What Airline Credit Cards Are For: You Get — But Do Not Use — Airline Cards

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You get an airline credit card for the signup bonus and for the benefits of having the card. And with the exception of actually buying United Airlines tickets with a United card, you do not use airline co-brand credit cards for actual spending unless you are trying to earn elite qualifying miles or waive/credit towards elite spending requirements.

Airline Credit Cards Don’t Earn the Most Airline Miles

If you spend on an airline credit card you’re locked into earning miles with one airline rather than having points that transfer to a variety of airlines. More importantly airline credit cards aren’t the way to earn the most miles even with the airline they’re associated with.

  • If you want Delta miles, the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card isn’t going to earn as many SkyMiles as a ‘generic’ American Express card will.

    American Express Membership Rewards cards transfer to Delta miles as well as other programs and earn points faster because of category bonuses. Even the no annual fee Amex Everyday will earn a minimum of 1.2 points per dollar (when you use it 20 times in a month) that transfer to Delta or elsewhere.

    It’s a no annual fee card that generally earns Delta miles 20% faster than Delta’s own card, plus gives you flexibility to use your points with other airlines.

  • If you want United miles, the United credit card isn’t the one that earns the most MileagePlus miles. Chase Ultimate Rewards cards transfer to United miles as well as other programs and earn points faster because of category bonuses.

    So whether it’s Chase Sapphire Preferred or Chase Ink Business Preferred you earn more United miles than with United’s Visa

  • If you want American miles, the American credit cards aren’t the ones that earn the most AAdvantage miles. The Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard® has a great signup bonus to earen 60,000 miles but you’ll generally earn one mile per dollar spent.

    In contrast the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express earns faster for your spending because when you transfer 20,000 points to miles you earn 5000 bonus miles (leaving aside the regularly-occurring transfer bonus American seems to offer), meaning a minimum earn of 1.25 miles per dollar.

Airline Credit Card Do Help You Earn Elite Status

Spending $25,000 on a Delta co-brand credit card lets you ‘buy out of’ the minimum spending requirement to earn elite status up to the Platinum level. You have to spend $250,000 on co-brand American Express cards in a year (and not exclusively on the Blue card) to ‘buy out of’ the spending requirement for Diamond.

Similarly spending that amount on the Explorer Card exempts you from a minimum amount you have to spend to earn elite status with United up to the Platinum 75,000 mile tier (but not for 1K status).

American’s approach is a little bit different, spending $25,000 in a year on the Barclaycard AAdvantage® AviatorTM Red World Elite Mastercard® lets you earn $3000 elite qualfying dollars. If you have the Silver card (which you can product change Red to) then $50,000 spend in a year on the card earns $6000 elite qualifying dollars.

If You Don’t Have Elite Status, Get the Cards for the Benefits

In each case co-brand cards get you many of the benefits of the first tier of elite status with the airline. You don’t get upgrades, but first tier elites rarely get those anyway.

The CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Mastercard® gets you one free checked bag (on domestic American Airlines itineraries for you and up to four companions traveling with you on the same reservation) and preferred boarding on American Airlines flights.

Meanwhile the premium Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard® comes with American Airlines Club membership — and it offers authorized user cards at no additional annual fee. Authorized users get access to American Airlines clubs as well. You get priority check-in, priority airport screening (where available) and boarding privileges for you and up to eight travel companions on the same reservation. First checked bag free is also for up to 8 people on the same reservation as well.

The Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card gets you some of the key benefits of that status just for being a cardholder, specifically priority boarding (which helps avoid having to gate check carryon bags) and first checked bag free on every Delta flight (a savings of up to $200 per round trip for a family of four, so can more than pay for the annual fee after year one with just a single trip).

Uniquely the United card
doesn’t just offer first bag for free (a savings of up to $100 per roundtrip) and priority boarding but you also get 2 one-time United Club passes each year for your account anniversary as well. The United card is unique in requiring you to actually use the card when buying United tickets to unlock the travel benefits.

These Cards Help Solve the Basic Economy Dilemma for United and American Passengers

New Basic Economy fares at United and American have gone a step farther with restrictions than what Delta pioneered. Not only don’t you get advance seat assignments or upgrades (if you’re an elite) you aren’t permitted to bring a full-sized carry on bag onboard either. That means you have to check a bag instead of carrying it on. And of course that comes with its own fee. They’ve got you, unless you have elite status or the airline’s co-brand credit card.

The no full-sized carry on rule is enforced by boarding group. If you’re in the last (Basic Economy) boarding group you don’t get to bring the bag on. But you get preferred boarding even on basic economy fares with the co-brand credit cards.

