The Best Credit Cards for Any Kind of Traveler
It seems like every day more credit-card offers pile up in our mailboxes and inboxes. All these benefits and bonus points may feel too good to be true, but as airlines keep adjusting their loyalty programs and finding new ways to skimp on travelers’ miles, the right travel-rewards card can help pick up the slack – and even deliver perks you’d never earn through miles flown alone.
Travel Credit Card Basics
Among the standard benefits to look for in a credit card (like decent interest rates, late fees, annual fees, etc.), there are a few basics that can make a travel-centric card right for you. For example, when opening a new account, go with a card that will grant you hefty bonus points – just look closely at the spending threshold to secure those points.
Another bonus, if you don’t already have Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, is a card that will credit you for the cost of enrolling in one of those secure-traveler programs. (If you take more than three international flights per year, go with Global Entry.)
There also can be key differences in benefits between an airline-branded credit card vs. a bank-issued card, like airport-lounge access, free checked baggage, and priority boarding. Plus, some cards may offer free airline companion tickets, though often that comes after the card’s renewal and annual-fee payment.
Even the most seasoned globetrotters and points earners get confused by all the deals and details floating around. Here’s a rundown of a few of the best cards for different sorts of travelers.
If you book plane tickets at least five times a year, versatile rewards may be the way to go. The Chase Sapphire Reserve is a favorite, because it earns three times the points (points = dollars spent) on travel and dining worldwide. Granted, the card comes with a $450 annual fee, but you’ll automatically receive $300 in credits toward any travel purchases, which is a low figure for frequent travelers. This card also comes with free access to Priority Pass Select lounges in more than 1,000 airports around the world. Here’s the full deal:
- $450 annual fee
- 50,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening
- $300 annual travel credit
- $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck
- 3X the points on dining and travel worldwide (for non-travel purchases, earn 1 point for every dollar spent)
- Complimentary access to 1,000+ airport lounges
- No foreign transaction fees
- Enhanced travel protection benefits
- Booking travel through Chase Rewards and affiliate sites bring greater redemption rewards
- 1 Reserve Card point transfers as 1 point to select airline and hotel loyalty programs
Let’s say visit your family regularly, and there’s only one airline with a direct route between your home city and theirs. Consider getting a credit card devoted to that airline, so every dollar charged becomes a mile banked for a future flight. Many cards even come with a multiplier to earn extra points (or miles) for every dollar spent on their airline’s tickets, upgrades, and in-flight purchases.
Because of Delta Airlines’ extensive network of direct routes, it’s a favorite for many U.S. travelers who can rack up SkyMiles through spending, then buy flights with those miles. (Plus redemption is easy thanks to Delta’s excellent website and smartphone app.) The Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card by American Express is a smart way to go, and will survive some of the lost benefits that 2020 will introduce to the Gold Delta card – which involves changes to how “Medallion Qualification” miles and dollars (MQMs and MQDs) are earned. The Platinum card’s annual fee is rising to $250, but the sign-up bonus softens the blow, and upon renewal you’ll get a free companion ticket; and this card can lead you to elite “status” perks sooner. Here are other benefits:
- $250 annual fee
- 75,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening
- $100 statement credit and 5,000 MQMs after you make a Delta purchase with your new Card within the first three months
- Earn two miles per dollar on Delta purchases; earn one mile per eligible dollar spent on non-Delta purchases
- Domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate upon renewal of your Card
- First checked bag free on Delta flights
- Main Cabin 1 priority boarding on Delta flights
- 20 percent in-flight savings
- No foreign transaction fees
- $39 per-person Delta Sky Club access for you and up to 2 guests when traveling on a Delta flight
Maybe you love travel but can only sneak away a few precious times each year. A flexible card like Venture Rewards from Capital One could be right for you, since you’ll get a big welcome bonus, earn two times the miles on every purchase, and as long as you keep the card, your miles never expire. Better still, Venture card purchases come with added benefits like travel-accident insurance, car-rental coverage, 24-hour travel assistance, and extended warranties on some products. You can redeem your earned miles for travel rewards booked through Capital One’s website, or for cash back or statement credits. Here are the perks to expect:
- $0 intro annual fee for the first year; then $95/year
- One-time welcome bonus of 50,000 miles once you spend $3,000 on purchases within three months from account opening (equal to $500 in travel)
- Earn 2X the miles on every purchase
- No foreign transaction fees
- Receive up to $100 application fee credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck
- Fly any airline, stay at any hotel, anytime; no blackout dates. Plus you can transfer your miles to more than a dozen leading travel loyalty programs.
