Key takeaways

  • Travel credit cards can offer significant rewards and benefits for travelers, including complimentary checked baggage, access to airport lounges, bonus points on travel spending and automatic elite status.
  • Make use of all that your card offers to fully maximize the value of travel rewards cards with high annual fees.
  • The sometimes hefty annual fees and high credit score requirements associated with travel credit cards mean they aren’t the best choice for everyone.

Whether you’re an aspiring world traveler or experienced globetrotter, getting rewarded for your purchases with a travel credit card can unlock a world of new experiences, discounts and dream destinations.

The annual fees for many travel cards  — sometimes rather high fees, at that — might make you wonder if a travel credit card is worth it, but enticing perks like flights, hotel stays and other travel benefits could sway your decision. We’ll explore the pros and cons of travel credit cards so you can scope out the right choice, and help you find the best travel credit card to fuel your next vacation.

What are the pros of travel credit cards?

Travel-focused rewards categories

Many travel credit cards allow cardholders to earn bonus points or miles across travel purchases like airfare, hotels, car rentals, trains, taxis and rideshares. These bonus categories are appealing — and easy to maximize — for frequent travelers.

Depending on the card, you could earn anywhere from 3X to 10X points per dollar on specific travel-related purchases. However, to earn the bonus on airfare and hotels, you’ll typically have to book through your card issuer’s travel portal.

Once you have a stash of points or miles, you may be able to put your rewards toward your next trip. With careful planning, many have traveled the world on credit card points. For instance, you might redeem your rewards for a free business-class flight to the Maldives or a luxury hotel stay in Miami.

Travel benefits and credits

Anyone who travels often (or even occasionally) can appreciate perks like airport lounge access or elite status through an airline or hotel loyalty program. Many travel cards come with these perks, which can make long layovers and hotel stays more pleasant.

  • Whether it’s through airlines or hotels, having elite status can make your travels much more comfortable — and save you a ton of cash. With a credit card that offers elite status through a hotel or airline loyalty program, you can expect an enhanced travel experience. For example, hotel elite status often comes with perks like:

    • free room upgrades
    • late checkout
    • food credits
    • free breakfast
    • annual free night awards at hotels

    Pairing your hotel status with your airline status means even more travel perks. Airline elite status may offer you privileges like free checked bags, free upgrades and priority boarding. Of course, some travel cards offer these perks directly to cardholders — so you won’t even need to hold elite status as long as you have an eligible credit card.

    While status is usually reserved for frequent travelers, hotel and airline credit cards usually offer some level of status to their cardholders as a simple perk of carrying the card.

  • Global Entry is a trusted traveler program that makes navigating international travel swift and easy, thanks to a dedicated customs process when you return to the U.S. You get to skip the long lines when returning from a trip abroad. Plus Global Entry membership includes TSA PreCheck, another trusted traveler program; this one offers access to a dedicated security lane and allows you to breeze through airport security without removing your shoes or a light jacket when you travel domestically. If you don’t travel internationally much, you can also enroll in TSA Precheck by itself.

    The Global Entry application fee is reasonable at $100, and TSA Precheck is only $79, and both memberships last for five years. However, many travel cards provide Global Entry/TSA Precheck fee credits every four to five years to cover. Here are a few examples:

  • Even though some travel cards carry hefty annual fees that can range into the hundreds of dollars, the fee is typically offset with a slew of benefits like annual travel statement credits. Depending on the card, you could enjoy annual statement credit of $200 or $300. Each card’s terms are different, but you can typically use the credit to cover a wide range of travel purchases. There are also other statement credits that might be limited to specific airlines and hotels.

Flexible rewards and redemptions

Contrary to what you might think, there’s more than one way to redeem your travel points or miles. Many of the best travel rewards cards allow you to transfer your points or miles to airline or hotel partners, often at a higher redemption value, which helps stretch your rewards a bit further.

Travel cards also tend to have dedicated travel portals, which allow you to use your points or miles to book various travel purchases. While these portals don’t always offer the best value, some do offer bonuses when you redeem that way, plus they tend to be a simple, straightforward way to redeem travel rewards.

