Travel credit cards can help you earn discounted flights, hotel stays, car rentals and more. With big signup bonuses, competitive reward rates and travel benefits, they can be very tempting.
However, these cards may come with expensive annual fees and high APRs, so you’ll want to find one worth its cost.
How do I know if it’s worth getting a travel credit card?
You can determine a card’s value based on factors such as signup bonus, rewards and travel features. Once you’re familiar with the card’s benefits, check the annual fee and APR.
The following two strategies will help ensure you’re getting the maximum value from your card.
Earn enough points or miles to justify the annual fee
The most valuable travel cards have high annual fees, but you can offset these costs with the rewards you earn.
Here’s how to work out how much you’d need to spend each month to earn the rewards to offset a card’s cost.
Find out how many points or miles you need to get $100 of rewards value. With most cards, 1 point or mile is worth 1 cent. So, you’ll typically need 10,000 points or miles to get $100 of value.
Divide the credit card’s annual fee by the dollar value of the reward. If the card’s annual fee is $95, you’ll calculate $95/$100 = 0.95.
Multiply this figure by the number of points needed to redeem $100 worth of dollar value. In our example above, we’d multiply 0.95 by 10,000 to get 9,500.
Take this figure and divide it by the card’s rewards rate. Let’s say a card offers 2 miles per dollar you spent on every purchase. That means you’d need to spend 9,500/2 = $4,750 to earn enough miles to offset the annual fee.
Divide this figure by 12. This gives you the target amount to spend on your card each month. Continuing with our example, you’d need to spend $4,750/12 = approximately $396 per month.
If your monthly spending is less than a card’s “break even” amount, the card may not be worth paying for. Consider a no-annual-fee travel card or look into another type of credit card.
Using this formula, let’s look at a few different travel cards to see how much you’d have to spend each month to break even on the annual fee.
5x points on eligible flights and hotels on up to $500,000 annually, reverting to 1x points after starting January 2021; 1x points on other eligible purchases
$917 on eligible flights and hotels
Point values are based on our calculations using provider websites as of Dec. 2018
These calculations only take into account the rewards you might earn. You might also get a significant amount of value from a card’s travel benefits. These features can add enough value that you might not need to spend much to make the annual fee worth paying.
The card currently has a welcome offer of 60,000 Membership Rewards points after you spend $5,000 on purchases within three months of your account opening. You also get up to $200 in annual Uber credits, up to $200 in airline fee credits on one qualifying airline of your choice and up to $100 credit every four years for your Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application.
If you use your travel credits each year, you’ll largely offset the price of the card. You might find the card’s other features valuable, too, including complimentary gold elite status, benefits at Fine Hotels & Resorts properties and entry into airport lounges in the Global Lounge Collection.
A few travel benefits you might find with a travel card are …
Airport lounge access.
Fee credit for your Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application.
Travel credits that cover your expenses for eligible purchases.
Airline perks like priority boarding and complimentary checked baggage.
Hotel perks like spending credits and room upgrades.
Travel coverage: trip cancellation insurance, auto rental collision damage waiver, lost luggage reimbursement and more.
Travel concierge service.
Compare travel credit cards
Who should use a travel credit card?
While earning travel rewards appeals to those with a bit of wanderlust, a travel credit card isn’t for everyone. Consider a travel product if:
You have good to excellent credit. Credit card issuers give the best cards those with a history of paying their bills on time and managing debt responsibly. If you don’t have a great credit score, work on improving your credit before you apply for a travel card.
You pay your balance in full each month. As with any rewards product, paying your balance in full is the best way to get the full benefit of your travel card. This is especially the case if the card has an annual fee. Carrying a balance means accruing interest that can offset your rewards.
You frequent one airline or hotel chain. Airline and hotel cards can heavily reward you if you’re a loyal customer. Hotel cards in particular usually offer much better rewards than you’d earn with general travel cards.
You have the patience to get the most value out of your rewards. With travel cards, you won’t know the true value of your points or miles until you redeem them. To get maximum value from them, you’ll need to crunch the numbers yourself or do some research into reward values.
How to compare travel credit cards
If you’re in the market for a new travel card, compare the following factors while considering your options.
Airline or hotel loyalty
If you spend heavily with a certain airline or hotel chain, consider a cobranded card. Otherwise, pick a flexible-rewards card so you can earn rewards regardless of which airline or hotel you spend with. There are even cobranded credit cards for cruise lines if you like to take to the seas.
Many travel credit cards have introductory offers of thousands of bonus points or miles. Compare the bonus rewards you might earn, as well as spending requirements.
For annual-fee cards, you typically have to spend a few thousand dollars in the first three months to qualify for a bonus. With the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, for example, you’ll earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within 3 months of your account opening.
No-annual-fee cards usually have much lower spend requirements. Take the Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card for example: You’ll earn 25,000 bonus points after you make $1,000 in purchases within the first 90 days of card membership.
Compare how many points you’ll earn per $1 spent. Among travel cards, you’ll typically find flat-rate rewards and tiered rewards.
Tiered rewards means you’ll earn a different rewards rate for some purchases. The Citi Premier® Card is one example: You’ll earn 3x points at restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations, flights and hotels and 1x points on all other purchases.
If you’re considering a tiered-rewards card, check whether you spend much in the card’s bonus categories. If not, a flat-rate-rewards card might be a better choice.
Check that a card’s rewards and perks outweigh any annual fee. Some travel cards have $0 or reduced annual fees for the first year, which can help you save. However, make sure you know what the standard annual fee is and when it will apply.
Foreign transaction fees
Many credit cards charge a fee when you make purchases in currency other than US dollars — typically 3% of the transaction. These fees apply whether you’re traveling overseas or just using an online store based outside the US. To avoid them, look for a credit card with 0% foreign transaction fees.
To get the full value from your rewards, it’s best to always pay your monthly balance in full. Interest will eat into your rewards, so try to avoid it.
Many cards offer travel protection, such as car rental insurance and trip cancellation insurance. Though these aren’t the flashiest features, they can be very helpful when you’re planning a trip. Picking a card with the right travel protection can save you hundreds of dollars on your next vacation.
What if I don’t want a travel credit card?
A travel credit card isn’t for everyone. If you want a rewards product without dealing with points or miles, consider a cashback card.
A cashback card usually offers easy-to-understand rewards. While the value of travel points or miles can vary depending on what you redeem for, cash back is usually offered as a straightforward percentage of your spending. You’ll also find many solid no-annual-fee cashback products.
Travel credit cards can be valuable, offering travel rewards for everyday purchases as well as flight credits, hotel stays, car rentals and more.
When considering one of these cards, look at its annual fee and APR. Check if it offers enough rewards and perks to offset its cost. The lower the APR, the better — though you’ll probably want to pay off your balance each month anyway.
Typically, you’ll have better chances with a good to excellent credit score of 670 or higher.
Most travel cards don’t have foreign transaction fees. This means you won’t be charged an additional fee for using your card abroad or at a foreign website.
It can feel great to earn travel rewards, but you’re essentially giving back their value if you’re paying interest. It’s best to avoid interest by paying off your balance each month to get the most out of your rewards.
Kevin Joey Chen is a credit cards, banking and investments writer whose work and analysis have appeared on CNN, U.S. News & World Report, Business.com, Lifehacker and CreditCards.com. He's passionate about helping you get your finances in order by expertly navigating cutting-edge financial tools — including credit cards, apps and budgeting software.
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