Fortunately, historically-valuable credit-card rewards have grown even more lucrative in the past year, according to CardHub’s latest Credit Card Landscape Report, with sign-up bonuses worth as much as $625 available alongside myriad travel-specific amenities. In the interest of helping folks take full advantage of plastic this summer travel season, CardHub compared more than 1,000 credit card offers (including some issued by advertising partners) and identified the best opportunities to save on airfare, hotel reservations, road trip-related expenses and just travel generally.
You can find our best-in-class selections below, followed by 13 tips for minimizing the cost of travel. Just remember that you need good or excellent credit to really play this rewarding game, and if you aren’t sure where you stand, you can check your score for free on WalletHub
Best Initial Bonus
Spending at least $4,000 during the first three months your account is open will trigger a 50,000-point rewards bonus, which can be redeemed for $625 in travel accommodations booked through Chase’s Ultimate Rewards Program or a $500 statement credit.
This card does not charge an annual fee during the first year ($95 thereafter) and does not assess foreign transaction fees for purchases processed abroad. For more information, check out our full review of the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card.
Perhaps the best rewards credit card on the market, Arrival Plus offers a 40,000-mile bonus – redeemable for $400 in travel expenses – in return for spending $3,000 during the first three months your account is open. You’ll also earn the miles-equivalent of 2% cash back on all other purchases and receive a 5% rebate on miles redeemed for travel.
This card does not charge a foreign transaction fee, and its $89 annual fee is waived for the first year. Check out our Barclaycard Arrival Plus Review to learn more.
Spending $3,000 in the first 3 months will get you 40,000 bonus miles, which can be redeemed for a $400 statement credit attributable to any travel-related expenses. The ongoing earning rate is 2 miles per $1 spent, with no limits or expiration dates. This card charges a $59 annual fee, beginning in the second year and doesn't assess foreign transaction fees for purchases processed abroad.
For a more in-depth look at this offer, check out our editor’s review of the Capital One Venture Card.
Spending $500 or more during the first 90 days will get you 40,000 bonus miles, which can be redeemed for 2 round-trip domestic flights. You can also earn a $100 discount voucher on your account anniversary if you make at least $2,500 in charges during the year.
In terms of regular rewards, you will earn 2 miles per $1 spent on FlyFrontier.com and 1 mile/$1 on all other purchases. There is a $69 annual fee.
In addition to a 20,000-point initial bonus for spending at least $2,500 during the first three months, this card provides 5 points per $1 spent on all airfare and 1 point per $1 on everything else.
There’s no annual fee and no foreign transaction fee, but you might have to pay a $15 one-time membership fee if you don’t already meet PenFed’s eligibility requirements.
Spending at least $2,000 within three months of account opening will score you 25,000 bonus points, redeemable for up to $350 in travel. You will also earn 4 points per $1 spent on all Expedia purchases, 2 points per $1 on dining and entertaining and 1 point per $1 on everything else.
There is no foreign transaction fee, but you will have to take a $95 annual fee into account.
Club Carlson might not ring a bell, but subsidiaries such as Radisson, Park Plaza and Country Inn & Suites probably do. You may therefore be interested to know that this card offers 50,000 bonus points with your first purchase and an additional 35,000 points for spending at least $2,500 within 90 days. You can redeem that total for up to 9 free hotel nights, and the 40,000 additional points that you’ll receive each account anniversary provide up to 4 more free nights, depending on what category hotel you select.
There is a $75 annual fee and a 3% foreign transaction fee.
You’ll get 70,000 bonus points in return for spending at least $2,000 during the first three months you have the IHG Credit Card. That bounty is redeemable for up to 14 free nights, as IHG offers rewards nights for as low as 5,000 points through its PointBreaks program.
IHG card users also receive one additional free night each year on their account anniversary and an annual 10% point rebate (up to 100,000), in addition to 5 points per $1 spent at IHG hotel chains, 2 points per $1 spent at gas stations, grocery stores and restaurants, and 1 point/$1 on everything else.
