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How to Choose the Best Travel Credit Card for You

Last Updated: March 10, 2024
5 min read

Key Points:

  1. A travel rewards credit card allows you to earn rewards through the issuer’s programs and can include both travel- and non-travel-related ways to redeem your benefits.

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

  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 the best credit card for you. Our overview of the options, features, and preferred rewards on 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 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 earn 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 card membership 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 shop around before booking travel. However, flexible travel cards rarely offer company-specific perks.

Did you know?

Flexible travel cards rewards are tied to your credit card account. You could lose your rewards if you close your account, or they may expire if you don’t use them in time. At Discover®, your rewards never expire.1

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 added 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—like cruise lines and rental car agencies—which offer loyalty programs and rewards.

Typically, the points or miles you earn accrues 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 in your search for the best travel credit card for you. Consider the cards’ rewards structure, benefits, account opening rewards, 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. Many cards will offer bonus point rewards upon account opening.

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. Note that these categories often rotate, and there may be a limit to how much you can earn with tiered rewards.

Redeeming travel rewards

Like any rewards credit card, 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. Choosing the best credit card from the start helps you achieve the ultimate reward from your shopping experience.

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.1 You can even easily redeem Miles as a statement credit for travel purchases or get cash.2 However, your membership rewards might be worth more when you use them to book travel through a card issuer’s travel portal.

Bonus Rewards

Many rewards credit cards offer intro bonuses upon account opening, also known as sign-up bonuses. Look for these in your card review, because these bonuses often include extra rewards or bonus points 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. Discover has no foreign transaction fee on any of its credit cards.

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 credit card for you. For example, premium travel cards may require an excellent score on your credit report. When you apply, the card issuer will likely check your credit report 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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  1. Rewards never expire. We reserve the right to determine the method to disburse your rewards balance. We will credit your Account or send you a check with your rewards balance if your Account is closed or if you have not used it within 18 months.
  2. Redeem Miles: Starting at 1 Mile, you can redeem your Miles as a credit to your account to pay for all or part of your bill, for cash as an electronic deposit to your bank account, or for a credit for Travel Purchases made on your statement within the last 180 days. Travel Purchases include airline tickets, hotel rooms, car rentals, travel agents, online travel sites, commuter transportation, restaurants and gas stations. Restaurant purchases include those made at merchants classified as full-service restaurants, cafes, cafeterias, fast-food locations, and restaurant delivery services. Gas Station purchases include those made at merchants classified as places that sell automotive gasoline that can be bought at the pump or inside the station. Gas Stations affiliated with supermarkets, supercenters, and wholesale clubs may not be eligible. Even if a travel purchase on your statement appears to fit in a Travel Purchase category, the merchant may not have a merchant category code (MCC) in a Travel Purchase category. Merchants and payment processors are assigned an MCC based on their typical products and services. Discover Card does not assign MCCs to merchants. Certain third-party payment accounts and digital wallet transactions may not be eligible for credit redemption if the technology does not provide sufficient transaction details or a qualifying MCC. See Terms and Conditions for more information.
  3. Discover Match®: We'll match all the Miles rewards you've earned on your credit card from the day your new account is approved through your first 12 consecutive billing periods or 365 days, whichever is longer, and add it to your rewards account within two billing periods. You've earned Miles rewards only when they're processed, which may be after the transaction date. We will not match: rewards that are processed after your match period ends; statement credits; rewards transfers from Discover checking or other deposit accounts; or rewards for accounts that are closed. This promotional offer may not be available in the future and is exclusively for new cardmembers. No purchase minimums.
  • Legal Disclaimer: This site is for educational purposes and is not a substitute for professional advice. The material on this site is not intended to provide legal, investment, or financial advice and does not indicate the availability of any Discover product or service. It does not guarantee that Discover offers or endorses a product or service. For specific advice about your unique circumstances, you may wish to consult a qualified professional.