Consider award availability before selecting travel card

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

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Question Dear Cashing In,
I live in Salt Lake City and my fiancee lives in Chicago, so we will be flying a lot. I want to get a miles reward cards. I am considering American Airlines or Delta cards, as both have frequent flights between the two cities, or a generic one, like Chase Sapphire, as I may end up alternating between those two airlines and possibly a third one while flying. What do you recommend? – Salim

Answer Dear Salim,
If you have a particular reward in mind, it is easy to evaluate cards to determine which is the best one for you.

Typically, people looking at credit card offers don't have such a specific plan for rewards, so the analysis can be tougher. If you don't know exactly what you want, you might favor a reward card that offers the most flexibility or the greatest value of rewards.

In that scenario, a cash-back card or a card that allows you to transfer points into a variety of airlines might migrate to the top of your list. Or if you are interested in an airline-affiliated card, you might choose the one associated with the airline that has the most flights from your hometown airport.

Also, you are smart to consider how you will use the rewards before actually signing up for a card. Too often, people sign up for a card because the rewards sound great, only to find that they have trouble using them in precisely the way they want.

Ordinarily, you would consider several factors when choosing a reward card, including the value of the miles or points, the cost of the card and the additional features that come with the card. Here, though, you can examine another crucial factor: the availability of rewards seats on the flights you want.

In your case, flying between Salt Lake City and Chicago, you are blessed with a lot of options. Delta operates a hub in Salt Lake City, American and United operate hubs at Chicago-O'Hare, and Southwest has its biggest operations at Chicago-Midway. All four have multiple nonstop flights per day between the two cities.

But which airline offers the most frequent flier seats between those cities at the lowest redemption level?

On the airlines' websites, I searched for economy-class award seats on nonstop between Salt Lake City and Chicago for every day in June and July. Here's how the airlines fared in low-level award seat availability (which is 12,500 miles each way):

American: Outbound seats, 2 percent. Return seats, 3 percent.

Delta: Outbound seats at lowest award level were available 84 percent of the days in June and July. Return seats were available on 62 percent of the days.

Southwest: Southwest's program is different in that seats are almost always available at varying prices. In June and July, 18 percent of outbound and return flights cost less than 12,500 miles. Most other flights were around 14,000 or 15,000.

United: Outbound seats, 7 percent. Return seats, 2 percent.

In this sampling, Delta was the clear winner, with far more seats available at the lowest level, at least this summer. That could also be because it offers the most daily flights between the cities: four each way.

Because the airline cards are similar in terms of sign-up bonuses, cost and benefits, I think the decisive advantage in award availability on this route favors a card affiliated with Delta, such as the American Express Gold Delta SkyMiles card (annual fee: $95, waived first year). It comes with a 30,000-mile sign-up bonus after spending $1,000 in three months, plus priority boarding and a free checked bag.

You might also consider a card that accumulates American Express Membership Rewards points, since those points transfer to Delta.

The Chase Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier card might be another option (annual fee: $99), because there is an offer now for 50,000 miles when you spend $2,000 in the first three months – enough for almost two round-trip tickets.

If you like Southwest, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card you mentioned might also work (annual fee: $95, waived first year), because its points transfer to Southwest and to United, but not directly to American or Delta. It also has a sign-up bonus of 50,000 points.

Finally, you could also go with a generic travel card such as Barclaycard Arrival Plus (annual fee: $89, waived first year) or Capital One Venture (annual fee: $59, waived first year). The sign-up bonuses on each give you the equivalent of $400 in travel spending, and the route you are looking at tends not to be too expensive.

You have a lot of options. And remember that whatever you choose, your fiancee can make a similar choice and earn some travel rewards, too.

See related: Check flight availability before transferring rewards points, Check American Airlines' reward partners, transfer options

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Updated: 12-16-2018