You can use travel credit cards to save money on travel expenses such as airfare, hotel stays, car rentals and baggage fees. Use your travel rewards credit cards to pay for travel and other monthly expenses, and you’ll be amazed by how quickly your earnings accumulate. I use a combination of travel rewards and cash back cards, and I earn thousands of dollars’ worth of rewards every year.
Depending on the credit card, you can redeem your rewards for airfare, statement credits, hotel stays, merchandise, upgrades and more. Many of these cards also allow you to transfer miles or points to partner airlines and hotels.
Within the travel rewards credit card category, there are three basic types of travel cards: general travel cards, airline cards and hotel cards.
General Travel Credit Cards
With general travel credit cards, you can redeem rewards for many things. Options may include statement credits, trips booked via the issuer’s travel portal, online purchases and gift cards. Depending on the rewards program, which varies by credit card, you may also be able to transfer rewards to other airline or hotel loyalty programs.
General travel cards are more flexible than co-branded airline or hotel credit cards, which is a big plus for travelers who aren’t loyal to a particular brand or who travel to destinations with fewer options for hotels or airports. Cardholders can worry less about blackout dates or other travel restrictions because rewards are not tied to a sole provider.
Airline credit cards offer perks that are especially useful to frequent flyers. They can be co-branded, meaning you earn rewards with a particular airline.
Airline cards can deliver a more economical, comfortable flying experience. Benefits often include free checked bags, priority boarding, complimentary or discounted access to airport lounges, and discounts on in-flight purchases.
Hotel credit cards are generally most valuable when used to book eligible accommodations. Co-branded hotel credit cards work best for loyal guests of a specific hotel group. If you regularly stay at properties within a hotel group, you can earn rewards that you can use for free nights at participating hotels.
Before you begin searching for a travel card, think about your travel preferences. Do you prefer to use one airline or do you enjoy the flexibility to choose different airlines? You also want to consider if you want a straighforward rewards program or if you’re willing to navigate a complex program to get more enticing rewards.
To find a travel card that meets your needs, evaluate each card using the following criteria:
1. Pick the right travel rewards program for you.
Your travel credit card will work in conjunction either with the loyalty program of an airline or hotel chain or with the issuer’s rewards program. Each program has unique terms and conditions for earning, redeeming and transferring points.
Airline loyalty programs: For some travelers, loyalty to any particular airline lasts only as long as that airline offers the cheapest flights. But frequent flyers might be willing to forgo initial cost savings in exchange for benefits later.
Which airline program works best for you depends on how frequently you fly with the airline and how much value you can get from your rewards. Also consider how active the airline is at the airport you’re planning to use. If that airport isn’t the main hub of your favorite airline, figure out if there are still enough flights to make the card worthwhile. Highly rated airline rewards programs include:
Hotel loyalty programs: As with airline cards, choosing a credit card from a hotel group you regularly patronize is likely to offer the best value for earning and redeeming rewards. Highly rated hotel rewards programs include:
General travel rewards programs: Using a general travel credit card can earn you rewards that can be redeemed for a statement credit or through the issuer’s travel portal, or transferred to partners. Many of these programs also have redemption options for gift cards, experiences and more. Examples:
Which is the right choice? If you’re loyal to a particular hotel group or airline and want to earn rewards while taking advantage of brand-specific benefits, a co-branded airline or hotel card is the way to go.
But if you travel infrequently or with many different airlines, or simply want more flexibility, a general travel card may be a better choice.
2. Calculate earning potential.
Travel cards can earn rewards at different rates for spending in different categories, so analyze your spending habits to determine which card will provide the highest rewards value. A good travel card will have a range of purchases that qualify as travel spending, which may include flights, hotels and car rentals.
Depending on the card, these purchases can earn two points/miles per dollar or more. Other purchases may earn one point/mile per dollar or more.
3. Factor in sign-up bonuses.
Some travel cards offer bonuses for meeting a spending threshold within a few months of opening an account. These bonuses can be worth hundreds of dollars.
4. Calculate redemption value.
The value of your points or miles depends on your card as well as your preferences and priorities.
