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How to Choose the Best Travel Credit Card for You

Last Updated: April 2, 2023
4 min read

Table of contents

Key points about: different travel credit cards

  1. A flexible travel card allows cardmembers to earn rewards through an issuer’s program, with travel- and non-travel-related redemption options.

  2. Co-branded travel cards involve partnerships between card issuers and companies offering brand-specific rewards, like airlines.

  3. A flexible card could be best if you want broader redemption options, but you may prefer a co-branded card if you’re loyal to a particular brand.

Whether dreaming of sandy beaches, snowcapped mountains, or luxury hotels, 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.
 
Our overview of the options and features of travel credit cards provides an excellent place to start when deciding on the best travel credit card for you.

Types of travel credit cards

Travel credit cards generally fall into two categories: flexible travel credit cards and co-branded travel credit cards. Both have advantages and drawbacks.

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 differ 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 rarely offer company-specific perks.

Did you know?

With flexible travel cards, your rewards are tied to your credit card account, which means you could lose your rewards if you close your card. Some rewards may also expire if you don’t use them by a set time. At Discover®, your rewards never expire.1

Learn More About the Discover it® Miles Card

Co-branded travel credit cards

Some companies partner with a credit card issuer or network to offer a co-branded credit card. The travel options and rewards include:

  • Airline credit cards
    Use these cards to earn points and miles in an 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 
    Like airline cards, hotel credit cards let you earn points in a hotel’s loyalty program. Some hotel cards may also offer bonus points on hotel stays and vouchers for free stays.
  • Other co-branded travel cards
    You may also find credit cards from other types of travel companies, including cruise lines and rental car agencies, that offer loyalty programs and rewards.

Typically the points or miles you earn accrue in your loyalty program account rather than in your credit card account. Your redemption options also depend on the program’s rules.

Co-branded cards can be a good option if you frequently travel with the same company. However, you may feel limited by the reward redemption options, and the value of your rewards may vary based on current travel prices.

Comparing travel credit cards

Comparing a co-branded or flexible card can help you in your search for the best travel credit card for you. However, there are still dozens of cards within each category. Consider the cards’ rewards structure, benefits, and fees to refine your options.

Earning travel rewards

Rewards cards can have different structures. Co-branded travel cards tend to use a tiered rewards structure, with a higher rewards rate for purchases from the brand. Flexible cards may have either fixed or tiered rewards.

Fixed-rate travel rewards cards offer set earnings for every purchase. For example, you may earn 1.5 miles for every $1 spent on purchases. These rewards can be simpler to track and calculate. But a tiered rewards program offering a higher rewards rate in specific spending categories might be better if you spend a lot in those categories. However, categories often rotate, and there may be a limit to how much you can earn with tiered rewards.

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.

Co-branded travel credit cards may have more limits on how you can redeem your rewards than flexible travel cards. You may only be able to redeem your rewards for perks with the brand, such as discounted hotel stays with a hotel credit card and flights with an airline credit card.

Flexible travel cards tend to have multiple reward redemption options, including non-travel-related options. For instance, with the Discover it® Miles Card, you can redeem your Miles for cash in any amount, any time.2  However, your rewards might be worth more when you use them to book travel through a card issuer’s travel portal.

Bonus Rewards

Many credit cards offer intro bonuses, also known as sign-up bonuses, for new cardmembers. These bonuses often include extra rewards for a set period after opening your card. With Discover Match®, we’ll automatically match all the Miles you’ve earned at the end of your first year.3

Fees and other charges

Some travel credit cards charge an annual fee. It may be worth paying the fee if you earn more valuable rewards or gain extra benefits. But if you don’t earn enough rewards to offset the fee, you may prefer travel rewards cards with no annual fee. And if you plan to travel outside the U.S., you may also see if the card has a foreign transaction fee.

How can you qualify for a travel rewards card?

Your income, credit score, and other criteria can impact your ability to qualify for the best travel card for you. For example, premium travel cards may require excellent credit. When you apply, the card issuer will likely check your credit to determine if you qualify and under what terms, including the interest rate and credit limit you may get approved for.

Travel credit cards can offer valuable rewards. Comparing different types of travel rewards credit cards and their benefits, potential fees, and reward redemption rules can help you choose the one that’s right for you.

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