Do you have the right credit card for your travels this summer?
For years, so-called travel cards -- credit cards that earn miles or include other travel-related benefits didn't go all that far. But today, experts say may firms are piling on the perks. New cardholder bonuses on some cards are topping 40,000 points -- the equivalent of a free round-trip ticket and then some, or as $400 toward other purchases. Many also offer sweeter benefits, including free room upgrades or a complimentary checked bag, along with fee-free foreign purchases or auto-rental insurance.
Card companies like them, too. In fact, they're sending out more this year. Miles-earning cards represented nearly 13% of offers sent out in May, up from 5.5 % the year before, according to Synovate Mail Monitor. "Travel rewards, particularly during the summer travel season, have come back with a vengeance," says Curtis Arnold, founder of credit card comparison site CardRatings.com. Card issuers like them, he says, because they tend to appeal to big spenders with high credit scores, which lets the company earn income through swipe fees without risking default.
But not all cards deliver. There's new evidence that some travel cards are more globe-trotting than others. One study from CardRatings.com earlier this week found that more cards are waiving the 3% fee on foreign transactions, while another from CardHub.com assessed the variances in cards' car-rental insurance benefits that could leave some drivers uncovered.
On the plus side, experts say there are plenty of travel-worth cards out there. Consumers may even find new reason to use a card already in their wallets, says Gerri Detweiler, a consumer credit expert for Credit.com. Plus, there's no need to focus on having just one perfect card for travel, she says -- it's a smart idea to bring at least two on a trip in case there's a problem. Here's what experts suggest travelers look for, and which cards fit the bill:
Fee-free foreign transactions
Credit card brands often tack on a fee of roughly 3% for processing transactions made in a foreign country. But a growing number of cards waive that fee, a benefit that amounts to $90 saved on $3,000 in spending, says Arnold. "It used to be just Capital One, and maybe one or two others, that waived foreign transaction fees," he says. Now, it's available on three dozen cards. Consumers are more likely to find fee-waivers on elite cards that carry an annual fee, like the Citi Thank You Premier ($125) or American Express Platinum ($450), but a number of free cards also do so -- including the entire lineups at Capital One, Discover and PenFed Credit Union.
Detweiler says in most cases, consumers needn't worry whether their credit cards will be accepted when traveling abroad. But some brands have smaller networks of participating countries or businesses, which is why consumers should make sure to have at least two brands in their wallet. It's also a good idea to check acceptance before traveling. Discover, for example, is only accepted in two African countries, and isn't usable in a few European countries including France and Ireland. American Express is another brand that occasionally isn't accepted at particular businesses, says John Ulzheimer, the president of consumer education at SmartCredit.com.
Consumers renting a car on their travels could save as much as $20 a day by foregoing the rental agency's add-on insurance coverage in favor of free coverage from their credit card brand, says Odysseas Papadimitriou, chief executive of CardHub.com. "It's a benefit that most of us do not take advantage of," he says. Benefits are offered by the brand, not individual banks, so this is one perk consumers aren't likely to need a new card to take advantage of -- Visa, American Express and Discover all offer rental insurance to all cardholders, and MasterCard offers it on most cards. Visa cards got the top rank in the site's recent study for slightly more comprehensive coverage and availability on all cards. But with all the brands, some destinations, cars and potential problems aren't covered, so it's worth reviewing the limitations before you leave, Papadimitriou says.
Experts say the appeal of the latest crop of travel cards isn't just miles earned, but also extra perks awarded. "Look for benefits that improve your experience," Ulzheimer says. The catch: perk-heavy cards often carry annual fees, so make sure the value of the perks you would use offsets the cost. For example, the $395 United Mileage Plus card includes membership to the carrier's lounges (by itself worth $475), two free checked bags per trip and priority security and boarding lines. On the hotel side, Anisha Sekar, vice president of credit and debit products for NerdWallet.com, likes the free Hilton HHonors card from American Express, which automatically upgrades the cardholder to silver status. That offers perks like late checkout, free fitness center access and faster check-in.
"If you're going to be doing some traveling, how about you have your credit card company pay for part of it?" Papadimitriou says. Free reward seats can prove both elusive and expensive, but big bonuses of as much as 40,000 miles for new cardholders can help. In a recent Credit.com study of best travel rewards, the PenFed Premium Travel Rewards card from American Express took the top spot. Its rewards are generous and there's no annual fee or cap on rewards, says Detweiler. Another top pick: Capital One's no-fee VentureOne Rewards card, because the points earned can be redeemed for flights and other purchases with few restrictions, she says.