5 Tips for Finding the Best Travel Card for You

Hi everyone! It’s Carly Helfand from 52 Cities, here to talk travel rewards.

Have you ever wished someone would just hand you a free trip for doing nothing? Not spending any more money than you normally would on a day-to-day basis, or flying more, or restricting your travel to one specific airline?

Find the right travel credit card for you, and that’s basically what will happen. It sounds to good to be true, but take it from someone who just booked six days in an over-water villa in the Maldives for $0--it isn’t!

Now, for those of you who right now are thinking, “Wait, I HAVE a travel credit card and it would take me AGES to rack up enough points on it to actually get a free trip!”--I hear you. There’s a difference between having a travel credit card and having the one that best suits your lifestyle, spending habits and travel goals. But the great news is, it’s not too late to find that perfect card. Let’s walk through five tips for how to do just that!

1. Scope out the opportunities to earn multiple points per dollar

Just about every travel card has a bonus category, which basically means that if you spend money on anything that falls within it, you’ll earn extra points. Take the Citi ThankYou Premier, for example: When you spend money on that card, you’ll earn three points per dollar on travel, two points per dollar on dining out at restaurants, two points per dollar on entertainment, and one point per dollar on everything else.

It’s critical that your bonus categories align with your spending patterns. If don’t eat out, for example, you might opt instead for a card that earns extra points on groceries.

Sounds obvious, right? But consider this: Most branded airline credit cards keep their bonus categories fixed to spending on flights for that airline. That means that if you fly with anyone else, you’ll earn just one point per dollar--as opposed to the multiple points you might earn with a card that counts all travel within the bonus zone.  Plus, a card with a more general “travel” bonus will also give extra points for things like hotels, trains, ferries, Uber and Lyft, and sometimes even parking and gas.

2. Make sure the card you want will earn you rewards you can actually use

This one requires a little forethought, but I’m hoping you can learn from my mistakes. I took out a Hilton credit card a few years ago with the justification that I would probably earn a lot of points with it; it seemed many of my friends were booking wedding room blocks at Hilton properties, and I seemed to stay at Hilton chains frequently for work trips.

I was right about that, but when it came time to redeem my points, I quickly realized that Hilton didn’t have the best options for the location I was eyeing. And what’s the point of racking up points if they can’t get you where you actually want to go?

If you have a dream trip in mind, take a few minutes to think about what airlines fly there and what hotel options you’d have once you arrived. Once you know where you want to be able to redeem points, it’s much easier to figure out what credit card can put you on the right track to earning them.

3. Size up the fees

I’d love to be able to earn the fifth night of any hotel stay free with the Citi Prestige, earn diamond status and a free weekend night annually with the Hilton Ascend, score three points per dollar on travel and dining with the Chase Sapphire Reserve, and more--and I’m willing to bet I’m not alone here. But travel credit cards don’t come free, and these days, a lot of them don’t come cheap, either. If you’re spending a lot of money for a card whose benefits you can’t take advantage of, you might be better off saving your money altogether.

That said, on the flip side, there are cases where it makes total sense to pay up for a card with great earning potential, as we’ll get to in a bit. Definitely do the math to see if the rewards you can reap are worth the price to play.

4.  Evaluate the currency

Trying to compare Starwood Starpoints with Hilton Honors points is like trying to compare U.S. dollars with Czech crowns. They’re two different currencies with two different amounts of buying power; Hilton points are more inflated, meaning it might take 28,000 of them to get a room similar to what you could get with 7,000 Starpoints.

All this is to say is that it’s really important to look at how valuable a card’s points are before deciding what card you want to go with. It doesn’t matter how high the multiples are in your bonus category if the points you’re earning aren’t that valuable--I’d take $1 over 5 Czech crowns (equivalent to about 25 cents) any day.

So what makes a point valuable? A couple of things. One is how much flexibility you have in terms of redeeming it; Citi, Amex, Starwood and Chase all have extensive lists of partners you can transfer your points to, while branded programs like American Airline’s AAdvantage or World of Hyatt can’t say the same.  To illustrate this point, with a United MileagePlus credit card, you can earn United miles, but with a Chase credit card, you can earn points that transfer 1:1 directly to United, OR to Southwest, or British Airways, or Air France... and the list goes on. Who wouldn’t rather have the latter?

Another big thing to consider here is whether the points you’re looking at are fixed to the dollar, like JetBlue’s, Southwest’s or Capital One’s are. Say you have points fixed to the dollar at a 100:1 rate; that means that for a $600 flight, it’ll cost you 60,000 points. Other programs function differently, though. Most airlines will determine the price of a flight in points based on what geographic regions you’re traveling to and from, with domestic U.S. flights generally costing around 25,000 points. That means that if the flight you’re eying shoots up to $600, it might still only cost you 25,000 points--in other words 35,000 fewer points than you’d pay with our example fixed-price card.

5. Choose your tier

So you’ve narrowed down which points program you want to focus on. Congrats! That’s a HUGE first step. But some programs have multiple credit card offerings, meaning you’re going to have to make some more decisions. Within some credit card families, you’ll find a no-fee card, but its earning opportunities will generally be more stunted; on the other side of the coin, a premium card might have better spending multiples and benefits, but it’ll cost you more each year. Usually there’s a more standard option right in between, and it’ll be a safe bet if you want to earn quickly but aren’t sure you can put premium benefits to good use.

Then, there are business cards, which may offer bonus categories more suited to your work needs (think higher multiples on cable and internet or internet advertising).

Want more points and miles tips? Click here for access to 52 Cities’ totally free library of travel resources, and check back here soon for info on how to make the most of your travel rewards! Who knows, with one of these cards you may be able to join PACK in Chiang Mai or Sicily for free ;)