Choosing Your First Travel Rewards Card: A Beginner’s Guide

An assortment of travel credit cards

Finding your first travel rewards card can feel challenging. With enticing sign-up bonuses and a myriad of choices, picking the right rewards card might seem overwhelming, but fear not! This guide has everything you need to know to land travel credit card that not only racks up points, but also aligns with your globetrotting dreams.

For the Best Travel Rewards Card, Find Your Travel Style

The best travel rewards card for beginners depends on your travel MO.

Before diving into the sea of travel credit card options, take a moment to reflect on your travel style. Are you the type to jet off to Paris monthly for work, or do you save for one grand annual adventure? Consider how often you travel, your preferred accommodations, and destination tastes to find the perfect first travel credit card that meets your needs.

First Rewards Cards–Match Perks to Your Travel Personality

Once you’ve pinned down your traveler type, it’s time to align card features with your needs. Frequent flyers might favor a card that maximizes airline miles, while those who value flexibility could benefit more from cards offering versatile points.

Consider your usual destinations as well – a card with a strong domestic focus might suit U.S. travelers, whereas global nomads should look for cards with international redemption options. And let’s not forget about spending habits; if you love exploring local cafes, a card that rewards everyday purchases could be more valuable than one geared towards luxury dining.

Rakuten Rewards

Deciphering Points vs. Air Miles for Your First Travel Card

First travel rewards card quandary: Are you collecting points or are you collecting miles?

In your journey to choose your first travel credit card, understanding the difference between points and miles is key. On the surface, they may seem similar — after all, they’re both currencies earned from credit card purchases and redeemed for free travel! But look a little closer and there are some key differences to consider when choosing a travel card.

Points and miles aren’t created equal.

Points are a multipurpose travel currency exchanged for flights, hotels, rental cars, cruises, and more. The value per point depends on redemption, but flexibility is the big win.

Miles are often tied to a single airline or hotel program. Redemption value may be higher for certain brands if you play the points game just right. But less wiggle room overall.
Rakuten Rewards

Your First Travel Rewards Card: What to Look for

Travel Credit Card on white background
Choose your first travel rewards card based on a mix of important factors.

Choose a Weighty Welcome Bonus

The tasty carrot dangled to lure you in, often enough points for a free flight or hotel night. Just be sure to meet the minimum spend requirement.

The Annual Fee Should be Worth the Reward

What you’ll pay yearly for access to rewards and perks.  These fees generally range from $95 annually to upwards of $550. Aim for value that exceeds the fee, and look for waived first-year fees.

Choose a Rewards Card with a Rate of 2X or More

The points or miles earned per dollar spent. Ideally 2x or more in frequent bonus categories like travel, dining, groceries, or gas.

Understand the Perks & Benefits of the Rewards Card

Features like travel insurance, airport lounge access, and Global Entry credits enhance the travel experience significantly.

Be Smart About Redeeming Rewards Points and Miles

Consider the flexibility of using your points or miles for various travel expenses versus specific programs with potentially higher value. For beginners, it’s a good idea to look for a card that doesn’t require you to be so strategic about where you use it.

Online tools like NerdWallet or The Points Guy can help filter options with their card comparison features. And don’t skip the fine print! Lurking fees, foreign transaction costs, or redemption limits can tarnish an otherwise shiny new card. A little research goes a long way.

Redeeming Travel Rewards Points: Tips for First Timers

Magnificent for family vacations and group entertaining, this expansive three-bedroom villa offers a private oceanfront location that’s close to all our Resort amenities.
Use rewards points and miles from your first travel rewards card to book luxury hotels and the best seats on flights.

The key to maximizing travel rewards is understanding the value of your points and being strategic about how you redeem them. Always compare the points required with the cash price, and stay informed about changes in rewards programs and special offers. Remember, the best use of points varies depending on personal travel goals and the specifics of each rewards program.

