It's not just about your flying habits.
In picking its Best Credit Cards, MONEY named four travel winners — one with a hotel spin, and three for frequent flyers. But all of the latter three were broad-based cards that weren’t tied to any individual airline, because for most people, a general-purpose travel card will outperform any one airline loyalty program.
Yet there are a couple of reasons that an airline-specific credit card might make more sense for you, particularly if you do almost all of your flying on one airline. Here’s when to opt in:
If you check bags. Let’s say you take six round-trip flights on a given airline per year, and pay an industry standard $25 to check a bag each time. That would be $300 in baggage fees. But on a number of airlines, you can waive those fees if you’re a cardholder. The Gold Delta SkyMiles, for instance, gives you up to nine free checked bags per reservation — for an annual fee of $95. Spending $95 to save $300 makes sense even if you do most of your other spending on a card with a higher reward rate.
If other perks change the equation. Some airline cards offer perks that make them more valuable, if you’re in a position to take advantage. The Alaska Airlines Visa Signature, for instance, lets you add one companion ticket per year, for $121, to any roundtrip flight once a year. That alone can give you hundreds of dollars in savings on long-distance trips — well worth the $75 annual fee if you usually fly Alaska, one of MONEY’s Best in Travel winners, and travel with a friend or family member. (You also get free checked bags and a generous rewards rate — three miles per dollar spent — on Alaska Airlines purchases, as well as the ability to transfer your miles to a couple of other partners, including American Airlines and British Airways.)
…But not if you just spend a lot on travel. For most of our Best Credit Cards calculations, we assumed a fairly typical $2,000 a month in annual spending. Let’s assume again that you buy those six roundtrip flights a year, at an average of $600 apiece.
If you had, for instance, the Citi Platinum Select AAdvantage World, you’d earn a total of 20,400 miles a year on regular spending, plus 7,200 on American Airlines flights, then get a 10% bonus when you cash the miles in. That’s a total of just over 30,000 miles a year, or about half of what it would take to get an unrestricted economy U.S. roundtrip ticket on American, not including any surcharges or taxes you’d pay.
But if you used the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite, MONEY’s pick for frequent flyers, you’d effectively get 2.1% rewards when you cash in miles for travel, including Barclaycard’s redemption bonus. So that same level of spending would get you about $500 in a year — putting you a lot closer to that roundtrip ticket.
The annual fees are similar — the American card is $6 more expensive than the Barclaycard — so again, unless you’re solely flying American and benefiting from the free checked bags, you’re better off with the general card, which gives you more flexibility.