credit cards

Charging your way to free travel

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."

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