Airline Rewards Cards: Where loyalty is not always rewarded

Updated on May 03, 2017

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Airline rewards cards are tailored to travelers who fly almost exclusively on one particular airline and who enjoy the miscellaneous fringe benefits of card membership. Those VIP perks often include free baggage check-in, access to airline club lounges, savings on food and beverages in-flight, and priority boarding to avoid long lines and competition for overhead storage bin space.

There are plenty of shortcomings that can quickly offset the rewards, however, and frequent fliers have been complaining about those for years. What happens when you have to change planes in a distant city for a leg of the trip that is not served by your particular airline? In some cases, passengers have found themselves bumped and stranded in foreign countries en route to their final destination because of the way their flights were routed.  Similar devaluation of rewards can happen due to an airline merger or bankruptcy.

The most common frustration-induced scenarios, unfortunately, have nothing to do with those kinds of mishaps. The chronic problem with airline rewards cards is that despite the fact that they are called loyalty cards, they often don’t offer great rewards to members. Many times card members are left feeling like they got the short end of the stick.

A Typical Scenario

You want to redeem your hard-earned points but the airline restricts your travel dates. You ask for a seat that you know is available, but they unapologetically ignore you and sell it to someone else-so much for feeling like your airline’s VIP and preferred customer.  Almost all frequent flier programs connected to credit card rewards have these stringent policies in place that enforce blackout dates and other restrictions, effectively prohibiting you from using your awards the way a normal customer would.

Easing the Restrictions

Thankfully, there are some frequent flier cards that do a better job of rewarding your loyalty by easing some of the flight reservation restrictions that have earned the ire of many travelers. With the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Card from Chase, for instance, there are no blackout dates and your points don’t expire. Plus, if there is a seat available on a flight you want, you can redeem your awards for it, no problem. Southwest was actually one of the first airlines to offer a rewards card program, and if more carriers followed their lead and eased restrictions, we’d have more frequent fliers. Despite being more user-friendly, however, programs like the one operated by Southwest can still be complicated. Trying to figure out how to make the most of your rewards can require a magnifying glass to study the small print and a calculator to crunch the numbers. That’s why many travelers prefer to stick with a card that offers plenty of robust rewards that you don’t have to micromanage.

Why Airlines Treat Loyalty Cardholders Poorly

The critical thing to understand before choosing a rewards program is that there is no financial incentive for airlines to give away valuable seats on popular flights. If you are a cash-paying customer and you want to buy a ticket, the airline wants to make a profit from that transaction. When you ask to redeem rewards points, however, that doesn’t contribute to the airline’s bottom line. You are almost viewed as a non-paying customer so they will send you to the back of the line and as long as other people are ready to pay “actual” money for seats. You’ll find it easy to book a seat on an unpopular flight at an inconvenient time in the off season, but may find it impossible to book flights for the trip you actually want to take.

Anytime, Anywhere, Any Airline

When you carry a credit card that lets you earn rewards that can be applied to travel on any airline, it works much differently. In this case, when you ask to redeem your points to receive a ticket, your credit card company steps to the front of the line on your behalf, waving cold cash. They buy a ticket just like anyone else, the airline makes their money, and the ticket is put in your name and is all yours. That’s why you are not subject to frequent flier program restrictions and annoyances. You’re treated like a valuable paying customer, not a stowaway.

Open-Ended Airline Rewards Cards

Features you’ll typically find with these kinds of more open-ended air travel cards include no blackout dates, no weird travel restrictions, and the ability to redeem your rewards to fly anywhere, anytime, on any airline that you choose. Credit cards that allow you more choices when it comes to booking your flights include, American Express Blue Sky, Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card, Chase Freedom, and Chase Sapphire Preferred. There are even cards for those who want to maintain frequent flier program membership with a specific airline. In that case, you can opt to redeem your rewards by transferring their value over to your existing frequent flier account. That might be an attractive option for those who have already accumulated a lot of points with one airline but need to add some more in order to be eligible for the trip they have planned.

For the average cardholder and traveler, though, cards that provide solid ways to earn with absolutely no limitations on what airline you can use or when you can fly are going to be the most rewarding. There are many to choose from, and you’ll find them conveniently summarized, reviewed, and expertly ranked on our website.

*Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer.

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