5 Questions To Determine If Frequent-Flier Credit Cards Are Worthwhile

As the value of frequent-flier miles continue to free-fall, it’s worth asking whether you should ditch your frequent-flier credit card. The Times posed five questions to help you decide if it’s time to switch to a different rewards program.

Dealbreakers

  • 1. Do You Carry A Balance?: If yes, don’t pass Go even though you could use the $200. Frequent flier miles are not the problem for you. Focus instead on low APR cards.
  • 2. Do You Have Kids?: Kids are the enemies of frequent flier miles. Airlines limit the number of frequent flier seats that overlap with school breaks because they know that you and every other parent want to sneak away after sending little Jimmy off to summer camp.

Dealmakers

  • 3. Do You Have Elite Status?: Airlines set aside extra seats just for you. Aren’t you special?!
  • 4. Are You A Big Spender?: Scratching for that 25,000 mile ticket may not be worthwhile, but if you run your business through your card and rack up miles, you can chase after pricey premium class overseas tickets.
  • 5. Do You Value Upgrades?: If you have a ticket on certain fare classes, airlines are still willing to let you use your miles to upgrade to the good life.

Gauging the Worth of a Frequent-Flier Credit Card [The New York Times]
(Photo: Getty)

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  1. timmus says:

    I lost my AA miles a few years ago when they dumped unused balances. Somehow I never found out and I never even got a notification letter. I’m not messing with miles anymore, especially seeing as how both airlines and credit card issuers have gotten more cut-throat about their business.

  2. skitzogreg says:

    I actually just ordered a frequent flyer card. I’m hoping it will help out on my honeymoon and I can pay my rent with my card (to rack up points). If it doesn’t work out, oh well.

  3. rpm773 says:

    The question I ask myself to determine if airline miles are worthwhile is this: Was the experience on the airline good enough that I’d want to repeat it, at a discount or otherwise?

    The answer…due to long lines, delays, cancellations, being trapped on the tarmac, stupid security agents, stupid security policies, policies meant to nickle and dime the customer, getting sick due to bad water and air, dealing with loud/annoying/obnoxious/clueless fliers…is usually “No”.

  4. incognit000 says:

    I find that frequent flier miles are irrelevant because they require you to get on a plane, which is owned by an airline that will either a) strand you on the tarmac b) cancel your flight for bullshit reasons and not give a refund or c) not pay the pilot or maintenance the plane, causing it to crash.

    At least the people who run those airlines walk away with millions and get to ride in private jets, right?

    i can’t help but think that airline service would improve dramatically if airline execs were required to fly coach on the very same airlines they own.

  5. consumerman says:

    Alaska airmiles are still a good deal. Got a one way for the next day from california to canada for 10,000 points + $5!
    That would normally be a ripoff $400+. They are upping the amount needed for a roundtrip from 20,000 to 25,000miles for flights booked after some date later this year. It is still a good deal, you can get 5 miles per dollar for certain restraunts and 20,000 bonus miles for signing up for their BofA credit card(maybe they will up that to 25,000 miles if you complain that it will no longer get a roundtrip.)

  6. JustThatGuy3 says:

    @incognit000:

    “i can’t help but think that airline service would improve dramatically if airline execs were required to fly coach on the very same airlines they own.”

    Highly unlikely – it would probably just result in less functional airlines, as the quality staff you need to run a major company won’t settle for flying coach on any airline.

  7. izzy9985 says:

    I actually have and use my AmEx Blue Cash credit card. Seemed like a good deal at the time, and there’s nothing like getting (mostly) guaranteed cash.

    After I had my card for a while, though, I was offered an AmEx Blue Sky card, another airlines rewards credit card, and I turned it down mostly because of all the arbitrary increases in points needed for a flight. Add to that the blackout dates, surcharges not included in the price of the flight, and delays/cancellations that people have become accustomed to (especially at Newark Liberty, my closest airport), and the card seems like it’s more trouble than it’s worth.

    Blue Cash FTW!

  8. @timmus: Delta and American both dumped my miles when their programs changed. It’s a raw deal when you make an effort to acquire miles on a card and the airline decides the green on your money has expired.