- Miles won't expire for the life of the account and there's no limit to how many you can earn
If shorter getaways are just the ticket for your travel style, there are good options to save money with the right credit card. Train trips are perfect for mini-breaks from many big U.S. cities, so you may consider two Amtrak Guest Rewards Mastercards (one with no annual fee, one with a $79/year fee) that will earn you bonus points, rebates, upgrades, free companion coupons, and “tier status” for even more perks.
If you prefer road trips, consider the no-fee Bank of America Cash Rewards credit card, which can rack up points for gas buying. The card lets you choose a category to earn three percent cash back—including gas at any station, or travel, dining, etc. Plus you’ll earn two percent at grocery and wholesale stores, and one percent on all other purchases. (You can redeem your cash rewards with statement credits or BOA account deposits.) The card also comes with a cash-reward welcome bonus, and zero interest for the first 15 months on purchases or balance transfers (just beware the three percent fee for that transfer).
No matter your travel style, paying with plastic can serve up cash back, free flights, comped hotel rooms, upgrades, and all sorts of other perks. Just remember to read the fine print, and once your card has arrived, adhere to the rules to maximize rewards on every dollar spent.
The Best U.S. Airports for Long Layovers
Delay-inducing factors hit hard during the holidays. More travelers means slow-going through lines and security checkpoints, and icy winter weather can pile on wait times and cancellations. All that adds up to unplanned hours in unfamiliar airports. If you’re going to encounter a long layover this travel season, where are the best places to get stuck? We looked at airport amenities from coast to coast to find the best U.S. airports for layovers. Austin-Bergstrom International Austin counts some 2,000 bands and performers who make their homes in this musical city. Each week, 27 acts play the Austin airport – it may not be a glamorous gig for the musicians, but it’s certainly a boon to passengers. You can see free live music several times a week at Saxon Pub, Annie’s Café and Bar, Tacodeli, Haymaker, and Hut’s while waiting for your flight. Chicago O’Hare Chicago O’Hare has more than three times the delays as Midway, across town. So this airport’s amenities really come in handy. ORD is well known for an extensive public art collection, which offers visual appeal for airport wanderers. Head to Terminal 1, Concourse B to see a model of a Brachiosaurus skeleton, and don’t miss ‘The Sky’s the Limit,’ a 745-foot-long kinetic light sculpture, in Terminal 1 between Concourses B and C. When traveling, it can be difficult to know whether to leave the airport or get comfortable for a long wait. With the first aeroponic garden at any airport in the world, passengers can at least feel like they’re outside. Head to the mezzanine level of the O’Hare Rotunda Building to see the greenery, get a little fresh air, and enjoy a meal. O’Hare’s restaurants use some of the vegetables and herbs grown in the garden, so your meal may even count as farm-to-table dining. Dallas Fort/Worth International Airport Dallas has all the standard amenities of larger airports – a yoga studio and showers, for example – but you don’t have to head to the in-airport-hotel to catch a rest. Travelers can rent sleeping suites by the hour. Budget-minded travelers can head to free relaxation zones to enjoy ambient lighting, lounge seating, and charging stations. But passengers can also get a gaming-induced adrenaline high at two Gameway entertainment lounges. Each lounge has 36 gaming stations complete with a leather chair, an Xbox One loaded with games, a 43-inch TV, and noise cancelling headphones. Denver International Airport This Rocky Mountain city makes sure passengers love the winter, even when it’s causing them travel delays. The airport installs a free ice-skating rink between the terminal and the Westin hotel each winter; the ice rink is up from roughly the end of November though late January. In other seasons, this plaza has hosted a pop-up park filled with trees native to Colorado, and a beer garden. The Denver airport also has a unique twist to its therapy dog squad: It includes a hundred dogs and one cat, all of which are led around the terminal to ease travelers’ tension. Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport In this snowy part of the country, weather delays are inevitable. The Detroit airport has free WiFi, 24-hour restaurants, and a reflection room to ease frazzled passengers’ stress. It’s also a good place to take a stroll: A 700-foot tunnel connects Concourse B/C with Concourse A and the McNamara Terminal. It’s home to an LED light display that feels like you’re living in a kaleidoscope. San Francisco International Airport San Francisco’s airport has so many traveler amenities, it almost feels like a hotel: free WiFi, luggage storage, (paid) showers, plenty of charging stations, a yoga studio with loaner mats, and a 24-hour children’s play area. To entertain the kiddos, there’s an aviation museum within the airport, and a self-guided educational tour. The friendly canine “Wag Brigade” roams the airport bringing cheer to passengers, but LiLou, the therapy pig, seriously ups the adorable ante. Minneapolis St. Paul Airport At MSP airport travelers can get in their steps with a 1.5-mile walking path around the airport’s perimeter. If travelers want to get out of the airport for a while, Minneapolis’s Mall of America is just a three-stop ride on light-rail transit from the airport. Hundreds of stores, a movie theater, and the Nickelodeon Theme Park are all just 12 minutes away. Pittsburgh International Airport This airport overflows with artwork from local, regional, national, and international artists. Changing exhibitions keep the visuals fresh, so travelers might see new works each time they fly out or return home. Pittsburgh also joined San Diego and Tampa International Airports by hosting a National Endowment for the Arts–funded artist in residence program. If travelers want to get in on the action, they can head to Paint Monkey, a do-it-yourself paint studio, where they can paint a canvas bag to tuck inside their carry on before their flight.
10 Best U.S. Airports for Local Food
Local food isn’t just a culinary trend in hipster hubs. It’s catching on in airports, too. That’s good news for travelers. You can forgo that chain fast food order for tastes of a city’s best restaurants, specialty dishes, and local food during a layover. Here are some of the best places to have a unique dining experience before catching your connection. Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport Some of the Valley of the Sun’s favorite restaurants have landed at Phoenix Sky Harbor. Top brunch joint Matt’s Big Breakfast (try the waffles with sweet cream butter) has a legendary status in town, as does Iron Chef winner Mark Tarbell, the founder of airport restaurant The Tavern. To appease a sweet tooth, head to Tammie Coe Cakes, for cupcakes or big cookies, or Sweet Republic, for handcrafted ice cream in flavors such as salted butter caramel swirl. If you only have time for a quick craft beer, SanTan Brewing Company and Four Peaks Brewery have local suds on tap. Austin-Bergstrom International Austin is a downhome food town, and its airport is no different. Tap into the town’s food truck vibe with a burger from Hut’s Hamburgers or a bahn-mi taco from The Peached Tortilla. Salt Lick Barbecue is a Hill Country-import with barbecue-sauce slathered smoked meats, sandwiches, and baked potatoes. Plus, you can grab some packaged brisket to take home with you. Austin institution Amy’s Ice Creams also scoops artisan ice cream in flavors like Mexican vanilla. Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport Travelers can follow a Texas barbecue trail without even leaving the airport. Hop from Fort Worth classic Cousin’s BBQ or Cousin’s Back Porch, to Dickey’s Barbecue Pit (the chain is based in Dallas), and The Salt Lick. Then diners can balance all that Tex with a fair share of Mex at restaurants such as Pappasito’s Cantina. Los Angeles International Airport This airport is a Hollywood gateway, so it’s no surprise the airport’s home to a few star chefs’ restaurants. For example, Top Chef winner Michael Voltaggio is the mastermind behind ink.sack, a gourmet sandwich shop. At Homeboy Bakery, diners eat local and give back to Los Angeles. The bakery is a social enterprise of Homeboy Industries, which serves formerly gang-involved men and women, and, at the bakery, trains them with job skills. Travelers can also get a local-food fix at the Original Farmers Market. After 80 years, the LA institution opened an airport locale to serve meals, snacks, and sweets straight from the market’s restaurants and stalls. John F. Kennedy International Airport Manhattan is a playground for internationally known chefs – and many have opened airport restaurants. New York City local Andrew Carmellini opened sandwich-centric Croque Madame. Top Chef Masters’ champion and James Beard Foundation award-winning chef Marcus Samuelsson founded Uptown Brasserie, serving international cuisine in a brasserie environment. Shake Shack may be a national chain now, but it started in New York City, so travelers can get their burger hit and feel like they’re eating local all in one bite. