For every dollar you spend, earn points toward for a deeply discounted vacation.

By Jillian Kramer
January 21, 2020

For people who love to travel, a travel rewards credit card can offer a bevy of benefits—when used responsibly, of course. "Between their generous sign-up bonuses and the ability to earn rewards on an ongoing basis, travel rewards credit cards make it possible to turn your everyday purchases into a deeply discounted vacation," sums up Sara Rathner, NerdWallet's travel and credit cards expert. "But many cards also offer other traveler-friendly benefits, like free checked bags, airport lounge access, and travel insurance. These other perks have real monetary value." What's more, many travel rewards cards offer another benefit: They don't have a foreign transaction fee—the fee the card charges you for using it in another country, which is usually three percent of every purchase made. Not having that fee "can add up to significant savings if you frequently travel abroad," says Dana Marineau, vice president of Credit Karma.

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But all of these perks can also add up to big problems if you're not responsible with your spending, warns Hallie Kraus, CRPC, financial planning associate at The Humphreys Group. Before you consider signing up for any travel rewards card, Kraus says you should ask yourself if you have your spending under control. "If you have a history of accumulating credit card debt, if you think the points system will tempt you to spend more, or if you simply aren't confident you'll be able to pay off the balance in full each month, now isn't the time to get one," she says. "If you end up carrying a balance, you'll probably pay more in interest than you'll receive in travel benefits."

If you feel confident you can use the card responsibly, however, then your next step is choosing a travel rewards credit card. Here's how to pick one the one that will work best for you.

Related: You Should Never Travel With These Important Documents

Consider the card's costs.

Many travel rewards credit cards come with a fee. And, "in general, the fancier the perks, the higher the annual fee tends to be," says Rathner. Sometimes, a sign-up bonus or other offers, such as yearly travel credits, can make that fee more tolerable—as do the points you earn when you use the card. "The rewards you earn… may justify the cost," Rathner says, "but if they don't, you may want to consider a card with a no-fee version that you can later downgrade to."

Find a card that complements your spending habits.

Before you search for a travel rewards card, Marineau recommends sitting down to determine the categories in which you spend—or plan to spend—the most money. "Some cards earn you more rewards for certain categories, like food and travel," she explains. "Then, set travel goals to help you decide which card will help deliver you the most value. If you travel frequently, if you travel internationally, and if you're able to meet the spending minimum to get a large sign-up bonus in your first year, you're likely to see a travel rewards card pay off—even in the short term."

And one that complements your travel style.

Part of the appeal of a travel credit cards are its beyond-points perks, such as discounts on rental cars or upgrades on hotel rooms. So, before you choose a card, "identify your priorities, and look for perks that complement how you travel," Kraus suggests. "For example, if you tend to visit cities, you probably won't need a card that gives you discounts on rental cars, and if you regularly check bags with valuable items, you probably want protection for your lost luggage."

Determine how easy it will be to redeem points.

All those points won't add up to much if you don't know how to redeem them, or if the process is so cumbersome you never want to. So, "when shopping for your first travel card, find out how you can cash in points," suggests Rathner. "Some cards let you offset previous travel expenses with a statement credit, while others let you spend points through a specific online travel portal."

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