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To get best frequent flyer card, know your hubs

By  |  Published: March 28, 2017

Cashing In
Cashing In columnist Tony Mecia
Tony Mecia is a business journalist who writes for a number of trade and general-interest publications. He writes "Cashing In," a weekly column about credit card rewards programs, for CreditCards.com

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Question Dear Cashing In,
What kind of travel credit card should I get? I live in Madison, Wisconsin, but don't mind driving to Chicago to catch flights. I looked at a United card, but I don’t know if there is something better. I don’t want something with too big of an annual fee. – Stephanie

Answer Dear Stephanie,
Usually, the idea behind choosing a travel card is to examine the sign-up bonus and make sure that the points you receive can be used on an airline that is available to you.

For instance, if you live in Bozeman, Montana; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; or Charleston, West Virginia, you probably wouldn’t want to sign up for a Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus card (annual fee: $69), because Southwest doesn’t fly to any of those cities. You’d be better off with a card connected to an airline that flies to one of those cities. You could also consider a bank travel card that gives you points that can be redeemed for flights on any airline, such as the Barclaycard Arrival Plus (annual fee: $89, waived first year) or Capital One Venture (annual fee: $59, waived first year).

If you are fortunate enough to live near an airline hub, however, the calculus changes. You should strongly consider the card linked with the airline that operates a hub at your airport. That’s because flights from hub airports tend to be more expensive, and therefore a better value when using most airline miles. And because there are more flights on that airline from that airport, you have many more opportunities to use miles than you would at an airport with fewer flights.

U.S. AIRLINES AND THEIR HUB CITIES
Airline Hub cities
United Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Newark, San Francisco, Washington 
American Dallas, Chicago, Miami, Phoenix, Charlotte, Philadelphia
Delta Atlanta, Detroit, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City
Southwest Chicago, Baltimore, Las Vegas, Denver, Dallas
Alaska Seattle; Anchorage, Alaska; Portland, Oregon. 
U.S. AIRLINES AND THEIR HUB CITIES
Airline Hub cities
United Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Newark, San Francisco, Washington 
American Dallas, Chicago, Miami, Phoenix, Charlotte, Philadelphia
Delta Atlanta, Detroit, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City
Southwest Chicago, Baltimore, Las Vegas, Denver, Dallas
Alaska Seattle; Anchorage, Alaska; Portland, Oregon. 

Chicago is a hub airport for a few airlines. United and American count Chicago-O’Hare as a hub. Southwest doesn’t have hubs, but it has more flights out of Chicago-Midway than any other airport. Spirit Airlines counts O’Hare as one of its main bases. Each of those airlines has credit cards with sign-up bonuses, so you should check out all of them out and see which works best for you. You should also look at the British Airways card because you can use British Airways points to book flights on American.

Airline cards are less than $100 a year and come with 30,000 to 50,000 frequent flyer miles after you spend a few thousand dollars on the card in the first few months. You can’t use the miles on competing airlines, but you typically have the option to use them on rental cars and hotels. They also typically allow you to check a bag for free and board before most other passengers.

Of course, be sure to look at other travel cards, too, if travel interests you. But a credit card that offers perks and miles on an airline that offers many flights close to you should be examined toward the top of your list.

See related: Travel reward cards: How to avoid pitfalls, Airline card reviews, Travel card reviews

 

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Updated: 08-18-2017

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