Travel rewards credit cards are the secret to cheaper travel—but picking just one isn’t so simple. Here’s how to do it and start globe-trotting ASAP.

By Brittany Loggins
Updated July 15, 2019
Travel rewards credit cards - how to pick, tips, and more
Credit: Getty Images

My best friend’s parents have always been the types of people that I want to be when I grow up. They go to concerts, they’re always aware of the latest cultural happenings, and most importantly (to me, at least), they travel. Not only did they make it a point to introduce their daughter to other cultures when she was a child, but they also continue to travel now that she’s out of the house.

Currently, she and I both live in New York City and I find that I see them most as they’re stopping over in NYC on their way to Iceland or Israel—always on to their next adventure. They’ve always made travel a priority, even when, as her dad explained to me, money was much more tight. He explained that one of their game-changers when they were young was getting a travel rewards credit card and fastidiously monitoring their miles and perks—and understanding how much miles are worth.

I don’t want anyone to think I’m easily influenced, but I rushed home and immediately began my own research into these credit cards. Here’s what I’ve learned, why I think they’re so important, and what you need to consider when shopping around for travel rewards credit cards.

Look for cards that reward with miles

For me, cards that offered dining and shopping rewards were great, but I’ve found that those types of rewards usually leave me purchasing things I don’t need or necessarily want just so I can cash in on my reward. Instead, I focused on cards that provide rewards in the form of airline miles instead of cash back or other reward options.

One important component to consider is your existing points. If you’ve been an avid customer to Delta or Southwest, make sure you’re not throwing all of that away. Instead, search for a card that will complement your existing points or allow for a transfer. Since I had been a loyal Delta customer for years, I opted for the Delta American Express option. I like that it matches dollars for miles on certain purchases and has benefits such as early boarding, discounted lounge passes, and a roadside assistance hotline. (Some travel rewards credit cards will even offer free TSA PreCheck sign-up or certain travel fee reimbursements.)

Consider the sign-up fees and bonuses

For the card I chose, there was no sign-up or annual fee. I got this card as I was accepting my first job out of college, so this was important to me. I also got 30,000 bonus miles, which equated to a flight from NYC to Atlanta. When you register, make sure you pay close attention to other sign-up options. Many cards will offer thousands of extra miles if you spend a certain amount during your first month with the card.

Save on checked baggage

This was crucial to me. While some airlines still don’t charge for (at least one) checked bag, many of the larger airlines have started enforcing fees of $30 or $40 per checked bag. Luckily, a perk of most travel rewards cards is that they provide at least one free checked bag when you purchase your plane ticket on the card. This may not sound like a lot, but if you travel frequently (and pack all of your best travel clothes for every trip), it can be a big perk.

Consider your credit

If you’ve applied for multiple credit cards or have questionable credit because of other issues, you may still have options. Specifically, Discover and Capital One have cards that are aimed at people with low credit. You could easily sign up for one of these and use it to build back up your credit. After your credit has improved, the cards will probably offer better benefits on their own, or you could take the opportunity to look for an option that better suits your needs. Just always be conscious of your debt levels—figuring out how to get out of credit card debt should take precedence over accumulating travel rewards.

Other travel rewards credit cards perks

Finally, consider additional perks. Some cards offer discounted or free entry into the lounge at airports, plus discounts on in-flight purchases, roadside assistance, and priority boarding. Make a list of what’s most important to you, and safe travels!