How to Choose the Best Travel Rewards Card for You
Here's what you should consider when deciding which credit card will help you score the most free flights or hotel rooms.
One way to save money on travel is to cash in on points earned through travel rewards credit cards. These cards can be a good way to score free flights and hotel stays – as long as you pay off your balance each month so that interest payments don’t outweigh any perks you receive.
However, there are so many travel rewards cards that it can be difficult to figure out which one makes the most sense for you. The major airlines offer credit cards linked to their frequent-flier programs. Hotel chains offer cards tied to their loyalty programs. And plenty of credit card companies offer their own versions of travel rewards cards. All let you earn points when you make purchases that can be redeemed for travel-related benefits – but that’s where the similarities end.
There really is no single best travel rewards card, says Tim Winship, publisher of FrequentFlier.com and editor-at-large for SmarterTravel.com. The key to choosing a card, he says, is to consider your travel habits.
If you’re a frequent flier …You’ll benefit most by joining one airline’s frequent-flier program and using its affiliated credit card, Winship says. Choose the card and frequent-flier program tied to the airline with the most flights to the places you need to go out of the airport nearest to you. You’ll earn miles for free flights through the frequent-flier program for the actual miles you travel on the airline. And with most airline-branded cards, you’ll earn two points for each dollar you spend purchasing that airline’s tickets and one point for other purchases.
Airline-branded cards typically offer perks such as a free checked bag for each flight and priority boarding. For frequent flyers, airline cards also offer points toward elite status qualification, which leads to even more special treatment for road warriors, says MileCards.com Director Brian Karimzad.
If you fly just a few times a year …You’ll earn points toward free flights faster through a travel rewards cards that isn’t tied to a particular airline, according to a recent study by MileCards.com. That’s because travel rewards cards attach a higher point value to most purchases than the airline-branded cards do.
For example, you can earn three membership rewards points for supermarket purchases, two points for gas purchases and one point for other purchases with the American Express EveryDay Preferred card. Plus, you can earn a bonus on all spending when you use the card for enough transactions each month. With the Gold Delta SkyMiles American Express, you earn just one mile for purchases other than Delta purchases. MileCards.com found that -- based on American household spending data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics – a family could earn, on average, 48,258 points a year using the Amex EveryDay Preferred card for gas and food purchases but just 21,780 points with the Gold Delta SkyMiles card.
Plus, you’ll have more flexibility with a non-airline branded card. You’re not locked in to booking with a particular airline. And you typically can use your points toward benefits other than free flights, such as free hotel stays, gift cards or even cash.
If you prefer to fly on Southwest Airlines or United Airlines, Karimzad recommends the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, which partners with both of those airlines and lets you transfer points one for one to their frequent-flier programs. It offers a sign-up bonus of 40,000 points for spending $3,000 in the first three months (worth $500 in travel when redeemed through Chase Ultimate Rewards), and the $95 annual fee is waived the first year. If you prefer Delta, go with the Amex EveryDay card, which lets you transfer points one for one to Delta SkyMiles, has no annual fee and gives you 10,000 bonus points after you make $1,000 worth of purchases within three months after opening an account. You can earn points faster with the Amex EveryDay Preferred card, but it has a $95 annual fee. The Capital One Venture Rewards card has a simple formula for the number of points you need to cover a travel expense: Just add two zeros to the cost. That means if you buy a $300 airline ticket, you’ll need 30,000 miles. The $59 annual fee is waived the first year, and you can earn 20,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases within the first three months.
The CardFinder tool at MileCards.com can help you see whether a card with transferable points or a straight airline branded card will earn you the most points based on your spending habits and travel goals.
If you’re loyal to a particular hotel chain … If you tend to drive more than fly to your destinations, you might be better off with a hotel-branded card if you’re loyal to a particular chain. You can rack up a lot of points when you use them to book rooms at their properties, and earn points with other purchases. Some entitle you to room upgrades at no additional cost and other perks, such as free Wi-Fi, at the hotels, while some let you transfer points to participating frequent-flier programs. See Hotel Rewards Cards That Pay for Kiplinger's top picks.
Another option … Earning points toward free travel is alluring, but you might be better off with a cash-back card, Winship says. You won’t have to worry about whether you have enough points or whether rewards seats are available on a specific airline on the days you want to travel. You simply use the cash you’ve earned to purchase flights or hotel rooms – or whatever else you want. Look for a card that lets you earn at least 2% cash back on purchase. You can compare cards at Bankrate.com.