Maximized rewards value

While many swear by cash back cards, saving on your next trip with travel credit cards might be more enticing. With a cash back card, for example, you might earn a few hundred dollars in rewards each year. But the value proposition of a travel card can be greater. You could save hundreds or even thousands of dollars using your points and miles for hotels, airfare and upgrades — far beyond what most cash back cards can give you.

Plus, if you’re loyal to a specific airline or hotel brand, you can earn directly with that brand using a co-branded airline or hotel credit card — which also helps you reach elite status.

Authorized users may get travel perks, too

Your travel partner doesn’t have to feel left out while you benefit from seemingly endless perks. Some cards extend benefits to authorized users, too. The secondary cardholder may get many of the same perks as the primary cardholder, such as airport lounge access. And while some cards charge an additional fee for adding an authorized user, others don’t.

If you just want company on your next trip without the commitment of an authorized user, you won’t have to spend thousands of dollars to earn an airline companion pass every year. With the right card, you can get a companion ticket annually just for renewing your card. That means your adventure buddy gets a free or discounted flight.

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Bankrate’s take:

Check the card’s terms and conditions before applying to see if there is a fee to add authorized users and what benefits they get. If a companion ticket is more your speed, check the requirements for earning one.

Valuable welcome bonuses

One of the best ways to get yourself closer to a free flight or hotel stay is applying for a new travel credit card and meeting the requirements to earn the welcome bonus.

For example, The Platinum Card® from American Express offers a welcome bonus of up to 80,000 Amex Membership Rewards points after you spend $8,000 within six months of account opening — that’s worth $800 when redeemed through American Express Travel. However, Bankrate’s points and miles valuations place Amex points at around $0.02 each on average when redeemed with high-value transfer partners. This could boost the offer’s value to $1,600 in travel when redeemed in this way.

High-value benefits that justify annual fees

It’s easy to see how a large welcome bonus can make paying an annual fee worth it, at least for the first year. But many travel credit cards also offer benefits worth more than their annual fees.

For example, the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card offers complimentary access to Delta Sky Clubs when flying Delta-operated or Delta-marketed flights. You’ll also get four annual guest passes (Effective 2/1/25, Reserve card members will receive 15 visits per year to the Delta Sky Club).

Other benefits include a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, a first checked bag free on Delta flights (for up to nine travelers on the same reservation), a Delta companion certificate (available each year after card renewal; additional terms apply) and more, all for an annual fee of $650.

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Money tip:

Considering that the Delta Sky Club membership alone costs $695 per year, it would be well worth it for frequent Delta travelers to get this card.

What are the cons of travel credit cards?

High annual fees

Some premium travel credit cards come with hefty annual fees, such as the aforementioned Amex Platinum, which has an annual fee of $695. The key to getting the full value out of travel rewards cards with high annual fees is to capitalize on the benefits. In some cases, you may be able to get your money’s worth. But if you don’t travel often, getting the full value out of your travel card might feel like pulling teeth.

Luxury travel cards with high fees aren’t the right fit for everyone, so keep in mind that you can reap the benefits of a travel card without a sky-high annual fee. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card — one of the best beginner travel rewards cards — has an annual fee of just $95 and comes with perks that outweigh the cost. There are even travel cards without annual fees, like the Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card.

It can be difficult to maximize value

Sometimes, maximizing your travel rewards card takes tons of research and work. Between ensuring your rewards don’t expire and scouring through the terms and conditions to secure each benefit — maximizing value can feel like a full-time job, especially if you have more than one travel credit card.

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Keep in mind:

The key to getting the max value is understanding your card’s benefits and how you’ll use them. Take note of any blackout or expiration dates and read all the terms and conditions, too.

High credit score requirements

Most travel credit cards require a good to excellent credit score (670 to 850), and many premium travel cards require an excellent credit score. If you don’t have a credit score of at least 700 (or if you don’t have any credit history at all), take steps to build or improve your credit before applying for a travel card.

They’re not worth it if you don’t travel enough

Simply put, travel credit cards aren’t typically worth it if you don’t travel much. You won’t be able to take advantage of many of the perks and benefits — like statement credits for hotel stays, airline fees and other travel-related purchases — or earn bonus points or miles for travel purchases. These make up a large chunk of your travel card’s benefits.

