You can pick your credit card by the biggest cash back payout or lowest interest rate, but if you’re looking for the best travel benefits the choice is trickier. Choosing the right card for travel is different because you can incur fees you wouldn’t normally expect and find savings that you wouldn’t think to take advantage of. Here’s the best cards for frequent flyers or just aspirational ones.
Best for carrying excess baggage
If you are an inveterate golfer, clothes horse, or you plan to drag the munchkins down to Disney World with all their toys, then you could easily rack up baggage fees that add a pretty penny to an already expensive vacation. Randy Petersen, publisher of InsideFlyer magazine recommends United and Continental cards for their range of free checked baggage perks. With Continental’s OnePass card you get the first checked bag free every time you fly when you use it to purchase tickets on Continental or United (a savings of up to $50 per round trip per passenger checking bags). Up to eight people traveling with you will also get their first checked bag free if they are listed on the same reservation. The Continental Presidential Plus card (with higher annual fee) gives you – and up to eight people booking with you – two free checked bags.
Delta’s SkyMiles American Express card offers first free checked bag and for that of up to nine people travelling on the reservation. For all the extra gear you don’t send to the hold, premium cards from United, Southwest, and other airlines – or elite status in frequent flyer programs – often offer priority boarding or permanent booking into zone one on the plane, which will ensure that you’ll find space in overhead bins.
Regardless of what card you use, Southwest still lets passengers check their first and second bags for free and JetBlue offers one complimentary checked bag.
Best card to get you to exotic locations
Years ago there were some clear-cut winners if you wanted to use points to land yourself in a tropical locale. Nowadays global alliances such as oneworld and SkyTeam, mean that even mostly domestic airlines may have partners that will land you at hundreds of destinations.
But among the smaller airlines, there are some big differences. Frontier Airlines has no partnerships, and JetBlue won’t put you anywhere more exotic than the Caribbean. However, Alaska Airlines partners with American, Delta and 12 other airlines, so if you’re on the West Coast you can get yourself almost anywhere in the world. And with Southwest, the points you earn through their program can be used on 50+ carriers – something that no other frequent flyer program allows.
Getting to exotic locations is one thing, but you don’t want the card that you booked with to be charging you those 3 percent foreign transaction fees on every purchases when you’re there. Capital One is the only major issuer to not levy that fee, while some American Express, Citi ThankYou cards waive it, as well as several of the higher-tier airline credit cards that carry steep annual fees.
Best card for infrequent flyers
If you’re more of a frequent buyer than a frequent flyer and earn most of your points through spending rather than flying or logging hotel stays, you’ll need to be more strategic in maximizing your miles.
“The best way to get free travel is to watch for unusually generous sign-up bonus offers, such as the recent 100,000 mile bonus on British Airways,” says George Hobica, the founder of airfarewatchdog.com. “You can sometimes negotiate your way to higher bonus offers than what is actually advertised with some airline credit cards. It really pays to get on the phone and shop around; ask the phone rep how many bonus miles they’re offering and ask for even more. There’s always a deal lurking in their computers.”
Outside of those periodic sign-up deals, which you can search for on sites like frequentflier.com, insideflyer.com, and airfarewatchdog.com, Hobica recommends sticking with a cashback card. You can take the cash you earn and buy a ticket through discount sites like Kayak.com, Orbitz.com, or Sidestep.com. This will also help you avoid the capacity controls and blackout dates that are endemic to the frequent flyer programs.
Some general points cards like upper-tier Amex cards and the Chase Sapphire allow you to transfer points into some airline programs. Chase is currently offering a 50,000 point sign-up bonus, equal to two free domestic roundtrip tickets with its Sapphire Preferred card that carries an annual fee, and 25,000 points with its standard card. Points earned with the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card can be used at Starwood hotels or transferred into some airline programs with a 25% bonus.
Best card for bringing along a companion
By now many of the frequent flyer programs have some sort of discounted companion ticket award that you get annually, or even more regularly if you have elite status. Alaska Airlines Visa Signature card and the Delta SkyMiles American Express sends cardholders a coupon code for a $99 companion ticket (plus taxes, of course) once a year.
For high rollers, the American Express platinum card offers free companion tickets when you book a business or first class ticket through AmEx’s travel services (with $78 booking fee). On international flights (where a first class fares start at $2,000), the benefits of that free companion ticket easily outweighs the $450 annual fee the platinum card charges, and the $200 in annual reimbursements for flight incidentals like baggage fees, flight-change fees, Wi-Fi, or in-flight food or cocktails makes it an even sweeter deal.
See Mint.com’s Ways to Save page to compare credit cards.
Michael Allegro is a New York-based personal finance writer who specializes in consumer interest, investing, banking products, and travel.