As the COVID-19 vaccination era makes it safer to travel, many people who stayed home during pandemic shutdowns are vacationing again. Airport checkpoint numbers have increased about 20% from January through mid-June, 2021, compared with the same time frame in 2020, according to Transportation Security Administration data.
Rewards like points and miles earned from a travel credit card can help you get to a long-awaited dream destination, especially as a new cardholder. Currently, there’s no shortage of generous sign-up offers for those with good credit (a FICO
score of 690 or higher), but before accepting one, consider whether a travel credit card aligns with your spending.
Even for globe-trotters, a travel credit card might not be compatible with habits or financial circumstances. Weigh these factors to determine what’s right for you.
When a travel credit card makes sense
Travel credit card options are abundant. There are general travel credit cards that allow flexible redemptions and co-branded travel credit cards allow travel redemptions with certain hotel brands, airlines or third-party travel websites.
These types of credit cards may be useful if you travel regularly, have no debt and pay the bill in full each month to avoid interest charges. Otherwise, the high interest rate on these cards chips away at the value of rewards. If you check off these boxes, then you could consider a travel credit card.
Teaming a travel card up with a travel savings fund can also prevent unwanted budget surprises like costs that aren’t covered by credit card rewards. If you want to go somewhere in six to 12 months, then set aside money from each paycheck to avoid debt, says Kelly Luethje, a certified financial planner and founder of the Willow Planning Group in New Hampshire.
“You might not have accumulated the points you need to cover a whole trip, so I do like a travel fund to help supplement what you don’t have accumulated on the credit card,” she says.
Must-haves for a travel credit card
A travel credit card should make traveling easier and less expensive. Depending on where and how often you travel, the desirable features may vary.
For Christine Lozada — creator of the YouTube channel “Where In The World is CL” — a travel credit card and its perks were essential for her jet-setting lifestyle.
She says the access her travel credit card allows at airport lounges is “huge for me.”
Your priorities might differ, but here are some factors to consider:
Annual fees. Consider travel credit cards with steep annual fees only if the card’s perks can offset the cost. Less frequent travelers may get more value from a no-annual-fee credit card.
Introductory offers. A sign-up bonus can cover the cost of a vacation, but overspending to meet the requirements to earn one defeats the purpose. Instead, plan to apply for a travel credit card around a high-spending month or season to meet bonus requirements with in-budget purchases.
Rewards. Look for a rewards rate of 1.5% or 2% of your spending. Depending on a card’s terms, the value of rewards may increase or decrease with different redemption options. Travel redemptions typically get the best value. In some cases, you can maximize rewards by transferring points to loyalty programs. Lozada transferred points from her credit card to her hotel loyalty rewards program to get even more value for her points. She used them toward a stay in Carlsbad, California.
No foreign transaction fees. For international travelers, a travel credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees saves money. These fees are typically assessed as a percentage of the amount of every purchase made abroad.
Money-saving perks. Valuable perks are typically offered on travel cards with annual fees. Airline credit cards may have free checked bags or priority boarding. Hotel-branded credit cards could include a free night and automatic elite status. Some general travel credit cards offer statement credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fees, a travel or dining credit, or airport lounge access. The card with the perks you’re most likely to use will give you the best value.
Travel benefits or protections. Travel credit cards may offer trip cancellation or interruption insurance, lost baggage reimbursement, rental car insurance and more. Protections are often secondary to any existing insurance.
Read the terms carefully to make the most of your benefits.
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Melissa Lambarena writes for NerdWallet. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @LissaLambarena.