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How to Decide Between General and Co-Branded Travel Rewards Credit Cards

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?

Travel rewards credit cards offer a plethora of perks and bevvy 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 with 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 a travel credit. 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 help line and/or travel insurance.  Co-branded travel cards are credit cards that are paired directly to 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) It’s interesting to note that a recent study determined that, for many people, the perks of spending and redeeming rewards with general travel cards have begun to 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. In fact, according to the Wall Street Journal, the latest perks afforded by the Sapphire Reserve® credit card from Chase has begun to strain JPMorgan’s relationship with United Airlines; Chase’s general travel card differs from the issuer’s United co-branded offerings like the United Club Card in that the Sapphire Reserve allows cardholders to earn more points with more spending categories, while the United co-branded offerings are more limited when it comes to point-earning potential.

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 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 SunTrust Travel Rewards Credit Card 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 – 3% cash back on every dollar spent, followed by 2% cash back from dining purchases and 1% 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 $550! 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.

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 card offers 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 – especially since, in 2018, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, JetBlue and Delta Air Lines all raised their fees for checked luggage. 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:

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.

About: Allan
Allan Guzman Chinchilla

Allan is the Managing Editor at BestCards.com. In addition to leading a robust team of writers in the pursuit of thorough credit cards expertise, he is an avid fan of films, food, traveling, and Star Wars.