Airline credit cards aren't what they used to be. With rewards becoming less competitive, you might do better with a good non-airline rewards card.

Sometimes it seems like just about every store offers their own credit card. But airlines were among the first businesses to offer credit cards that featured rewards programs.

But today’s airline credit cards are vastly different than the ones they’ve offered in decades past. And they earn miles in frequent flyer programs that have changed dramatically in the last few years.

Today, it can be very hard to use your airline miles to book award flights at the lowest rates. But airline credit cards offer much more than miles. Let’s take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of airline credit cards, so you can see if they’re right for you.

The advantages of airline credit cards

Frequent flyer miles

The primary feature that airline credit cards are known for is the ability to earn frequent flyer miles. With most airline cards, you earn one mile per dollar spent, and double miles on charges to the airline. These miles are added to those that you earn from flying, enabling you to quickly reach the number of miles needed for an award flight, or other reward options.

You can score expensive tickets

Airline miles can be extremely valuable, but only when used for the most expensive tickets. These tickets include domestic flights with little advanced notice, and international flights in business and first class.

When redeeming miles for these kind of tickets, it can be possible to receive several cents in value per mile redeemed. It also helps tremendously if you can be flexible in your travel dates, and even the destinations you travel to.

Other perks

Airline credit cards can also offer numerous perks and benefits. For example, most airline credit cards offer a free checked bag, which typically costs an additional $25 each way.

Other perks can include priority check-in, credit for Global Entry or TSA security screening, and boarding. And if you have a premium airline rewards card, it can offer you things like airport business lounge access or credit towards elite status.

The disadvantages of airline credit cards

High interest rates

Despite all of the benefits of an airline credit cards, they do have several drawbacks. Like all reward credit cards, airline cards will have higher interest rates than similar cards that don’t offer rewards.

If you tend to carry a balance on your credit cards, then you should be focused on using a card that has the lowest possible interest rate, not one that offers rewards. Nevertheless, it can make sense to have an airline credit card just for the benefits, but using it sparingly for actual charges if you might need to carry a balance.

Annual fees

Another problem with airline credit cards is that they almost always have annual fees. These fees can be worth it for frequent travelers who regularly utilize their benefits, but it can be a waste of money for occasional travelers.

Rewards are not competitive

But the most serious problem with airline credit cards is that the rewards offered may no longer be competitive. Many airlines have devalued their frequent flyer programs to such an extent that their miles are rarely worth much more than one cent each. And many airlines have dramatically increased the number of miles needed for award flights.

The awards that are available typically need to be booked far in advance, and are only during off-peak periods. If you’re using an airline credit card to earn rewards for a family vacation during the holidays, you will almost certainly be disappointed. When you combine this with the extremely low prices offered by ultra-low cost carriers, it can be make sense to buy a low priced ticket elsewhere, rather than save up miles.

Non-airline travel rewards credit cards typically offer better rewards

Finally, there are now many credit cards that offer rewards that are more flexible than frequent flyer miles. These credit cards offer points that can be transferred to miles with multiple airlines, or even hotel points.

When you have the ability to transfer your rewards to different airlines, then you’re no longer dependent on a single program. Also, these flexible rewards programs can offer more than one point per dollar spent, and often feature bonuses of two-five points per dollar, far more than most airline credit cards.


Airline credit cards aren’t the great deal they used be, especially with other credit cards out there that offer transferable rewards. But there are some benefits that might make some consider opting for a co-brand airline card.

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About the author

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Jason Steele has been writing about credit cards, travel and personal finance since 2008, and is passionate about using his cards to travel for free. Jason contributes to many of the top personal finance and travel sites and has been widely quoted in mainstream media as a credit card expert. Jason lives in Denver Colorado where he enjoys bicycling, snowboarding and flying. You can follow Jason on Twitter, Facebook or on his website.