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Travel Talk

Travel Talk: Make an educated choice when it comes to credit cards

Every year about this time, Bud and I do a credit card “review” to make sure we have the best deal possible on the cards that work best for our lifestyle and travel plans. Why now? It’s anniversary time! We first got our main card (an airline affinity card) on Nov. 16 many years ago. Each year in late November or early December we get our annual “appreciation or anniversary” package, which outlines the perks.

Paying attention: If you’re like us, you probably get scores of credit card solicitations each month. Sometimes it’s hard to sort these out. After all, each bank or credit card issuer offers many, many varieties or levels of cards – each one targeted to a slightly different customer. Some have no fees but higher interest. Some have fees but offer big perks.

Many have different levels of perks depending on your spending patterns. In addition, the number of “affiliated” rewards cards has ballooned in the last few years. I don’t know of a single airline that doesn’t have a rewards card – and most major hotel groups do too. To make it more complicated, some airlines and hotels offer options of MasterCard, Visa or American Express.

Sometimes it seems like we get offers for each and every one! Normally, I toss them right into recycling (after ripping them up to avoid someone else getting a hold of and “accepting” the offer). But this time of year? I am all eagle-eyes for the anniversary package from our own card.

Perks: Our main card has perks that are important to us. It earns points/miles that can be used on the Star Alliance network (USAirways, Lufthansa and more) which offers 1,300-plus destinations in 194 countries around the world. Each year we get two companion tickets for $99 each. These are actual pieces of paper (imagine!) with codes to use in online booking. We can use First Class check-in even if we’re flying coach. Our card expenditures count toward elite status, which means free upgrades. There are other networks, like the slightly smaller OneWorld (American, British Airways and more), which offers 810 destinations in 152 countries and has slightly different perks and routes.

If your travel is within the United States, you might want to look at Southwest affinity cards, some of which have perks that allow unlimited free companion travel for a calendar year once you reach a certain travel/spending point level. If you like a certain bank, say Chase, you can search for all their travel rewards cards by bank – chasecreditcards.com for Chase, or just Google for others. Most of these sites have “comparison” features that allow you to see how each offer compares with the others, though these explanations are often bare bones.

Details: Don’t forget that perks can and do change, often with annual renewals – one reason to keep an eye out for your anniversary package. In fact, our package came today and I could see immediately that our favorite features are still there. One thing I was hoping for wasn’t, though. The card is still charging fees for foreign transactions and currency conversion, something many cards have dropped to be competitive with the Capital One cards, which never charge such fees. We’ll hang on to our Capital One for now. Detailed comparisons are available at creditcards.com, where you can enter personal data and have them search the best options before you actually apply for one. This is important because having (and even applying for) multiple cards can lower your credit rating—not something any of us need!

(Chase Binder lives in Bow. Read her blog at travelswithchase.blogspot.com.)

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