Know When to Hold 'Em: The Right Travel Credit Cards By Category

By Gary Leff

Whether you’re actually traveling or working your way toward a trip, the right credit card can be a big help in getting you there.

There are three things that rewards credit cards can do for you, and it’s important to know why you’ve taken a particular card, and to use it accordingly.

Some are best for the sign-up bonus miles. They’ll give you a ton of points for taking the card, but there’s not really a reason to keep the card after you’ve earned the bonus.

Some are best for ongoing spending. They reward you with valuable points, and lots of them— bonuses for spending on travel, dining, groceries, and the like.

Some are best for the valuable perks. If you fly an airline a lot but not quite enough to earn elite status, the airline’s cobranded credit card will give you many of the same perks, such as priority boarding and free checked bags. Still others get you lounge access or special discounts on airfare. You want to carry these cards, but you don’t necessarily want to put spending on them.

Here are the best cards in each category:

Cards With the Best Bonuses for Signing Up

Chase Sapphire Preferred card

Chase Sapphire Preferred: You’ll earn 40,000 points after spending $4,000 on the card within three months, and they’ll even give you 5,000 more points for adding an authorized user to the account. This isn’t the biggest number bonus you’ll ever see, but the points are among the most valuable out there, transferring to airlines including United, British Airways, and Singapore, and to hotel programs including Hyatt and Marriott. The card’s $95 fee is waived the first year.

Related: Don’t Let Your Airline Miles Expire! Here’s How, Without Flying

Citi AAdvantage MasterCard: You’ll earn 50,000 points after spending $3,000 on the card within three months, and they’ll also throw in two lounge passes as well. It’s a solid bonus, and American’s AAdvantage miles are the only currency that hasn’t really devalued much over the past couple of years. They’re great for first-class redemptions on the likes of Cathay Pacific, British Airways, and Etihad. The card’s $95 fee is waived the first year.

US Airways (Photo: Peter Gronemann/Flickr)

US Airways Premier World MasterCard: You’ll earn 50,000 s after your first purchase (no minimum spending amount required). The reason this is a great deal, even though the $89 fee applies even in year one, is because the card is going to be disappearing once the American and US Airways frequent flyer programs combine during the first half of 2015. No new sign-ups for the card (although existing cardmembers will keep it) means that it’s your last chance for this bonus. You can get both this card and the Citibank American Airlines card (and its corresponding bonus), and the points will ultimately be combined into a single frequent flyer account.

Cards that are Best for Ongoing Spending

Chase Sapphire Preferred: The card earns a valuable currency that transfers to several airline and hotel programs, and also earns double points on all travel and all dining. It’s a Visa so accepted most everywhere, and there are no foreign transaction fees, either.

Related: Protect Your Stuff: Credit Cards With the Best Baggage Insurance

Amex Everyday Preferred: American Express went about designing a card for multitasking moms, and wound up building the strongest American Express Membership Rewards-earning card on the market, which gives you a 50% bonus on all points earned if you use it 30 times in a month, and also has spending bonus categories on top. AmEx points transfer to many airlines including Singapore, British Airways, All Nippon, Air France, Delta, and Alitalia.

Cards With the Best Perks and Benefits

The Centurion Lounge in San Francisco. (Courtesy: American Express)

American Express Platinum: This card is great for lounge access: It gets you into Delta lounges, into American Express’ own network of Centurion lounges (currently in Las Vegas, San Francisco, Dallas Fort-Worth, and New York LaGuardia, and opening soon in Seattle and Miami), and comes with a Priority Pass Select card which provides access to Alaska Airlines lounges and others around the world. You also get National Car Rental’s Executive status (that means you can pick from better cars when you rent) and Starwood’s Gold status (which lets you avoid the unfortunate rooms at the hotel, and get 4 p.m. late checkout). You also get unlimited Boingo Internet access on the road, an annual credit of $200 for airline fees (I’ve had success just buying a couple of American Airlines gift cards), and they’ll refund the application fee for Global Entry or TSA’s PreCheck. That all, to me, makes it worth this card’s $450 annual fee.

Related: Love to Lounge? Great Airport Lounges For Business Travelers

Alaska Airlines Visa Signature: This Bank of America card comes with the unique benefit of a $99+tax companion ticket that isn’t like most companion tickets in travel — it really is good for any seat on any of their flights. If you can book a paid economy ticket with Alaska, you can book a companion for just over $100. I consider the companion ticket worth the card’s $75 annual fee, since it’s good throughout Alaska’s route network—even for trips between the U.S. East Coast and Hawaii.

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