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Are airline mile credit cards still worth it?

April 11, 2014
Airline Credit Cards, Credit Cards
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I knew airlines would begin to devalue their miles the day I was in JFK airport. I had passed a big sign promoting my airline mile credit card, offering many of the perks it had taken me a decade to earn via my elite status, by simply getting approved for the credit card. This killed me. Now regular folks, merely by paying a minuscule annual fee, could have priority boarding and free checked bags and … and … next they’ll get the ice cream sundae I get in business class!

Sure enough, most of the airlines and even the hotel chains have been devaluing their miles. It’s basically inflation at work. They all made it so easy to obtain miles that the currency that they represent devalued as a result. So are airline mile credit cards still worth it? The answer is “yes, but only in specific instances.”

Score a bonus — and know the rules

The first instance is if you want to score a large sign-up bonus for a given airline and you know how to use that airline’s miles to your advantage. Perhaps you are planning a trip to Hawaii. Most airlines now have varying tiers for award travel – on-peak, off-peak, high season, low season. If you know when you want to travel, then you know how many miles you’ll need for that award ticket. You may also know about various multiplier bonuses, such as earning 2X miles if you buy groceries with your card. So if you study the program and the credit card carefully, you can make what I call a “surgical strike.”

Do the math on perks

The second instance involves the same thing I was ranting and raving about at the beginning of the article. Many cards are now offering the perks I mentioned, and a few are offering others like airline lounge access. In that case, it’s merely a matter of comparing the cost of annual fee for the card to what you might save with free checked bags on a certain number of flights, or how you personally value things like priority boarding.

Don’t forget personal preferences

The last issue is a bit more complex, and it depends on your flying habits. I happen to be picky when I fly more than three hours. I not only want to fly business (or first) class, but I want a cabin that has been upgraded with extra leg room, wider seats, and plenty of culinary amenities. I want real business class. Boeing 737s, for example, usually aren’t designed or retrofitted in that way. It’s cramped and no better than coach, in my opinion. So I took a lot of nerd time, and figured out which aircraft various airlines use, on various routes that I fly on. If it turned out that another airline gave me access to these things, then I would consider switching.

It turns out that the one airline I happen to have elite status on continues to provide the most options as far as my business-class preferences, so I’m sticking with that airline mile credit card. I happen to have a zillion miles on it, so I don’t need to earn like I used to. Now I’ve moved primarily to Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card, because I’m looking to maximize some hotel points and like the mile-exchange flexibility it has. That’s just me, however. Your mileage (and points) may vary. Oh, and here’s our picks for the best of the bunch.

Business traveler image via Shutter stock