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Customer Engagement Potential from New Branded Credit Cards from United, Delta

With United Airlines and Delta Air Lines, each launching branded credit cards with no annual fees this week (United Wednesday and Delta today), consumers might want to know which one provides more value and is more engaging?

Brian Karimzad, director and analyst at MileCards.com, offered his thoughts about the differences in the two cards. Karimzad, a former banker turned consumer advocate and founder of MileCards.com and MagnifyMoney.com, authored a report earlier this year about the top U.S. airline loyalty programs that add value.

The major shift to a points-per-dollar system means that customers will accumulate points based on the price of a ticket, regardless of the flight’s distance. In that report, Karimzad noted that United and Delta are losing more loyalty than they gain; 24 percent of fliers surveyed would consider Delta or United less often because of the changes, and just 9 percent more often.

Here’s Karimzad’s take on the new branded credit cards from United and Delta:

“While the last year has been dominated by a war for super premium customers, the airlines themselves, squeezed by premium cards from banks that offer points that turn into real airline miles, are now turning to a bigger pool of people who won’t pay an annual fee for a card,” Karimzad said. “The United TravelBank card from Chase offers 1.5 percent in TravelBank cash on all purchases, except United tickets which earn 2 percent. TravelBank cash can be used to purchase tickets for United flights. There are no foreign transaction fees, and there’s some basic trip cancellation insurance, which helps differentiate it from basic cash back cards. TravelBank rewards are not United miles and can’t be combined. Instead, they are cash funds to buy United tickets.”

The Blue Delta SkyMiles American Express earns 1 SkyMile per dollar spent and 2x SkyMiles per dollar at restaurants and on Delta purchases. These are the same SkyMiles you can earn from flying Delta. There’s no trip cancellation insurance, and there are foreign transaction fees.

How are they different? Here’s what Karimzad said:

United is trying to segment with a card that's fenced off from its traditional mileage program, but with bigger headline value, while Delta is keeping things simple, with a card that earns the same miles as its cards with an annual fee.

Neither of the cards offers the airport perks their annual fee siblings offer, like a free checked bag and priority boarding.

The United card feels squarely aimed at trying to extract some loyalty from the very unloyal, price conscious ‘basic economy’ flier. United’s basic economy fares don’t earn any MileagePlus miles, so travelers who usually buy those fares might not get much value from a card that offers traditional miles. Instead, it’s offering a card that gives them a currency they can use for future flights, with a little extra value in the form of an in-flight food discount and no foreign transaction fees, which is useful as United faces international competition from low-cost carriers like Norwegian and Wow Air.

The Delta card takes a more flexible approach. You can use the miles like regular Delta SkyMiles, and you can also use them like cash to pay for Delta tickets via the Pay with Miles feature, a benefit of being a Delta American Express cardholder, so there’s more flexibility than with the United card. The price of this flexibility is lower earning−1 mile per dollar on most purchases, vs 1.5 percent rewards from the United TravelBank. Delta fliers who just want to use the miles the traditional way might be better off with the Amex Everyday, an existing no annual fee card that earns points you can transfer into miles with several airlines, including Delta and British Airways.

“If you are a regular user of airline miles, the Delta proposition is stronger,” Karama added. “If you don’t want to mess with miles, and United tends to have a lot of flights where you live, the TravelBank card could save you more money. But a casual traveler could earn more ongoing rewards than either of these cards with a good no annual fee cash back card like the Citi Double Cash or recently launched PayPal Rewards MasterCard which offers 2 percent cash back on all purchases.”

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