In the last five years, I’ve traveled all over the country and paid for just one flight. I’ve also stayed in countless hotels and only paid out of pocket when the deals were irresistible.
The “secret” to that kind of free* travel isn’t a secret at all — I’ve earned it all through credit card rewards.
I’ve used more than 70 different credit cards since I got my first travel credit card in 2013. I’ve also written extensively about credit cards since 2015, so I’ve got a good idea of how to pick the right credit card for the right situation.
That said, it can still be tough with travel credit cards. It’s not uncommon for me to apply for one then want one immediately afterward. But unless you have stellar credit and can meet multiple minimum spending requirements, it’s generally not a great idea to apply for multiple cards in a short period.
So to help you narrow down all of your choices to one, here are five questions you should ask yourself.
1. What does your credit look like?
I hate to be a buzzkill before the fun even starts, but most rewards credit cards require good or excellent credit. According to popular sites like Credit Karma, CreditCards.com, and NerdWallet, that can mean a credit score of at least 640, 670, or 690.
I’ve chatted with people who have a credit score in the mid-600s and got a card that someone with a score in the 700s was denied.
If your credit score is below 640, you’re probably better off working to build your credit before applying for a travel credit card. If it’s above that, it’s possible you’ll get approved, but you’ll still want to make sure your credit profile is in good shape.
For example, if you’ve applied for a lot of credit cards in the past six to 12 months, some issuers may deny you even if you the rest of your credit history is pristine.
Also, if you have late payments, collection accounts, or other major negative items on your credit report, that could be a red flag for issuers. If everything is in good shape, though, you’ve likely got a good chance of getting approved.
2. Where are you going?
It’s always a good idea to have a vacation in mind, then choose a credit card to help you get there.
This is especially important if you plan to travel internationally because there are various ways you can maximize your rewards to get the best flights and hotel stays for your stay.
For example, if you’re heading to Southeast Asia, a card that offers transfers to Singapore Airlines or Korean Air would be a lot handier than a card that gives you general travel points with a fixed redemption rate.
That’s because you can often score first-class flights on these airlines at a great redemption value with their frequent flyer miles.
What’s more, if you already have sufficient air miles to get you to your chosen destination, it might make more sense to get a co-branded credit card with a hotel chain with locations in that area.
There are obviously a million different variables here, and a trip to Portland would require a different credit card strategy than a vacation to Paris. So start planning out your trip a little, and it can help you determine what kind of points or miles can help you get there.
3. What are your spending habits?
Some of the best travel credit cards require that you spend a lot in just a few months to earn their massive sign-up bonuses. Common minimum spending requirements for top-tier travel cards range from $3,000 to $5,000 in three months, and some limited-time offers go even higher.
The primary concern is to avoid overspending to meet a minimum spend requirement. If you only spend $1,000 per month on your credit card naturally and your card requires that you spend $4,000 in three months, you’d need to spend an extra $1,000 you wouldn’t otherwise just to get a bonus that’s likely worth half that.
I think we can all agree that’s a terrible idea.
Of course, there are some ways you can increase your credit card spending without messing with your budget. But if you think it might get out of hand, it’s not worth it.
More importantly, have you had issues with overspending in the past? I wouldn’t recommend travel hacking with credit card rewards to anyone who has recently carried a balance on their credit card. Any interest you pay cuts into the value you get from the rewards, and in some cases, it can wipe it out altogether.
Once you get a sign-up bonus, your spending habits are still important because you may now have an annual fee to cover each year. If you don’t spend enough to make up for the fee or your return after the fee is negligible, you may be better off with a no-annual-fee card.
4. Are there any limited-time offers going on?
Now and then, a credit card issuer will run a limited-time offer on one of their travel credit cards. In a lot of cases, the increased sign-up bonus is worth putting off plans for getting other travel cards.
While we talk about credit card rewards as a means to save on travel, this isn’t a credit card blog. So to keep track of limited-time offers, I recommend following Doctor of Credit or the r/churning group on Reddit.
Both offer a wealth of knowledge on all things credit cards and neither earn money from affiliate links, so you know that their advice is genuine.
(Of course, that’s not to say that sites like NerdWallet aren’t genuine. Having worked there as a credit card writer, I know that they have strict guidelines on editorial integrity. But some credit card issuers run limited-time offers outside the affiliate channel, so you may not get all of the information you need to make a decision).
5. Which other factors are important to you?
There’s really no way to say that one card is better than another objectively, and a good portion of it boils down to personal preferences.
There are a handful of credit cards that are similar enough on the surface that you could choose any one of them and be happy. But some may offer minor features that speak more to your needs than others.
For example, one card may offer primary rental car insurance, while the other’s coverage is secondary. With primary rental car insurance, you don’t have to file a claim with your personal insurance company first.
That may or may not be important to you, especially considering what else the two cards have to offer. So take your time and compare multiple travel credit cards to make sure you get the one that best fits your needs and preferences.
The bottom line
There’s no right credit card for everyone, and stopping short of running a personal service giving out card recommendations, these questions are the best way I know how to help you find the right card for your next vacation.
If you’ve asked all of the questions and are still having a hard time, check out the weekly thread “What Card Should I Get?” in on Reddit and you’re likely to get great advice.
*It’s important to understand that when I say “free travel,” I’m referring specifically to that portion of your trip that you can cover with credit card rewards. A vacation entails a lot more than just the flight and the hotel — food, transportation and parking, and activities to name a few.
So, if you ever read a headline that says something like “How to Travel for Free With Credit Card Rewards” or “Here’s How to Score Free Travel With Your Credit Card,” they’re not giving you the full story.