[Shane – I recently got a Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card due to the travel benefits, but it was not for the points as you would think. Don’t get me wrong those are very nice, but this card gives me other benefits like trip insurance, trip delay benefits, auto rental insurance, and so much more that if I even use one of the benefits each year it should cover the $95 annual fee.
So, for me a travel reward credit card is a great choice, but does that make it the right choice for everyone? I would venture the answer is not necessarily. You lose all the advantage if you carry a balance (although in my opinion you should never carry a balance on any credit card, the interest is way to high and you would be better off getting a loan to clear the debt), people spend too much money just to get the introductory points, and if you don’t travel much a regular reward card might be a better choice.
I found a great article that explains how travel reward credit card work, benefits & drawbacks, comparing two travel reward credit card, and how to maximize the benefits. I hope you enjoy it]
How Travel Credit Cards Work
Travel rewards cards help users save money on travel expenses, like on airfare, hotel and transportation spending. Travel credit cards benefit repeat customers, because the more you spend, the more savings (or benefits) you receive.
Travel rewards cards offer higher earning rates for travel spending in particular, and may can be cashed in for highly discounted or free flights and hotel stays, free or reduced baggage fees, priority boarding and other perks. Some cards may not even require any points at all to take advantage of those perks, but they may carry an annual fee to offset those costs to the issuer.
Travel credit cards often come with lucrative sign-up bonuses with the best cards offering as many as 100,000 points to new members who hit a minimum spending amount within the first few months.
Like other premium rewards cards, travel cards are generally known to carry more restrictions and fees than the average credit card. For this reason, travel cards are not as beneficial for the occasional traveler.
There are three basic types of travel credit cards: airline, hotel and general travel.
Airline credit cards
Airlines partner with credit card companies to offer cobranded travel rewards credit cards that earn the most miles when used for flights on that particular airline and spending with affiliate partners, typically double or triple the miles. Cardholders still earn miles for day-to-day purchases (with a few exceptions like cash advances and purchases of prepaid cards), only at a lower rate, typically one point per dollar. You can redeem earned miles with that airline or its affiliates.
Benefits: Perks and spending rewards
Airline cards can deliver a cheaper, more comfortable flying experience. Benefits often include free or reduced baggage fees, priority boarding, complimentary or discounted access to the airport lounge and discounts on in-flight purchases.
But airline cards can also save you money by offering sizable sign-up bonuses, waived foreign transaction fees and double or triple miles earned on airline and affiliate purchases.
Hotel credit cards
Hotel credit cards are most valuable when used to book accommodations with that particular hotel chain. Unlike airline cards, it’s not uncommon to earn five points per dollar spent with that brand, with other travel purchases earning fewer points and all other purchases earning the least. Points have to be redeemed through that brand or its partners.
Benefits: Free nights and special status
Hotel credit cards work best for loyal guests of one particular hotel chain or group. Free nights are the most valuable benefit, and most hotel cards provide users with an easier path toward elite status, which delivers perks like guaranteed room availability, membership discounts, priority check-in, and complimentary upgrades. As with airline credit cards, one-time sign-up bonuses are common if you spend a minimum amount within the first few months.
Some hotel cards charge an annual fee that’s waived during the first year, but those that do typically don’t charge foreign transaction fees. Many hotel cards provide various forms of travel insurance, like lost baggage protection, trip delay reimbursement, emergency assistance and car rental insurance coverage. Some hotel rewards programs let you transfer your points to their airline partners.
General travel credit cards
General travel credit cards are not tied to any particular travel brand and offer the flexibility to redeem through their own travel portals or transfer points to partners to redeem for cruises, hotel packages, rental cars and cruises, among other options. Purchases typically carry a flat reward rate, but points can be redeemed from a broad selection of travel brands and sometimes for nontravel rewards.
Benefits: Flexibility and value
General travel cards are inherently more flexible than airline or hotel credit cards, which is a big plus for travelers who aren’t loyal to any particular brand or who travel to destinations with fewer options for hotels or airports. Cardholders can worry less about blackout dates or travel restrictions because they’re not tied to a sole provider.
Points can sometimes be transferred to other loyalty programs. However, points don’t transfer equally with all partners and the exchange rates do vary; in some cases you get get the best redemption value by transferring points to partners. It’s important to review your card’s reward charts to better calculate the value of transferring your points with partners.
The ability to also redeem general travel card points toward statement credits or cash back makes this type of card particularly attractive to users who prioritize flexibility.
