NEW YORK (MainStreet) – With the Northeast frozen and snowed over and much of the country still chillier than it would care to be, it would be nice if all the cash it was spending on heat, shovels and rock salt could buy a vacation somewhere warm.
Ideally, this is where your rewards-based credit card comes in.
The only problem is that cards that put credit toward airfare, hotels and car rentals while still being easy to use home and abroad isn't easy. The folks at CardRatings.com dedicate an entire section of their site to travel cards alone. CardRatings founder Curtis Arnold notes that no travel rewards card is a perfect fit, so picking one that matches your lifestyle — like the high-percentage rewards cards he uses to pay for gasoline when he and his wife drive around their family of six — is usually the most sound approach.
Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst for Bankrate-owned CreditCards.com, tends to agree. He notes that there's no “perfect travel card” on either end of the spectrum. Frequent international travelers face a sea of cards with foreign transaction fees that charge them 2% to 3% more for their purchases, while infrequent fliers keep having airline cards pushed their way. Even if a cardholder flies regularly, having an airline-linked rewards card makes sense only if that airline has a hub nearby.
“For example, if you’re in Atlanta, you may want to consider a Delta SkyMiles American Express card because Atlanta is a Delta hub,” He says. “If you’re in Dallas, an American Airlines card or a Southwest Airlines card might be the best fit for the same reason.”
Even Ed Perkins, who focuses on travel rewards cards and hospitality for TripAdvisor travel site SmarterTravel, notes that rewards options are far too broad to take a one-size-fits-all approach. While cards such as American Express Platinum and Diners Club have rewards programs that cover multiple features including car rentals and miles on multiple airlines, their worth is typically dictated by how a traveler gets around and how often.
With the combined powers of CardRatings, CreditCards.com and SmarterTravel at out disposal, we went looking for the cards that gave travelers the most perks for their payments. We came up with a solid seven that anyone with wanderlust should consider for their well-traveled wallet:
Simmons First Visa Rewards
The most mild-mannered of the cards on our list, the Simmons First Visa was recommended by CardRatings' Arnold not for its flashy perks, but for its low rate.
At 9.25%, it's the lowest standard rate on our list and comes with a just enough perks to make it worthwhile. Applying online knocks off the transfer fee for travelers, who get one reward point per dollar spent and can apply those points to any ticket on U.S.-based airline without blackouts or seating restrictions. The card allows travelers to use their points toward hotels, cruises, vacation packages, car rental and restaurants as well, but the biggest perk is the lack of an annual fee. Most of its contemporaries aren't so generous.
PenFed Premium Travel Rewards American Express
There are a whole lot of hoops to jump through for this AmEx, but it's worth it for frequent travelers.
First off, potential cardholders actually have to join the Pentagon Federal Credit Union to even be considered for this card that was once available only to military families. Secondly, you have to have fairly sterling credit to make it through the application process.
Clear those hurdles, and you're basically in the travel equivalent of Willy Wonka's factory. You get 20,000 bonus points for spending $2,500 within your first three months as a cardholder. You get five points on the dollar for each airfare purchases and one point for every other purchase, but — and this is key — you're subject to no fees for foreign transactions and no annual fee at all. On an American Express card, that's a small miracle.
There's a 3.99% APR transfer rate for 12 months on transfers made by March 31 and a 3% balance transfer fee applies to each transfer, but it's a small price to pay for a card that's already chip-enabled and ready to move.
Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve
CardRatings' editors highlighted this as their hotel card of choice for multiple reasons, but mostly because Hilton and its assorted hotels treat you like a boss for the entire time you hold it.
This card gives cardholders HHonors Gold status, and all the perks that come with it, for as long as they hold the card. Yes, there's a whopping $95 annual fee, but that gets you two weekend night certificates good at select hotels and resorts within the Hilton family if you make $2,500 in purchases within four months of your account opening.
From there, you earn 10 points per dollar on every Hilton hotel room rental, five points for every dollar spent on airline and car rental purchases and three points for every other purchase. Oh, and your card has a chip and no foreign transaction fees. For rewards that are good at Hilton hotels, the Waldorf-Astoria, Conrad, Canopy, Curio, DoubleTree, Embassy Suites, Hilton Garden Inn, Hampton Inn, Homewood Suites, Home2 Suites and Hilton Grand Vacations, this card is a frequent traveler's best friend.
Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard
There weren't a whole lot of cards all our experts agreed on, but this was one of them.
Despite an $89 annual fee (which is waived for the first year), this little card is an international workhorse. It has secure chip-and-PIN technology and no transaction fees. It frontloads 40,000 bonus miles onto your account if you spend $3,000 within 90 days of opening your account, you get two miles for every dollar spent, 10% of your miles back when their redeemed, the ability to use those miles on any airline (via a statement credit) and a free credit score for the check they're going to run on you. The starting APR drifts between 15% and 18%, but that's a whole lot of reward for your trouble.
Chase Sapphire Preferred
This was yet another card our experts raved over.
Even with a $95 annual fee (that's waived the first year) the Sapphire preferred still has a whole lot to offer. Cardholders get 40,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 in the first three months. They earn double points on travel and dining purchases and one point per dollar for everything else.
Just like its high-profile competitors, it has chip-and-PIN technology and no foreign transaction fees. Unlike some of those other cards, it allows one-to-one points transfers with its travel partners, so one point equals one mile. The 16% APR isn't great, but it's a burden travelers might be willing to bear for the benefits.
Capital One VentureOne Rewards
This was the last unanimous choice by our experts, but some tweaks on the formula of the last two set this one apart.
Let's get past the standard offerings: No foreign transaction fees, 1.25 miles for every dollar spent, free credit score, etc. Yes, it offers 20,000 bonus miles for spending $1,000 in the first three months, but the 11.9% starting APR, lack of blackout dates for redeemed miles and no annual fee make it worth taking along for the ride.
United Mileage Plus Explorer Card
If you fly another airline regularly or live near an airport where United isn't much of a presence, feel free to go with another airline's card. If you live in United country, however, life gets a whole lot less frustrating with this one.
The United experience is a wee bit different for Mileage Plus members. They don't pay a fee on the first bag they check in, they get priority boarding privileges, they get free passes to the United Club lounge. They're insufferable.
But you can totally be that person! For $95 a year (waived for the first year), you can get zero foreign transaction fees, double miles on ticket purchases, a mile per dollar on everything else and miles that don't expire, don't have restrictions on seat or flight and don't have a limit for the number collected. Want to save up for that flight to Fiji? As long as you're cool with 16% APR per purchase, you're all good. Besides, with 30,000 bonus miles for spending $1,000 within the first three months, you get a decent head start.
— By Jason Notte for MainStreet
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