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Travel rewards cards are popular with both leisure and business travelers, and it’s easy to understand why.
These credit cards provide a slew of attractive features, including airline miles, free or discounted hotel stays, and even concierge service before, during and after your travel experiences.
Having visited more than 30 countries – for work and play – I’ve become an avid user of travel rewards cards and have cashed in on their many benefits.
But I also know that travel rewards cards typically come with a few drawbacks, such as annual fees and higher interest rates than other cards that don’t offer travel rewards. So you need to make sure that your travel perks outweigh any costs.
With hundreds of cards on the market, it’s easy to get confused about which one is best for your specific circumstances. To help you save time, effort, and money, I’ll explain what to look for in a good travel rewards card and then give you my recommendations for five fabulous options.
Fortunately, finding the best travel rewards card for your needs doesn’t have to be an epic adventure – unlike some vacations I’ve taken.
In fact, picking a travel rewards card was a cakewalk compared to the time I went zip lining in the rain forest of Costa Rica and then held onto a rope and took a heart-pounding 150-foot drop known as the “Tarzan Swing.”
By keeping a level head, you too can easily pick a good travel rewards card – one that helps you create your own great travel memories.
Analyze your true travel needs
To select the best travel rewards card, start by evaluating your spending patterns, analyzing your true travel needs and thinking about the travel perks you value most and will actually use.
For example, if you often travel out of the country, you’ll definitely want to have a travel rewards credit card that’s widely accepted overseas and that has no foreign transaction fees.
And what about figuring out your true travel needs? One key strategy is to assess your net out-of-pocket costs – and then try to limit them.
Assume, for instance, that you frequently travel for business and you strongly prefer a particular hotel brand. You might naturally think it’s best to get a travel rewards card that gives you discounts or free nights at that particular hotel chain.
There’s no doubt that it’s great to score hotel perks and to stay where you like when traveling for business. But assume also that your spouse or a significant other often (or always) travels with you. In this case, you might consider a rewards card that grants you a lot of airline miles or free companion tickets.
It’s possible that a single rewards card could pull double duty, letting you earn both benefits. But in terms of redeeming these awards, or if you had to choose one card over another, a travel rewards card with nice airline freebies could work out to be a much better deal.
Your company probably covers your hotel bill anyway – reimbursing you for the accommodations and lodging expenses you incur during business travel. And your spouse or another individual traveling with you will stay in the same room as you, so their presence won’t generate a bigger hotel bill.
Of course, I’m not counting hotel dining or room service expenses that might be incurred by an extra person. Even those costs, though, could likely be reimbursed by your job or paid to you as part of your daily meal charges or per diem expenses.
But your employer likely won’t pay for your companion’s airline tickets. So that’s a net out-of-pocket cost you’ll have to cover. In this case, your true need is to lower airfare expenses.
Focus on travel perks you actually use
Finally, some people – especially those who travel often for work – like to leverage their business travel spending by turning it into travel perks they can later use for personal or leisure travel.
That’s a good idea, but it’s also important to keep tabs on how you actually use your travel benefits and the value of those awards.
Sticking with the same scenario described above, let’s say your spouse was going to travel with you once a quarter – and your credit card spending and the airline perks offered by a given card could allow you to get four free airline tickets for you or your spouse. Let’s put the value of those tickets at $500 each, or $2,000 total.
Now let’s say your spending and travel benefits on a different card could let you accrue a free seven-night stay at your favorite hotel brand. If that hotel costs a total of $250 a night, the value of this award is $1,750.
Once again, the airline deal wins out. So always do a cost comparison to know what’s best.
You should further consider how likely it is that you will truly use that hotel benefit for personal travel.
Sure, you might like a hotel for business travel. But is that the same hotel chain you’d want to stay at when you’re on a summer vacation or traveling with your loved one or kids during the holidays? If so, great; if not, consider all your options.
Also, will you actually book that seven-day personal trip in order to take advantage of your free hotel stay? Some of us think we’ll do it and have the best of intentions, but when work and other obligations take precedent, we might fail to lock in potential personal travel.
Regardless of whether you travel most often for business or leisure, you can find a travel rewards card that suits your needs – giving you and your wallet a much-needed break.
Five great travel rewards cards
Here are five outstanding travel rewards cards that offer fantastic opportunities to earn and redeem all the travel perks you deserve – including those you’ll really use.