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Regardless of whether you’re just starting to look into travel cards or already have a few under your belt, understanding how to compare travel credit cards can quickly get complicated. From cardholder benefits to annual fees, each card is unique.
So how do you know which ones you should get? Let’s take a look at the different aspects of travel cards, some of the best travel credit card perks and how to figure out which ones are right for you.
What to consider before choosing a travel credit card
Your travel credit card selection will ultimately come down to the following four factors: The size of the welcome bonus, the card's benefits and rewards, how you'll earn points and the card's overall cost (or annual fee).
Banks want your business. In the highly competitive U.S. credit card market, this means they’ll need to stand out in order to attract your attention. One of the ways they do this is by offering welcome bonuses.
Welcome bonuses can vary, but they usually feature a one-time lump sum of bonus points after making enough purchases on your card in a specific amount of time. You can find offers ranging from 15,000 points all the way up to 180,000 points — but not all bonuses are created equal.
You’ll want to consider how you’re going to redeem those points well before you send in your application. Are you a frequent flyer? A co-branded airline card may be a good option for you. Do you prefer a certain hotel chain? You may want to direct your attention toward hotel cards instead. Make sure you can and will use the bonus points on offer before you sign up.
Some of the best travel credit card offers out there are with credit cards that offer flexible point currencies, such as American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards® and Citi ThankYou points. The points these cards earn can transfer to a number of partners, such as airlines and hotel chains. These cards thereby give you more flexibility and ultimately help you avoid pigeonholing yourself into earning points or miles that can only be redeemed with a single loyalty program.
» Learn more: The best travel credit card welcome bonuses right now
Benefits and rewards
Another way card issuers try to differentiate themselves is by the perks they offer. You’ll find a different range of benefits based on the type of card you’re getting. No-annual-fee and mid-tier cards (those costing an annual fee of $100 or less) inherently offer fewer perks than their more expensive cousins, premium travel cards. These credit cards may cost hundreds to renew every year.
When comparing travel credit card rewards, consider how many of these benefits you can realistically maximize — let alone use. For example, several different travel credit cards come with TSA PreCheck/Global Entry credits, but you only need one membership every four years. If you already have one card that offers this credit, then target other benefits when applying for another travel rewards card.
The same can be said of cards like The Platinum Card® from American Express. As a top-tier card, you’ll enjoy complimentary elite status with hotel chains like Marriott and Hilton. Enrollment required. However, the card also comes with a $25 monthly Equinox credit that may not fit into your existing lifestyle. Terms apply.
» Learn more: The best travel credit cards right now
Earning bonus points
Once you’ve earned your welcome bonus, the best way to increase your points balance is by putting purchases on the card itself. Each individual card will offer varying amounts of bonus points for different spending categories. Sometimes these are called bonus categories.
You’ll need to decide how diligent you want to be about earning points. Are you fine with switching out cards in order to maximize your bonus points? Or are you content with keeping a select few on hand and leaving some other cards' rewards on the table?
Based on what you decide, you’ll want to compare the earning structure for the travel cards you’ll own. Some, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, offer a flat 3x points on a broad category of travel-related expenses. Others, like The Platinum Card® from American Express, will give you an objectively better 5x points on airfare and hotels — but will restrict how you earn based on how you book your travel. You’ll also face an annual cap of $500,000, after which you’ll earn just 1x point per dollar.
Most travel credit cards aren’t free. True, there are some entry-level cards that’ll provide limited benefits and no annual fee, but the best perks are offered on cards that will cost you money.
The question here is: How much are you willing to spend? Some of the most expensive travel credit cards will charge you upwards of $500 per year. In return, you’ll get best-in-class rewards and the ability to maximize bonus points on your spend.
If you’re not looking to lay out a lot of cash, mid-tier cards such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card can offer similar but less extensive rewards with a much cheaper annual fee. Figure out the budget you’re comfortable spending each year and take a look at cards that fit your needs.
» Learn more: Best no annual fee travel credit cards of October 2021
If you’re looking to compare travel credit cards …
Each travel credit card is unique, and the best way to figure out which one is right for you is by comparing them. Decide what’s important to you, whether it’s a large welcome offer, the ability to earn plenty of points or a whole slew of cardholder benefits, and pick out cards that match what you’re willing to pay.
Not all cards are right for every person, but with the range of available travel credit cards on the market today, odds are you’ll find one that suits your lifestyle.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2021, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card