The pros and cons of travel credit cards
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Travel credit cards are among the most rewarding types of credit cards — every swipe can get you that much closer to your dream vacation. Using these types of cards can help you get free flights, hotel stays and other travel benefits like airport lounge access, elite status and more.
If you’re wondering whether or not a travel credit card is right for you, we’ll go through some of the pros and cons of these cards to help you make your decision.
What are the pros of travel credit cards?
Travel-focused rewards categories
Many travel credit cards allow cardholders to earn bonus points or miles on travel purchases like airfare, hotels, car rentals, trains, taxis, rideshares and more. These bonus categories can be extremely appealing — and easy to maximize — for frequent travelers. Depending on the card, you might be able to earn anywhere from 3X to 10X points per dollar on specific travel-related purchases.
Once you have a nice collection of points or miles, you may be able to use your rewards to help cover your next trip. With careful planning, many have traveled the world on credit card points. For instance, you may be able to get a free business-class flight to the Maldives or a luxury hotel stay in Miami.
Travel benefits and credits
Anyone that travels often (or even occasionally) can appreciate perks like airport lounge access or elite status through an airline or hotel loyalty program. Many travel cards come with these types of perks, which can make long layovers and hotel stays much more pleasant.
Many cards also offer up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck membership or other annual travel credits. For instance, the Chase Sapphire Reserve® has an up to $300 annual travel credit, which means you’ll automatically be reimbursed for up to $300 in eligible travel purchases per year.
With a credit card that offers elite status through a hotel or airline loyalty program, you can expect smoother and more comfortable travel. For example, hotel elite status can come with perks like free room upgrades, late checkout, food credits and free breakfast. Airline elite status may offer you privileges like free checked bags, free upgrades and early boarding.
Of course, some travel cards offer hotel perks, free checked bags or priority boarding directly to cardholders — so you won’t even need to hold elite status as long as you have an eligible credit card.
Maximized rewards value
While many swear by cash back cards, you may have more opportunities to save money on travel with travel credit cards, which can be even more enticing. With a cash back card, you might be able to earn a few hundred dollars in rewards, but the value proposition of a travel card can be greater. You may be able to save hundreds or even thousands of dollars by using your points and miles for hotels and airfare — which is far beyond what most cash back cards can give you.
Plus, if you’re loyal to a specific airline or hotel brand, you can earn directly with that brand using a co-branded airline or hotel credit card (which can also help you reach elite status).
Flexible rewards and redemptions
There are many flexible travel rewards cards available that will offer you more options for redeeming your hard-earned points or miles. Many of these cards allow you to transfer your points or miles to airline or hotel partners, which is often a more valuable redemption option.
Travel cards also tend to have dedicated travel portals where you can use your points or miles to book all types of travel purchases. While these portals may not always offer the best value, some of them allow you to earn more points or miles on the travel you’ve booked through the portal.
Authorized users may get travel perks, too
With travel rewards cards, it’s not just the cardholders that can reap the benefits — some cards extend benefits to authorized users, too. These users may get many of the same perks as the primary cardholder, such as airport lounge access. And while some cards charge an additional fee for adding an authorized user, others don’t.
However, be sure to check a card’s terms and conditions before applying to see if there is a fee to add authorized users and which card benefits are offered to authorized users.
Valuable welcome bonuses
One of the best ways to get yourself closer to a free flight or hotel stay is to apply for a new travel credit card and meet the requirements to earn the welcome bonus.
For example, The Platinum Card® from American Express offers a welcome bonus of 80,000 Amex points after you spend $6,000 within six months of account opening — which is worth $800 when redeemed through American Express Travel. However, this offer could be worth up to $1,680 in travel when redeemed with high-value transfer partners, according to our points and miles valuations.
High-value benefits that are worth the annual fee alone
It’s easy to see how a large welcome bonus can make paying an annual fee worth it, at least for the first year. But many travel credit cards also offer benefits that are worth more than their annual fees.
