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As any frequent traveler knows, it’s a big world out there — one with no shortage of travel rewards credit cards.
But even for seasoned travelers with multiple credit cards in their wallets, the sheer number and variety of enticing travel credit cards make choosing the right fit an overwhelming prospect — at least at first.
Look closer, and it becomes clear the travel card category is surprisingly orderly. Most cards fall into a handful of easily differentiated buckets, such as general-purpose cards, cobranded hotel cards, and cobranded airline cards.
How to Pick the Right Travel Credit Card
Once you see the travel card universe for what it is, the process of selecting your next travel credit card becomes manageable — even fun. These strategies can help you find the ideal travel credit card for your lifestyle, spending patterns, and brand loyalties.
1. Choose Your Credit Card Network
It doesn’t matter what order you do the rest of the steps in. But most credit card journeys start here.
A major credit card network backs every travel rewards credit card worth having. For U.S.-based cardholders, the three biggies are Visa, Mastercard, and American Express.
The reason your credit card network matters is simple: You want merchants to accept payment with your preferred credit card, no matter where you are.
On this measure, American Express fares worst. Although it’s accepted in most countries, merchant coverage is far spottier than the other three networks, due among other reasons to the network’s high transaction fees. If you regularly travel abroad, by all means, bring an American Express travel rewards card like The Platinum Card® from American Express — but have a non-Amex backup too.
Visa and Mastercard credit cards both enjoy widespread acceptance worldwide. Perhaps not coincidentally, most of the top travel rewards cards discussed herein and in our best travel rewards cards roundup belong to one of these two networks, including the Chase Sapphire Reserve® card (Visa) and the Capital One Venture Rewards credit card (Mastercard). You can’t go wrong designating a premium Visa or Mastercard product as your primary credit card when traveling abroad.
2. Understand the Difference Between Cobranded and General-Purpose Travel Cards
There are two main types of travel rewards credit cards: general-purpose and cobranded.
General-purpose travel credit cards are not associated with a particular travel vendor, such as an airline or hospitality chain. Instead, they earn versatile rewards currency you can redeem as payment for future travel bookings or credits against prior travel bookings. In some cases, you can convert general-purpose travel cards’ rewards currency into partner travel vendors’ loyalty currency at preapproved ratios and from there, redeem it for free or subsidized bookings. Popular general-purpose travel credit cards include the Capital One Venture Rewards credit card, the Chase Sapphire cards (Reserve and Chase Sapphire Preferred®), and the Citi Prestige card.
Some specific travel vendors, such as hospitality chains or airlines, host cobranded travel credit cards. Purchases made on cobranded travel cards earn the host brands’ loyalty currency, often called either points or miles, redeemable for free or subsidized bookings offered by the brand.
In some cases, cobranded cards and their hosts’ rewards programs permit point transfers to partner brands. But these arrangements aren’t as widespread as they are on general-purpose cards’ because host companies don’t want cardholders to do business with direct competitors.
Cobranded cards are therefore appropriate for frequent travelers who can easily remain loyal to particular travel merchants, such as the airline hubbed in their hometown or the hospitality chain with the widest variety of properties in their favored destinations. Popular cobranded travel cards include the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless credit card from Chase and the Platinum Delta SkyMiles credit card from American Express.
This deep dive on travel loyalty programs has much more on the differences between general-purpose and cobranded credit cards and their associated loyalty currencies. Read it before applying for your next travel rewards credit card.
3. Don’t Disregard Annual Fee Cards
Many if not most travel rewards credit cards charge annual fees. If you limit your search to travel cards that don’t, you can miss out on prime opportunities to earn rewards at a rapid clip and capitalize on valuable card benefits.
You almost always come out ahead when you choose an annual fee card with a rewards program and value-added benefits that align with your spending and travel patterns over a no-annual-fee card with a less generous rewards program and fewer value-added benefits.
4. Compare Foreign Transaction Fees Against the Card’s Baseline Carrying Cost
Travel credit cards that don’t charge annual fees are more likely to charge foreign transaction fees (FTFs). FTFs typically top out at 3% of the total transaction value: $3 on every $100 spent. Credit card companies add them to any transaction that passes through a non-U.S. bank, even if the purchase originates inside the U.S. — like, say, an airfare booking with a foreign airline made from the comfort of your stateside apartment.
Most annual fee travel credit cards waive foreign transaction fees. If you regularly travel abroad, you can make up the difference pretty fast. Rack up $3,167 in out-of-country charges on your Chase Freedom Unlimited® credit card, and you’ll accrue $95 in foreign transaction fees. Do the same on your Chase Sapphire Preferred card, and you’ll offset its $95 annual fee.
