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A guide to choosing the best travel credit card
Anyone who travels can benefit from the rewards and perks that come with a travel credit card. With a little planning and careful budgeting, you can easily use your points or miles to help cover some of the costs of your next trip.
A travel rewards credit card can also provide:
- Benefits that make the journey more convenient, such as priority boarding
- Insurance against the unexpected, including trip cancellations and lost luggage
- A touch of luxury, with airport lounge access and room upgrades
Bankrate experts offer an in-depth look at the best travel credit cards available from our partners, as well as general advice on getting the very most out of your travel experience.
Compare the best travel credit cards of 2020
What is a travel credit card?
Travel credit cards allow cardholders to earn points or miles on a variety of purchases (typically travel-related) that can then be redeemed in the form of travel bookings, statement credits, gift cards, and more.
The best travel credit cards do more than help you foot the bill for your next flight — they’ll also offer perks to upgrade your entire travel experience. Trip insurance, annual travel credits, concierge services and lounge access are all common benefits. Airline and hotel co-branded credit cards sometimes offer specific discounts and perks for loyalty customers.
Categories of travel rewards credit cards
As with other types of cards, travel credit cards offer you a lot of variety to choose from. To zero in on which card might best fit your needs, consider the different categories of travel cards.
General travel cards
Issued by a credit card company, bank or other financial business, a general-purpose travel card typically offers the most flexibility for how you choose to travel and redeem your rewards. The easiest option is to redeem rewards directly through the issuer’s travel program, which ensures they’ll always have the same value. However, some cards also let you transfer rewards to the issuer’s travel partners (usually airlines and hotel chains but sometimes cruise lines as well).
Examples: Chase Sapphire Reserve®, Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card, Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card
Ideal for: Travelers who want flexibility in earning and redeeming their rewards and aren’t necessarily loyal to particular airlines or hotels
Co-branded airline cards
A travel card co-branded by an airline and a credit card issuer is known as an airline rewards card. You can earn miles or points by using the card to book flights with the airline, make in-flight purchases and so on. You redeem the rewards through the airline’s loyalty program.
Examples: Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card, United MileagePlus® Club Card
Ideal for: Travelers exclusively loyal to a certain airline
Co-branded hotel cards
A co-branded hotel credit card is similar to an airline card, except with a hotel chain instead of an airline. Likewise, using the card to book stays at the hotel’s properties earns points that you redeem through the hotel loyalty program.
Examples: Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card, Marriott Bonvoy Business™ American Express® Card, Radisson Rewards™ Premier Visa
Ideal for: Travelers exclusively loyal to a certain hotel chain
Consumer travel cards and business travel cards
A number of general-purpose and co-branded cards offer two versions: one for personal travel and another for business travel. Like business credit cards in general, business travel cards tend to offer higher credit limits and rewards categories geared toward business expenses.
No foreign transaction fee cards
A no foreign transaction fee credit card can be considered a travel card, a consumer card, a business card, or even a combination of any of the three. Its defining characteristic is that it doesn’t charge currency-related fees on eligible purchases from sellers outside the United States, whether in-person or online. The lack of foreign transaction fees makes these cards well-suited for international travelers.
How do miles work on travel credit cards?
Miles work the same way as credit card points. When you use miles to book travel directly through an airline or travel portal, the airline or issuer will assign a set number of award miles to each ticket. Some airlines have established award charts that give you insight into what each flight would cost in miles, but many have switched to a dynamic pricing model that bases award pricing on multiple factors, including seasonality and route popularity.
When you’re redeeming miles as a statement credit, they’re assigned a monetary value (typically 1 cent per point, though that isn’t the case with all issuers). If you want to stay updated on the value of your points and miles, ThePointsGuy tracks valuations on a monthly basis.
Speaking of keeping track, be aware that miles and points can expire. A recent Bankrate survey found that almost half of travel loyalty program members have let airline and hotel rewards expire at some point.
