How to Pick Your First Travel Rewards Credit Card

Seek straightforward rewards. Flexibility is ideal for bargain hunters, and perks work for airline/hotel loyalists.
Sara Rathner
By Sara Rathner 
Edited by Kenley Young
Tourists visit the Colosseum in Rome

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Nerdy takeaways
  • To start, look for travel cards with easy reward redemptions. Stick to general rewards cards if you want flexibility, or a hotel or airline card if you're loyal to certain brands.

  • Apply for your first travel card at least five months before booking award travel so you have time to earn and receive the sign-up bonus.

  • If you currently have credit card debt, focus on paying that debt down first before turning your attention to rewards cards.

There may come a point — perhaps when you scroll through a friend's vacation-themed Instagram posts during a sad desk lunch — when you begin to crave travel adventures of your own. If you're unsure how to fund your globetrotting goals, one way is to sign up for your first credit card that earns travel rewards.

Travel credit cards earn points or miles on everyday expenses, which you can redeem to offset travel costs like airfare, hotel stays and rental cars. Here’s what to consider if you’re shopping for your first credit card for travel.

If this sounds like you...

...consider this type of credit card

You're not loyal to a certain airline or hotel brand.

You tend to stick to the same airline and hotel whenever you travel.

An airline or hotel card.

You don't travel often and don't necessarily want to redeem points for travel.

You currently have credit card debt.

How to pick the best first credit card for travel

Look for easy earnings and redemptions

Odds are you won’t magically transform into a travel hacker overnight — and you may not ever want to. Look for a beginner-friendly travel card that doesn’t require you to be so strategic about where you use it. And redeeming points without dealing with confusing fine print? That’s a must, too.

Bank of America Travel Rewards® Credit Card
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The Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card earns an easy-to-remember 1.5 points per dollar on every purchase, with one exception: You’ll earn 3 points per dollar spent on eligible travel booked through the Bank of America® Travel Center. You can also earn 25,000 online bonus points after you make at least $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days of account opening - that can be a $250 statement credit toward travel purchases. Bank of America Preferred Rewards® members earn 25%-75% more points per purchase, too.

To redeem your rewards, just apply them toward restaurant or travel purchases from the past 12 months and get reimbursement in the form of a statement credit (points redeemed for travel are worth 1 cent apiece). “Travel” includes airfare, hotel stays, rental cars, campgrounds, cruises, travel agencies, trains, buses, taxis, limos, ferries, parking, tolls, tourist attractions and more. The annual fee is $0, which is perfect if you’re just getting your feet wet.

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Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
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If you’re open to paying an annual fee, the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card is another option for anyone seeking their first credit card for travel. You’ll pay $95 — but a statement credit for the application cost of Global Entry or TSA Precheck helps soften the blow. Earn 2 miles per dollar on all purchases, plus a sign-up bonus: Enjoy a one-time bonus of 75,000 miles once you spend $4,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel. Redeem your rewards as a statement credit toward travel charges you made within the past 90 days. “Travel” purchases include airfare, hotel stays, train tickets, rental cars, limos, buses, cruises, taxis, travel agents and timeshares.

Both of these cards charge no foreign transaction fee, making them excellent travel buddies once you take that trip you booked with points.

Prioritize flexibility if you’re not loyal to specific brands

If you’re willing to fly any airline and stay in any hotel as long as the price is right, a more general travel rewards card like the two listed above gives you the freedom to create the travel itinerary of your choice.

General travel cards are especially ideal for those who intend to apply points toward multiple travel expenses, or for those who aren't yet sure how they'll use points in the future.

If you are loyal, find a card for your favorite airlines and hotels

Perhaps you don’t want infinite options. If you tend to stick to a specific airline or hotel chain whenever you travel, then a co-branded credit card — one that carries the name of both a bank and a merchant brand — can snag you additional perks in exchange for your dedication.

Airline credit cards earn more points when you make purchases with that airline, and those points are often worth more when you redeem them for flights. And depending on the card you choose, you may get valuable extras like:

Your card may also give you a head start on earning miles that will qualify you for elite status.

Hotel credit cards can also enhance your travel experience with room upgrades, free breakfast and snacks, and access to exclusive hotel lounges (Incidentally, they’re often where you’ll find those free snacks.).

When to get your first credit card for travel

It’s by no means required to have a specific vacation in mind when you shop around for your first credit card for travel rewards, but it certainly will help you narrow down your options. One thing you’re going to want to do is plan ahead. Way, way ahead.

That's because earning a sign-up bonus usually takes about three months, and it may take another billing cycle for that bonus to appear in your account. NerdWallet recommends applying for a card at least five months before your trip. That will give you time to get the card, earn the bonus and book travel with points.

What if a travel rewards card isn’t for you?

If you’re not a frequent traveler or you just want to keep things super simple, you may find that a cash-back credit card is more your speed. Here's one way to turn a cash-back card into a travel card: Redeem your cash-back earnings and deposit an equivalent amount into a savings account earmarked toward travel, so when you’re ready to book, you’ve got the funds available.

🤓Nerdy Tip

If you have credit card debt or anticipate taking on debt for a major purchase, travel credit cards may not be the best fit. They typically carry higher-than-average APRs, meaning the interest you’d pay on revolving debt would eat away at your rewards. Instead, consider credit cards that offer introductory APR periods for balance transfers or purchases.

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