Remember, your travel rewards card’s baseline carrying cost isn’t necessarily identical to its annual fee. For instance, a $250 annual travel credit that automatically offsets up to $250 in eligible travel purchases (including airfare and hotel stays) tempers the Citi Prestige card’s $495 annual fee. Its net carrying cost is $245, the equivalent of a 3% foreign transaction fee waiver on international purchases worth $8,167. With a $300 annual travel credit, Chase Sapphire Preferred is an even better deal — a 3% foreign transaction fee waiver on international purchases worth just $5,000 negates its net carrying cost of $150.
5. Calculate the Welcome Offer’s Potential Value, & Make Sure It’s Feasible
Most travel rewards credit cards offer spending-based welcome enticements for new cardholders. Different issuers call them different things: sign-up bonuses, welcome offers, early spend bonuses, or new card member offers.
When evaluating these offers, ask yourself two questions:
- Can I Meet the Minimum Spend Requirement in the Allotted Time Frame? Welcome offers usually last just three to four months. Some stretch to six or 12 months, but those typically carry higher minimum spend requirements. Occasionally, you see a welcome promotion that isn’t directly tied to spending — say, a doubling of the standard rewards-earning rate during the first 12 months. Those are the offers you want to jump on, especially if they’re explicitly time-limited. Otherwise, think carefully before committing to a welcome offer that’ll upend your budget.
- Can I Maximize the Value of the Bonus? The cobranded realm is particularly fertile ground for eye-popping early spending deals. Limited-time offers worth 10 or more free nights are common enough in the hotel rewards subcategory — check out our best hotel rewards credit cards list for current promotions. The catch, of course, is that hotel chains’ loyalty currency (and cobranded currency in general) is less versatile than general-purpose cards’ loyalty currency. If you rarely stay at a Hyatt property, you’re not a good fit for the World of Hyatt credit card, no matter how attractive its sign-up bonus is. It’s safer for brand-agnostic travelers to stick with general-purpose credit cards’ welcome offers, especially when there’s a favorable partner transfer arrangement present.
6. Align Favored Spending Categories With Your Spending Patterns, If Applicable
Not all travel credit cards have favored spending categories. One significant advantage of the Capital One Venture Rewards credit card is its straightforward rewards program: All eligible purchases earn 2 miles per $1 spent, with no caps or restrictions. Venture cardholders are never in suspense about how much they’ll earn from a particular purchase.
But some travel cards are worth pursuing specifically because they favor certain spending categories. The Platinum Card from American Express earns 5 points per $1 spent on airfare purchased directly with airlines and prepaid airfare and hotel bookings made through the American Express Travel portal — fantastic news for jet-setting cardholders. Chase Sapphire Reserve earns 3 points per $1 spent on dining and travel purchases, delivering a 4.5% rate of return on spending when you redeem points for bookings at Chase’s travel portal. Citi Prestige earns 5 points per $1 spent on air travel and restaurant purchases and 3 points per $1 spent on hotel and cruise line purchases. These cards are worthwhile for folks who eat out, order in, and travel regularly.
Some cobranded travel cards counterprogram their rewards schemes. For brand-loyal travelers, the best cobranded travel rewards credit cards are those that rack up rewards at home and on the road. For example, the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® card earns 12 points per $1 spent on eligible Hilton purchases on top of the base points you’re entitled to as a Hilton Honors member. It also earns 6 points per $1 spent on purchases at U.S. restaurants, gas stations, and supermarkets and 3 points per $1 spent on all other purchases.
7. Evaluate Transfer Partners & Conversion Rates
Most general-purpose travel cards and many cobranded cards have point-transfer arrangements with external travel partners. In the general-purpose space, partners are typically airlines and hospitality companies of varying sizes and distributions. In the cobranded realm, partners are usually noncompetitive — you won’t find too many hospitality-to-hospitality transfer opportunities, for instance.
When evaluating point-transfer programs, look for:
- Numerous Relevant Partners. Transfer arrangements do you no good if you can’t use them. Look for partners you already patronize — like your hometown airline or the global hospitality brand you always seem to find yourself staying with. The more, the better. Amex has well over a dozen point-transfer partners, though many are international airlines that most U.S. travelers won’t encounter.
- Favorable Conversion Rates. The gold standard here is 1-to-1 — that is, 1 credit card point or mile to 1 partner point or mile. In certain limited cases, transfer ratios may be even better — say, 200 credit card points or miles to 250 partner points or miles. Don’t bother with 5-to-1 or 10-to-1 ratios unless you’re in danger of forfeiting your points, which is unlikely to happen with a general-purpose credit card account that remains open and in good standing and that you use at least once per year.
8. Assess Other Travel Benefits
Sew up your travel credit card search with a close look at each candidate’s value-added benefits. In the category’s higher echelons, these benefits can be exceedingly valuable. Combining a maxed-out annual travel credit with a handful of complimentary airport lounge visits is typically more than enough to offset any travel credit card’s annual fee.
