From expanded elbow room and exclusive one-on-one meetings with Disney characters to free flights, complimentary hotel nights and even cold cash to cover the cost of gas, today's credit cards offer valuable rewards for traveling families.
Here's the lowdown on the best credit cards for family vacations, from general types to specific card recommendations.
Cash Back Cards
Want to finance an overnight sports team trip with little to no effort? Cash in on a credit card for cash-back rewards. While going return rates average one to three percent on purchases for routine items like groceries, gas and restaurant meals, some cards offer ongoing rates of up to six percent, with increased returns on certain revolving categories and additional cash-back incentives for spending during a limited introductory period.
While using a cash-back card for all expenses presents the added bonus of helping you to carefully track your family's needs and adjust your budget, be sure not to fall into the common trap of buying things you don't need, advises Amber Stubbs, Managing Editor of CardRatings.com, a credit card comparison site.
"If you use a card to pay all of your monthly expenses, you will rack up a lot of rewards. But you have to treat it like a bank account and monitor your spending. Ask yourself at the register, 'If I was using my debit card, would I still buy it?'" she suggests.
Of course, if you don't pay your balance in full at the end of the month, you'll reduce cash-back savings. "If you plan on revolving a balance, any interest you pay will offset the rewards," cautions Stubbs.
When choosing a cash-back card, be sure to factor in the annual fee, if there is one.
Recommended Card: Blue Cash Preferred Card From American Express
Offering a whopping 6 percent cash back on grocery purchases and 3 percent cash back on gas and department store transactions, this high-return card is a top pick for families. Although there is an annual fee of $75, you'll recoup your initial investment in a short period of time, even if you use it exclusively for groceries and then reap the rewards for the majority of the calendar year. In the end, you'll likely have enough cash on hand to fill your gas tank multiple times during your next family vacation, or tack on a few extra nights to your hotel stay, giving your crew more time to connect and unwind.
Low Fee Cards
For traveling families looking for the peace of mind that a credit card offers, but not the increased finance charges, low-fee cards provide a simple solution. In addition to offering an immediate means to pay for emergencies, low-fee cards, when used to purchase travel, can gain owners access to basic accident and rental car protection, help with locating lost luggage and emergency travel assistance, and assist with replacing a passport and locating legal and police services. Since annual fees are minimal, low-fee cards make good "just in case" cards -- ones you stash in your wallet to be used for accessing travel protection in the event of a major incident.
Keep in mind that in general, credit cards do not include all the protections offered by travel insurance, so if you're looking for comprehensive trip cancellation or trip interruption coverage or monetary payment for an evacuation, you'll want to review card terms in advance and consider the benefits of purchasing a travel insurance policy. If you're planning to travel overseas, survey policies on foreign transactions before selecting a specific low fee card, as some cards carry increased charges for out of country purchases.
Finally, when reading the fine print, note that many card companies offer temporary reduced fees and interest rates to lure signers. Look for a card that offers low fees on a long-term basis.
Recommended Cards: Capital One Venture One Rewards Card, Miles by Discover Card
In this category, one card Stubbs likes is the Capital One Venture One Rewards Card, a no-annual fee, low-interest card which offers 1.25 miles for each dollar spent, as well as lost luggage reimbursement, auto rental insurance, 24/7 concierge service and assistance with travel emergencies like lost passports and medical needs. The card does not assess foreign transaction fees, and members using the card to book travel are eligible for $250,000 in travel accident insurance. Stubbs also recommends Miles by Discover, a card that does not have a high-return rewards program, but is annual fee-free and offers flexible redemption (for travel or cash), along with low interest rates and decent travel protection.
Branded Airline and Hotel Credit Cards
Enjoy playing the mileage game? Then a branded airline credit card might be right for you. The trailblazer of travel credit cards offers frequent travelers the ability to accrue points based on booked travel, then redeem them for free flights, free rooms and other cool rewards. Some cards up the ante with privileges like free checked baggage, complimentary airline lounge access and the elimination of foreign transaction fees.
Branded hotel credit cards operate on a similar premise, offering credit for hotel stays, airline flights and car rentals, which can be used as points or credit towards future free accommodations and other travel. Card users have the opportunity to earn member "elite" status, rolling out the red carpet for family-friendly VIP perks like late checkout, suite upgrades and concierge lounge (i.e. free instant kid food) access.
Recommended Cards: Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card (Airline), Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Visa (Airline), Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card, Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express (Hotel)
Go for the Gold with these co-branded cards, which offer maximum travel rewards and valuable benefits for families. If baggage fees are eating up your travel budget, consider the Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express. When purchasing Delta airline tickets with your card, you'll receive two points per mile, plus a free checked bag for each member of your family of up to nine people. Plus, each member of your party gets priority boarding, allowing you to keep the family peace -- and peace among your fellow flyers. If you spend $500 in the first three months, you'll receive a generous 30,000 points -- enough for a free round-trip ticket. When traveling more than 100 miles from home, card holders can access American Express's Global Assistance Hotline, which offers 24/7 help with medical, luggage, legal and passport problems. Cardholders are also protected by the company's car rental and travel accident insurance. The annual fee ($95) is waived for the first year.
