Travel credit cards are among the most rewarding types of credit cards, every swipe getting you that much closer to your dream vacation. Using these cards to earn points by spending, especially on travel purchases, can help you get free flights, hotel stays and other travel benefits. Travel rewards cards also offer highly coveted perks, such as airport lounge access, elite status and more.
Are you wondering if a travel card is right for you? This guide will walk you through all the pros and cons of these cards so you can make the best decision possible.
Pros of travel credit cards
Pro: Travel reward categories earn additional points
Travel reward categories can be extremely appealing—and easy to maximize—for frequent travelers. Many travel credit cards allow cardholders to earn bonus points on travel purchases such as airfare, hotels, car rentals, trains and even taxi or rideshare services.
Depending on the card, you might be able to earn anywhere from 3X, 5X, 7X or even 10X points per dollar on specific travel-related purchases. Once you have a nice collection of points, your only problem will be deciding exactly how to use them. How about a free flight to the Maldives in business class or a luxury hotel stay in Miami? With careful planning, many have traveled the world on credit card points.
Pro: Travel-friendly benefits and perks
Anyone that travels often (or even occasionally) can appreciate rewards like lounge access or airline/hotel elite status. Many travel credit cards come with these perks, which can make long layovers and hotel stays much more pleasant.
Plus, these benefits can save you money. After all, lounge access or even just buying food at the airport doesn’t come cheap. Some cards, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, have an annual travel credit, meaning that you’re automatically credited $300 per year once you spend that on travel. Many cards offer Global Entry or TSA PreCheck statement credits or airline fee credits.
With a credit card that offers elite status, expect to travel easily and stay in added comfort for less money. Hotel elite status comes with perks like free room upgrades, late checkout, food credits and free breakfast. Airline elite status awards you privileges like checking bags for free, the possibility of upgrades and early boarding.
Speaking of checking bags and boarding early, some travel cards offer these benefits directly to cardholders—you don’t even need to hold elite status as long as you have the card.
Pro: Earn airline miles or hotel points
While many swear by cash back cards, the opportunity you have to save money with travel credit cards can be even more enticing. You might end up with a few hundred dollars of rewards with a cash back card, but the value proposition of a travel card—saving hundreds or even thousands of dollars by using your points and miles for hotels and airfare—is beyond what most cash back cards can give you.
And if you’re loyal to a specific airline or hotel brand, you can earn directly with that brand using co-branded airline credit cards and hotel credit cards, which can also help you reach elite status.
Pro: Some have flexible rewards
Flexible rewards cards offer cardholders a variety of options for redeeming their hard-earned points. Many cards offer the option to transfer your points to several airlines or hotel brands. Some allow you to “erase” travel charges from your statement. Others have their own travel portals where you can use points to book travel (and sometimes redeem points for cash back or merchandise), which brings us to our next point.
Pro: Travel portals
Some cards have dedicated travel portals where cardholders can use their points to book travel. While they may not always offer the highest value redemption option, some offer the ability to earn points or miles on the tickets you’ve purchased via the portal with your points. Essentially, you’re paying the card company with your points, and the company is “buying” your ticket or stay, meaning you can burn and earn simultaneously.
Pro: Authorized users can get travel perks, too
With travel rewards cards, it’s not just cardholders that can reap the benefits. Some cards extend benefits to authorized users, too. And while some cards do charge an additional fee for adding an authorized user, others don’t.
For example, the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card allows cardholders to add up to four authorized users completely free. And these users all get many of the same perks as the cardholder, such as their own Priority Pass Lounge Membership and Hertz elite status. Plus, their spending is eligible for reward categories and counts towards the sign-up bonus.
Pro: Introductory bonus offers
One of the best ways to get yourself closer to that free flight or hotel stay is to apply for a new travel credit card and meet the spend threshold to get the introductory bonus. And these bonuses can really make those annual fees worth it.
