Travel credit cards are incredible tools for earning free flights, hotel stays, and other travel perks. It’s something I’ve been doing for years, enabling me to earn more free flights and hotel stays than I can count.
And while it’s never been easier to earn these perks, there are so many cards out there these days that it’s hard to know which ones are actually worthwhile. Plus, it can be confusing trying to navigate all the various welcome offers, perks, and hidden fees.
How to Pick a Credit Card For Your Travels
It can seem so complex that most people end up just grabbing the first card they see and calling it a day. Or, even worse, they just give up and use a debit card instead.
In this article, I am going to tell you how to easily find the best travel credit cards for you so you can maximize your points and earn free travel perks. Because it’s a lot easier than you think!
Introduction to Credit Cards
While credit cards can be an incredible tool, there’s a lot of fear surrounding them. Most of us have been taught that they’re bad, a fast track to crippling debt. But when used responsibly, credit cards really can open the world up for you. And they just keep getting better: you can even earn points by paying your rent with a credit card these days (you can learn how in my Bilt review).
At their core, all credit cards do is allow you to borrow money from banks, which you then pay back later. It’s like a short-term loan. When you open a credit card, you’ll get a credit limit, and each month, you can spend up to that limit. If you pay that money back by the statement’s due date, there is no penalty. Next month you can spend up to that limit again.
However, if you don’t pay off your card promptly, you’ll be charged hefty interest on the remaining amount.
The key to travel hacking with credit cards is to never spend more money than you have, even if your credit limit is higher than that. You want to basically use your credit card like a debit card, spending only what you can afford, and then paying off the balance in full each month. By doing so, you’ll avoid those interest charges (which are often around 20%).
As long as you can pay your credit card off each month, you’ll be able to accrue points and miles that you can redeem for free travel rewards.
Figure Out Your Travel Hacking Goal(s)
The most important thing to know about picking a credit card and starting to travel hack is that there’s no perfect card, just the perfect card for you and your goals. That’s why the first thing you want to do is to figure out your goals.
Are you saving for a big family trip? Do you want your points to cover your hotel stay for your friend’s wedding next summer? Or maybe you want free flights to Mexico for a winter getaway. Maybe you care about making your travels more comfortable and want a more premium card that offers perks like airport lounge access.
There’s no wrong answer, so spend some time thinking about it. There are hundreds of travel credit cards to choose from, all with pros and cons. If you plunge into applying without direction, you’re going to get lost.
By narrowing in on your goal(s), it’ll be that much easier to pick out the card or cards that match them as well as your spending habits.
Choosing a Credit Card
Once you’re clear on your goals, it’s time to pick a credit card. At first, comparing them can be a little overwhelming. To help you stay focused and ensure you get the best card for you, here are a few key things to look for when picking one:
A huge welcome offer
The best travel cards all offer a sizable introductory bonus. These welcome points jump-start your account and get you closer to a free flight or hotel stay. Typical bonuses range between 40,000 to 60,000 points/miles, though sometimes they can be as high as 100,000. That’s why cards are so great: you get an instant balance of tens of thousands of points/miles for very little work. A good welcome bonus can easily get you a round-trip flight.
A low spending minimum
Unfortunately, to get those great welcome offers, there is usually a required spending minimum in the first few months. I typically sign up for cards with a minimum spending requirement of $3,000 in a three- to six-month period. While there are ways to temporarily boost your spending, it’s best to get the bonus using your normal day-to-day expenditures. Only apply for a card that you can meet the spending minimum on to qualify for the welcome bonus.
An added category spending bonus
Most credit cards offer one point for every dollar spent. However, good ones will give you extra points in certain categories (such as restaurants or travel), at specific retailers and brands, or when using their online portals. Choose a card whose bonus categories align with your regular spending habits, as this will help you earn points much more quickly. For me, that’s extra points on dining out and travel, because I do those often. Other common categories include gas, groceries, and things like office supplies. Never settle for one point per dollar spent. Look for at least two. Otherwise, it will take way too long to accumulate enough points for free travel.
Special travel perks
Getting the best travel card is not just about getting points and miles; it’s about what else comes with the card that makes your life easier! Many offer great perks, such as elite loyalty status, free upgrades, lounge access, and more. Shop around for perks that fit your needs.
No foreign transaction fees
Credit cards are great to use overseas because they give you the best possible exchange rate. However, in the past, using your card abroad meant that you had to pay extra fees per each transaction. These days, there are many cards that don’t charge foreign transaction fees so you should never get one with such a fee. Those fees ad up!
Plan your travels:
Recommended Travel Credit Cards for Beginners
Here are a few of my favorite cards for those just getting started in the points-and-miles world:
Bilt Rewards Mastercard (no fee)
Without a doubt, my favorite no-annual-fee travel card, the Bilt Mastercard enables you to earn points when you pay your rent (as well as on everyday purchases). The card is primarily geared toward travelers and restaurant-goers since it offers 2x points spent on travel and 3x points on dining out. You can also take advantage of unique Rent Day benefits on the first of every month!
Chase Sapphire Preferred Card ($95 annual fee)
This is another favorite card, offering 3x points on dining, online grocery purchases, and select streaming services; 2x points on travel (5x when booked through the Chase travel portal); travel protections; and a $50 annual hotel credit when you book and prepay through Chase Ultimate Rewards.
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card ($95 annual fee)
This card offers a rare 2x points on all purchases. You’ll also get 5x points on hotels and rental cars booked on Capital One travel, and $100 Global Entry/TSA PreCheck credit.
Over the years, I’ve scored loads of free flights, upgrades, hotel stays, and other cool perks. And there’s no reason you can’t do the same. As long as you pay off your balance each month, you can turn your everyday purchases into free travel and awesome perks — no extra spending required.
Keep the tips of this article in mind as you choose a card, and you’ll be well on your way to a new life of free and discounted travel.