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Practicing Prudence in Picking Travel Cards

With all these frantic credit card merchants beseeching me these days, I feel as if I’m a tourist wandering the Marrakesh souk. “Joseph! Last chance to earn 35,000 bonus miles!” implores a new e-mail message from Delta Air Lines for its Gold Delta SkyMiles credit card from American Express.

Credit Cards
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Credit Cards

It also guarantees priority boarding and free checked bags for me and “up to eight others” who may be traveling with me — with the $95 annual fee waived for the first year.

But wait, there’s more. Just a few days ago, I got an offer for a “preapproved” Citi AAdvantage card with 35,000 bonus American Airlines miles, first-year fee also waived. Last year, I accepted an offer for a Chase British Airways Signature card that came with 100,000 bonus miles.

Then last month, I opted for a new Chase United MileagePlus Explorer Visa card (the names roll off the tongue, don’t they?) whose enticements included 50,000 bonus miles, priority boarding status, two passes to United Airlines’ airport lounges and waiver of the $95 annual fee for one year.

After I mentioned getting that Explorer card in a column a couple of weeks ago, a few readers admonished me because they thought that I had given bad information.

Naomi Matusow said she called about the card and “was very disappointed to learn that the annual fee is $395, not the very enticing $95 stated in your column.” She said she was told that $95 of that $395 fee would be waived for the first year.

Bad information? No. As I replied to Ms. Matusow, she was evidently being sold another card. The day after I mentioned United’s Explorer card, United and Chase introduced a new higher-end Visa card called MileagePlus Club. That one costs $395 a year, with $95 credited for the first year. It has the same benefits as the Explorer card, but also offers many extras, including a year of full membership to United Club airport lounges. The usual general membership in United Club is $475 a year.

The various credit card offers, which seem to come every day, are aimed at increasing airline revenue and building loyalty or, for the higher-level cards, to compete with industry giants like the American Express Platinum Card. That card costs $450 a year, but offers a wide range of benefits including free access to the airport clubs of Delta , American and US Airways (but not United), $200 in annual reimbursements for various airline fees and elite-status membership in various car rental companies.

“I’ve been in this business a long time and there definitely have been times of very aggressive marketing of airline and other travel cards,” said David Gold, the general manager of Chase Card Services. “We happen to be in one of them now.”

Joe Brancatelli, who runs the business travel membership Web site Joesentme.com, agrees that the incentives are remarkable right now, providing opportunity for business travelers to “edit their wallets” and decide which cards to keep for travel and which may be good ones to acquire, given the lavish enticements.

But I advise both prudence and organizational acumen. I, for one, am at the limit of my logistical skills keeping track of my basic travel card, an American Express Platinum, along with the two new airline cards I acquired with all those sign-up benefits. I intend to drop those new cards before the annual fees take effect after 12 months. Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy all those bonuses like the caches of frequent flier miles that came as enticements.

And bear in mind that a personal credit score can be adversely affected by frequently applying for new credit cards, even for those with excellent credit.

“I’m not an expert on how credit scores are measured,” said Mr. Gold at Chase. “but if every month you’re applying for a new card, that’s probably not a good idea.”

That’s where prudence comes in. The best bet is to choose the card and the offers that fit your travel needs. Chase, Citibank and American Express are the major players in the battle for travel cards, including those issued with airline partners who see their branded-card users as a pool of potentially loyal customers who also generate revenue with each purchase.

Meanwhile, Mr. Gold said that the new United MileagePlus Club Card was intended in part to take market share from the American Express Platinum card.

“We want the premium traveler,” Mr. Gold said. “They tend to have multiple cards, and one of them might be the Amex Platinum.” He added, “It would be great if Platinum card members decided that the United MileagePlus Club Card is used as the primary card in their wallets.”

Mr. Brancatelli, however, said he liked the American Express Platinum. The $450 annual fee can pay for itself if you count the free access to hundreds of airline clubs and $200 annual credit for ancillary fees for things like checking a bag.

“I think it’s the best general card to have if you spread your travel spending around,” he said. “Now, if you’re a heavy United player, a heavy American player or whatever, you at least have to have their cards, too,” he added.

Although, as even Mr. Gold at Chase conceded, “it can all be a pain to keep track of.”

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