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To Earn More Miles, Say 'Charge it' (Part One: Airline Cards)

On Frequent Flyer Miles
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Editor's Note: This story was originally published on May 5, 2003. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: credit card, frequent flyer, On Frequent Flyer Miles, Tim Winship.

After flying, the second-most lucrative source of frequent flyer miles is credit cards that reward users with miles for their charges.

Today there's a co-branded mileage card affiliated with every major airline and hotel program, and with many of the smaller programs as well. American Express joined Diners Club in deploying a card that earns points convertible to miles in multiple programs. And many credit-card issuers offer cards with proprietary rewards programs, not linked to airline or hotel programs.

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Most travelers who participate actively in mileage programs supplement their flown miles with credit card miles. And the cards have given rise to an entirely new category of program participant—frequent buyers—who rarely travel but still want to reap the rewards offered by travel programs.

Whether you're a frequent flyer or a frequent buyer, or fall somewhere in between, there's a credit card with your name on it.

Credit card series

Read the next three installments of Tim Winship's series:

Part two: Hotel cards

Part three: Multi-program charge cards

Part four: Bank cards and series summary

We begin a four-part series by reviewing the airline cards—still the dominant species in the rewards space. In the next installment, we'll continue with a discussion of hotel-affiliated cards. In part three, we'll look at the multi-program cards, such as Diners Club and American Express. And in the final chapter, we'll consider bank cards with travel-rewards programs, and wrap up with a recap of the strengths and weaknesses of the various types of cards, and some thoughts about who might be best served by each.

Airline-affiliated credit cards

Although there are now many other options, rewards cards linked to the airlines remain the first choice of mileage-oriented consumers.

For the nine largest airlines' frequent flyer programs, the comparison chart below shows the costs and first-use bonuses of their affiliated credit cards.

Airline Card(s) Annual Fee APR* Bonus
Alaska Alaska Airlines Visa Classic $45 Prime + 9.99%, currently 14.24% 3,000
Alaska Airlines Visa Gold $45 Prime + 6.99%, currently 12.24% 3,000
Alaska Airlines Visa Platinum $75 Prime + 7.99%, currently 10.24% 5,000
American Citi AAdvantage MasterCard $50 Prime + 9.99%, currently 14.24% 3,000
Citi Gold AAdvantage MasterCard $85 Prime + 9.99%, currently 14.24% 4,000
Citi Gold AAdvantage World MasterCard $50 Prime + 9.99%, currently 14.24% 5,000
Citi Platinum AAdvantage World MasterCard $85 Prime + 9.99%, currently 14.24% 7,500
America West America West FlightFund Visa $45 Prime + 9.99%, currently 14.24% 3,000
America West FlightFund Platinum Visa $75 Prime + 6.99%, currently 12.24% 6,000
Continental Continental Airlines Classic Credit Card $45 Prime + 9.4%, currently 13.65% 4,000
Continental Airlines Platinum Credit Card $65 Prime + 9.4%, currently 13.65% 6,000
Delta Delta SkyMiles Card $55 Prime + 9.99%, currently 14.24% 5,000
Gold Delta SkyMiles Card $85 Prime + 9.99%, currently 14.24% 10,000
Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card $135 Prime + 9.99%, currently 14.24% 15,000
Northwest WorldPerks Visa Card $55 Prime + 9.75%, currently 14.0% 3,000
WorldPerks Visa Gold Card $90 Prime + 9.75%, currently 14.0% 3,000
Southwest Rapid Rewards Visa Card $39 Prime + 8.65%, currently 12.9% 4 credits
Rapid Rewards Visa Platinum Card $59 Prime + 8.65%, currently 12.9% 4 credits
United Mileage Plus Visa $60 Prime + 9.9%, currently 14.15% 15,000
Mileage Plus Gold Visa $85 Prime + 9.9%, currently 14.15% 15,000
US Airways Dividend Miles Visa Classic $50 Prime + 9.99%, currently 14.24% 3,000
Dividend Miles Visa Gold $70 Prime + 9.99%, currently 14.24% 4,000
Dividend Miles Visa Platinum $90 Prime + 9.99%, currently 14.24% 7,000

* Prime rate as of April 2003

Which card should you choose?

Fees, rates, bonuses, earning rates, caps—it's all too easy to become overwhelmed by the minutiae that differentiate the various airlines' cards. The antidote to detail overdose is the big picture.

Credit cards play a supporting role in most consumers' mileage-earning endeavors, with earnings for airline flights usually remaining the single largest source of miles. So in most cases, the overriding goal is to align your credit-card miles with your flying miles. And that means using the card affiliated with your primary airline program.

Conversely, for someone whose primary airline program is, for example, Alaska's Mileage Plan, using a credit card that awards miles in a different program will result in fragmenting your earnings among non-combinable currencies.

As you make a decision about which of the airline-affiliated credit cards is right for you, these are some of the other factors you may wish to consider:

Mileage-earning rate

The normal earning rate for airline-affiliated credit cards is one mile for every $1 charged to the card. If we value airline miles at 2 cents each—a good rule of thumb, based on the potential value of award tickets—the mileage award amounts to a two percent rebate.

In addition, the typical card awards two miles for every $1 spent on tickets for travel on the airline that hosts the program.

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