Travel rewards can open up a lot of opportunities for occasional and seasoned travelers alike. But depending on your travel goals and the kind of experience you want, some credit cards may be better than others.
There are three main types of travel rewards cards:
Each type has its own benefits and drawbacks, and understanding what you want can help you determine which is the best fit for your needs.
General Travel Credit Cards vs. Airline and Hotel Credit Cards
If you’re looking for a new travel card, it’s important to avoid taking the first offer you see, even if it’s a lucrative one. Take some time to compare several options and pick the one that can give you the most bang for your buck. Here’s what to know about travel credit cards vs. airline and hotel credit cards.
General Travel Credit Cards
Instead of offering you points or miles with a specific hotel or airline program, general travel credit cards earn rewards with the card issuer’s proprietary rewards program. Examples of general travel reward programs include Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, and Citi ThankYou Rewards.
With general travel rewards, you may have one of three options for redeeming your points or miles for travel:
- Book directly through the rewards program travel portal.
- Use your card to book travel with third-party merchants, then use your points or miles to get a statement credit against the purchase.
- Transfer your rewards to a partner airline or hotel rewards program.
This flexibility is one of the biggest advantages of using a general travel credit card. Also, depending on the card you have, there may be benefits of using one redemption option over another.
With the Chase Sapphire Preferred, for instance, you’ll get 25% more value if you redeem your points for travel through Chase. But depending on how savvy you are, you may be able to get even more value by transferring your points to a partner rewards program and redeeming them there.
Where general travel credit cards may fall short is in the perks department. Some premium credit cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve offer annual travel credits, airport lounge access, and more, but you’ll have to pay a steep annual fee to get them.
Most general travel credit cards won’t offer you elite hotel status, free checked bags, or other benefits that are specific to a hotel or airline brand.
Airline Credit Cards
Airline credit cards are co-branded with a single airline and typically offer rewards and perks with that airline’s frequent flyer program.
With the Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card From American Express, for instance, you’ll get the chance to rack up Delta SkyMiles with every purchase you make, plus a free checked bag, priority boarding, and a discount on in-flight purchases in the form of a statement credit.
Some airline cards go even further. For example, the United Explorer Card offers cardholders similar benefits plus two passes to the United Club (the airline’s airport lounge network) each year and an application fee credit for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry.
Airline credit cards can be an excellent choice if you’re loyal to a specific one, and travel enough to take advantage of the card’s perks and rewards program. For example, mid-tier airline cards with an annual fee will often waive checked bag fees. The savings from this perk alone can offset the annual fee after a single roundtrip flight for the cardholder and a companion.
If you don’t fly a lot, it can be hard to earn rewards miles with an airline card. Some airline credit cards make it easier by offering bonus miles for grocery, restaurant, or other common purchases.
The downside is that while frequent flyer programs allow you to redeem your miles or points for more than just free flights—with Delta, you can bid on exclusive experiences, buy gift cards or merchandise, and more—you typically won’t get as much value out of these alternatives.
As a result, get an airline credit card if your top priority is to rack up rewards with a single frequent flyer program, and you want the added perks every time you fly.
Hotel Credit Cards
As with airline credit cards, hotel credit cards are co-branded with a single hotel brand. Each card allows you to earn points with the co-brand partner’s rewards program, and may also offer other perks.
For example, a modest card with a modest annual fee like the World of Hyatt Credit Card, will get you entry into the hotel’s status program, a complimentary night’s stay on your cardholder anniversary, and more perks as you spend with the card (and amass points).
If you’re ambitious, a top-tier hotel card (with a top-tier annual fee) like the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant American Express Card will pile on annual credits for purchases at Marriott hotels, complimentary anniversary nights at luxury properties, complimentary airport lounge access, and more.
Hotel credit cards can provide a lot of value, and many of them effectively pay for themselves by offering a free anniversary night that can be worth more than the annual fee. If you regularly stay with one hotel brand, it could be worth it to get its credit card.
But if you’re looking to go all-in on one credit card and consider yourself a free agent, so to speak, you’ll have a hard time getting good value when redeeming your points for anything but free hotel stays. As with airline cards, the best redemption value is generally reserved for purchases with the brand.
How to Pick the Right Travel Rewards Card For You
When it comes to travel rewards, there’s no one credit card that’s the best fit for everyone. To find the right one for you, it’s important to think about your travel goals and preferences.
For example, if you’re not sure you want to be beholden to a single airline or hotel rewards program, consider getting a general travel credit card.
With some, such as the American Express Gold Card, you can redeem your points for travel directly with Amex, or you can transfer them to one of many airline and hotel rewards programs. You won’t get that level of flexibility with a co-branded credit card.
But if you do like the idea of getting rewards and perks with a specific frequent flyer or hotel program, it may be worth getting a credit card that will make that happen.
In all of this, it’s also important to compare the value of the benefits you’re getting with the card’s annual fee. For example, if a general travel credit card offers great rewards but no significant perks, you’ll need to spend a certain amount each year just to make up for the cost of the card.
But if you have an airline or hotel card that offers perks that effectively reduce or eliminate the net cost of the card, you don’t have to worry as much about how much you spend.
In some cases, getting more than one travel rewards card may be the solution, making it possible to take advantage of the benefits of different types of cards and mitigating the disadvantages. For example, if you’re loyal to American Airlines, you might pair an AAdvantage branded card with the Chase Sapphire Preferred, since the Preferred’s Ultimate Rewards points don’t transfer to American, but do transfer to other airlines and hotels and can also be used to book all kinds of travel through the Chase portal.
Or, you might want to have more than one type of rewards card. Say you put all your travel purchases on a general travel card that earns 3 points per $1 spent on travel and 1 point per $1 spent on everything else. For all your non-travel buys, you could use a cash-back card that earns 1.5% on all purchases.
Whatever you do, it’s critical that you take some time to think about what’s most important to you and pick the card or cards that provide the features you want.