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Charging your way to free travel

Everyone wants a free flight to paradise, and we'll charge our way there if we have to. Attach air miles to a credit card and people will spend an average of $25,000 a year.

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"We all work our tails off and travel is our getaway," says Chris Theoharides, president of Advantage Consulting Group in Massapequa, N.Y.

"People love the idea of free travel."

Banks know this, and that's why there are hundreds of air mile credit card offers flooding the marketplace. Finding a deal that's right for you takes some work.

"Spend a few minutes. Do the math, and figure out if this card is going to earn you something worthwhile," says Gerri Detweiler, author of "The Ultimate Credit Handbook."

Separating the good from the bad
There are plenty of so-so offers mixed in with the good ones. So be careful. If one card doesn't seem so great, keep on shopping. There are tons of offers to choose from.

More than 35 air mile credit cards are linked to specific airlines and specific frequent flier programs, according to Randy Petersen, editor and publisher of Inside Flyer Magazine and producer of the Web site WebFlyer.

These types of cards have been around since the late 1980s. You typically earn one air mile for every dollar that you spend. The miles you earn with your credit card are automatically added to your frequent flier account with the airline.

You earn additional miles when you use your credit card to make purchases at airline partners, such as hotels and rental car agencies, clothing stores, office supply shops and even long distance phone service companies.

Partner lists seem to go on and on. A typical frequent flier program has more than 80 partners. Delta Skymiles, for instance, boasts more than 90.

With the Delta Skymiles card from American Express, you earn two air miles for each dollar you spend at supermarkets, gas stations, drug stores, home improvement stores and the U.S. Postal Service.

Of course, you can also earn air miles the old-fashioned way -- by flying. Let's say you book a flight on Delta with your Delta Skymiles card. You'd earn from 500 miles minimum to 150 percent of mileage. It's a great way to rack up air miles.

The price of the perk
The downside of airline credit cards is the price. Annual fees range from $25 to $180. They also tend to have higher-than-average interest rates.

Bankrate tracks the best of the frequent-flier credit card deals. Go to our credit card rate table to explore the choices currently offered.

Because of the high interest rates, it's not a good idea to carry a balance on these types of credit cards.

Not keen on the high price of an airline credit card? You have lots of other choices. Hundreds of additional air mile cards promise to reward customers with a free-round trip ticket that can be used on any airline.

"There are so many of those they're difficult to keep up with," Petersen says.

The hook of these generic air miles cards is their flexibility. You earn miles toward free air fare that can be used on any airline. They also tend to have lower fees and lower interest rates than cards associated with specific airlines.

The downside of generic air miles cards is you can't dump the miles you earn with the card into a frequent flyer account.

"You have to earn all your miles on the card," Theoharides says. "There's no combining with a frequent flier account. So it takes a little longer."

Miles on generic cards may not be good for international destinations. Be sure to check this out, especially if you have your heart set on a free trip to Rome.

Some generic cards require 21-day advance notice and Saturday night stay when you book your free flight. So a free last-minute getaway may be out as well.

Before signing up for an air mile credit card, be sure to study the details.

Where can you fly with your air miles? Will they take you to your dream destination? Petersen hears from people who've racked up thousands of miles on a card only to learn it won't take them to the place they most want to go.

"All frequent flier programs are not created equal," Petersen says.

So decide where you'd really like to go, and then shop around for a card and rewards program that will get you there with the least amount of spending.

Make note of mileage requirements and blackout dates. Be sure to check out the list of partners for each frequent flier program. Do you already shop at an airline partner? What kinds of bonus miles opportunities are available? Be prepared to do some digging.

Low APR? What's the catch?
On the credit card side you'll want to compare the interest rate, annual fee and grace period. Some air mile card deals are pretty expensive. Some of the lower priced ones may not be as good as they seem.

And there are plenty of folks out there who should avoid air mile cards altogether. Because of the high interest rates, air mile cards are not a good choice for people who carry big balances.

If you don't spend thousands of dollars a year on a credit card or travel frequently, it's going to be awfully tough to earn enough miles for a reward.

"Most people don't spend $20,000 on their credit cards -- enough to get a ticket in the first year," Detweiler says. "Most people won't earn the maximum rewards. You have to be realistic about how much you will earn."

Look at your financial situation, and be realistic about how much you can afford to spend on an air mile card.

"No matter what they tell you in all the fancy literature, these programs are not for everyone," Petersen says. "If you're only spending $1,000 a year, I wouldn't get any of these cards. I would go out and get a fee-free one with a low interest rate." 



-- Updated: May 9, 2006




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