Travel Credit Cards: A Beginner's Guide
If you're a frequent traveler, these are the kinds of credit cards worth looking into. Let us explain why.
They say that travel is its own reward, but for those who own travel credit cards, the rewards can go much higher.
From sign-on bonuses to dining and flight rewards, there's no shortage of ways that credit card companies are looking to make your next getaway even more memorable.
But are travel credit cards really the best deal for you?
What if you don't travel often but still want to save money? What if you travel frequently? Are there caps on the rewards you can earn?
No matter how you travel, there's a travel credit card out there that's the perfect fit for you.
This guide will help you better understand the types of travel credit cards available and help you understand the pros and cons of owning a travel credit card. Read on for all the details!
What kinds of credit cards are best for travel?
There is no one "best travel credit card" that fits everyone's needs.
If you're in the market for a travel credit card and need help choosing, you'll want to ask yourself some questions, such as:
When I Travel, I…
- Predominantly spend money on dining and travel-related purchases
- Fly domestic (in and around the U.S.)
- Don't spend a lot of money and don't want a card with annual fee
- Travel frequently and tend to spend a lot – after all, you only live once!
- Stay often at preferred hotels and am looking for a way to earn bonus points as a guest
- Travel often by train
- Travel predominantly for business
- Take luxury trips and don't mind paying an annual fee for more comfort and convenience
That's a lot to consider when deciding among the different travel credit cards available – but taking the time to learn which cards offer the best rewards for your type of travel can not only save you money and hassle at airports and train stations, but also help you earn better rewards that fit into your lifestyle!
With that being said, here's a breakdown of some of the best travel credit cards currently available depending on your mode of transportation, spending and lifestyle:
Best Card for Earning Airline Miles
Many travelers want to maximize their airline miles but don't want to be tied to one particular airline.
These types of travelers often use their cards for travel-related purchases and dining out.
If that sounds like you, you'll want to take a closer look at the Chase Sapphire Preferred® card.
With this card, you earn Ultimate Rewards, which can be used at a wide range of different travel-related brands including Southwest Airlines, Mariott and more.
Because you get to pick and choose how best to allocate your rewards points, you'll enjoy greater flexibility when and where you travel.
When you book your trip through the Ultimate Rewards portal, you can save 20% on your booking while also increasing the value of your Ultimate Rewards points – up to their 2.5% limit, which automatically puts Ultimate Rewards ahead of most other generic travel rewards points programs.
You can also get a 50,000 point sign on bonus which nets you up to $625 toward airfare or hotels.
Points can be transferred to partner hotels and airlines at a 1:1 ratio, and there are no foreign transaction fees, making this a highly recommended card for travelers who want to maximize their rewards.
There's a $0 annual fee for the first year for this card, then $95 thereafter.
Best Card for Domestic Travel within the U.S.
If you travel often within the states, the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier credit card could be right for you.
Since Southwest Airlines includes 85 different airports around the country (and 11 within the Caribbean) you'll have a lot of potential destinations to choose from.
The card itself gives you 2 Rapid Rewards points for every $1 you spend on Southwest Airlines purchases directly within the airline, with all other purchases being 1 point per $1.
You can even get a companion pass if you reach 110,000 points within a single calendar year.
When you sign up and spend at least $1,000 on purchases within the first 3 months of opening your account, you'll get a signup bonus of 40,000 bonus points.
This card has an annual fee of $99.
Best All-Around Travel Credit Card
If you're just looking for a good, all around travel credit card that's geared toward moderate spenders but still helps you earn rewards and miles, you'll want to take a closer look at the Capital One® Venture Rewards Credit Card.
Out of the travel rewards cards offered by Capital One, this one is particularly good for those who spend $30,000 or less per year on travel.
With this card, you earn 2 miles on every $1 spend regardless of what category you spend it on.
You can also use your Venture miles in many different ways, but we recommend using them on the "Purchase Eraser" – which means using your points to pay down your travel bills.
Why do this instead of just getting cash back?
Because if you go the cash back route with your points, your rewards miles' value will be cut in half.
Like with similar travel credit cards, there's no foreign transaction fee, and you get 40,000 bonus miles if you spend $3000 or more on purchases during the first 3 months after opening the account.
This card has no annual fee for the first year, then a fee of $59 every year thereafter.
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Best Cards to Earn Points at Preferred Hotels
If you want to maximize your vacation stays by earning points at hotels, you may want to consider the Starwood Preferred Guest® credit card from American Express.
