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Are reward-miles credit cards worth it?

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  • High annual fees and interest rates hit consumers who don't pay off the balance
  • Travelers with kids in school will have tough competition for reward tickets
  • Reward credit cards can offer a good value for upgrades
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By Sean O'Neill
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Budget Travel

(Budget Travel) -- Everyone knows that airlines make it difficult to redeem frequent-flier miles for free travel. Yet you may not know that they're making it expensive, too.

As of October 1, American Airlines will charge customers a fee of at least $50 to use their miles to buy a one-way upgrade on many types of tickets. (AA didn't charge a fee before.) US Airways has chosen to charge a $25 quick-ticketing fee to customers who redeem their frequent-flier miles for travel within 14 days of their departure. Delta isn't charging a fee, but it is watering down the value of its miles by raising the minimum number of miles you need to earn to redeem for many types of tickets.

In light of these changes, are credit cards that promise free flights worth it?

Fortunately, long-time personal finance writer Ron Lieber has come up with five quick questions to help you figure out the answer:

Do you pay off your balance each month?

If so, then a rewards card might be good for you. If you don't, you should cancel your rewards card because it probably charges a high annual fee and a high interest rate. (To find a low rate alternative, visit or

Are your kids in school?

"If they are, you'll be fighting everyone else who wants to travel at the same time," says Lieber. "The airlines, knowing your desperation to get out of town, may make fewer free seats available during school vacations, since the airline will probably sell all the seats on those flights anyway."

Do you have elite status?

If yes, you should probably keep your rewards card. The major airlines, such as American and United, make it easier for passengers with elite status to redeem miles, boosting the value of the miles you earn on your card.

Do you own your own business?

If so, you can probably charge up a lot on your credit card. Once you start charging more than $100,000 a year, you'll be earning enough miles to earn premium-class tickets. The airlines make sure that "miles are worth a lot more if you redeem them for this sort of travel" because they want to retain the loyalty of big spending customers.

Do you value upgrades?

"It can be easier to get upgrades from coach using miles than it is to book free seats." So if upgrades matter to you, then a rewards card may be the best value way to get upgrades. But watch out for those increasing redemption fees!

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Copyright © 2009 Newsweek Budget Travel, Inc., all rights reserved.

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