When You Should(n’t) Use Airline Co-Brand Credit Cards To Pay For Airfare

All of the larger airlines in the U.S. offer co-brand credit cards. These cards, which provide extra benefits to cardholders, range from ones with no annual fee to premium cards costing up to $450 per year. While you’d think that using a co-branded card would be the best choice for earning points with your flight purchase, that’s usually not the case. For most airlines, you don’t earn any extra points for airfare purchases for having a more expensive card either.

In most cases, instead of using a co-brand card, it’s better to use a card that earns flexible points like Membership Rewards, Thank You Points or Ultimate Rewards. These cards provide the opportunity to earn more points as well as the flexibility to use points on multiple airlines. You’re able to transfer points from these programs into your airline mileage account when you need them.

Here are the earnings multiples on airfare for the main flexible points cards from each bank:

American Express (Membership Rewards)

  • Platinum card ($550 annual fee) – 5x points on flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel
  • Gold card ($250 annual fee) – 3x points on flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel

Chase (Ultimate Rewards)

  • Sapphire Reserve ($450 annual fee) – 3x points on travel worldwide (including airfares purchased from airlines or travel agencies/websites)
  • Sapphire Preferred ($95 annual fee) – 2x points on travel worldwide (including airfares purchased from airlines or travel agencies/websites)

Citi (Thank You Points)

  • Citi Prestige ($495 annual fee) – 5x points on purchases at airlines and travel agencies
  • Citi Premier ($95 annual fee) – 3x points on purchases at airlines and travel agencies

The AMEX Platinum and Citi Prestige both offer 5x on airfare but the AMEX card only counts purchases direct from the airline or their website. When I had both cards, I used the Citi Prestige because I valued the additional travel insurance coverage but I know people would rather earn Membership Rewards than Thank You points. Of the $95 cards, the Citi Premier earns the most points on airline purchases at 3x.

So how many miles will you earn by using an airline co-brand card to purchase airfare and when does it make sense to do so? I’ve indicated which airlines are partners of one (or all) of the flexible currency cards so you can compare earnings potential between cards.

Alaska Airlines

$75 annual fee – 3x points

Allegiant Air card

$59 annual fee – 3x points

American Airlines cards issued by Barclays

  • No annual fee – 1x points
  • Blue – $49 annual fee – 2x points
  • Red – $95 annual fee – 2x points
  • Silver – $195 annual fee – 3x points

American Airlines cards issued by Citi

  • Mile Up – No annual fee – 2x points
  • Platinum – $99 annual fee – 2x points
  • Executive – $450 annual fee – 2x points

American Planes Parked at Terminal

Delta Airlines (Membership Rewards transfer partner)

  • Blue – No annual fee – 2x points
  • Gold – $95 annual fee – 2x points
  • Platinum – $195 annual fee – 2x points
  • Reserve – $450 annual fee – 2x points

Frontier Airlines

$79 annual fee – 5x points

Hawaiian Airlines (Membership Rewards transfer partner)

$99 annual fee – 3x points

JetBlue (Membership Rewards, Thank You and Ultimate Rewards transfer partner)

  • JetBlue card – No annual fee – 3x points
  • JetBlue Plus – $99 annual fee – 6x points

Southwest Airlines (Ultimate Rewards transfer partner)

  • Plus – $69 annual fee – 2x points
  • Premier – $99 annual fee – 2x points
  • Priority – $149 annual fee – 2x points

Spirit Airlines

$59 annual fee – 2x points

Spirit

Sun Country Airlines

$69 annual fee – 3x points

United Airlines (Ultimate Rewards transfer partner)

  • Explorer – $95 annual fee – 2x points
  • Club – $450 annual fee – 2x points

Comparisons

With the exception of the JetBlue Plus card and the Frontier credit card, none of the airline cards pay over 3x. The JetBlue Plus card would be a good choice if JetBlue wasn’t already a transfer partner of all three banks. You can earn 5x points with American Express or Citi cards and transfer those points to your JetBlue account when you need it. An added advantage to this method is there are occasionally transfer bonuses, like this 30% bonus from March 2018.

So which co-brand airline card would I consider using?

  • Frontier card – Earning 5x points on Frontier for airfare is the best way to earn points with that program. If you fly Frontier regularly, it does make sense and having the card also allows you to keep your Frontier miles from expiring if you go more than 6 months between flights.
  • Alaska card – Alaska miles are valuable not for rewards on Alaska flights but for flying on any of their many partners. Since Alaska miles are hard to earn any other way besides flying, using the co-brand card to earn 3x Alaska points for airfare is a deal many can’t pass up.
  • United Explorer card – The United card isn’t the best way to earn miles and I’d usually suggest using a Sapphire card and earn 2-3x Ultimate Rewards points. However, United does make it a requirement to use the credit card for your airfare if you want to take advantage of the free checked bag benefit. This only matters if you don’t otherwise get free checked bags from having United status.
  • American Airlines cards – For whatever reason, even though Citi issues co-brand American cards, you cannot transfer Citi Thank You points into your American account. If you need to build up your American balance for an award, using one of the American cards from either Barclays or Citi is a sensible choice.

None of the reasons to use a co-brand card is because they earn the most amount of points. You use co-brand cards to earn points in a specific program which is not a transfer partner of any bank. If you have a goal and are working towards a specific redemption, using a co-brand card for airfare makes sense, even if doing so means you’re going to earn fewer points than you could have otherwise.

Like this post? Please share it! We have plenty more just like it and would love if you decided to hang around and clicked the button on the top (if you’re on your computer) or the bottom (if you’re on your phone/tablet) of this page to follow our blog and get emailed notifications of when we post (it’s usually just two or three times a day). Or maybe you’d like to join our Facebook group, where we talk and ask questions about travel (including Disney parks), creative ways to earn frequent flyer miles and hotel points, how to save money on or for your trips, get access to travel articles you may not see otherwise, etc. Whether you’ve read our posts before or this is the first time you’re stopping by, we’re really glad you’re here and hope you come back to visit again!

This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary

6 thoughts on “When You Should(n’t) Use Airline Co-Brand Credit Cards To Pay For Airfare”

  1. A big consideration for me is travel protection for delays/cancellations. As one example, Amex gives none while CSP covers you really well even on award tickets if you pay the taxes with the card.

    1. I almost exclusively use the Prestige for travel bookings because of the coverage and there’s no excuse not to now that it pays 5x on airfare.

  2. The legacy Chase United MileagePlus Select offers 3X on United flights and 2X on *A flights along with up to 5k PQMs but does not offer trip delay/travel insurance.

    1. I didn’t include cards which aren’t available through a new application or thru a PC. People who have those cards are more than familiar with their benefits.

  3. This story is certainly incomplete since you at only looking at mileage earning. Points and miles are generally valued at a penny each or thereabouts. If you use the Alaska card for you and six others on your reservation, you can save $490.00 in bag fees on a round trip. In my book, $490.00 saved is $490.00 earned.

    1. You’re correct that the article just looks at mileage earning. To look into every variable, the article would need to be the length of a short story. But to take your example, with Alaska Airlines you only need to be traveling on the reservation and have your Mileage Plus number on file to get the free baggage credit for you and up to six others. It is not necessary to actually pay with the card, although as I mentioned in the article you still might want to due to the value of Alaska miles. The only airline who strictly follows the policy of requiring you to pay for the ticket with the card to get free bags is United.

Leave a Reply