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Maybe you’ve already got yourself a credit card, perhaps a store card or one that earns cash back. You might have even heard of travel cards, like the ones that promise airport lounge access or earn points for hotel stays — and now your interest is piqued.
For someone simply looking to dip their toes into the world of travel cards, the number of options can seem overwhelming. Let’s take a look at what travel credit cards are, how they work and which travel credit cards are best for beginners.
What is a travel credit card?
There are many different types of credit cards, including cash back credit cards, cards that offer no rewards, store credit cards (like a Target-brand card) and, of course, travel credit cards.
The subset of travel credit cards can be further drilled down into three typical types:
Flexible currency credit cards (also known as general travel rewards cards).
Hotel credit cards will typically allow you to earn points towards a specific hotel chain, such as Hilton or Marriott. Airline cards, likewise, will allow you to earn miles for specific airlines, like United and Delta.
Flexible point currency cards, however, are offered by specific card issuers. American Express and Chase are two common examples for this. They earn points that you can then choose to transfer and redeem via partnerships with other businesses and loyalty programs, including several hotels and airlines. This makes them much more flexible to use than other point currencies — hence the name flexible point currencies. Terms apply.
» Learn more: The best points and miles credit cards for beginners
Many travel credit cards come with a welcome offer that will award you a lump sum of points after spending a certain amount on the card after a specific amount of time. After this, you continue to earn points by using your credit card on purchases, just like other types of credit cards.
There are different tiers of credit cards. While some travel credit cards come without an annual fee, several cards do charge to have the card in your wallet. These fees generally range from $95 annually to upwards of $550. Oftentimes, understanding the value of the included perks and some quick math can help you judge whether a specific card is worth its annual fee.
» Learn more: How to choose a travel credit card
How are travel credit cards different from other credit cards?
Different credit cards offer different types of benefits. Some credit cards may help card holders build credit, while others reward you with, say, cash back for spending money on certain “categories” of purchase, like dining.
You can find cash back cards that are great for travel, but many travel credit cards reward spenders differently. Rewards come in the form of points or miles that you can then redeem towards travel. Note that many travel credit cards offer other perks, too, like the ability to access airport lounges, hotel elite status and even an annual credit towards travel purchases.
» Learn more: 5 steps to get started with rewards travel
How do travel credit cards work?
Generally speaking, you’ll want to use your travel credit card when making purchases in order to earn points or miles. Several cards will offer extra bonus points when spending your money in specific categories or at specific brands.
The Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card, for example, will award you 12 points per $1 that you spend at Hilton. You’ll also receive 6 points per $1 spent at U.S.-based restaurants, supermarkets and gas stations. If you spend a lot of money in these categories, it can be easy to build up enough points for an award stay with Hilton, which start at 5,000 points per night.
The Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card also gives you Gold elite status with Hilton and up to 10 visits per year to an airport lounge with Priority Pass (enrollment required). These included benefits can be valuable, especially since they entitle you to perks like complimentary food and drink in the lounge when traveling. However, the card does come with a $95 annual fee. Terms apply.
» Learn more: Dive deeper into how travel credit cards work
What should I look for in a first travel credit card?
If it meets your needs
Why do you want a travel credit card? Are you looking to have a nearly free hotel stay? Do you want to earn points for an award flight to Europe? Are you looking for perks like elite status and airport lounge access?
If it’s brand-specific or flexible
If none of these apply and you aren’t particularly loyal to any one brand — hotel or airline — then it may make sense to instead invest in a card that offers a flexible point currency.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is an excellent starter option. It’s currently offering an all-time high welcome offer: Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
» Learn more: Your guide to Chase Ultimate Rewards®
You can then redeem these points via the Chase travel portal at a rate of 1.25 cents each, or you can transfer them to one of Chase’s partners — like United or Hyatt — and redeem them for award travel. In layman's terms, this means that the welcome offer above will be worth at least $1,250 in travel if you redeem them on the Chase travel portal.
Although it comes with a $95 annual fee, you’ll receive a $50 anniversary credit towards a hotel purchase made via the Chase travel portal. You’ll also be able to earn 5 points per $1 spent at the Chase travel portal and 3 points per $1 on dining, select streaming services and online grocery purchases at eligible supermarkets.
Altogether, this makes it one of the best travel credit cards for beginners. It’s easy to use and makes it simple to both earn and redeem your points.
If it fits your budget
As you shop around, account for the potential ongoing cost of adding a specific travel credit card to your lineup. Since annual fees (and subsequent card benefits) vary significantly, it’s up to you to be a smart shopper and find a card that fits your budget.
If you’re a first-time travel credit card owner, it makes sense to be hesitant to jump on a premium travel credit card with a hefty annual fee. Start with something smaller so that you can build your knowledge of points and miles, and save the more complicated redemptions for the future.
If it feels manageable
It would be unwise to get a travel credit card just to skip using the points and miles for redemptions. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the thought of managing a currency, consider instead a simpler option like a cash-back card.
Do I need a travel credit card?
No, you don’t need a travel credit card. There are pros and cons to spending on credit cards, and every individual’s circumstances will be different. There are many types of travel credit cards, and if you look hard enough, you’re likely to find a good fit for you and your travel preferences.
However, none of them will be worth much to you if you don’t plan to travel.
If you’re committed to traveling at least once a year, a travel credit card could be a good option for you. The benefits they provide can help you enjoy deeply discounted vacations and give you access to perks that make travel more convenient or comfortable.
The bottom line
Travel credit cards can be a valuable financial tool for those who want to save money when they travel. They can also help add premium travel benefits to your vacations, like the chance to get free room upgrades and access comfy airport lounges with complimentary food and drink.
If you’re looking to start investing in a travel credit card, first identify what you need. Whether it’s hotel stays or flights, the card you choose should be dictated by your goals. Once you’ve selected the one you want, simply put your regular purchases on your card (aim to spend smartly by paying attention to your card’s bonus categories) and watch those points build up for redemption.
To view rates and fees of the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card, see this page.
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