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Should I Get an Airline Credit Card?

Airline Credit Cards, Credit Cards
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airline credit cards

If you spend even a little time in airports or on planes, you’ll see offers for airline credit cards. It doesn’t take long for the travel perks and sign-up bonuses to start calling your name. Maybe there’s even a limited-time offer that draws out the FOMO syndrome: fear of missing out. Should you jump on an offer?

The answer hangs on how frequently you travel with the airline offering the card. If you do so only occasionally, a general travel rewards credit card offers more flexibility. If you can’t imagine flying with anyone else, it may be time to get rewarded for your loyalty. And if you’re somewhere in between, you might be surprised at how quickly an airline card can justify its annual fee.

When airline credit cards are worth it

Airline credit cards are ideal for those who regularly travel with a particular airline, or who could choose to do so. Cards from major airlines typically charge an annual fee, with $95 a common amount. Whether you should get one comes down to whether the value you get from the card exceeds the fee.

These cards earn frequent flyer miles every time you use them — usually one mile per dollar, with extra miles for purchases from the airline itself or with partners. You redeem your miles for free or discounted flights, although award flights may be subject to blackout dates and restrictions on destinations. Airline cards also offer perks like free checked bags and priority boarding. Depending on how you redeem rewards, you might get more value than with a general travel card.

Consider an airline credit card if:

You always check bags

Nowadays, the standard fee to check a suitcase is $25 each way. When an airline card gives you a free checked bag, that’s a savings of $50 for every round trip. Two round trips a year on that airline — or just one with a companion — and a card with a $95 annual fee pays for itself. You must pay for the ticket with the card to get the perk. Among cards offering free bags:

» MORE: Airlines’ unsung perk: Free checked bags

You fly a lot with A SINGLE airline

Frequent flyers can get a lot of value from an airline card. They have more opportunities to earn extra miles by buying tickets with the card. They have more opportunities to redeem their rewards. And they have more opportunities to use any perks that come with the card. Airline cards often come with bonuses that can be large enough to pay for a trip. The best time to apply for the card is when you have some serious spending coming up, since you must spend a certain amount to earn the sign-up bonus.

Among airline cards that offer hefty sign-up bonuses:

  • Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®: For a limited time, earn 60,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles after making $3,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening*.
  • United MileagePlus® Explorer Card: Earn 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.
  • Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express: Earn 30,000 Bonus Miles after spending $1,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months and a $50 statement credit after you make a Delta purchase with your new Card within your first 3 months. Terms Apply.
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card: Earn 50,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. The annual fee is $99. This card also gives you a 6,000-point bonus each year on your account anniversary.

In addition, some cards offer ways for cardholders to earn free or discounted tickets for a “plus one.”

» MORE: NerdWallet’s best airline credit cards 

You travel often and need the perks

Airline credit cards come with carrier-specific perks that you can’t match with a general travel card. These vary by card but may include priority boarding, seat upgrades, discounts on in-flight refreshments and a waiver of certain restrictions on budget fares. Some basic airline cards even provide access to airport lounges — access ordinarily restricted to those with elite frequent flyer status, a paid membership or a premium credit card. The United MileagePlus® Explorer Card, for example, gives you two passes to United Clubs each year, while the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express lets you buy a single-visit pass to Delta Sky Clubs for $29, compared with the usual price of $59.

When a general travel credit card is a better fit

General travel credit cards don’t offer airline-specific perks like free checked bags or upgrades, but they give you a great deal of flexibility in redeeming rewards. You earn rewards points or miles with every purchase. You can then use those rewards to book travel, or redeem them for credit on your statement against travel purchases. You also aren’t limited to one airline, hotel chain or rental car agency, so you can travel to more places in the world.

Consider a general travel card if:

You are a budget-conscious traveler

A general travel credit card is for you if you want the cheapest fare, regardless of airline. Book however you want, then redeem your miles to pay for it. These cards let you redeem miles or points (at a rate of 1 cent apiece) for travel expenses:

You are strategic with rewards

Go with the card that offers the rewards that best match your travel style. Knowing where points get the most value can maximize your travel experience. For example, these cards offer more value depending on how you redeem rewards:

  • Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card: Points are worth 25% more when you use them to book travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards. Or transfer points to partner airlines. Annual fee: $0 for the first year, then $95.
  • Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express: Although this is technically a hotel card, you can transfer its points to a number of partner airlines. You receive a 5,000 Starpoint bonus when you transfer 20,000 Starpoints to a participating frequent flyer program. Annual fee: $0 for the first year, then $95.

Know your options

You don’t have to settle on one card. Perhaps you favor one airline, but you want a variety of options for hotels or transportation. If you travel often, you can get an airline credit card and a no-fee general travel card for all other travel-related expenses.

As long as the rewards you get from a card outweigh the costs of carrying it, you’ll come out ahead, no matter your destination.

This article has been updated. It was originally published July 8, 2013.

Melissa Lambarena is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: mlambarena@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @LissaLambarena. Anisha Sekar contributed to this report.