The best travel credit card for every type of traveler

A primer on the complex world of points and perks

(María Alconada Brooks/The Washington Post)

Ah, the world of credit cards and travel. It’s an overlap in the Venn diagram between two seemingly disparate concepts. But for better or worse, they go together like peanut butter and jelly.

For many, the right travel credit card seems either elusive … or altogether unimportant.

According to Federal Reserve data last year, 84 percent of American adults have at least one credit card. However, most don’t have a card dedicated to travel. For all the proclamations of free trips, many just don’t buy into the promise of first-class flights with free-flowing champagne or five-star hotels with overwater villas.

And maybe there’s a reason for that: About half of Americans paid their credit card bills in full every month in 2020, according to the Federal Reserve. After all, you need to pay your bill in full to reap the travel benefits.

But there’s another blocker to leveraging travel credit cards: It’s complicated. If you don’t have a travel credit card or want a better fit for your travel style, consider this your introduction into a complex world of points, fees and perks.

The traveler who overpacks — and needs to check a bag

There are two types of travelers: those who check a bag and those that don’t.

If you fall into the overpacker category and require that hefty hard-shell suitcase to be dumped in the plane’s cargo hold, listen up. There are two considerations here: the cost of checking a bag and what happens to your bag once it’s checked.

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First, there’s the cost factor. These are typically airline-specific cards with a modest annual fee: think an American Airlines or Delta Air Lines credit card. While the fee may be in the $100-range annually, checking a bag for you and a companion on just one round-trip itinerary can already offset this yearly cost.

Alternatively, if you already have a checked bag benefit, perhaps by flying Southwest or by purchasing a premium cabin ticket, consider a credit card with delayed or lost baggage protection.

Lost baggage has been plaguing travelers this summer, so protection may be even more important to you right now. While your credit card can’t prevent your bag from getting lost, it can make it sting a lot less.

The airline lost your luggage. Now what?

There are more than 18 travel credit cards that offer some type of baggage protection insurance. In its simplest form, that means if your bag is lost by the airline, your credit card will cover expenses to get new items.

Each card has its own rules, but two popular Chase travel cards offer some of the most generous delayed and lost baggage benefits. Both the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Sapphire Reserve will provide $100 per day for five days if your checked bag is delayed for over six hours.

And if it ends up completely lost (yikes!), at least you can rest easier knowing you’ll be covered up to $3,000.

The traveler who needs a preflight cocktail

Once upon a time, airport lounges were only for the select few. A private, tranquil preflight experience was reserved for the most frequent fliers or elite members.

But the rise in popularity of credit cards that provide lounge access means you can feel like a million bucks before takeoff … without spending a million bucks on your ticket.

First, consider a high-end credit card from a bank. While airport lounges are getting increasingly popular (and crowded), there remains a certain cache and appeal to be hidden in a somewhat-exclusive space away from the masses.

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There are three mainstream premium bank cards — with an annual fee of $400 or more — from Chase, Capital One and American Express — all with airport lounge access.

The card that comes with the widest swath of lounges worldwide is the Platinum Card from American Express. With this card, you’re promised access to more than 1,400 airport lounges in 140 countries.

Plus, back in 2013, American Express entered the business of owning and operating its own lounges. The Centurion Lounges, with 14 U.S. locations, are some of the most premium airport spaces domestically, and include fine dining, spa services and shower suites.

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Of course, the card comes at a cost of nearly $700 per year. But that preflight champagne just hits different.

But maybe you are loyal to a specific airline but not loyal enough to get lounge access. There’s where a high-end airline credit card can come in.

Cards from carriers like United, American and Delta provide airline club access, but only when you fly on that carrier. For instance, if you’re a Delta loyalist that’s always stuck in economy, it may make sense to get access to the Delta Sky Club through a premium Delta credit card.

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And a pro-tip: You can access most airline-specific lounges on arrival in addition to before departure.

The traveler who shouldn’t have a license — but drives anyway

If you’re the city dweller that drives only while on vacation, you’ll want to pay attention here.

Primary car rental insurance is a benefit on more than a dozen credit cards, and it’ll cover reimbursement for damage due to collision or theft, up to the actual cash value of most vehicles. That pole you backed into at the gas station? Covered.

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Keep in mind: Although the collision damage waiver provided by your credit card may cover damage to your rental car, it likely won’t take care of damage you cause to other vehicles or personal property.

Some of the top cards that include primary car rental insurance are the Capital One Venture X card, Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Sapphire Reserve.

The traveler who isn’t loyal to any brand

While an airline or hotel credit card may be a worthy consideration, remember that you’re pretty limited in terms of using that card’s perks outside of that specific airline or hotel. For instance, your American Airlines card — and the miles that come with it — isn’t going to help much to book a United Airlines flight.

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Instead, consider a credit card that earns points that can then be used across a wide range of airlines, hotels and more. Chase, American Express, Capital One and Citi all offer rewards credit cards with points that are incredibly flexible, which can be key in upping your travel game.

For instance, the points you earn on the Chase Sapphire Preferred can be used on any airline or hotel when you book through Chase, or you can move your Chase points to a wide variety of flight and hotel partners.

Not being loyal can actually pay off.

The traveler who worries about everything going wrong

Travel can be chaos, even for those that plan every little detail.

Thankfully, there are at least another dozen travel cards that offer some level of travel protection and insurance, should things go awry. These include protections like trip delay (your flight is delayed) and trip cancellations (you have to cancel due to unforeseen circumstances).

Your canceled-flight emergency kit

Usually, these cards have an annual fee, but they don’t always have to be exorbitant. For instance, even the $95-per-year Capital One Venture card includes travel accident insurance of up to $250,000.

Meanwhile, the more premium Platinum Card from American Express includes a trip cancellation coverage of $10,000 per trip.

Chris Dong is a travel journalist and credit card rewards expert. While credit card lingo and travel jargon once made his eyes glaze over, he now has 14 cards in his wallet and has traveled to 51 countries.