Picking the best travel credit card is no easy task.
Scroll through the credit card information websites on the Internet -- many are paid for their reviews, while others are paid indirectly when you act on their advice -- and you're likely to be bombarded with choices. Chase Bank's "Ink" Card offers a rich signup bonus of 60,000 "points" that can be used for travel -- but those points are only offered at certain times of the year, and they require that you spend an ungodly amount of money to "earn" the bonus.
Other cards, like American Express' Gold Delta SkyMiles card, offer similar signup rewards if you reach a smaller purchase goal -- but those rewards can only be used on one airline.
Still other cards favored by travelers -- we'll use Southwest's co-branded Chase card in this example -- offer the big signup bonus and the reasonable-purchase goal. However, the rewards can't be used for most international travel. (Southwest is primarily a domestic traveler.)
And then there are the issues that users of travel credit cards have contended with for years. Blackout dates. Unavailable seats. Inflated prices for tickets that are purchased in points. With 1,700-odd credit card offerings to pick through, the downside to picking any single credit card often seems as big as its upside.
So how do you find the best travel credit card? In all honesty, it depends on your particular needs. That said, there are some qualities that all the best options have -- and after we go over those, we'll name one card that looks like the all-around best in class.
The bare necessities
So what are some of the things you should look for in a good travel credit card? Here are a few de rigeurs to consider:
Simplicity. Credit cards should make life simpler. Buy what you want, when you want, without worrying about balancing a checkbook. Just pay it all off at the end of the month -- and earn "rewards" for the privilege!
When a card requires you to jump through hoops, "activate" (and reactivate) your eligibility for rewards, or transfer points from a cash-back card to an airline miles card to a hotel card in order to maximize your savings, then it isn't simplifying your life. It's complicating it. And who needs extra hassles?
What you want is a card that pays you a good number of points for each purchase and pays out those rewards consistently, without any further action on your part.
Flexibility. For a one-size-fits-all best travel credit card, you don't want a card that works great on some routes but doesn't help at all on others. That rules out a primarily domestic airline card such as those offered by Frontier, Alaska Air, or Southwest. It also argues against tying yourself to a specific airline's card -- and that airline may not fly to all the places you want to go. (I'm looking at you, Delta.)
Premium points. The rule of thumb for credit card rewards these days is that a $1 purchase earns you 1 reward point on your card. But many cards will pay you 1.25, 1.5, or even two to five points for every $1 spent. Generally speaking, those are the cards to focus on. The more free rewards per purchase, whether paid in cash or in points, the better.
Free. "Free" rewards on a credit card that charges you an annual fee aren't really free. That fee motivates you to use that card over others in an effort to "earn back" your annual fee. And doing that could cause you to miss out on a cheaper-priced ticket.
It's much better to choose a card with no annual fee so you start at breakeven, and all your points earned are pure profit.
How do you say "gotcha!" in French? When you're traveling abroad, many cards charge you a fee for converting purchases made in foreign currency back into the dollars with which you pay your bill. A good travel card shouldn't play this trick but should simply translate foreign purchases into dollars at the official exchange rate.
Interest is the enemy. One final thought. You'll no doubt notice that I've said not a word about the interest rates that credit cards charge -- or cash advance fees, or late payment penalties, either. That's because if you use your credit card right, these things should never enter the picture. Charge no more than you earn and remember to pay off your credit card in full at the end of the month, and these details won't matter.
Drum roll, please: The best travel credit card is...
Bearing in mind that opinions may differ -- and bearing in mind that The Motley Fool does not earn any fee for recommending Card A or Card B, as some websites do -- my ultimate pick for the "best travel credit card" is also my favorite credit card, period.
It's the Capital One Quicksilver card. Here's why:
- Quicksilver pays you an automatic $100 cash bonus after you spend $500 in your first three months. Mathematically speaking, that's a better deal than Chase Ink's 60,000 points for spending $5,000, and about equal to Chase's Southwest co-branded card, which pays 50,000 points for spending $2,000 (but also charges a $99 annual fee). For most shoppers, spending $500 is a whole lot easier than spending $5,000. You can rack up $500 in charges in three months doing no more than your ordinary spending -- which makes earning this reward almost automatic.
- After the initial cash bonus, Quicksilver pays you 1.5% cash back on all purchases. There's no option to earn extra points on specific categories of purchases (as with Chase, for example). However, there's also no need to repeatedly sign up for eligibility to earn these points. Quicksilver keeps things simple.
- Cash back can be spent on any plane ticket, hotel, or rental car anywhere. In fact, because it's cash, it can be spent on anything, whether it's travel-related or not.
- Quicksilver charges no annual fee.
- Quicksilver charges no foreign conversion fees, either.
Bonus points: Capital One lets you personalize your card by uploading a photograph and making that the "design" of your card. Depending on the photo you upload, this might enable you to use the credit card as a second form of photo ID. At the very least, a credit card bearing your photograph should be harder for a card thief to utilize -- adding an extra level of protection to your card.
Again, no travel card is one-size-fits-all, but based on the criteria above, the Capital One Quicksilver card is a fine choice. Before you make your decision, do some homework to figure out what your needs are and which travel card best meets them.
Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of, nor is he short, any company named above. You can find him on Motley Fool CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handle TMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 249 out of more than 75,000 rated members.
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