If you're a frequent flyer or road warrior, the best travel credit card will help you earn perks and rewards faster. Whether it's flights, nights or points, we've made it easy to compare. Find the top travel or airline credit card offer for you, including bonus offers, from our list of travel credit card offers from our partners. Then apply online, and get ready to start earning your rewards!
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Updated: December 1, 2017
Every day, a new credit card seems to launch, with travel and cashback cards taking the lead. Similar in many ways, travel cards can be thought of as the “adult” card, because the miles or points can be quite valuable, and there’s a little more thought to making them work, in part because there can be an annual fee to leverage (more on that later).
Travel cards offer a twofold bonus. First, you can use them to maximize the returns on your travel spending, saving you hundreds of dollars a year. Second, some offer special access to travel rewards, such as free nights in swanky hotels, access to exclusive airport lounges and more. Not only can travel cards benefit those who work around the world or who often travel for pleasure, they can reap great rewards for the occasional traveler. Just think – earn statement credits for a weekend getaway or a quick trip out of town. Here’s what you need to know to find the best one.
A travel credit card can reward you for travel behavior, such as eating at restaurants or staying at hotels. Some are loyalty cards in which you benefit from using specific hotel or airline brands. Others, such as the Barclaycard Arrival Plus, have an open-ended reward and redemption system that allows you to redeem for all manner of travel expenses.
Travel cards are an excellent way to get reimbursed for vacations, make purchases on shopping portals, gain access to airport lounges, get free baggage checks and more. Today, there is a huge selection of travel cards, so it’s important to shop around and pick the one that’s best for your lifestyle.
Airline miles were originally designed for airline loyalty programs in which you got credit in the way of “miles” for your spending on a card. Today, miles cards sometimes are not attached to a specific airline, such as Discover it Miles, or a card may have partnerships with a variety of airlines, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred.
There are also hotel travel cards, which will typically refer to the benefits as “points.” Whether called points or miles, these benefits can earn you savings in the hundreds each year. By putting miles toward flights or points toward hotel stays, you can get a statement credit for vacation expenses and more.
Airline and travel rewards cards can be similar in that they usually offer a signup bonus and reward points or miles for certain types of spending. How are they different? A travel rewards card can offer a portal that allows you to redeem points for an array of travel expenses, while an airline card’s rewards can be more selective, typically focusing on a brand. However, co-branded airline cards can have partnerships with other airlines, allowing you to use your miles with another airline, thereby freeing up your rewards. And while travel rewards cards will frequently allow you to earn miles or points on most purchases, airline cards can be more restrictive but also more generous in the number of miles earned for each dollar spent.
When you apply for a travel credit card, the card issuer will gather some information, including Social Security number, name and address, and income. Fill out the form honestly, because you can have the card revoked if you’re caught in a lie. Income can be money you have access to, rather than just your salary, so if you and your spouse are employed, you can combine the incomes. This is helpful if you are an at-home parent and the family has just one income.
Many cards will approve or decline you within minutes. If you are approved, you may be able to shop online with your new account. Your card will arrive within a few days in the mail.
On the surface, it doesn't make sense why creditors or credit card issuers offer travel credit cards. But it makes sense, once you understand the issuer business model. Here's how it works:
With all these fees floating around, what do you do? First off, pay in full and on time each month. That will keep you from paying late fees and interest fees. Also, keep an emergency fund so you won't be tempted to take out a cash advance. Finally, ask the merchant if you are being charged a checkout fee for using your Visa or MasterCard. If so and it's a big purchase, you may want to think about shopping elsewhere.
Travel cards have a number of advantages, including the ability to earn statement credits for travel and sometimes luxury benefits, such as access to airport lounges.
If you are loyal to a specific hotel or airline brand, you can earn double miles for spending on that brand and even earn stays and other loyalty benefits. Some cards, such as the Barclaycard Arrival Plus, allows you to earn 2X miles on everything, then you can earn a statement credit on travel purchases of your choosing. This allows you to shop around for the best hotel, airline, limousine service, condo, rental car, and so on. Add to that, your miles don’t expire, although there can be a deadline for redeeming a specific purchase.
There are a few disavantages to travel cards, but nothing that can’t be overcome.
As you know, travel cards can have an annual fee, but that doesn’t have to be a disadvantage. Simply make sure you will spend enough to cover the fee. If, for example, you have a $59 annual fee and you get 2X miles on every purchase, you’ll need to spend a minimum of $3,000 throughout the year to get 6,000 miles, which is enough to cover the annual fee.
