Do you want to earn travel-related rewards like free night stays at your favorite hotel, or a free flight with your preferred airline? How do you compare a general travel rewards card to a co-branded airline or hotel card – what are the differences? What stands out about each?
How To Choose Between General & Co-branded Travel Cards
Travel rewards credit cards offer a plethora of perks and a bevy of benefits to cardholders who love to travel, targeting people who seek to earn air miles, free hotel stays, discounted (and free) travel, and even things like complimentary airport lounge access or a free checked bag. Co-branded travel credit cards take this a step further and are designed for brand loyalists who are looking for savings and want to spend their money directly with the hotels and airlines they love. You may be wondering: Which is better, a generic travel rewards card or a co-branded airline or hotel card? The answer ultimately lies in personal preference, but some of the differences between the two types of cards may surprise you.
What’s the Difference Between a Co-Branded Travel Card and a General Travel Card?
General travel cards allow the cardholder to earn points for use with multiple airlines, hotel brands, and even cruise lines. Essentially, you’ll earn points towards any travel expense either by booking travel directly with your card or by redeeming points earned with it for travel credits. A good travel credit card can help you fully fund a trip, won’t charge you any fees for transactions in foreign countries, and features provisions for travel-related emergencies like a 24-hour helpline and/or travel insurance.
Co-branded travel cards are credit cards that are paired directly with a partner company – most often a hotel or airline. These cards typically offer all the desirable perks mentioned above, including travel protections, with one slight caveat: Point redemption is usually limited to the airline or hotel that your travel card is co-branded with. (Note: Some airlines offer codeshare programs, which allow you to redeem rewards with other airlines that are members of the same program, but this exchange may come with a catch – sometimes your points may be devalued after you transfer them, meaning you may need to use more rewards to redeem with a partner)
|General Travel Credit Cards||Co-branded Travel Credit Cards|
|Earn rewards towards any travel expense||Use with multiple airlines, hotel brands, and cruise lines||Paired directly to a partner company||Use with co-branded company for maximum rewards|
|Redeem rewards with flexibility i.e. cash back, travel credits, merchants, statement credits, etc.||Earn rewards based on spend categories or a flat rate||Rewards only redeemable with paired brand||Typically comes with access to the hotel or airline loyalty program, plus additional perks|
|May have additional travel benefits like no foreign transaction fees, access to travel insurance, and more.|
Redeeming Rewards With Travel Credit Cards
The perks of spending and redeeming rewards with general travel cards may outweigh the benefits provided by co-branded cards. By its very nature, a general travel card offers the opportunity to redeem points with flexibility – cardholders are not limited to a specific airline, hotel, or retailer when it comes to reward redemption, which is attractive to many people. Choosing between a general travel credit card and a co-branded credit card can be difficult, and the fact that some card issuers like Chase offer both general as well as co-branded travel cards often makes the decision more difficult.
|Chase Freedom Unlimited||Chase Sapphire Reserve®||Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card||United Club Infinite Card|
|General Travel Card From Chase||General Travel Card From Chase||Co-branded Airline Card From Chase||Co-branded Airline Card From Chase|
|$0 Annual Fee||$550 Annual Fee||$149 Annual Fee||$525 Annual Fee|
The “Ups and Downs” of Using a General Travel Card
When considering a general travel card, it’s a good idea to examine card benefits as these can vary drastically by the card issuer. The perks that appeal most to you will be based on your personal preferences, but a good rule of thumb is to find a card that offers travel and purchase protections, in addition to the perks and benefits typically associated with general travel cards (earning points from using your card, which can be redeemed towards travel and more).
Some travel cards, like the Chase Freedom Unlimited® feature rewards that can be earned based on spending categories, which are staggered: the cardholder can earn the most cash back rewards from making qualifying travel purchases with their card – 5% cash back on every dollar spent, followed by 3% cash back from dining and drugstore purchases and 1.5% on all other qualifying purchases.
Other cards, like the Discover it® Miles card, award miles or points at a flat rate – in this case, the cardholder earns miles at a rate of 1.5x miles for every $1 they spend with their card. A card that earns at a flat rate is better for someone who plans to use their credit card for everyday purchases and wants to earn miles or points for any purchase they make whether it’s gas, groceries, Christmas gifts, or a concert ticket; a card that rewards you for making purchases within specific spending categories will appeal most to someone who spends a lot of money within those categories.
