5 high-flying perks to look for when choosing a travel credit card

Published 3:05 pm Friday, October 13, 2023

5 high-flying perks to look for when choosing a travel credit card

If you spent all summer watching everyone else’s excursions to Europe and are finally ready to plan a vacation of your own, you may be in the market for a credit card to help maximize your budget.

Everyone loves to score a good deal—and credit card companies know it. Card issuers offer plenty of perks to lure consumers, from no annual fees to massive reward points early on. But tantamount to maximizing the potential of these deals is understanding how the offers work. To that end, TravelPerk analyzed credit cards on the market today to identify five of the best travel perks available to cardholders.

Most major card companies offer travel benefits, whether airline, hotel, or bank cards—the latter of which may allow points to be transferred to specific airlines or hotels. Smart travelers prioritize the perks they know they’ll exercise the most, from free checked bags to strategically picked rewards from a frequented hotel.

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The first thing smart shoppers watch for while researching a new credit card is the annual percentage rate, or APR. The average APR today is about 22% as of May 2023, according to a July 10 update from Federal Reserve Economic Data, marking the highest average interest rate paid by consumers since 1994, when the Federal Reserve began tracking rates.

That figure rightly rattles some hesitant consumers: Credit card interest rates are often higher than other forms of debt, including mortgages. But high interest rates don’t necessarily mean paying more, so long as consumers manage card balances strategically.

Only a handful of users let their credit card balance carry over from one month to the next—and they’re the class of users issuers make their money from. Per the most recent FRED information (last updated July 5, 2023), fewer than 9% of large-bank customers cap their monthly balance payments at the minimum allowable. Plenty of others limit spending to what can be paid off each month. Managing your credit this way allows you to reap the benefits of credit card perks without the penalty of high fees if your budget allows for it.

It’s important to remember that credit card interest compounds daily. Put simply, missing a monthly payment results in many card issuers charging you for interest on every single day’s average card balance. In that scenario, you’d end up paying interest on your interest. It doesn’t take much for those fees to snowball out of control quickly in a high-rate environment.

Keep reading to learn more about five of the most universally beneficial rewards for travelers.

A hotel concierge handing a credit card to a guest.


The points game

The modern-day rewards programs many of us are familiar with have been around since the mid-1980s. Accrual and points-redemption rates can vary from one loyalty program to the next, with most credit card issuers offering their own unique points schemes. Today, an entire subsection of media and true believers work overtime to poke holes in and perfect the points game to maximize potential perks. Most cards will let you earn points for certain types of purchases and even more when you purchase through their rewards platforms.

A family painting their house and looking at something on a cellphone.


The sign-on bonus

Many credit cards offer massive sign-on bonuses: either tens of thousands of points toward spending on airfare, hotels, and other goodies, or cold, hard cash—often $150 or more. Such incentives have a catch, of course: To redeem the bonuses, you have to charge a certain amount of expenses to the card in a set time frame.

These offers may be worth pursuing if you’re fairly certain you can reach the threshold in a financially healthy way, as would be the case with already-anticipated expenses such as necessary home renovations, vehicle repairs, or private student loans. Expenses you’re already budgeting for are more likely to be paid off without accruing interest and fees that are guaranteed to dilute the value of the bonus you’re theoretically earning.

In the case of bonus travel miles, consumers are wise to read the fine print. Are these points only good on certain flights? When do they expire? It’s great to have a lot of points, but how will you spend them and what are they worth in cash?

A valuable tidbit is the fact that any purchases you make and then refund will not count toward the bonus, nor will cash advances or balance transfers from another credit card.

After all these considerations, those for whom the sign-on bonus requirement is too steep may consider a card with a lower threshold.

A woman holding a baby while working on a laptop.


Transferable points

Some cards will allow you to perform a 1:1 transfer to other loyalty programs, which may offer further bang for your buck. Capital One’s points, for example, have a 1:1 transfer ratio to more than a dozen loyalty programs.

Calculating and keeping track of how your loyalty points or miles translate between companies can be complex, but tools like the Point Calculator offer ways to log into your loyalty program and easily determine partners and transfer rates.

A sandwich and a glass of wine in an airport lounge.


Lounge access

It’s hard to overstate the sense of luxury airport lounges can offer to weary travelers with long layovers or missed connections. Lounges may offer (often free!) food and drink in the form of buffets or fine dining; charging-port access; and sometimes even a place to shower and freshen up. Not to mention, they’re a giant step up from uncomfortable plastic seating at gates.

Card issuers are stepping up their games in this capacity by expanding their lounge footprints at airports, so even bank cards may have lounges. Some cards with lounge perks require large annual fees that might not offset the use of lounges for more casual travelers. In that case, it may be best to find a card with credits to a program such as LoungeBuddy, which helps travelers find and book lounge visits.

A frustrated man at an airline counter.

DimaBerlin // Shutterstock

Trip insurance

Flight delays are one thing. Cancellations, though? They’re a whole separate mess that can entail spending an extra night in cities where you didn’t plan to stay.

Some cards will offer companion tickets for free or at a deeply discounted rate. More utilitarian than most one-time freebies, however, is trip insurance. That may be especially true in today’s era of air travel where more frequent extreme weather events are causing flight cancellations and airport meltdowns.

Often called trip cancellation and interruption insurance, this perk can vary a bit depending on the card. Typically, it reimburses you for charges from airlines and hotels that would otherwise not be refundable. If your trip is interrupted or canceled due to an injury or weather, you can file a claim through the credit card company. Watch out for each card’s exclusions.

Story editing by Nicole Caldwell. Copy editing by Tim Bruns. Photo selection by Lacy Kerrick.

This story originally appeared on TravelPerk and was produced and
distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.