Benefits and Drawbacks of Travel Rewards Credit Cards
For the right consumer, travel credit cards can make a lot of financial sense, but it’s important to understand the pros and cons.
Better point valuations and redemptions: Travel-related spending with travel credit cards accrues points and miles faster than general rewards credit cards, and when those miles are redeemed for travel, they have potential to deliver better ratios than other rewards like cash back or statement credits. Points can be used to book free nights at hotels or for free flights.
Travel perks: Many travel credit cards also offer perks like free checked bags, priority boarding, concierge services and travel protection and assistance.
No foreign transaction fees: A foreign transaction fee is a surcharge on every purchase made on a credit card outside the U.S. If your itinerary takes you overseas, a travel credit card that carries no foreign transaction fees helps you avoid that added cost, which is typically 3 percent of the purchase price.
High costs: Travel cards’ purchase interest rates (APRs) fall on the higher end of the scale for all credit cards, and the credit score needed to secure them starts in the upper 600s. Qualifying credit scores on the lower end of the spectrum will, in turn, result in higher APRs.
Top travel cards charge annual fees that require high amounts of travel or other spending to offset them via rewards. Similarly, sign-up bonuses may encourage you to spend more just to qualify for them.
“I think that many consumers are very excited about the points without considering how much they’re going to spend in actual interest at the end of the day,” Cortez says. To avoid running a high balance on the card, Cortez explains that a savvy consumer will look at his or her budget in light of the required minimum spending amount to qualify for a sign-up bonus and determine a plan to earn the points in a way that complements their lifestyle.
Restrictions: Travel credit cards can also cost you time. Some cards require lots of planning or working with customer service to navigate blackout dates, limited seat availability or confusing terms and conditions. Depending on the card, there can also be restrictions on earning miles, including caps and expiration dates. And, of course, bonus points from airline and hotel cards are restricted to redemption only with that brand or qualifying partners.
Emily Jablon, cofounder at Million Mile Secrets, points out that for an expensive or long-distance trip, it may be worth the added cost to enlist the help of an award-booking service. For a fee ranging from $75 to $250 per traveler, services like Cranky Conciergeand AwardAdvocate can help you find and book the lowest fares for award travel and answer any questions you may have about your trip.
Choosing the Best Travel Credit Card
Is a travel credit card right for you?
Make sure you meet these requirements before signing up for a travel rewards credit card.
- You travel frequently. If you don’t consistently spend on airfare, hotels or other travel expenses, consider a cash back credit card instead. They have fewer limitations on redemption and might save you the cost of an annual fee.
- You have a good credit score. You have the best chances of being approved for a travel credit card if you have a FICO score of at least 700.
- You pay off your balance each month. Because travel credit cards have higher-than-average APRs, you should only get a travel card if you can pay off your balance each month.
To find a travel card that meets your needs, evaluate each card using the following criteria:
- Pick the right rewards program for you.
- Calculate earning potential.
- Factor in sign-up bonuses.
- Calculate redemption value.
- Subtract annual fees.
- Understand travel benefits.
- Avoid foreign transaction fees.
1. Pick the right rewards program for you.
Your travel credit card will work either in conjunction with the loyalty program of an airline or hotel chain or with the rewards program of the bank or credit card company that backs it. Each program has its benefits as well as unique terms and conditions for earning, redeeming and transferring points.
Loyalty airline programs
For some travelers, their loyalty to any particular airline lasts only as long as that airline offers the cheapest flights. But frequent flyers are often willing to forgo initial cost savings in exchange for benefits down the road. Which airline’s program works best for you will depend on several factors regarding the loyalty program and the airline itself.
Popular airline programs:
Loyalty hotel programs
When you look for a hotel, do you prioritize value or luxury? The answer will help you determine which hotel rewards program is right for you. As with airline loyalty programs, your earned points may only be eligible for redemption with one hotel chain and its affiliate partners. Some hotel rewards programs have partnerships with other brands, such as Marriott Rewards, which allows members to redeem and earn points with The Ritz-Carlton Rewards program.
Popular hotel rewards programs:
General points program
Using a general travel credit card enters you into the rewards program for the bank or credit card company that backs it. While you will have access to the broader redemption platform for that provider’s network of credit cards, you’ll still receive the best value by redeeming for travel through the platform or using the platform to receive statement credits for travel purchases made on the card.
