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Considering Gold Delta AmEx? Look at General Travel Cards, Too

Airline Credit Cards, Credit Cards, Travel Credit Cards
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Gold Delta AmEx, or a General Travel Card? Why Venture Comes Out on Top

A big question for many regular Delta Air Lines flyers is whether they should get the carrier’s Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express or apply for a general travel credit card that racks up miles more quickly and offers more flexibility for redeeming them.

So we’ll pit the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express against both the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card and the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard®, two top general travel cards that are quite similar to each other.

We’ll start with our standard short answer for those deciding between a co-branded airline card and a general travel card: If you fly frequently with one airline, you might get more value from an airline card, especially if it lets you avoid checked-bag fees, which Delta’s does. If you want flexibility in your airline choices, though, a general travel card with better rewards for everyday spending is the way to go.

For most travelers, the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card and the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® can be great choices. But specifics matter. Here’s how the cards stack up side by side.

 Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard®
Annual fee$0 for the first year, then $95.$0 for the first year, then $95. $0 for the first year, then $89.
Sign-up bonusEarn 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.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. Enjoy 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 90 days — that's enough to redeem for a $400 travel statement credit toward an eligible travel purchase.
Rewards1 mile per dollar spent on all purchases except for those with Delta, which earn 2 miles per dollar2 miles per dollar spent on all purchases2 miles per dollar spent on all purchases
ExtrasFree first checked bag, priority boarding and other exclusive perks.None.5% redemption bonus. For example, if you redeem $1,000 worth of travel statement credit, you'll get $50 worth of miles toward your next redemption. This gives the card an effective 2.1% earn rate.

Why general travel cards win for most people

great rewards and two great choices

The Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card and the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® offer generous sign-up bonuses and nearly identical rewards rates. Making the choice is a close call. The annual fee on the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® is $0 for the first year, then $89. The annual fee on the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card is $0 for the first year, then $95.

Both cards give you 2 miles per $1 spent on everything, with each mile worth 1 cent when used for travel. The Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® gives you 5% of your miles back when you redeem.

Between these two it’s a near toss-up. NerdWallet offers a detailed analysis, including a calculator to determine which is right for you. In short, we think the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® gives you slightly better long-term value, but the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card gives you more upfront.

By comparison, the annual fee on the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express is comparable with the general travel cards: $0 for the first year, then $95. It has a sign-up bonus: 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. NerdWallet values Delta miles at 1.7 cents apiece, meaning the bonus is worth more than those on the Barclaycard and Capital One cards.

In the long run, however, Delta’s offering isn’t worth it unless you make regular use of the card’s perks. More important, the card has a mundane rewards structure for racking up miles. It pays just 1 mile per $1 spent on all purchases, except those with Delta, which earn 2 miles per dollar.

Redemption flexibility

Both general travel cards offer more ways to redeem miles than the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express, which really has only one good option: redeeming for Delta flights.

The general travel cards let you redeem miles for statement credit against travel purchases. Essentially, you use miles to erase travel charges — and not just flights. You can use miles for other typical travel expenses, too, such as car rentals and hotel stays. But they can also apply to a cruise, train ride or timeshare vacation. Budget-conscious travelers who examine all their flight and hotel options to find the best deal will especially appreciate that kind of flexibility.

Notably, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® requires an unusually high $100 worth of miles before you can redeem for a travel statement credit.

» MORE: How credit card issuers define “travel”

The Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express is far more restrictive in what travel expenses you can use miles on. They’re best used on flights, especially on business-class international flights.

When to choose the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express

Checked bags make a big difference

If you’re a regular flyer and live in a Delta hub city or find yourself on Delta the vast majority of the time, the decision isn’t so clear-cut. That’s because of the perks you get with an airline card, especially free checked bags.

Cardholders get a free first checked bag if they use the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express to pay for the flight — as do their companions on the same reservation, up to nine people. Bag fees normally are $25 each way, so checked bags on one round trip with a family member or friend on the same itinerary would cost $100. Getting that for free makes up for the card’s annual fee right off the bat. Multiply that by several flights a year, and it becomes a huge value.

Cardholders and companions on the same reservation get Zone 1 priority boarding, allowing them on the plane earlier than most. That means if you have carry-on luggage, you’re more likely to find room in the overhead bin. You have to decide what value that holds. The card also gets you a discount on a day pass to Delta Sky Club lounges, costing $29 instead of $59, as well as 20% off some in-flight purchases.

So the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express could be the right choice if you regularly fly from airports in such cities as Atlanta, Minneapolis, Detroit and Cincinnati, where you have few choices other than Delta — and if you value free checked bags, priority boarding and an occasional trip to the airport lounge. But if you fly mostly from places like Chicago or Dallas, where Delta has a minor presence, or if you seldom check bags, look elsewhere for a travel card.

And note: The Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® and the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card are on the MasterCard and Visa networks, meaning they’re accepted more widely in the U.S. and abroad than American Express, the network for the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express.

In this three-way face-off, one of our top general travel cards is best unless you’re a Delta devotee and would use its baked-in perks, such as free checked bags.

Gregory Karp is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: gkarp@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @spendingsmart