For general travel cards, point valuation may be as simple as the number of points multiplied by the redemption rate, often 1 cent per point. Point value can also vary depending on whether the issuer uses dynamic pricing, which can depend on other factors, such as demand for the date you’ve chosen.
Award travel booked through airline or hotel loyalty programs can get more complicated. The number of points or miles needed to book can depend on factors such as destination, fare or hotel class, demand, and other factors. And rewards values aren’t consistent across all programs: You might be able to redeem a point or mile for a value of 2 cents with one program or less than 1 cent with another.
5. Subtract annual fees.
The average annual fee for travel credit cards is about $139, according to U.S. News research. Credit card companies sometimes entice new users by waiving the annual fee for the first year.
Once the fee kicks in, be sure you’re earning enough rewards or enjoying the other card benefits to more than just compensate for it. Also, about a third of travel cards don’t carry an annual fee.
6. Understand travel benefits.
Travel benefits can be practical tools, discounted pricing or luxe perks. Benefits can include no foreign transaction fees, access to concierge or customer service assistance, a free checked bag – and sometimes, a free checked bag for one or more traveling companions. Air travel is frequently disrupted these days, and some travel credit cards offer travel cancellation insurance as well as coverage for lost baggage.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, for example, comes with trip cancellation and interruption insurance, auto rental collision damage waiver, baggage delay insurance, trip delay reimbursement, and more.
7. Avoid foreign transaction fees.
Many travel cards don’t charge a foreign transaction fee, which is typically 3% on every purchase in a foreign currency or country. Because these fees can outweigh any rewards you earn, frequent international travelers will want to make this card feature a top priority.
How to Redeem Travel Points
Each travel rewards credit card has its own rewards program. The rewards program will highlight the rewards rate, explain any tiered categories and outline redemption options. Be sure you understand the rewards program for your credit card so you can maximize your benefit.
You can find out how much you’ve earned in rewards by logging into your account or referring to your card’s monthly billing statement. Here’s a brief summary of what to expect when you redeem rewards, but note that specific details vary by credit card issuer.
Redeeming Travel Points on a General Travel Card
Redemption options might include using points or miles to pay for airfare, getting a statement credit, receiving free hotel nights or buying merchandise on discount.
One of the best features of a general travel card is that you have flexibility to choose the airline that meets your needs. Some general travel cards also have their own travel portal where you might get more value for each mile or point redeemed.
Log into your account and you’ll find redemption options as well as directions for redeeming your rewards. Many general travel rewards cards have airline partnerships, which gives you many options when booking your travel.
Redeeming Points With an Airline Credit Card
An airline-branded credit card often comes with generous rewards and excellent benefits, including in-flight credits, priority boarding, waived baggage fees, baggage insurance and 24/7 emergency assistance.
The method for redeeming airline-branded credit cards will vary by issuer, but you can usually redeem them online or by phone. Some airline-branded cards allow you to redeem miles on their page. For specific details, go to the credit card’s homepage for instructions.
Some airline cards use dynamic pricing, which means award rates can vary throughout the month. With these airline credit cards, flexibility with travel dates can help you get the most value from your miles.
Redeeming Points With a Hotel Credit Card
Hotel-branded credit cards are best for those who are loyal to a specific hotel group. Hotel cards often come with generous rewards, including tiered rewards, and perks. Redemption options might include using your points for free or discounted hotel stays, hotel services and upgrades, gift cards and airfare.
Similar to airline cards, some hotel cards use dynamic pricing, so award values can vary depending on changes in demand for a date or time. Your rewards will be worth less during a period of high demand.
How to Compare Travel Credit Cards
You’re unlikely to find the perfect travel credit card, but if you take time to compare several cards, you’re going to find a card that meets most of your needs.
- Credit score: Rewards credit cards require good credit scores, so know your credit score before you start comparing cards. This way, you won’t spend time looking at cards you’re unlikely to qualify for. By focusing on cards you might get approved for, you also protect your score. Each time you apply for a credit card, you can lose up to five points off your score.
- Annual fees: Many travel rewards cards have annual fees. The more generous the rewards and perks, the higher the annual fee. Be sure the amount of rewards you expect to earn far outweighs the annual fee.