Another good option: Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Visa. We love this one because it allows you to receive airfare credit -- rather than pay hundreds of dollars for a new flight -- in the event you need to cancel your trip. There aren't any flight restrictions either -- the card allows you to use earned points on any flight, as long as seats are available, allowing plenty of flexibility in planning a family vacation. As a cardholder, you don't have to pay baggage or foreign transaction fees either, and you receive 6,000 Cardmember Anniversary points each year. A $99 annual fee applies.
In the hotel category, Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card is a favorite. Cardholders automatically earn Gold status, which gets them enviable perks like room upgrades, free snacks, free breakfast, free Internet and early check-in and late check-out at Hilton properties. They include Hampton Inn and Suites, Hilton, Homewood Suites and Waldorf Astoria, all of which are well worth the $95 annual fee. If you spend $2,500 in the first four months, you'll earn two free weekend night certificates, good for stays at a wide variety of properties, including upper end hotels in exotic destinations.
The Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express, which offers 2.2 percent cash back and Preferred Guest privileges like free welcome drinks and upgrades, is another top performer that is great for family travelers, says Stubbs. "I have that card myself and have never been disappointed," she says. The card can be used for stays at more than 1,100 hotels in the Starwood portfolio, including Sheraton, Westin, St. Regis and Le Meridian properties, and for flights on 350 airlines, with a consumer-friendly one to one ratio of points to miles conversion. There's a $65 annual fee, which is waived during the first year to allow you maximum benefits.
Flexible Rewards Cards
Not tied to a specific airline or hotel chain, flexible rewards credit cards allow you to reap many of the rewards available through the aforementioned cards, without committing to a singular travel brand. While rewards for travel are sometimes less than those offered through branded airline and hotel cards, credit on general items like groceries, gas and restaurant meals is added, making flexible rewards cards a well-rounded option for the general, non-business traveler who prefers not to be restricted by brand loyalty.
Recommended Card: Capital One Venture Rewards Card
Offering two miles per dollar across all spending categories, the flexible Capital One Venture Rewards Card allows you to use earnings to book flights on any airline, rooms at any hotel and rental cars at any agency. You can also use miles to pay for baggage and parking fees. Miles don't expire, and if you spend $2,000 during the first three months, you get 20,000 bonus points, which equate to around $200. The annual fee is waived for the first year of use, and is $59 thereafter. If you're planning overseas travel, this card is especially valuable, as there are no foreign transaction fees. As with its no-fee, lower return counterpart, the Capital One Venture One Rewards Card, another flexible favorite, use of this card gains holders access to Visa Signature Benefits, including travel accident and rental car insurance, lost luggage reimbursement, emergency travel assistance, travel concierge service and complimentary travel upgrades.
Cards Offering VIP Access and Special Privileges
As a parent, it's hard to put a price on the joy of witnessing your young child grinning from ear-to-ear as she or he, for the first time, encounters a favorite Disney character in person. Through an exclusive program, one credit card company presents an opportunity to enjoy a private audience with the Mouse, throwing in a free professional photo to commemorate the experience. Yet other cards offer one-of-a-kind rewards-based experiences for big kids that aren't available for sale to the general public, from preferred seats at popular professional sporting events to celebrity-hosted fantasy sports camps and a first-person Broadway stage experience.
Recommended Cards: Disney Rewards Visa and Disney Premier Visa
Especially for Disney fans, these Chase co-branded cards offer Disney dollars for routine purchases like groceries, gas and restaurant meals, discounts on Disney theme park dining, shopping and tours and the ability to swap rewards for valuable big-ticket items like airline tickets and Disney resort stays. Perhaps most appealing of all are the special privileges extended to cardholders. Among the perks are one-on-one meetings with favorite characters at designated Disney theme park locations, exclusive discounts on special events and entertainment like Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, free admission to the Children's Miracle Network Golf Classic at Walt Disney World Resort and complimentary access to the members-only Chase Lounge at the Epcot International Food & Wine Classic. Cardholders financing a Disney theme park vacation enjoy zero percent APR for six months.
The card is available in a basic (Disney Rewards) version, as well as a newer "Premier" edition. The latter adds an extra percentage credit to gas station, grocery, restaurant and Disney purchases (two percent for the Premier versus one percent for the Basic), and carries a $49 annual fee. There is no fee for the basic Disney Rewards VISA.
This article was updated as of Jan. 16, 2014.
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