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Should You Get an Airline Credit Card for Your Next Trip?

Consider your travel habits and goals before committing to a card.

U.S. News & World Report

Should You Get an Airline Credit Card for Your Next Trip?

Black credit card on a calculator

Evaluating a card's benefits and whether points can be transferred to different programs is a smart strategy to assess overall value and optimize rewards.(Getty Images)

If you know enough people who travel frequently, you've probably heard all about frequent flier miles and travel rewards credit cards. In-the-know consumers win the loyalty game by signing up for travel credit cards, using them for regular expenses and racking up airline miles to use for free flights, seat upgrades and more. And those who are especially gifted at maximizing their spending credit can redeem award flights with minimal effort on their part. While a lot of these "free trips" and lucrative benefits are earned through the sign-up bonuses these cards offer, pro travel hackers rack up thousands of miles by using their cards for all types of spending.

Still, playing the rewards game isn't always easy. Like anything else, earning airline miles – and redeeming them – comes with a set of hoops to jump through. If you're considering a travel credit card as a way to score free flights, it's also important to consider which travel credit card yields the best value based on your travel habits and goals.

For example, if you happen to fly domestically on Southwest Airlines exclusively, check out the Southwest Airlines® Rapid Rewards® Premier card. Conversely, the Citi®/AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard® might be a better fit if you frequently fly with American and you want to take advantage of the added perks that come with the card, such as priority boarding and a free checked bag on domestic flights.

On the other hand, if you're not loyal to a specific airline, you should consider a flexible travel credit card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. By signing up, you'll earn valuable points in the Chase Ultimate Rewards program that can be redeemed for hotels or transferred to popular frequent flier programs such as Southwest Rapid Rewards, United MileagePlus and the British Airways Executive Club.

Along with consumer loyalty, here are three signs a co-branded airline credit card or flexible travel rewards card might be right for you.

You Have Some Flexibility in Your Travel Plans

Frequent flier programs and loyalty programs are notorious for their complexity and roadblocks when it comes to cashing in miles and free stays during popular, peak-season travel periods. So, if you have to travel at a specific time on a specific date, you may have trouble redeeming your miles for your desired flights. But if you have some flexibility in your travel plans, and you travel often enough to take advantage of elite status privileges, you'll be in much better shape.

You're Aware That Airline Miles Don't Always Translate to Free Travel

While airline miles allow you to redeeem award flights, many people are surprised to find they need to pay government-mandated taxes on their fares. For domestic flights, those taxes and fees work out to just $5.60 per trip, per person. However, international itineraries can come with the hefty price tag of several hundred dollars in taxes – whether you pay in airline miles or not. In addition, some airlines tack on expensive fuel surcharges on select award fares, so make sure to read the fine print.

You Don't Mind Paying an Annual Fee After a Year

While most airline credit cards charge an annual fee, the vast majority waive that fee for the first year. With that in mind, you can usually try out a card's benefits for 12 months – and earn a sign up bonus – without paying out of pocket if you're willing to cancel the card when a year is up. After the first year, though, you can generally count on paying an annual fee in the $59 - $149 range if you want to keep the card's benefits.

The Bottom Line

Airline credit cards can help you earn free airfare, seat upgrades and more, but only if you travel or spend often enough to accumulate generous perks and points. To get the most out of an airline or travel credit card, it's crucial to research and understand the benefits and drawbacks of your chosen frequent flier program so you know what to expect.

Frequent flier miles don't always yield high values for infrequent travelers, but they can be rewarding if you're seeking elite privileges and benefits, which can drastically cut down on out-of-pocket expenses and inconveniences, such as baggage fees for flights and Wi-Fi access for hotels. When you factor in the additional perks these cards offer, and they can be a stellar deal – even after you factor in the annual fee.

At the same time, it's important to remember that pursuing credit cards can be a lot like playing with fire. If you fail to pay your credit card bill in full each month, you could face an ongoing battle with credit card interest and get burned in the process. So make sure you know what you're getting into before you commit to a rewards card.

About En Route

Practical advice on the art of traveling smarter with tips, tricks and intel from En Route's panel of experts.

Contributors have experience in areas ranging from family travel, adventure travel, experiential travel and budget travel to hotels, cruises and travel rewards and include Amy Whitley, Claire Volkman, Holly Johnson, Marsha Dubrow, Lyn Mettler, Sery Kim, Kyle McCarthy, Erica Lamberg, Jess Moss, Sheryl Nance-Nash, Sherry Laskin, Katie Jackson, Erin Gifford, Roger Sands, Steve Larese, Gwen Pratesi, Erin Block, Dave Parfitt, Kacey Mya, Kimberly Wilson, Susan Portnoy, Donna Tabbert Long and Kitty Bean Yancey.

Edited by Liz Weiss.

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