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Airline Mile and Travel Reward Credit Cards
Travel Reward Credit Cards at a Glance

What is the best approach to finding the best card for your need?

To figure that out, you need to do a bit of honest self-examination. For people who travel and spend a fair amount, one card's great rewards program may more than outweigh its annual fee. Others have no need to worry about a card's high annual percentage rate (APR) because they never leave a balance. People who don't charge all that much should realize that they'll probably never qualify for certain rewards. Which card is right for you depends on what kind of traveler -- and spender -- you are.

If you travel often, and mainly fly one airline and its partners, take a good look at a credit card affiliated with your carrier. Most of these cards, such as the United Airlines Mileage Plus Signature Visa and the Continental Airlines World MasterCard, both from Chase Bank, award customers one mile for every dollar charged. Sometimes you can pile up miles at an even faster pace: After your first purchase, the United Visa awards 17,500 bonus miles as well as a certificate for a one-way seat upgrade, and the Continental card always gives double miles when it's used at Macy's, Avis, Bed Bath & Beyond and other partner establishments.

Rewards from airline cards can be fantastic -- flights to Hawaii, upgrades to Europe -- but come with relatively little flexibility. Loads of frequent-flier members complain of difficulties when the time comes to redeem their miles for flights; considering blackout dates and other restrictions, they often have little choice but to opt for an off-peak rewards flight or let the miles go to waste. (Your chances of booking a rewards flight, ironically, are often better with a card that's not affiliated with an airline -- see below.) Sometimes you can trade miles for magazine subscriptions, electronics and other goods, but if those are the kinds of perks you really want, you're probably better off with a different card.

With airline-affiliated cards, miles accrued through purchases and miles earned through flying are interchangeable. They're combined into the same frequent-flier account and can be traded in for free flights and upgrades. With other cards, miles earned through spending and flying can't be pooled together.

The downside of airline cards starts with high interest rates and annual fees. While many non-airline-affiliated credit cards have no annual fees and APRs lower than 10 percent, the US Airways Dividend Miles Visa Signature costs $90 a year, with a 17.24 APR. Most airline-affiliated cards charge $50-$80 per year, and because of their high APRs it's an especially bad idea to use them if you don't pay your monthly bill in full.

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