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- Travel credit cards offer a variety of perks, but make sure to choose one that aligns with your spending so you can get a tangible benefit from it.
- Make sure to pay off your balances so that you don't incur interest, and also that the benefit you get outweighs any annual fee you will pay.
- Card perks such as free hotel stays, companion travel passes and credits for programs such as Global Entry may make a travel card worth considering.
For frequent travelers, it’s hard to avoid the allure of a great travel card. Since I got into points and miles a decade ago, the number of travel rewards cards seems to have quadrupled. And social media has only increased their appeal, with influencers flocking to sites like Instagram to show off their incredible travel experiences made possible by travel rewards cards.
Those magical pieces of plastic (or metal) can make your wildest travel dreams come true, so why wouldn’t you get as many of them as you can fit in your wallet?
For one, despite the hype surrounding travel cards, they’re not for everyone. Many travel rewards cards carry hefty annual fees and offer perks that, while impressive, might not be suitable for how you travel.
Here’s everything you need to decide whether travel rewards cards are worth it for you:
Types of consumers who benefit most from travel cards
Travel rewards cards are ideal for consumers who have good credit and pay off their balance every month. Travel cards tend to have higher interest rates than many other credit cards and the last thing you want is to pay more in interest than you earn with rewards.
If you’re not able to pay off your balance every month, you may benefit more from cards that offer 0 percent intro APR on new purchases or balance transfers. These will allow you to carry a balance without paying interest for a specified period.
Beyond this criteria, here’s a look at the types of consumers who benefit most from travel rewards cards:
Frequent travelers will benefit most from travel credit cards. That’s because they have more opportunities to maximize the travel perks and rewards.
Consider for example the co-branded Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Credit Card*. It carries a $450 annual fee but comes with an annual free weekend night award and top-tier Diamond status. A frequent Hilton traveler would have no problem justifying the annual fee. They would likely get significant value out of the free night, complimentary breakfast, room upgrades and bonus points offered to Hilton Diamond members.
Those who don’t travel often may not have as many opportunities to redeem the free weekend night for maximum value. In fact, loyalty programs often count on this to stay profitable.
If you’ve ever scrolled through an Instagram travel account and thought, “I want that — without the price tag,” then travel credit cards may be a good fit for you. Travel cards can pay off nicely for aspirational travelers who learn how best to utilize rewards.
The primary function of a travel credit card should be to get outsized value in return for your spending. Redeeming points for an aspirational vacation, first-class ticket or five-star hotel is a sure way to do just that.
Small-business owners have a lot of expenses that can generate a significant stash of points with the right credit card. For example, the American Express® Business Gold Card earns 4X points on advertising and shipping (among other bonus categories). That can be quite lucrative if shipping and advertising are big spending categories for your business.
The card has a $295 annual fee that might be hard to justify unless you have significant expenses in eligible categories. But you don’t have to pay high annual fees to benefit from travel rewards cards. For example, The Blue Business® Plus Credit Card from American Express has no annual fee but still earns 2X Membership Rewards points on all spending (up to $50,000 per year, then 1x). A small business that maxes out the 2X bonus every year would earn 100,000 Membership Rewards points, worth about $2,000 in travel redemptions. Meanwhile, most cash back cards would generate about $1,000 in rewards for the same amount of spending.
Big spenders can benefit substantially from travel credit cards, especially ones that offer annual spending bonuses. Travel cards offer generous incentives for substantial spending. Rewards range from airline and hotel elite status to free hotel nights and even companion passes.
These perks can offer hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars in value every year. But juggling large amounts of spending across multiple travel cards can be challenging. You don’t want to sacrifice rewards value by accruing interest on a balance you can’t pay off or taking on a late payment fee. Setting up auto-pay and tracking spending on an app like Mint can help you keep things organized.
Most valuable travel card benefits
Travel credit cards often come with annual fees, but they offer valuable benefits that can make them worth it. These perks come in handy long after you spend the card’s sign-up bonus. Here’s a look at the most valuable travel card benefits.
Global Entry fee credit
Global Entry is a trusted traveler program that makes navigating passport control a breeze, with a dedicated kiosk. Not only do you get to skip the long lines when returning from a trip abroad, but you also get TSA PreCheck. PreCheck provides access to a dedicated security lane that’s much faster and allows you to keep your shoes and a light jacket on.
The Global Entry application fee is reasonable at $100 for a membership that lasts five years. However, many travel cards provide Global Entry fee credits every 4-5 years to cover this fee. Here are a few examples:
- Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
- Chase Sapphire Reserve®
- The Platinum Card® from American Express
- United℠ Explorer Card*
Annual statement credits
Some travel cards carry hefty fees ranging up to $695. In return, you’ll get a slew of benefits to justify the annual fee, like annual travel statement credits. Some of these credits are valid for a wide range of travel purchases. Others are limited to specific airlines and hotels.
