How to Compare Travel Credit Cards

Woman with credit card using contactless payment, paying attendant on passenger train.
•••

 Caiaimage/Agnieszka Olek/Getty Images

Picking up a travel credit card can be a smart move if you want to save money and travel in comfort, but you should do the legwork to find the right card for your needs. There are many types of travel credit cards to suit different rewards styles and personal preferences, and some cards are considerably more flexible than others. 

Here are the main card types you’ll run into:

  • Flexible travel credit cards that let you redeem points or miles with a wide variety of airlines and hotels or transfer your points to a loyalty program you may already have. 
  • Hotel credit cards that let you earn points within a hotel loyalty program
  • Airline credit cards that let you earn miles with specific airlines and their partners

Some cards fit into a few different categories. For instance, an airline credit card may let you earn and redeem miles for hotels and rental cars, and vice versa. 

As you begin comparing travel cards, there are many factors to consider—some of which are entirely influenced by your own spending style and travel goals. Here’s what you need to know to decide on the right card for you. 

Earning Potential

Each travel credit card has its own rewards earning structure. Some flexible travel cards offer the same rewards rate for every dollar you spend—maybe 1.5 or 2 points or miles per $1 you charge—though some are more generous with travel expenses or other specific spending categories like dining out, groceries, or gas. 

Cards affiliated with a specific hotel or airline (such as American Airlines, Marriott Bonvoy, or Hilton Honors) tend to offer a higher level of rewards when you spend within their brands, and the range is wide. You might see 2, 6 or 14 miles or points per $1 spent.

As you compare, consider how frequently you travel and where you spend the bulk of your monthly budget.

Redemption Options

Each travel card has rules about how you can spend your points or miles, and the value of those rewards varies a lot, depending on the card and how you redeem them.

For instance, editors at the Balance value miles on American Airlines AAdvantage cards at almost 3 cents apiece when redeemed for flights on American or its partner airlines, more than three times the value of miles from competing Delta SkyMiles cards.

You should also consider how much flexibility is important to you. On the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, for example, points redeemed through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal aren’t worth nearly as much as AAdvantage miles, but you can use your points on a wider variety of airlines and still get a respectable point value of 1.25 cents. 

Annual Fees

Many travel cards charge an annual fee, and you should make sure you can more than recoup this cost with the rewards and perks you’ll receive. Annual fees start at around $95 and can top out at more than $500. 

On cards at the higher end, you may get free access to airport lounges, waivers on your checked bag fees, or reimbursement for your TSA PreCheck enrollment or other airline fees. Airport lounge access alone can otherwise cost hundreds of dollars, so the card’s fee may be well worth it if you travel enough to make comfort your priority.

You may be able to find a card that waives the fee the first year (usually these have a fee around $100), giving you time to determine how much you’re really using the card and its benefits. 

Travel Perks

You can get a card with a lot of travel perks, very few, or somewhere in between. Make sure you know which ones are important to you. Besides airport lounge access, checked baggage waivers, and Global Entry/TSA PreCheck reimbursement, you may find cards with free hotel nights, complimentary airfare for your companion, priority boarding on flights, or insurance coverage in the event your luggage is lost or your trip gets cut short. Again, the cards with higher-value perks tend to come with steeper annual fees.

Sign-Up Bonuses

Most cards offer a sign-up or welcome bonus for new customers who meet a minimum spending requirement within the first few months. Some bonuses can easily be worth several hundred dollars, but make sure you can meet the spending requirement without having to run a balance on your card. Interest charges are a quick way to erase the financial benefit of a travel card. 

Foreign Transaction Fees

Some travel cards charge foreign transaction fees—somewhere around 3% of each purchase—when you use your card abroad. There are plenty of cards that don’t, however, so if you plan to travel overseas (or just charge a lot with an international merchant), make sure your card doesn’t carry this fee. It could easily cancel out any miles or points you accrue. 

International Acceptance

Some credit cards are not accepted as widely internationally, so if you’re a globe-trotter, make sure you can use your card wherever you go. Discover cards, for example, are not accepted at all in parts of South America, the Middle East, and Africa, and may only be accepted sparsely in other select regions.