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta is the busiest international airport in the world, so travelers are likely to make their way through here at some point – or often. In Atlanta, eating at Chick-fil-A counts as eating local – the chain was founded in there – but there’s much more than chicken sandwiches and waffle fries. The first upscale restaurant at the airport, One Flew South serves global fare, while Paschal’s, a more than sixty-year-old spot, doubles down on soul food. Nashville International Airport Tourists can get in on the late-night-recording-session vibe with Nashville-born 8th & Roast Coffee Co. Burritos may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Tennessee, but Blue Coast Burrito has spread its tortilla wings across the state and has an airport setup. Music City isn’t short on beer, either. Grab a craft draft at Yazoo Brewery kiosk, Tennessee Brew Works, and Fat Bottom Brewing. Swett’s serves a classic Southern lunch—don’t miss the pecan pie. Denver International Airport Denver’s all about brews and big-time meats. Head to Denver ChopHouse & Brewery for craft beer from Denver-based Rock Bottom Brewery Co. and a menu that includes filet mignon and bison burgers. Elway’s, owned by local icon and former Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway, also serves hand-cut steaks. For lighter fare, head to Mile High City favorite Root Down, which specializes in healthy, gluten-free, and vegetarian dishes. Portland International Airport All hail the hipster gods, who have brought droves of local food to Portlandia’s airport. Travelers can get their caffeine fixes at local institution Stumptown Coffee Roasters. Eating a donut is practically required in Portland, and passengers can find versions from Portland’s second most famous shop, Blue Star Donuts at PDX. Laurelwood Public House & Brewery serves handcrafted beers and solid pub grub, like fish and chips. Food Carts PDX keeps things lively with a rotating lineup of local food trucks, which serve breakfast and lunch. Previous carts have served Cuban food, waffles, and Asian-fusion fare. San Francisco International Airport San Franciscans were going green and serving local before it was popular, and its airport restaurants reflect that tradition. Burger Joint has been plating humanely and sustainably raised meats on family farms and ranches since 1994, and it continues to do now inside the airport. The Plant Café also serves local, organic food, and sustainable seafood. On the run? Duck into Napa Farms Market, a marketplace that reflects northern California’s agricultural bounty with grab-and-go sandwiches and baked goods.
Bargain trips between Thanksgiving and Christmas 2019
Can you keep a secret? The weeks between the busy Thanksgiving and Christmas/New Year’s holidays can hold bargains for travelers who are willing and able to sneak away for an early-December “mini shoulder season.” Everybody knows Thanksgiving week is one of the busiest periods of the year, with more than 50 million Americans on the move and airfares and hotel rates typically rising. Likewise, as you get closer to Christmas Eve, the more you can expect to pay for airline seats and hotel beds. But what is not commonly understood is the sweet spot in between those holidays (roughly from late November through Dec. 20 or so) brings opportunities for savings as theme parks, hotel chains, and airlines see a big drop in demand and seek to entice travelers with good deals. Here are some of the most alluring places to consider. Disney Devotees of Walt Disney World, in Orlando, FL, who have made multiple park visits consistently report early December is one of the most magical times to enjoy iconic attractions like Space Mountain, Fantasyland, and the new Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge. Holiday decorations and events abound, including Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, Minnie’s Wonderful Christmastime Fireworks Show, and Epcot’s International Festival of the Holidays and Candlelight Procession. And select Disney Resort hotels such as Animal Kingdom Lodge, BoardWalk Inn, and the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa offer up to 20 percent savings on bookings right up to December 24, when the crowds return and room rates rise. (Learn more at disneyworld.disney.go.com). If you’re considering a trip to Disneyland, in Anaheim, CA, for its holiday festivities, aim for the weeks of December 9th and 16th for lower rates at popular on-site hotels such as the Grand Californian Hotel & Spa and the Disneyland Hotel. (Learn more at disneyland.disney.go.com) Universal Studios Travelers can enjoy immersive lands devoted to the Simpsons, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, and more, plus get a head start on holiday celebrations minus the hordes by booking a stay at Universal Orlando Resort in early-to-mid-December. You’ll enjoy the Christmas decorations and events at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal’s legendary Holiday Parade, and a live retelling of Dr. Seuss’s The Grinch in the ‘Grinchmas Who-liday Spectacular.’ Hotel bargains are available for stays until December 19, including rates starting at $120/night for a four-night stay at Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort, including early park-entry privileges each morning. (Learn more at universalorlando.com) A visit to Universal Studios Hollywood, in Universal City, CA, in early-to-mid-December offers similar attractions and holiday-themed events and reduced crowds, with nearby partner hotels offering reasonable packages that include room and park entrance starting around $190 per person; prices start to tick upward as you get closer to the weekend of December 20. (Learn more at universalstudioshollywood.com) Warm Beach Getaways Sure, most travelers dream of escaping the cold weather in January and February. But the “mini shoulder season” between Thanksgiving and Christmas is an ideal time to plant yourself on a warm white-sand beach at major savings. From the South Pacific to the Caribbean, warm-weather beach communities regard early-to-mid-December as a time to lure bargain-seekers. Hawaii hotels and resorts are known for offering nice post-Thanksgiving deals such as complimentary nights added to your stay; the Big Island, home to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, consistently offers the best hotel rates among the Hawaiian islands. South Florida and the Caribbean have said “buh-bye” to hurricane season and offer buy-one-get-one-free stays (which can often be even more generous than that – research deals online, then follow up with a direct call to the property and ask, politely, if they can offer you even more). European River Cruises Now is the time to research and book a 2020 December river cruise through some of Europe’s legendary Christmas celebrations and public markets. Follow cruise lines such as Viking River Cruises and Avalon Waterways on social media and sign up for alerts so you can jump on good deals, which are typically offered up to a year in advance (when cruise lines are especially eager to fill staterooms for the coming year). For the best possible taste of Europe’s Christmas markets, with their handmade crafts, elaborately decorated baked goods, and endless old-world charm, choose a cruise that will visit Central European cities like Vienna and Budapest. Note: While it’s theoretically possible to grab a last-minute deal on a 2019 Christmas markets river cruise, it is unlikely at this late date. (Learn more at vikingrivercruises.com and avalongwaterways.com) Québec City, Canada Can’t afford a trip to Paris? Opt instead to stroll the charming winding streets of Québec City, along the St. Lawrence River, where you can practice your French language skills, try an array of authentic local cuisine (including the ultimate “gravy fries,” poutine), and sip great wine. While Québec draws visitors from all over the world as the New Year arrives with its winter festival and ice sculptures (and the ice hotel, opening January 2), early December is a great time to get a taste of all the city offers before the crowds arrive. (Learn more at quebec-cite.com)
Everything You Need to Know to See The Northern Lights This Year
Winter is coming, and it’s bringing with it the magnificent aurora borealis. More commonly known as the northern lights, the cosmic phenomenon is among nature’s most mesmerizing light shows. The visuals are mysterious and bewildering, and sometimes planning a trip to see them can feel the same way. But trekking to the far north in winter doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive if you know what to expect and plan accordingly. Here are a few of the key elements to remember when building an Arctic adventure of your own. 1. When to go Winter is prime northern lights season because the sky is at its darkest and days stay darker longer, especially near and in the Arctic Circle. Generally, the aurora borealis (which translates from Latin as “northern dawn”) is visible September through April, with the strongest lights glowing from November through February. Of course, no one can predict the weather, and cloudy skies are a big reason spectators may miss the lights. The other big variable involves the sun, where the lights originate. The simple scientific backstory goes like this: the sun releases electrically charged particles that are carried across the galaxy via solar winds. When those particles reach earth’s atmosphere (really, its magnetosphere), they collide with oxygen, nitrogen, and other gases to form lights that appear to our eyes as gray, green, purple, red, and other colors. They’re strongest around the North and South poles, though some say that the northern lights have been seen as far south as Florida. So the vital part of any aurora viewing vacation is to plan ample time in a destination to account for cloudy nights and times when the sun is less flared up. Most agree to a minimum of five days, but eight might be wiser. 