Maximizing your rewards means matching your goals and habits with the appropriate type of travel rewards program. If you want deluxe benefits that come with elite membership status, an airline or hotel card is the way to go.
However, if you don’t travel as often and want maximum flexibility when you do, as well as a broader range of earnings categories, a general travel card is usually the smartest choice for your first travel card. Frequent flyers often find that adding a second, cobranded loyalty card to their wallet makes sense once they’ve established a favorite airline or hotel chain.
2. Calculate earning potential.
Travel cards earn rewards at different rates for spending in different categories, so you have to analyze your spending habits to determine which card will help you maximize your points. A good travel card will have a range of purchases that qualify as travel spending. These purchases can include:
- stays at hotels, motels, timeshares and campgrounds
- car rentals
- buses, taxis, limousines and ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft
- parking lots and garages
- bridge and highway tolls
- meals and other nonlodging expenses at hotels
Depending on the type of card, these purchases can earn between 1.5 and seven points. The highest points tend to come with hotel cards, while airline cards typically award double to triple miles for flight purchases. All other purchases, often referred to as everyday spending, typically earn between one and two points per dollar spent.
3. Factor in sign-up bonuses.
The most lucrative travel cards offer bonus points to those who meet a certain level of spending by a specified date, usually within three to six months. These bonuses can be worth hundreds of dollars. For example, the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Cardoffers 40,000 points when you spend $1,000 in the first three months of the account opening. The Bank of America Travel Rewards Credit Card offers 20,000 points when you spend $1,000 in the first three months.
4. Calculate redemption value.
Every travel card carries a rate at which points or miles are awarded. However, what those points are worth to you depends on the value you derive from redeeming them, as well as your preferences and priorities.
For general travel cards, point valuation is simple math: your number of points multiplied by the redemption rate, often a rate of 1 cent to 1 point. On the surface, award travel with airlines or hotels is also straightforward: The typical cost of a flight or room is divided by the number of miles you need to book an award flight or stay.
But airlines and hotels frequently adjust the price of award travel based on award level, award availability, time, destination/location, fare/hotel class, demand and other factors. All of these changes will affect the value of your miles, making valuation for airlines in particular “extremely complicated,” according to Dubash. “You’ll see estimates all over the place.” He and Cortez both cite 2 cents per mile as a general standard for miles with the major airlines, while the value of miles with smaller airlines like Southwest and JetBlue may fluctuate higher or lower than 2 cents.
Other factors that affect the value of your rewards program include:
- whether there are fees for checked bags, foreign transactions, etc.
- whether your points can be transferred to another loyalty program and at what ratio
- how easy it is accrue and redeem points and whether you face blackout dates, seat restrictions or other limitations
- the quality of perks available to you once you reach top-tier elite status
5. Subtract annual fees.
Credit card companies entice new users by waiving the annual fee for the first year, which typically ranges from $40 to $95, although it can go as high as $450 per year. Once the fee kicks in, be sure you’re earning enough rewards or enjoying the other card benefits to compensate for it. For example, the Barclays Arrival Premier World Elite Mastercard has a $150 annual fee, but you might easily save that amount earning rewards miles and taking advantage of benefits including a $100 statement credit every five years for Global Entry application.
There are also excellent cards on the market that don’t carry an annual fee. For example, the Discover it® Miles card is has no annual fee and offers an automatic mile-per-mile match at the end of the first year for new cardholders. It has no foreign transaction fees and offers a flat 1.5 mile unlimited rewards rate on all purchases, including nontravel expenses.
6. Understand travel benefits.
Travel benefits can be practical tools, discounted pricing or luxe perks. Common benefits include no foreign transaction fees, access to 24/7 concierge or customer service lines, free baggage and travel insurance. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred cardcomes with trip cancellation/interruption insurance, lost luggage reimbursement, car rental theft and collision coverage, baggage delay insurance, trip delay reimbursement, 24/7 customer service and more.
Like many other airline rewards credit cards, the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express offers airline-specific perks. Cardholders can check their first bag for free on Delta flights and take advantage of priority boarding.
7. Avoid foreign transaction fees.
The best travel cards don’t charge a foreign transaction fee, which is typically 2 to 3 percent on every purchase. Since these fees can be greater than any rewards you earn, frequent overseas travelers will want to make this card feature a top priority.
