ll get a lot of flexibility with this card because you redeem rewards as a statement credit for travel purchases rather than through a specific rewards program. This means that you don’t have to worry about blackout dates and award seat availability.

The Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card has no foreign transaction fees, and its annual fee is similar to other travel credit cards: $0 for the first year, then $95.

If you hate all fees: Discover it® Miles

Fairly new to the market, the Discover it® Miles is already a heavyweight with its 1.5X miles on every purchase and unique sign-up promotion: Discover will match ALL the Miles you've earned at the end of your first year, automatically. For example, if you earn 30,000 Miles, you get 60,000 Miles. That's $600 towards travel! And there’s no cap on this bonus, so not even the sky’s the limit.

Reward redemption is much like the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card in that you use your Discover it® Miles card to book travel and can use rewards for a statement credit. The card has no foreign transaction fees and an annual fee of $0.

Bottom line:

If you often fly, having a travel credit card is a great way to get where you want to go for less. But if you don’t want to be limited to just one travel category or brand, there are plenty of compelling alternatives from which to choose.

Ben Luthi is a staff writer covering personal finance for NerdWallet. Follow him on Twitter @benluthi and on Google+.

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