2. Where to go A trip north in winter can be surprisingly affordable thanks to lower hotel demand and cheaper airfares. Just aim for a smaller town or park with minimal light pollution. In North America, start your search in cities with nearby airports, tour operators, and lodging options. Along the Arctic Circle, consider Fairbanks, Alaska; Whitehorse in the Canadian Yukon; and Churchill in northern Manitoba (where Hudson Bay can yield some great watery reflections). Dark-sky delights also await in Banff and Jasper National Parks in Alberta; Torngat Mountains National Park in Newfoundland; and Nunavik Parks in Quebec’s Arctic region. If you’re game to travel farther, consider the lovely small city of Tromso in Arctic Norway, which is more affordable thanks to Norwegian Air’s budget-friendly airfares, and a weaker Norwegian kroner exchange rate. The island nation of Iceland is another wallet-wise destination thanks to Icelandair deals. Plus both Norway and Iceland have infrastructure for winter tourism that makes it easier to find the right hotel and tour company. Tip: Buy your ticket around two or three months out to lock in the best airfares. 3. Where to stay Lodging in remote locales is easier than you may think, especially if you’re fine with a no-frills hotel that offers comfy beds and powerful heaters. Just aim to book six to eight weeks out (or longer) for the best rates, and remember that hostels may yield irresistible bargains. If you’re seeking more memorable accommodations, check into an igloo or panoramic dome with sky views, like the ones offered by Fairbanks’s Borealis Basecamp. Or try the glass-fronted chalets at Whitehorse’s Northern Lights Resort & Spa. 4. What to pack Upon planning a subzero January trip to the Arctic, I once asked a Norwegian for packing advice. His reply: “Bring a sweater.” I second that wisdom – especially for a hearty wool sweater – and also recommend investing in some serious thermal baselayers that you can wear every single day of your trip. (Tip: Uniqlo makes great lightweight, affordable long underwear.) Other winter travel essentials include: wool or thermal socks, heavy gloves or mittens, insulated hats (that won’t blow off in the wind), a thick scarf or buff, and waterproof boots for high snow and powerful winds. Goggles or sports glasses are smart too, to help protect your eyes from blustery snow and wind. And it goes without saying that a waterproof, heavily insulated coat is mandatory if you want to be outdoors longer than 15 minutes. Winter in the Arctic is no joke, so plan for the most intensely cold temperatures of your life. 5. Photography forethought For many, capturing the northern lights on camera is a core part of the experience – and the ultimate souvenir. The best photos require a DSLR or smaller camera with manual settings, because to capture the aurora you’ll need a wide-open aperture and super-slow shutter speed (my best shots took about 30 seconds each to snap). Manual focus, adjustable ISO and f-stop, a shutter timer, and high-resolution image settings also are key. Plus you’ll need a sturdy tripod. But more than anything, always dress as warmly as possible for outdoor aurora photography, because you can spend hours pursuing the perfect shot, and it only takes a few minutes below zero to start losing finger sensation. Tip: Set your camera up in advance with recommended northern lights–shooting settings, so you don’t have to fumble around with them on the spot (where it’s usually pitch dark and freezing). 6. Rely on local experts The most successful northern lights adventures come with the help of expert local guides. So building on tip No. 2, consider destinations where seasoned tour operators know how best to predict the locations and timing for awesome light shows. On the bright side, since most of the best aurora views are from small cities, you won’t have to comb through tons of listings to find good local guides. Upon booking, look for companies that offer multi-night tours (in case no lights are seen on the first night or two), and ones that will drive safari-style to more than one location, since cloud cover could limit views in different spots. You might also double check that the tour will travel to areas far from urban light pollution, like parks and remote hilltops. Some may even offer basecamp-style huts or lodges with skylights, so you can stay warm indoors, perhaps with a mulled wine or cocoa, while gazing skyward.