This card does not have a first-year annual fee ($49 thereafter) and does not charge a foreign transaction fee. Hotels operating under the IHG umbrella include the Holiday Inn family of hotels and Crowne Plaza.
More details about this offer can be found in our IHG Credit Card Review. You can also learn more IHG Rewards Club in general by checking out our IHG Rewards Program Review.
Charging $3,000 to this card over the first three months that you have it will trigger a 75,000-point initial bonus, redeemable for up to 15 free hotel nights, depending on how your hotel of choice is classified. Unfortunately, this offer comes with a $75 annual fee as well as a 2.7% foreign transaction fee, making it best suited to domestic travel.
You can learn more about Surpass and how it compares to Hilton’s other rewards cards in our in-depth HHonors card comparison. Additional details about Hilton’s rewards program more generally can be found in our full HHonors Program review.
You’ll earn a 25,000-point bonus for charging at least $3,000 to this card within three months of account opening. This bounty can get you up to 8 free hotel nights, depending on your hotel choice. The card has no annual fee in the first year, but charges $95 each year thereafter.
Road Trip Rewards
This Pentagon Federal Credit Union offer provides 5 points per $1 spent on gas (at any station, as long as you fill up at the pump), 3 points per $1 spent on supermarket purchases, and 1 point per $1 on everything else. Signing up for the card will get you a $100 bonus for spending $1,500 in the first 90 days the account is opened.
There is neither an annual fee nor a foreign transaction fee to worry about, annual fee and no fee for foreign transactions, but you might have to pay a one-time $15 fee to become eligible for PenFed membership.
This Amex offers 6% cash back on groceries (up to $6,000 per year), 3% on gas as well as purchases at select department stores and 1% on everything else, making it a great card for everyday spending as well as road trips.
Although this card does charge both a $75 annual fee and a 2.7% foreign transaction fee, you also stand to receive a $250 bonus for spending at least $1,000 during the first three months your account is open. And if you apply by 6/15/2016, you can save as much as another $100 via a limited-time 10% earning rate on purchases made from U.S. Wireless Telephone Service Providers.
Finance Travel By Reducing The Cost Of Existing Debt
If you have existing credit card debt (or you expect to following your impending summer vacation), transferring what you owe to the Slate Card could save you more than $1,000 in finance charges while helping you reach debt freedom way earlier than you would otherwise. Slate offers 0% introductory rates for both new purchases and balance transfers, but it’s a lack of fees – both annual and balance-transfer – that really set Slate apart.
You can see how much Slate stands to save you, and perhaps plan the payments necessary to be out of debt within 15 months, with our balance transfer calculator.
Get the full scoop on Slate from CardHub’s comprehensive review.
Finance Travel With 0% On New Purchases
This card offers the longest 0% purchase APR on the market, at 21 months. So if you foresee being unable to pay off the full cost of your coming trip within a single billing period, this is a great option to consider. You can use our financing calculator to determine the amount of the monthly payments you’ll need to make in order to be balance-free by the time regular rates take effect.
It’s also important to point out that this card probably isn’t your best bet when it comes to balance transfers, despite its near two-year interest-free term. It charges a 3% balance transfer fee, which would amount to about $236 for the average consumer (who owes roughly $7,879).
Money-Saving Summer Travel Tips
Picking the right credit card can go a long way to saving you a bundle of money on a summer getaway. But there’s even more to vacation credit card use than applying for one of the offers listed above. There are certainly more ways to save as well. Here are some tips:
- Use Plastic Whenever Possible: Credit cards obviously provide a lot of value through initial rewards bonuses and 0% financing deals, but they also offer $0 fraud liability guarantees, the lowest possible currency conversion rates, and complementary rental car insurance coverage. It’s therefore a good idea to use plastic for the majority of your travel expenses.
