How to Pick the Best Travel Credit Card
Whether you’re dreaming of a sandy beach, snowcapped mountains, a luxury hotel, or family reunion, travel credit cards can help you save money and make your next trip more enjoyable. But there’s a lot to consider before applying for a new card.
A high-level overview of the options and features provides a good place to start. From there, you can try to figure out the best travel credit card based on your lifestyle and preferences.
Types of travel credit cards
Travel credit cards generally fall into two categories — co-branded travel cards and flexibility travel cards. Both have advantages and drawbacks.
Co-branded travel cards
Some companies partner with a credit card issuer or network to offer a co-branded credit card. The travel options include:
- Airline credit cards. Use these cards to earn points and miles in the associated airline’s frequent flyer program. Some cards may come with additional airline-specific perks, such as early boarding, checked-bag fee waivers, and access to the airline’s airport lounges.
- Hotel credit cards. Similar to airline cards, hotel credit cards let you earn points in the hotel’s loyalty program. Some hotel cards may also offer bonus points on hotel stays, status in the loyalty program, and vouchers for free hotel stays.
- Other co-branded travel cards. You may also find credit cards from other types of travel companies, including cruise lines, rental car agencies, and rail operators.
In general, the points or miles you earn accrue in your loyalty program account rather than with your credit card account. Your redemption options will also depend on the program’s rules.
Co-branded cards can be a good option if you frequently travel with the same company, and especially if you’ll use the cardholder benefits. However, you may feel limited by the redemption options, and the value of the miles or points will depend on current travel prices.
Flexible travel credit cards
Flexible travel credit cards let you accrue points or miles in the card issuer’s rewards program. The rules, requirements, and value of your points and miles, can vary depending on the program and redemption options.
A flexible travel credit card may appeal to you if you don’t want to be tied to a specific airline, hotel chain, or another travel provider. The flexibility could also make the rewards more valuable because you can comparison shop before booking travel.
However, flexible travel cards often don’t offer company-specific perks. Also, your rewards are tied to your credit card account, which means you could lose your rewards if you close your card. (Discover rewards never expire, and we credit your account with the outstanding rewards balance if you close your account.1)
How to compare travel credit cards
Deciding between a co-branded or flexible card can help you decide which credit card you should get for travel. However, there are still dozens of cards within each category. To refine your options, consider the cards’ rewards structure, benefits, and fees.
Earning travel rewards
Rewards cards offer different types of rewards structures. Co-branded travel cards tend to use a tiered rewards structure, with higher rewards rate for purchases from the brand. Flexible cards may have either fixed or tiered rewards.
Fixed-rate rewards (for example, 1.5 miles per $1 spent on purchases) can be simpler to calculate. But a tiered rewards program might be a better option if you tend to spend a lot in the card’s bonus categories.
Redeeming travel rewards
The value of your rewards and the redemption options can depend on the loyalty program (for co-branded cards) or the rewards program (for flexible travel cards).
Flexible travel cards tend to have multiple redemption options, including non-travel options. However, the rewards might be worth more when you use them to book travel through the card issuer’s travel portal. A few rewards programs also let you transfer your rewards to a partner airline or hotel loyalty program.
The Discover it® Miles card offers an unlimited 1.5x Miles per $1 spent on every purchase. You can redeem your miles as a statement credit toward any eligible travel purchase or to get cash1, and your miles are always worth 1 cent each.
Additional travel benefits
Review the cards’ other benefits and perks as well. Some travel cards, including flexible travel cards, might include airport lounge access, statement credits for eligible purchases, and travel-related insurance. But the cards with the most perks also tend to have high annual fees.
Many credit cards offer intro bonuses for new cardholders. Compare these to see which could be most valuable, but also consider the requirements. Even a large intro bonus might not be worth it if you have to spend thousands of dollars that you wouldn’t have otherwise.
Discover’s rewards cards, including the Discover it® Miles card, all offer versions of Discover Match® or Cashback Match. At the end of your first year with the card, Discover will match all the Miles or cashback you earned.2
Fees and other charges
Many travel credit cards charge an annual fee, which could cost you hundreds of dollars. It may be worth it to you to pay the fee if you’ll receive even more value from the card’s rewards and benefits. But many people prefer rewards cards that don’t have an annual fee.
Additionally, consider the card’s potential annual percentage rate (APR), which determines how much interest you pay to carry a balance. If you plan to travel outside the U.S., also see if the card has a foreign transaction fee.
Do you qualify for the travel rewards card you want?
Your income, credit score, number of credit cards, and other criteria can impact your ability to qualify for the card. For example, premium travel cards may require excellent credit.
Applying for a new credit card can lead to a hard inquiry on your credit report, which may impact your credit score, even if your application isn’t approved. However, some card issuers will pre-approve you for a card with a soft inquiry, which doesn’t impact credit scores. But if you apply for a pre-approved offer, a hard inquiry will likely be place on your credit report.
Can you have more than one travel credit card?
You can have more than one travel credit card, and having several cards can let you take advantage of the benefits that different cards offer. For example, you might want a co-branded airline card that gives you free checked bags when you fly with the airline. But a more general travel card can help you save money on other types of travel, or for when a different airline offers a better deal.
How to get the best value from your travel credit card
To get the most out of your new travel credit card, you can try to use your card on purchases that will offer the highest rewards rate and then use your rewards for the highest-value redemptions. If your card has an annual fee, set a reminder for a year from now to review your choice and decide if it’s worth continuing to pay the annual fee.
Choosing the best type of rewards credit card for you
Travel credit cards can offer valuable and fun rewards, but they aren’t necessarily the best fit for everyone. Consider different types of rewards cards, your usual spending, and how you want to use the rewards. If you only travel occasionally, a cash back card might make more sense for you.
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