Best Credit Cards for Earning Free Travel

Frequent Flyer Q&A
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Credit card on keyboard (Photo: Index Open)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on October 30, 2009. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: American Express, Citibank, Frequent Flyer Q&A, Starwood Hotels, Tim Winship.

Dear Tim—

Can you advise what the best credit card is for earning frequent flyer miles?

Anita

Dear Anita—

This is perhaps the question I am asked most often, and it's one of the toughest to answer.

Part of what makes it difficult to answer is that there is no single best card, just as there is no single best frequent flyer program. What there is, however, is a best card for you, given your goals, and your normal spending and travel patterns.

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Which Rewards?

These days, with frequent flyer awards in short supply and travel more a test of stamina than a welcome respite, it's worth asking whether travel rewards are worth pursuing at all.

One alternative is cash rebate cards that typically kick back 1 or 2 percent of the amount charged. That compares favorably with the value of frequent flyer miles. And unlike frequent flyer miles, cash can be used for anything, including airline tickets with no capacity controls.

Example
The Discover More card provides a 1 percent cash rebate on purchases after the first $3,000 in charges, and 5 percent on selected categories.

Example
Another way to play the cash-back angle is with a card linked to a brokerage account. The Fidelity Investment Rewards card from American Express, for example, deposits a 2 percent rebate into an eligible Fidelity Investments account.

Buyer or Flyer?

If you're sure that free travel is the right reward for you, the next question is whether you're a frequent flyer or a frequent buyer.

If you foresee earning the majority of your miles by using a credit card, your best bet may be an independent travel-rewards card.

Example
As do most credit card issuers, Citibank offers a card with its own travel-rewards program, the Citi PremierPass card. With the Elite Level card, consumers earn one or two miles for every dollar charged. And the miles can be redeemed for flights on most airlines.

The chief selling point of this class of cards is that there are no blackout dates or capacity restrictions on awards. That's because the card company simply buys a ticket when a cardholder redeems his miles. The downside: Miles earned with most such cards cannot be combined with miles earned in the airlines' own programs. (The Citi card neatly sidesteps this by awarding miles for flights as well as for charges.)

If, on the other hand, you travel regularly, you'll probably be best served by making airline miles your primary rewards currency. In that case, you can either use a credit card linked to your preferred airline program or a card that awards points that can be exchanged for points in multiple programs, including yours.

Example
As an example of the former, United now offers four different consumer credit cards, all of which generate miles in the Mileage Plus program, plus various other travel-related benefits (lounge access, etc.).

Example
Among the most popular multi-program cards is the Starwood Preferred Guest card from American Express. While this is nominally a hotel card, the Starwood points can be transferred into miles in the programs of 30 different airlines, including Alaska, American, Continental, Delta, Hawaiian, United, and US Airways. Plus there's a 5,000-mile bonus when exchanging 20,000 points.

The Obligatory Disclaimer

Realistically, this is a topic that warrants a book-length treatise, with charts and graphs and real-life examples. And that book would be outdated as soon as it was printed. So the above can only provide the briefest overview of the various combinations of goals and options available to you.

There are more options than we can possibly hope to cover here. I hope this at least helps you narrow down your search to an appropriate category of card.

 
 
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