[Update: Some offers mentioned below have expired. For current terms and conditions, please see card agreements once they become available here — Starwood Preferred. Disclosure: Cards from our partners are mentioned below.]
Co-branded credit cards can be a great way for frequent fliers to pool loyalty and rewards points, maximize earnings, enjoy perks like a free checked bag or hotel Wi-Fi, and score upgrades like a first-class seat or a night in a suite.
In fact, for travelers who don’t carry a balance (and, subsequently, lose points to interest), the biggest dilemma is often the choice between using an airline miles credit card or a hotel rewards credit card. Here are some ways to determine which option may be right for you.
Airline Credit Cards vs. Hotel Credit Cards: The Pros & Cons
Credit cards that earn airline miles are tremendously popular, but not necessarily for their miles. For the past several years, many airlines have devalued their frequent-flier programs by requiring more miles for award flights, making fewer seats available for awards at the lowest mileage levels and changing up earnings so you get miles for dollars spent and not distance traveled. Nevertheless, these cards still offer valuable benefits, such as checked baggage fee waivers, priority boarding and discounts on in-flight food, beverages and entertainment. In addition, skilled travelers may still be able to realize exceptional value from their miles when redeeming them for last-minute award flights or for international awards in business or first class.
While hotel credit cards may not be as popular as airline credit cards, they can offer terrific value. Several of the top hotel loyalty programs offer award nights for any unsold standard room, so you don’t have to hunt for award availability like you do with many airline credit cards. (Hotel programs with this policy include Hyatt Gold Passport, Starwood Preferred Guest, Hilton HHonors and Wyndham Rewards.) At the same time, some hotel programs have also devalued their points in the past few years by increasing the number required for a free night’s stay. So, cardholders have to carefully review a card’s terms and conditions to make sure they understand its true earnings potential.
Hotel credit cards can also offer elite status, which entitles guests to perks such as late checkouts, room upgrades, free Internet service and even complimentary breakfast. Another benefit is that award stays may actually be free, since hotels tend to be taxed based on the rate paid, with award nights frequently escaping all taxes. In contrast, an airline award almost always involves paying some money, as these programs generally require the payment of any required government taxes, and will sometimes add their own surcharges.
How to Decide What’s Right for You
If you could only use either an airline or a hotel credit card, you should choose the one that will offer you the most value towards your travel needs. For example, if you usually fly somewhere and stay with family or friends or stay at destinations without major hotel chains, then a hotel credit card will not offer you much value. Conversely, if you like to take road trips (or use trains or buses), then an airline credit card would be a poor fit for your travel habits. Likewise, if you need to use your airline miles for award flights during peak travel periods, then you are likely to be disappointed by the availability of airline mileage awards, and you might be better off with a hotel credit card. (Remember, if you choose a card affiliated with a program that offers any unsold room as an award, then you can use your hotel points for award stays at popular destinations during peak travel periods, so long as the property isn’t already sold out of standard rooms.)
For some consumers, it may be beneficial to have both an airline credit card and a hotel credit card. Holding multiple credit cards can increase your credit score by reducing your ratio of debt to available credit. But if holding additional credit cards gives you incentive to incur more debt, or becomes difficult to manage responsibly, then you are better off with fewer credit cards.
You also need to consider any costs associated with cards to determine which — or how many — you should carry. Many travel credit cards have annual fees that could be financially burdensome, particularly if you have more than one in your wallet. And you want to refrain from applying for too many credit cards in a short window of time, since each application generates a hard inquiry on your credit report, which could, in turn, ding your credit score. To see if you credit can handle an inquiry and another card, you can pull your credit reports for free each year at AnnualCreditReport.com and view your credit scores for free each month on Credit.com.
Note: It’s important to remember that interest rates, fees and terms for credit cards, loans and other financial products frequently change. As a result, rates, fees and terms for credit cards, loans and other financial products cited in these articles may have changed since the date of publication. Please be sure to verify current rates, fees and terms with credit card issuers, banks or other financial institutions directly.
More on Credit Cards:
- Credit.com’s Expert Credit Card Shopping Tips
- An Expert Guide to Credit Cards With Rewards
- How to Get a Credit Card With Good Credit