Best Travel Credit Cards

If you're a frequent flyer or road warrior, an airline or travel card will help you earn perks faster. These cards are generally recommended only if you pay off your balance in full every month. They tend to have a higher interest rate, which means you could end up paying many times over in interest for the airline miles you accumulate. Keep in mind that these cards generally require a good to excellent credit rating for approval.

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Best Travel Credit Cards (6)

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What is a travel credit card?

A travel credit card is one whose rewards are best redeemed for travel reservations. Many credit cards offer rewards that can be redeemed in many ways, including for travel reservations. A true travel rewards card will offer the most value when its points or miles are used for travel reservations, as opposed to other options such as cash back, gift cards or merchandise. A travel rewards credit card is also more likely to offer travel-specific benefits such as travel insurance or priority service and other perks when using the card's co-branded partner.

How do travel credit cards work?

Travel rewards cards offer points or miles that can be redeemed for travel reservations. These rewards primarily come in two ways. First, these cards may offer new applicants a sign-up bonus, typically after meeting a minimum amount of spending in a certain amount of time. For example, an airline credit card might offer new accounts 50,000 frequent flyer miles after spending $3,000 within three months of account opening. Also, a travel rewards card will offer rewards for spending, often including a bonus for purchases from the airline or hotel partner, or for purchases from certain categories of merchants.Once your account gains enough rewards, you may redeem them for award travel reservations. These might be awards made directly with hotel or airline partners, reservations booked through a designated travel agent or statement credits that reimburse you for travel reservations you've already booked.

Is a travel credit card right for you?

Travel rewards cards offer points or miles that can be redeemed for travel reservations. These rewards primarily come in two ways. First, these cards may offer new applicants a sign-up bonus, typically after meeting a minimum amount of spending in a certain amount of time. For example, an airline credit card might offer new accounts 50,000 frequent flyer miles after spending $3,000 within three months of account opening. Also, a travel rewards card will offer rewards for spending, often including a bonus for purchases from the airline or hotel partner, or for purchases from certain categories of merchants.Once your account gains enough rewards, you may redeem them for award travel reservations. These might be awards made directly with hotel or airline partners, reservations booked through a designated travel agent or statement credits that reimburse you for travel reservations you've already booked.

Selection criteria: what makes a great travel credit card?

To find the right card, examine these two aspects of any travel card’s rewards program:

Earning rewards: how many points or miles you’ll get, and for what kinds of purchases

Redeeming rewards: how you can redeem points to pay for travel expenses (and how much value you get per point for different redemption methods)

Here are the most important things to consider in any general travel, airline, or hotel card:

Point Value – Travel, airline, and hotel cards earn points. These are usually called “miles” on airline cards. The value of your points can vary a lot depending on how you redeem them. Before you apply for a card, learn how to redeem rewards points for the greatest value.

Sign-up Bonus – Most travel cards award bonus miles or points if you spend a certain amount within a few months of opening the card. For example, you might get 50,000 extra points if you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months of opening a card. These sign-up bonuses can sometimes earn you enough for more than one free flight or hotel stay. But make sure you’re not getting yourself into credit card debt to earn a bonus. You’ll end up paying more in interest than the value of the sign-up bonus.

Earning Points – Some cards earn more points for spending in specific categories. If you spend a lot at restaurants, for example, you could choose a card that earns 2x or 3x points on dining.

Annual Fee – Many travel cards have an annual fee, which could range anywhere from $50 to over $500. Generally, cards with an annual fee will earn you more points and offer more benefits. Before you apply for a card, consider the benefits and rewards value compared to the annual fee. Make sure you’ll get more value in benefits and rewards than you’ll pay in fees. It’s common for travel cards to waive the annual fee the first year to entice you to sign up and try it.

Foreign Transaction Fees – When you buy something in a foreign currency, your card issuer may charge a fee. On cards that have one, it’s usually around 3%. Many travel-oriented cards don’t have a foreign transaction fee, but some do. If you plan to travel abroad it’s best to have at least one card without a foreign transaction fee. If you plan to stay in the country, though, this is less important.

Benefits – Many travel cards have travel-related benefits. On most cards you’ll get rental car collision insurance, for example. Some cards have automatic trip cancellation insurance if you buy a plane ticket on the card. Airline cards might give you priority boarding or free checked bags. You might get free room upgrades during hotel stays with certain hotel cards. There are usually better benefits on cards with higher annual fees. For example, you’ll find airport lounge access on most cards with an annual fee over $300. You may also get a statement credit for travel purchases. When deciding whether a card is a good fit for you, it’s important to weigh the benefits against the annual fee.

Restrictions & Blackout Dates – Some travel card rewards programs have restrictions on how or when you can use rewards. For example, you may not be able to book flights with points on peak travel days. Make sure you understand restrictions on a card’s rewards program before you apply to make the most of it.

EMV Technology – There are two major kinds of EMV (or “chip”) technology: Chip-and-PIN and Chip-and-Signature. Most credit cards issued in the U.S. only support Chip-and-Signature. Some places in Europe only accept Chip-and-PIN cards. If you’re planning to use your card abroad, pick a card that supports Chip-and-PIN. Otherwise, you may be stuck and unable to use your card in certain situations.

Your Credit History – Most banks design their travel cards for people with excellent credit. If you’re credit is less than excellent, you may want to build up your credit with other cards first. But remember, credit card approvals are based on more than a credit score.

How to make the most of your travel credit card?

Maximize your rewards with the following tips:Plan your credit card application around a big purchase to earn the sign-up bonusSeize every opportunity to pick up the tab, especially if your travel card pays bonus rewards on dining; your friends can pay you back while you collect rewardsRedeem rewards for travel instead of gift cards, merchandise or (in most cases) cash back to get the best valueJoin the loyalty program associated with a co-branded card — a frequent-flyer or frequent-guest programShop for essentials in your card’s online bonus mall, if available, to get extra rewards

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