Another challenge, and this is true for all credit cards, is that you can incur interest fees if you carry over a balance. There’s an easy answer, though. Just don’t charge anything you don’t already have the money to cover, and pay in full and on time each month.
Frequent flyer credit cards reward you more for airline-related expenses including baggage checks, tickets, and food and drink. The higher end cards might also gain you access to such benefits as brand-specific airport lounges. The more you use the card on airline expenses, the more you benefit with miles that can be redeemed for flights.
Heads up that frequent flyer miles can expire, so read the fine print. Also, there can be blackout dates, so before taking out a card, make sure it’s a product you’ll use based on your current habits. Do you only travel for the holidays? Do you not really have an interest in airport lounges? That will impact the card you apply for.
Cards vary widely when it comes to using your airline miles. Some cards offer a portal that allows you to redeem for qualified packages, flights, hotels and condos, and more, such as the Barclaycard Arrival Plus. The Arrival Plus allows you to redeem on any qualifying travel expense through a card portal that tracks how many points you need to redeem an item and how much more time you have to redeem for each item. Others limit how you use the miles to specific brands. For example, the American Express Delta cards’ miles can be specifically used for Delta flights and other Delta expenses.
Many travel cards offer a signup bonus in which you spend a certain amount on your card within a certain period of time, usually 3 months or 90 days, in exchange for a one-time bulk of miles or points. Some cards, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred, also give you points for behaviors such as signing up your first authorized user within a certain amount of time. You typically have to be a new cardholder.
While the bonus miles are a great draw for the new cardholder, there are a couple of things you want to make sure about before signing up. First, do you have the cash on hand to pay back the purchases you make to qualify for the bonus? You’ll want to be able to pay it back by the due date of that month, or you’ll incur interest charges, which basically would defeat the purpose of the bonus miles. Remember, a credit card is not designed to be a long-term loan.
Second, are you going to use the card enough to make the annual fee worth your while? Calculate how many miles you need to make up for the fee, even if the fee is waived the first year, because you want to consider a card to be a financial product for the long haul. Why? Because the longer you keep a card and treat it well, the better it is for your credit.
Miles redemptions for a flight vary widely, and it depends on the type of ticket you want (ie. First class) and when and where you travel, but for example, on an Oct. 28, 2016, Delta flight from LAX to JFK (main cabin), it would have run you 25,000 miles.
Miles can also be used to upgrade your seat, purchase a companion’s ticket or buy refreshments. Miles often don’t expire (read the fine print), so it can be worth your while to save up for a big trip. Just double down on paying for things you would buy anyway to earn those miles. Sometimes you can pay rent, car insurance and utilities with your credit card. Just make sure there are no fees for those charges.
Using a travel card to save money only works if you use your card for purchases you plan to make anyway and if you pay your card bill in full and on time each month. That way, you avoid late fees and interest charges. You also want to make sure that your planned spending will put your miles or points above the annual fee. So, if you have an annual fee of $95, and the redemption is at $0.01 for every mile, you want to make sure you plan to earn at least 9,500 miles or points in a year.
Ideally, you want to focus on your best travel or rewards card, and put as many purchases as possible on it so that you earn maximum miles.
4 things to consider before getting an airline credit card:
9 strategies to maximize airline rewards:
While a frequent flyer mile is often worth $0.01, it can be more or less, depending on the program. For example, according to our valuation system, the Discover it Miles valuation is $.01 for every mile, while the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal, with the Chase Sapphire Preferred, is valued at $0.0126. That means if you have accumulated 30,000 miles with your Discover it Miles card, those miles are worth $300. If you have the Chase Sapphire Preferred and you want to redeem them in the Ultimate Rewards portal, you will get the equivalent to $378 when you redeem. (CreditCards.com’s valuation system: A reward value is determined by calculating the cost per reward unit [point or mile] for obtaining a good or service.)
When redeeming airline miles, sometimes it’s as simple as going into a portal after the purchase and clicking a button. In other cases, such as the American Express Delta cards, you log into your Delta account to purchase your tickets. Before choosing a card, make sure you are clear about the steps and decide if you can live with those steps.
In the same way that you need to make sure that you’ll take full advantage of the card’s benefits and that you’ll maximize the savings, you want to ensure that the way that you redeem suits your lifestyle. Some cards are very easy to use, allowing you to redeem for pretty much anything that is travel-related, including limousine service. Others allow you to maximize your miles with a travel portal that gives you a bonus for redemptions.
