How to Choose the Best Travel Credit Card: 3 Easy Steps

Choosing the best credit card for your purposes is as important as how you use it.
woman with credit card and laptop


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What are travel credit cards, and how do they work?

Travel credit cards are financial products that offer various rewards and benefits geared towards frequent travelers. They typically earn you points or miles for every dollar spent on eligible purchases. These rewards can be redeemed for flights, hotel stays, car rentals, and other travel-related expenses. Travel credit cards may also include perks like travel insurance, airport lounge access, and no foreign transaction fees.

How do I choose the best travel credit card for my needs?

Choosing the best travel credit card depends on your travel habits, spending patterns, and preferences. Consider factors like the type of rewards offered (points, miles, or cash back), the card’s annual fee, sign-up bonuses, earning rates, redemption options, and additional travel perks. Analyzing these features will help you find a card that aligns with your lifestyle and offers the most value.

What are the benefits of using a travel credit card over other types of credit cards?

Travel credit cards provide unique advantages for travelers, such as earning rewards specifically tailored to travel expenses. Additionally, many travel credit cards offer travel-related perks like free checked bags, priority boarding, and travel insurance. Some cards also waive foreign transaction fees, making them ideal for international travelers.

What is a sign-up bonus, and how can I qualify for it?

A sign-up bonus is a promotional offer provided by the credit card issuer to entice new cardholders. To qualify for a sign-up bonus, you usually need to meet specific spending requirements within a certain timeframe after opening the account. The bonus can be in the form of points, miles, or cash back, and it’s a great way to jump-start your rewards earning.

Do travel credit cards charge foreign transaction fees?

Not all travel credit cards charge foreign transaction fees. Many of the top-tier travel cards waive these fees, making them ideal for international travel. However, it’s essential to read the card’s terms and conditions to confirm this before using it abroad.

How can I maximize the rewards earned with my travel credit card?

To maximize rewards, use your travel credit card for everyday expenses and large purchases. Take advantage of bonus categories and special promotions to earn more points or miles. Consider combining your travel credit card with loyalty programs to stack rewards and get even more value out of your purchases.

Despite any trepidations you may have, credit cards are amazing. There’s no other way to get as much back from your daily spending as a well-chosen card that matches your lifestyle and habits.

Of course, reaping the benefits requires responsible usage, which starts well before you open your first credit account. Choosing the best credit card for your purposes is as important as how you use it, and there are several factors to consider.

To help you with the process, let’s dive into how to pick the best travel credit card in three easy steps.

1. Check your credit score and set yourself up for success

Before you attempt to open a credit card, it’s critical to understand your financial situation. If you’re already in considerable debt, make it a priority to deal with that before allowing yourself the opportunity to take on more.

Your credit score is the most important figure to know before starting a credit card search. This figure, calculated by different credit analytics companies, is a quantifiable measure of your lending habits and debt. It’s generated using the information banks and credit companies provide, like your credit history, debt levels, late payments, number of accounts, and inquiries. The two principal scores used are FICO and VantageScore, but FICO is used in the majority of all credit card decisions.  

A credit card issuer will decide to approve or deny your application based on your credit score. 

It’s easy to find your score. You can buy access to your scores from one of the three main providers (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion) or use a free online tool. 

Many credit card companies provide credit scores within their portals, but you’ll need one of their cards to access them. Other online tools that don’t require a credit card include Credit Karma, AnnualCreditReport.com, or ClearScore.com.


Here’s a rough breakdown of score strengths

  • 800 to 850: Excellent
  • 740 to 799: Very good
  • 670 to 739: Good
  • 580 to 669: Fair
  • 300 to 579: Poor


Those with credit scores at the higher end will likely have an easier time being approved for additional credit than those in the fair or poor range. It’s important to remember that a good score doesn’t guarantee approval. Credit card providers take many factors into account.

Once you have your score, you can narrow down the cards you are considering applying for.

Navigator Tip

Set your travel goals. Before diving into the world of travel credit cards, take a moment to dream about your travel goals. Create a bucket list of destinations you want to visit, experiences you want to have, and adventures you want to embark on. Having clear travel goals will help you choose a credit card that aligns with your dreams, whether it’s earning points for flights, hotel stays, or unique travel experiences.

2. Identify the type of credit card you need

As a travel company, we spend a lot of time focusing on travel reward credit cards. They’re a fantastic way to offset the cost of vacations and sometimes eliminate the costs of flights or hotels altogether. But rewards cards are generally for those with a decent credit score and are not the best choice for everyone.

Generally, there are three distinct types of credit cards.

  1. Rewards cards
  2. 0% APR cards
  3. Credit building/repairing cards

 

Rewards cards

Rewards cards are the most fun, for obvious reasons. These cards offer loyalty points or cash back in return for using them. High-end products come loaded with perks and benefits like lounge access in airports or statement credits for shopping. Used strategically, these cards are an unbelievable tool and can save the cardholder thousands of dollars.

With that in mind, credit card issuers only offer these cards to customers with demonstrably good spending habits, usually assessed using credit scores. If you’re not in that range, these cards should be a long-term goal as opposed to an immediate strategy. You should only be using these cards if you can pay your balance off every month.

 

Some notable rewards cards include:

American Express Platinum: The Godfather of luxury travel cards. The shiny and iconic Amex Platinum comes at a premium but is loaded with lounge access, hotel elite status, free stays, and a ton of statement credits.

