How to pick the best travel rewards credit card

Personal finance

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You can get 50,000 bonus miles or a $100 statement credit. How about free checked bags or rental insurance? Sound good?

Well, have we got a card for you.

So goes the irresistible sales pitch of sexy rewards and perks that many credit card issuers make to an American public enamored of both travel and what looks like a good deal. But is it?

Millions seem to think so, and our credit card choices are affecting our lifestyles. One in 5 U.S. credit cardholders planned to use travel rewards points to pay for at least half their summer travel expenses this year, according to a recent survey. And 75% of cardholders say available rewards impact where to travel and stay and how they get there.

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Travel rewards are more popular among men than women, said Matt Schulz, chief industry analyst at Looking at geography, the firm’s survey found that people in the Northeast were most likely (73%) to use points for summer travel, compared to just 46% of Midwesterners.

Among age cohorts, there was once debate in the industry as to how receptive millennials would be to credit cards in general “because they bore a lot of scars from the Great Recession,” said Schulz. But they went big for rewards cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve — launched in 2016 with a 100,000 miles sign-up bonus.

“Cards that offer rewards points have been really attractive to millennials and helped draw them into the space,” he said. For example, 72% of millennial survey respondents planned travel with points this summer, compared to just 64% of consumers in general.

So should you sign up for one of the many travel rewards cards out there? And which type should you choose? It depends on your finances and travel habits, say experts.

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Balancing act

First, if you typically carry a balance on your credit cards from month to month, “you probably should look elsewhere,” said Schulz. “Even with sign-up bonuses [and] the miles and points you can get, the interest rates that you pay on these cards is often so high that the math simply doesn’t work in your favor.”

With credit card interest rates at record highs, racking up a lot of high-interest debt you can’t pay off to rake in frequent flier miles just doesn’t add up. According to Federal Reserve data, the average annual percentage rate in the second quarter of 2019 for credit cards was 17.14%, the highest since 1994.

“If you have high-interest credit-card debt — and it’s all pretty much high interest with credit cards — your first priority should be paying that debt back down to zero and then staying out of debt in the future,” said Sara Rathner, travel and credit cards expert at personal finance website NerdWallet.

“Between annual fees and the interest you’re paying, you’re wiping out the value of all those rewards,” she added. “Why put yourself through that when you can prioritize getting out of debt?”

Schulz agrees. “The last thing that anyone should do is overspend on a credit card in order to get rewards, regardless of how good those rewards might be.”

If you don’t carry a balance, the next question to ask yourself is whether you actually leave home enough to make getting a travel rewards card worthwhile.

The most obvious candidate is “a road warrior, someone who is flying once a week, a consultant or someone working in sales, for example,” according to Zach Honig, editor at large for travel website The Points Guy.

“An average consumer probably won’t be able to take advantage of [card benefits] more than a few times a year,” he said.

Dana Marineau, vice president and financial advocate at Credit Karma, agreed.

“If you don’t travel often, then a travel rewards credit card may not be worth the trouble,” she said. “Do your research, though, because that card could still offer a perk or non-travel redemption option that will prove useful down the line.”

If you find yourself changing your habits to justify your card membership, then you might want to rethink your plans.

Dana Marineau

vice president and financial advocate at Credit Karma

For example, cash-back cards can be more valuable than travel cards if their programs match consumers’ existing spending habits. (Cash back rewards are, in fact, the most popular credit card perk among all U.S. demographic groups, according to CompareCards’ Schulz. That’s backed up by research from, which found cash back is the preferred award for 68.9% of all credit cardholders, compared to 17.15% for travel rewards, in a recent survey.)

In other words, know thyself. “It all depends on what the different cards offer, and how they match up with the spending you’re already doing,” said Marineau. “Ultimately, everyone’s unique circumstances mean there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.”

If you do travel often enough to make travel rewards a viable option, weigh individual card variables —annual fees, benefits, transferability, restrictions, etc. — to find the best fit.

Consumer finance and travel websites such as Credit Karma, CompareCards, NerdWallet and The Points Guy offer their own card rankings and online search engines that can help you comparison shop. Keep in mind that some sites earn bonuses from card purveyors when readers apply for an account.

