How to Maximize Your Travel Rewards Credit Card

by Anna Davies |August 2, 2023

Seasoned travelers know to pack light. And, arguably, one of the most important things you can bring weighs only about five grams: a travel rewards credit card.

Choosing one can seem confusing at first — the miles, the points, the cash back — but as cardholders know, you don't have to be a math whiz or hyper organized to make the most of travel rewards. If you can create a trip itinerary, you can successfully navigate using a travel rewards credit card.

Still, while the earned miles for airline travel, points for hotel stays and other benefits unlocked by travel credit cards can be substantial, "too many people aren't tapping into their rewards," says Andrea Woroch, a consumer and money-saving consultant in Bakersfield, CA. In fact, nearly 70% of rewards credit cardholders have unused cash back, points or miles, according to a survey conducted by LendingTree.

That adds up to missed opportunities for saving money and taking advantage of other perks. "Some rewards cards come with great travel-specific benefits like credits on hotel travel or access to priority pass airport lounges," says Pete D'Aleo, senior vice president of fee rewards growth strategy at Citi. "So whether you like to plan a big trip once a year or you're a frequent business or leisure traveler, rewards credit cards can help you get more from your journeys."

In other words, if you're somebody who travels without one of these cards, you may be missing out on valuable benefits for your travel. To remedy that, try these tips for choosing the right card — no poring over points charts or complex algorithms required.

view of pacific ocean at sunset from bluff

Explore all your options

Rewards credit cards vary in their offerings, and depending on your spending and travel habits, there may be more than just one card that's worthwhile. "I believe it's a good idea to have a couple of travel reward cards," says Woroch.

Card benefits can shift, too, so "another thing people overlook is opening a new card to get more rewards," Woroch adds. "If you've been using the same card for years, you could be missing out on a better reward program and opportunity to earn even more rewards on your everyday purchases," she says.

To narrow down the cards that are best for you, think about the way you travel and your organizational habits. For each one you research, ask yourself if you'll truly take advantage of the perks — regularly enough that they'll outweigh any of the costs. These are four common factors to consider:

1. Annual fee Many travel rewards credit cards come with an annual fee. If you're going to use the perks, their collective value may be more than that fee. If you don't travel all that often, though, you may be better off with a different credit card.

2. Foreign transaction fee While many general credit cards charge foreign transaction fees, some travel rewards credit cards don't. "That's not a commonly discussed perk but it's so valuable," D'Aleo says. "When traveling internationally, those foreign exchange fees can really rack up."

3. Welcome bonus After applying, new cardmembers typically receive a welcome bonus of some sort — say, a generous amount of bonus miles — but this also entails having to spend a certain amount of money on the card within a set time. To take advantage of this, you need to be the type of person who will keep track of what you'll need to spend to earn the bonus.

4. Rewards points or miles This is where a credit card can really help you, and because each travel rewards credit card offers something a little different, it's worth taking the time to compare them carefully, taking your personal travel and spending habits into account. Some cards focus on airline miles that can be put toward future trips, for example, and some offer additional points or cash back earn on travel purchases. Others give you points on travel-related purchases like dining, gas, flights, hotel bookings and rental cars, which you can redeem for online shopping, travel purchases, gift cards or other items. Some credit cards may even have relationships with ride share services that you frequently use. That's why it pays to strategize here.

"It's important to select a product that earns points in the categories that you spend," D'Aleo says. "Think about how and where you spend, and how you can get the most points from your annual spend."

A couple ride bikes in Cartagena, Colombia

Make the most of rewards

The key is to organize your spending so that you're using the right card at the right time. One way is to set up calendar reminders for monthly or quarterly spending with a certain rewards card, or you can keep a digital cheat sheet of cards and categories. Another idea is to mark your rewards cards with color-coded stickers to identify which one you may want to use for travel versus groceries or dining, for example.

One challenge travel-rewards cardholders commonly encounter is blackout dates, but there are strategies to help navigate these. (And of course, there are some travel rewards credit cards that have no blackout dates at all.) If you see blackout dates when researching a flight and you don't need to buy the tickets right away, it's a good idea to check back before purchasing because blackout dates can often shift. Another option is to refocus your flight search on a different airline that's a partner of your credit card company. "Being flexible is key to stretching your dollars," Woroch says. If you can take a super early flight or depart in the middle of the week instead of on a weekend, for example, you may find that you can book with points and have more left over for future trips too.

And because credit card terms aren't always top of mind, the weeks before you leave for a trip can be a good time to take stock of your travel card's perks. You're not likely to forget the exciting ones, like a big welcome bonus, Woroch notes, but it's easy to forget something like trip-cancellation insurance or complimentary baggage checking. You also wouldn't want to pay for car rental insurance at the checkout counter only to later learn that your card offers this for free.

Maximizing your points and perks is what travel rewards credit cards are all about, after all. Because it isn't enough to pack light — you also want to lighten the load on your budget.

— With additional reporting from Geoff Williams and Life and Money by Citi editors.

Anna Davies

is a Jersey City, NJ-based writer whose work has appeared in Glamour, The Cut, Cosmopolitan and Refinery29. She is currently saving her credit card rewards points for a January vacation in Costa Rica.

The content reflects the view of the author of the article and does not necessarily reflect the views of Citi or its employees, and we do not guarantee the accuracy or completeness of the information presented in the article.