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Why You Shouldn’t Use Your Airline Credit Card to Pay for Flights

Why You Shouldn’t Use Your Airline Credit Card to Pay for Flights
Anya Kartashova

I was at my friends’ house last weekend celebrating their twin daughters’ birthday. We started talking about travel, and my friend mentioned how they spent a large sum of money for all four of them to go to Florida to visit family this Christmas.

Knowing that they hold the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, I asked if they used it to earn points on their large airfare purchase. “No, we paid with our Delta card.” My heart sunk. I felt as if I failed as a friend (and now I know who doesn’t read my articles).

Now, there’s nothing wrong with having co-branded airline credit cards. They come with some nice perks, such as free checked bags, reduced lounge access and priority boarding, to name a few. However, these credit cards shouldn’t be used for actual spending, even for purchasing flights on the same airline. Here’s why.

Flexible Points Have More Value


My friends had a choice in their situation: pay for flights with the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or with the Gold Delta SkyMiles credit card from American Express. Unfortunately, they made the wrong one, even though both cards earn 2X points per dollar spent.

The reason is, Chase Ultimate Rewards points earned with the Sapphire credit card are flexible points—they can be transferred to a number of airline and hotel partners or used as cash at a rate of 1.25 cents via the Chase travel portal to book any available flight.

Delta SkyMiles, on the other hand, are worth about 1 cent apiece (at least it’s what Delta Air Lines wants you to think) and don’t have a lot of versatility.

When given the choice between earning transferrable points or specific airline miles, even if the earning rates are the same, choose flexibility because you have more control in how you can redeem them.

Nobody Wants to Be Stuck With a Single Rewards Program

By earning miles with a single airline program, you willingly limit yourself in how the miles can be redeemed. Sure, Delta SkyMiles or United MileagePlus miles can be redeemed for flights operated by any airline in the SkyTeam alliance or Star Alliance, respectively, but you’re still stuck with limited options, and sometimes no options, when working with a single currency.

Flexible points, such as Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou Points all have a variety of airline partners, at least one of which belongs to one of the major three alliances, which helps increase redemption opportunities significantly.

Delta SkyMiles Isn’t a Particularly Valuable Program


Finally, Delta SkyMiles specifically isn’t the most valuable rewards program on the market, and collecting its miles shouldn’t be anyone’s top priority.

For example, Flying Blue, the Air France/KLM loyalty program that partners with Delta, offers one-way economy flights to Europe starting at 21,500 miles on certain routes. The same flights booked through Delta SkyMiles require at least 30,000 miles (or more when dynamic pricing kicks in).

It helps that Flying Blue miles can be used to book SkyTeam flights, including those operated by Delta, and the program partners with all transferrable point programs.

Another example is the possibility of redeeming 50,000 Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles for a one-way business-class Delta flight from the U.S. to Europe. Delta, on the other hand, often wants hundreds of thousands of SkyMiles for the exact same flights.

Essentially, earning 2X points with a flexible program will get you an award flight faster than earning the same 2X SkyMiles with Delta because of inflated redemption rates. In my friends’ case, it’s a no-brainer—earning Chase points would’ve been a better option.

Final Thoughts

When it comes to points and miles, they’re not all created equal. One point in one program isn’t the same point in another. Unfortunately, airlines improved its marketing tactics for its credit cards. However, what they don’t tell you during the in-flight pitch is that their miles aren’t worth as much as bank points. The only reason to hold a co-branded airline credit card is for perks and not for buying anything with it.

Where do you stand on making everyday purchases with a co-branded airline credit card?

View Comments (21)


  1. travelerjmf

    November 9, 2019 at 8:43 am

    Don’t most airline credit cards require you to use their branded card if you want to get free checked bags?

  2. sdsearch

    November 9, 2019 at 9:01 am

    Did you ask them WHEN they got their Delta card??? If it was recently, may they get a credit for purchasing a Delta flight from it, and/or the purchase both earned 2x on Delta AND helped them get to the signup bonus.

    Btw, the example is even more obvious for someone who doesn’t have the Chase cards you mentioned but does have Amex Gold from the same credit card company that issues the Delta card. Amex Gold gives 3x MR points on flights purchased directly from the airline, and MR points transfer to Delta 1:1, while the (lower-AF) Delta card only gets 2x on Delta flights. So it makes sense if you have both cards to purchase the flight with the Amex Gold card, EVEN IF you are interested in earning Delta miles!

    So your article was very incomplete, given the headline that implied it would more than just one example.

  3. hfb606

    November 9, 2019 at 9:42 am

    They got their first bag checked free with the United card. United requires that flyers use their United card to get free baggage…

  4. heinvandenheuvel

    November 9, 2019 at 1:18 pm

    Well, there is a Delta airline status twist with using the Delta Amex card.

    If you spend more than 25,000 in a calendar year, then you get an MQD (Qualifying Dollars) Waiver, and 10,000 MQM (Qualifying Miles).
    This year I needed both of those to retain Gold Status.
    Note: Some rules change 1/30/2020.

    Granted, using Amex Delta for many purchases means loosing out on 1% or even 2% points/cash back.
    Still, to me that $250 – $500 seems to be a reasonable price to get to Gold. Gold gives me frequent upgrades to first-class (USA) or at least Comfort (international), Nicer lounge access for international flight, early boarding, Free day of departure flight time changes, and maybe a but extra effort if/when I call for help. (I have Priority Lounge access on several airports if need be).