Although on the surface, it appears to be a hotel brand credit card, it also has a points transfer program, which lets it also be used as an airline miles credit card.
What's interesting about this card is that for every 20,000 Starpoints you transfer to an airline, you get 5,000 bonus points (approximately a $120 value).
In order to maximize rewards from this card, don't transfer points unless you already have 20,000 of them saved up.
You get a 4.8% rewards rate on all your stays with Starwood or Mariott properties, and a 2.4% rewards rate on all another spending, making this card definitely worth having if you stay often at these particular hotels.
Like many other travel credit cards, you can transfer points to 32 other partner airlines for use in their loyalty programs.
Most are a 1:1 ratio, however, you'll want to check to see if the specific airline you want to travel with uses this same standard.
As with many other travel credit cards, you get a sign-on bonus of 25,000 points after you spend $3,000 or more within the first three months.
Best Card with No Annual Fee
If you're not a big spender when it comes to travel, and you don't want to pay an annual fee, the Discover it® Miles card may be right for you.
With a 1.5% rewards rate on all your spending and no foreign transaction fees, this is a good all-around card for travelers who vacation abroad.
What's unusual (and great) about this card is that Discover matches all the miles you earn at the end of the first year. So if you earned 30,000 miles, you'd get another 30,000 miles – which translates to $600 worth of rewards.
This offer is only for new card members, however.
It's worth noting that Discover isn't as widely accepted worldwide as Visa and Mastercard.
If you're traveling to mainland China, Discover is compatible with UnionPay.
If you're in Japan, it's compatible with the JCB network. You can use your Discover it® miles in Europe, South America or Asia at various Diners Club locations as well.
Best Card for Serious Spenders
If you spend $2,500 or more per month on travel, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard is a rewarding card to have – literally.
In addition to giving you 2 miles for every $1 you spend (which averages out to a little over a 2% rewards rate), you can also earn 50,000 bonus miles as long as you spend at least $3,000 within the first 90 days of receiving your card.
Ideally, you'll want to spend the miles you earn as travel statement credit.
This allows you to receive a dividend of 5% extra points.
There are also no foreign transaction fees for this card.
Best Card for Business Travel
The Starwood Preferred Guest card highlighted above also has a business travel credit card from American Express.
For business owners, you'll enjoy a 2.4% rewards rate – which doubles anytime you pay for a Starwood hotel stay with your card (Starwood hotels include Westin, St. Regis, the W, and Sheraton).
Like with the Preferred Guest card, Starpoints you earn from this card can be transferred to 30+ airlines.
You also get Sheraton Club lounge access and free in-room Wi-Fi to help you take care of business more efficiently.
Since it's an American Express business travel credit card, you'll also benefit from the American Express OPEN benefits, including help with accounting, a helpful business forum, and a designated account manager to help you review statements, make payments and dispute charges if necessary.
Best Card for Luxury Travel
No one really looks forward to spending time at airports – but the Chase Sapphire Reserve card helps make the transition between flights a little more comfortable, thanks to its Priority Pass Select membership.
This includes access to over 900 airport lounges around the world.
Simply being a cardholder will also pay for your Global Entry or TSA Pre-Check which speeds up the amount of time you're in line for check-in/out.
There is a $450 annual fee, but there is also a lot of features that make this fee worth it, such as getting 100,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months of opening your account.
This translates to a whopping $1,500 when you redeem your points through the Ultimate Rewards portal.
In addition, card members get a $300 travel credit every year which helps ease the pinch of that annual fee.
Best Card for Train Travel
If you're the type of person who likes to see the sights by rail, there's a travel credit card for you to – the Amtrak Guest Rewards® World MasterCard®.
You can get reward rates as high as a whopping 7.8% on Amtrak tickets, which can be huge if you frequently enjoy traveling by train.
It's worth noting that Amtrak divides the U.S. into four distinct zones – Western, Central, Eastern, and Northeastern. Depending on which zones your itinerary crosses, you'll need to pay more points.
So, for example, if you were taking a round-trip rail from Boston to L.A., you'd need 10,500 points (because you're traveling across 3 zones) for Economy class travel.
Frequently Asked Questions
Now that you know more about some of the best travel credit cards available, it's understandable that you still have many questions.
You may want to know, for example, why someone would want to use a travel credit card over a traditional credit card, or if there are any restrictions or "fine print" with travel credit cards.
We've compiled answers to some of the most common questions about travel credit cards we receive, and you'll find them all answered below.
