How to Find the Best Travel Credit Card for You

Sep 13, 2019

According to a recent poll by CreditCards.com, only 15% of Americans put the cost of their vacations on credit cards, while most opt to use savings instead. And bravo for fiscal sobriety. But if you're responsible with credit and haven't been funding your adventures with plastic, you may be missing out: The best travel credit cards allow you to earn serious rewards and save money.

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Mind you, there's no one-card-fits-all option here: The right one for you depends on your priorities. So, given the hundreds of travel reward cards out there—whether airline, hotel, cruise or general travel—take the following four factors into account before you make a decision. 

Sign-up bonuses

Travel cards typically award bonus miles or points if you spend a certain amount within a few months of opening the card. So if you know you've got to spend that amount on something anyway, scoring the maximum sign-up bonus may be a big consideration for you—especially if you've got a trip on the horizon that could largely be covered by the resulting miles or points.   

Recommendation: The Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card gives you a whopping 50,000 bonus miles (a $500 value) for spending $3,000 in the first 3 months after account opening. The card has a $0 annual fee for the first year, and is $95 a year after that.

Foreign transaction fees

If you’re traveling out of the country, card issuers may charge a fee—usually around 3%— when you buy something in a foreign currency. And however minimal that figure might seem, it can add up. Fast. So you'll want to carry at least one credit card that comes with no foreign transaction fees. Another consideration for international travelers: Is your card's technology widely supported throughout the world? (Most U.S. cards are Chip-and-Signature, which aren't as widely accepted outside the country as Chip-and-PIN cards.)

Recommendation: The Citi Prestige Card is a Chip-and-PIN card that will be widely accepted in foreign countries. This card gives you a sign up bonus of 50,000 Citi ThankYou Reward points (a $500-$1000 value) for spending $4,000 in the first 3 months after account opening. The card provides extra points for air travel, restaurants, hotels, and cruise lines.

Annual Fees

Many travel cards come with annual fees that can range from $50 to more than $500—though some charge you $0 per year. The catch? You generally earn more points and have more benefits with cards that have an annual fee. So if you choose one of those, you'll want to be pretty sure you're going to use it often enough to get a reasonable payback. Sometimes the annual fee simply outweighs the rewards and benefits.

Recommendation: The Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card has no annual fee, and gives you 20,000 bonus miles (a $200-$400 value) for spending $1,000 in the first 3 months after account opening.

Benefits

Many travel credit cards come with travel-related benefits (think rental car collision insurance, automatic trip cancellation insurance, airport lounge access, priority boarding, and free checked bags and room upgrades). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the higher the card's annual fees, the better the benefits are likely to be. Still, if you're someone who, say, packs multiple wardrobe options for any occasion, loves an airport lounge, needs to board before all the overhead space is gone and/or wants the best possible views from a hotel window, the benefits could easily outweigh the fee. 

Recommendation: The Chase Sapphire Reserve Card offers many benefits, including a $300 yearly travel credit, TSA PreCheck or Global Entry application fee credit and special privileges on rental cars. You’ll also get access to more than 1,000 airport lounges worldwide, as well as a Private Dining Series at participating restaurants. Still, this card has a $450 annual fee, so make sure you're going to top that in rewards and benefits. As for the sign-up bonus, in case it moves the needle in either direction for you: 50,000 bonus points for spending $4,000 in the first 3 months of account opening. Just know that the points are worth $750 if they're redeemed towards travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal. You can also transfer them at a 1:1 value with a variety of airlines and hotels, but the value will naturally fluctuate.

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