Frequent flyer miles often expire. Some, such as Delta, don’t. Others require your account to remain active, although that can be as simple as earning a single mile before the expiration date. Make sure you read the fine print so you aren’t scrambling to use your miles.The key is to stay organized. Plan a specific trip for your miles and budget how many miles you need to earn to reach your goal. Never, ever, go over what you can afford, and mark on your calendar when the miles would expire.
Usually you can’t transfer airline miles to hotel points, but there are exceptions. The question is really: Should you do it? The answer to that is typically no, because the transfer ratios are rarely favorable. It’s best to choose your card carefully and make sure you will use it well.
Before applying for a card, look at your past history. Do you love and use the brand that the card co-brands with? Have you used that brand in the past, and will you use it in the future? How often will you use it? If you can see yourself earning enough points or miles to make the card worthwhile, go for it.
You might be able to transfer miles to another person, but it may not be to your advantage financially because you may be charged a fee for the transfer. Instead, book an award seat for someone else by entering their name instead of yours in the portal. Just keep in mind that in the case of international flights, some airlines require to see the card that was used. Sometimes, even the cardholder has to be present at flight time, or the ticket isn’t honored.
While airline partnerships usually allow you to earn and redeem miles while flying on partner airlines, you typically can’t directly transfer miles from one airline to another. So, instead of a direct transfer, you can use miles to book award flights on airlines that are travel partners, says The Points Guy. That said, you can’t mix and match multiple airlines’ miles, says Million Mile Secrets. So, you can use American Airlines rewards to book a British Airways awards flight, but you can’t use 2 or more airlines’ rewards to book that flight.
There are a few factors that will help you decide if a travel card is right for you.
First, do you have strong credit? Travel cards typically require good or excellent credit, so there is no point in applying unless you have at least a 700 FICO score, the dominant scoring model that lenders use. It has a range of 300-850, with 850 as the best.
Do you have a good handle on your finances? To maximize a travel card, you need to be able to juggle a couple of balls. It’s not difficult, but if you are not sure how much money is coming in, how much you spend each month, and what you are spending it on, you may want to hold off on getting a travel card. Why? Because to use the travel card successfully, you will want to use the card as much as possible, but never on something you don’t already have the money for. A cashback card such as the Chase Freedom Unlimited may be a better choice for you for now, because it offers a straight 1.5% cash back and there’s no annual fee.
Finally, do you travel at least somewhat? You don’t have to be a jetsetter, but to take full advantage of the card, you’ll want to at least be someone who travels a couple of times a year, or on a few weekend trips a year. The best way to assess this is to look at your travel habits in the past year, study how much you spent, and track which airlines and hotels you stayed at.
With a little effort on the front end, a travel card can save you hundreds a year on travel expenses, give you free nights or even flights, or even grant you access to luxury airport lounges. Find the right card for you.
|Card||Welcome Bonus||Bonus Requirement||Rewards Rate|
|Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card||50,000 Miles||Spend $3,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening||Unlimited 2X miles per dollar on every purchase, every day|
|Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express||25,000 Membership Rewards® Points||Make $2,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of opening the account||3x points for flights booked directly with airlines, 2x points at US restaurants, gas stations, and supermarkets|
|Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card||50,000 Bonus Points||Spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening||2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases|
|Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card||20,000 Miles||Spend $1,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening||Unlimited 1.25 miles per dollar on every purchase, every day|
|Discover it® Miles||Match Mile For Mile: We'll match all the Miles you've earned at the end of your first year||Automatic||Unlimited 1.5x Miles per dollar on all purchases, every day|
|Bank of America® Travel Rewards Credit Card||20,000 Online Bonus Points||Make at least $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days||Unlimited 1.5 points per $1 spent on all purchases|
|Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®||60,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® Bonus Miles||Make $3,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening||Double AAdvantage® miles on eligible American Airlines purchases|
|The Platinum Card from American Express||60,000 Membership Rewards® Points||Spend $5,000 within the first 3 months of account opening||5x points on flights booked through the Amex Travel site|
|Chase Freedom Unlimited®||$150 Bonus||Spend $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening||Unlimited 1.5% cash back on every purchase|
Want more information?
Below are a variety of frequently asked questions and answers regarding travel rewards and programs. You can also read our detailed reviews of travel credit cards once you have narrowed your choices down to a few cards. The reviews can help you confirm which offer fits your needs. If you’re homing in on a card for a specific airline or hotel, we have reviews for those, too.
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