  9. Ciao_Bambina says:

    For my money and travel habits, Southwest’s Visa is ideal.

    For every round trip on SWA, you get a credit. Charge your trip to the SWA Visa and you get a double credit. You can earn more credits by using their car rental and hotel partners too. Rack up eight credits in a 24-month period and you get a free round trip to any of their 64 destinations. And they just send you the notification that you’ve earned it; no fiddling with points or negotiating anything. Easy peasy. Oh, yeah, and they send you a book of free drink coupons. And a card on your birthday.

    I get at least one free trip per year and they go all the places where I have relatives (the ones I want to see anyway) and friends, as well as the places I like to play (except Hawaii, unforch.)

    This won’t work for everyone, of course, and it’s totally no frills, but after having several “free” trips ruined by the unpleasantness of trying to use other airlines’ FF miles, SWA is the answer to my prayers.

  10. MackenzieAnnalis says:

    I think another thing to consider when looking at these cards is the
    average value of a ticket you’d redeem. I live in a relatively small
    city in Iowa, and we’re only serviced by one airline, Northwest, in
    our tiny airport (2 gates). Consequently, it’s rather expensive to
    fly most places from here, and people often wind up driving 100-200
    miles to Minnapolis or Chicago instead. In terms of frequent flier
    miles, however, it costs the same number of miles to fly out of my
    airport as it does Minneapolis-St. Paul, so I can redeem 25,000 miles
    for a $500 ticket instead of the $250 ticket that people in larger
    metro areas get.

  11. psychos says:

    Playing frequent flyer mile games is just as fun as playing 0% BT games. In the past 4 years or so, I think I’ve accumulated around 350 – 400k free miles/points (only counting regular airline miles, mostly Delta plus some United and NWA, as well as Amex MR points and Starwood SPG points since both of those can convert to airline miles; not counting 3rd party “miles” that don’t convert to airline miles.) Most of these came from signup bonuses, retention bonuses, upgrade bonuses, transfer bonus promotions, double/triple points offers, etc. Total outlay was probably around $1000, mostly in the form of having to pay partial annual fees until the miles posted and the cards could be cancelled for a prorated refund.

    I know people who’ve repeatedly “churned” the same cards from certain issuers and gotten quite a bit more than I have. And sure, my credit’s taken some hits from all the inquiries, but I’m not looking for a major loan anytime soon and those will drop off soon enough.

    So my point here: if you’re disciplined about it, you can get a ton of free miles. It’s fun (if you enjoy that kind of thing), and it gets you free travel and hotel rooms! My best mileage haul so far: 6 stop around the world in 2006 in business class over 7 months, mostly on Asian and European carriers (using Delta miles), for 220k miles + $350 in taxes. Unfortunately, surcharges are going up and rules are getting stricter as we all know.

    Random tip of the moment: Sign up for the NWA Visa and NWA Business Visa while they last. 20k miles for each of the two, and they’ll convert to Delta SkyMiles as soon as that whole mess clears up. (The “Miles to Go” promo added yet another 5k for each card, but that ended Jul 31.) That’s almost a free roundtrip to Europe.

  12. yikz says:

    I’ve had 100k+ on Delta each of the past 3 years, and 150k on Marriott each of the last 3 years. The Marriott points are worth more. Get a Marriott Visa. The hotel chains are far more interested in service than the airlines, and they will do what they can to retain your business. The airlines do not care about their reputation. They only care to do enough to keep the government and the media from prying into their business. And hotel points translate into merchandise also. I picked up a Canon 40D last fall for 320,000 Marriott points.

    Getting a credit card for the sole sake of racking up airline points usually doesn’t work. If you travel for business, put your airfare on the CC, then pay it off with your expense check, that’s fine. The airlines usually entice you with double or triple points for those purchases. That’s the best way to use a CC to rack up airline points. But for those people who think they are going to put everything on it, and then pay the thing off with cash at the end of the month usually don’t have the discipline to only spend what they need and no more. Most people will fill up the CC and then have a tough time paying it off, and that is exactly what the lender wants.

