If you love to travel, there’s nothing like the feeling of getting to boast that you got that hotel room/flight/seat upgrade for free.
That’s why there’s so much temptation to sign up for every travel rewards card that comes your way. But using travel points isn’t always straightforward. With every card promising to give you the most bang for your buck, it’s important to consider the pros, cons and potential costs associated with each of them, so you can decide if signing up makes sense for you and your lifestyle. Here are some questions to ask yourself before you sign up for your next travel points credit card.
AM I LOYAL TO A SPECIFIC BRAND?
Co-branded credit cards, which are affiliated with specific airlines or hotel chains, are a good option if you’re loyal to a certain company because you’ll earn points faster. But “the main drawback of co-branded cards is their inflexibility. You often have to shop and redeem with one airline, or with a select few,” says Sean Messier, associate editor at Credit Card Insider.
A general travel card, on the other hand, gives you more booking flexibility, but will typically take longer to earn rewards. However, “many general travel cards allow you to transfer points among a variety of airlines, and if you use point transfers carefully, you can still get huge value out of what might initially have looked like a less-impressive reward balance,” Messier adds.
DO I HAVE TO PAY A PREMIUM FOR POINTS?
Many rewards credit cards require an annual fee. If this is the case for a card you’re considering, then ask yourself if the potential travel points are worth it to justify the cost of the card. On top of that, think about whether you’re forced to spend, or overspend, just to be able to redeem your points. For instance, for flights, “you’ll nearly always have to pay certain fees in addition to the points you’re charged for a given flight, and those charges can add up,” Messier says. And “with hotel credit cards in particular, you may find yourself spending big to earn points for rooms that are more expensive than the rooms you actually need.” Pair that with a pricey APR, and you may find you pay more out of pocket to use those points than you think.
WHAT’S MY SIGNUP BONUS — AND WHAT WILL IT TAKE TO EARN IT?
If you’re looking to quickly accrue travel points, your best bet is to choose a card with a large sign-up bonus. But keep in mind you’ll typically have to spend a certain amount during a specified time frame to get those points, and you don’t want to bust your budget just to reach that milestone.
And just as fees can vary, so can the terms of the card’s incentives. A general credit card may give you more points for gas or restaurant purchases, but an airline credit card will usually give more points or miles when you use it to purchase flights.
HOW ELSE CAN I SAVE ON TRAVEL?
Whether you decide travel points are worth it, credit cards can still offer money-saving benefits for your trip. Many cards can help you avoid foreign transaction costs, baggage fees, insurance costs and they may even offer emergency assistance, which can be just as valuable as earning travel points.
But many hotel chains and airlines have their own rewards programs that give you points when you book with them. While it may take a while to earn enough for a free night, some offer more immediate perks, such as complimentary Wi-Fi, parking or breakfast. And booking sites including Trip Advisor, Skyscanner, Airbnb and Booking.com have referral programs that can help you earn commission or discounts on future reservations.
So think about what kind of travel planner you are before you commit to signing up for a card. If you are good at doing research and have your own strategies for saving, then travel points may not even have to be on your radar. However unexciting it might sound, Messier says all you may have to do “is simply shop strategically while considering the dates you’re traveling, the airline or airlines you’re using, and the airports and cities you’re flying between.”