How to Choose a Travel Credit Card

Travel credit cards can be YMMV — “your mileage may vary” — which is true both figuratively and literally. Don’t sign up for a reward card just because a travel blogger is benefiting from it. Your spending habits and lifestyle might do better with a different card. Here’s what to look for:

  • Rewards you will use: Think about which airlines and hotels you love the most. Now think about the ones you dislike. You want a card that partners with your favorite airlines and hotels so that you can maximize where you spend your points. You don’t want to earn thousands of points towards vacations you don’t want to take.
  • High earning rate: You can learn the point valuation for each card with a quick web search. Look at the card’s travel partners and the transfer ratio too.
  • Sign-up bonus: The best credit card bonuses can kick-start your vacation plans, but make sure you can afford the spending requirements.
  • Travel credits: Some travel cards offer a yearly travel credit or rebate, which is a nice incentive if you are paying an annual fee.
  • Travel benefits: Can this card save you money alongside earning you points? Take a look at the travel perks, such as insurance or free checked bags to weigh how much a card will help you.
  • Point redemption: Take a look at a card’s reward program before signing up to ensure it is right for you. Ideally, your points should easy to redeem toward travel with companies you love.
  • Annual fee: An annual fee is not an automatic negative. You just need to weigh the fee against the perks and benefits.
  • Balance Transfers: While not many travel cards are among the list of best credit cards for balance transfers, this type of benefit helps people pay down debt and big-ticket purchases faster and cheaper with introductory 0% interest rates.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Travel Rewards Credit Card

If you want to be one of those credit card success stories where the user pays for their whole trip to Tahiti with points, you need to use your travel rewards credit card right. Here’s how the pro card users get the most of their travel rewards:

  • You need to earn the sign-up bonus. The sign-up bonus is designed to reel you in and get you spending. However, if you plan wisely, you can use the huge bonus to your advantage. Keep tabs on how close you are to the bonus. You can always contact your card’s customer service line to confirm how much you spent towards the sign-up bonus.
  • Pay your monthly statement. Staying on top of your monthly payments is essential if you want to increase your credit. It is also important not to carry debt on these cards because the interest rate paid will negate any travel points earned.
  • Understand the perks and benefits. Make sure you are using your card to your full advantage. Use yearly credit and rebate offers, airport lounge access and companion passes to ensure your card is saving you money each year.
  • Put all of your spending on the card. Simply put, you aren’t going to rack up the travel points if you forget to use it on big and small purchases alike. Load your card into your Amazon or Uber Eats account or set it up to automatically pay your phone bill. Every dollar spent will get you closer to your dream vacation.
  • Only use your points towards travel redemptions. When you are short on cash, it can be tempting to convert your credit card rewards to a bank deposit. Resist the urge since travel rewards are usually worth more when they are spent toward travel.
  • Earn bonus point opportunities. Keep an eye on your card’s bonus offers and shopping portal to earn even more points. You can score additional points on online shopping you were already going to do just by going through the card issuer’s link.

What Are Points and Miles Worth?

There is no set answer to how much a point or mile is worth since all cards set their points at a different evaluation. It is key to know the baseline point valuation for your card so that you can set that as a minimum worth. This will enable you to get the most bang for your travel points.

Here’s what we mean: Say your travel card points are worth 1.8 cents per mile/point. If you have 50,000 points to redeem, that is $900 at a 1.8 cent valuation. If you wanted to use your points to book a flight, you would then find out how many miles/points the flight is versus how much it would cost you in cash.

For example, if the flight you wanted cost 50,000 points or $500, this would be a poor deal. If you redeem your points towards this flight, your points would only be worth one cent each, and essentially, you would have lost out on $400 worth of possible travel. No bueno!

Similarly, if you find a flight that normally costs $1,200 for 50,000 points, then this is a great deal, since your points are being redeemed at 2.4 cents per point.

How to Apply for a Travel Rewards Credit Card in 6 Steps

Whether you’re getting a travel rewards credit card to build your credit history or earn a bonus, here are some clear steps to take.

1. Check Your Credit Score

When you get approved for a credit card, you enter into a credit relationship with the card issuer. As a result, issuers will run a credit check to determine how likely you are to repay whatever debts you incur with the account.