Here’s a look at individual travel credit-card factors to consider:

Annual fees and benefits

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Fees for credit cards offering some sort of travel reward range from zero to several hundred dollars a year.

“The American Express Platinum card, while having the most robust suite of benefits, also has a $550 annual fee — which obviously has a major impact” on who might apply, said Honig at The Points Guy. Other cards with higher fees include the Citi/AAdvantage Executive MasterCard and the Delta Reserve card from American Express, both with a $450 annual fee.

“You do find [some of] these cards have huge fees because they offer these incredibly valuable benefits, and they have to kind of even that out somehow,” said Rathner at NerdWallet.

For example, the Amex Platinum card offers 60,000 bonus points at sign up, and then ongoing airport lounge access; airline, rideshare and Global Entry and TSA PreCheck fee credits; hotel perks; quintupled rewards points on many purchases, and more — worth about $1,500 in total annually, according to website Upgraded Points.

The value of the perks can help offset high annual fees. The popular Chase Sapphire Reserve card, at $450 a year, offers a $300 annual statement credit for travel purchases, according to NerdWallet.


Things to consider when selecting a card:

• Balance: Pay off monthly or carry?
• Interest rate
• Annual fee
• Co-branded vs. general purpose
• Sign-up bonus
• Perks/rewards: Extra points, upgrades, credits, etc.
• Foreign transaction fee

If those fees seem to be out of your budgetary ballpark, fear not.

“The good news is that you don’t have to spend $500 to get some decent travel rewards on your credit card,” said Schulz. “There are no-annual-fee or low-annual-fee options out there if you take the time to look around.”

Rathner at NerdWallet pointed to two — the Wells Fargo Propel American Express card, with no annual fee, and Capital One Venture, with a $95 annual fee that’s waived for the first year. Both offer sign-up bonus miles and no fees on foreign transactions. In addition, the Venture card offers accident and auto rental insurance, and Global Entry or TSA PreCheck enrollment reimbursement, among other perks.

In general, most cards falling into the travel rewards category will usually offer some sort of beefed up points-earning incentives and special fee-free services or fee reimbursements. They often will also offer a sign-up bonus if you spend a certain amount within a specified time period, and some will also throw in travel-class upgrades, travel insurance coverage, and discounts on airfares and hotel rates.

Whatever a card’s perks, it’s still a good idea to annually appraise whether the high fee on a card you hold is worth it, said The Points Guy’s Honig. “Even as a frequent traveler, when it comes time to pay that annual fee, I take a step back and think ‘Am I getting enough value out of this?'” he said.

General-purpose vs. co-branded cards

Do you opt for a co-branded card tied to one travel provider, such as the Delta Reserve card, or a more general card like the Amex Platinum or Wells Fargo Propel?

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“If you’re somebody who always flies American Airlines, you should certainly consider getting an American card, or if you always stay at Marriott hotels, consider getting a Marriott card,” said Schulz. “If you’re somebody who values flexibility and isn’t really loyal to one particular chain or airline, then a general-purpose card is probably the best direction for you to go.”

Credit Karma’s Marineau agreed that co-branded cards can offer a lot of added value — such as free checked bags, seat or room upgrades, and late checkouts — to customers who stick to one provider.

“On the other hand, some flexible travel cards, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, offer numerous easy-to-use credits and complimentary memberships, which some travelers prefer even if they usually gravitate toward certain brands,” she said. “These cards also sometimes allow you to transfer your points to specific airline and hotel programs at a 1:1 ratio, so you might end up with extra rewards power even if you don’t commit to that brand’s card.”

To wit, frequent flier Honig carries Chase’s United Club card for its airport lounge privileges but actually charges expenses, even for on trips on United Airlines, on another card — his Sapphire Reserve — because, he said, “I ultimately earn more United miles on the Sapphire Reserve.”

In the end, it’s important to select a card that rewards you for spending and travel habits that improve your financial life.

“If the card matches what you already do, or would like to do, then it’s probably the best option for you,” said Marineau. “If you find yourself changing your habits to justify your card membership, then you might want to rethink your plans.”

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