Many potential cardholders are confused about the differences between the variety of airline miles credit cards available today. Miles credit cards can be divided into two mostly neat categories: airline-specific cards and generic cards. Each set has its own advantages, but it’s often advisable for a frequent traveler to go with a specific card, and a less-frequent traveler to go with a generic card, in order to minimize interest fees and to maximize earned mileage of the former, and in the latter case to have the flexibility to search for the least expensive flights while still earning rewards.
Anyone who’s ever considered getting an airline mileage credit card has probably balked, at least once, at the massive number of options out there. Additionally confusing is the dual terminology at work in the airline industry: there are frequent-flier miles, yes, but how do those relate to miles credit cards? And where do “points” come in to the equation? It’s a bewildering array of terms, few of whose definitions are readily available, and the lack of clear explanations cause many people to just give up on mileage cards altogether. Which is a shame, because mileage cards–assuming that they’re properly and carefully used–can be an easy way to save money on travel expenses, up to and including free flights around the globe.
Most of the differences between the varieties of miles credit cards boil down to two basic categories: airline-specific mileage cards and generic mileage cards. The airline-specific mileage cards allow you to accrue mileage that often applies directly to a specific airline’s frequent flier program mileage (for example, American Airlines’ AAdvantage Cards from Citi apply miles directly to your AAdvantage account, one mile for every dollar spent), miles which can then be turned around into actual airline seats and in some cases a discount or outright free travel. The advantage of these is that occasionally flights can be cheaper through a “loyalty” miles card than without. JetBlue, in particular, offers the standard deal of about 25,000 Award Dollars (points) for one plane ticket, but offers a 3:1 point to dollars ratio when making travel arrangements exclusively with JetBlue, which is an extremely good deal in the mileage card world, assuming that you fly JetBlue on an exclusive basis.
The generic mileage cards, by contrast, allow you to redeem your miles on whatever airline you choose (assuming that they participate in that mileage card’s specific rewards program.) You won’t usually find loyalty deals here, but there are some additional benefits. For one, in some cases a generic mileage card can offer the cardholder a much wider array of hotels to stay at to accrue additional mileage points (another key in the miles credit card world.)
Knowing a little bit about the airline dynamics in your region is also helpful in making your decision, such as the predominate carrier in your region and the availability of domestic and international flights from your local airports. Even still, it may be a difficult choice. To help make that decision, consider the following. As a rule (and there are exceptions), airline-specific cards generally will charge cardholders a pretty hefty annual fee and tend to have a higher ongoing APR. Generic miles credit cards typically won’t stick you with an annual fee but also tend to have higher ongoing APR’s than traditional non-reward credit card offers.
So really, to ask which mileage card is right for you is to ask how frequently you travel, and how many travel expenses will start to show up on your budget. If you do a great deal of traveling, consider an airline-specific card. The annual fee is fixed, and as long as you pay down your balances every month, should not be much of a consideration because of the benefits that you will derive from the reward program. But if you’re a more infrequent traveler, go for the generic mileage card and shop around to find the best flight from whatever airline offers it. Chances are that if you take just one or two flights a year, the generic card offer is the better bet for you. You can plan ahead to find some excellent discount flights in advance while enjoying all of the potential travel rewards that airline miles credit cards have to offer.