Generally, the biggest advantage of using an all-purpose travel credit card is the flexibility that is afforded to cardholders when redeeming their hard-earned points. Many travel cards allow cardholders to redeem points with multiple hotel chains, airlines, cruises and vacation packages, and even train tickets, in addition to merchandise, cash back rewards, and the like. On the other hand, many of the top-tier travel credit cards are not easy to get. Since these card offers have extremely lucrative reward programs, card issuers often are picky about who they approve for these credit cards.
In other words, unless your credit is considered “excellent,” you may have a difficult time acquiring one of these hallowed travel cards. Additionally, nothing worth having comes for free – many of the most popular general travel cards come with a hefty annual price tag; some, like the American Express Platinum® Card are as high as $695! Deciding if the price tag is too high will likely depend on how you use your credit card – if the juice is worth the squeeze, it may be a good investment – just ensure you will get your money’s worth.
|The Platinum Card® from American Express||Mastercard® Black Card™||U.S. Bank Altitude™ Reserve Visa Infinite® Card||Mastercard® Titanium Card™|
|$695 Annual Fee||$495 Annual Fee||$400 Annual Fee||$195 Annual Fee|
Checking Out the Pros and Cons of Using a Co-Branded Airline or Hotel Card
Most airlines and hotels have loyalty programs that reward frequent customers for their patronage; these rewards programs offer desirable discounts, deals, and special perks like elite status, complimentary breakfast, or priority boarding. Many of these programs are now paired with a co-branded credit card. These credit cards offer up the ante and provide cardholders with a lucrative way to earn bonus rewards while they spend, travel, and stay with their favorite airline or hotel.
Perhaps the best perk of having a co-branded airline card is free checked bags, especially if you travel multiple times each year. Many co-branded airline cards offer one free checked bag per trip; some even allow this privilege for each person on the cardholder’s reservation! Free checked bags are even more attractive to people who travel with their family regularly, as this can add up to substantial savings. Additionally, if you live by the hub airport of an airline, you might consider getting its co-branded card since you’ll have access to more flights with that airline. Examples of co-branded airline cards that offer a free checked bag as a perk include:
|Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card||Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®||United Club Infinite Card||Alaska Airlines Visa® Credit Card|
|$250 Annual Fee||$450 Annual Fee||$525 Annual Fee (first and second checked bags fly for free for cardholders)||$95 Annual Fee (free checked bag for cardholder and up to six other guests on the same reservation)|
A co-branded hotel credit card also has its benefits, as cardholders can receive anything from free nights and automatic room upgrades to flexible checkout times and access to free Wi-Fi. Although these perks are not always available to loyalty program members who do not have a co-branded card, that doesn’t mean they can’t be earned through said loyalty program, too. Holding a co-branded hotel credit card makes it easier to earn these perks, either as an annual bonus or through points.
As mentioned, the biggest caveat of owning and using a co-branded hotel or airline card is that the rewards accrued by using these cards have limited redemption options; earning points or miles may also be restricted to the hotel or airline that is paired with the card issuer. While this won’t faze those who are interested in quickly earning a free hotel stay or a free flight, it is important to keep in mind for those who may not travel as frequently. Ask yourself: Will you use the card to its full potential by booking rooms and/or flights regularly? If not, a general travel card may better suit your needs.
Which is Best For Me: General Travel Card or Co-Branded Travel Card?
Remember to consider factors like annual fees, foreign transaction fees, cardholder benefits and protections, rewards earning rate, and card issuer when making your decision. The interest rate for each card you are interested in is another important element to take into account when making a decision, as are your spending habits. Do you find that you seek out a specific hotel chain when you travel or fly often with one airline over others? Or do you find that you purchase based on what is available or offers the best cost?
Based on our research, the BestCards team recommends a travel rewards card over a co-branded airline or hotel card for anyone who isn’t a brand loyalist and for those who will not be traveling multiple times with a specific carrier or staying at a specific chain several times during the year. If you plan to frequent your favorite hotel chain multiple times each year, or check bags several times each year with a particular carrier, it may be a good idea to look into a co-branded card – especially if the rewards offset the cost.
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