- Sign-up bonus: Most travel rewards cards offer enticing sign-up bonuses. Usually, there’s a spending requirement you have to meet within the first three months or so. Read the terms, because every travel card has its own requirements.
- Foreign transaction fees: If you travel overseas and make purchases, businesses may charge foreign transaction fees. The fee is usually around 3% of your bill. Using a credit card that waives these fees will save you a lot of money.
- Purchase APR: Rewards cards, as already noted, have higher interest rates. While it’s always prudent to compare APRs among credit cards, it’s important that you never carry a balance with a rewards card. Due to the high rate and compound interest, you can slip into debt quickly.
- Rewards programs: Take time to review the programs of the cards you’re considering. Some cards have simple programs, but others are complex. Comparing rewards programs is a great way to see which cards offer rewards that match up well with your spending style.
- Benefits and perks: The best travel credit cards not only have generous rewards, but also come with excellent benefits, such as waived baggage fees, airport lounge access, lost baggage insurance, airline fee credits, travel cancellation insurance and much more. Decide what benefits are important to you and see which credit card is the best match.
As I said, you won’t find your credit card soulmate, but if you compare travel cards, you’ll find the one that will make you the happiest.
Pros and Cons
For the right consumer, travel credit cards can make a lot of financial sense, but make sure you know the advantages and disadvantages of these cards.
- Better earning rates and higher redemption value for travel. Travel credit cards can accrue points and miles at higher rates on travel-related spending than other rewards credit cards. When cardholders redeem those rewards for travel, they could get more value out of them than if they redeemed them for other rewards, such as cash back, statement credits or gift cards.
- May not charge foreign transaction fees. A foreign transaction fee is a surcharge on every purchase made using a credit card in a foreign country or foreign currency. The fees are typically 3% of every purchase. So if you have an international trip planned, a travel rewards credit card that waives foreign transaction fees can save you a lot of money.
- Sign-up bonuses. Lucrative sign-up bonuses are common among travel credit cards and are typically available to new cardholders who hit a minimum spending amount within the first few months.
- Potentially high annual fees. Most travel rewards credit cards have an annual fee. Fees can range from a low $39 to fees that exceed $500. Premium travel cards provide premium benefits, and that’s reflected in their annual fees. If the travel card is a good match for you, the annual fee might be worth it.
- Possible complexity and restrictions. Travel credit cards can also cost you time. Some travel cards require lots of planning or working with customer service to navigate blackout dates, limited seat availability or confusing terms and conditions. Depending on the travel card, there can also be caps and expiration dates on points or miles. And, of course, bonus points from airline and hotel cards may be restricted to redemption with certain brands or qualifying partners.
- Low value for infrequent travelers. If you don’t travel regularly, then you’ll want to make sure that the rewards and benefits you’re getting from the card are outweighing the annual fee.
How to Maximize Travel Rewards
- Pick the right travel card. When you’re starting out with travel cards, select one with a general rewards program that gives you the flexibility to earn rewards for all spending and redeem with the largest variety of brands. Unless you spend a lot with a particular travel brand, co-branded airline and hotel cards aren’t the best choice to start.
- Combine a general travel card with a co-branded card. Used in tandem with a general travel card, a co-branded airline card or a hotel card makes sense for frequent travelers who are comfortable committing to one travel brand. This combination allows you to use the co-branded card to earn bonus points on purchases with your preferred brand and to use the general travel card to earn bonus points in other categories.
- Apply for a card before a planned large purchase to reach your sign-up bonus. The best way to guarantee that you’ll get your sign-up bonus is to activate a new travel rewards card before you’ll be making a lot of purchases (a family vacation, for instance).
- Use your travel credit card to pick up the tab. Does your card give you extra points for dining? You can offer to pick up the tab the next time you go out with friends. So long as they pay you back, it’s worth it to get more of those sweet, sweet rewards points.
If you’re not sure whether a travel card or cash back card is the best fit for you, there is good news: You can get a card that offers great travel rewards and solid cash back. There is overlap between the best cash back credit cards and the best travel credit cards.
