Warning: You May Get a Better Rate of Return By Avoiding an Airline Branded Credit Card

Over the last year, I’ve done a lot of free credit card consultations. I’ve noticed a pattern with the credit cards that people have on hand. The pattern would appear to be logical, but it actually isn’t.

The assumption is that I should have and use the credit card that is sponsored by my favorite airline.

And it seems like that makes sense.

But, it might not.

In each of those cases mentioned above, there is another card that potentially offers a better rate of return than the credit card that bears the name of the airline.


With the Southwest card, you’ll earn 1 point per dollar you spend and 2 points per dollar spent on Southwest flights. However, with the Chase Sapphire Preferred, you’ll earn 1 point per dollar spent and 2 points per dollar spent on travel and dining out.

Since Ultimate Rewards (earned with the Chase Sapphire Preferred) transfer 1:1 to Southwest, you’d actually earn more Southwest points using the Sapphire Preferred instead of the Southwest card.

The Sapphire Preferred also has a 7% annual bonus and a 0% foreign currency exchange fee.

The only two reasons that I can think of for having this card is to get the sign up bonus, and if you are going for a Companion Pass. Your spending on the card counts towards the Companion Pass, but not points transferred in from the Ultimate Rewards program.


Much of the information regarding the United card is similar to that of the Southwest card. You’ll be able to earn more United miles by spending on a Sapphire Preferred than you can by spending on a United card.

The advantages of the United card include a free checked bag (could really add up if you fly United a lot and don’t have status), the primary car rental insurance offered for United card holders, and some cards offer a complementary lounge access or two.

American Airlines

The American Airlines Citi card offers 1 mile per dollar spent and 2 points per dollar spent on American airlines. However, if you had the Starwood American Express, then you can get 25,000 American Airlines miles out of every 20,000 points transferred. This means you’ll essentially earn 1.25% across the board on your spending. That sure beats the 1 point per dollar spent.

Reasons to have this card (other than the bonus): If you spend a lot on American Airlines, that 2 miles per dollar might add up to be worth more than the other benefit of the Starwood card (but you could have both and use the Starwood for everyday purchases).


All American Express credit cards that earn Membership Rewards points (like the Premier Gold card or the Platinum card) transfer to Delta. While on the surface it would look like all cards earn a 1:1 spending ratio (with 2:1 for Delta spending on the Delta AMEX), Membership Rewards frequently offers 30 – 50% transfer bonuses to Delta.

It would be a horrible feeling to spend 50,000 on your Delta card and end up with 50,000 Delta miles only to find out that if you had spent that on a Membership Rewards card, you could have 75,000 Delta miles.

Again, the Delta card is one that offers a free checked bag, so there are advantages to this card.

The Shopping Portals Factor

One final factor to consider is that it seems like you can earn more bonus points through the Ultimate Rewards or Membership Rewards booking portals than you can with many of the airlines directly. I haven’t done a thorough analysis, but this does generally seem to be true.


As you can see, there are circumstances for having an airline branded credit card. But you’ll need to look closely at your spending patterns because it’s quite possible another card will have better earning rates for that program and offers you a lot more flexibility.


Disclaimer: This content is not provided or commissioned by American Express. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of American Express, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by American Express. This site may be compensated through American Express Affiliate Program.


  1. KWu says

    This makes sense to me for general spending, but for buying flights on those specific airlines, I figured it made more sense to purchase United flights with my United card since it’s the same point/miles earning rate (2 points per dollar with Chase Sapphire, 2 miles per dollar with United card) and I get the other benefits from the other cards (free checked bag, baggage delay and other event insurance, etc.).

    Also, the 10% bonus when booking through the UR portal is just when you’re booking with points, right? The other bonuses available there are more just the typical additional points per dollar spent at specific sites like Travelocity. Mommy Points posted about this a little while ago so I’ll have to look into it the next time I’m buying United flight to see if there’s some double dipping that I can take advantage of, but generally from her posts it seems like you can take advantage of the UR portal benefits but ultimately use a non-Chase card if you want to.

    Is my understanding of everything correct, or am I maybe missing some other additional dimension?

    • says


      If you have both cards then spending on the United card for United flights could make sense. However, you would actually earn more with the Chase Sapphire Preferred because there is also the annual 7% bonus. It’s not a big difference, but it is still a difference.
      Also, the Chase Sapphire Preferred allows you to earn 2 points per dollar on all travel and dining spending.

      As for the UR portal you save 20% when using your points to book with flights. Also, you can buy tickets at (for example) travelocity.com via the UR portal and earn an extra 2 points per dollar spent.

      Thus, a $500 plane ticket purchased from United.com with a United card would earn you 1,000 UR points.
      A $500 plane ticket purchased from travelocity.com (via UR portal) with your Chase Sapphire Preferred would earn 2,014 points.

  2. says

    This is handy! I have a United card because it was a Continental card which I got because when I fly international it’s usually been on a Star Alliance partner. I also picked up the Sapphire card per your recommendation (and got my 50K mile bonus). I was going to just use the United card now, and eventually cancel the Sapphire, but maybe I’ll rethink it. The only benefit at the moment to the United card is that when we DO fly, one bag each will be free (which pays for the annual fee). But we’ll only fly once every couple years, so I’ve got to rethink which one I cancel this year.


    • says

      It sounds like time to crack open an Excel spreadsheet! The Chase Sapphire Preferred definitely has better mileage earning opportunities. However, if you fly enough the free baggage benefit might be more valuable.

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