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How to Compare Travel Credit Cards

From airline miles to VIP lounge access and hotel freebies, the best travel credit cards offer a wealth of perks. Here’s what to consider when you’re comparing options, so that you can narrow down the field and find the best fit.

Types of travel credit cards

The first step in finding the best travel credit card is understanding your options. Frequent flyers have different needs to occasional travellers, and there are plenty of choices in terms of flexibility, rewards, and fees.

Here are some of the main credit card options:

  1. Hotel-specific credit cards earn you points every time you stay at one of their hotels. You’ll also be able to earn rewards like elite status, free stays, and room upgrades.

  2. Airline credit cards earn you reward points as well as miles when you fly with eligible airlines and partner companies. They usually include additional perks like free checked bags and priority boarding.

  3. General travel credit cards might earn you points and miles. They also offer additional incentives like cash back, making them a better choice for the general traveler who doesn’t want to be locked into a specific hotel chain or airline group.

  4. Transferable reward credit cards let you transfer your rewards points to a travel partner, which gives even greater flexibility.

How to compare travel credit cards

Now that you’ve seen a quick rundown of the different types of travel credit cards, here’s how to compare them. In addition to the perks described above, consider the following factors when comparing your options.

1. Annual fees

Many of the best travel rewards credit cards come with an annual fee attached. You can expect to pay in the ballpark of $100 as a standard fee, but premium options with top-tier perks will triple or quadruple this. Think about how often you travel and whether you’ll find the perks useful before you shell out for a card with a high fee. There are also options without an annual fee, so for less frequent flyers it makes more sense to forego the fee (and accompanying extra perks).

2. Rewards rates

Not all travel rewards cards are created alike. Each has its own way of calculating your points or miles per dollar spent, or “earn rate.” Some come with a flat rate which gives you the same reward on all types of purchases, while others give you a higher earn rate for specific types of expenses like hotel stays or restaurant meals. Look for cards that match your typical spending patterns.

3. Sign-up bonuses

Cards with higher annual fees tend to reward you not only with points, but also with a sign-up bonus. This could include thousands of points as a welcome package, or even a cash-back offer to unlock at a certain spending threshold.

Choosing the best credit card for international travel

If you’re a frequent globetrotter, there are some additional factors to consider before selecting the best credit card for international travel.

1. Acceptance abroad

Some credit cards aren’t as widely accepted in foreign countries. Be sure to choose a recognizable name like Visa or MasterCard, which are recognized in most countries, rather than Discover, which isn’t accepted in many parts of Africa and South America.

2. Transaction fees

Check the rates for international transaction fees before using your card overseas. This rate is typically set at 3-5% of each purchase, which can really add up throughout the course of a trip. This will cancel out the value of any rewards, so look for cards without a foreign transaction fee.

3. TSA PreCheck and Global Entry

The best credit card for international travel offers a fee credit to cover the cost of your TSA PreCheck/Global Entry application. This saves you time in security lines and makes your passport check run much more smoothly when you re-enter the US.

Choosing the best credit card for travel points

If it’s primarily travel points you’re concerned with, you’ll need to take a closer look at earnings structures. Here’s what to look for in the best credit card for travel points:

1. Reward earnings structure

We’ve touched on the rewards rates above already, but you should compare the structures closely to make sure you’re earning adequate points for the types of travel purchases you’re most likely to make. For example, hotel and airline-specific cards tend to award higher points for in-brand purchases.

2. Elite status

The best travel reward cards give you automatic elite status as soon as you sign up, giving you resort credits, late checkout, and other perks. You’ll get these hand-in-hand with your travel rewards points, which let you earn even more rewards like suite upgrades and access to VIP areas.

3. Point redemption

What are the rules surrounding redemption of your travel points? It doesn’t matter how many you’ve accumulated if you can’t use them. Can you transfer them to another traveler? Are your points valid on a different airline? Read the fine print.

Is a travel credit card right for you?

As you can see, there are many factors to weigh before you sign up for any credit card. Some travel credit cards come with high fees and strict rules attached, so they aren’t right for everyone. However, most frequent travelers will find a good fit that matches their travel style and preferences. Rather than paying for flights and hotels with cash or debit, you can reap the rewards from travel credit cards. Just be sure they’re rewards you will be able to use.

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