Likewise, redeeming your points or miles for non-travel-related purchases — like cash back or merchandise — means you’ll often exchange those points for a lower value than a travel redemption, so you’ll give up a portion of your hard-earned rewards. Instead, consider a different type of rewards card, such as a cash back credit card.

The value of your rewards may fluctuate

Many airlines and hotels regularly revamp their loyalty programs to remain profitable, so what you can obtain with your points and miles may change. Sometimes these types of fluctuations can make your points and miles worth more, but more often it makes them less valuable.

One of the best ways to avoid devaluations is to use your rewards in a timely manner. Stockpiling rewards until you earn enough for your dream vacation is one thing, but don’t sit on huge reward balances forever. By using them quickly, you’ll get the max value out of your rewards and potentially avoid future devaluations from airlines and hotels.

High APRs

Travel credit cards are only worth it if you can pay off your bill in full each month. Like most rewards cards, travel cards tend to have high APRs. Some premium travel cards can have a variable APR of up to 30 percent, well above the average credit card APR of about 20 percent.

Having to pay high interest rates will negate any travel rewards earned, so if you can’t pay your card off every month, it’s best to opt for a card with a lower variable APR. If you only anticipate carrying a balance for a short period of time, you may want to consider a card with a 0 percent intro APR period on purchases for a limited time.

Should you get a travel credit card?

Before you apply for a travel credit card it’s important to consider a few aspects of your lifestyle and finances.

  • Consider your spending habits. Your spending habits are crucial to determining if a travel rewards card is worth it. If you’re only spending a few hundred dollars a month on your rewards card, you’re probably better off with cash back. If you can take advantage of category bonuses and then put your points to good use, then a travel rewards card might be a good option.
  • Are there cheaper alternatives? The higher-fee card that everyone raves about may not be the best option for your spending. For example, a lot of cardholders love the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card for its luxe travel benefits. But if you don’t use them, it’s a waste of a $395 annual fee. Consider more affordable card options with a low or no annual fee.
  • Have a travel goal in mind. Are you looking to book aspirational travel or are you more of an RVer? Travel cards are ideal for luxury travel since they carry annual fees and sometimes have complicated reward programs. With a redemption goal in mind you’ll make the most of your rewards.
  • Consider recurring benefits. Recurring perks could save you money on travel year after year.

Confession: I don’t put as much spending as I could on my Hilton Aspire Card, so I’m losing out in rewards value. The card has a $450 annual fee and offers generous category bonuses that I’m not utilizing. However, I will keep it in my wallet for two reasons: Hilton Diamond status and the annual free weekend night award. Both perks provide me with exceptional value.

— Ariana ArghandewalCredit Cards Contributor

  • Getting a travel credit card makes the most sense for frequent travelers who have a goal in mind. It also makes sense for people who fall into these categories:

    • Your credit is in great shape.
    • You pay off your statement balance in full each month.
    • You’re already a frequent traveler or want to travel more often.
    • An annual fee doesn’t bother you if the rewards outweigh it.
    • You’re detail-oriented and have time to max out the perks and benefits.

    The decision to apply for a travel card is ultimately up to you. But annual fees, high credit standards and complex rewards programs are major hurdles for many people considering a travel card.

  • Think of a travel card as an investment in your future travel plans. If you don’t travel frequently, it won’t be worth it. Perks like airport lounge access or free hotel nights won’t matter if you rarely (or never) fly or stay in hotels. A travel card also might not make sense for you if:

    • Sticking to a budget is difficult for you.
    • You don’t spend much on your credit card each month.
    • Traveling only happens once or twice a year for you.
    • You cringe at the thought of an annual fee.
    • Past credit mistakes are negatively affecting your credit.
    • The requirements for using your rewards seem too complicated.
    • You usually hold a balance on your credit card.

    Travel cards aren’t for everyone, and that’s okay. There are other types of rewards cards that may work better for your spending habits and lifestyle.

The bottom line

The best travel credit cards can offer you plenty of value as long as you’re able to maximize the benefits they offer. If you don’t travel frequently enough or won’t be able to use enough card benefits, consider another type of rewards card that will better reward the type of spending you do. If you’re not sure what type of card could fit that, consider using Bankrate’s CardMatch tool to help you find personalized credit card offers aligned with your spending and goals.

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