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Airline credit card offers unrestricted awards

"Leisure travelers earn travel credits; Redeem more quickly for any flight, any seat, any day, any Continental destination."

That's the tag line from Continental's news release touting the November launch of the TravelBank World MasterCard, issued by Chase.

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Travel credits, redeemable on any Continental flight, with no capacity restrictions or blackout dates. You might conclude that Continental had decided to upgrade the OnePass program, discarding the onerous award bottlenecks that have so riled consumers. But you'd be mistaken. This is a stand-alone card, completely independent from OnePass.

The TravelBank card is a hybrid, part rebate card, part travel-rewards card. Cardholders earn a 1 percent credit on the amount charged for most purchases, and a 3 percent credit for eligible cable, telecommunications and wireless purchases.

The credits can then be used, either alone or in combination with cash, to purchase Continental tickets. New cardholders receive a $50 credit after they use the card for the first time, and a $25 credit on the anniversary of their account opening if they've charged $10,000 or more during the year.

The card carries a $29 annual fee. The annual percentage rate on outstanding balances is currently 17.24 percent (Prime Rate plus 9.99 percent).

The value proposition falls between that of the Blue Sky card from American Express, which offers an effective 1.33 percent rebate, and the Discover Cashback Bonus card, which also features a 1 percent rebate on most charges, but only after the cardholder has accumulated $3,000 in annual charges.

Still, one is left questioning the rationale behind the card.

Continental's release quotes Mark Bergsrud, the carrier's senior vice president, marketing programs and distribution, as follows: "The TravelBank card expands earning and reward options for our customers. With the TravelBank card, Continental is the first airline to offer its frequent flyer members the opportunity to earn and redeem both miles and dollar-based travel credits."

It's true that Continental now offers an alternative to its OnePass-linked cards. But bragging about providing a solution to a problem of Continental's own making seems like a misguided and disingenuous marketing strategy.

Rather than introduce a new currency, TravelBank credits, Continental should have shored up the value of OnePass miles by fixing the award side of the program. That would have been something worth bragging about.

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