How do travel credit cards work?

If you’ve got travel in your future, good news: There’s a range of travel credit cards out there to help you earn rewards to use on things like airline tickets, nights at your favorite hotel and more.

But before you apply for a travel credit card, it’s important to know how they work. Find out about different types of travel credit cards, how rewards work and some ways to maximize your travel rewards. 

Key takeaways

  • Travel credit cards let cardholders earn rewards by making everyday and travel-related purchases. 
  • Some travel cards may only offer rewards for certain types of purchases. 
  • Travel credit cards are often geared toward people with good or excellent credit scores
  • Some common types of travel cards are airline, hotel and general travel rewards credit cards. 

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How travel credit cards work

Generally, travel credit cards allow you to earn rewards—usually in the form of points or miles—by making everyday purchases.

You can use them like you would any other credit card. Some travel credit cards may only offer rewards for certain types of purchases—like gas, groceries or dining out. There are also travel cards that let you earn miles on every purchase you make.

Once the rewards add up, you can redeem them for travel-related purchases. And some cards even offer additional ways to earn and use rewards.

How do travel miles and points work on credit cards?

Travel credit card miles and points often work similarly. In some cases, the main difference is what the credit card issuer chooses to call their travel credit card rewards. How you might earn and redeem rewards—and how flexible those options are—also depends on the issuer.

What are the types of travel credit cards?

The most common types of travel cards are airline, hotel and general travel rewards credit cards. 

One important thing to note is that airline, hotel and general travel cards may offer different rewards scenarios. For example, some may offer a flat rewards rate for all purchases. And others may offer a higher earn rate on travel-related purchases.

Airline cards

With an airline travel card, you’ll earn rewards to use with your favorite airline. And since many large airlines have partnerships with other carriers, you may earn rewards with other brands too. Depending on the card, your miles could be redeemed for everything from plane tickets to perks like free checked bags and early boarding.

Hotel cards

Like airline cards, hotel cards reward loyalty—in this case, to a specific hotel or chain. With a hotel card, you may earn rewards to redeem for rooms. You may also get benefits just for cardholders, like complimentary breakfasts, room upgrades and concierge service.

General travel rewards credit cards

With a general travel rewards credit card, you’re likely not tied to a single travel provider. That can give you more choices. You can use your rewards on a range of airlines and hotels, for example. Or for other travel purchases like car rentals, vacation rentals and train tickets.

That flexibility may also mean you can book flights and hotel rooms when you want them, without blackout dates and other restrictions. 

Want extras that help make travel more convenient? General travel rewards credit cards may give you those too. Some offer a statement credit toward TSA PreCheck® or Global Entry, programs that can help you skip long lines at airport security or customs. Some cards may also offer zero foreign transaction fees to help you save money when you make purchases outside the U.S.

Ways to maximize your travel card rewards

As with any credit card, it’s important to use travel credit cards responsibly. If you do, it can be a great tool. 

Here are three ways to maximize a travel card’s benefits and rewards:

  • Know how to earn your sign-up bonus. Some travel cards may offer a bonus for spending a certain amount during a set period of time. And understanding the details and timing of your sign-up bonus could keep you from missing a good opportunity. 
  • Make the most of your card’s benefits. Being familiar with your card’s benefits could help you get the most out of them. Benefits may include everything from savings on ride-hailing services to exclusive access to airport lounges.
  • Use your full range of redemption options. Your options for redeeming your points or miles may vary from card to card. Some may allow you to redeem points or miles for cash, for example. Others may allow you to transfer your miles to hotel and airline loyalty programs. Just keep in mind that, depending on the redemption option, the value of your points or miles may vary.

Travel credit card FAQs

Still want to know more about travel credit cards? Here are answers to some frequently asked questions.

What credit score is needed for a travel credit card?

Some travel credit cards may require a credit score that’s good or even excellent

Checking your credit score before you apply for a travel card could help save time. With CreditWise from Capital One, you can access your free TransUnion® credit report and VantageScore 3.0® credit score as often as you like. It’s free for everyone, even if you’re not a Capital One account holder. And using CreditWise won’t hurt your score. 

And if you’re working on your credit, check out this guide on ways to improve your credit scores.

Do all travel credit cards come with an annual fee?

While some travel cards don’t charge an annual fee, some do. You might find it helpful to estimate the rewards you’ll earn in a year and weigh them against the annual fee.

How do you choose the best credit card for travel?

Finding the best travel credit card to suit your needs depends on a few factors, like how often you travel, your frequent purchases and what travel credit cards you may qualify for.

Check out this guide on how to decide if a travel credit card is right for you to learn more.

How travel credit cards work in a nutshell

Travel credit cards offer points or miles that can be redeemed, which may help with travel-related expenses. Some favor specific airlines or hotels, while others can be used toward more general expenses.

And the more you learn about general travel rewards credit cards, airline cards and hotel cards, the better equipped you’ll be to make the best choice. One place to start is by comparing Capital One travel credit cards to find one that’s right for you.

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