The benefits of obtaining an airline-branded credit card are many, but benefits such as free checked bags and priority boarding may not outweigh the flexibility or earning potential you can get with general travel or everyday credit cards. While there are plenty of good reasons to secure an airline credit card, there are lots of situations when an airline card may not be the best choice for the purchase you’re about to make.
Today we look closer at the pros and cons of using an airline credit card.
We’ll look first at the benefits of using an airline credit card and when it may make sense to do so. We’ll then focus on several situations where there may be better alternatives that yield higher rewards earnings, more flexible redemption options, and greater benefits.
Before you pull out that airline credit card to pay for groceries, you’ll want to hear what we have to say about when, and when not, to consider using an airline credit card.
Benefits of Using an Airline Credit Card
Let’s start with the reasons it can make sense to secure an airline credit card or spend on the card.
The Welcome Bonus
One reason for initially considering an airline-branded card is the opportunity to earn a significant welcome bonus that helps secure flights for an upcoming trip. If the card you’re considering has an increased welcome bonus, it may be the opportune time to apply.
It’s important, however, to note the requirements for earning the welcome bonus. If the spending requirements are high, you may be better off applying that same spending toward earning a welcome bonus on a general travel rewards credit card. We’ll talk more about the benefits of flexible rewards shortly.
One important benefit of holding an airline-branded credit card is receiving flight benefits. If you don’t have elite status with an airline’s frequent flyer program, these benefits can add a lot of value.
Airline Cards That Offer Flight Benefits
Each airline offers its own branded card that comes with flight benefits such as free checked bags, priority boarding, inflight purchase discounts, and more. Learn more about the best credit cards from Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, United Airlines, Alaska Airlines, and Southwest Airlines in our detailed guides.
If you frequent 1 airline, you’re sure to find an associated credit card that comes with flight benefits.
Several airline-branded credit cards offer an annual companion certificate that can result in significant savings. You simply purchase 1 airline ticket with your eligible card and receive a second ticket for your companion for the cost of the taxes, or other discounted price, such as for $99.
Airline Cards That Offer Companion Certificates
The Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card, Delta SkyMiles Platinum® American Express Card, and the business versions of these cards offer either a first class or domestic companion certificate, depending on the card, each card anniversary year. There is no cost for the certificate, but you must pay the taxes, which can be up to $75.
The AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard® requires $20,000 in spending on the card to earn a $99 domestic companion certificate. Learn about additional AAdvantage cards that offer companion certificates and how you can qualify for these certs.
The Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Credit Card is famous for its $99 companion fare.
Access to the Airline’s Lounge
Having access to an airport lounge can add comfort to any journey, especially one with a long layover. Airport lounge memberships can be expensive, however, so having an airline credit card that offers complimentary or discounted lounge access can potentially save you hundreds of dollars each year.
Airline Cards That Offer Complimentary Lounge Access
There are additional airline credit cards that may offer a limited number of 1-time lounge passes or discounted lounge access. See our picks of some of the best travel rewards cards for airport lounge access.
Faster Path to Elite Status
Airline-branded credit cards often offer the option of a faster path to frequent flyer elite status by spending on the card.
Airline Cards That Offer a Faster Path to Frequent Flyer Elite Status
- Delta Air Lines — The Delta Reserve card, Delta Platinum card, and the business versions of these cards offer the opportunity to earn Medallion Qualifying Miles that count toward elite status. Additionally, spending on these cards can waive the Medallion Qualifying Dollars requirement for obtaining elite status levels. Spending level requirements and the amount of MQM and MQD you’ll earn varies by card, but we’ve put all the information in one place for you in our article on qualifying for Delta Medallion elite status.
- United Airlines — Spend on any qualifying United-branded card and earn Premier Qualifying Points (PQP) that help you reach elite status.
- American Airlines — Several AAdvantage-branded credit cards, including the Citi®/AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®, earn Loyalty Points that count toward American Airlines elite status by spending on the cards. See how the program works and how you can earn elite status faster by spending on an American Airlines-branded card.
- Southwest Airlines — Earn Tier Points that count toward elite status by spending on Southwest Rapid Rewards credit cards.
Get details on these and other airline credit cards that can help you reach airline elite status faster.
Bottom Line: If you’re loyal to an airline, a branded credit card that earns redeemable and elite qualifying miles and offers you benefits on that airline can add significant value.
When You Should Consider Not Using an Airline-Branded Credit Card
We’ve covered several benefits of using an airline credit card, but there are times when an alternative card can deliver so much more value. Let’s look now at those situations where another rewards-earning card could be the better choice.
1. You Fly With More Than 1 Airline
If you’re not loyal to a particular airline, having a flexible rewards-earning credit card allows you to find the best deal possible, then book with your points. With an airline credit card, you’ll be limited to redeeming miles with that airline or with the associated alliance airlines.
2. You Want Higher Earnings on Flight Purchases
Most airline credit cards earn 2 or 3 miles per dollar spent on the airline. Flexible rewards-earning cards can earn as much as 10x points per dollar spent and it’s common to see 5x earnings on flights purchased directly with the airline or via the card’s travel portal.
