Travel credit cards: Airline cards vs. travel rewards cards

Thinking about signing up for a travel credit card? Here are some key differences between airline cards and travel rewards cards.

If you’re interested in traveling and trying to earn rewards for your next trip, you may be wondering whether you’re better off with an airline rewards credit card or a general travel rewards credit card. Both types of cards come with travel-related perks—and may help you avoid foreign transaction fees—but there are some key differences to consider when making your decision.

Here’s how these two types of travel credit cards stack up:

Types of travel credit cards

General travel rewards and airline rewards credit cards are two common types of travel credit cards. You can use them just as you would any other credit card. And you can earn rewards, often in the form of points or miles.

Keep in mind that the rewards systems for airline and general travel cards may vary. For instance, one card might deliver a flat rewards rate on every purchase, while another card might give you a higher rate on travel-related purchases.

What is a general travel rewards credit card?

A general travel rewards card can provide straightforward rewards and flexible redemption options. This type of card isn’t tied to a specific travel provider and may let you earn rewards on purchases even when they’re not related to travel. 

You may have greater flexibility for redeeming your rewards with a general travel rewards card. That could mean redeeming on rental cars and vacation homes. And it may give you the option to book travel using any eligible website or app, without blackout dates or other restrictions. Some general travel rewards cards may even let you redeem on more than just travel purchases too.

What is an airline rewards credit card?

An airline rewards card lets you earn rewards that can make it even more satisfying to travel on your go-to airline. Rewards from an airline credit card might allow you to buy plane tickets, check bags at no cost or board a plane early, for instance. And that airline’s partnerships may enable you to collect rewards on other airlines too. 

Travel rewards credit card vs. airline credit card: What are the major differences?

While both general travel rewards credit cards and airline credit cards appeal to frequent travelers, you could say they’re credit card cousins, not identical twins. 

So, what sets general travel rewards credit cards and airline credit cards apart?

Perhaps the biggest difference is in how the cards let you earn and redeem rewards. If you’re considering these cards, it may be helpful to look at how you can earn and use the rewards—and any other perks. 

Where you can use rewards

The first thing to think about when comparing travel credit cards is how you travel. If you usually fly with the same carrier, an airline credit card could earn you miles to use with your favorite airline. And since many large airlines have partnerships with other carriers, you may earn rewards with other brands too.

On the other hand, a general travel rewards card may give you the flexibility to earn and use points or miles on a range of different airlines, as well as other travel purchases like car rentals, hotels and train tickets. Because general travel rewards cards may offer the flexibility of more choices, this may help make travel schedules more accommodating and provide access to more airports.

Where you earn rewards

Next, look at what you charge to your travel credit card. If you travel frequently, airline credit cards may offer a higher rewards earn rate for travel spending, like booking a ticket or making in-flight purchases. But if more of your charges come from everyday items—like restaurants, gas, groceries, the occasional mocha latte—a general travel rewards card may earn you more points or miles with a flat rewards rate across all categories.

What types of perks you want

Finally, figure out what other travel credit card perks matter to you. With airline cards, these extras are often focused on the part of your trip that gets you from point A to point B, like free checked bags, priority boarding and seat upgrades. 

Like the idea of an upgraded travel experience? Both airline and general travel rewards cards can also come with added perks. For example, some travel cards provide a statement credit for TSA PreCheck® or Global Entry. These programs can help you move through the airport more quickly and may make travel that much easier. 

TSA PreCheck® helps you skip the longer line and get through the airport a bit faster at more than 200 U.S. airports, and Global Entry can help you save time during the customs process at select airports when you’re returning to the U.S. from international destinations. Keep in mind that Global Entry includes TSA PreCheck®.

Some airline cards and travel credit cards may also offer lounge access as an added perk.

Either way, you win

If you’re comparing airline reward credit cards and general travel rewards cards, consider which option works for you. Both types of travel credit cards have distinct advantages, so you should pick the program that matches your travel style and spending habits. As with any credit card, it’s important to use a travel credit card responsibly.

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