The Platinum Card® from American Express

80,000 Membership Rewards® Points

after you spend $8,000 on purchases in your first 6 months of card membership

Annual Fee: $695  |  Terms Apply  |  Rates & Fees

Capital One Venture: The Venture is a more affordable travel card. It doesn’t come with as many perks as the Platinum but allows the user to earn loads of rewards points that can be redeemed for free travel or exchanged for gift cards and other things.

75,000 Bonus Miles

after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months of account opening.

Annual Fee: $95  |  Terms Apply  |  Rates & Fees

Chase Freedom Flex: Instead of reward points, the Freedom Flex rewards the user with cashback. Cards like these set cashback rates similarly to points cards but allow holders a more flexible way to use their rewards. This card, for example, has a minimum 1.5% cashback rate on all purchases.

 

0% APR and low-interest cards

The 0% APR and low-interest cards are more case-specific but extremely useful for the right person. As the name suggests, 0% APR cards will have a limited time where no interest is accrued, while low-interest cards have just that—low interest.

These cards are perfect for those anticipating a large purchase and may need more time to pay it off. They’re also great as emergency cards, as customers can put sudden expenses on the card without accruing as much interest as other cards.

Some of these cards also allow balance transfers which operate as a way to get out of debt. In this situation, the cardholder would move debt from another higher-interest account to the low-interest/0% APR card. This way, it’s possible to pay off debt without incurring more debt or at least less than before.

 

Credit building cards

These cards are designed for those with poor, new, or no credit history. They should be the first step for anyone up the credit ladder.

Student cards are an excellent option for younger users to start building early. Secured credit cards can be the way forward for other users trying to rebuild their credit. In these situations, cardholders would deposit a predetermined amount to the credit provider or bank and receive a card with a limit equal to the deposit.

For example, you could deposit $500, and your credit limit would be $500. This means that even if your usage is irresponsible, the deposit covers the provider. If you show you can use the card and pay the balance each month, your credit score will gradually increase, opening up other types of cards.

3. Narrow down the best-value card

Once you’ve determined your credit score and required card, it’s time to narrow down the product that best suits your needs.

You can do this by analyzing your spending habits and your goals for the card itself. 

For example, if you’re in the market for a travel rewards credit card, you should ask yourself questions like the following:

  • Am I trying to cover a trip in the future?
  • Is my monthly spending enough to cover an intro bonus spending requirement?
  • Do I need perks, or are they a nice bonus?


Do the benefits of a card validate the annual fee?Just because your credit score is strong doesn’t mean you should apply for the most expensive travel card out there. If the annual fee is $695, but you can only get $300 of value from the card, it’s probably not worth it.

In much the same way, if a card advertises an intro bonus of 70,000 points after spending $4,000 in three months, but you only spend $2,500 in that time on average, you’re spending $1,500 more than you usually would to achieve it. In that situation, you’re not earning free travel.

The perfect card is different for everyone, so make sure you shop around to ensure you pick the best credit card for you.

Here are some of our favorite travel cards to get you started

Frequently asked questions

Yes, frequent travelers can benefit from specific features that suit their lifestyle. Some considerations include:

  • Global acceptance: Ensure the card is widely accepted internationally to avoid any inconveniences during your travels.
  • Travel benefits: Look for cards with travel-related perks, such as airport lounge access, TSA PreCheck or Global Entry fee credits, and travel insurance coverage.
  • No foreign transaction fees: Avoid cards that charge foreign transaction fees, as these can add unnecessary costs to your international purchases.
  • Travel partners: If you have a preferred airline or hotel chain, consider a co-branded card that offers exclusive benefits with that brand.

Absolutely! While travel credit cards are tailored for travelers, you can still benefit from using one even if you don’t travel frequently. Many travel credit cards offer rewards on everyday expenses like dining, groceries, and gas. These rewards can often be redeemed for cash back, gift cards, or merchandise if you don’t plan to use them for travel. Additionally, some travel cards have no annual fees or offer valuable perks like extended warranty protection or purchase protection, which can be useful for non-travel-related purchases.

The main difference between travel credit cards and cashback credit cards is the type of rewards they offer. As the name suggests, cashback credit cards give you a percentage of your purchases back as cash rewards. On the other hand, travel credit cards typically offer rewards in the form of points or miles, which can be redeemed for travel-related expenses. While cashback cards are straightforward and easy to use, travel cards often provide more value for travelers, especially if you redeem points for flights or hotel stays.

Yes, you can have multiple travel credit cards at the same time, and in some cases, having multiple cards can be beneficial. Different travel cards offer varying rewards structures and perks, so having a selection of cards can allow you to maximize rewards in different spending categories. Additionally, having multiple cards can provide more flexibility and options when it comes to redeeming rewards for travel.

While travel credit cards can be highly rewarding, there are some cautions to keep in mind:

  • High-interest rates: If you carry a balance on your credit card, the interest charges can quickly outweigh the value of the rewards earned. Always try to pay your balance in full each month.
  • Annual fees: Some travel credit cards come with annual fees, which can be substantial. Ensure that the benefits and rewards you receive outweigh the cost of the annual fee.
  • Overspending: Don’t be tempted to overspend just to earn more rewards. Stick to your budget and spend responsibly.
  • Redemption restrictions: Be aware of any blackout dates or restrictions on redeeming your rewards, as they may limit your ability to use your points when you want.

Ask the Navigators: What's the best travel credit card?

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone. This post contains references to products from one or more of our partners and we may receive compensation when you click on links to those products.

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