Since the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card and CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Mastercard® give you priority boarding, you skip the most draconian restrictions of basic economy. And both cards are fee-free the first year (then $95). So you really save in year one.

But You Should Use Other Cards for Your Spending

Get the The Blue Business℠ Plus Credit Card from American Express since it earns 2 points per dollar on the first $50,000 in purchases each year. And then transfer those points to Delta if you wish. You’ll earn faster than with a Delta card.
Get the Delta card for the signup bonus and the travel benefits, but not for spend.

Similarly having a Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and putting your spend on Chase Freedom Unlimited, which has no annual fee and earns 1.5 points per dollar on everything, and transferring to United is far more lucrative than spending on a United Card. You should never earn just 1 mile per dollar.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Gary,

    While I agree that non-airline card earn more miles, isn’t this statement a bit misleading? “If you spend on an airline credit card you’re locked into earning miles with one airline rather than having points that transfer to a variety of airlines.”

    Only the first part is accurate: an airline card technically can only EARN miles with one airline. But those miles can still be used with all the airlines within that one airlines’ alliance (and with other partners). That’s still a lot of airlines that those miles can “transfer to” — just like a points-earning card can do.

    Now if the award-redemption levels differ greatly among point-earning and miles-earning cards, that’s a whole other consideration, of course.

  2. You also get 10% miles back in miles on award travel (unto 10000) if you have an AA airlines card. For United, you get some extra award seats and preferred boarding if you book with their CC. Those are both good reasons to keep these cards.

  3. You’ve left off the fee AMEX charges to transfer miles; you need to be clear there, AMEX transfers are NOT the same as Chase transfers.

  4. One thing that you may want to clarify (and correct me if I am wrong)…you need to use the United credit card on your ticket in order to get the card flight benefits. Thus, even though I may be able to earn more miles on my United flight with a different card, if I don’t pay for it with the United card, I do not get the added benefits that you described.

  5. @Robert – they collect those only on transfers to US airline frequent flyer miles. Do not transfer to US frequent flyer programs, that’s not where the value is at.

  6. @tommyleo – miles in united cannot be transferred to korean or to singapore. That’s 100% accurate. OF COURSE you can redeem united miles for travel on lufthansa or austrian or scandinavian (but not korean.. or long haul premium cabin singapore).

  7. In the FWIW mode, I have two co-branded airline cards. I’ve had the Virgin America card seemingly forever — since *before* Comenity bank began issuing them (I think it started our as a Barclay’s card). When the merger was announced, I applied for and received the Alaska Airlines card (issued by Bank of America), as I didn’t know what would happen to the VX card. (Indeed, as it turns out, there will be no “conversion” of VX cards to AS cards.)

    The VX card earns points that are exchanged to Alaska points at a rate of 1:1.3. As a result, I’ll continue using the card for airfare (5x points for the flight, plus 3x points on spend — a total that equals 10.4 points per $1 in Alaska points) until it becomes null and void at the end of this month (on 12/31/2017). Once it’s gone, I’ll be keeping the AS card for two prime reasons: 1) the annual Companion Fare, and 2) the free checked bag(s). I only use the card “every so often” to keep it valid. I get 3x points on Alaska, but only 1x on everything else. So I use it to sometimes buy a drink or food onboard, or a low-priced ticket. But on higher priced tickets, I *do* use my Chase Sapphire Preferred or Citi Prestige cards . . .

  8. I agree, but I still use my Alaska CC to purchase Alaska flights for 3x miles. I like the free stopovers.

  9. @Daniel- To clarify, the *only* benefit of the United Explorer card that requires paying with the card is the checked bag fee waiver. Priority boarding, extra award availability, last seat awards, and upgrades for elites on award bookings are all available just for having the card.

  10. In my specific case, living in Fairbanks, AK with only two year-round airlines serving the community, I highly value both Delta and Alaska miles. With the Delta Platinum AMEX, I earn 1 mile/$, plus a 10k mile bonus when I hit $25k spend and again when I hit $50k spend (in addition to MQM’s and spending waiver for status). I personally spend until I hit $50k, then switch to another card. This essentially means I’ve earned 50k miles plus 20k bonus miles, so return is essentially 1.4 miles/$. Not bad, even if it’s not amazing.

  11. Just an FYI, you not only have to use the United card to buy your tickets but it has to opened when you fly to gain the benefits of early boarding and no checked bag fee. They do not make this clear at all, and I got dinged this past September for two flights. I read it at face value “use to purchase.” It should read “use to purchase and have open at time of flights” Very misleading.

  12. I have looked all over the CardMatch site and can not see where I am to click for searching ” targeted offers ” ‘ Would you please tell me exactly where this is ??
    BTW – I love reading your post, thanks for all the good information.

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