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Protect your miles by switching credit cards

With airlines like US Airways and United in bankruptcy, and several others in dire financial straits, you may be feeling uneasy about accruing miles in a frequent flyer program that may not be around in a year. On the other hand, you don’t want to give up mileage earning completely because a free ticket is a tempting goal. If you’re the type of traveler who earns miles with an airline-affiliated credit card or are interested in getting a card that will speed up your quest for a free ticket, you have a few options for earning miles without assigning them to a specific airline.

Two types of credit cards—multi-program cards and bank cards—allow you to earn credit toward free flights but don’t require you to commit to an airline up front. For example, multi-program cards, such as the American Express Preferred Rewards Card and the Diners Club Card, allow you to earn points that can be converted into miles with several affiliated airline and hotel programs.

On the other hand, bank cards—Bank of America Platinum Travel Visa, Capital One Go Miles Rewards Visa, Chase Travel Rewards Platinum MasterCard, Citi Diamond Preferred Rewards Card, MBNA Elite Rewards Platinum Plus MasterCard, and the U.S. Bank Visa Travel Rewards Card—allow you to earn “miles” for purchases and redeem them for free flights on any airline. With both types of cards, you can use your everyday purchases to earn a free flight, but you don’t have to choose the airline until you are ready to redeem your points. This flexibility lets you decide which airline you want to fly based on the current industry climate, and allows you to choose a different airline each time you redeem without having to change credit cards.

The pluses and minuses

Multi-program cards and bank cards may look tempting during this rocky time in the airline industry, but you must consider the pros and cons before signing up, particularly if you plan on switching from your airline-affiliated card. Multi-program cards like American Express and Diners Club are a safe place to keep miles until you’re ready to combine them with your flight mileage, but the cards have high annual fees and only allow conversion into certain programs. If your preferred airlines aren’t among the listed partners, these cards might not be the best answer for you. Plus, American Express and Diners Club aren’t accepted by as many merchants as Visa or MasterCard.

Bank cards have lower annual fees, and free flights are available on any airline with no date restrictions. However, as the credit card company is effectively buying you a plane ticket, there is often a maximum dollar value allowed for the ticket and advance purchase requirements. You also cannot combine miles earned with your credit card with miles earned for flights or other partner activity, and miles expire after a few years.

When choosing a credit card, be sure to read all the fine print about how you can earn miles or flights. And if you’re thinking about switching, compare that with the earning rules and restrictions on your current card.

When to switch

If you compare your options and decide you do want to switch credit cards, be smart about when you switch. As most airline-affiliated credit cards have annual fees of $50 to $100, you don’t want to end up paying twice in one year. Call your current credit card company to find out when your next annual fee payment is due and cancel your card before that date. That way, you can save your money while you save your miles.

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