Earn 80,000 bonus points after spending $2,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening.
$1,000 toward travel or transfer to United, Southwest, and more.
That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards® or 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs.
So you’ve decided to get a travel-related credit card, focusing on those that allow you to earn rewards for free hotel nights, flights or other travel expenses. But with so many out there, how do you then decide which one to choose?
In this guide, we’ll tell you everything you need to know to understand how to earn points and miles using rewards cards — and how to choose the right one for you.
Airline-branded credit cards offer perks including seat upgrades, lounge access, a free checked bag, priority boarding and baggage handling, discounts on in-flight food and beverages, bonus miles on airline purchases and the chance to qualify for elite status. They also offer benefits like extended warranty protection, access to roadside assistance and travel accident/cancellation insurance.
Hotel credit cards can earn you bonus miles used for overnight stays and flights. They may also allow travel with no blackout dates and offer the chance for room upgrades and late checkout, based on availability.
Travel-branded cards offer the best of both worlds. You can earn points and miles on major airlines and hotels and even travel-related purchases like rental cars, train fares and taxi or ride-sharing app purchases. Some travel cards offer perks such as unlimited double miles on all purchases, bonus miles when paying for airline flights or hotels, no foreign transaction fees and miles that don’t expire as long as the card is active.
Each airline has its own rules on earning points and miles. But it all starts by enrolling in a carrier’s loyalty program. If you’re not enrolled in an airline’s loyalty program, then you’ll likely not be able to capture the full benefits of the card. So make that your first step. Once you belong to a loyalty program, then sign up for that airline’s credit card, where you can earn miles and, on some, help qualify for that all-important elite status.
Here are the top five U.S. airlines (based on number of passengers carried in 2016) and their designated loyalty programs:
Frequent flyers do all kinds of things — like strange routings and mileage runs to name a few — in an ongoing quest to get elite status on airlines. The higher your status, the better the perks, so travelers do what they need to do to stay loyal to an airline. Those perks can include access to premium airport lounges, priority check-in, boarding and baggage handling, free upgrades into premium cabins when available, a dedicated phone line for assistance and similar status on airline alliance partners. The best way to earn status is to carry an airline-branded card and pay for travel with it to take advantage of higher points per $1 spent.
Airlines have moved their loyalty programs from simply counting passengers’ miles traveled to a more convoluted mix of tracking actual miles traveled along with the number of segments flown and dollars spent on tickets. Plus airline consolidation and capacity cuts have led to fewer available seats for reward travel, making it more complicated, but not impossible to redeem airline miles.
Book travel on airline websites. Most airlines allow you to book reward travel directly on their websites. Once there, cardholders have the ability to pay for travel with straight miles or a mix of miles and money. For example, if you don’t have enough miles to cover an entire flight, you can make up the difference in cash. Their websites have calendar maps that allow you to choose seats based on availability on specific days.
Take advantage of airline alliances. Cardholders can get even more flexibility when choosing flights if the airline belongs to one of the global alliances — oneworld, SkyTeam and Star Alliance. These alliances are partnerships among the world’s top carriers that make it easier for travelers to directly book flights on member airlines to hundreds of destinations around the globe.
Alliances can also give you the biggest bang for your travel buck. So, for example, if you want to catch a flight to London and American Airlines doesn’t have enough seats, you can check availability on its oneworld partner, British Airways.
If you’re loyal to a particular airline, you may want to choose one of their branded cards to maximize miles earned from flying and spending. Some airline cards even help you achieve that all-important elite status, which leads to more benefits.
Methodology: We chose cards that let you earn unlimited miles that don’t expire and extra miles for airline-related purchases, achieve elite status and have no blackout dates for reward travel.
Like the airlines, hotels also have their own loyalty programs. Join them to get the maximum benefits from the points/miles that you accumulate on the card, which can be used to pay for hotel stays, airline flights and car rentals.
Here are the top five U.S. hotel chains and their loyalty programs based on yearly revenue in 2016, according to Statista:
Note that each of these hotel groups have different brands under their corporate structure. That means just because you’re in the Hilton HHonors program, you don’t necessarily have to stay at a hotel with “Hilton” in its name. For example, Hilton hotels include brands like Homewood Suites, DoubleTree, Embassy Suites and Hampton Inn, which are all part of the Hilton HHonors loyalty program.
After signing up for a hotel-branded card, you can earn points and/or miles and pay for your stays, and some even cover airline flights.
Hotels have taken a page from the airlines, creating loyalty programs that have been designed to keep customers coming back. The main lure for cardholders is bonus points for hotel purchases made with branded credit cards.
Hotels chains have different ways to redeem points, depending on how you want to use them.
Redeem points for free hotel stays. Most allow you to use points for free room nights with the number of points determined by the hotel category, ranging from budget to luxury. For example, with The Hyatt Credit Card, points can be redeemed at four different categories at hotel brands including Hyatt, Park Hyatt, Grand Hyatt, Andaz and Hyatt Place hotels.
Redeem for room upgrades or other perks. Points can be used for things like room upgrades, restaurants, spas, in-room movies, parking and transportation. You can also use a combination of points and cash for free night awards, and transfer points into airline miles. Some hotels allow customers to book rooms at points discounts. Others allow you to use points advances, which can book rooms even if you don’t have enough for a reward.
Methodology: We considered cards with low annual fees, unlimited points accumulations that don’t expire, a good variety of hotel brands, generous points programs and available reward rooms. We also favored those that offered extra points for hotel-related purchases, automatic elite status, room upgrades and no foreign transaction fees.
If you aren’t loyal to an airline or hotel chain but are still looking for a way to earn rewards on all travel purchases, you might be better off simply getting a travel rewards-branded credit card.
These credit cards are travel-related, but aren’t tied to a specific airline or hotel brand, which gives card members more flexibility when it comes to redeeming points or miles. Once you sign up, you automatically get points or miles on your purchases, depending on the card. Eligible rewards purchases can include not just hotel stays and airfare, but also rental cars and train and taxi fares. The best cards offer points on dining and restaurants as well, which give frequent travelers even more bang for their buck.
To attract new customers, many cards offer sign-up bonuses for new card members that offer a large chunk of initial points or miles. But don’t let the bonuses distract you — choose the card that is going to fit your needs for the long haul.
You can maximize your membership in airline, hotel and car rental loyalty programs with these cards because they allow you to transfer points, with some at a discount. For example, the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express allows you to transfer your membership rewards points almost always at 1:1 to more than 30 airline miles programs. One caveat: You need to transfer two Starwood points to United Airlines MileagePlus program to get one mile. You also have the ability to choose between loyalty programs if you belong to more than one. Terms and limitations apply.
Travel-branded credit cards have built-in benefits that allow you to maximize points earned to use for airlines, hotels, car rental agencies and other travel-related partners.
Directly through the card website. You can book rewards directly through a travel partner’s or the card’s website. Some even offer bonus points rates when booking travel on the website. And you can’t ignore the benefit of transferring points directly to airline or hotel loyalty programs, giving you more options for reward travel.
Redeem for other perks. These credit cards have different ways of redeeming points to book airline flights, hotels and rental cars. For example, if you book travel directly on the Chase Sapphire Reserve® Ultimate Rewards® website, you get 1.5 cents per point, which is a generous 50% bonus. Other cards allow you to book on any website, pay with the card and get the actual miles used removed from your account statement. And with some cards, you can also buy airline tickets using a combination of points and money.
You can use these cards to maximize the miles or points you earn in airline and hotel loyalty programs. Travel reward cards also give you the flexibility to book any airlines and hotels — some with bonus points — via their websites.
Methodology: We chose cards that let you earn extra miles for travel-related purchases, allow you to accumulate unlimited miles that don’t expire and have no blackout dates for reward travel. We also looked for cards that let you transfer points to airline and hotel partners to boost your loyalty program numbers.
Fees and fine print to watch out for
Hotel cards Airline cards Travel cards
Annual fees ranging from $0 to $550 Annual fees ranging from $0 to $550 Annual fees ranging from $0 to $550
Room blackout dates Travel blackout dates High spending to get bonus points High spending to get bonus miles High spending to get bonus points
Foreign exchange fees of up to 3% Foreign exchange fees of up to 3% Foreign exchange fees of up to 3%
Points that expire Miles that expire Points that expire
Limited number of award rooms Limited number of award flights Points redeemed at lower levels
Lower points earned for non-hotel spending Lower points earned for non-airline spending Lower points earned for non-travel spending
Now that you’ve seen the travel card options, it’s time to decide which card is the right one for you. But before you make a final decision, here are some key questions to to ask yourself about the three categories — airline, hotel and travel.
Fees for travel-related credit cards range from $0 to $550, with many offering a free year before fees kick in. A general rule of thumb: The higher the fee, the better the perks and benefits. For example, the Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card has no annual fee, but you can only earn three points on every $1 spent on travel if you book travel via its website. But the Choice Privileges® Visa Signature® Card offers perks like 15 points per $1 spent at eligible locations and automatic Gold status. But in the end, you have to decide if the perks and benefits offset the annual fee.
Most cards offer bonus miles and points for new card members who spend set amounts in the first three months. But you have to weigh if the spending needed to get the bonus justifies the boost to your miles and points account.
If you’re not loyal to one airline or hotel chain, it may be more beneficial for you to choose a travel-branded credit card. Because these cards have different airline and hotel partners, they give you more flexibility in redeeming points for flights and hotel rooms.
If you’re not someone that travels regularly, again, you may want to consider a travel-branded credit card. These cards allow you to earn points for non-travel related activities, and can be used later for booking a flight or a hotel room via the brands of your choice.
You want to look for a card that offers bonus points/miles per $1 spent for travel-related spending. You also want a card that offers bonus points/miles for things like dining and groceries.
If you belong to an airline or hotel loyalty program, you want to get a card that helps you attain elite status. For example, those with the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard® can earn 10,000 Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) after spending $40,000 in eligible purchases that post to an account during a calendar year. And Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs) and award miles can only be earned on base fares paid for a ticket, including any carrier-imposed fees. Hotels including IGH, Wyndham and Hyatt offer automatic elite status for card members.
For travel-branded cards, the answer is yes, based on the airline and hotel partnerships they have. For the airline and hotel cards, the answer is yes, but be absolutely sure and check what partnerships they have before making transfers.
The higher the fee, the better the perks. For airline cards, look for things like reward seats with no blackout dates, a free checked bag, priority boarding and baggage handling, upgrades to premium cabins, airport lounge access, discounts on in-flight services and 24/7 dedicated phone assistance. For hotels, you want a good variety of brands, no blackout dates, extra points for hotel-related purchases, automatic elite status and room upgrades.
For travel-branded cards, you want ones that let you earn extra miles for travel purchases, allow you to accumulate unlimited miles that don’t expire and have no blackout dates for reward travel. You also want cards that allow you to transfer points to airline and hotel partners to boost your loyalty program numbers.
It depends on the card, so check the fine print.
Again, it depends on credit card. Some points/miles never expire as long as the card remains open. And some require activity between 12 and 24 months to keep them from expiring.
You may be. If you don’t belong to an airline or hotel loyalty program, or don’t travel a lot, this type of card may be best for you.
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Foreign Transaction Fee Waived
Points Can Transfer to Airline Miles ?
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