Choosing the correct credit card to manage your trip costs is one of the most important decisions you'll make as a consumer. For even the average traveler, travel expenses is one of the largest purchases you'll put on a credit card and if you play your cards right (literally), you can save money and earn more travel. I'm not an expert, but I'll do my best to provide you with information and resources to make the best decision for your travel needs.
For about ten years I had one credit card with my bank. The rewards program cost $19 per year and I received 1 point per dollar spent, with a few opportunities to earn more, but that rarely equated to much. The rewards available earned a cash value of $100 for every $10,000 spent (1% yield). During our last trip to Europe, we realized that all of our international charges received a 3% additional charge per transaction. In conclusion - we were getting screwed.
I tell you this because I was an uninformed consumer and was not in control of my credit card practices and I assume many people are in that same position. With a little research and some time, you can take back that control and leverage the most benefits from your spending.
HERE ARE KEY SELLING POINTS OF TRAVEL CREDIT CARDS AND THINGS YOU NEED TO CONSIDER WHEN CHOOSING THE RIGHT ONE FOR YOU:
- Sign Up Bonuses: Most credit cards offer 20,000-50,000 bonus points for signing up and spending a specific amount within the first few months. To understand what that actually means, I look up how many points it costs to take a flight. As an example, I received 50,000 points for signing up for a Southwest card and that will equate to roughly 5 round trip flights from San Diego to Denver or 2 roundtrips flights to NYC. I only had to spend $1,000 in the first 3 months to qualify... basically my everyday grocery expenses got me 5 free flights!
- No International Fees: If you ever travel out of the country, this will be important to you, but if you're not - feel free to skip to the next bullet, I won't be offended. A 3% additional charge on all credit card expenses adds up really quick when you're on vacation, but certain cards actually have 0% international fees - a major perk that can save you hundreds of dollars.
- High Point/Mileage Earnings: Cards vary in how you can earn points/miles, so you want to get one that allows you to earn the most points for your most frequent/high priced purchases. Travel cards usually give you up to 5 points per dollar spent on air and hotel purchases, allowing you to accumulate free trips quickly and easily.
- Low Annual Fees: Annual fees vary from $100-500 per year, often with the first year's fees being waived. Most of the time, these fees are offset by bonus miles given to you at your anniversary date or by the additional perks given throughout the year. It's important to ensure that the benefits outweigh the cost - so look closely. There is a card that cost $495 a year, but you receive luxury perks like preferred lounge access and business class upgrades (all things my husband would say are unnecessary... we often disagree on such matters).
Like I said, I'm not an expert, but what I do know is that in just 4 months I've earned 100,000 points (10 free flights) just for putting my everyday spending on my Southwest credit card and I'm stoked about it. That's just the card that worked for me based on evaluating the above criteria and with a little effort you can find the card that works best for you. Below are a few sights that will further help you make the best decision for your lifestyle.
Nomadic Matt - a professional travel hacker with amazing insight
Credit Karma - breaks down the perks of various cards
Hack the System - a super detailed breakdown of how to take advantage of the credit card system
WalletHub - gives a rundown of the best credit cards, based on category type
Finally, I wouldn't be considered Type A if I didn't mention that you need to plan ahead. Cards often take 3-6 weeks to arrive for use, so if you know you have a big trip coming up, apply ahead of time. Even if you don't use the travel perks for a while, you can start earning points from your every day purchases.