  5. ranles

    November 9, 2019 at 9:23 pm

    My Citi Costco card gives me three cents per dollar spent on travel. I can get the money only once a year, around Feb-‘Mar. I do use new airline cards/hotel cards to pay for travel (gift cards, HO Insurance, general purchases) to meet the spend requirements to get the offered bonus. I am looking into travel insurance that comes when you book with some cards, including airlines. Hope this helps

  6. diburning

    November 9, 2019 at 10:32 pm

    Or… maybe, just maybe, they booked with the Delta card for the free checked bags which outweighs the value difference between the skymiles and the UR points.

  7. wesport

    November 10, 2019 at 2:46 am

    Chase Sapphire also offers trip cancellation.

  8. fotographer

    November 10, 2019 at 3:39 am

    I , use Amex cards that are associated with hotels.
    you ask why.. well great deal to get to X.. then you look at hotels there… expensive.. so points come to use

  9. RNE

    November 10, 2019 at 10:02 am

    But I have to use my airline card to get free baggage fees.

  10. ontheroad

    November 11, 2019 at 5:14 am

    Is the writer or FT getting a commission on Chase card enrollments or similar affiliate compensation? If so, that should be disclosed in this writing.

  11. Patrick Le Floch

    November 11, 2019 at 9:34 am

    Most other travel sites indeed receive sponsorships from card issuers (and disclose this relationship). @Flyertalk, please clarify.

  12. OZFLYER86

    November 11, 2019 at 4:09 pm

    frequent flyer programmes are all getting too hard & less valuable at same time. Airlines have to be careful, customers don’t drop out in droves.

  13. jshilling

    November 12, 2019 at 7:06 am

    Not meaning to attack here but I think the title of this article is misleading – it seems to imply the story will be about why another card might offer better assurances like lost bag reimbursement, insurance, or other. The fact is, as others have stated, free bags for using the airlines credit card is key for most passengers that are not elites. The article might have been better titled why the Delta credit card and Delta points are likely not your best choice.

    Chase is one of the flexible programs, but flexibility is not automatically better. While I understand presently that Delta has a better offering and experience to many over that of AA or United, I maintain the AA mile is still in the lead as far as value, since they still have a published award chart. making it an “alternate currency.”

    Jeff Shilling

  14. Snuggs

    November 13, 2019 at 7:48 pm

    Another shameless ad. Was this a TPG column posted here in error?

  15. RandyN

    November 14, 2019 at 6:57 am

    Total nonsense. I don’t have status with United, but if I use my branded credit card I get priority boarding and a free checked bag. And I still collect the points.

  16. Bretteee

    November 14, 2019 at 10:10 am

    I agree about the DELTA card not giving many airline options. Very limited and very hard to get Business seats. But UNITED is great. The number of airlines in the plan is great.

  17. jamesteroh

    November 15, 2019 at 6:28 am

    While I consider one sky peso per $ charged a poor return I use it until I get enough spend in for the MQM’s boosts and the mileage waiver. I’m fortunate enough to have a lot of business spend on credit cards and there is no way I could get the status otherwise. I consider the poor return to be worh it for the value I get from the SWU’s since I take two international trips a year and being a hub captive the Co-Terminal benefit is great. Once that spend requirement is met the Delta cards go in the drawer until next year. Even on Delta spend I find the Chase Saphirre return gives a better return and I am not restricted to using it on Delta and get trip protection. I use a card at merchants if there is a bonus involved (i.e. Chase Saphhire reserve for all travel and dining and if Discover or Chase freedom has a quarterly category card gets used there) and all other spend goes on my Citi Double. Next year however my LAS trips will always go on my Delta Reserve since I will have Am Ex lounge access.

    if someone doesn’t have status or doesn’t need the spend minimum for MQMs/MQD Waiver, I agree just keep the card for the luggage waiver and sign up bonus or the Delta credit you’ll get on the lower end cards next year.

  18. dane1

    November 15, 2019 at 3:22 pm

    The MQD waiver and MQMs are the reason I have the card – much more so than for the miles. As has been pointed out above, the bag fee waiver itself makes up the difference in point value so why, unless a paid promoter for the Chase card, would anyone suggest not using it?

  19. AnyaK

    November 19, 2019 at 5:49 pm

    Clarification from the author: A lot of readers commented that a free checked bag comes into play only when that card is used to buy the flight. It’s incorrect. Although this policy is true for United cards, Delta, Alaska or AA don’t require a flight be paid with the co-branded card to get the benefit. The SkyMiles number attached to the card and the reservation is enough to get free bags and priority boarding.

  20. N174UA

    November 19, 2019 at 8:28 pm

    I have the Delta Reserve AMEX, and I use it for just about everything, except for at Costco. This year, not only did I meet the MQD waiver, but I also hit the $30k spend threshold, which gave me 15,000 SM, and also 15,000 MQM’s. This meant I reached Gold Medallion status for next year. There’s a better reservations line, free checked bags, priority boarding and baggage handling, and also no fee to use the Sky Lounge, as long as I’m traveling on Delta that day. I fly Delta exclusively, anyway.

    With this card, and being a Gold Medallion member, I also a get a total of 8x miles based on what I pay for a ticket. So that $1,000 fare to wherever turns into 8,000 miles. Adds up fast.

  21. GrayAnderson

    December 4, 2019 at 7:09 pm

    It is hard to put into words how condescending you come across. We all have different strategies for getting what we want or need from our credit cards and airlines/hotels. It is hardly unreasonable for your friend to use their Delta card if they are pursuing either the MQD waiver or the MQM boost (with the higher tier cards) or seeking to get the free bag.

    This goes double since they have the CSP and not the CSR (which would make for a stronger case because of the associated extra points and benefits). The idea that you had “failed as a friend” because your friend might have a different set of objectives at a given time is just absurd and comes across as pompous.

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