Pros and Cons of Airline Credit Cards in 2021


With Europe now opening to tourists, international travel seems to be officially back in the mix — though the timing isn’t particularly convenient. For most travelers, the time it takes to plan and execute a trip abroad — not to mention the curfews, closures, and testing requirements imposed by most countries — means an international trip simply isn’t on the table for 2021.

Given the travel realities many folks are facing, the idea of picking up a potentially pricey airline credit card in 2021 seems silly. Even if you are thinking of packing a quick domestic trip into what’s left of the year, what’s the use of getting an airline card now?

Yeah, when you think about it, there are a number of cons to applying for a new airline credit card at the moment — but there are a few pros as well. Here are a few thoughts from both sides of the coin.

Pro: Bigger sign-up bonuses

One of the major selling points of any airline credit card is the sign-up bonus. The pile of miles you can earn from a good welcome bonus is one of the easiest ways to score free flights. And it’s even easier right now, as several popular airline credit cards have recently increased their sign-up bonuses.

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Even better, many airlines have relaxed their elite status limitations for award flights. Before, flying on an award ticket often meant you wouldn’t earn credit toward elite status with the airline; if you did, it was often much less than you’d earn with a paid fare. Right now, however, many airlines will offer you the same credit toward elite status that you’d receive if you paid cash for your tickets.

Con: Limited award availability

Although you can earn big rewards right now, and airlines are even encouraging award travelers to fly, finding those award tickets might not be all that easy.

Alright, so finding award space wasn’t easy even in the Before Times, but it’s going to be a lot more difficult for at least the next several months.

Most airlines have shut down lesser-used routes during the pandemic, many of which have yet to be reopened. Since only a few seats per flight are typically allotted for award tickets, this means fewer awards are available overall. But that’s not the only problem. If the crowded airports making headlines are any indication, a lot of folks want to travel right now, which means increased competition for the few award seats that are left.

Pro: Free bags and lounge access

Flying for free on award tickets might not be the easiest right now, but airline credit cards can be useful beyond earning miles. Most mid- to top-tier airline credit cards also come with money-saving perks like free checked bags and in-flight discounts.

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So, if you find you need to pay cash for your flights, you can still save quite a bit with your airline credit card. Checked bags alone can mean upwards of $30 per bag, each way. A family of four could make up the annual fee on their airline card with a single one-way trip.

There are other valuable perks you could get from your airline card, too. For example, some of the premium airline credit cards offer airport lounge access. That’s a perk that could be worth your card’s weight in gold in an airport crowded with unruly passengers.

Con: Closed airport lounges

Unfortunately, while we’re talking about airport lounges, it should be mentioned that those aren’t quite as plentiful as they used to be. No small number of airport lounges were closed during the pandemic. While they’ve been slowly opening back up, you may not have as much selection as you used to unless you’re at a major hub.

Pro: Keep miles from expiring

You may not be so keen on hitting the skies anytime soon, but do your airline miles know that? Most airline miles have expiration dates, especially if there hasn’t been any activity in your frequent flyer account. So, if you haven’t earned (or, in some cases, redeemed) any miles lately, your vintage stash from 2019 could be set to go bad.

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Unless, of course, you make a purchase or two with your handy-dandy airline credit card. Each time you use your card, you’ll earn airline miles with the co-branded airline. That can reset the countdown on your account, giving you plenty of extra time to plan your 2022 vacation.

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