Travel rewards credit cards—you get advertisements for them all of the time, and not just from your bank, but from airlines, hotel companies, and cruise lines as well. Used wisely, these credit cards can be highly lucrative and earn you all kinds of rewards, from hotel perks and flight upgrades to free trips for you and your family. But as a business or leisure traveler, how do you choose? This guide reviews the main types of travel reward credit cards and some things to consider when choosing one (or two or three) for your wallet.
Types of travel rewards credit cards
There are two major types of travel rewards credit cards:
1. Branded credit cards from airlines, hotel companies, cruise lines, etc.
These are cards associated with travel companies, like the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Visa and the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express. If you belong to a travel loyalty program, like a hotel rewards program, these cards can give you a lot more bang for your buck as they often entitle you to various perks and some allow you to earn loyalty points at an accelerated rate. The disadvantages of these cards are that your redemption options are usually limited to the travel company and its partners and some companies have blackout dates or other restrictions on points redemptions.
2. Flexible rewards credit cards
These are travel rewards credit cards not associated with any specific travel company, for example, the Capital One VentureOne Visa and the U.S. Bank FlexPerks Travel Rewards Visa. The main advantage of these cards is that you earn points that you can put toward a flight on any airline, a room at any hotel, or sometimes even redeem for cash. Many of these cards also offer additional travel benefits, like rental car insurance and airport lounge access. The disadvantages are that they can have (sometimes very high) annual fees and it often requires a huge number of points to earn even basic rewards.
How to pick a travel rewards credit card
So, what plastic payment method is best for you? Here are six things to consider when choosing a travel rewards credit card.
- Your spending habits. As Tim Winship of FrequentFlier.com puts it: Are you a frequent flier or a frequent buyer? If you fly frequently with a specific airline or stay at a certain hotel chain, then a branded credit card can provide many rewards. However, if most of your credit card spending is not travel related, then a flexible rewards card will likely serve you better.
- Brand partnerships. Many airline-branded credit cards offer perks at hotels and vice versa. For example, the United MileagePlus Visa entitles holders to room upgrades, complimentary breakfast, and other amenities at hundreds of hotels worldwide. Partnerships also take place at the loyalty club level—with the IHG Rewards program, you can choose to earn miles on several airlines, including Delta and United.
- Earning structure. Branded credit cards usually offer more points per dollar you spend on their brand, whereas flexible rewards cards usually reward you based on a fixed percentage of total spending.
- Signup bonuses and other perks. Signup bonuses can be significant. The Marriott Rewards Premier Visa gives you 50,000 bonus points (enough for a free night) if you spend $1000 in the first three months. Similarly, many cards get you free upgrades, baggage fee waivers, rental car insurance, elite status in loyalty programs, and more.
- Flexible redemptions. The best cards allow you to redeem your points for different travel services (i.e., flights, hotels, car rentals, etc.) and don’t impose blackout dates or other restrictions.
- Annual and transaction fees. Flexible rewards cards usually have higher annual fees than branded credit cards. Some cards, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, have no foreign transaction fees, which is essential for overseas travelers.
Of course, you aren’t limited to just one credit card, and if you travel frequently for business, you might do well to have an airline-branded card, a hotel-branded card, and a flexible rewards card. Here are two comparison tools that can help you find the best card or cards to keep in your wallet:
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