Traveling soon? Choose your credit card companion carefully

Geoff Williams
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Geoff Williams
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Credit cards are some of the best travel companions you can have. They won’t engage in mindless small talk as you try to watch your in-flight movie, they won’t hog the blankets in your hotel room, and they may even save you a lot of money and hassle.

Of course, whether your credit card is an excellent travel partner or something you barely think about, depends on how you manage your credit cards and even whether you have one credit card or several. But if you have multiple credit cards, and you’re strategic in how you use them, you may find that your credit cards can make your extravagant – or even modest – vacation considerably less expensive.

What do we mean? Well, we’ll explain. If you’re going on a vacation in the near future, you want to think about packing several types of credit cards as well as understanding what they can do for you.

Pack travel credit cards that help you with flying

Ideally, you already buy your airline tickets with a credit card that offers you a lot of cash back, miles or points for your purchase. For instance, if you have a CardNamediscontinued, you can earn 5X total points on travel purchased through the Ultimate Rewards portal. Likewise, CardNamediscontinued earns 5X Membership Rewards points for flights paid for with the card and booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year. (American Express is a CardRatings advertiser).

Let’s assume you know to use a solid rewards card to purchase your travel; it’s the other stuff you may forget.

Other perks to remember: Better seats, free checked baggage, preferred boarding, savings on in-flight food and beverage, access to airport lounges, reimbursement for purchases like the $100 application fee for Global Entry and the list goes on.

Most credit cards that market themselves as travel credit cards come with numerous perks that could save you money on your trip or simply make it more enjoyable or even “upgraded.” For instance, the CardNamediscontinued offers cardholders four upgraded boardings each year. Furthermore, you can redeem airline miles/points earned with credit cards for upgrades on your flights.

You also will want to remember that quite a few airline-specific credit cards offer a free checked baggage benefit, often to you and family members or travel companions.

For instance, just to pick a credit card at random, if you have the CardNamediscontinued, you – and up to four traveling companions – can get a free checked bag on a flight. (Citi is a CardRatings advertiser.) You also, with the same card, can get preferred boarding, where you can board earlier and find your seats earlier, and you can save 25% when you use your card to buy food and beverages on American Airlines flights.

But you often have to be aware of perks to get them or to really maximize them. You aren’t going to save that 25% off your food and beverages if you use some other credit card, one that may be really good but one that has no relationship with American Airlines.

Consider credit cards that help you with hotels

OK, first of all, obviously you can pay for any hotel room – or airline ticket for that matter – with just about any credit card. But certain types of credit cards are especially useful for giving you more cash back, points or miles when you pay for hotel rooms. So when you pay for your hotel rooms, you want to be thinking strategically about the rewards you’ll be getting for paying with your credit card.

But that said, there may be other benefits to paying for a hotel room with your credit card.

Other perks to remember: Free nights, upgraded rooms.

The best credit cards to use for paying for hotel rooms, arguably, are the ones that let you earn free nights. Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt and IHG Hotels & Resorts -branded credit cards, for instance, are especially good for doing that. Pay for several nights and you’ll get an extra night for free. Co-branded hotel credit cards are also typically good for giving their cardholders the chance to get complimentary room upgrades, like scoring a bigger room or a room with an amazing view.

But if you don’t have any loyalty to a hotel chain and don’t want to be tied down to one hotel, you can certainly use any travel credit card to get a lot of points, miles or cash back when paying for a hotel room. For instance, the CardNamediscontinued awards 10X miles on hotels booked through the Capital One Portal or 2X miles if you book in any other way. So it isn’t as if you must have a co-branded hotel credit card to get a lot of points. It’s just that if you do have a favorite hotel brand, you probably will see your money go further if you give into their siren song of marketing and get the co-branded credit card.

Travel credit cards that help you with making a bad trip better

This is particularly important to remember when you’re planning a vacation, especially a big one where you’re going to be flying and perhaps renting a car and staying at a lot of hotels. Many credit cards will offer perks that can help rescue your trip if something goes wrong.

Perks to remember: Trip cancellation and interruption insurance, auto rental collision damage waiver and lost luggage insurance

What you need to make sure you do, however, is keep track of what perks you get with what credit card. Odds are, if you have a travel credit card, it offers lost luggage insurance, and odds are, you bought your airline tickets with your best travel credit card. Still, things happen. Maybe you’re juggling cash flow and in trying to keep your credit utilization ratio low, you actually don’t use your travel credit card to pay for your airline tickets but some generic, no-frills credit card. If your no-frills credit card doesn’t offer lost luggage insurance, you won’t be covered if you travel to Brazil but your baggage goes to Boise.

So you really want to make sure that you’re using your credit cards in a way that makes sense. If you have a credit card that offers rental car insurance, you want to make sure you rent your car with the credit card that offers that perk.

The bottom line is that it pays to read and understand the fine print benefits your various credit cards offer and then use them accordingly. Yes, that may mean using a couple of different cards to book different elements of your travel, but that extra attention to details could save you big money in the end.

Final tips to consider when packing your credit cards

So if you do have several credit cards, let’s recap and mention a few other points:

  • Read the fine print, which is often in a section of your credit card website called “terms and conditions.” If you plan on having your adult daughter drive your rental car, that’s all well and good, but you may find your rental car isn’t covered with your credit card’s insurance, since it’s your credit card and not your adult daughter’s.
  • Make sure you use the credit card that offers the perk you may want to get benefits from. If you’re excited about the free checked baggage, obviously, you’ll only get that if you pay for the airline tickets with the credit card that offers that benefit.
  • Unless there’s some credit card you have that wasn’t involved in paying for your vacation and you simply don’t need it, it’s best to bring all of your credit cards on your trip with you. You may have already paid your hotel rooms, but you still might be asked at the front desk to produce your credit card.
  • Ask yourself if there’s a better credit card you could be using to plan your vacation. For instance, if you’re taking a vacation for the ages and going to another country, make sure you have a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. Those fees are becoming less common, but plenty of credit cards do have them. A foreign transaction fee means you’ll pay, say, 3% for anything you buy in a foreign currency. If you travel to Barcelona with a credit card that has a 3% foreign transaction fee, it may be the vacation of a lifetime, but it will be one that’s 3% more expensive than it would be if you traveled with a credit card that doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee.
Geoff Williams
CardRatings Contributor

Geoff is a freelance journalist and has been since the 1990s. He specializes in personal finance and small business issues and has seen his work published with numerous news outlets including The Wall Street Journal,, Reuters, The Washington Post and Consumer Reports. He also...Read more

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