As Travel Rebounds, Credit Cards Can Unlock Perks From Bygone Golden Age

A flood of pent-up demand is about to hit airports and hotels. The right credit card can help you hark back to travel's heyday by dodging some of the lines, the noise and the fees.
Erin Hurd
By Erin Hurd 
Edited by Kenley Young

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As COVID-19 vaccines become more widely available, travel appears poised to bounce back in a big way. According to a 2021 NerdWallet study, more than half of Americans (56%) plan to take their next vacation involving air travel and/or hotel/resort stays in 2021.

This demand harks back to the so-called Golden Age of Travel of the mid-20th century, when a surge of Americans took to the skies. The introduction of jets heralded higher levels of speed, comfort and efficiency than had ever existed before, and travelers eagerly climbed aboard.

Today's travel reality, though, conjures up few images of roomy seating, elaborate meal service and fashionable passengers dressed to the nines. Instead, Americans may be rushing right back to long lines, cramped quarters and precious few amenities — unless they have a travel credit card that can unlock a few "Golden Age"-esque perks and create a more luxurious experience.

Here's what the right credit card lets you do as you travel.

Skip the security line

Even infrequent travelers have likely encountered daunting, snaking airport security or customs lines. Federal programs like TSA Precheck or Global Entry can speed you through those lines more quickly — if you're willing to apply and pay for them.

But first, check your travel credit card's terms. Many will reimburse you for the application fees for those programs, a perk that can help defray a travel card's annual fee:

  • TSA Precheck membership costs $78 and lasts for five years. It speeds up security screenings domestically.

  • Global Entry costs $100 for a five-year membership. It helps expedite the customs line when you return home, weary from an international flight. Bonus: Global Entry includes TSA Precheck and its benefits.

Clear offers a similar “velvet rope” experience at select domestic airports, and even at some sporting and concert venues. It uses biometrics to verify your identity. Unlike the above programs, though, it's administered by a private company, and it's a good bit more expensive at $189 per year.

The American Express® Green Card offers up to $189 annually in statement credit when you pay for Clear with the card. (Terms apply — see rates and fees.)

🤓Nerdy Tip

Renewing TSA PreCheck will cost $78. But if you choose to renew online instead of in person, you'll only need to pay $70.

Enjoy creature comforts

A "Golden Age" travel experience doesn’t have to stop once you’re through security. The right credit cards can provide extra perks on the other side of that line, even for those who aren’t frequent travelers.

  • Free checked bag(s): Many airline credit cards offer this perk, and its value alone can more than justify the annual fees found on such cards — even if you fly only once a year. If a checked bag costs you $30 one way, then you'll save $60 round trip. If you're flying with a companion, that could be a total of $120 in savings. And from a comfort perspective? You can avoid lugging heavy bags all around the airport or fighting for cramped overhead bin space.

  • Lounge access: Don’t want to wait in a hard, plastic seat at a noisy, crowded gate? If you hold certain credit cards, you may have complimentary access to an airport lounge — where you can enjoy a plush seat and nosh on snacks that aren’t just of the tiny pretzel variety.

  • Priority boarding: Even if you don't have status with an airline, certain airline credit cards let you head to the front of the line — or close to it — for early boarding. So if you like to get settled in your seat before the rest of the plane gets packed, or you want a head start on finding overhead bin space, this perk can help.

Sit in style

Even if you’re not a seasoned jet-setter, scoring better seats on the plane could be more accessible than you think, especially if — in the wake of a pandemic — you’re sitting on a large pile of unused travel rewards points. NerdWallet's 2021 travel study indicates Americans with travel rewards cards have close to 65,000 rewards points or miles, on average, saved up.

If you're among those with such a rewards stockpile, consider using them to splurge for that business class seat during the impending, crowded travel boom.

If you don’t have enough points to book premium seats outright, some credit card points programs, like American Express, offer the option to use your points to upgrade your economy ticket.

Get the red-carpet hotel treatment

Elite hotel status — and the perks that come with it — may once have been reserved for true road warriors. But many co-branded hotel credit cards now offer automatic elite status to cardholders, conferring benefits like special check-in lines, early check-in, late checkout, free breakfast and even occasional room upgrades.

Do the math for the travel you have in mind: Even if you don’t travel all that regularly, having a credit card that gives you these perks could be well worth paying an annual fee.

The Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card, for example, carries a $95 — but it also offers automatic Gold status, entitling cardholders to a breakfast credit, among other perks. (Terms apply — see rates and fees.)

If your family stays with Hilton only a few times a year, the money you’ll save from the breakfast perk alone could outweigh the fee.

All information about the American Express® Green Card has been collected independently by NerdWallet. The American Express® Green Card is no longer available through NerdWallet. To view rates and fees of the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card, see this page.

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