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Are travel credit cards worth it?

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Andrii Lutsyk/Ascent Xmedia/Getty Images
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Travel credit cards have taken the world by storm. Since I got into points and miles a decade ago, the number of travel rewards cards seems to have quadrupled. With the advent of social media, influencers have flocked 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?

Despite the hype surrounding travel cards, they’re not for everyone. After all, many travel rewards cards carry hefty annual fees and offer perks that, while impressive, might not be suitable for everyone. If you’re on the fence about getting a new card, here’s everything you need to decide whether travel rewards cards are worth it for you:

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. With fee-free cash back cards being a more simple option, why opt for a travel card with an annual fee? Because of the points and travel perks.

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.

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 have higher interest rates than their cash back counterparts and the last thing you want is to earn rewards at a significant expense.

If you’re not able to pay off your balance every month, you should consider cards that offer 0 percent intro APR. 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

Frequent travelers will benefit most from travel credit cards. That’s because they have more opportunities to take advantage of the travel perks offered by these cards and tend to be more well-versed in maximizing points.

For example, the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Credit Card 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 count on this in order to stay profitable.

Aspirational travelers

If you’ve ever scrolled through an Instagram travel account and thought, “I want that—without the price tag,” then travel credit cards are probably 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 and five-star hotel is a sure way to do just that.

Small-business owners

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. 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 this category. 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). A small business that maxes out the 2X bonus every year would earn 100,000 Membership Rewards points, worth about $2,000. Meanwhile, most cash back cards would generate about $1,000 in rewards for the same amount of spending.

Big spenders

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. 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 having. These perks come in handy long after the card’s sign-up bonus is spent. 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:

Annual statement credits

Some travel cards carry hefty fees ranging from $450 to $695. In turn, cardholders 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.

Annual free night awards

Some travel cards require spending to earn an annual free night award, but others issue them just for renewing your card.

Companion passes

You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars to earn a companion pass every year. With the right card, you get one annually just for renewing your card.

Elite status

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.

How to evaluate if a travel card is worth it for you

With so many travel cards being promoted all over the web, it might be tempting to think they’re a good fit for everyone. That’s not necessarily true. Here are some of the factors you should consider when deciding if a travel card is worth it for you:

Don’t get a card without 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 RV’er? 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 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 are worth less.

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 lack 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.

Consider the recurring benefits

Confession: I haven’t charged more than $20 to my Hilton Aspire Card since December. 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, everyone loves 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 out there.

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.

Written by
Ariana Arghandewal
Travel rewards writer
Ariana Arghandewal is a personal finance expert specializing in credit cards and travel rewards. She is passionate about helping people leverage credit card rewards to realize their travel goals.
Edited by
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Reviewed by
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Part of  Introduction to Travel Credit Cards