Comparing the cards that earn you miles

By Benjamin Szweda

AAA World Article

The travel credit card space is crowded with cards from different issuers and cards offering points or miles that can be redeemed in various ways. This analysis will focus on the entry level, co-branded, airline credit cards. 

In this case, co-branded means the airline partnered with a card issuer to offer the credit card and that the card is linked to that specific airline. The opposite of this are cards that are bank-issued that might earn points that can be redeemed on many airlines or even at hotels.

American’s entry-level co-branded card, AAdvantage MileUp, is geared towards the everyday, which is immediately apparent, as it’s the only card that offers bonus miles on grocery purchases. Most of the travel-related features have been stripped from this entry level card. You don’t get discounted lounge access, you do pay foreign transaction fees, and you don’t get boarding or baggage benefits. If you’re looking for a no-annual-fee way to rack up some extra American miles with your everyday purchases, this card will work, but you’ll undoubtedly find more value in American’s two other personal cards or within their business credit card lineup.

The entry-level Delta card, Blue Delta SkyMiles, is very similar to the American card in terms of not offering many travel benefits. Again, there are no baggage or boarding benefits, and there is a foreign transaction fee. Like with American, the Delta credit card provided one tier above the blue card offers many more travel perks for a nominal fee. This entry-level card is useful if you’re looking to slowly but surely earn Delta miles on your everyday purchases and a bonus mile on restaurant spend.

Comparing Southwest’s card to the others is a bit difficult as there are some benefits Southwest just can’t offer. Southwest doesn’t operate any lounges to grant access to. Southwest’s boarding process doesn’t lend itself to a priority access benefit, and the airline gives free bags away to everyone. These facts might make the card, especially since it has an annual fee, harder to justify. However, if you want a boost earning Southwest points or are interested in working towards the Southwest Companion Pass, which, if received, lets a friend fly with you for only the cost of taxes and fees, the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus card is one to consider.

Even with this analysis focusing on entry-level cards, you begin to get the idea that you get what you pay for. While United’s entry-level card has the highest annual fee, the benefits start to take shape, and the card appears to be the most like a quintessential travel card. You get a couple of lounge passes each year, which is ideal for the casual traveler, and the standard boarding and baggage benefits are in place—priority boarding and first checked bag free. You also get a credit towards a TSA PreCheck or Global Entry membership, a now common benefit among higher tier cards. And unlike all the other cards in its class, the United Explorer card has no foreign transaction fee.

The above cards are considered to be the lowest tier, and show personal credit card options currently available. Each airline offers two or more higher tier personal cards and one or more business card options that provide more or different benefits. The benefits of the higher tier cards will likely make the card more valuable and useful, but the annual fee increases as well.

It’s important to choose wisely when selecting a co-branded airline card. Ask yourself what airline you fly most often and what type of reward you desire. If your goal is to build up enough miles for an international flight that might rule out the Southwest card depending on your dream destination. Determine whether the airport nearest to your home is a hub or focus airport of a specific airline. Consider how many times per year you fly, and if you tend to be brand loyal or if you are more price conscious. If you don’t fly that often or are more price conscious, a co-branded card might not be the best option for you. In addition, consider the impacts on your financial life and credit score before opening any credit card.