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How do travel rewards credit cards work?

This type of card allows you to earn points or miles that can be redeemed for travel reservations, and it typically offers additional travel benefits


If you’re interested in investing in a travel credit card, it’s important to know the ins and outs before you commit to the one that’s right for you.

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For many rewards credit card users, the opportunity to earn a free vacation is much more attractive than earning cash back or merchandise. Using travel rewards credit cards allows you to dream of spending relaxing days in beautiful places, rather than merely reducing the amount of your credit card statement balances by a percent or two. 

What is a travel rewards credit card?

A travel rewards credit card is one that allows you to earn points or miles that can be redeemed for travel reservations. In addition to offering rewards, these credit cards are also more likely to offer other features and benefits that are valuable to frequent travelers. 

Credit cards that offer travel rewards were some of the first rewards travel cards, and they have become very popular in recent years – there are now several different types of them. One of the most familiar kinds of travel reward cards are those co-branded by airlines, often called frequent flyer cards. These cards earn miles with a single airline’s loyalty program. Likewise, there are many hotel rewards cards that are co-branded with major hospitality chains. 

Most credit card issuers also offer general purpose travel reward cards that earn points or miles in their own loyalty programs. Some of these card issuer created programs can allow you to redeem your rewards directly for travel reservations through their in-house travel agencies.

Other travel rewards programs let you redeem their points and miles for statement credits towards travel you book yourself. And several popular programs let you transfer your rewards to airline miles or hotel points, in addition to letting you book travel directly or offering statement credits towards travel reservations. There are also travel rewards credit cards designed for the needs of small business owners. 

How do you earn rewards with a travel rewards card?

There are several ways you can earn points and miles with a travel rewards credit card.

Sign-up bonuses

First, most travel rewards credit cards offer new applicants the chance to earn a sign-up bonus. However, card issuers prefer to call these offers “new account bonuses” or “welcome offers.”

By any name, these offers allow new applicants to earn large amounts of valuable points or miles, usually after completing a minimum spending requirement. For example, a travel rewards credit card that’s co-branded with an airline might offer new applicants 50,000 miles after they use their card to make $4,000 of purchases within three months of account opening.

Points and miles

Beyond the new account bonuses, travel rewards cards offer points or miles for spending. Typically, a travel rewards credit card will offer a single point or mile per dollar spent on most purchases. But these cards will almost always offer additional bonus points for other purchases as well.

For example, airline and hotel cards will offer additional rewards for purchases from their brands, and many cards feature bonuses for common purchases such as dining, groceries and gas.

Ongoing bonuses and promotional offers

Many travel rewards credit cards will also feature bonuses and promotional offers for certain activities such as reaching an annual spending threshold, adding an additional cardholder or just renewing your card for another year.

Other travel rewards credit card benefits

Beyond offering points and miles towards award travel, travel rewards credit cards can offer valuable cardholder benefits.

For example, airline credit cards often feature perks such as priority boarding, discounts on inflight purchases and one or more free checked bags. Hotel reward cards can offer elite status that can entitle you to receive room upgrades, late checkouts and even free breakfasts.

The most expensive premium rewards cards with large annual fees will also offer a membership in airport business lounges programs. And all kinds of travel rewards cards can offer travel insurance policies that cover rental cars theft and damage, trip delay/cancellation and lost luggage. 

Travel rewards credit cards can also feature special access and travel deals. For example, an airline or hotel card can give you credit towards elite status in their loyalty program. These cards can also give you additional access to award flights and free night stays, beyond what’s offered to non-cardholders. 

What to watch out for

It’s also important to understand that award travel isn’t usually free.

Annual fees

First, the most compelling travel rewards cards have an annual fee, although some will waive that fee the first year. And if you choose to carry a balance on your credit card, the cost of the interest charges may exceed the value of the travel rewards you earn.

Since non-reward cards will offer lower interest rates than similar cards that offer travel rewards, it’s best to avoid travel rewards cards unless you avoid interest charges by paying your statement balance in full.

Most travel rewards cards have eliminated foreign transaction fees, so that’s not the issue it once was.

Taxes and surcharges

But when it comes time to redeem your rewards, there could also be taxes and fees that you must pay. For example, airlines impose taxes, fees and “carrier imposed surcharges” on many award tickets – including passenger fees mandated by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). For domestic flights, it’s unlikely you’ll pay more than the $5.60 TSA surcharge, each way.

But for international flights, you could end up paying hundreds of dollars in government taxes and fees. In extreme cases, you may be asked to pay more than $1,000 in surcharges imposed by the airlines when you redeem your miles for an award ticket. 

How to avoid unnecessary fees

When you’re able to redeem your points or miles directly for travel reservations or statement credits, you can avoid any cash payments. Also, you can typically avoid surcharges when you redeem hotel points, as taxes on lodging are typically tied to the dollar amount paid – meaning there are no taxes or fees on award stays. However, some hotels will impose so-called resort fees on award stays, while others waive those fees when paying with points. 

There can also be fees on transferring points or miles from one person to another. But even when programs charge those fees, they can easily be avoided by simply booking travel reservations from one account in the name of another traveler.

Other fees to look out for include airline change and cancellation fees. Thankfully, most U.S. airlines reduced or eliminated these fees in the wake of the COVID pandemic. When you cancel a hotel reservation within the cancellation period, often 48 hours before arrival, there’s typically no cancellation or change fee. 

Bottom line

Travel rewards credit cards offer a way for you to earn exciting award reservations in return for opening a new account, using your card for spending and other activities. At the same time, these cards can provide valuable perks and benefits, just for being a cardholder.

By understanding all the advantages, as well as the potential costs, you can decide if it makes sense for you to apply for a travel rewards credit card and which one is right for you.

Editorial Disclaimer

The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

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