I go on vacation about once a year, so I’m probably not the person most people think of when they think of a travel rewards credit card holder. But I can’t remember the last time I paid for my flight when I do go on vacation. Plus I can often get other nice perks—anything from a discount on my rental car fees to free in-flight drink coupons. Let me tell you—in today’s world of overpriced travel, very little feels better than vacationing for free! Read on to find out what you’re missing if you don’t have a travel rewards credit card.

Card choice criteria

When you’re choosing a travel rewards credit card, you need to venture beyond the traditional no-nos (high interest rate, annual fee). Specifically, you’re looking at how rewards are awarded.

3 Essential tips:

  • Look at how you’re rewarded: What and how much do you get for every dollar spent?
  • Look at ease of rewards use: Are there travel blackout dates, redemption fees, etc.?
  • Look at fees: Are the fees fair, or do they cancel out any rewards earned?

The annual fee issue

I’m a stickler about only opening cards with no annual fee. But I will consider opening a card that waives the annual fee for the first 12 months (reason being, it’s much easier to negotiate a waiver for the second year than if I had been paying it all along).

2 Questions to ask:

  • Does the rewards value offered significantly offset fees paid? For instance, if you get $1,000 in annual rewards and perks and pay $100 in an annual fee, the card is still a good value. Also, if the fee is “rebated” to you in the form of an initial points “bonus” or other card perks, the card is still a good value.
  • Can you get the same perks from a no-fee travel rewards card? If you have another card option that delivers similar benefits but carries no fee, the choice is clear.

Maximizing your rewards

The only way a travel rewards credit card will benefit you is if you use it a lot. It needs to be your go-to card in order to show its true value. Most cards will reward you with one point per dollar spent, minimum. This should be your baseline in evaluating any travel rewards credit card. You can use these strategies as well to increase the rewards you have to spend.

How to maximize accrued rewards:

  • Choose a card that gives you an initial lump sum points bonus: Some cards will give you anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000+ extra points just for opening the card. This is the kind of card you want.
  • Link your card to other accounts: I have my card linked to my energy bill. Every time I pay, I get a credit for paying with the card and a credit from the energy company, which has its own mileage rewards program. So I get double points! Ask current and new service providers if they offer a mileage points program.
  • Let your rewards build up: If you use your points for this and that little thing, you will never build up enough points to really maximize its value on big purchases.
  • Use the card’s online shopping portal to do your shopping: Not only can you get better deals and discounts on many credit card companies’ own shopping portals than you can find elsewhere, but you’re also rewarded with extra rewards points just for shopping on the portal (this even aside from using the card to pay for those purchases). Here again you can get double—even triple points!
  • Always pay off your monthly balance on time: Otherwise, if you let your balance sit unpaid from month to month, you will rack up interest fees that can cancel out the value of rewards points earned.

4 Great travel rewards credit cards

These four cards are all considered top of their class—each has an annual fee that is waived for the first year, each offers you a hefty initial bonus, and each uses the new smart chip technology to keep your card safe.

1. United MileagePlus® Explorer Card

  • Get double points for United.com travel and single points for all other purchases.
  • Annual fee of $95 waived the first year.
  • Smart chip technology.
  • 30,000 bonus points for spending $3,000 in the first 90 days.
  • 10,000 bonus points for spending $25,000 in 12 months.
  • 5,000 bonus points for making your first purchase and adding an authorized user to your account in the first 90 days.
  • First bag checked free (a $100 round-trip value).
  • Miles never expire.

2. Chase Sapphire Preferred®

  • Get double points for travel/dining purchases and single points for all other purchases.
  • Annual fee of $95 waived the first year.
  • Smart chip technology for international travel.
  • 40,000 bonus points for spending $3,000 in the first 90 days.
  • 5,000 bonus points after adding the first authorized user and making a purchase within the first 90 days.
  • 20% discount for travel booked through the card’s web portal.

3. Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card

  • Every dollar spent = 2 miles.
  • Annual fee of $59 waived the first year.
  • Smart chip technology.
  • 40,000 bonus points for spending $3,000 in the first 90 days.
  • Free anytime credit tracker to monitor your credit.
  • No blackout dates or other restrictions.
  • Miles never expire.

4. Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®

  • Earn double miles on all purchases.
  • Annual fee of $89 waived the first year.
  • Smart chip technology.
  • 40,000 bonus points for spending $3,000 in the first 90 days.
  • Redeem miles against statements like cash (each mile = $0.01 for non-travel purchases and $0.10 for travel purchases).
  • Miles never expire.