- Chase Sapphire Reserve®: $300 annual travel statement credit
- Amex Platinum Card: $200 annual airline fee credit, valid at a selected airline
- Hilton Aspire Card: $250 annual Hilton resort credit
- Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant® American Express® Card: Each Card renewal year, get up to $300 in statement credits per calendar year (up to $25 per month) for eligible purchases at restaurants worldwide.
Annual free night awards
Some travel cards require spending to earn an annual free night award with hotels, but others issue them just for renewing your card.
- Hilton Aspire Card: Annual free weekend night
- Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant Card: Receive 1 Free Night Award every year after your card renewal month. Award can be used for one night (redemption level at or under 85,000 Marriott Bonvoy points) at hotels participating in Marriott Bonvoy®. Certain hotels have resort fees.
- The World of Hyatt Credit Card*: Annual free night valid at a Category 1-4 hotel
You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars to earn an airline companion pass every year. With the right card, you get one annually just for renewing your card.
- Southwest credit cards: Earn a Southwest Companion Pass after earning 135,000 points in a calendar year. The welcome bonus and earnings from the Southwest cards count towards this requirement.
- AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard®*: Earn an annual companion certificate after spending $20,000 a year.
- British Airways Visa Signature® Card*: Earn a Travel Together Ticket after spending $30,000 in a year.
Whether it’s through airlines or hotels, having elite status can make your travels much more comfortable (and save you a ton of cash). While status is usually reserved for frequent travelers, several hotel loyalty programs issue it outright to their co-branded cardholders. Some of these cards even let you earn additional status via credit card spending.
- Hilton Aspire Card: Top-tier Hilton Diamond Status
- IHG® Rewards Premier Credit Card*: Platinum status
- The World of Hyatt Credit Card: Discoverist status
- Amex Platinum Card: Hilton and Marriott Gold elite status
Is a travel rewards card right for you?
A travel rewards card is probably right for you if you want to — you guessed it — use points for travel.
But ultimately, everyone’s spending habits and goals are different. While some consumers can benefit from travel cards, others might be better off with one of the best cash back cards.
Here are some of the factors you should consider when deciding if a travel card is worth it for you:
Have a travel goal in mind
Your travel goals are the most important factor in deciding whether a travel card is worth it. Are you looking to book aspirational travel or are you more of an RVer? Travel cards are ideal for luxury travel since they carry annual fees and sometimes have complicated reward programs.
Dedicating yourself to understanding award charts and how best to use them will help you determine whether earning rewards points instead of cash back is a good idea. Regardless of what you decide, make sure you have a redemption goal in mind before getting a new credit card. Programs can devalue without notice and you don’t want to end up with a bunch of miles that can’t get you where you want to go.
Consider your spending habits
Your spending habits are crucial to determining whether travel rewards cards are worth it. If you’re only putting a few hundred dollars a month on your rewards card, you’re probably better off with cash back. These cards generally don’t charge annual fees and offer 1 percent to 2 percent cash back on all purchases.
If you can take advantage of category bonuses and then put your points to good use, then a travel rewards card might be a good option. Just make sure the value of the points you’re earning is higher than the annual fee you’re paying, and you can pay your balances down each month.
Consider the recurring benefits
Confession: I don’t put as much spending as I could on my Hilton Aspire Card, so I’m losing out in rewards value. The card has a $450 annual fee and offers generous category bonuses that I’m not utilizing. However, I will keep it in my wallet for two reasons: Hilton Diamond status and the annual free weekend night award. Both perks provide me with exceptional value.
Recurring benefits are crucial when considering whether you should get a travel card. If recurring perks can save you money on travel, then go for it.
Consider cheaper alternatives
Just because a card is loaded with perks doesn’t mean it’s the best option out there. When shopping for a travel card, always consider cheaper alternatives. For example, a lot of cardholders love The Business Platinum Card® from American Express for its many travel benefits. But if you don’t use them, it’s a waste of a $695 annual fee. You might be better off with the no-annual-fee Amex Blue Business Card instead.
Always explore your options. The higher-fee card that everyone raves about may not be the best option for your spending.
The bottom line
Travel rewards cards are a fantastic option for people who can put their various benefits to use. If you’re earning enough points or using those free night awards consistently enough to justify the annual fee, then it’s worth paying. If these cards are collecting dust in your wallet or you find yourself going over budget to earn incentives, then they’re not worth having.
Since you’re paying an annual fee on most travel cards, you should be coming out ahead. Analyzing your credit card usage will allow you to answer that question honestly.
* The information about these credit cards has been collected independently by Bankrate.com. The card details have not been reviewed or approved by the card issuers.