The “exclusive, one-time” offers keep rolling in, but which credit cards are really right for your travel style?
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.