5 steps to choose the best travel card
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Choosing the best travel credit card can be a tough decision. There are so many options for different budgets and travel goals. The right travel credit card can help you earn points for free travel and improve your travel experience. And many top travel credit cards come with valuable perks like annual free nights, travel insurance, waived checked bag fees, airport lounge access and more.
With so many options, how do you choose? By understanding which card best suits your spending style and travel needs. Here are five steps to choosing the best travel credit card for you.
1. Decide between a co-branded or general travel credit card
Before you do anything else, think long and hard about the type of travel rewards you want to earn. You can start by considering how much flexibility you prefer when redeeming your points, along with your typical travel style and allegiances. There are two primary types of travel credit cards to consider: co-branded travel cards and transferable rewards cards.
Co-branded travel cards are affiliated with a specific airline or hotel loyalty program. Many come with on-brand travel perks like free checked bags, priority boarding, annual hotel credits or automatic hotel elite status. Because co-branded cards let you earn points in a specific travel program, they’re best for travel loyalists who use the same brand frequently.
General travel credit cards are not aligned with a particular airline or hotel brand. Instead, you earn rewards in a program that lets you use your points in various ways. You can transfer points to multiple airline and hotel loyalty programs, or use them for direct travel purchases at a fixed rate.
2. Look for lucrative rewards and a big bonus
As you compare the top rewards credit cards on the market today, it’s easy to get distracted by their welcome offers. After all, many top travel credit cards offer bonuses worth $1,000 or more within the first few months.
There’s nothing wrong with going after a big bonus, but you want to earn points that align well with your spending habits if you hope to reap the benefits of the card long-term. That’s where category spending bonuses come in.
If you happen to spend a lot in a specific category, it makes sense to look for cards that offer bonus points in that category. For example, if you spend a lot on dining, gas and groceries, as well as travel, the Citi Premier® Card would be a great fit because it offers 3X points in these spending categories. On the other hand, if you don’t want to keep track of which credit card to use, you can opt for a flat-rate card like the Citi® Double Cash Card, which earns up to 2 percent cash back on all purchases — 1 percent as you buy and another 1 percent when you pay off your purchase.
3. Keep an eye out for minimum spending requirements
If you’re ready to bank those hefty credit card welcome bonuses, there is one caveat you should prepare for: minimum spending requirements. These can range from $500 to $15,000 or more and must typically be met within three to six months. Most people meet spending requirements by charging their daily expenses and monthly bills to their credit card, although that can become more difficult to manage on the higher end of the scale. Then again, some cards allow you to earn a big welcome bonus with as little as a single purchase.
You can find plenty of credit cards with generous welcome bonuses and low spending minimums. For example, the AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard®* offers a generous 60,000-mile bonus after just one purchase and paying your annual fee ($99) within the first 90 days. This offer is especially impressive considering Citi requires you to spend $2,500 within three months to earn just 50,000 bonus miles with the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®*.
4. Identify which travel perks matter most to you
Next, you’ll want to look at cards based on their travel benefits and protections. Ideally, you’ll find a travel credit card that offers perks you can actually benefit from rather than ones that just sound flashy. The right benefits can help offset your card’s annual fee and generate hundreds of dollars worth of value every year.
Here are some examples of travel benefits to look for:
- Travel insurance coverage, such as trip cancellation and interruption insurance, primary or secondary auto rental coverage, baggage delay insurance and more
- Airport lounge membership or a specific number of lounge entries
- Fee credits for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck
- Automatic hotel elite status
- Free checked bags, priority boarding and other airline perks
- Annual resort credits
Travel perks that are worth the annual fee
Let’s say you’re someone who flies American Airlines with a partner once a year and checks two bags. You’ll pay $120 in baggage fees round-trip, which is pretty steep. But if you have a Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard, that fee is waived. Paying the card’s $99 annual fee can make sense in this scenario, especially when you factor in the card’s other benefits.
Premium travel credit cards tend to have the most benefits, although they also charge higher annual fees. For example, The Platinum Card® from American Express comes loaded with well over $1,500 worth of recurring benefits, largely in the form of memberships and travel credits, in exchange for a $695 annual fee. However, you’ll want to evaluate whether you can take advantage of enough of the card’s plentiful benefits to justify the Platinum card’s annual fee.
The true value test: Would you pay out of pocket for these perks if they didn’t come with the card? Strive to get a card with perks and protections you’ll actually take advantage of and an annual fee you’re comfortable paying.
5. Do some math to minimize fees
If you’re considering a travel credit card with an annual fee under $100, justifying the cost should be easy the first year. After all, many travel credit cards offer welcome bonuses worth $500 or more, and that’s on top of the rewards you earn on your spending.
Take the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, for example. At the moment, the sign-up bonus for this card is 60,000 points when you spend $4,000 within three months of account opening. That’s worth $750 on travel booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards, which far offsets the $95 annual fee.
You should know that you do not have to pay an annual fee for a travel credit card at all. There are plenty of credit cards with no annual fee that offer tremendous value. For example, The Blue Business® Plus Credit Card from American Express has no annual fee and earns 2X Membership Rewards points on the first $50,000 spent every year, then 1X points.
When it comes to travel cards, it’s also important to be aware of foreign transaction fees. These fees of around 3 percent are added to purchases made abroad and can really add up if you spend a lot overseas. In that case, a credit card with no foreign transaction fees, even if it comes with an annual fee, might save you more in the long run.
Still unsure if a travel credit card is right for you? Check out our Credit Card Spender Type tool, where you can get personalized credit card recommendations based on your credit score, spending habits and daily needs.
The bottom line
The right travel credit card for you depends on factors like how often you travel, the type of rewards you can easily use, the benefits you want the most and how much you’re willing to pay. Fortunately, there are so many amazing travel and rewards credit cards on the market today that you’re sure to find one that suits your needs.
Take the time to compare our list of the best travel credit cards, then make an informed decision based on your research. Also, know that you’re not stuck with the same card forever. If you wind up disappointed with the card you select, you can always request a product change or apply for a new one.
*All information about the AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard® and Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard® has been collected independently by Bankrate and has not been reviewed or approved by the issuer.