- Annual Travel Credit. This is a big one. If you travel by air at least once per year, you can almost certainly take full advantage of your card’s annual travel credit. The best credits automatically offset travel purchases with no action required from the cardholder, effectively reducing the annual fee by an equivalent amount. For instance, Chase Sapphire Reserve’s travel credit negates $300 in eligible travel purchases, including airfare and hotel bookings. This offsets more than half of the $550 annual fee.
- Complimentary Airport Lounge Access. This is another doozy. The optimal airport lounge benefit is one that’s not airline-restricted. Priority Pass Select (a fixture of premium non-Amex cards) and the Global Lounge Collection (Amex’s answer) both offer complimentary access to more than 1,000 lounges at hundreds of airports worldwide, often for the cardholder and multiple ticketed guests. With average admission running $60-ish per person per visit, this benefit’s value adds up fast.
- Complimentary Loyalty Tier Status. Many premium hotel and airline cards, along with some top-shelf general-purpose cards, offer complimentary loyalty tier status. Tier status benefits vary by brand and tier but generally include some combination of accelerated base point or mile earnings on qualified bookings and value-added perks like priority boarding, early check-in, and room upgrades (an easy-to-quantify value). Brand-agnostic travelers can’t do better than the Platinum card from American Express, which offers complimentary Marriott Bonvoy Gold Elite status and complimentary Hilton Honors Gold status.
- Progress Toward Loyalty Tier Status. Instead of or in addition to automatic tier status, many cobranded cards promise automatic or spending-based progress toward loyalty tier status. For instance, the Delta Reserve credit card from American Express delivers 15,000 bonus Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) when you spend $30,000 in qualifying purchases, up to four times per year (for a total potential bonus of 60,000 MQMs per year). That’s more than enough MQMs to earn Platinum Medallion status, though you must still meet the $9,000 Medallion Qualification Dollar (spend) requirement.
- Complimentary or Heavily Discounted Award Travel. Look closely at cards that offer complimentary or heavily discounted award travel. Award travel is mainly the province of cobranded cards, which need to keep fickle travelers interested. The ideal is automatic award travel. The World of Hyatt credit card automatically adds one free Category 1 to 4 award night to cardholders’ accounts after their account anniversary. And the Delta Reserve card promises one free companion certificate (less taxes and fees) redeemable for one round-trip domestic economy or first-class fare each year. Second best is spending-based award travel. World of Hyatt adds another complimentary night when you spend at least $15,000 in purchases in a cardholder anniversary year.
- Brand-Specific Perks. These perks often overlap with benefits conferred by automatic or earned loyalty status, but they’re exceedingly valuable for those who don’t hold that status. Common examples include free checked bags, priority boarding, room upgrades at check-in, free breakfast, and flexible check-in and check-out times.
- Hospitality Benefits. These benefits also often overlap with loyalty status benefits. The Platinum Card from American Express excels on this measure, with perks worth hundreds of dollars per stay at hundreds of high-end properties in two distinct hotel collections: Fine Hotels & Resorts and The Hotel Collection. The Hotel Collection package includes a $100 credit redeemable against dining, spa, and experience spending.
- Rental Car Coverage. If you prefer to (or must) get around your destinations in a personal vehicle, this benefit’s for you. Cards that offer rental car coverage provide loss and damage coverage up to policy limits or the value of the insured vehicle when you charge the full cost of the rental to your card and decline the rental company’s offer of coverage.
- Travel Protections. Hopefully, you’ll never have to invoke your card’s complimentary travel insurance coverage. But it’s nice to know they’re there to back you up. With generous coverage for trip interruption and cancellation, delayed baggage, and lost luggage, Chase’s general-purpose travel cards excel on this measure.
With few exceptions, credit card issuers market travel rewards credit cards to applicants with good or excellent credit. If your FICO credit score is below 660 or so, you may struggle to qualify for the cards mentioned here.
It’s not the end of the world. If you have average credit, a year or two of responsible credit use and timely payments on an entry-level credit card can raise your credit score to a range that makes you more likely to qualify for a basic travel rewards card.
Depending on your actual credit score, credit history, and factors like your income, you may not qualify for a premium travel rewards credit card. Qualification becomes less likely if your credit score is below 700. In that case, apply for a no-annual-fee cash-back credit card like the Chase Freedom Unlimited credit card. Though they’re not specifically for applicants with impaired credit, these cards typically have looser underwriting requirements than premium travel cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve card — which means applicants without fantastic credit are more likely to qualify.
Better still, they earn rewards on every purchase. Depending on the issuer, you can frequently redeem those rewards for travel bookings at decent rates. Chase Freedom Unlimited’s loyalty currency is worth $0.01 per point when redeemed for travel bookings in the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal.
Alternatively, you can open an FDIC-insured savings account, redeem your cash back there in anticipation of a future trip, and earn interest while you wait.
What’s your go-to travel credit card? How did you select it?
Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided by any bank, credit card issuer, airline, or hotel chain, and has not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are the author's alone, not those of the bank, credit card issuer, airline, or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.