If you use an airline credit card, such as the American Airlines AAdvantage MasterCard, might I suggest a cash-back card instead? Airline cards award one mile or point per dollar you spend, and that’s great if you’re a big spender: after charging $25,000 you might earn enough miles for a free round-trip domestic flight. But most people don’t charge enough, or quickly enough, to earn a flight award, and those tickets come with unpleasant restrictions and fees that most people only learn about when it’s too late.
The best cash-back cards, in contrast, refund 2% on everything you buy with them, so even if you spend $12,000 you’ll get back $240, or enough for a free nonstop flight from L.A. to New York when there’s a fare sale. Even better, some of these cards offer cash sign-up bonuses, and, unlike airline-affiliated cards, all of which have hefty annual fees, most cash-back cards have none.
But the biggest reason to switch to cash-back might be all the rules you unwittingly agree to abide by, and fees you agree to pay, when you join a frequent-flyer program.
Not all programs are alike, but consider some of their liabilities when compared to cash: miles may expire if there’s no activity in your account, while cash may be spent until it’s gone; miles may expire when you do, while cash may be bequeathed to any deserving heir; miles may be subject to capacity controls, while cash can be splurged on any flight with an empty seat; and miles may be devalued whenever the airline increases, on a whim, the number needed to fly “free,” while cash is subject only to inflation, lately around 2%.
And yes, I wrote “free,” because your frequent-flyer awards, which once required no cash layout, are also subject to fees and co-pays: a $75 fee for a flight booked 21 or fewer days before departure; a $150 fee for a change or cancellation; a $550 fee, each way, plus miles or points, for upgrading from economy to business or first class; and on some airlines a fee to reinstate expired miles. Don’t forget to add the $95 annual credit card fee you pay for the privilege of earning those miles and paying those fees.
The airlines have added these fees and devalued their loyalty programs with such stealth that most members didn’t notice. Miles- and points-obsessed consumers are like the proverbial frog in a gradually heated pot. By the time we noticed what was going on, we were hooked — and cooked.
Which cash-back cards offer the best value? Try these recent offerings, which, like frequent-flyer programs themselves, are subject to change:
Citi Double Cash Card
No annual fee; 2% on everything you purchase.
Fidelity Rewards Visa Signature Card
No annual fee; 2% on everything you buy. The only “catch” is that you must have a money market or retirement account, or open one, with Fidelity, since the money you earn goes into that account.
Capital One Savor Cash Rewards Card
No annual fee the first year, then $95; $300 bonus after you spend $3,000 in the first three months; 1% on all purchases plus 4% on dining and entertainment, and 2% on groceries.
Chase Freedom Unlimited Card
No annual fee. 1.5% on all purchases, plus a $200 bonus on a $500 spend during the first three months.
Wells Fargo Cash Wise Visa Card
No annual fee; 1.5% on all purchases, plus $150 after a $500 spend in the first three months; 1.8% on purchases made with ApplePay or GooglePay in the first 12 months.
Whether you apply for a miles-earning or a cash-rewarding card, do yourself and every other consumer a favor: do so with the issuing bank directly, not through a website claiming to advise which cards are best. Banks pay these sites many millions each year in referral commissions, which get “baked” into the credit card fees, penalties and interest rates all consumers end up paying. As bad, the listings aren’t always complete since cards that don’t pay don’t get listed.
Earning points and miles with a credit card still appeals to many consumers, and I get it. The sign-up bonuses, sometimes as high as 100,000 miles, are enticing. But after they spend this haul, many are better off with a cash-back card. Since most Americans fly no more than once a year, it’s impossible to earn enough miles for an award ticket.
Like air travel itself, the frequent-flyer loyalty program, so alluring when it first appeared, ain’t what it used to be.