If you feel like you have a job just so you can fund your travel addiction — whether you get your fix from loading a backpack with sturdy climbing shoes and gear or having your toes in the sand, sunglasses on, and a book in your hand — you may be happy to know that having a travel credit card could help you book your next getaway sooner.
But before you add a travel credit card to your wallet, there are some basics you must know. We’ll call them the six golden rules of travel plastic.
1. Make Sure You Have Good Credit
As is the case with most reward credit cards, travel credit cards typically require new cardholders to have good credit scores. So, before you apply, you’ll want to see where your credit currently stands so you know if now is the right time for you to get this product or not. (You can see two of your credit scores for free, updated each month, on Credit.com.) Having good credit certainly isn’t a guarantee you’ll get the card of your dreams, but it does increase your chances.
2. Consider How You Travel
There are a lot of different reward credit cards on the market, so you’ll need to do some comparison shopping. One of the biggest questions you should ask yourself is how you travel. Are you loyal to a particular airline? If so, you may want to get their branded airline credit card. If not, a generic card that offers rewards you can use for a variety of travel purchases may be the better route to take.
3. Understand How the Card Structures Rewards
The reward offerings on each card can be just a bit different, so make sure you review them carefully. Some cards offer a sign-up bonus after you spend a certain amount in the first few months of having the card. And there are often different reward tier percentages that denote how much you’ll earn depending on where you spend. For example, a card may give you double points at restaurants while nights at a particular hotel may earn triple points. Knowing where you’ll get the most for your money can really help you choose the right card for you as well as maximize the rewards you’ll earn. (You can read our roundup of the best credit cards for travel here.)
4. Take Note of the Annual Fee
While you’re comparison shopping, you may notice that a lot of these cards waive the annual fee for the first year. But just because you won’t have to pay that for the first 12 months doesn’t mean you should ignore it. You’ll want to think about if you’ll earn more in rewards than you’ll pay to use the card. Otherwise, the card becomes counterproductive and credit cards with no annual fee may be a better option for you.
5. Avoid Carrying a Balance
Getting rewarded with travel perks can be an incentive to spend more, especially when you are filled with wanderlust. But you have to be careful — travel credit cards often have high interest rates, and carrying a balance that causes you to have to pay them can almost null any rewards you’ll earn. You probably don’t want credit card debt to take away from your vacation savings.
6. Know What Your Card Can Do
Just like each card has its own reward system, each one has specific features you’ll want to make sure you understand. Does your card offer a free checked bag or access to the sky club lounge at the airport? What about if you take it overseas — are there foreign transaction fees? And what about travel insurance and chip-and-PIN compatibility? These are all things you want to ask about so you know what your card can do.