How To Choose a Travel Card

Learn how to compare travel cards

Taking a vacation might be less costly when you're using a travel credit card to arrange it.

If you're earning points or miles on your stay, you may be able to use them as a statement credit against airline, hotels, and other travel expenditures.

Your card may also enable you to utilize those points or miles to plan your next trip—not to mention that some travel cards come with extra bonuses that might make your journey more pleasant. These privileges include free lounge access, hotel upgrades, and travel insurance.

But how can you compare travel credit cards to pick the appropriate one? As you're shopping for your new travel card, these ideas might help you locate your perfect fit. 

Start With Your Needs

When picking a travel credit card, it's useful to think about how you'll use the card and what you need it to accomplish for you.

For instance, some passengers may prioritize collecting maximum miles or points on trip. Others may be more interested in scooping up travel perks and amenities like free lounge access or a cost credit toward Global Entry or TSA Precheck (expedited security and customs processing).

Ultimately, your selection should reflect your reasons for having a travel credit card. Some important items to consider include:

  • How frequently you travel or intend to travel
  • Where you most typically book travel: within the U.S. vs. outside the U.S.
  • Your usual yearly expenditure on travel
  • What form of bonuses or rewards could be most useful
  • Whether you're interested in earning incentives and if so, whether points or miles are preferable 

Co-Branded Travel Rewards Cards

If it's miles you're wanting, then you could lean toward a co-branded airline credit card. Co-branded credit cards are sponsored by two parties—the credit card issuer and a travel brand, most typically an airline or hotel.

If the hotel or airline partner has its own travel reward program, you may earn additional points or miles via your loyalty membership. Often, these additional points or miles are added to points or miles you already earn on transactions with your card.

This sort of card may be less beneficial for travel if you book at other travel companies or use your card for regular shopping.

One factor to consider when selecting a co-branded card is if you're committed to that particular brand or whether you regularly book with other hotels or airlines.

General Travel Rewards Cards 

If you like to book with more than one brand, you may be better off with a generic travel rewards credit card that provides you bonus points or miles on all travel transactions rather than purchases from a single airline or hotel.

General travel cards give the benefit of flexibility. If you’re unclear what your travel requirements will be, a generic travel rewards card doesn’t bind you down to either air trips or hotel stays.

These cards come in many flavors, from simple, modest travel rewards cards like the Discover it Miles to the premium American Express Platinum giving several luxury advantages.

Compare Travel Card Features and Benefits

Once you've defined what you need a travel credit card to perform for you, think about the exact features and perks you'd want the card to provide. 

Start With the Rewards Earning Structure

Begin by reviewing the card's rewards earning system. Will you get a flat amount of points—for example, 2 miles for every dollar you spend on the card—or are incentives tiered?

If incentives are tiered, which purchasing categories yield the most points or miles?

For example, a general travel card may offer you 2 points or miles for every dollar you spend on meals and travel, and 1 point on everything else.

Hotel rewards cards tend to award the highest points for purchases you make on their websites and at their hotels. Also, they may offer a supplemental bonus tier for travel and eating that is greater than the main rewards rate.

Airline cards normally offer you one bonus for making purchases with them and a basic rate of 1 point per dollar spent on any other transactions you make.

Note

Consider whether there's a restriction on the quantity of points or miles you may collect on purchases yearly and if those rewards have an expiry date.

Compare Redemption Options

Next, look at how you may redeem awards and any limits on redemptions. Check for ban periods (days on which you can’t book rewards flights or hotel rooms) and limits on how you may use your points to book.

For instance, some general travel rewards cards give a rewards boost when you redeem for travel or redeem via the card's online travel portal. Others enable you to transfer rewards to other travel partners.

If transfers are authorized, examine the transfer value first. Some cards transmit points on a 1:1 ratio, but not all cards do. It's crucial to make sure you're not losing any value when redeeming points or miles for travel.

The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card is an example of a card that pays redemption benefits and allows you transfer points to travel partners.

When you use your points to book travel via the Chase Ultimate Rewards site, your points receive a 25% bonus. You may transfer your points to various travel partners, too, at a 1:1 rate.

On the other hand, points and miles on hotel and airline cards have the maximum value when you redeem them for award stays and award flights.

Note

Look at travel partners on the list, since some travel cards may have more comprehensive partner networks than others or partners that are a better match for you. 

Look for Travel Extras

Next, compare travel credit cards to determine what type of perks are provided. Some of the features you may discover with a travel card include:

  • Introductory prizes bonuses
  • Free checked luggage
  • Complimentary lounge access Complimentary hotel upgrades or stays
  • Free Wi-Fi access while you travel
  • Credits for in-flight purchases
  • Fee credits for TSA Precheck or Global Entry

Ideally, the travel card you pick should provide the optimum mix of points and advantages that suit your specific travel patterns and tastes.

If you're contemplating a co-branded card, look attentively at any extra perks you could obtain from the travel partner's reward program.

For example, certain hotel programs may provide free breakfast and late checkout, when possible, for members of the program. 

Compare the Cost

Finally, while you look around for travel credit cards, take notice of the amount you'll pay to hold the card.

Start with the yearly cost. Consider what you're receiving in return for what you're spending. A premium travel credit card, for instance, may provide incredibly high-value features and advantages, but you may be looking at a more than $500 annual charge to carry one of these cards.

If you're going to pay an annual fee in that range, or any annual charge for that matter, it's crucial to verify that what you're receiving back from the card balances out the cost to use it.

Then, compare international transaction costs. These costs apply to purchases purchased outside the U.S. While there are many travel credit cards that don't charge this fee, others do. So it's crucial to be aware of what you'll spend for international purchases if you routinely go abroad.

Finally, look at the annual percentage rate, or APR, which shows the yearly cost of carrying a debt on your card. The greater the APR, the more your purchases will cost if you carry a debt versus paying your account in full each month.

You should never carry a debt month-to-month on a credit card—it’s pricey. Doing so with a travel rewards card will invalidate any rewards advantage you’ve earned.

The Bottom Line

Choosing the perfect travel rewards credit card relies on your travel interests and your everyday spending patterns.

Try to discover the card that provides you the travel rewards you can take advantage of. Look for alternatives that pay incentives for categories in which you spend money.

And, lastly, calculate how much the yearly charge will cost you. It’s crucial that you take advantage of enough rewards flights, rewards nights, and benefits to make the yearly cost worth it.