How to find the best travel credit cards

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Travel credit cards can save you money on your next vacation, but make sure their benefits outweigh any fees. (iStock)

If you’re a frequent traveler, you may be considering a travel credit card to get rewarded for all your flights and hotel stays. Travel credit cards let you earn points for every dollar you spend, and you can use them to pay for flights, hotels, rental cars and other travel-related expenses. 

Keep reading to learn how travel credit cards work, and how to find the best travel card for you. 

What’s a travel credit card and how does it work?

Travel credit cards are designed for frequent travelers who want to save money on future trips. Every credit card company designs its program a bit differently, but in general, you earn points for every dollar spent on your credit card. Spending on eligible purchases such as airline tickets, hotels and other travel expenses typically earns you extra points. 

When you’re ready to redeem all those points, you may be able to apply them directly toward an airline ticket or hotel stay, transfer the points to a partner hotel or airline rewards program, or get a statement credit to cover travel expenses you’ve already made on your card. Your travel and spending can effectively build up to a free trip. 

Credible lets you compare credit cards to find one that’s right for you.

Types of travel credit cards

You’ll find several different kinds of travel rewards credit cards, and the best credit card for you will depend on your travel habits. 

  • Airline credit cards — Airline cards are co-branded by an airline and a credit card issuer. Money you spend can earn you points or miles to be redeemed for free flights on that airline, and you may also get travel perks like priority boarding, booking travel with no blackout dates, waived baggage fees or access to airport lounges. If you typically fly with a single airline, these can be a good option.
  • Hotel credit cards — These cards are co-branded by a hotel chain and credit card company. Points add up to free stays, and perks can include late check-outs, free breakfast or room upgrades. If you’re brand-loyal to a particular hotel, these might work for you.
  • General travel cards — These cards are issued by a bank or credit card company and aren’t tied to any particular airline or hotel. You’ll earn points that you can redeem for travel expenses with any airline, hotel or other travel provider. You may also get travel perks like Global Entry or TSA PreCheck. If you find yourself using different airlines and hotels, you might choose a general travel card.

How to find the best travel credit cards

As you hunt for the best travel credit card for you, pay attention to these factors.

  • Annual fee — Some travel credit cards don’t charge an annual fee, but some may have a fee of $95 to as much as $550. Cards with annual fees typically have better perks and may earn you rewards faster, but you’ll want to be sure you’ll be able to take advantage of them to make the fee worth it. If you’re an infrequent traveler, consider a travel card with no annual fee.
  • Sign-up bonus — A travel rewards card will often get you started faster with a certain number of points or credits that you’ll earn if you meet a minimum spending threshold in the first few months of account opening. A more generous sign-up bonus may help you pay for that upcoming trip.
  • Reward rates — Different cards offer different rewards programs or ways to earn bonus points for travel expenses, like double points or triple points. A card’s rewards might also include points for non-travel-related bonus categories, like dining purchases or grocery store purchases. You’ll want to evaluate your spending habits and pick a program that fits you best.
  • Elite status — Airline or hotel cards in particular may offer cardholders entry into elite programs that offer perks like seat upgrades or lounge access.
  • Travel protections — Cards may offer benefits like trip cancellation or interruption insurance, or even rental car insurance.
  • Foreign transaction fees — Many travel credit cards don’t charge fees for transactions in other countries. If you travel overseas, make sure the card you choose has this benefit.
  • Other perks and benefits — Travel credit cards come with a long list of other perks and premium rewards that vary by card, so see if any pique your interest.

5 travel credit cards to consider

While eligibility requirements vary, here are five Credible partner travel credit cards you may consider. None of these cards charge foreign transaction fees, and they all offer bonuses on travel-related purchases. Some have no annual fee, and several will give you statement credits to cover some of your hotel stays or airline fees.

American Express® Gold Card

You’ll earn bonus points and statement credits for using food delivery services like Grubhub, Seamless and Uber Eats.

  • Welcome bonus: 60,000 points after spending $4,000 in your first six months
  • Annual fee: $250
  • Foreign transaction fee: None
  • Who it might be good for: People who love ordering food delivery

Citi Premier® Card

You’ll earn three times the points on restaurants, grocery stores and supermarkets, gas stations, air travel and hotel stays. The sign-up bonus will net you up to $800 in gift cards, and you get a $100 credit on a hotel stay each year — covering your annual fee.