Comparing Two Rewards Travel Credit Cards
To help consumers understand how to evaluate travel cards, U.S. News researchers compared two popular general travel cards, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card and the Bank of America Travel Rewards Credit Card, against each other.
1. Pick the right awards program for you.
Both cards are general travel cards offering a flexible range of rewards but offering the most value when used and redeemed for travel.
2. Calculate earning potential.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred card grants double points for travel and dining and one point for all other purchases, while the Bank of America Travel Rewards Credit Card offers 1.5 points for every dollar spent.
Estimate your yearly budget by separating expenses into credit card spending categories.
Sample monthly budget
|General: $390||Groceries: $334|
|Dining: $250||Utilities: $323|
|Gas: $174||Travel: $167|
Now calculate how many points you’d earn in one year based on your spending.
Chase Sapphire Preferred first-year points
|Dining and travel purchases||$417 * 2x earning rate * 12 months = 10,008 points|
|All other categories||$1,221 * 1x earning rate * 12 months = 14,652 points|
|Total||10,008 + 14,652 = 24,660 points|
Bank of America Travel Rewards Credit Card first-year points
|Total||$1,638 * 1.5x earning rate * 12 = 29,484 points|
3. Factor in sign-up bonuses.
Both of these cards offer sign-up bonuses for eligible spending within the first three months. The Chase Sapphire Preferred card awards a 50,000-point bonus for spending $4,000 in the first three months after opening an account, increasing the total number of annual points earned to 74,660, and the Bank of America card awards 20,000 points for spending $1,000, increasing the total annual points earned to 49,484.
4. Calculate redemption value.
The point valuation ratio for Chase Ultimate Rewards is one point to 1 cent, so 74,660 points are worth $746.60. However, if you use those points to book travel with The Chase Ultimate Rewards program, your points are worth 25 percent more or $933.25 in travel purchases.
The Bank of America Travel Rewards Credit Card has a one-point-to-one-cent ratio, so the card has a first-year value of $494.84.
5. Subtract annual fees.
To understand the potential value of your travel rewards card, subtract the cost of annual fees. The Chase Sapphire Preferred card waives its $95 annual fee during the first year. In the second year and beyond, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card earns 24,660 points or $246.60. If you book travel with Chase Ultimate Rewards, those points are work $308.25. Minus the cost of the annual fee, you receive a yearly value of $213.25 at that same spend.
The Bank of America Travel Rewards Credit Card has no annual fee, so every year after the first year, you earn you will yearly value of $294.84. Because the Bank of America Travel Rewards Credit Card outearns the Chase Sapphire Preferred card starting in the second year, it earns more overall rewards by the seventh year even with Chase’s 25 percent redemption bonus factored in.
Seven-year rewards value after annual fees at $1,638/month spending
|1st year||2nd year total||3rd year total||4th year total||5th year Total||6th year total||7th year total|
|Chase Sapphire Preferred||$933.25||$1,146.50||$1,359.75||$1,573.00||$1,786.25||$1,999.50||$2,212.75|
|Bank of America Travel Rewards||$494.84||$789.68||$1,084.52||$1,379.36||$1,674.20||$1,969.04||$2,263.88|
6. Understand travel benefits.
Since both cards are Visa Signature cards, they have trip cancellation/interruption insurance, auto rental collision damage waivers, travel accident insurance, travel and emergency assistance services, lost luggage reimbursement, trip delay reimbursement and baggage delay insurance.
7. Avoid foreign transaction fees.
Neither card has a foreign transaction fee.
For people who can qualify for the sign-up bonus and want to take advantage of the Chase Ultimate Rewards redemption bonus, the Chase Sapphire Preferred earns more overall rewards in the first several years. But if you aren’t able to meet Chase’s sign-up bonus spending requirement, the Bank of America Travel Rewards Credit Card will serve you better.
Strategies to Maximize Travel Rewards
Pick the right first travel card.
When you’re first starting out with travel cards, select one with a general miles program that gives you the flexibility to earn rewards for all spending and redeem with the largest variety of brands. Unless you spend large amounts on travel expenses with a particular brand, airline and hotel cards offer less flexibility and savings.
Combine a general travel card with a cobranded or loyalty card.
Used in tandem with a general travel card, an airline or hotel card makes sense for frequent travelers who are comfortable committing to one particular travel brand. This combination allows you to use the cobranded card to earn bonus points on the cobranded airline/hotel spending and use the general travel card to still earn bonus points in non-travel spending categories. You want to make sure your general travel card is allowed to transfer points to the cobranded card, for maximum value.