Who is eligible for a travel credit card? What are the most popular travel credit cards?
As with any credit card offer, your eligibility will depend on your credit score.
Anyone can apply for a credit card and be accepted provided that you meet the criteria.
There is no "one size fits all" when it comes to popular travel credit cards — instead, you'll want to carefully consider what you value most when traveling.
Many travelers prefer to apply for travel credit cards that let them earn miles or points on their preferred airline yet still others would rather earn points at the hotels they stay at.
Carefully consider the things you value most when traveling, and the airlines you prefer, and then use our detailed guide to help you select the best travel credit card for your needs.
What kind of rewards do travel credit cards offer? What are the travel restrictions associated with travel cards? What is in the "fine print"?
Travel credit cards offer a number of rewards depending on which one you choose.
Most commonly, the "points" you earn can be used as airline miles or to help pay back travel related expenses.
Some cards offer discounts and better rewards points if you go with a specific airline or stay at a certain brand of hotel.
Still, others simply give you cash back.
Many travel credit cards boast "no blackout dates" – as in dates when travel rewards and other promotions aren't available.
Blackout dates usually fall around peak travel seasons or major holidays.
No blackout dates mean that you can travel freely whenever you want.
Blackout dates do still apply for some cards though, so do your research carefully before you decide.
Another common restriction which, although it's not too common, may deal with transferring rewards points into airline miles.
Depending on the airline you choose, it may not be a 1:1 ratio of points to miles.
You'll want to check with the card issuer if your preferred airline is on the list and if they participate in the rewards to miles points transfer – and if so, what the exchange ratio is.
How are travel credit cards different from traditional credit or rewards cards?
As you might expect, travel credit cards are centered around travel-related excursions, whereas traditional credit card purchases can be all types of products and services.
Rewards cards are usually centered around a specific type of reward or brand (such as store cards that give you cash back for spending a certain amount of money at their store or other discounts in exchange for your patronage).
While some credit cards can accrue points that are used to make travel-related purchases, including miles, they're not specifically made for this kind of purpose, and if you travel often, you may find that you get more value for your travel-related purchases (including dining, entertainment, hotel stays, etc.) with a travel credit card.
What kind of consumer would want a travel credit card?
Whether you travel frequently or you just make a few trips a year, you may find owning a travel credit card to be a great idea.
For frequent travelers, a travel credit card's rewards can quickly add up, especially if you take advantage of the sign-on bonus, which often gives you free points if you make a certain dollar amount of purchases within the first month or two of opening your account.
Even if you don't travel often, but you do make larger than average travel related purchases (such as a nice family vacation a couple of times per year), you may find it handy to have a travel card simply because of the rewards and the savings you get.
Over time, these points/rewards accumulate and can be redeemed for things like free airline tickets, free hotel stays and much more.
As you'll see from our guide, there are travel credit cards for nearly every type of consumer, from frequent flyers to train travel enthusiasts and even professionals whotravel for business.
What are the risks and benefits of a travel credit card?
Many of the risks of owning a travel credit card are the same as owning any other type of credit card.
You should use your card responsibly and not try to race to get a certain amount of points or perks and risk digging yourself further into debt.
There are also other important things to consider, such as extra costs incurred by currency conversion when using your card abroad.
Also note that in some cases, particularly with Discover and American Express cards, they may not be accepted as widely as Visa or Mastercard, depending on where you travel.
Of course, traveler's checks are accepted nearly anywhere, so it's a good idea to have those on hand too!
The benefits of owning a travel credit card are impressive, particularly for frequent travelers.
Being able to earn points when you fly, which can, in turn, be redeemed for future flights, is a hugely attractive option and makes it all too easy to be bitten by wanderlust.
Having such a card on hand for travel can help speed up the frequency with which you earn rewards and points, which is plenty of benefit in and of itself if you travel often!
How do travel cards compare to other credit cards?
Many travel cards revolve around a simple rewards/points program for flights, hotels, dining, entertainment and other travel related expenses.
With other kinds of credit cards, there may be a different audience or offer entirely, such as balance transfers, low APR, cards for those with little to no credit history, and so on.
That's not to say that one is necessarily better than the other, but many people use travel credit cards outside of their ordinary credit cards strictly on travel-related purchases, so that they can earn points and travel more – sooner!
What are the fees associated with travel credit cards?
Now that you better understand the differences between regular and travel credit cards, you can see how easy and quick it can be to start enjoying all the perks that travelers get.
Start racking up points, and who knows where your next trip will take you!