How do travel credit cards work?
The best travel credit cards allow you to earn points, rewards, or miles toward your travel-related expenses. These are typically earned by making purchases with your card within the rewards structure and then redeeming them for free flights or hotel stays, or a statement credit.
The rewards structure of travel credit cards typically falls into one of three categories:
- Fixed value – Each point is worth a fixed amount (for example, with the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card, each mile is worth one cent toward a flight or hotel cost), so you always know what you’re going to get.
- Transferrable – You earn a pool of points that can then be transferred to a partner program. These types of points have the most flexibility and you won’t have to maintain allegiance to a specific airline or hotel chain.
- Co-branded – These cards allow you to earn and use points with a specific brand, such as the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express. Not only do you earn points with these cards, you may also receive perks, such as elite status, lounge access, free checked bags, and more.
The best travel credit cards offer you a lot of value with some flexibility based on your travel needs and goals. Explore the cards we recommend as well as their rewards structure to find the best travel credit card for you.
Resources for frequent travelers
The science of mastering rewards with your travel credit card is more of a journey than a destination, and even the savviest cardholder still has things to learn along the way.
In addition to rewards, many credit cards also provide travel insurance to help you protect yourself as you ramble around the globe.
The following section offers useful information to help you maximize the benefits of your travel credit card — not just the rewards points, but also insurance and other features that can improve your travel experience.
Travel credit cards vs. vacation taxes
Taking a vacation should mean getting away from it all, but there’s no getting away from taxes.
Travel-related taxes can increase the cost of travel by more than half. To put that figure in perspective, consider this: American Express has estimated the average vacation expense at $1,145 per person. By those calculations, the average person would pay about $750 for the vacation itself and $395 in the form of taxes on hotels, airline tickets, rental cars and more.
Before you start writing your elected representatives, take a deep breath – we’re not here to debate tax policy. Then take comfort in the fact that using a travel credit card can help you save money on travel in a number of ways, including:
- Hotels. Redeeming reward points toward hotel stays is a central feature of many hotel and travel credit cards. Typically, earning a certain number of points makes the cardholder eligible to redeem the points for a free night. Some cards also offer free nights every year you celebrate your anniversary as a cardholder.
- Transportation. Redeeming rewards points toward airline tickets is another popular feature of airline credit cards and other types of travel cards, as is using points to save on car rentals.
- Recreation. Some cards affiliated with hotel and resort chains offer benefits for onsite activities such as spa sessions.
- International purchases. A growing number of travel credit cards feature $0 foreign transaction fees, which means you avoid paying the extra 1% to 3% per transaction that other cards charge.
What about cruises, where lodging and transportation are part of the same package? Good news — some cards let you redeem points toward vacation cruises.
What about things that cost time instead of money? With a travel credit card that features concierge service, it’s like having a personal assistant who can help you shop, make dinner reservations, find lost luggage, and more.
Don’t let travel taxes cast a shadow over your vacation or business trip. Strategic use of your travel credit card can help you save big.
How credit cards protect you while you travel
Decades ago, people used a combination of cash and traveler’s checks when traveling abroad. Unfortunately, carrying around a ton of cash comes with certain risks, and exchanging currencies in each new country can be a huge pain.
Modern travelers still carry some cash, but as more of a novelty than anything else. Instead, they make the majority of their international purchases with travel credit cards that not only reward them for making purchases, but also protect them from fraudulent charges and other pitfalls. Here’s how credit cards can protect you (and save you money) while you travel:
- Use a card that offers no liability for unauthorized purchases. When traveling abroad, you want to make sure you use a credit card that won’t hold you accountable if someone gets ahold of your card and starts making purchases. The Discover it® Miles card, for example, comes with no liability for unauthorized purchases and no foreign transaction fee, making it a good option. Just make sure the country you’re traveling to is prone to accept Discover since international acceptance varies.
- Carry your credit card contact information separately from your card. Most credit cards let you call collect from anywhere in the world if your card is lost or stolen. Obviously, you won’t have access to their number if you no longer have your card, which is why most experts suggest keeping these important contact numbers separate from your credit cards in case of loss or theft.
