The 5 Tricks of Travel Credit Cards

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Travel rewards credit cards combine two of everyone’s favorite things: travel and rewards.

And they’re everywhere. You can’t turn on the TV, walk through an airport or flip open a magazine without seeing ads for the next great travel card. But to understand how these programs really work, you need to know more than a 30-second commercial can tell you.

For instance, what do you know about redemption fees? And how much money are your “points” actually worth?

It depends on your card, but travel rewards cards can be inconvenient, expensive or downright deceptive. So before you apply, you need to read the fine print and do your research. We can’t help you with the fine print, but you can start your research here.

Are you aware of these tricks?

1. Miles Are Not Created Equal

With actual frequent flyer miles, you can typically get a flight for a set number of points (i.e. 25,000 or 40,000 points for a roundtrip domestic flight). Almost any airline-branded card falls under this category.

But with some credit cards, the miles you get are not affiliated with a specific frequent flyer program. Instead, they are worth $.01 each when redeemed for a travel purchase. Most travel cards that aren’t branded with a specific airline operate this way.

So which type is better? Well, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. It’s like comparing apples to oranges. Miles on a card associated with a specific airline are often worth more (sometimes as much as $.02-.$03 each). However, they come with more restrictions, such as blackout dates and seat restrictions. On the other hand, generic “miles” aren’t as valuable, but they’re certainly more versatile.

The Takeaway: Although both types use the word “miles” to describe the rewards, know how your miles will work before applying and choose the method that works best for you.

2. You May Not Have a Seat

This is perhaps the biggest restriction when it comes to actual frequent flyer miles. Some airlines are notorious for only offering a small number of award seats on a given flight (even when there are plenty of seats available for purchase). I recently experienced that myself when trying to book a flight from Columbus to Los Angeles; no matter how far out the date was, I couldn’t find any open award seats. As a result, I’m left with nearly 40,000 miles that may end up expiring, since I can’t find a flight to redeem them.

The Takeaway: If you’re leaning toward a card that uses frequent flyer miles, make sure you research how easy (or not) it is to redeem them. There is a plethora of message boards, travel card reviews, and investigative articles that can help you gauge the answer.