Select’s editorial team works independently to review financial products and write articles we think our readers will find useful. We earn a commission from affiliate partners on many offers, but not all offers on Select are from affiliate partners.
Subscribe to the Select Newsletter!
Our best selections in your inbox. Shopping recommendations that help upgrade your life, delivered weekly. Sign-up here.
Airline credit cards vs. travel rewards credit cards
These two credit card categories may sound interchangeable, but they are in fact very different.
An airline credit card is a co-branded credit card for a specific airline, and its rewards can only be redeemed with that airline and its airline alliance partners. For instance, the miles you earn with the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card can only be redeemed with Delta or its SkyTeam airline alliance partners, such as Air France or Aeroméxico.
Though airline credit cards are less flexible in terms of award-redemption opportunities, they offer benefits catered to those who are loyal to a particular airline, including airline lounge access, complimentary checked bags, waived foreign transaction fees and benefits designed to help you earn elite status faster.
For example, if you hold the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card, you receive access to Delta Sky Club® lounges and free checked bags when you fly Delta.
A travel rewards credit card, on the other hand, isn’t connected to a specific travel brand, so points earned are transferable and can be redeemed for all kinds of travel booked directly through the card’s travel portal or by transferring points to any number of hotel or airline partners.
For example, the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card lets you earn Capital One miles, which can be redeemed through the Capital One travel portal for different travel purchases including flights, rental cars and hotels. You could also opt to transfer your Capital One miles to one of its many airline and hotel partners.
Both types of credit cards present great opportunities to save money on an upcoming trip, and one is not inherently better than the other. Everyone has different needs, travel habits and preferences, so it’s best to analyze your travel style and find what works best for you.
For starters, ask yourself the following three questions:
1. How do you typically travel?
If you tend to fly more than three times per year, an airline credit card may be a solid fit, especially if you live in a city that serves as a hub for a particular airline. Delta has a hub in Atlanta, for example, so a co-branded credit card such as the Delta SkyMiles Reserve American Express Card would likely be a good addition.
If your travel style varies — a mix of cruises, road trips, train rides, etc. — a travel rewards credit card may better suit you, since you’ll be able to accrue and redeem points for more than just airfare on one airline.
2. Do you have an expensive trip in your future?
With a particularly costly trip, you can work backwards to see which credit card would be best.
If you’re planning to travel around Europe in the next few months, for example, and expect to fly more than one airline, use other modes of transport and stay at several hotels, consider transferable points earned via travel rewards cards such as Amex Membership Rewards® points or Chase Ultimate Rewards® points. These can be redeemed through the cards’ respective travel portals or transferred to dozens of airline and hotel partners.
On the other hand, if United Airlines flies everywhere you want to go and you’re staying with friends, the United Club℠ Infinite Card is a great choice as you can earn United miles, get United Club lounge access and have free checked bags for your travels.
3. What is your budget for an annual fee?
Keep in mind that many airline credit cards and travel rewards cards come with an annual fee. Some cards offer pretty solid benefits for a fee that’s under $100, but for cards that allow you to earn more points and miles and come with a wide variety of benefits, the annual fee can be nearly $700.
While paying an annual fee isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s important to remember to stay within your budget and not pay to have a new card when you won’t be able to maximize all its benefits.
The best airline credit cards
When deciding between an airline credit card or a travel rewards credit card, ask yourself the above three questions to narrow down the best choice for your travel needs.
As long as you earn the welcome bonus, make the most of the benefits offered by your card and stay within your budget, either type of credit card can enhance your travels while simultaneously saving you money on flights and other expenses.
For rates and fees of the American Express® Gold Card, click here.
For rates and fees of The Platinum Card® from American Express, click here.
For rates and fees of Discover it® Miles, click here.
Information about the American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp℠ Card, Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card has been collected independently by Select and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.
Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.