For years, I’ve had a credit card affiliated with Delta Airlines and been happy with it. Each year, I earned thousands of frequent flier miles and a free companion certificate (basically a FREE ticket). Plus, I could check one bag per person in my party for free when flying and received discounts on in-flight purchases. For me, that meant when my family of four flew anywhere, usually every couple of years, we usually paid for only one or two tickets and checked our bags for free.
As Delta has made changes to its frequent flier program (with an entirely new set of rules set to take effect in 2015), my travel credit card is becoming less and less of a deal. So I find myself in need of a new card, one with rewards that really are rewarding. But there are so many cards out there, choosing the right one can be overwhelming. Here’s what I learned from my search, along with a few key points to consider when making your choice.
- Interest rate. How do you plan to use your card? If you tend to carry a balance, choosing one that most meets your needs with the lowest interest rate makes the most sense. However, if, like me, you only use a credit card for groceries or other fixed bills that you know you can pay off each month, then the APR (annual percentage rate) isn’t your biggest concern
- Annual fee. These can vary from $50 to more than $100 a year. Every card I looked at waived this fee for the first year. However, with so many cards on the market, I’m not crazy about paying money just for the privilege of carrying around a specific piece of plastic in my wallet. However, if you travel all the time and some of the smaller perks of a card (like free baggage check and priority boarding) appeal to you, the fee may be worthwhile.
- Expiration. Several, but not all, cards out there offer points that don’t expire. The points earned may be a bit lower on some of the no-expiration cards. The biggest factor here is how much you travel. If you’re jet-setting around more than once a year, the lifespan of your points won’t really matter. But if you’re traveling once a year or less, the slightly lower points earned may be worth knowing that those points will be there next month, next year and five years from now.
- Points earned for purchases. This would seem to be the big decision maker: how many miles can you get for what you spend. Typically you’ll earn 1 to 3 points for every dollar spent (some cards refer to it as 1% to 3%). Translation: $100 = 100 points. So, you spend $800, you earn 800 to 2,400 points, depending on the card and your purchase. Some cards earn the same amount of points no matter what you buy, while some cards award more points for travel, gas or grocery purchases. One card I looked at even offered double points for all restaurant purchases. If you dine out often, this may be the card for you.
- Bonuses. Some cards offer bonuses to new customers who spend a certain amount of money within the first three months of receiving the card. Typically, those with bigger bonuses require bigger spending. For example, if you spend $3,000 in the first three months, you’ll earn 40,000 bonus points. Compare that to another card offering 10,000 bonus points if you spend $500 in the first three months. Consider what you’re likely to spend, without forcing yourself to spend more just to earn the points (which sort of defeats the purpose of trying to save money on travel), to determine how many bonus points you could realistically earn.
According to Beverly Harzog, credit card expert and author of Confessions of a Credit Junkie: Everything You Need to Know to Avoid the Mistakes I Made, “Some credit cards offer rental car insurance, roadside emergency services, lost luggage reimbursement, trip cancellation insurance, priority boarding, airport lounge access, and 24/7 concierge services that can help you obtain hard-to-get tickets for Broadway, sporting events and more. And some cards offer anniversary bonuses, which can help pay for the annual fee.”
However, you may not be able to learn this information until after you’ve applied and been approved for your card. That’s why some of the cards listed above include “additional benefits” and some do not. But Harzog suggests, once you select your card, be sure to read the fine print so you can take advantage of the benefits. She also adds, “It’s important to know that terms and conditions vary by card and the details can vary quite a bit from card to card. For example, even if it’s a Visa card, the bank can change the benefits a little. So every Visa card won’t necessarily have the same benefits. And the bank might add some enticing benefits to one of their cards and not to another.”
We all have different needs and spending habits.