Make a point of knowing your card issuer’s policy on expirations and checking your online dashboard or printed monthly statement on a regular basis. If you don’t use your rewards before they expire, you’re essentially forfeiting money.
Survey finds a lot of travel rewards are left on the table
If you’re not utilizing your travel rewards credit card to the fullest, you’re probably forfeiting travel rewards that could be worth hundreds of dollars every year.
That’s one of the conclusions from a Bankrate.com survey on American consumers’ preferred payment methods. Overall, the survey found that 55 percent of rewards credit cardholders who pay their bills in full each month fail to use their cards to pay for purchases that could be earning travel rewards. Their mistake is in using cash or a debit card instead of their rewards card.
Here are the percentages of people who paid with debit or cash instead of a rewards card, by category:
||Paid with debit/cash
Neglecting to use a rewards card for airfare and hotel stays isn’t the only way of missing out. Some travel cards also earn miles or points for purchases that might not be directly related to travel, including groceries, restaurant meals and gas fill-ups that you buy without even leaving your hometown.
Who should get a travel credit card?
In most cases, it helps to be someone who regularly spends some money on travel, since travel purchases usually have the highest rewards rate. But you don’t have to be a frequent traveler to reap the benefits of a travel rewards card. A number of travel cards that offer good rewards rates on general purchases, too. So if you’re a very casual traveler, you may do best with a card like the Capital One Venture Rewards Card, which offers 2X miles per every dollar spent.
There is a travel card out there for every type of traveler. Once you have a better understanding of the type of traveler you are, you can seek cards with perks that will best benefit your situation.
In short, travel credit cards are worth it for:
If you’re new to traveling, it might be best to start out with a card that offers simple yet flexible rewards. If you’re learning the ins and outs of points and miles, the last thing you need is a complicated rewards structure and redemption process. A luxury card with a steep annual fee might not be the best for your current situation.
Some people like to fly with the same airline whenever possible or stay at the same hotel brand wherever they go. If you are the same way, a brand-specific card will probably provide you with the best value. Most of the time, brand-specific cards have brand-related purchases as a bonus category and other perks for loyal customers.
Some of the most valuable travel credit cards are business cards. Whether you are a freelancer who travels a lot to meet new clients or the CEO of a Fortune 500, the right travel credit card can help you reap the rewards of everyday business purchases while helping you keep your personal and business expenses organized.
If you travel out of the country for business or leisure frequently, consider opting for a card that doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee. And if you hate waiting in line at airport security or customs, there are a lot of travel cards that will provide reimbursement for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fees, including the Capital One Venture and others.
If you’re really looking for a luxury travel experience, you need a top-tier travel card. For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve offers a well-rounded selection of perks and The Platinum Card® from American Express includes access to Centurion Lounges. While top-tier cards also tend to charge annual fees, you can compensate for the cost if you take full advantage of the trip insurance, travel credits and other perks.
Frequently asked questions about travel points and policies
What credit score is needed for a travel credit card?
You’ll likely need at least a 670 credit score if you want to get a travel credit card. Though most credit cards don’t come with an explicit credit score requirement, rewards cards usually are geared toward people with good to excellent credit. With better perks come stricter requirements.
Alternatives for those who need to build their credit a bit include the Deserve® EDU Mastercard for Students and the Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One®. Neither one is technically a travel credit card, but they do waive foreign transaction fees. Also, with responsible use, your credit score could improve enough to qualify you for a top-tier travel rewards card.
How can I earn miles without traveling?
Whether you’re worried that scaling back travel could lead to your elite status and miles expiring, or you simply don’t want to miss out on valuable rewards opportunities, you have options for maximizing rewards even at home. Fortunately, most major airlines are offering elite status and mile extensions — many through the end of 2021.
The easiest solution is a flat-rate travel card you can use on everyday purchases. For example, the Capital One Venture Rewards card earns 2X miles on everything, travel-related or not.