1. Understand The Point Value of Your Travel Rewards Card

Understanding the value of your points helps you decide whether it’s better to pay with points or cash.

The value you get for each point or mile when you redeem them is usually expressed in cents per point. Divide the cash price of the travel service (flight, hotel, etc.) you want by the number of points required to redeem for that service. Suppose a flight costs $300 if paid in cash, or 20,000 points if using points.

Using the formula: $300 / 20,000 points = 0.015 or 1.5 cents per point.

Each rewards program has its own value for points. Rewards from one airline might be worth more than points from a hotel loyalty program. Some airlines and hotels have moved to dynamic pricing, where the number of points needed for a booking can fluctuate based on demand, season, and other factors.

2. Transfer Points to Partners

Often, transferring points to airline or hotel partners can yield more value than using them directly through the credit card’s travel portal. Transferring points to an airline like United might let you book a business class international flight, which could offer significantly more value per point than booking through the credit card’s travel portal.

3. Use Air Miles and Points to Book Business or First Class Flights

Using points for premium cabin flights usually provides a higher value per point than economy flights. A round-trip business class ticket to Europe might cost 120,000 points through an airline partner, which could be a $6,000 value, offering 5 cents per point.

4. Take Advantage of Sweet Spots in Award Charts

Some airlines have ‘sweet spots’ in their award charts where certain routes are surprisingly low in points. Flying from the US to Hawaii using Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer miles on United flights can be a sweet spot, requiring fewer miles than using United’s own program.

5. Rewards Points Can Make Last-Minute Bookings Less Expensive

Sometimes, booking last-minute flights can be a great value, as airlines release unsold premium seats as award seats. Booking a last-minute business class seat on a transcontinental flight might cost the same in points as booking it months in advance, but the cash price would be significantly higher close to the date.

6. Leverage Hotel Point Programs

Hotel points can be incredibly valuable, especially for expensive or luxury properties. Using Marriott Bonvoy points to book a high-end resort, where cash prices are exorbitant, especially during peak seasons, is a good idea.

7. Consider Transfer Bonuses

Credit card issuers occasionally offer bonuses for transferring points to certain airlines or hotels. A 20% transfer bonus to a specific airline means transferring 1,000 points would actually give you 1,200 points in the airline’s program.

8. Combining Cash and Rewards Points

Some programs allow bookings using a combination of cash and points, which can be a good deal when you don’t have enough points.

The Best First-Time Travel Rewards Cards

With all the choices out there, it can be helpful to narrow down cards based on specific travel lifestyles and priorities. Unless you frequent a certain airline or hotel group regularly, the best travel rewards card will be a general.

The Wanderluster

Chase Sapphire Preferred — Excellent balance of rewards, flexibility, and value. You can earn up to 5x on hotels, 3x on other travel and 2x on dining. Points transfer to airline and hotel partners.

The Jetsetter

Capital One Venture X — Premium perks like airport lounge access, Global Entry credit, and annual travel funds. Snag up to 10x on hotels and rental cars, 5x on flights, and 2x on other purchases.

Budget Travelers

Chase Freedom Flex — There’s no annual fee and you can earn 5% back on travel purchases, in addition to 3% on restaurants. Plus, it comes with travel insurance. Rotating bonus categories to maximize points for road trip spending like gas, tolls, dining.

The Luxe Loungers

Platinum Card from American Express — Top-tier card for luxury travelers with airport lounge access, hotel elite status, and travel credits. The hefty $695 fee is offset by a generous sign on bonus, a $100 credit to get TSA Pre-check or Global Entry, and travel insurance.
Rakuten Rewards

Your First Travel Credit Card Will Bring You a Lifetime of Memories

Beautiful pool and palm trees overlooking the ocean
Whisk yourself away by choosing the right beginner travel credit card!

Remember, the ideal first travel credit card is one that complements your travel habits and maximizes your rewards. So, what are you waiting for? Sign up for one today, and start turning your travel dreams into memories.


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