NEW YORK (MainStreet) When you consider that building credit through simple credit card use isn't surefire, or that the average U.S. household with one credit card owes nearly $16,000 in personal debt, the task of proving to lenders that you aren't a slob hardly is an attractive proposition. However, integrate that with the daydream of being whisked off to the Maldives, and you have something else entirely: namely, incentive to purchase. Enter the airline rewards credit card.
For Brian Kelly, frequent flier and founder of Thepointsguy.com, the question isn't how to cut airfare without a rewards program, but why you aren't a part of one to begin with.
"There is no reason to not have a rewards program," he says, "They are all free in the most part. Even if you are flying an airline once a year, there's no reason not to get your frequent flyer number."
Noteworthy Airline Reward Card Offers
The Citi AAdvantage Card for American Airlines recently won "Program of the Year" at the 2013 Freddie Awards, an awards ceremony that honors exemplary travel loyalty programs.
It advertises introductory perks such as 30,000 bonus miles and getting your first checked bag free. AAdvantage also took home the trophies for "best earning promotion" and "elite level."
Erica Sandberg, personal finance expert and editor-at-large for CreditCardGuide.com, recommends the American Express Gold Delta SkyMiles Card, which she says has always been on the top of the list.
"American Express cards are fantastic for traveling," she says. "It's what they do. You earn 30,000 bonus miles after making just $1,000 purchases on the card."
However, "they do tend to have an annual fee," says Sandberg. "It's going to cost you about $100 in the annual fee, so that is why you have to compare and contrast."
Meanwhile, a less typical choice has Brian Kelly raving. "One of my current crushes is Alaska Airlines," he says, "People think it is in the Pacific North West and doesn't have much to do with me, but they partner with a ton of great airlines. You can earn Alaska miles when you fly American."
Kelly says he was even able to redeem 90,000 Alaska air miles with Emirates ("one of the best airlines in the world") for an international flight. "I flew from India to Dubai to New York for 90,000 miles and $80," he says, "And it was a $7,000 flight. I was having caviar, I had my own suite with closing doors and I got a shower."
Yes, that's right, a shower.
"It is the only airline that has showers in the air on the plane," says Kelly.
Alaska Airlines offers rewards through its free Mileage Plan Memberships and an additional 25,000 miles when you sign up for an Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card.
Are They Necessary?
While it's not difficult to find impassioned voices decrying the evil of credit card use, there exist impassioned voices knocking frequent loyalty programs, and for some understandable reasons.
For example, Jeremy Webber writing for Fast Company suggests that these rewards programs have only helped airlines lose sight of the service they should be providing every customer, and leave non-reward folk a dismal flying experience that we've all come to expect.
In addition, others are concerned with how these programs give out perks. Where other rewards cards reward you for the amount of money you spend, airlines have traditionally cared less about the green. Instead they've been more concerned about the amount miles you've traveled.
"You could buy a $1,000 flight from New York to London, or a $1,400 flight from New York to Toronto last minute," says Kelly, "and you're going to get a lot more points for New York to London because it is much further."
Although the airlines are trying to rectify that, he adds.
Indeed, the impresarios at Delta have tweaked their program in favor of a system that better rewards money spent for air travel and is more in line with policies used by United, Virgin America and Southwest.
And speaking of money spent, while every consumer signing up for a travel reward card might envision earning a free flight quickly, he should be aware that experts expect you'll spend between $2,000 to $3,000 before even a free domestic flight becomes a reality.
But, considering the non-existent risk of rewards programs, there's no downside to airliner cards for those who regularly pay them off, says Sandberg.
"If you are a traveler or you go on business trips, then you should have a card that gives some kind of reward for getting on a plane, booking a hotel or renting a card," she says. "You earn from it, so why not?"
--Written by Jean-Marc Saint Laurent