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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.

- 02:57
Airplane seats
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The pandemic has wreaked havoc on airlines this last year, with annual US travel spending expected to have dropped by nearly 45% in 2020, according to the US Travel Association. And yet that same study forecasts that air travel will rebound in 2021 -- likely hastened by the rollout of vaccines. Now could be as good a time as any to start stocking up on travel rewards.

Savvy travelers make sure they earn reward miles every time they buy something -- whether it's groceries or gas. Depending on how much you spend, you can earn enough to fly for free and perhaps earn back some cash to use while traveling. 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 for 2021

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

Pros Cons
Airport perks like free lounge access Can only be redeemed for flights
In-flight discounts Limited or no cash-back options
Free checked bags Restricted to one airline
Priority boarding 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

Pros Cons
Earnings on everyday spending Hefty annual fees
Flexibility in redemption Some foreign transaction fees
Big introductory offers through points or cash back 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."

For general travel cards, Luthi recommends two above all:

  • Capital One Venture: With a $95 annual fee, this card earns you two reward miles for every dollar you spend. It also features a $100 credit toward certification for global entry or TSA precheck.
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred: This card also has a $95 annual fee, but provides an extra 80,000 reward points if you spend $4,000 within three months of opening your account. 

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