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Most frequent flier programs have gone through many changes over the last few years - and United, Delta, and American all promise that more changes are coming soon. So now is a time to explore the benefits of airline credit cards, and see if they still provide bang for the buck.
The Future of Frequent Flier Programs
Rumors are that Delta's SkyMiles program will soon abandon its fixed-miles rewards for free flights in favor of higher mileage requirements to redeem for popular routes. Virgin America, Southwest, and JetBlue already use this type of program. American Airlines, meanwhile, is making it harder to earn frequent flyer points by basing points earned on ticket price rather than miles traveled, but the airline will reduce the number of reward miles necessary to redeem free flights.
If you fly frequently and buy the highest fares, you will probably earn enough additional miles to offset the higher costs of redeeming award flights. If you don't travel very often, these changes will probably make it much harder to earn free flights in the future.
Are Airline Cards Still a Good Deal?
With these changes, and past dilution of the value of frequent flier miles, we need to ask: are airline credit cards still a good choice?
Is it worth it to pay an annual fee for a branded credit card when it will be much harder to earn free flights?
Or should you choose a non-branded travel rewards card like the Capital One Venture?
Here's what you should consider.
Benefits of an Airline Credit Card
When most people consider getting a travel rewards card, they think of airline cards that earn frequent flyer points.
There are usually benefits with a co-branded airline card that you won't get with a standard travel card such as:
- Free checked bags
- Airline perks like lounge access, priority check-in, upgrades
- Spending helps you earn elite status with a frequent flyer program
- Bonus miles when booking a flight with the card
And let's be honest, how many of us keep multiple airline cards (and suffer the annual fees) because we hate paying checked bag fees?
But is saving that fee once and a while really worth it?
Why an Airline Card May Not Be the Best Option
A branded credit card may not be your best choice even if you travel frequently.
In most cases, you will need to redeem rewards for flights with a specific airline. And your rewards value will be subject to change if the airline changes their frequent flyer program - as so many are now doing.
Most airlines are now devaluing their frequent flyer programs and requiring more miles to redeem for award flights, reducing the number of available reward seats, and basing the rewards you earn on the price of your ticket instead of the miles you fly.
You will also face blackout dates and restrictions on using your miles.
So this deal keeps on getting worse:
- Airlines are making is harder to earn miles
- Miles are worth less and less
- Miles are harder to redeem
- You have to pay an annual fee
- You may not even want to use that airline for your next trip
Travel Rewards Cards Offer a Better Value for Most Travelers
Unless there is one airline you fly all the time, and really can put to use the savings on the checked bag fees, you will be better off with a generic travel rewards card.
Recommended Next Step
Don't act impulsively. Instead, head over to our Guide to Travel Rewards Cards.
Check out the methodology we use to figure out the value of each card.
And then choose the one that best suits your needs and spending habits.
The Bottom Line
How much is the checked bag benefit worth to you?
Don't assume a branded airline card will offer you the best value, even if you tend to be loyal to one carrier.
If you prefer the flexibility of choosing the lowest fares or shopping through third-party travel sites, a non-branded card will probably earn you a higher rewards rate and you can redeem your miles against any flight, any airline, and on any date.
You won't need to worry about blackout dates or sticking with a specific carrier even if you find a better deal with someone else. With some travel cards, you can even transfer your points to frequent flyer programs.
FIND YOUR TOP TRAVEL CARD
Review our Guide to Travel Rewards Credit Cards to find the card that will deliver you the most bang for your buck