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Airline cards vs. travel credit cards: The pros and cons -- and which one’s better for you

Before embarking on your next adventure, make sure you've got the right credit card.

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Savvy travelers make sure they earn reward miles every time they buy something -- whether it’s groceries, gas or anything else. Depending on how much you spend, you can earn enough to fly for free and perhaps then some. Within the realm of travel credit cards are two main kinds of cards: those offered by specific airlines and general travel cards. 

All of these credit cards feature perks and rewards. But should you apply for a credit card associated with a particular airline or a more general travel credit card, which earns reward miles compatible with a variety of carriers? Here’s how to choose.

Read more: Best travel credit cards

Airline cards vs. travel cards: What are the differences?

There are so many different credit cards, each with its own terms and conditions and eligibility requirements. Reward credit cardscash-back cards and many different types of travel cards. 

Specific branded cards by carriers can be used to make purchases anywhere -- but earn rewards miles that can be redeemed only for flights on that airline. That’s great if you’re loyal to one airline but less so if you tend to book flights on different carriers. That noted, the carriers’ credit cards tend to have a lower annual fee -- usually around $95 a year -- than general travel cards, which can exceed $500. 

Airline credit cards: Pros and cons


  • Airport perks like free lounge access

  • In-flight discounts

  • Free checked bags

  • Priority boarding


  • Can only be redeemed for flights

  • Limited or no cash-back options

  • Restricted to one airline

  • Annual fee

Some travel credit cards, however, are more versatile, earning reward points that can be redeemed with a variety of carriers as well as other travel-related purchases including hotel rooms and dining. If you tend to book flights (and trips on other modes of transportation), you’re better off with a more flexible travel credit card. There are drawbacks, however, including higher annual fees and more restrictive eligibility requirements.

Travel credit cards: Pros and cons


  • Earnings on everyday spending

  • Flexibility in redemption

  • Big introductory offers through points or cash back


  • Hefty annual fees

  • Some foreign transaction fees

  • High credit score may be required

The verdict: Which one is better?

If you fly exclusively on one carrier, you may get the most value out of applying for its branded credit card. These types of cards often feature generous introductory offers of miles or points according to Ben Luthi, a travel and finance expert. Otherwise, he says, a more general travel credit card is your best bet: “You can use your points or miles for flights, hotel stays, rental cars, cruises and a lot more,” he says. “With airline cards, you technically can redeem your rewards for more than just reward flights -- but you’ll rarely get good value with the alternatives, which effectively limits your options.”

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First published on July 8, 2020 at 6:00 a.m. PT.

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Dori Zinn loves helping people learn and understand money. She's been covering personal finance for a decade and her writing has appeared in Wirecutter, Credit Karma, Huffington Post and more.
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