Best credit cards for summer vacation

By , CardRatings contributor
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American Express is a CardRatings.com advertiser.

Although credit card companies jockey for position in the wallets of business travelers, summer vacation offers banks a chance to build new relationships with mainstream consumers. According to research from the U.S. Travel Association, more than three out of four domestic trips are taken for leisure purposes. In fact, the American vacation travel market often represents more than double the amount that businesses spend on corporate travel every year.

Consumer research confirms that many of us like to stack up rewards points until we have enough to splurge on a special purchase. Therefore, banks have positioned travel credit cards as a way that consumers can consolidate their spending onto a single account in hopes of unlocking richer travel experiences. With smart planning and the right travel credit card on your side, you can shave hundreds of dollars a year from your family's vacation budget.

Cashing in on travel credit card perks requires following one (or more) of these core strategies:

  • Apply for a card with a huge sign-up bonus, then meet the qualifying spend threshold before the promotional deadline.
  • Push all your personal expenses through a branded travel credit card with a strong redemption program.
  • Build loyalty with travel industry brands that offer generous redemption options, elite status upgrades and comprehensive destination lists.

If you've got excellent credit, you can usually find significant sign-up bonus offers for new credit card customers in the late winter or early spring. The biggest deals usually come from airline credit cards issued by major national banks. Many of these partnerships offer enough frequent flier miles or rewards points to cover one or two round trip domestic tickets.

On the other hand, if you've got enough time to play a longer game, you can turn your everyday purchases or reimbursed business expenses into discounted airfares and hotel nights. Hotel chain credit cards multiply rewards points for purchases at participating properties, speeding you toward exclusive status along the way. With many hotels adopting flexible, market-based redemption programs, picking an off-season date or a less central property for your vacation can stretch your rewards balance even further.

When searching for the credit card that fits your needs for your summer vacation, remember that credit card companies don't set up rewards points programs just to be generous. Annual fees and finance charges on travel rewards cards tend to come in significantly higher than similar "no frills" credit cards. Squeezing maximum value from your rewards card means redeeming far more in value than the cost of your annual fee. Likewise, paying your bill in full at the close of each statement cycle can prevent high APRs from diminishing your card's rebate credits. Map out a sample reward itinerary to see just how much you'll need to spend if you want to fly, dine, or lodge using your rewards.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Thanks to Chase's flexible Ultimate Rewards program, this card lets you rack up significant bonus points on travel and dining purchases (2X points per dollar spent). Recent sign-up bonuses (40,000 bonus points when you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months of opening the account) have included enough points to cover $500 in travel expenses when redeemed through Chase Ultimate Rewards. With a moderate annual fee (introductory annual fee of $0 for the first year, then $95), no foreign transaction fees, an embedded EMV chip, and access to dedicated customer service specialists, Chase Sapphire Preferred Card provides excellent value when you're on vacation, not just when you're trying to earn a vacation.

British Airways Visa Signature® Card

Frequent fliers willing to buck the trends of flexible redemption options can lock in some substantial rewards from Chase and British Airways. Promotional sign-up offers have included enough Avios (50,000 bonus Avios after making $2,000 in purchases within first three months of new account opening) which may cover a round-trip flight (minus required taxes and airport fees). Along with 2.5 Avios per dollar spent on British Airways purchases, cardholders can score an annual Travel Together ticket, good for two years, after spending more than $30,000 in purchases on the card every calendar year. Cardholders must still pay taxes and fees out of pocket, but that perk can be worth a substantial amount of money when redeemed for a first-class ticket on a long-haul flight.

Citi® Hilton HHonors™ Visa Signature® Card

This card, which charges no annual fee, posts 6 Hilton HHonors Bonus points per dollar spent at any participating hotels and resorts within the Hilton portfolio. With a wide range of eligible brands in convenient locations throughout the world, it may be easy to earn and redeem this card's rewards points. Sign-up bonuses for first-time Citi cardholders have included enough Hilton HHonors Bonus points to cover a night's stay in many of the Hilton chain's most popular locations. The card also offers the benefits of HHonors Silver Status as long as you are a cardmember.*

Barclaycard® Rewards MasterCard®

You can still earn travel rewards, even if you're building credit or recovering from a bump along your financial path. This card earns rewards points that you can redeem as a statement credit on most eligible travel purchases. Gas, grocery and utility purchases earn two points per dollar spent, making this a strong contender for families that only travel once or twice each year. Although this no annual fee card comes with a variable purchase APR of 24.99 percent, paying down your balance in full each month can help you strengthen your credit history while trimming your travel expenses.

Make sure you read the terms and conditions of any offer and rewards program you may be considering before you apply.

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