Editorial Policy

Flying high on rewards with airline cards

Dawn Papandrea

July 1, 2015

Anyone booking a trip can tell you that airline fees have risen over the past few years. It’s no surprise that consumers are looking for ways to bring down the cost of travel expenses, and airline credit cards can offer a way to do that.

If you’re considering an airline card to help you earn cheaper or even free flights, here are some questions to ask yourself before takeoff…

Will I qualify?

In general, the travel cards with the most generous rewards programs also require the consumer to be in good credit standing. “Most good airline cards require a score above 700,” says Daraius Dubash, co-founder of MillionMileSecrets.com, a website geared for card reward-seeking travelers.  He also points out that travel reward cards generally charge higher APRs, and in many cases, an annual fee. “If you’re not used to paying your balances back in full each month, you’re better off with a lower interest rate card,” he says.

If you are a stellar credit user, however, you can really reap some great rewards, says Emily Jablon, MillionMilesSecret.com’s other co-founder. “The benefits outweigh the costs, even if you have to pay an annual fee,” she says, if you play your cards right.

What’s my traveling style?

Some people may only take one or two trips a year to the same destination, while others fly regularly all over the country or the world. In order to choose an airline card that can give you the most value, you need to consider how, where, when and with whom you travel. Some points to ponder:

  • Your destination plans. “The first thing to think about is if you travel mostly in the U.S. or outside the U.S.,” says Dubash. For instance, Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier Card offers a lot of perks for domestic travelers, including a 50,000-point bonus and no blackout dates, he says.
  • Your airline preference. If you’re loyal to one airline, you can really cash in on perks, says Emily Collins, director of consumer public affairs at Citi. You can get a double bonus blast from the airline’s own miles program, plus the card’s rewards. If you prefer not to be tied to one airline, there are great travel card options that allow you to transfer your points to your favorite airline’s frequent flyer program.
  • Travel frequency. If you’re boarding flights every month or every week, you can find a lot of value in an elite card with a higher annual fee, such as the Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite card, which offers perks such as airport lounge access and priority check-in, says Collins. Other card features that might be attractive to a jetsetter are lost luggage protection, a concierge service to help with booking and planning, trip cancellation benefits and zero foreign transaction fees, she adds. If you’re someone who travels only a couple of times annually, you may be better served with a card that enables you to earn miles with everyday purchases that has either a small or no annual fee, she says.
  • Flexibility. “If you can be flexible, you can find more available flights,” says Jablon. Being open to more connections or leaving on a Wednesday instead of a Friday (when it could cost you more points) can help you maximize your miles, she says. If you travel with small children or need to leave on a specific day and time, a rewards card that lets you redeem your points from among multiple airlines makes more sense. The Discover it Miles card, for example, lets consumers choose any airline with no blackout dates or restrictions.

How can I keep track of the rewards?

It’s important to know that most rewards have expiration dates,, but missing out on miles doesn’t happen as quickly as you might think. “Miles and points usually expire after 18 months,” says Dubash, “but many activities will keep those miles going and extend the expiration date.” That can include swiping your airline card for a small purchase or shopping through the airline’s online portal.

The key to keeping points alive is to track them. Depending on how much time you want to devote and how many airline cards you carry, your points tracking can run on auto pilot or be very complex.

“Some cards work well for someone who doesn’t want to do a whole lot of research,” says Dubash. He cites the example of the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, which partners with different airlines and hotels. Other cards allow you to get cash back for travel-related purchases, so you’d be getting an indirect benefit to booking flights and travel using the card.

If you’re willing to take a more advanced approach, spending a bit more time examining different card offers can be worthwhile. Most card issuers have pretty solid features on their websites to keep track of points, or you can go with a service that does all the tracking for you if you have multiple cards, such as WalletUp or AwardWallet.com, which monitors all of your miles and rewards accounts on one platform.

How should I start?

If you want to explore airline cards, Dubash says to start slow by applying for just one card. “See how it works for you. If you like it, you can apply for more. Just remember that it’s never worth paying high interest rates on these cards if you don’t pay the balance in full,” he says.

After considering your own travel habits, the next thing to compare is introductory offers. “The fastest way to get a lot of points quickly is to take advantage of sign-on bonuses,” says Collins. These bonuses can range anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 points, depending on which card you apply for. In order to earn the bonus, however, you may be required to meet a spend minimum within a certain amount of time, says Collins, so be sure to understand the terms.

No matter what type of traveler you are, or how much time and effort you want to dedicate to earning and tracking points, there are benefits waiting for you to use, says Jablon. “I never traveled as a kid, and I never thought I would be able to travel as much as I do now,” she says. “But by using airline cards, I’ve gone all over and even flown friends and families on trips with me.”