Credit cards were an invention of the early 1900s. About 100 years later, we now have hundreds of different types of cards, with many options to help travelers save money on plane tickets and upgrade the experience. But did you know that one of the first credit card products ever available was made by American Airlines? Let’s go back and see where the points and miles game began.

The inception of the Air Travel Card

American Airlines and the Air Transport Association brought a revolutionary credit card product to market in 1934, the Air Travel Card. Designed to be an easier way to pay for flights, users could buy their ticket immediately and pay back against their credit later. The best part was that this payment method would give passengers a 15% discount on their airfare.

Air Travel Cards quickly became popular with travelers and airlines. Within ten years, all major US carriers offered this payment method between 17 airlines, accounting for about half of all airline revenue. By 1948, more air travel was encouraged through different payment plans, and the product became the first internally accepted charge card for all members of the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

Two example Universal Air Travel Plan credit cards.Paving the way for the modern credit card

During the 1950s, the charge card concept expanded with the introduction of the Diners Club, the first general-use credit card. As some may know, this card now gives users free access to over 1,300 airport lounges worldwide. The credit card world exploded over the next decade with the American Express card, the early Visa card system, and the Master Charge card, or Mastercard. It’s easy to see how influential the Air Travel Card was to the modern financial system.

Air Travel Cards also went through a massive change. As the Airline Passenger Experience Association said: “The Air Travel Card evolved into the Universal Air Travel Plan (UATP), a payment network owned and operated by the global airline industry, which connects airlines to one another and their best customers: business travelers.” Accepted by most airlines and travel agencies, the UATP system massively simplifies corporate travel expenses. It provides unique benefits such as complimentary insurance, no currency conversion fees, and plenty of consolidated data for reporting.

Capital One Venture Rewards card and Chase Sapphire Preferred card website screenshots.

Photo: Capital One and Chase

Best “Air Travel Cards” of the 21st century

Nowadays, we have various credit card options for every kind of passenger, be it business travelers, digital nomads, or those who travel just once per year. But as we enter the new year, what travel credit cards might you consider? According to The Points Guy, the best option for earning miles is the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card. This card gets you two miles per dollar on every purchase and five miles per dollar on travel-related expenses. And when you spend $4,000 over the first three months of use, they’ll give you a bonus of 75,000 miles that users can redeem at a 1:1 ratio with Air Canada Aeroplan, British Airways Executive Club, Emirates Skywards, Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer, and many more.

Another excellent option for overall value is the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, which gets you 5x points on travel through their portal, 3x on dining, delivery, some groceries, and even streaming services, 2x on travel expenses away from the Chase portal, and 1x on everything else. The bonus through Chase is 60,000 miles, so you won’t bank as many points as you will with Capital One. But Chase offers nearly the same partner airlines to redeem miles on top of multiple popular hotel chains and complimentary premium travel insurance to cover cancellations, delays, baggage issues, rental car issues, and emergency services.

For those interested in more travel credit card news, consider reading Simple Flying’s recent article about the first Star Alliance branded card with a fast track to Gold status.

Sources: APEX, Credit Card Processing Space, United Airlines, The Points Guy


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