    The easiest way to use airline points is to fly when the airline is most desperate to give up seats. If you have elite status, it’s much easier. If you don’t have status, forget Christmas. Forget spring break. It’s too much of a hassle, and the point prices make it hard for non-elite people to meet the points necessary to travel.

    Airline points are becoming increasingly hard to use. If you are elite on Delta, go to Medallion Marketplace on Delta’s site, order items from the catalog and use points. Gift certificates, electronics. I think an iPod classic 80gig was 44,000 points.

  13. godospoons says:

    Uh? They missed the obvious one: do you actually fly on that airline frequently? Most air mile cards give you more redeemable miles if you charge their tickets (or their alliance partners’ tickets, in some cases) on their credit card.

    However, upgrades, status and heavy spend pointless advice. If you’re already an elite flyer, whether you have a credit card from the airline or not has nothing to do with seat availability or ability to upgrade, though you might have more miles in your account to use for those.

    Also, there’s a fee on a lot of these cards and those are generally waved for elites. United’s annual fee is $140 for their Signature Visa, which is waved for their 1K members. That should be taken into account, as well, each year.

    And if you’re really circling that much money through the card, you also have to make sure that there is not a cap per year on your card’s accrual. You’d be surprised how many cards have a cap and, frankly, there are a lot of cards that give cash rewards that might be a better bet for those types.

  14. Fly Girl says:

    @consumerman: Agreed! There’s a reason that Alaska’s mileage plan is consistently ranked number one. The miles never expire, they’re awarded mile-per-mile, there are no black out dates, they actually allow more than one or two mileage seats on each flight, if you book it online there are no fees involved, and they’ve got a veritable shitton of partners. Pretty much anyone in the world that I fly is an Alaska partner, so I consolidate all of my miles in one place. (A more effective way to collect and use miles, since they can’t be combined once you’ve earned them.)

    Also: I not only collect miles by flying, but also on my debit card, my credit card, my online purchases, my rental car purchases, my hotel reservations, my Safeway Club Card, etc… Add into that the Alaska mileage plan promotions and it’s SUPER easy to earn free flights, which can be had for as little as about 15,000 miles round trip.

    I have a back-up mileage plan on United as a catch-all for any airlines that aren’t covered in the Alaska alliance, although I’ve never earned enough Star Alliance miles to get an award…

    Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan = A+++++

  15. Snarkysnake says:

    All of these bullshit games that airlines play with FF miles reminds me of the story arc of “Catch 22″ , where every time the main characters get close to achieving their goal of flying enough dangerous missions,(and earning a free trip home)the evil head honchos move the goal line just out of reach. The characters eventually become resigned to the fact that the rules and beauracracy that implement them have taken on a life of their own and are just hopeless.

    Alas,that is what the big airlines FF programs have become.

  16. aka_bigred says:

    I don’t need any questions – THEY ARE NEVER WORTH IT. Get a card that gives you cash back. You can always use the cash to buy a plane ticket if you so choose.

    SCREW FLYER MILES – CASH IS KING!

  17. trekwars2000 says:

    @consumerman:

    How would a flight from CA to Canada be a rip off at $400 one-way for a walk up fare? What would it cost you to drive? Factor in the time and convinence and I feel $400 for that flight would be a steal.

    On a side note. The article is spot on, esp. with regards to elite flyers. As a United 1K (top tier elite) they open up extra awards for me. I have taken trips in First to Europe, Alaska, Hawaii and I have a trip booked to Aus/NZ for next year.

    For everyone else that is complaining about having to get on the plane… Do you ever travel more than 6 hours from your house? Driving/Trains are useless when I need to go from the West Coast to the East Coast in 6 hours. In addition, often times I am not even flying on United when I redeem the miles, but rather I am on international flagship Star Alliance carriers like ANA, Air NZ, Thai Airlines and Singapore Air.

  18. benchman says:

    Growing up on the west coast Alaska Airlines and their FF program has been great. Their network of partners makes being able to redeem tickets to fly almost anywhere easy. I have the Alaska credit card and debit card, so virtually all my purchases get me miles. I can also get bonus miles when shopping at Safeway or Vons grocery stores. I did just recently receive a letter that they are bumping up the number of miles needed to redeem for a ticket, but it’s still a great deal.