I want to note: I am not a financial expert, and in no way qualified to give financial advice. My advice comes from personal experience.
My wholly unqualified advice to you is: find a good credit card, and put your whole trip on it. Through this, you can rack up free flights, discounted hotel rooms, and since some cards offer Theft Protection, you can purchase yourself some peace of mind. And although it can feel like you’re going to be paying this off for the next century, never fear, I can show you some cards with strong sign-up bonuses.
I’m not going to create a massive list of all the available travel credit cards, because there are already fantastic lists out there, and every day they’re updated. Besides, my list would only be a carbon-copy of someone else’s. I don’t have the time or money to do the research myself. Instead, I’ll link you to their lists, and leave you with some questions to ask yourself, as well as a few recommendations.
Although this book is ‘budget travel’ focused, and having a credit card with a yearly fee can seem counter-intuitive, if you travel enough (and spend enough money) you will either break even or come out a little ahead. Some of them also come with perks besides the usual points/mile system that might appeal to some of you.
Here are some things to look out for:
• Does it work overseas?: This seems like an obvious thing to say, but there are some cards that have limited functionality or use overseas, such as American Express (AMEX) or Discover. These tend to be very America-centric cards. The worst way to find out if your card works is by bringing it over, and finding out you’ll have little to no money for your trip. Do some research before you go!
• Foreign Transaction Fees: Some cards have zero foreign transaction fees, and these are the ones I would recommend looking into. No point in being charged for every single transaction while traveling.
• Does it have an annual fee?: I mentioned this before, but an annual fee can make or break a yearly travel budget. Even a small cost of $95 is a hefty chunk to pay in one sum. And $95-a-year cards are the cheap ones! They can go up from here, to the $500 range. The cards that have an annual $500 fee are geared for ‘middle-class’ to ‘luxury’ travelers, offering tempting perks for its use in booking hotel rooms or flights. Again, if you like to travel in style, look for a card that will save you money in the long run. With a little digging, you’ll be able to find a few cards that have no annual fee, but most of them have foreign fees. At the end of this chapter I list the credit card we use that has foreign or annual fees.
• Credit Score: Goes without saying, but is your credit score high enough for the card?
• APR: Some cards will have a grace period of 14-18 months before you have to pay any interest on your payments. Before applying for a card, do a little mental math on how much the interest would cost, and how much you can afford to repay every month during the grace period (if there is one). In theory, once that grace period is up, it’s best to simply pay off the whole balance at once, and find a new card. (You don’t have to cancel the old one. In fact, if you use it once a month for a small purchase, this will make sure you have a credit history, which helps with finding a new card.) But if you can’t afford to do that since something came up and now you’re paying bills, what kind of interest can you afford? It goes without saying, if you don’t have the money to take a trip, DON’T GET A CREDIT CARD.
• Perks: This is the make-or-break portion of a credit card. Are you loyal to a certain airline? Do you like boarding early or free checked bags? Want a free TSA Pre-Check application? What about Foreign Transaction fees? Points or Miles? Want to spend pre-boarding in the lounge? Does it come with free Uber rides? Free hotel salon or spa perks? Warranty or Theft Protection? Canceled flight protection?
• Security Type: Is it Chip-and-Pin, Magnetic Strip, Contactless, or some mix? Most places in Europe have moved away from MagStrip, but there are still a large number of places in America that haven’t. Because of this, many American Banks might still use cards with MagStrips. In Europe, it’s best to have one that’s contactless. This can be used nearly everywhere, as many large stores and small mom-and-pop shops have adopted this technology. Also, in some places, you can purchase a ticket on a bus, but only if you have a contactless credit card (or cash). Same with paying tolls. In some countries, the only card the tolls take is contactless (or cash).
• Issuer: There are some truly bad banks out there. For instance, Bank of America and Wells Fargo. Both difficult to work with, and fairly abusive in the way they treat the consumer. I use Capital One for my credit card, and I find them to be very good. Always quick with any problems I have, and I’ve always talked to a real person on the phone when I had trouble. No robo-answers!
Now that you have an idea of what to look for in a credit card, let’s look into a few different cards, very briefly. Before we do, I will point out that the first two of these cards have a pretty high sigh-up bonus, but also a high minimum you need to meet in order to get that sign-up bonus. For instance, the Chase Sapphire Reserved has a sign-up bonus of 50,000 points (worth $750) once you spend $4,000. If you’re like me, then there are very few things that you can think about spending $4,000 on. In fact, Darcy and I barely spend that in six months of traveling. So how can you hit that sign-up bonus? Ask your friends! Do they have big purchases coming up? A new laptop, or car? Offer to use your card if they pay you back. Even if you go out to dinner with friends, offer to cover it with your card, and have them Venmo you back. There are definitely other ways to meet that bonus, and it all comes back to: get creative!
Chase Sapphire Reserved
Let’s start with the most expensive option on this tiny list. Although it does come with that large annual fee ($450) it has a number of perks attached to it.
Annual Fee: $450
Sign-up bonus: 50,000 points after $4,000 spent (redeemable for up to $750 towards airfare, hotels, and dining, through their online portal.)
Foreign Transaction Fees: No
Perks: 3x Points on travel and dining. 1x on everything else. 1:1 points redeemable to other programs. $300 annual travel credit (essentially reimbursing you for $300 in travel costs.) Global Entry/TSA PreCheck Fee Waiver. Complimentary Airport Lounge. Complimentary Hotel Perks such as free upgrades and late check-out. Purchase Protection. Return Protection. Lost Luggage Reimbursement. Trip Delay Reimbursement. Rental Car Collision Damage Waiver. Trip Cancellation/Interruption reimbursement. Emergency Evacuation Coverage.
As you can see, this card comes laden with perks and benefits. Even the $300 travel credit would nearly offset the annual cost of the card. If you have the money, and travel quite a bit, this is the card I would recommend.
Chase Sapphire Preferred
Also by Chase, this card is the entry-level version of the card above.
Annual Fee: $95
Sign-up Bonus: 60,000 points after $4,000 spent (redeemable for $750 in travel (this card has a worse point-to-dollar ratio.))
Foreign Transaction Fees: No
Perks: 2x Points on travel and dining. 1x on everything else. 1:1 Point transfer. Trip Delay Reimbursement. Rental Car Collision Damage Waiver. Trip Cancellation/Interruption reimbursement. Purchase Protection.
Capital One Quicksilver
This is the card Darcy and I use. It’s a very simple card with very few benefits, but we wanted to try something basic for a year before moving onto a more in-depth credit card. We chose this card mainly for its easy to reach sign up bonus and flat cashback scheme. We don’t need the points since we rarely fly the same airline twice, and even if we did, I’d rather just have my own money back. This might change if we start making money and spending more on traveling.
Annual Fee: $0
Sign-up Bonus: $150 after $500 spent.
APR: 16.24%-26.24% after a 15-month introductory period.
Foreign Transaction Fees: No.
Perks: Extended Warranty. Travel Accident Insurance. 1.5% Cashback on all purchases.
This one is fairly basic, like I mentioned, but it’s a great way to get started and keep costs low.
That is just a small number of the available travel credit cards out there, and I listed them because they are the ones you will see most often on travel blogs and travel websites. I should add, I am in no way an advocate for the company or the cards, and I receive no financial reimbursement for talking about them.
To get you started on your own search for the perfect credit card, here are some websites to look at: