Charge It!!! The Best Travel Perks from Credit Cards

by Nancy Bestor

There are so many choices when it comes to credit cards. And with the competition so great, companies have come up with all kinds of enticements and reasons why you should choose their card over their competitor’s. You’ve got sign-up bonuses, cash back, and a dizzying array of rewards. Some of the more interesting rewards we found include a day of fighter pilot training (aerial dog fight included!) from Wells Fargo, a wedding officiated by an Elvis impersonator from Bank of America, and a trip to Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp from CitiBank.

But whether it’s free hotel stays, airline upgrades or companion tickets, we figure that most of our readers are not looking for fighter pilot training, but instead are looking for the best travel benefits at the best price. So how do you determine which card that is?

The best way to start might be by asking yourself a few questions. First—does the credit card you are considering have an annual fee? If so, will you make enough purchases on that card to accrue benefits that will outweigh the cost of that annual fee? In other words, if your card costs $100 a year, and it takes you four years to earn an airline ticket, that “free” airline ticket actually costs you $400.

Once you’ve made that determination, there are a few other questions that will help narrow down the type of card that is best for you.

  • Do you want airline miles, and if so, are you willing to have them limited to use on a single airline?
  • Which airlines service the airports you most often use? Here in Ashland, Oregon, United and Alaska are the two biggest carriers flying in and out of Medford’s Rogue Valley International Airport. Thus it wouldn’t make a lot of sense for us to have a credit card that accrued miles exclusively on American or Delta.
  • Do you want points that can be transferred to a wider array of rewards (ie: hotel, air, etc)? Or do you want some sort of upgraded access or service like United Club?

We travel a lot, and are fortunate that we can also charge many personal and business items to our mileage accruing credit card. This year we upgraded to the Club Card from United. The annual fee is $395 (as a sign-up bonus, the fee was waived for the first year). The fee on our old United Mileage Plus card was $90 – so we are paying an additional $305. We are, however, accruing 1.5 miles for every dollar spent on this card, and two miles for every $1 spent on United tickets, as opposed to one mile for every dollar spent on the old card. In addition, we chose to upgrade to the Club Card for the included membership in the United Club. At all airports, we now have access to the United Club lounge, or the United affiliate club lounge. The lounge has free food and beverages, as well as free speedy internet. Some lounges are much nicer than others, but even the less than ideal lounges are not too shabby. In the six months that we’ve owned this card, we’ve easily saved $100 on airport food and drink. Our card also gets us priority boarding, no foreign transaction fees, and free checked bags on all United flights. Again, we travel a lot, and also charge significant dollars onto our credit card. Thus the high annual fee is worth it to us, but that might not be the case for everyone.

What our card doesn’t give us access to is miles on another airline. United has many foreign carriers in their Star Alliance Network, and the mileage program does work for these partners. But we cannot use our miles on other US airlines. This is when credit cards with “points” might make more sense for some travelers. A relative in our family is a member of the rewards program at American Express. By using his American Express card, he earns points that can, among other things, be spent on tickets on a large number of airlines in the US and abroad. There are, however, many points cards on the market. Fortunately, there are several websites that will help you choose the credit card that offers the best travel benefits based on your individual needs. Two of my favorite sites are www.nerdwallet.com and www.thepointsguy.com.

A few other important credit card considerations are to make sure that when you’re traveling, you’ve got a credit card that:

  • Doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees
  • Covers you for car rental insurance in most countries
  • provides a chip and pin for European travel

And remember, Visa and Mastercard are still the two most widely accepted cards in the world. American Express has great benefits, but many merchants don’t accept AmEx because their merchant fees are higher.

Finally, you’ll get the best interest rates and the best offers if you pay off your credit cards in a timely manner and have a good credit score.