|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.