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Guide to How Travel Credit Cards Work

By Dan Miller · March 15, 2023 · 7 minute read

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Guide to How Travel Credit Cards Work

There are many different credit cards out there, and each comes with different perks or benefits. Deciding which credit card makes sense will depend on what types of benefits and rewards matter the most for you. If you’re a frequent traveler with one airline or hotel chain, for instance, you might find it valuable to have the corresponding travel credit card.

It’s common for travel credit cards to earn airline miles, hotel points, or other travel rewards with every purchase. Some even offer perks with specific hotels or airlines just for having the card. Although certain travel credit cards charge annual fees, it’s possible the benefits you receive may make it worth it.

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What Is a Travel Credit Card?

A travel credit card is a generic term that applies to a type of credit card that offers travel rewards. There are many different kinds of travel credit cards, and each one may offer a different array of rewards, benefits, and perks. Some travel credit cards might earn airline miles, while others offer hotel points.

Finding the right travel credit card for you will depend on your own specific spending and travel patterns.

Different Types of Travel Credit Cards

There are three main types of travel credit cards: airline cards, hotel cards, and cards that earn generic travel points.

Airline Travel Credit Cards

Many airlines offer one or more airline travel credit cards that earn credit card miles that you can use to fly with that specific airline. With each purchase, you can get that much closer to your next flight. Additionally, many airline travel credit cards offer perks like free checked bags, a way to earn elite status, or discounts on inflight purchases.

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Hotel Travel Credit Cards

Another type of travel credit cards are hotel credit cards issued by major hotel chains including Hilton, Hyatt, and Marriott. Similar to their airline counterparts, hotel travel credit cards let you earn hotel points with each purchase that you can then use to stay with their chain. Many hotel travel credit cards also offer hotel-specific perks, like elite status, increased earnings from stays, or an annual free night certificate.

Bank Travel Credit Cards

If you like traveling but don’t want to tie yourself to a specific airline or hotel chain, you can consider a more generic travel card. Some banks, including American Express, Chase, and Citi, offer travel credit cards that earn their own proprietary credit card points. You can then use these bank points for many different forms of travel.

4 Benefits of Travel Credit Cards

There are a number of advantages to having a travel credit card. Here’s a closer look at these upsides.

Qualify For Significant Welcome Bonuses

Many travel credit cards offer welcome bonuses when you’re approved for the card and meet certain minimum spending criteria. For example, you might earn 60,000 airline miles after spending $2,000 on your card in the first three months.

These welcome bonuses can be worth hundreds if not thousands of dollars, and they can be a great way to boost your travel budget. That’s why it’s important to understand how a credit card works when you sign up and what requirements there are to make the most out of your card.

Earn Airline Miles and Hotel Points

If you love to travel, you’re likely to be excited about the possibility of earning airline miles or hotel points with each purchase. The miles and points that you earn while using your travel credit card can help fund your next vacation trip.

Get Insurance Benefits

Some travel credit cards offer different types of insurance that you might find valuable if you’re a frequent traveler. Some credit card travel insurance protects you if you are delayed or an airline loses your baggage. Other credit card insurance might cover you while renting a car, allowing you to decline the rental car company’s high-priced insurance offerings.

Enjoy Other Perks and Card Benefits

Perks like elite status, free checked bags, or an annual free night certificate are other potential benefits of having a travel credit card. If you’re traveling outside the country, you might also consider an international credit card that you can use while abroad.

3 Disadvantages of Travel Credit Cards

While travel credit cards can come with many benefits, there are also some disadvantages you’ll want to keep in mind.

Limitations in Travel Choices

If you have an airline or hotel credit card, you will likely only earn airline miles or hotel points with that specific airline or hotel chain. This can limit where you can use your travel rewards. As one example, if you have a Delta Air Lines credit card, you won’t be able to use your miles if you want to fly United or Southwest.

Not as Flexible as Cash-Back Rewards

Earning airline miles and hotel points can seem fun and exciting, but it may not be the best way to maximize your earnings. You’ll want to carefully consider the benefits of credit card miles vs. cash back to decide which type of reward makes the most sense for you. You may find that you’re better off with a cashback credit card like the SoFi credit card.

Potential for Annual Fees

Some (but not all) travel credit cards come with annual fees. These annual fees may be waived for the first year as an incentive for you to sign up, but you’ll be on the hook to pay the fee each year you continue to have the card.

While it is possible to get more value from your travel credit card than the amount of the annual fee, you’ll want to make sure that’s the case for your situation. Otherwise, you’ll want to focus your search on no annual fee credit cards.

Are Travel Credit Cards Worth It?

Whether a travel credit card is worth it will depend quite a bit on your own specific financial and travel situation. There’s no denying that there are many people who have used travel credit cards to great effect, traveling around the world at a discounted rate thanks to miles and points. Others have signed up for travel cards and continue to pay annual fees, even though they aren’t traveling as often.

Alternatives to Travel Credit Cards

You do have other options you might think about if you’re not interested in a travel credit card.

If you’re intrigued by earning rewards with a specific brand but don’t travel often, you might consider a private label credit card. These types of cards can offer benefits at a specific store or retail establishment.

Another option could be a cash-back rewards credit card. This would allow you to earn cash as a reward, which you could use for travel or anything else that suits you.

The Takeaway

Travel credit cards are a type of credit card that offers rewards, perks, and benefits for frequent travelers. You might earn airline miles, hotel points, or more generic bank points that you can use for a variety of different types of travel. While it is possible to use travel credit cards to rack up airline miles or other travel rewards, you’ll also want to keep an eye on any annual fees that you’re being charged.

Whether you're looking to build credit, apply for a new credit card, or save money with the cards you have, it's important to understand the options that are best for you. Learn more about credit cards by exploring this credit card guide.

FAQ

How do travel points and miles work?

Depending on the type of travel credit card that you have, you may earn airline miles, hotel points, or other types of travel rewards with each purchase that you make. These travel rewards will go into your account, and you can use them to book your next vacation.

Do travel rewards cards have annual fees?

There are some travel rewards cards that come with annual fees. You’ll want to be aware of these annual fees and make sure that the perks, rewards, and benefits that you receive are worth more than any annual fee you have to pay. There are also no annual fee credit cards that earn travel rewards, which may be a more attractive option.

How do I earn points with a travel credit card?

Most travel credit cards will earn airline miles, hotel points, or other travel rewards with each purchase. So earning points with a travel credit card may be as simple as just using your card to make any purchase at all. Additionally, some travel credit cards allow you to earn points as part of an initial signup bonus for being approved for the card and meeting minimum spending criteria.


Photo credit: iStock/nathaphat

Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

Third-Party Brand Mentions: No brands, products, or companies mentioned are affiliated with SoFi, nor do they endorse or sponsor this article. Third-party trademarks referenced herein are property of their respective owners.

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