There are cash back credit cards that come with travel rewards, but many others focus on rewards for everyday expenses. Take a look at your spending habits and decide which benefits you’ll enjoy most before picking a card.
And if you’re like me, you’ll want to have both a travel credit card and a cash back card. I use several rewards cards strategically, and I usually travel for free. It’s simply a matter of knowing your rewards programs and using the right rewards card at the appropriate time. This way, you maximize your rewards!
- Use a cash back rewards credit card. Many cash back rewards cards offer significant cash back for everyday purchases, and some offer travel benefits such as rental car protection and travel insurance.
- Join a frequent flyer program. Many major airlines offer rewards for booking its flights, spending through its travel partners and shopping with select retailers. These points may have no caps and offer redemption options such as flights, exclusive vacations, premium drinks and cabin upgrades.
- Sign up for a hotel loyalty program. Hotel loyalty programs offer various incentives, such as exclusive rates, late checkout and bonus points, for keeping your overnight stays within its family of properties. Be sure to book your stays directly with the hotel and not a third-party service to rack up bonus points, then redeem for perks such as free drinks, spa packages and free nights.
U.S. News Survey
U.S. News Survey: More Than Two-Thirds of Respondents Say Recent Financial Events Have Affected Their Summer Plans
According to a May U.S. News survey, inflation and recent stock market drops have put a crimp in many people’s summer travel plans. Almost 21% of respondents are cutting the number of trips they plan to take, while another 21.7% are reducing their travel budgets. Only 28.8% of respondents say they aren’t changing their plans at all.
While the past two years of summer travel have been seriously disrupted by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, most respondents say they aren’t planning to make up for lost time and splurge. Though 30.1% say they plan to spend more on travel compared with pre-pandemic vacations, 43% say they plan to spend less, and 26.9% plan to spend about the same amount.
Respondents are also fairly split on how much COVID-19 will affect their plans. For 31.9% of respondents, it’s a moderate consideration, but 28.2% of respondents say they aren’t thinking about COVID-19 at all. A smaller percentage, 15.9% of respondents, say the coronavirus is a major consideration, and it has dictated their destination or transportation plans.
Additional Survey Insights
Most respondents plan to take either one (36.6%) or two (36.7%) vacations this summer.
Only 14.6% of respondents say they plan to travel internationally this summer, while 25.7% of respondents plan to stay in the same state.
Roughly two-thirds of respondents plan to travel by car, and about one-third plan to travel by air. A limited number of people are traveling by rail, boat or bus.
A large majority of respondents, 61.2%, plan to pay for their trips with savings. In contrast, 13% of respondents plan to add the costs to their credit card balances, and 5.6% plan to use a buy now, pay later plan.
Over half of the respondents (54.2%) plan to spend $1,000 or less per person per trip.
There are two summer travel trends that are especially popular: 30.6% of respondents are taking a multigenerational trip with their families, and 31.1% of respondents are taking a vacation focused on self-care and wellness.
The most popular type of credit card for traveling is none at all – 28.7% of respondents say they don’t plan on using one.
People aren’t earning that much in rewards with their credit cards. The largest group of respondents, 28.2%, say they’ve earned $350 or less in rewards in the past 12 months.
If respondents did get a travel credit card, 40.8% say the most important secondary benefit would be free checked bags.
- U.S. News ran a nationwide survey of 1,211 respondents through PureSpectrum between May 19 and May 23, 2022. Only people who planned to travel this summer answered questions.
- The survey sample drew from the general American population, and the survey was configured to be representative of this sample.
- The survey asked 12 questions relating to summer travel and spending.
U.S. News has been helping consumers make money decisions for decades. The Best Travel Credit Cards are selected based on ease and flexibility of rewards redemption, travel rewards earning rate, rewards redemption value, annual fee, APR, sign-up bonus value, cardholder benefits, foreign transaction fee and balance transfer fee. Cards are also scored on U.S. News’ overall issuer satisfaction rating.
To qualify as one of the best travel credit cards, a card must earn bonus travel rewards, including general travel, airline or hotel. Remember to consider your spending and travel habits as you compare travel cards so you can find the best credit card for you.