For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card works well with the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card. You can earn Chase Ultimate Rewards by spending with the Chase Sapphire Preferred card and transfer them to Southwest to either book with miles, or earn double miles by booking with your Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card. Cortez says he’s a fan of this card combination particularly for casual travelers, as Southwest offers 100 percent award seating availability and doesn’t charge a fixed amount of miles for flights, allowing travelers to find some good bargains on their tickets.
Maximizing Your Card Benefits Abroad
Knowing how your travel credit card works and what benefits and protections it offers (or doesn’t offer) can help you solve some of the problems that may arise when you’re abroad.
Avoid foreign transaction fees.
If you’re not sure if your card has foreign transaction fees, check with your bank when you notify them of your upcoming trip. You can also verify with them that your card has EMV smart chip technology, which is the most compatible with foreign merchants and provides the best security.
Avoid dynamic currency conversion.
Many foreign merchants let you choose to be charged in local currency or to pay with dollars through dynamic currency conversion. You should always opt for local currency, as the exchange rate will likely be poor and/or have a fee tacked on top. It’s always good to have cash on-hand regardless in case a store or restaurant won’t accept your card.
Know who to contact in an emergency.
Visa Signature cardholders have free access to a 24/7 benefits administrator who can provide medical referrals, contact loved ones and arrange for payments. Likewise, Citibank cardmembers can receive round-the-clock referrals and other help with medical and legal emergencies.
Some programs, like Visa Signature and World Elite Mastercard, provide 24/7 global services for card-related needs and expedited card replacement, and Visa gives an emergency cash advance or Western Union wire transfer within two hours of approval by your bank.
For common travel medical emergencies, an officer from the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate can help connect you with treatment services, inform loved ones and facilitate the transfer of funds, if necessary. All medical expenses will be your responsibility, however.
Take advantage of travel insurance.
Mastercard and Visa both include travel protections through their cards, as well as travel insurance for an additional cost. World Elite MasterCard offers members international travel accident and medical expenses coverage up to $1 million each, plus trip inconvenience protection and luggage protection.
Visa Signature’s plan offers cardholders and their immediate family members common carrier travel accident insurance (for accidents involving your airline, train or cruise ship) up to $500,000 and 24-hour travel accident insurance for injury, dismemberment or loss of life up to $100,000.
Only 15 percent of credit cards offer travel cancellation insurance, and due to the lack of medical coverage and routine exceptions to common carrier protection, the benefits are limited. You may want to opt for third-party travel insurance for fuller coverage.
Protect your rental car.
Your personal car insurance policy probably will not cover foreign travel, so you’ll need to purchase auto insurance in your destination country, preferably at an equivalent level of coverage to what you carry at home.
Travel cards with Visa Signature and World Elite MasterCard benefits offer auto rental collision damage waivers that provide reimbursement over and above any primary insurance you have for towing, loss of use, theft and/or damage to the car up to the full cash value of most rental vehicles booked using that card.
There are restrictions, however, including the country of travel, type of vehicle, age of the vehicle and length of the rental period. And you’ll be required to refuse the collision damage waiver at the car rental counter. Third-party liability, personal accident and personal property coverage will not be included with your card’s coverage, which is why TripAdvisor Travel Advocate Wendy Perrin advises carefully considering which of your credit cards will give you the best coverage (and not result in an increase in your insurance premium).
Be sure to file your claim as soon as possible because time limits are strictly enforced, and have as much documentation as you can. This includes copies of the accident report, rental agreement and receipt, repair estimate, police report and plenty of photos.
Additionally, in some countries, you will need an International Driving Permit. An IDP can be purchased from AAA or the American Automobile Touring Alliance for a $20 fee with a valid driver’s license, two passport pictures and a completed application.
Get help with your lost luggage.
Many travel rewards credit cards offer benefits to help you deal with lost luggage. The Lost Luggage Locator Service of Visa Signature can assist with the airline’s claim process or arrange for replacement items to be shipped to you. Both Visa Signature and World Elite MasterCard guarantee users reimbursement for lost or delayed baggage of $100 a day for three days.
Airline liability can be complicated for international travel. Your rights are laid out in either the Warsaw Convention or the Montreal Convention, depending on which country you’re traveling to. Frommer’s has a good breakdown of what to do in the event of lost luggageunder either scenario, plus best practices for avoiding lost bags in the first place.