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TravelAirline credit cards vs. travel credit cards: Which are best?

Airline credit cards vs. travel credit cards: Which are best?


Credit cards aimed at travelers come in various forms, the two most popular being airline credit cards and travel credit cards. While both types of cards can help you pay for travel, several differences may affect your choice.

Choosing a card that best suits your travel needs can be challenging considering how competitive the landscape has become regarding welcome offers, card rewards and other benefits. We review the ins and outs of airline and travel credit cards to help you determine which type of card is right for you.

What is an airline credit card?

Airline credit cards are cobranded cards offered by the issuer and a partner airline that provide benefits for flying with that specific airline. Airline credit cards earn miles associated with the airline’s frequent flyer program, which you can redeem for flights on that carrier or its partner airlines.

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The annual fee for airline credit cards can range from no annual fee to upward of $500. Usually, an airline credit card with a higher annual fee includes impressive benefits such as increased earning rates, free checked bags and statement credits, among other perks.

For example, the United Quest℠ Card has an annual fee of $250 and offers 8 miles per dollar spent on United Airlines purchases, up to $125 annual statement credit for United purchases, priority boarding and other impressive benefits.

Related: Are airline credit cards worth it anymore?

Pros and cons of airline credit cards

When comparing airline and travel credit cards, there are several reasons why you might prefer an airline credit card. Although not an exhaustive list, the following table highlights the pros and cons of airline credit cards.

Pros Cons
  • Earn status with the airline’s frequent flyer program.
  • Earn rewards with your preferred airline.
  • Receive priority check-in and boarding.
  • You may be eligible for free checked bags and discounted or complimentary companion tickets.
  • You may have complimentary access to airport lounges.
  • You may enjoy complimentary seat upgrades (based on availability).
  • Inflight discounts are common.
  • You’re restricted to one frequent flyer program.
  • Limited reward redemption options are available.
  • You’ll have limited access or a lack of travel insurance.
  • A devaluation or frequent flyer program changes could occur.

When does an airline credit card make sense?

Several factors may play a role in dictating whether an airline credit card makes sense. As a cardholder, if you live near an airport with a hub for a specific airline, having a card for that airline makes sense to maximize your benefits.

For example, residents who live near Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (ORD), a United hub, should consider a United credit card, such as the United Club℠ Infinite Card or the United℠ Explorer Card, to take advantage of lounges, free checked bags, priority boarding and redemption options for award flights.

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If you don’t live near an airline hub and aren’t committed to a particular carrier, an airline credit card might not be your best option.

Related: The best credit cards to reach elite status

What is a travel credit card?

A travel credit card earns rewards on all purchases, including bonus-earning categories. You can use your rewards to book flights, hotels, rental cars and more. A travel credit card earns rewards within the issuer’s own ecosystem rather than through a specific airline frequent flyer program.

Examples of credit card programs include American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, and Capital One Miles.

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Annual fees for travel credit cards can range from nothing to $700, corresponding to the card’s perks and benefits. Typically, the higher the annual fee, the more valuable the benefits, whereas the lower the annual fee, the opposite is true.

For example, The Platinum Card® from American Express has an annual fee of $695 (see rates and fees) but offers perks and benefits that can easily top $1,000. Benefits include an annual up to $200 hotel credit, an annual up to $200 airline credit, up to $100 Saks Fifth Avenue statement credit (up to $50 in statement credits from January through June and up to $50 in statement credits from July through December; enrollment required), a TSA PreCheck or Global Entry application fee credit and an entertainment credit for select streaming services.

Travel credit cards can offer other travel-related perks, such as complimentary travel insurance, including emergency travel medical, trip delay or cancellation**, and baggage insurance***.

*Eligibility and benefit level varies by card. Terms, conditions and limitations apply. Visit americanexpress.com/benefitsguide for details. If approved and coordinated by Premium Global Assist Hotline, emergency medical transportation assistance may be provided at no cost. In any other circumstance, cardmembers are responsible for the costs charged by third-party service providers.

**Eligibility and benefit level varies by card. Terms, conditions and limitations apply. Visit americanexpress.com/benefitsguide for details. Policies are underwritten by New Hampshire Insurance Company, an AIG Company.

***Eligibility and benefit level varies by card. Terms, conditions and limitations apply. Visit americanexpress.com/benefitsguide for details. Policies are underwritten by AMEX Assurance Company.

Related: The best time to apply for these 10 popular travel credit cards, based on offer history

Pros and cons of travel credit cards

Based on your personal preferences, travel credit cards may be more appealing than airline cards. Although not an exhaustive list, consider the following travel credit card pros and cons before you apply.

Pros Cons
  • You’ll have a variety of redemption options.
  • You can transfer rewards to airline and hotel partners.
  • Travel and purchase protections are available.
  • Some cards provide TSA PreCheck or Global Entry application credits.
  • Some cards offer airport lounge access.
  • There are no foreign transaction fees on some cards.
  • You won’t get any airline-specific benefits.
  • Premium benefits are limited to cards with high annual fees.
  • Benefits for an airline’s frequent flyer status are not provided.
  • Rewards may not transfer to your preferred or favorite airline.
  • The issuer can change benefits at any time.

Travel credit cards maximize flexibility for cardholders thanks to their ability to earn transferable currency points. In addition to not being limited to one airline, you can often redeem your points toward hotels, car rentals, cruises, vacation packages and more.

As cards become more premium, so do their benefits, which translates to high annual fees. For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve® comes with a $300 annual credit and Priority Pass lounge access but has an annual fee of $550.

When does a travel credit card make sense?

If you are flexible about the airline carriers you choose to fly with, a travel credit card makes sense. You’ll benefit from bonus points for travel-related purchases, such as airfare, hotels, rental cars and sometimes parking meters and tolls.

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When contemplating between travel and airline credit cards, remember that travel credit cards won’t help you earn elite status, unlike some airline cards like the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card and the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®. The biggest benefit of a travel credit card is the flexibility you get when redeeming your points or miles.

Unlike an airline credit card, travel credit cards have a variety of transfer partners you can use to book your next adventure.

Related: How many credit cards should I have?

Should you get both?

Both airline credit cards and travel credit cards have pros and cons. For example, it pays to have an airline credit card if you regularly check bags for domestic flights, especially considering the increase in checked bag fees across numerous carriers. Meanwhile, travel credit cards offer various travel insurance coverages that can provide peace of mind while traveling.

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My very first travel-orientated card was the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard® because I found value in American Airlines’ award chart and had several American flights lined up for the year in which I needed checked bags.

The information for the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Soon afterward, I opened a Chase Sapphire Reserve for its lounge access, transfer partners and annual travel credit. Nowadays, I use both cards. However, since I have elite status with American, the Citi card’s free checked bag is less important. That said, I still hold onto the card to earn American Airlines AAdvantage miles.

Bottom line

Both airline credit cards and travel credit cards offer benefits. They can offset travel costs and provide perks such as priority boarding, free checked bags, lounge access and various statement credits. We recommend choosing a card based on your travel needs and circumstances. You may even benefit from holding both types of cards, as long as you’re maximizing the perks.

For rates and fees of the Amex Platinum, click here.

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