Review your travel card’s terms and conditions for opportunities to earn rewards without boarding a plane or leaving the house. Some cards earn 2X to 4X miles/points on dining and take-out from restaurants. Even eligible delivery services can earn rewards depending on the card.
For instance, not only does the American Express Gold Card offer 4X points on restaurants (including select delivery services), but you can also earn up to $120 annually in dining credit (enrollment required) by using the card to pay for services like Grubhub and Seamless. The Platinum Card from American Express is one of the best credit cards for Uber since it offers up to $200 in Uber credit each year, including up to $35 in December for both rides and UberEats orders.
Should I use miles on anything other than travel?
Generally, no. Miles are most valuable when redeemed toward booking travel, but a few other options exist that you might consider in a pinch, depending on your card’s redemption choices. For instance, Capital One miles keep their full value if you redeem them for gift cards, but they lose 50 percent of their value when redeemed for cash back.
Save your miles or even pool your travel points unless they’re near expiration. You shouldn’t have to worry about expiration unless you’re planning on closing your card, though, since most issuers’ miles are good for the life of your account. Otherwise, try to redeem for rewards with a 1:1 value like gift cards to maximize your miles.
Do travel cards reimburse you for trip cancellation?
Your canceled flight or trip refund hinges on a few factors: whether the flight/trip is refundable, whether your travel insurance covers it and whether your card issuer accepts the circumstances of your cancellation.
If the trip was refundable or you had outside travel insurance with a cancel-for-any-reason policy, you’re covered. Otherwise, your first step is to contact the airline, cruise or travel company for a refund and cancellation fee waiver — especially if you booked a flight with that airline’s frequent flyer miles. You may also find success with your issuer if you booked with your credit card or its rewards.
The best-case scenario is that you used one of the best credit cards for travel insurance. For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve’s trip cancellation/interruption insurance (up to $20,000 per trip) and emergency evacuation coverage (up to $100,000) could get you home safe and reimbursed. If your card has similar insurance or you booked with rewards, your refund may depend on whether your cancellation circumstances fall within the refund terms.
Luckily, many airlines and cruise lines are currently offering generous cancellation reimbursements and cancellation/change fee waivers to help get your money back.
How we chose our list of top travel rewards cards
Bankrate evaluates credit cards on a 5-star system that factors in attributes such as annual fees, APR, rewards value and welcome bonuses. To make our list of best travel rewards cards, our writers and editors pay particular attention to:
The best travel card for you will allow you to earn the most rewards for your specific spending habits. The cards in our lineup cover a variety of programs geared toward hotel lodging, dining, air travel costs and other factors. In general, the best travel cards reward you with two to three points per dollar on bonus categories.
The top travel rewards cards offer travel-specific benefits that take the hassle out of travel. Some perks we looked for are designed to save you money, including trip cancellation insurance, delayed baggage insurance, rental car insurance, checked bag discounts and travel credits. Other perks are all about making your experience more comfortable, such as airport lounge access, flight and hotel upgrades, and concierge service.
Annual fees are common among travel credit cards, but our top picks make it easy to get your money’s worth. For variety, we do include some luxury cards with very high annual fees, noting that only a specific type of traveler will find value in such cards — frequent flyers for whom comfort is paramount.
A prime example is the foreign transaction fee, which tacks on extra cost for purchases made overseas. International travelers should lean toward cards that don’t charge this fee.
Though long-term value should always be weighed the most heavily, travel credit cards often come with sign-up bonuses that can be worth a flight or two. We highlight the most competitive offers so that, all other factors equal, the better sign-up bonus can help you make a decision.
Find out more about rewards cards for travelers
Senior Editor Barry Bridges has been writing about credit cards, loans, mortgages and other personal finance products for Bankrate since 2018. His work has also appeared on websites including Nasdaq.com, Zillow.com and The Simple Dollar. He was previously an award-winning newspaper journalist in his native North Carolina. Send your questions about credit cards (and fantasy baseball) to email@example.com.
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