You might be wary to admit just how much you spend on travel, but hey, it’s true that experiences last longer than tangible items you purchase on a buy-one-get-one-free sale online. Even so, if you’re buying more than just one or two plane tickets and hotels every year, it’s essential that you’re making sure your money works double-time for you. Step away from that debit card or the credit card that your parents recommended when you graduated from college and apply for one of the best travel credit cards that helps you earn miles, rewards and other experiences.
“if you’re spending a lot on travel already, you may be able to earn free travel or discounts with rewards from a credit card,” John Ganotis, the founder of CreditCardInsider.com explains. “Many travel cards come with additional benefits, like insurance on rental cars and even airport lounge access. Extra benefits from cards can save you money and make travel less of an inconvenience.”
If you’ve never done a thorough Google stalk of various credit card offerings from major brands, you might be intimidated when you’re first figuring out what to apply for. Luckily, the top credit card experts have some starter tips that’ll help you pick the right one, based on your travel preferences and frequency:
What are the features of the best travel credit cards?
Before you determine your ideal match, it’s essential to know what you’re getting yourself into. Though every card is different and will bring their own set of rewards and programs, the sky is mile-high on what you can get out of your travel experience with the right plastic.
“Travel credit card rewards and benefits can make a big difference on a trip. If you earn enough points with a card, you may be able to take first class on a long flight where you would have normally bought a coach ticket. Or, If your connection gets delayed, airport lounge access provided by a credit card could make the experience a lot better,” Ganotis explains.
“Some cards even come with a credit for Global Entry and TSA PreCheck, which let you get through security and customs faster, and could save you a lot of time and hassle when you fly. And, if you get into an accident with a rental car, the damage could be covered by your credit card issuer just because you used your credit card to rent the car.Some cards even provide trip cancellation insurance, or you may be able to get reimbursed for a hotel or other expenses when a flight gets delayed or cancelled.”
How do you figure which travel credit card you need?
In a nutshell, there are two types of cards to consider: cards recommended by larger financial institutions (like Chase, Bank of America) to be used for travel or airline travel cards (like Delta or Jetblue). Both of these different options provide varying benefits. Deciding between them (or going for both) should be dependent on your lifestyle. How do you choose? Kerri Moriarty, who is part of the founding team at Cinch Financial, gives the rundown on the types:
Airline Credit Cards
We’ve all been there: you’re waiting to board your flight and you wonder about those lucky few who get to get to their seat faster, merely because they are credit card holders for the airline. Many business travelers will choose an airline credit card because they usually do the same route on the same airline many times a month. Those companies who ‘fly the friendly skies’ want to be kind to those frequent customers and give them perks, which is where airline credit cards come in. As Moriarty says, “Most airlines offer a rewards credit card as part of their loyalty program which can benefit you not only in the form of rewards earned on flight purchases that you can then redeem for future flights on that airline, but also in convenience benefits – like priority boarding or eliminating checked baggage fees. If you’re consistently spending with the same airline and travel is a priority for you – it’s worth looking into your favorite airlines credit card if you haven’t already.”
Travel Specific Credit Cards
If you aren’t jet setting between one part of the country to the other, taking meetings and hosting clients, you might not need an airline-specific credit card. Why? You probably book whatever flight is the cheapest (understandably!), and you want to earn points based on travel-related purchases, instead of always staying committed to Delta, Jetblue or another company.
“These cards will let you earn rewards on every purchase that can be redeemed for travel, and since you’re not always using the same airline they will be more valuable to you than trying to game the rewards on several airline credit cards – not to mention trying to manage them all in your wallet,” she explains.
If you’re ready to give it a shot – and see how much one of the best travel credit cards can impact your financial picture – experts say to do your due-diligence into these specific cards:
With anything that’s tied to your bank account (and thus, your credit score), you want to make sure you read the fine print. This beloved travel credit card is a win for many world travelers, but make sure you’re prepared to pay a $95 annual fee (ahem, that’s waived for your first year, though) and to look into the sign-up bonus, as it’s always changing. (AKA, wait for the best deal!)
“This travel card earns 2x points for dining and travel expenses, making it easy to rack up rewards if you spend often in those categories. It also comes with some good basic travel benefits, but no premium benefits like airport lounge access. Many people also like this card because it’s made of metal,” Ganotis says.
Often a favorite airline for many travelers, if you go along the routes offered by JetBlue, their airline card might be worth your investment. “The JetBlue card earns 3x points on JetBlue purchases and 2x points at restaurants and grocery stores and 1x points on everything else with no annual fee,” Moriarty says. “You also get 50% off in-flight purchases, so basically a 2-for-1 on your in-flight, pre-vacation cocktail!”
Ever raise an eyebrow when a waiter or a metrocard machine asks for a pin for your credit card in Paris (or London or Barcelona)? Many European shops use the Chip-and-PIN technology that hasn’t made it’s way to the states yet, so you might not always be able to use your card everywhere abroad. However, if you want to ensure you can use your card wherever your passport takes you, Ganotis suggests applying for this card. It does have an $89 annual fee – that’s waived for your first year – and you earn 2 points on all purchases (not just specific ones at restaurants and such).
Don’t want to pay quite as much in your annual fee, but don’t mind forking over a little? This card isn’t expensive – at $59 per year – but does offer many lusted-after rewards, especially in terms of airline tickets. “You earn 2x miles per dollar on every purchase. 100 miles is equal to $1 in rewards,” Moriarty explains. The card also usually has an attractive sign-up bonus, so do your dirty work to find the right time to apply. It’s easy to see why this card is one of the best travel credit cards.
While this one might not earn quite as many rewards, if you’re a budget traveler and can’t shell out the extra dough for an annual fee, Ganotis says to set your sights on this piece of all-important plastic. “It earns 1.5 points for every dollar spent, and has a signup bonus unlike many other travel cards with no annual fee,” he explains. “If you already have an account with Bank of America or Merrill Lynch you can earn bonuses when redeeming your points.”
On the other end of the spectrum and you are able to offer up a high annual fee cost, Ganotis says this is truly an exceptional card and easily one of the best travel credit cards. Though it does come with a $450 yearly cost, it has many premium benefits. “Every year you get a $300 in credits for travel purchases like airfare and hotels charged to your card. It includes great airport lounge access, and a credit the Global Entry & TSA PreCheck application fee,” he explains. “If you earn the signup bonus and book through Chase’s travel portal, the points from the signup bonus alone can be worth $750.”
Lindsay is an experienced, established wellness, lifestyle, travel and love writer, editor and content strategist in New York City. Her work has appeared on SELF, Prevention, AskMen, Refinery29 and dozens of other sites. When she's not writing, she's busy traveling when the mood strikes and always searching for the best steak and glass of red wine.