For example, Delta loyalists should consider the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card. Cardholders will get a Delta Sky Club membership (plus two one-time passes each year for guests), as well as up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, the first checked bag free on Delta flights (for up to nine travelers on the same reservation), a Delta companion certificate (available each year after card renewal; additional terms apply) and more, all for an annual fee of $550. Considering that the Delta Sky Club membership alone costs $695 per year, it would be well worth it for frequent Delta travelers to get this card.
What are the cons of travel credit cards?
High annual fees
Some premium travel credit cards come with hefty annual fees, such as the aforementioned Amex Platinum, which has an annual fee of $695. The key to getting the full value out of travel rewards cards with high annual fees is to dig deep into the benefits. In some cases, you may be able to get your money’s worth.
While cards with high fees aren’t the right fit for everyone, remember that not every single travel rewards card has a sky-high annual fee. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card — which is one of the best beginner travel rewards cards — has an annual fee of just $95 (and it comes with perks that outweigh that cost). There are even travel cards without annual fees, such as the Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card.
Can be hard to maximize value
Sometimes, getting the maximum value out of your travel rewards card can take a lot of actual work. From ensuring your points or miles don’t expire — which is common with airline or hotel loyalty programs — to taking advantage of every single benefit to offset the cost of the annual fee, maximizing value can feel like a full-time job, especially if you have more than one travel credit card.
The key to maximizing value is to understand your card’s benefits and how you’ll use them. Make sure to take note of any blackout or expiration dates and read all the terms and conditions, too.
High credit score requirements
Most travel credit cards require a good to excellent credit score (670 to 850), and many premium travel cards require an excellent credit score. If you don’t have a credit score of at least 700 or higher (or if you don’t have any credit history at all) you should take steps to build or improve your credit before applying for a travel card.
Not worth it if you don’t travel enough
Simply put, travel credit cards aren’t worth it if you don’t travel much. You won’t be able to take advantage of many of the perks and benefits — like statement credits for hotel stays, airline fees and other travel-related purchases — or earn bonus points or miles for travel purchases. Likewise, if you redeem your points or miles for items not related to travel, like cash back or merchandise, you won’t be getting the full value out of your hard-earned rewards.
The value of your rewards may fluctuate
Many airlines and hotels have revamped their loyalty programs over the last few years, so what you can obtain with your points and miles may have changed. These types of fluctuations can occasionally make your points and miles worth more, but more often it makes them less valuable.
One of the best ways to avoid devaluations is to make sure you use your rewards in a timely manner. Sitting on a stash of rewards until you earn enough for your desired redemption is one thing, but don’t sit on huge rewards balances forever. Use them to ensure you’ll get maximum value now in case an airline or hotel devalues them later.
Travel credit cards are only worth it if you can pay off your bill in full each month. Like most rewards cards, travel cards tend to have high APRs. Some premium travel cards can have a variable APR of up to nearly 30 percent, well above the average credit card APR of about 20 percent.
Having to pay high interest rates will negate any travel rewards earned, so if you can’t pay your card off every month, it’s best to opt for a card with a lower variable APR. If you only anticipate carrying a balance for a short period of time, you may want to consider a card with a 0 percent intro APR period on purchases for a limited time.
Should you get a travel credit card?
When getting a travel credit card makes sense
Getting a travel credit card would make the most sense for you if you’re a frequent traveler who spends a lot of money on travel in the first place — which means you’ll be more likely to reap the benefits of these cards. This is especially true if you can dedicate enough time to maximizing all the perks and benefits these cards have to offer (which will help you to recoup the annual fee). It also makes sense if your credit is in great shape and you know you can pay off your bill each month.
When getting a travel credit card doesn’t makes sense
If you don’t travel frequently, don’t invest in a travel credit card — it won’t be worth it. Perks like airport lounge access or free hotel nights won’t matter if you rarely (or never) fly or stay in hotels. Instead, you may want to consider a different type of rewards card, such as a cash back credit card. This type of card will be more likely to reward you for the types of purchases you make every day, such as grocery, gas or dining purchases.
The bottom line
The best travel credit cards can offer you plenty of value as long as you’re able to maximize the benefits they offer. If you don’t travel frequently enough or won’t be able to use enough card benefits, you may want to consider another type of rewards card that will better reward the type of spending you do.