If you're not obsessed with "travel hacking," it can be hard to know what credit cards will earn you the most amount of free travel. Co-branded credit cards are a common thing for people to have due to the hyped up perks marketed by the banks or airlines.
Two parties sponsor co-branded cards. The first one could be a hotel, airline, gas company or retailer. The second is a bank or card network like Chase, American Express or Barclay.
Some examples of these cards are the Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards Visa, Chase United Airlines Explorer Mileage Plus and the Bank of America Alaska Airlines Visa Signature.
The Alaska Airlines Visa is a quite popular card because it offers a companion fare for a travel partner which many people perceive as free.
It's not, the terms and conditions of the card state:
"Alaska's Famous Companion Fare™ from $121 ($99 base fare plus taxes and fees from $22) every year on your account anniversary for Alaska flights booking on alaskaair.com with no blackout dates."
If your ticket cost $150 and the base fare plus fees for the companion equal $121, then you only save $29. Then factor in the annual fee of $75, and you're now at minus $46 ($29-$75).
However, if you're buying expensive tickets such as last-minute fare for a holiday or a transcontinental flight that are several hundred dollars then your margin of savings increases by quite a bit.
A lot of these cards have other perks such as airline or hotel stats, free checked bag, hotel room upgrades, etc. These only make sense if you are loyal to the specific brand and use it frequently. If not, your annual fee for the card would be better spent on a flex points card that earns more points and provides the flexibility to choose between different airlines and hotels.
Take the Marriott Rewards credit cards co-branded with Chase Bank and American Express; most people use these cards for the majority of their spending accruing a ton of Marriott points. While useful, you're forced to use those points solely with Marriott and out of luck if you travel to a city without one and the preferred hotel is a Hyatt.
A better option would be to have Chase Ultimate Rewards with either the Chase Sapphire or Ink cards. Your points can still be transferred to Marriott (assuming it's your favorite) but can also be moved to Hyatt for the situation mentioned above. (Click here for more about flex points)
I sometimes use co-branded cards for their sign-up bonuses to supplement my flex points. The Barclays American Airlines Aviator Red MasterCard gave me 60,000 American Airline miles that I used to buy two round-trip tickets to New York City. I still have points left over, and that left my Ultimate Rewards for other travel. The other perks that come with the card don't justify the annual fee for me so unless Barclays offers me a retention bonus to keep the card after the first year; I'll probably cancel it to avoid paying a second annual fee.
So who are co-branded credit cards good for? People who spend a lot with a specific hotel or airline. Make sure to read the terms and conditions carefully, do the math and see if it makes sense for your travel/spending habits.