How to Travel on Your Credit Card Company’s Dime This Summer

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With the economy thawing out and after an especially rough winter, expectations point to an extremely active summer travel season. In fact, nearly 80 percent of people are planning a trip this summer and over half of them are going to spend more than last year, according to data from TripAdvisor and the Travel Leaders Group.

But your goal is to take a trip without breaking the bank, right? Well, it turns out such an objective might only be a new credit card away.

Credit card initial rewards bonuses are at record levels in terms of value. You can now get up to $400 in cash, two free roundtrip domestic flights or 18 free hotel nights, just by opening the right credit card and satisfying its initial spending requirement. Such bounties are more than sufficient to subsidize, or even completely pay for, a trip to Florida — the most popular travel destination this summer, according to the American Society of Travel Agents.

But, what is the best travel rewards credit card? That can be understandably difficult to determine, given the sheer number of offers that are out there, but CardHub’s editors compared more than 1,000 different offers in order to identify those offering the most value to summer travelers. You can find an overview of their selections below, broken down based on the type of reward being offered.

Best All-Around Travel Credit Cards

  • BarclayCard Arrival Card: Charging $3,000 to this card during the first 90 days you have it will trigger a 40,000-mile initial bonus, which you can redeem for a $400 statement attributable to any travel-related expense that appears on your bill. And because the Arrival Card’s $89 annual fee doesn’t take effect until year two, opportunistic consumers can use the card to save on summer travel and then get out of dodge before paying anything extra for the privilege.
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred Card: The Sapphire Preferred Card gives users two options for redeeming the 40,000-point initial bonus that kicks in when they spend at least $3,000 during the first three months. You can opt for either a $400 statement credit, which can be used to eliminate $400 from your bill, or for $500 in travel accommodations booked through Chase’s Ultimate Rewards program. Either way, you won’t have to pay for the benefit, as the card’s $95 annual fee doesn’t apply until the second year an account is open.

Best Airline Credit Cards

  • Frontier Airlines World MasterCard: You only need to pay a $69 membership fee and spend $500 in the first 90 days to get 40,000 bonus miles from the Frontier Airlines World MasterCard.  That bounty can buy you two roundtrip domestic flights.
  • PenFed Premium Travel Rewards Credit Card: Membership in the Pentagon Federal Credit Union will run you $15. It will also enable you to open the PenFed Premium Travel Rewards Credit Card (which has no annual fee) and earn a $200 initial bonus in return for spending $2,500 in the first three months as well as five points per $1 spent on airfare on an ongoing basis.

Best Hotel Credit Cards

  • Club Carlson Premier Rewards: This card offers a total of 85,000 bonus points — 50,000 after your first purchase and the remainder in return for spending at least $2,500 during the first 90 days. That rewards bounty is redeemable for up to 18 free nights at Club Carlson properties, which include the Radisson and Country Inn & Suites brands, because of a quirk in Carlson’s redemption policy that gives you a free night when you book at least two consecutive nights using rewards. This card charges a $95 annual fee.
  • HHonors Surpass Credit Card: You can get up to 15 free nights with the 75,000 bonus points that the Hilton HHonors Surpass Card gives users who spend at least $3,000 during the first three months. This card charges a $75 annual fee.

You needn’t worry if your travel plans aren’t so elaborate; there are plenty of ways for people who are channeling Jack Kerouac to benefit this summer as well. For example, the Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express is tailor-made for road trips, offering 6 percent cash back at supermarkets, 3 percent at gas stations, and 1 percent on everything else, as well as a $100 initial bonus and complimentary Amazon Prime membership in return for paying a $75 annual fee.

Ultimately, regardless of which card best suits your spending habits and summer travel plans, it is important to note that you will need excellent credit to benefit. More people than you might think — roughly half of U.S. consumers — will meet that requirement. Everyone else now has a tangible goal to work toward for summer 2015. If you aren’t sure where your credit stands, there are a number of simple and free ways to approximate it.

Odysseas Papadimitriou is CEO of the personal finance websites WalletHub and CardHub. He previously worked as a senior director at Capital One.

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