- Choose Your Credit Card Wisely: Consumers who are interested in a new credit card mainly for quick rewards score should obviously concentrate on initial bonus offers, while people who prize the simplicity of having the same card in their wallet for a long time will want to check out those with ongoing rewards. Folks worried about incurring finance charges will find that a 0% offer has the potential to save them far more than even a great rewards card.
- Think Outside the Box: The most obvious vacation destinations and types of accommodations are naturally going to be the most popular and therefore the hardest to book on a budget. As a result, you may want to consider taking a mid-week flight, going to a small town, renting a house rather than booking rooms in an expensive hotel (especially if you’re traveling with a big group), and leveraging free resources like public transportation and destinations known for natural beauty.
- Mix Business with Pleasure: If you can find a way to squeeze in a few meetings around your trip, certain aspects of it may be tax deductible. While your travel must technically be “for business” and only your own business-related expenses are deductible, you’re allowed to tack a few recreational days onto either end of a business trip and you can certainly brainstorm ways to include your family under the business umbrella even if they aren’t employees (e.g. piling everyone into a rental car that would ordinarily be just for you).
- Comparison Shop: Comparing the prices of different air carriers, hotel chains, and vacation packages will enable you to identify best possible deals. You might even be able to score a more attractive price than what’s listed online by telling the sales representative that you’ll book immediately if they can beat a specific competitor’s offer.
- Maximize Your Credit Score: All of the Best Travel Credit Cards for 2015 require above-average credit for approval and therefore clearly illustrate the value of the best possible credit score. So, if your credit standing needs some work, make sure to have an open credit card that’s in good standing (look into opening a secured credit card if not), pay your monthly bill on time without fail, and you’ll see positive information flow into your credit reports on a monthly basis. This will either devalue negative information already in there or fill out a currently thin file.
- Tell Card Issuers You’re Leaving: Credit and debit card companies may suspend your account if a bunch of transactions suddenly originate from outside your normal spending area. You can prevent the resulting hassle by simply telling your issuer where and when you’ll be traveling. This is especially important if you’re headed out of the country, but it could come into play for long domestic trips as well.
- Take Advantage of the Dollar’s Strength: While weaker than both the Euro and the British Pound, the U.S. Dollar currently has a considerable advantage over the Swiss Franc, the Australian Dollar and the Japanese Yen. Selectively choosing your vacation destination is thus a distinct money-saving proposition.
- Use Your Credit Card for Currency Conversion: Visa and MasterCard offer exchange rates that are 4.12% lower than those offered by the average major bank and 8.95% lower than what Travelex charges, according to WalletHub’s Currency Exchange Study.
- Avoid Foreign Transaction Fees: Around 90% of credit cards charge a premium to process transactions outside of the United States. You don’t have to be physically abroad to incur such a surcharge – which is known as a foreign transaction fee and can range from 2-4%, depending on the card. Rather, they apply whenever you make a purchase through a foreign-based merchant. As long as you have a no foreign transaction fee credit card, you won’t have to worry about these pesky fees.
- Take a Low-Fee Debit Card: You won’t be able to use a credit card for everything when abroad, so the best approach is to take a Visa or MasterCard debit card that has low fees for international ATM withdrawals so you can take out cash as needed and benefit from low card network exchange rates.
- No Need To Favor Chip Cards Yet: The international community is moving increasingly toward a chip-based credit card infrastructure complete with automated machines at places like train kiosks and parking garages that may not accept U.S. magnetic stripe cards. You might take that as a reason to get one of the chip-based cards now being marketed to U.S. consumers, but most of them are chip-and-signature cards while automated machines only accept chip-and-PIN (you can read more about the difference here). Most international merchants still accept magnetic stripe cards anyway.
- Pay in the Native Currency: This doesn’t apply to domestic travelers, but those of you traveling abroad should make sure to only sign receipts expressed in the local currency. Foreign merchants sometimes offer to convert prices into U.S. dollars in order to charge a high conversion rate and line their pockets.