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Before You Pick a Travel Rewards Card, Ask Yourself These Questions

What’s more exciting than the prospect of traveling the world—for free? (Hint: It’s nothing. The answer is nothing.) Credit card companies know this, and offer literally dozens of cards with points and miles rewards.

In fact, there are so many options that it can be challenging to zero in on the right card—but these four questions can help narrow it down.

1. Am I looking for airline or hotel rewards—or both?

Think about travel reward in three categories:

  1. Airline cards, offering frequent flyer miles and benefits like free checked bags and priority boarding on a specific carrier, such as United, JetBlue, American and so on.
  2. Hotel cards, offering points redeemable for free nights, upgrades and more at a specific hotel chain.
  3. “Flexible” cards with generic rewards for airfare, hotel reservations and more. For example, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus offers double miles on all purchases, worth one cent apiece as statement credits toward any travel reservation. And with Chase’s Sapphire Reserve, you’ll earn Ultimate Rewards, transferrable to a variety of airline and hotel partners or redeemed directly via Chase’s portal.

2. Where do I want to go?

Want to island-hop in Greece or check out the view from Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak? Then a card from Southwest, which only serves a few international destinations in Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America, isn’t right. Racking up MileagePlus miles (transferable to airlines in the Star Alliance) on a United card provides better access to Europe and Asia.

Also consider where you fly to and from regularly. For someone based in Atlanta, Delta, which offers nearly 1,000 daily nonstops from Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, probably makes the most sense. If you live close to JFK Airport in New York, JetBlue, which is based there and offers flights to more than 75 destinations, may work best.

Likewise, before choosing a hotel card, look up its priorities in your wish-list destinations, as well as booking requirements.

3. Which perks are most valuable to me?

Generally, rewards cards have annual fees (and hefty interest rates, so don’t revolve a balance)—the higher, the better the perks. But it doesn’t always pay to go premium, so consider your habits.

For example, some top-shelf cards offer airport business lounge access, potentially worth hundreds, depending on how often you fly. But if you only travel occasionally, take nonstop flights and don’t have a lounge in your home airport—and the card’s other perks don’t wow you—a lower-fee card may be all you really need.

4. Am I flexible enough?

It’s getting tougher to find good deals on award airfare, so flexibility is key. If you can travel nearly any time of year, and choose from several potential destinations, there’s tremendous value in frequent flyer miles. Bloggers on The Points Guy and Boarding Area are masters at identifying great deals.

But if your goal is narrow—like to visit family during the holidays—miles are very restrictive. You’ll have better luck using a card with rewards that can be redeemed directly for travel reservations or statement credits. (Research Barclaycard Arrival Plus, Capital One Venture Rewards and Discover it Miles.)

Another option is sticking with flexible cards from banks like Chase, American Express and Citi that have multiple airline and hotel partners. Amex’s Membership Rewards, for example, easily convert to Delta and British Airways miles, as well as Starwood and Hilton points; and Citi ThankYou Points can be transferred to JetBlue, Virgin Atlantic and Hilton.

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