Your credit score is a three-digit number that represents the overall health of your credit history. If you’re brand new to credit, you have a limited history or your credit score is poor, it can be difficult to get approved for some of the best credit cards on the market.

That said, there are some cards that are more targeted to people with lower credit scores and thin credit profiles. Check all three of your credit reports for free with a service like Experian or Credit Karma to get an idea of where you stand. Based on what you see, focus your search on cards that fit your credit range. You may even be able to improve your FICO® credit score quickly using the free Experian Boost™ service.

2. Determine Your Spending Habits

Not all credit cards offer rewards, but if you’re comparing cards that do, you may see varying rewards rates. For example, some cards offer a flat rewards rate on everything, while others provide bonus rewards on certain spending categories. Checking how much you spend in different areas over the last few months can give you an idea of which card can give you the most bang for your buck.

That said, also consider your preferences. For example, if you prefer simplicity over making the most of your purchases, a card with a flat rewards rate may be a better fit for you than a card with a tiered rewards system.

3. Decide What Type of Credit Card You Want

There are thousands of credit cards in the U.S., and they’re broken down into roughly eight different categories, including:

  1. Cash rewards credit cards: These cards offer cash rewards on every purchase you make. Review our list of the best cash rewards credit cards.
  2. Travel rewards credit cards: You’ll earn points or miles that you can use to book travel. You can earn general travel rewards or points or miles with a specific hotel brand or airline. Visit our roundup of the best travel credit cards.
  3. Low-interest credit cards: With these cards, you’ll either get an introductory 0% APR promotion on purchases or a low ongoing interest rate.
  4. Balance transfer credit cards: If you have high-interest debt on a credit card, you can transfer it to one of these cards and pay it down with an introductory 0% APR promotion (though there’s also typically a balance transfer fee from 3% to 5%).
  5. Student credit cards: These cards are designed for college students and often offer rewards, but you’ll still need income and possibly at least some experience with credit to get approved. 
  6. Secured credit cards: They function like traditional credit cards but require a security deposit — typically equal to your credit limit — to get approved. They’re best for people who are new to credit or have a poor credit score. There are some unsecured credit cards for people with bad credit, but many of them charge exorbitant fees and interest. Read our guide to the best credit cards for bad credit.
  7. Store credit cards: These cards are co-branded with a specific retailer and typically offer benefits with that specific retailer. Depending on the card, though, you may or may not be able to use it anywhere else.
  8. Business credit cards: If you’re a small business owner, these cards typically come with rewards, higher credit limits, business-specific perks and a way to separate your personal and business expenses.

Take some time to think about your goals and general preferences to decide which type of card is the best fit for you.

4. Find Out if You Pre-Qualify

Some credit card issuers have a pre-qualification tool that allows you to see what your chances are of getting approved. This process typically doesn’t require a hard credit check, so it won’t affect your credit score.

Note, however, that just because you’re pre-qualified, it doesn’t mean approval is guaranteed. When you officially apply, the card issuer will still run a hard credit check and make its decision based on the information it finds.

5. Prepare Required Materials

In most cases, you don’t need to put together any documentation to apply for a credit card. However, you should take a look at your pay stubs and other income sources to make sure you include all of your income on the application. Also, be ready to provide other personal information, including your Social Security number, address, contact information and more. If you’re applying for a business credit card, you may also need to provide your employer identification number (EIN), revenue and expenses.

6. Apply Online

Some credit card issuers may allow you to apply over the phone or in-person at your local branch. But the fastest way to get approved for a credit card is to visit the financial institution’s website and apply online. The process takes just a few minutes, and you’ll typically get a response within seconds after you submit your application. Compare the best credit card offers using the Slickdeals Credit Card Hub.

Approval Tips if You’re Worried You Won’t Qualify

If you don’t have a strong credit profile, you may be wondering what your chances are of getting approved for a card. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to say because credit card issuers don’t disclose their eligibility criteria publicly. However, here are some tips for improving your chances of getting your next credit card.

