How do travel credit cards work?

If you’re a frequent traveler, good news: There are travel credit cards out there to help you earn rewards to use on things like airfare, hotel stays and more. Plus, many travel credit cards come with exclusive perks and benefits that can help make your travels smoother and more enjoyable.  

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 purchases. Some travel cards may only offer rewards for certain types of purchases. 
  • Travel credit card rewards may be redeemed on travel-related purchases like airline tickets, hotel stays, vacation rentals and more. Some travel cards may offer additional ways to use rewards. 
  • 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. And you can use them like you would any other credit card. 

One important thing to note is that each travel card may offer a different rewards program. Some travel credit cards may only offer rewards for certain types of purchases, like gas, groceries or dining out. Others may let you earn miles on every purchase you make. 

Similarly, some travel cards may offer a flat rewards rate for all purchases, while others may offer a higher rate on travel-related purchases. 

Once the rewards add up, you can redeem them for travel-related purchases. Some cards also 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 points or miles—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 credit cards are airline, hotel and general travel rewards credit cards. Here’s how each type of a travel card works.

Airline credit cards

With an airline credit card, you can earn rewards to use with your favorite airline. Depending on the card, your miles could be redeemed for everything from plane tickets to travel benefits like free checked bags, priority boarding and in-flight purchases. 

Hotel credit cards 

Hotel cards reward loyalty to a specific hotel or hotel chain. With a hotel card, you may earn rewards to redeem for rooms, potentially giving you some free nights at the hotel. 

You may also get to enjoy benefits just for cardholders, like complimentary breakfasts, room upgrades and concierge service. Some other kinds of travel credit cards may let you transfer rewards to qualifying hotel loyalty programs.

General travel reward 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 may be able to use your rewards at a range of airlines and hotels 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 extra perks and benefits 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, especially for frequent travelers. 

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

  • Know how to earn your sign-up bonus. Some travel cards may offer a welcome bonus for spending a certain amount during a set period of time from account opening. Understanding the details, timing and spending requirements 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 travel 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 rewards for cash back, for example. Others may let you transfer miles to qualifying hotel and airline loyalty programs. Just keep in mind that the value of your rewards may vary depending on how you use them.
  • Book through the card issuer’s travel portal. Some issuers may have travel portals that let cardholders book trips and earn a higher rate on those purchases. For Capital One travel credit cardholders, booking with Capital One Travel can help you get great prices on flights, hotels and rental cars. Price prediction on flights can even help you save an average of 15% by alerting you when it’s time to book.* And depending on the card, you can earn up to 10X miles on hotels and rental cars and 5X miles on flights when you book through Capital One Travel.

Travel credit card FAQ

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

Some travel credit cards may require a credit score that’s good or even excellent. If you’re working on your credit, check out this guide on ways to improve your credit scores.

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. 

You can also check for pre-approved card offers from Capital One before you apply. Pre-approval is quick and only requires some basic information, like your legal name, address, Social Security number, employment status and income. Plus, it won’t affect your credit scores.

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

Finding the best travel credit card to suit your needs depends on a few factors, like how often you travel, your spending habits 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 let you earn rewards to use on travel expenses like airline tickets, hotel stays and more. You may be able to enjoy exclusive perks and benefits that come with many travel cards too. 

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 the one that’s right for you.

Other ways to maximize your travel benefits

Who wouldn’t want to get the most out of their credit card? Here are some things to know about Capital One travel rewards credit cards: 

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