Affinity and beyond is within reach with right reward card

When your airline does not fly to your destination of choice or another offers a better deal, the precious miles you earned can be useless.

United Arab Emirates - Abu Dhabi - Mat 3rd, 2009:  William Keliehor, Citibanks head of cards in the Middle East, in his office.  (Galen Clarke/The National) *** Local Caption ***  GC02_03052009_Keliehor.jpg
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Holding an airline credit card is handy except when the carrier does not offer the flight and prices that you want. When your airline does not fly to your destination of choice or another offers a better deal, the precious miles you earned are not useful. A major drawback of co-branded cards has been that they can be used on only one airline or just a handful of others. However, in the age of budget airlines and online travel booking sites such as Expedia and Travelocity, a card that expands rewards to several travel merchants would be more practical for the price-conscious consumer.

Citibank introduced a card last year to appeal to those more interested in the cheapest flights rather than convenience or loyalty to a carrier. The reward points on the Citi Travel Pass credit card can be used toward paying an airfare. You also get discounts with several airlines, restaurants and hotels every time you pay with the card. "There are people out there who look at many different airlines and there are consumers here who are opting for shorter flights and a lot of weekend trips," says William Keliehor, Citi's head of cards in the region.

You earn one point for every US$1, or Dh3.67, spent on a Travel Pass card. A current promotion starts you off with 15,000 points when you sign up for the card. To use your reward points towards paying for a flight you call Citi, which will then find a flight based on availability and book it upon your consent. A Citi spokesman says the airlines it uses for bookings "primarily range from mid-range to budget carriers".

Products such as the Citi Travel Pass, which cater to an activity or a lifestyle, and expand the rewards rather than limit it to a merchant, are known as affinity cards. For the most part, the travel industry and banks have been slow to introduce affinity cards. Most products in the UAE, and even in the US, are co-branded credit cards with airlines or hotels. HSBC's Air Miles is another affinity programme. It offer one point for every dollar spent and double that at select merchants such as Spinneys. Under Citi's reward system, 19,000 points will earn you a free flight to Beirut; 24,000 would take you to Mumbai, Delhi or Alexandria, and 49,000 would land you in Manila. With HSBC's air miles programme, you need 95,000 points for a free flight to Beirut or Mumbai.

If you have not earned enough points for a free ticket with the Citi Travel Pass card, you can pay for up to 50 per cent of the remainder by buying points at 2.4 cents for each. Aside from the reward points, Egypt Air, Gulf Air and SriLankan Airways offer discounts when you pay with the Citi card. Jet Air allows you to pay the fare interest-free over a six-month instalment period. Egypt Air discounts 10 per cent on economy tickets and 15 per cent on business class, while Gulf Air offers 10 per cent off flights to London, Paris, Frankfurt, Athens, Kuala Lumpur and several destinations in the Middle East, India and Pakistan. SriLankan Airways offers a 10 per cent discount on its flights to Sri Lanka and some destinations in India.

The airline partners make the card appealing for consumers who frequently fly to destinations in the Middle East, North Africa and South East Asia. Hotels that offer discounts to Citi Travel Pass cardholders include Rotana in Fujairah, Golden Tulip hotels in Khasab and Seeb, both in Oman, and the Chedi in Muscat. Several restaurants in Abu Dhabi and Dubai hotels also offer discounts when you use the card to pay your bill.

Citi charges an annual fee of Dh400 on the Travel Pass card. Citi also offers co-branded Emirates credit cards with different reward options and annual fees ranging from Dh300 to Dh3,000. One of the co-branded cards, Emirates-Citibank Ultimate credit card, costs Dh1,000 a year and offers 1.5 points for every dollar spent. The reward also include access to airport lounges and a two nights' free stay at various hotels across the Middle East and Africa. A Citi customer representative said the Ultimate card would appeal to consumers who seek convenience, while the Travel Pass would cater more to price-conscious consumers.

Another affinity card in the UAE is Standard Chartered's Manhattan card, which offers discounts at most UAE cinemas, The Loft and Ciro's Pomodoro night clubs, Ski Dubai and Al Boom Diving.