If you are a frequent traveler, one of the best things you can do for yourself is get a credit card that both rewards your travel purchases and offers perks that make travel less of a hassle. No one has covered the minutiae of credit card benefits more thoroughly than The Points Guy, and I’d recommend perusing his analyses and recommendations before applying for a card.
As you do, there are seven basic attributes to look out for. I’ve laid them out below.
Think of this as a checklist to run through as you compare credit cards.
No Foreign Transaction Fees
This one is simple. If you travel outside the country with any frequency, it’s imperative that you find a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. Period.
Most travel-focused credit cards offer bonus points to customers after they sign up and charge a certain amount of money on the card within a specified timeframe. If you don’t spend a ton on your credit card, you might want to get one that only requires $1000 spent in the first 90 days to get 20,000 bonus points (BankAmericard Travel Rewards Credit Card). If you load a lot of purchasing power onto your credit card, spending $4,000 in three months for 50,000 bonus points (Chase Sapphire Reserve card) might make more sense.
Points on Travel Purchases
Any travelers’ credit card worth its salt will offer some kind of extra points on travel purchases. Some cards offer double or triple points on travel purchased with the card. Others offer double or triple points on bookings only with a certain airline or hotel brand. You’ll want the card that offers the extra points on the things you purchase most often.
Among the insurance against travel mishaps that credit cards might offer are car rental, trip delay (the Points Guy has a great primer on this), lost baggage, delayed baggage, and accident (which is a less jarring way of saying “death and dismemberment”).
Most credit cards offer car rental insurance. But only a few offer 1) primary car rental insurance for vehicles rented using said credit card, and 2) coverage in foreign countries. Primary car rental insurance means that you can avoid reporting any accident to your personal car insurance company, and that you can (have to, actually) decline the rental company’s Collision Damage Waiver policy.
It’s worth noting here that credit cards do not offer travel medical insurance.
Ratio of Annual Fee to Rewards Accrued
Most credit cards that offer worthwhile travel rewards also come with an annual fee. This is fine—if you play things right, you can absolutely get more out of your credit card than you put into it.
The bottom line is that the annual fee needs to be less than the awards you accrue. My card’s annual fee is $95, for example, but so far in 2016 I’ve accrued the equivalent of $800 to spend on travel (I have the Chase Sapphire Preferred card). I’m feeling great about that tradeoff.
To make this calculation, you need to know three things: The annual fee amount, how much you typically spend on your credit card each month, and how much your points are worth: Here is a good place to start figuring that out.
Redemption Options and Perks
Once you’ve accrued your points, what can you spend them on? Some more detailed questions to ask: Does the card have hotel and airline partners? Do those partners align with your current rewards programs? Can you transfer points to other reward programs? Does the card offer member’s-only access to leisure and entertainment events? Does the card include access to any airport lounges? The answers to these questions will have a lot to do with how pleased you feel with the card.
This one is fading in urgency now that credit cards in the U.S. are widely adopting the chip, but if you travel internationally, you’ll want to be sure your credit card has this new technology. A couple of years ago, I was in Marrakech, where I couldn’t pay for anything with my then-card. I didn’t have the chip, and machines in Morocco had already ceased accommodating the swipe.