  • Improve your credit: If your credit isn’t in great shape, consider working on improving it before you apply for a new account. Check your credit report to see which areas need work and address them as quickly as possible.
  • Apply within your credit range: Rewards credit cards are appealing, but most of them require good or excellent credit (that’s a FICO credit score of 670 or higher). If your credit isn’t quite there yet, focus on cards that market to people who are working on building their credit.
  • Don’t give up: If you’ve had a credit card application declined recently, it can be easy to take it personally or get discouraged. In some cases, you may be able to call and ask them to reconsider. If they won’t, just because one card issuer denied you, it doesn’t mean all of them will. While it’s best to avoid applying for multiple credit cards in a short period, don’t be afraid to apply again in the future.

As you follow these steps and consider these tips, you’ll be in a better position to apply for and get the credit card you want to have.

Methodology

We chose our best rewards credit cards based on the total value they offer to cardholders through ongoing rewards, welcome bonuses, 0% APR promotions and other perks. We also broke the cards down into clear categories that highlight features that credit card users are typically interested in — for example, premium travel vs. general travel, flat rewards vs. tiered rewards, and so on.

While some cards charge annual fees, we only picked ones that make it easy to make up for them with the value they provide. Before you apply, though, take some time to compare these cards with other best rewards credit card offers to make sure you get the best fit for you.

Travel Credit Card FAQ

  • Travel credit cards award you points or miles for purchases made through the card. Most travel credit cards offer bonus categories where cardmembers can earn accelerated points and miles for spending at grocery stores, restaurants, travel expenses and gas stations. Once you’ve accumulated enough points or miles, you can redeem them for travel, including flights, hotels, rental cards and other eligible expenses.

  • Airline and hotel credit cards are types of travel cards. The main difference between these categories of credit cards is that with both hotel and airline credit cards, you’ll earn points and miles that are redeemable only through the co-branded merchant. As an example, United credit cards earn MileagePlus Miles that can be used only for United flights. Likewise, Marriott credit cards earn Bonvoy Points that can only be used to book free and discounted hotel stays.

  • Both travel cards and cash rewards cards have their perks, and one is not notably more beneficial than the other unless you plan to travel. If your main purpose for earning credit card points is to travel extravagantly for less, then a travel card is the way to go. With cash rewards cards, you earn a percentage back on all of your purchases. Many times, a specific purchase, such as buying gas, will earn you more back than the new headsets you bought on Amazon. The best cash-back credit cards are generally easier to keep track of, and you can redeem your points as deposits into your bank account.

  • Each travel card issuer is set up differently, but most will allow you to redeem your points/miles through their own travel booking platform. If the card has travel partners, you can also transfer your points to a loyalty program and redeem them through that company’s site instead.

  • Annual fees used to be the devil of credit card talk, but now, many cards with fees pack on so many perks, the fee is worth it. For example, both the Chase Sapphire Preferred and its premium cousin, the Chase Sapphire Reserve, are among the most popular annual fee travel cards. You cannot just take a card’s perks at face value, though. If you don’t plan on using these bonuses each year, then the card’s annual fee might not be worth it for you.

  • If you are excited by the idea of free and discounted travel, then you should know about Chase Ultimate Rewards. Among credit card rewards programs, Ultimate Rewards is considered one of the best. Chase Ultimate Rewards points are a valuable currency you can use to purchase flights, hotels, cruises, vacation rentals, travel activities and more. Chase offers multiple credit cards that earn Chase points with every dollar you spend. They may even come with a bonus worth tens of thousands of points worth enough for multiple round-trip flights.

  • Chase Ultimate Rewards points are travel rewards points from Chase. They are best redeemed for travel either through the Ultimate Rewards secure site or transferring to travel partners.

  • Chase points never expire as long as your account remains active and in good standing. When redeemed through the Chase website, you can use them for virtually any flight, hotel, rental car and other travel.

  • Chase travel rewards are powered by Expedia, so you can book just about anything through their portal directly with your Chase points. You can also transfer points to an airline or hotel partner at a 1:1 ratio. That means one Chase point is worth one United mile, one Marriott point or one point in any of the participating programs.

  • When you are ready to redeem your points, the first place to go is your Chase account. Click on the link to redeem or view your Ultimate Rewards account for details and redemptions. You can shop for travel and redeem directly on the Chase’s secure site. You use the same site to transfer points to partners. Most transfers are instant if you log out and log back into the partner’s rewards website. From there, you can book your award flight or hotel reservation directly.