- Choose a card with free travel insurance. If you want to take advantage of free travel insurance, make sure to book the major components of your itinerary with a credit card that offers excellent travel and trip cancellation insurance, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. Doing so can mean getting reimbursed if your trip is cancelled due to flight interruptions, a natural disaster, or other unexpected events.
Do you need additional travel insurance?
Although it’s easy to brush off travel insurance as an unnecessary expense, you should always give it a second look. With all the upheavals that can unravel your travel plans, not to mention your own personal health, you might be wise to purchase a simple travel insurance plan — or at least pay for your trip with a credit card that offers this benefit for free. Your best option might be a combination: buying a travel insurance policy that supplements the coverage provided by your credit card and fills in the gaps.
Also, don’t fall victim to some common misconceptions about travel insurance:
Myth #1: My existing insurance coverage provides all the protection I might need. This myth is exceptionally problematic when it comes to health insurance. The further you travel from home, the more likely you are to be out-of-network for medical care. When you’re out-of-network, your benefits can be less generous and your deductibles higher. Since many policies do not cover doctor or hospital visits outside of the country, a medical travel insurance policy might be a good bet.
Myth #2: If a canceled flight leaves me stranded, the airline will pay to put me up in a hotel. Don’t count on it, unless you see it in the contract. Generally, regulations in the U.S. and Europe avoid making specific requirements to this effect. Depending on the carrier and the circumstances behind the cancellation or delay, the airline may be legally required to offer nothing more than a refund or a ticket on the next available flight. Some airlines are more accommodating than others, if you’ll forgive the pun.
Myth #3. One travel insurance policy is the same as any other. Actually, policies vary widely in scope and levels of coverage.
Certain type of travel credit cards offer certain travel benefits to cardholders. Take the , for example. Premium travel insurance, including trip cancellation, is included as a card member benefit. If you wanted to take advantage of this perk, all you would need to do is use your card to purchase your airfare and accommodation. Other types of travel insurance your credit card might offer include trip interruption insurance, which can reimburse you for nonrefundable travel expenses if you end up getting sick before your trip or it gets cancelled for almost any other reason. Different cards offer different versions of trip cancellation or trip interruption insurance, so make sure you understand your card’s policy before you count on it for coverage. You can usually buy travel insurance at the same time you purchase airfare or book your hotel.
If you want to compare travel insurance policies, check out our post on the best travel insurance options currently available. Just remember, travel insurance only seems frivolous until you need it. If your trip gets cancelled, travel insurance could protect you from thousands of dollars in losses. Some common events that are covered with various types of travel insurance include personal illness or illness of a family member, natural disaster, emergency evacuations, or even lost or stolen baggage or belongings. Obviously, none of those events are ones you can plan for ahead of time, so it’s best to be adequately insured instead.
Bringing it all together
To maximize your travel rewards, start by making a strategy and then learning as you go. Our tips for choosing a card with generous, easy-to-earn rewards include:
- Start earning travel points with a flexible travel rewards card
- Learn about loyalty programs and find your preferred airlines and hotels
- Add a more targeted travel credit card using what you’ve learned
By keeping it simple and taking it slow, you’ll graduate from being a novice traveler in no time, and you’ll soon be experiencing unforgettable travel experiences for less — just like the pros!
Research the best travel credit cards
Below is a directory of the most popular travel credit cards. I used this directory as a starting point for my research and analysis on travel cards. The directory is updated weekly to reflect any new changes, to add new cards, and to remove expired cards.
The travel credit cards directory is a sub-directory of rewards credit cards. This directory highlights the most important features specific to travel cards and displays all important information about each card.
Travel credit cards directory
The travel rewards credit card directory lists every travel credit card and high level information for each of the cards, so you can make quick comparisons. In order to rank and value each of these cards, certain features were weighted accordingly based on overall importance to the prospective cardholder.
Sort, filter, or search for what matters most to find the best travel credit card for you.
Perks Tier Level
Sign up Bonus Tier Level
Rewards Tier Level
Good Signup Bonus
Great Ongoing Rewards
No Annual Fee
No Foreign Transaction Fee