Ultimate Guide to Travel Credit Cards

Everything you need to know about selecting the right travel credit card

On a recent first-class Emirates flight from Bangkok to Hong Kong, Gilbert Ott showered and enjoyed a multi-course meal with unlimited vintage Dom Perignon champagne in his private suite.

“It was awesome,” he said. “Totally free, even the taxes.”

That’s because Ott, creator of travel hacking website God Save the Points, used his Citi Prestige® credit card to amplify points earned through his Citigold checking account.

Ott has used the strategy to visit Rio de Janeiro, London, Pisa, Tokyo, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Cape Town, Mexico City, Puerto Rico, and San Francisco.

Every travel credit card offers a different mix of benefits and costs, but with the right collection, you too can jet set on the cheap. Here’s how to pick the best one for you.

How to get the most of your travel credit cards

You can save hundreds of dollars in travel and related perks if you know how to play your cards right. You don’t have to have a six-figure paycheck or a ton of business expenses either. Even a modest budget can generate hundreds of dollars in free travel and perks.

This guide has everything you need to know about how to make your travel credit cards work for you.

  • Know your credit situation.
  • Find the best types of travel credit cards.
  • Consider your spending habits.
  • Focus on the perks that matter to you.
  • Be an early adopter.
  • Consider credit card reward restrictions.

Step 1: Know your credit situation

Travel credit cards typically require good or excellent credit to get approved. There are some secured credit cards out there that offer air miles. But they’re few and far between and typically come with extra fees.

If your credit is considered bad or fair, work on improving it before you apply for a travel rewards credit card. If, however, you’re already in the good or excellent range, you’ll have a good chance of getting approved.

Step 2: Know the best types of travel credit cards

There are three main types of travel credit cards, each with different redemption options and flexibility. Here’s a summary of each:

Co-branded travel credit cards

If you’re faithful to a particular airline, hotel brand, or cruise line, to consider their co-branded credit card. Spending translates into points or miles with the company’s loyalty or frequent flyer program.

Co-branded card users can also get perks such as room and cabin upgrades, WiFi, lounge membership, and more. The Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier card, for instance, features bookings with no blackout dates, two free checked bags, points that never expire.

General travel credit cards

Travelers who value flexibility above luxury like these cards. Accrued rewards go toward paying off any travel charge on the card statement, such as flights, hotels, even Uber rides. Simply use your card to book your travel then redeem your rewards to get a statement credit against your purchases.

And Capital One’s VentureOne card and the Barclaycard Arrival Premier World Elite Mastercard both offer hundreds of dollars of travel credit for users who hit a minimum spending requirement.

Travel credit cards with transferable points

This hybrid option offers points redemption through a group of partner travel companies. Often, you also get the chance to accrue extra points by spending within bonus categories.

Travel blogger Lee Abbamonte recently went to Mauritius using airline points earned through his Starwood Preferred American Express credit card, which allows transfers to more than 30 frequent flyer programs. He also stayed at the St. Regis resort for free.

Step 3: Consider your spending habits

Many travel credit cards offer bonus rewards on certain spending categories, such as travel or dining. If you spend a lot in those areas, it’s worth getting a card that’ll give you more rewards on those purchases.

If, however, you spend a lot in other areas, look for a card that offers bonus rewards on those purchases. Alternatively, pick a card that offers a high rewards rate on all of your purchases. Everyone’s spending habits vary. So the best card for you may not be the best card for close family members or friends.

Step 4: Focus on the perks that matter to you

Regardless of which type of credit card you get, it’s important to know what you want out of it. For example, redemption flexibility is nice, but you may prefer priority boarding and free checked bags. Alternatively, you may be open to a travel card that charges a steep annual fee in exchange for elite travel benefits.

As you compare travel credit cards, know which features you’ll use the most, so you can get as much value out of your new card as possible.

Step 5: Get your timing right

Apply for cards when they first come out. When a card issuer launches a new card to market, they often offer particularly generous terms to bait new customers. Those who get in early get to keep those terms, whereas later-to-the-game sign-ups may not qualify for the premium rewards and signup bonuses offered to early adopters.

Step 6: Consider credit card reward restrictions

Keep restrictions in mind when applying for cards. Card issuers may approve your application but remove the signup bonus if you have already received it once. Others restrict cardholders to one signup bonus every 24 months. Some banks don’t accept users who are serial card revolvers. For instance, in what is known as the 5/24 rule, Chase rejects applicants who have opened five or more bank card accounts in the past 24 months. American Express® limits cardholders to a single sign-up bonus per lifetime on personal cards.

However, it doesn’t hurt to call the card company and ask for a customized plan, such as double points in certain spending categories or several more years of waived annual fees. Just remember that sign-ups over the phone or online sometimes bear different bonuses.

The bottom line

Travel credit cards can provide a lot of value, but only if you use them regularly. Whichever card you choose, learn about more than just the card’s rewards program. Dig into the benefits guide to find out how else you can squeeze value out of the card and use it to improve your travel game.