For example, the The Platinum Card® from American Express is currently offering a 100,000-point bonus after $6,000 in spending within the first six months. And while this card has many other benefits that make the $695 annual fee worth it, consider that you could transfer points from the bonus to Iberia Airlines for a roundtrip business class ticket from Chicago to Madrid (a $3000-$6000 value) or to Marriott’s Bonvoy program for a four-or-five-night stay at the Le Meridien Maldives (a $2,500-$2,500 value).
Pro: Travel perks that are worth the annual fee
It’s easy to see how a large introductory bonus can make the annual fee worth it, at least for the first year. But some travel reward credit cards more than make up for their annual fee with perks. For example, Delta loyalists should consider the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card.
Cardholders get a Delta SkyClub Membership plus two one-time passes for guests, as well as Global Entry fee credit, a free checked bag on Delta flights, a Delta Companion Pass and more for an annual fee of $550. Considering the Delta SkyClub membership alone is $545 per year, it’s well worth it for frequent Delta travelers to get the card.
Cons of travel credit cards
Con: High annual fees
Some premium travel credit cards come with hefty annual fees, such as the aforementioned Platinum Card from American Express that has a $695 annual fee. The key to getting the full value out of travel reward 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 reward card has a sky-high annual fee. The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, the ideal beginner travel reward card, has an annual fee of just $95 (and it comes with perks that outweigh it). There are even travel cards without annual fees, such as the Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card.
Con: Can be hard to maximize value
Sometimes, getting the maximum value out of your travel reward card takes actual work. From ensuring your miles don’t expire to taking advantage of every single benefit to offset the annual fee can feel like a full-time job, especially if you have more than one card. The key is to properly understand the benefits of your card to fully obtain the maximum value. Make sure to take note of blackout and expiration dates and read all the terms and conditions, too.
Con: High credit score requirements
Most travel credit cards require a good to excellent credit score, and that’s even true for premium cards. If you don’t have a credit score close to 700 or higher (or don’t have any credit history at all) you may want to consider a secured credit card to build or improve your credit.
Con: Not worth it if you don’t travel
Simply put, travel credit cards aren’t worth it if you don’t travel. 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 for travel purchases. Likewise, if you redeem your points for items not related to travel—like cash back, clothing or household items—you’re not getting the full value of your hard-earned points.
Con: Point value fluctuation
As airlines and hotels revamp their loyalty programs, what you can obtain with your points and miles changes. These types of fluctuations can make your points occasionally worth more, but most often it makes them less valuable.
One of the best ways to avoid devaluations is to use and redeem the points you earn on your travel card. Sitting on a stash for a little while to earn enough for your desired redemption is one thing, but don’t sit on huge points balances forever. Use them to ensure you’ll get maximum value now in case an airline or hotel devalues them later.
Con: High APR
Travel credit cards are only worth it if you can pay off your bill in full each month. Like most rewards cards, travel credit cards tend to have high APRs. Some premium cards charge up to 24 percent, well above the average credit card APR of about 16 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 0 percent APR introductory period instead of a travel rewards credit card.
When getting a travel credit card makes sense
Getting a travel credit card makes the most sense for, well, travelers! Frequent travelers are most likely to reap the benefits of these cards, which often come from spending money on travel in the first place. A perk like airport lounge access or free hotel nights won’t matter if you never fly or stay in hotels, and you won’t be able to earn the most points if you don’t spend on travel purchases.
Get a travel credit card if your credit is in great shape, you know you can pay off your bill each month and you can dedicate time to maximizing all the perks and benefits these cards have to offer.
When you shouldn’t get a travel credit card
If you don’t travel, don’t invest in a travel credit card—it won’t be worth it. Instead, consider a cash back card, which will reward you with cash or statement credits that can be used for any purchase you want.
And if you don’t have any credit or have bad credit, you may have to improve it before you can get a travel credit card. In the meantime, consider secured cards, which work a bit like debit cards but help you build credit.