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Tips for finding the best airline credit card

By Ben Woolsey

As with most consumer products and services, defining what is best is often very subjective. This is particularly true if the product category has become something of a commodity, as with credit cards. Finding the best airline credit card that allows you to earn frequent flier miles is dependent on your personal tastes, loyalties and needs.

For instance, do you have strong brand loyalty to a certain major airline? If so, then it probably makes the most sense to choose a co-branded credit card (issued in partnership between the airline and a major bank or credit card issuer).  Virtually every major carrier offers a co-branded credit card that allows their customers to earn frequent flier miles apart from flying. By leveraging everyday spending on their airline credit cards, consumers can greatly augment the miles they earn from flying and achieve the holy grail of all frequent fliers -- free airline tickets, first class upgrades and other travel-related perks.

If you don't have an airline preference, and prefer to shop around for the lowest priced discount ticket before traveling, a generic miles card might be a better choice. Most of the major credit card issuers have developed generic miles cards in recent years that allow consumers to earn miles for credit card purchases and then redeem those miles for free tickets on any major airline. The miles are not the same as frequent flier miles in that they can not be combined with miles in a specific airline's frequent flier program. Once a mileage threshold is met, the customer can redeem by having the credit card company use the miles on the card to "buy" a discount ticket from one of the major airlines. In this sense, generic miles actually equate to dedicated cash-back earnings that can only be used to purchase an airline ticket.

Often, consumers are confused by the fact that they can't take the miles earned on one of these generic miles cards and roll them into their airline's frequent flier program account. Unfortunately, it just doesn't work that way -- generic miles are a different kind of currency that can't be traded or converted to other program accounts. Another important distinction between airline-specific and generic miles credit card programs is that most co-branded cards carry an annual fee and generic cards generally do not.

Finding the best credit card for you can be quickly accomplished by determining which category you find most appealing, either involving specific airline credit cards or the generic miles programs. Once this decision has been made, the choice should be easy. Good luck and bon voyage!

Published: November 21, 2005


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Updated: 08-30-2014

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