You don’t need an airline credit card to earn well on flight purchases. A good travel rewards card such as The Platinum Card® from American Express, Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card, Chase Sapphire Reserve®, or the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card can earn well on flight purchases.
Explore some of the additional best credit cards for flight purchases.
3. You Spend a Lot on Travel in General
Chances are you won’t be earning bonus rewards on general travel with your airline credit card. This means that boat excursion, city tour, or museum pass may earn just 1 mile per dollar spent. Flexible rewards-earning cards can earn much more on general travel than airline-branded cards.
Check out some of the best travel rewards cards if you’re interested in earning more on travel.
4. You Spend A Lot on Everyday Purchases
While some airline credit cards offer bonus miles earning on some everyday purchases, the level of earnings can be quite low. Flexible rewards-earning cards can earn as much as 10x earnings in select categories.
If you spend a lot on groceries, gas, dining, and other everyday purchases, for example, you may be leaving rewards on the table by using your airline-branded card on a daily basis.
Read our list of some of the best cards for everyday purchases.
5. You Want Flexibility at Redemption Time
Unlike flexible rewards, at redemption time you’ll be limited to redeeming your miles earned on your airline credit card with the airline or airline alliance associated with the card. Flexible rewards points such as Membership Rewards points, Ultimate Rewards points, Citi ThankYou Points, Capital One miles, and more allow you to find the best deal offered by any of several airlines.
Flexible rewards programs also have airline partner options that can allow you to transfer your rewards points to participating airlines and then redeem those miles for award flights. This option can result in the highest potential value for your rewards.
You’ll also have the option to utilize 1 airline for your outbound flight and another for your return, making it possible to secure a better deal.
Hot Tip: Check out our Transfer Partner Calculator tool to see exactly how far your transferrable points will take you, and get ideas on redemptions, too!
6. You’re Concerned About Mile Devaluations
Whether you’re earning miles or points, holding a bank of rewards for a long period of time runs the risk of devaluation. It can take a longer time to accumulate enough airline frequent flyer miles to have enough to redeem for an airline ticket, especially if you’re working toward a business or first-class ticket (or 2).
During that long accumulation period, award prices can rise and make it necessary to earn more miles to reach your objective.
The faster you earn rewards and use them, the lesser the risk of devaluation. A good travel rewards credit card can help you earn rewards faster.
7. You’re Concerned About Limited Award Availability
One potential problem with trying to use your airline frequent flyer miles during peak times such as spring break or other holiday periods can be the lack of award flight availability. If you can’t use your miles to book a flight, your miles become essentially useless.
You may pay more at peak times, but with flexible rewards points, there are no blackout periods and you’ll have a greater number of airline choices.
8. You Prefer Specific Trip Insurance Benefits
While some airline-branded credit cards offer trip insurance, you’re more likely to find greater trip insurance benefits on premium cards such as the Amex Platinum card, CapOne Venture X card, or Chase Sapphire Reserve card. The Chase Sapphire Preferred card also has superb travel insurance benefits.
You’ll find coverages such as evacuation insurance, limited medical and dental coverage, primary car rental insurance, trip cancellation, trip interruption, and trip delay insurance — coverages that may not be offered on airline credit cards.
If travel insurance benefits are important to you, you’ll want to read our related article on the best credit cards for travel insurance.
9. You Have Existing Frequent Flyer Elite Status
If you have top elite status in an airline frequent flyer program, you may already receive complimentary lounge access, free checked bags, priority boarding, or other perks. In this case, the added value of having an airline-branded card may be diminished.
Bottom Line: You may receive higher earnings on flexible rewards-earning cards, have greater and more flexible redemption options, plus receive premium trip insurance benefits. Additionally, the value of having an airline credit card diminishes if benefits received on the card are duplicating existing elite benefits.
Pros and Cons of Airline Credit Cards — Summary
It’s time to reflect on when it makes sense to use your airline credit card and when you may realize greater earnings, expanded redemption options, and better benefits by using an alternative card.
|Pros of Using an Airline Credit Card||When To Consider Not Using an Airline Credit Card|
- Welcome bonus
- Flight benefits
- Companion certificate
- Lounge access
- Faster path to frequent flyer elite status
- You fly more than 1 airline
- You want higher earnings on flights
- You spend a lot on travel in general
- You spend a lot on everyday purchases
- You want greater redemption options
- You’re concerned about the airline devaluing your miles
- You’re concerned about award availability at redemption time
- You prefer specific trip insurance benefits
- You have existing frequent flyer elite status
There are several benefits to using your airline-branded credit card. However, there are situations when an alternative travel rewards card can deliver better bottom-line value.
Personal variables can determine which card makes sense for a particular situation, of course. Each person’s spending mix is distinct, preferences at redemption time can vary, and the need for travel insurance benefits can be different for each individual.
The takeaway, however, is to not put every purchase you make on your airline credit card without considering whether there might be a better alternative that will help you reach your travel goals faster.
The information regarding the AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard®, Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Credit Card, United Club℠ Business Card, and Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card was independently collected by Upgraded Points and not provided nor reviewed by the issuer.