|The perks and parameters used to distinguish a good travel rewards card from a great one have changed.|
Rewards cards in general tend to carry an annual fee, since companies need ways to fund the points, perks and frequent-flier miles associated with them. But you shouldn't assume you have to spend the $400-plus fee associated with elite travel credit cards such as the American Express ( AXP) Platinum to earn ample rewards on vacations. While elite cards are certainly known for offering exclusive hotel and resort upgrades, only those who travel frequently really stand to recoup that fee in benefits. Besides, there are plenty of low-fee cards that offer much more than 1% back on purchases. Capital One ( COF), for example, offers two miles for every $1 spent on purchases on its Venture Rewards Card, which carries a $59 annual fee that is waived the first year. You're entitled to concierge service or additional airline perks.
These days, opting for a lower-fee card doesn't have to mean forgoing the added service benefits entirely. The Venture Rewards card entitles cardholders to the 24/7 Visa ( V) Signature concierge service. Chase ( JPM) also offers direct access to 24-hour customer service -- essentially meaning you talk immediately to a person and not a machine -- on both its $95-fee Sapphire Preferred and no-fee Sapphire rewards cards.
The Sapphire Preferred and Venture Rewards cards also follow another trend that's become popular among the best travel rewards cards: They exempt cardholders from having to pay a foreign transaction fee, which many issuers charge for making purchases overseas. That's a good thing, since these fees can be as high as 3% of each transaction. You'll get an ample bonus for signing up.
Finally, if you're looking to sign up for a travel rewards card, you should wait until the issuer is offering an ample sign-on bonus. (These, too, have become a popular go-to perk for credit card companies looking to widen their customer base.) Right now, Chase is offering $625 toward airfare and accommodations to new Sapphire Preferred cardholders, but the bonus has a fairly high spending threshold of $3,000 in the first three months of use. Capital One is also running a huge promotion to get new Venture rewards cardholders. You can actually earn up to 100,000 extra miles from rewards points you earned on a rewards card last year, but that requires you to have spent a lot of money last year plus an extra $1,000 on the Venture card within its first 90 days of use. Those who aren't planning to make big purchases any time soon will find it much easier to take Discover ( DFS) up on the current bonus offer on its Escape rewards card. New cardholders are eligibile to earn 1,000 bonus miles each month they make a purchase in the first 25 months. >To submit a news tip, email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow TheStreet on Twitter and become a fan on Facebook.