Whether you spend your vacation days globe-trotting to faraway destinations or taking multiple long-weekend trips around the U.S., one thing is inevitably true: The costs will add up. Sure, there are ways to save as you go, from booking with a budget airline to seeking out cheap eats and free WiFi; but one of the best ways to stretch your travel dollars is by using a travel card that gets you valuable points and perks you can redeem on your trips. “Travel credit cards compete with each other to offer consumers the most value, which means you get some pretty sweet benefits,” said Sara Rathner, NerdWallet’s travel credit card expert. And if you’re spending money anyway, you may as well do so with a card that gives you something back. The key is to choose the one that’s right for you.
“There are two primary considerations when opening a travel credit card,” said Julian Kheel, senior analyst at The Points Guy. “The first is the value of the travel rewards you’ll earn with the card [such as points or miles you get from everyday spending], and the second are the travel benefits you’ll receive with the card [such as discounts, loyalty program status and more]. You don’t necessarily have to have both but you should have at least one or the other depending on your needs.”
If you always fly the same airline, or always stay with the same hotel chain, it may be worthwhile to open a card dedicated to that company. “But if you want the flexibility to book travel anywhere, a general travel rewards card will give you that,” Rathner said.
And then there’s your bank account: If you’re an avid international traveler, it may make sense to open an account with a bank that won’t charge you endless fees that eat into your precious travel budget. Here are six credit cards and two banks that travel experts swear by.
Premium Travel Cards: Chase Sapphire Reserve and American Express Platinum
Both the Chase Sapphire Reserve and the American Express Platinum come with hefty annual fees ($450 for the former and $550 for the latter), but if you’re a frequent enough traveler, you can potentially get a portion of that back. With both cards, “you’ll...get benefits such as an annual travel credit,” Kheel said. “[That] means when you use your card to pay for fees such as checked baggage fees, advanced seat assignments [and] sometimes even pet fees, you can get them reimbursed on your credit card, thereby offsetting at least a portion of the high annual fees.” Chase offers a $300 annual travel credit, while American Express offers a $200 airline fee credit (it’s a good idea to look at exactly what qualifies before applying for the card), and both cards offer a credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck.
Aside from the travel credits, both cards offer several other perks that will make traveling more pleasant, like elite hotel status (with American Express) or VIP hotel benefits (with Chase) and complimentary access to airport lounges. The lounge benefit is a popular one, Kheel noted. “When you go to an airport...you have access to either lounges run by the airlines themselves or, more recently, lounge networks created by banks such as American Express or third-party networks [such as Priority Pass],” he said. “Often a great premium travel credit card will give you access to hundreds of these lounges around the world so that wherever you go, you’ll be able to get out of the hubbub of the terminal and go somewhere you’ll have access to some quiet, some WiFi and some power outlets.”
You can compare the specific benefits and rewards offered through each card to determine which is right for you — though Kheel notes it may come down to the airlines and hotels you tend to frequent. “Chase’s system has a certain set of airline and hotel transfer partners, while American Express’s system has a mostly different set of hotel and hotel transfer partners,” he said. “So depending on where you want to redeem your points — which airline [and] which hotel — you may want to choose one system over the other.”
Mid-Tier Travel Cards: Chase Sapphire Preferred, American Express Everyday Preferred and Capital One Venture Rewards
If you’re not quite ready to take the premium card plunge, there are solid travel card options with lower annual fees. ”If you’re new to travel credit cards, I always recommend starting with a general travel rewards card that makes it easy to redeem points,” Rathner said. “They give you the most flexibility and make booking travel foolproof. The Chase Sapphire Preferred allows you to redeem points for travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards website, and your points are worth 1.25 cents each. On average, you usually get a value of about one cent per point, so that’s a good redemption rate.”
Kheel also recommended the Chase Sapphire Preferred as well as the American Express Everyday Preferred, both of which charge a $95 annual fee that’s waived for the first year. “While you won’t get high-end travel perks such as airport lounge access or annual travel credits with the mid-tier cards, you’ll still earn those Chase or American Express points that you can use to redeem on all the same airline and hotel transfer partners as the expensive versions of those cards,” he said. If you want some of the premium travel benefits, you can look into the American Express Gold Card, which costs less than the Platinum (at $250 per year) but includes a $100 airline fee credit as well as a $120 dining credit. And if you’re a traveler who prefers hotels to vacation rentals, the Capital One Venture Rewards card — which is consistently hailed as a top travel option by experts like those at The Points Guy and NerdWallet — may be the right fit. Not only does the card offer a big new member bonus (50,000 bonus miles if you spend $3,000 within the first three months), but it also gives you the chance to earn 10 miles per dollar on thousands of hotels through Hotels.com.
No Annual Fee Travel Cards: Capital One VentureOne and Wells Fargo Propel American Express
If you’re just dipping your toes into travel and travel rewards, you can start with a card that doesn’t cost you anything in annual fees — as long as you’re not looking for top-of-the-line perks. The Capital One VentureOne Rewards is somewhat of a “light” version of the Venture Rewards card, offering similar benefits (like a new member bonus and the ability to earn significant rewards on hotel spending) — just at a lesser value and for no annual fee. Keep in mind, though, that according to NerdWallet, if you spend more than $12,666.70 per year (or $1,055.50 per month), the $95 annual fee on the Venture Rewards card will pay for itself in rewards (two miles per dollar on all purchases) — so consider what your future spending will look like before you choose.
The Wells Fargo Propel American Express Card is another oft-recommended card for travelers who don’t want to pay an annual fee, thanks to its impressive rewards-earnings capabilities. Not only can you land 30,000 bonus points if you spend $3,000 in the first three months; but you can also earn three points per dollar on a wide range of purchases, including travel, food and public transportation. The primary downside, as noted by CreditCards.com, is that you can only redeem those points on travel by booking through Wells Fargo’s Go Far Rewards program, rather than transferring your points to outside airline or hotel rewards programs.
Banks: Schwab Bank and Capital One
When you’re traveling the world, international ATM fees can add up quickly — which is why both Kheel and Rathner recommended Schwab Bank’s High Yield Investor Checking Account. “Not only does it [not] charge fees for ATM usage or foreign transaction fees [on debit purchases]…[but] it also reimburses you for any ATM fees charged by the ATM owner anywhere in the world,” Kheel said. “So you can use the ATM card off of a Schwab account no matter where you go and know you’re not going to be paying any extra fees for withdrawing money in the local currency.”
Both experts also recommended the Capital One 360 account which, like Schwab, refrains from charging fees to its customers for foreign debit transactions or international ATM usage. “However, if the ATM operator charges a fee, Capital One 360 may not reimburse you,” Rathner said.
Ultimately, Rathner said, “picking a travel credit card that works for you is all about knowing your spending habits,” and the same can be said for your bank account. Do a review of what you’ve been spending your money on and how you want to spend it in the future, as well as the types of benefits and perks you want to make your travel life easier. And, before you add to your credit card arsenal, carefully consider whether or not opening a new credit card is the right move for you at this time. If you’re going to be swapping travel stress for credit card debt, the rewards aren’t worth it.