  • Welcome bonus: 80,000 points after spending $4,000 within the first three months
  • Annual fee: $95
  • Foreign transaction fee: None
  • Who it might be good for: People looking for an everyday credit card that will earn them travel points

Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card

This card offers an easier way to earn the sign-up bonus and doesn’t have an annual fee, getting you Delta perks with fewer costs.

  • Welcome bonus: 10,000 miles after spending $500 in the first three months
  • Annual fee: $0
  • Foreign transaction fee: None
  • Who it might be good for: Delta flyers who want to avoid an annual fee

Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card

With this card, you’ll earn double miles on Delta purchases and receive a $100 credit for a future Delta flight after spending $10,000 — plus you can check a bag for free on all Delta flights.

  • Welcome bonus: 70,000 bonus miles after spending $2,000 within the first three months
  • Annual fee: $99, waived the first year
  • Foreign transaction fee: None
  • Who it might be good for: Frequent Delta travelers

The Platinum Card® from American Express

While it has a hefty annual fee, this card comes with a wealth of potential credits toward your hotel stays, airline fees and even your gym membership. 

  • Welcome bonus: 100,000 points after spending $6,000 in the first six months
  • Annual fee: $695
  • Foreign transaction fee: None
  • Who it might be good for: Big spenders who dine out frequently

Compare credit cards from various issuers in minutes using Credible.

Pros and cons of travel credit cards

Every financial product has its pluses and minuses, and travel credit cards are no different. Here are a few things to consider before applying for a travel credit card. 

Pros of travel credit cards

  • Earn rewards for your purchases. Travel credit cards can come with generous rewards programs, earning you free travel or hotel stays for purchases you already make.
  • Save money on foreign purchases. Most travel cards don’t charge foreign transaction fees, so you’ll save money on overseas travel.
  • You may get VIP treatment. Some travel cards offer elite or VIP status at airlines or hotels, making it more likely you’ll get upgrades, airport lounge access and special treatment.

Cons of travel credit cards

  • You may face fees. Many travel credit cards come with annual fees, though you may be able to make up for the cost through the card’s benefits.
  • Your rewards may be limited to travel expenses. Other credit cards may have cash back programs, but many travel credit cards only offer travel-related rewards. If you don’t travel often, these cards may not be right for you.
  • You may be locked in to one brand. The card you choose may only offer benefits for one particular airline or hotel brand.

Is a travel credit card right for me?

This is a decision only you can make. If you’re a frequent traveler — or if you’d like to be — a travel credit card can cover some of the costs of the airline tickets and hotel stays you already pay for, or help you save money on your next trip. A travel card co-branded with an airline or hotel may also be a good fit if you use that company on a regular basis or belong to any hotel loyalty programs.

But be sure to consider your financial goals and spending habits. If you’re not sure you’ll be traveling in the near future, or if you’d rather have more flexibility in your rewards program, you may consider a more general cash back credit card. Many travel cards also charge annual fees, and it may be better for you to find a card without a fee. Look carefully at the annual fees each card charges, and compare them to the benefits they offer. If you don’t think you’ll be able to take advantage of the perks, don’t apply for the card. 

If a travel credit card is right for you, use Credible to compare travel cards in minutes.

Travel credit card FAQs

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about travel credit cards.

What credit score do I need to get a travel credit card?

Every credit card issuer has its own qualifying criteria, and this can even vary from card to card. In general, though, you’ll need good to excellent credit to qualify for a travel credit card, meaning a score of 690 or higher. 

What’s the difference between points and miles on a travel credit card? 

Travel credit cards may offer rewards based on points or miles. You’ll typically earn a set number of points or miles for every dollar spent on your card, with bonus rates on purchases in certain categories. A travel purchase will likely yield the most points or miles on a travel card. Miles are typically earned with travel credit cards tied to a specific airline. Points are more general, and redemption options may be more broad.

How much is a point or mile worth on a travel credit card?

Each credit card issuer has its own rules for how much each point or mile is worth. Usually, one dollar spent on your card will earn you one point or mile, though many programs include double, triple or higher bonus points for purchases in some categories. When you redeem points or miles, each point or mile is worth around 1 or 2 cents — though every company has different rates.

Is it worth paying an annual fee for a travel credit card?

It could be, depending on the benefits the card offers. Many travel cards offer rewards that can be more valuable than the annual fee, provided you’re eligible for the benefit. For example, a card with a $200 annual fee may offer a hotel credit of $200. That earns your fee back, but only if you actually stay in a hotel and redeem the credit.