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Airline Mile and Travel Reward Credit Cards
What to Consider when choosing Frequent Flyer Credit Cards

If you are looking for the best possible Frequent Flyer Credit Card, here are some questions to ask:

  • How close does the sign-up bonus get you to a free ticket? While a few cards offer enough bonus miles for a free ticket, most cards offer smaller mileage bonuses, enough to get you one quarter or half way to an award flight.

  • Can the frequent flyer miles be used on the routes where you fly the most? While it may make sense to go with the card with the highest introductory offer, you also need to consider whether you can use the miles. This is particularly the case for cards associated with smaller, more regional airlines. If you live in a place not served by the airline, the free miles may not help you get where you want to go.

  • Can the miles you earn be used with partner airlines? Many frequent flyer cards let you use the miles you earn with partner airlines (often the major carriers). This, of course, gives you a much wider range of choice in how you use your miles when you book your ticket. Do note, however, that bonus miles tend to be redeemable only with the carrier associated with the frequent flyer card, so again, you need to make sure that carrier covers the routes you plan to travel most frequently.

  • How many miles do you earn on your purchases? While most cards will award you one mile for each dollar you spend, a few cards offer more miles per dollar and some cards offer a smaller reward, such as one mile for every two dollars you spend. The latter also typically come with a smaller or no annual fee, so if you won’t be using your card that much, you might be better off opting for the card without an annual fee. A few cards, such as the Gold Delta Skymiles® credit card, allow you to earn double miles on certain purchases, for example in supermarkets, gas stations, and drugstores.

  • Is there a limit to the number of miles you can earn in a given year? If there is a limit, these are typically so high (e.g. 100,000 miles) that they don’t apply to most people. However, if you will be charging enough each year to exceed the card limit, you may consider a different card or simply get more than one card.

  • Do the miles expire? Many cards require you to have some type of account activity, either purchasing a ticket or redeeming miles, at certain intervals, such as every three years, in order for your miles to not expire. Be sure you know the terms and conditions, so you don’t get any surprises.

If you don’t plan to make a lot of purchases, it makes most sense to choose one Frequent Flyer Credit Card and stick with that. Alternatively, you could select one of the many Airline Mile Credit Cards, which allows you to transfer miles into a frequent flyer account of your choosing. As with any rewards credit card, keep in mind that your earnings can be offset by the interest charges if you carry a substantial balance.

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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