Guide to travel rewards credit cards

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In a Nutshell

If your mind is set on traveling, finding the perfect credit card to complement your whirlwind globe-trotting is important. In this guide, we’ll take a look at all your travel rewards card options and help you find one that fits your style.
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No matter who you are — whether you’re looking to vacation in style or just want some peace of mind abroad — a travel rewards credit card could be your ticket to a better trip. But with all the options out there, how can you know what kind of travel rewards card is best for you?

In this guide, we’ll help you figure out what kind of credit card could be your perfect travel companion, and we’ll make sure you walk away as a travel rewards pro.

Breaking down the benefits of travel rewards credit cards

So, you may have heard that travel rewards credit cards are all about the perks, but what are those perks exactly? And how do you get them? Let’s break it down.

Some of the popular rewards you can get with a travel rewards credit card include:

  • The chance to earn points or miles you can redeem toward airfare, hotels, car rentals and even cruises
  • Introductory sign-up bonuses that allow you to earn  points or miles after spending a certain amount within the first few months of account opening
  • Hotel upgrades and free hotel stays
  • Airline companion tickets, which allow you to bring one companion along with you on your flight — usually for only the cost of taxes and fees
  • Access to airport lounges
  • Travel credits you can use toward an array of travel-related purchases
  • Travel protection and insurance
  • Free checked bags and priority boarding

You likely won’t find a card that offers all these benefits together, which is why you’ll want to evaluate what kind of traveler you are (and what you value most) before you pick out a card and the rewards that come with it.

How to choose the right travel rewards card for you

Travel rewards cards can serve many purposes, from helping you travel for cheap to making your travel experiences a bit easier or more comfortable.

As we mentioned though, not all travel rewards credit cards are created equal. There are several types of rewards that cards can offer. And while they’ll mostly be travel related, some cards are better for certain travel goals.

Let’s take a look at all the different types of cards out there so you can get a better sense of which card or cards could match your traveling lifestyle.

Cobranded airline credit cards

When you frequent a particular airline, you benefit the most when you focus on that brand. Brands reward their most loyal customers, and pairing that with the right cobranded travel rewards card can boost your benefits.

Many airlines offer cobranded credit cards that can earn you additional miles on all of your purchases, which you can use toward your next flight.

This really becomes handy when you live near an airline hub and focus on flying that one particular airline. The savings from perks like free bag-checks or credit toward airline status can add up to a large chunk of change over time, and make travel hassle-free.

Cobranded hotel credit cards

Faithful to a specific hotel chain? Holding a cobranded credit card can earn you some perks that make your stay a bit more comfortable and earn you rewards toward free nights while you’re at it.

All-purpose travel rewards cards

Maybe you don’t want to be limited to a particular loyalty program and do want to earn travel rewards you can use across multiple travel options. You have a few options, from credit cards that earn you transferable currencies, to travel rewards credit cards that offer up “travel credits” toward everyday spending.

Some other credit cards offer travel credits, which you can apply toward many travel-related purchases you make (depending on what your card company considers a travel-related purchase).

These types of credit cards also give you the ability to really expand what you can use your rewards on, because what they consider travel-related sometimes covers more than just airfare and hotels — think trains, buses and even rental cars.

Cards with elite perks

If you’re a frequent traveler, you can get a travel rewards card with all the bells and whistles. The catch? These usually come with a hefty annual fee.

How you can travel for cheap

Once you’ve picked out your perfect travel card, the key to traveling cheap is to utilize rewards cards in a way that optimizes your savings. Now that can be easier said than done, but planning ahead with your trip can save you some serious cash.

When you’re on a trip, the perfect formula is to make sure you marry your travel benefits with your earned miles and points. Take advantage of your card’s travel benefits (like trip insurance, lounge access, free checked bags, etc.) and use those in conjunction with your points and miles, which can be used to seriously subsidize things like airfare during your trips.

If you redeem the points or miles you earn from spending, ideally you can plan a trip where you end up paying just the taxes and fees on airfare or a hotel stay.

What’s next?

Now that you’re armed with some knowledge on what options might exist, it’s important to know how to maximize your hard-earned travel rewards — whichever card you choose.

The most important thing to remember when picking your travel rewards credit card is to select a card that gives you enough value.

If you fly a lot but tend to visit friends instead of staying in hotels, then a hotel rewards card is probably not for you. If you love the idea of getting VIP status but don’t think you’ll be able to make up for the high annual fee that comes with elite cards, then try a card that’s just one step down.

Being smart about the type of card you choose can be key in helping you offset your travel costs. Know the type of traveler you are and pick a card that suits your style — we promise there’s something out there for you.

Taking a look at the rewards credit cards in the Credit Karma marketplace is a good start.