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Multi-airlines cards versus single-airline cards

Figuring out which one is right for you

By Randy Petersen

Cashing In
Cashing In, Randy Petersen
Randy Petersen is editor and publisher of Inside Flyer, which is considered the leading publication in the world about frequent traveler programs. At CreditCards.com, he writes Cashing In, a weekly feature in which he answers readers' questions about credit cards rewards programs.

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Question for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Cashing In,
I recently read that U.S. Bank has announced that its customers who have been earning miles on Northwest Airlines by using their WorldPerks Visa cards will now be able to earn points toward free flights on over 150 airlines with no blackout dates or award ticket redemption fees with new U.S. Bank FlexPerks Travel Rewards Visa cards. This got me wondering -- are these multi-airlines rewards cards better or worse than the single-airline cards generally? What are the pluses and minuses of each type? -- Mike

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Mike,
This is a timely question, as hundreds of thousands of other frequent flier credit cardholders will have to make the same decision. Cardholders should consider the pros and cons of both types of cards in order to figure out which type of card will work best for them.

First things first: Both earn free travel, merchandise options, hotel stays, car rentals and gift cards, depending on the member level you have with Northwest WorldPerks or Delta SkyMiles, and of course, which options you decide to use with each card.

Here are the pluses for multi-airlines "generic" credit card FlexPerks -- the new travel card that US Bank is offering current credit cardholders of the Northwest WorldPerks frequent flier program when US Bank leaves the new combined program with Delta SkyMiles:

  • You have more airlines to choose from than the current and future Delta SkyMiles program, which means more free-seat availability -- in theory.
  • Airline allowance is only partially matched by member-level at Delta SkyMiles.
  • Double FlexPoints on preferred spending (select cards) are important.
  • There is no reason to change cards or worry about spending limit reductions or card acceptance by moving to American Express. (AmEx is the credit card partner of Delta SkyMiles)

FlexPerks minuses:

  • Ability to earn free travel is based upon your ability to spend with this credit card.
  • There's no cash-back options.
  • You can't combine these "points" with actual airline miles for elite-level and other types of bonus opportunity.
  • FlexPoints will expire five years from the end of the calendar quarter in which they were earned (no extensions).
  • Credit card points cannot be used for upgrades.

Here are the multi-airlines "affinity" SkyMiles pluses and minuses (I refer to SkyMiles as being "multi-airlines" because for now it retains its domestic partnerships with Alaska Airlines, Continental Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Midwest Airlines, and of course the merger with Northwest Airlines -- which makes it the world's largest airline. In addition, it has 12 continuing foreign airline relationships in the SkyTeam Alliance):

SkyMiles pluses:

  • Credit card miles can help earn elite-level status that is good for upgrades and even special security lines at the airport.
  • Credit card miles can be combined with other types of miles earned in the program toward reward redemptions of all types.
  • The American Express brand is a strong growth brand for merchant networks.
  • With Pay With Miles, there are opportunities to redeem at lower levels than other credit card programs. (The popular Pay with Miles feature allows Gold, Platinum and Reserve cardholders to book Delta/NWA flights with no blackout dates or inventory restrictions on delta.com. Cardholders can use miles like cash to pay for any seat, anytime for travel to more destinations than ever before. The feature also allows cardholders to use miles to pay for all or part of their trip, with redemptions starting at 10,000 miles for $100 off the cost of a flight, essentially every mile you have is worth one cent).
  • Miles expiration can be extended with activity to the account on a regular basis.
  • Credit card miles can be used for "flight upgrades."

SkyMiles minuses:

  • Fewer overall airlines to choose reward travel from.
  • There are capacity controls and other restrictions on various reward levels.
  • Program adjustments on what seems an annual basis.
  • Certain cards have caps on miles earned from spending.

So, without getting too technical, this is the common comparison between the two types of cards you have identified. Whether with FlexPoints from US Bank or other types of cards from Capital One or Citibank, the comparisons are always similar with the more "generic" cards having greater flexibility with airline choices, and to some degree, better value at select reward levels. But, they fall short when compared to actual frequent flier miles for elite level and other upgrade benefits, such as preferred security lines at the airport, and of course, their more strict expiration policies.

For the general traveler, I've seen greater value for members who choose to continue their card relationship with US Bank and that program, for the reasons I stated earlier. For the high flier, I think you'll find that the SkyMiles credit card is the better choice. For instance, a first-class ticket to Asia might well cost $8,500 in normal travel times. If you purchase the ticket with rewards miles, that would require you to spend nearly $500,000 with US Bank. With Delta SkyMiles, that award, if only using credit card miles for the purchase, would be available after spending approximately anywhere from $120,000 to $370,000.

The bottom line for any decision is based upon what is best for you. Use my advice as a general guideline and go with what feels right. Both options are better than not getting any rewards at all for your spending habits.

See related: Do you lose your miles if you cancel your rewards card?, Tracking rewards program changes before they happen

The Wall Street Journal refers to Randy as "... the most influential frequent flyer in America," while The New York Times tagged him "the world's leading expert on airline frequent flier programs." Randy is editor and publisher of Inside Flyer magazine -- considered the leading publication in the world about frequent traveler programs. He is a regular speaker at business travel seminars and conferences around the world; and is often called upon by the industry itself for his comments and suggestions about the future of frequent traveler programs.

Send your question to Randy.

Published: May 14, 2009



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