PhotoSummer is just around the corner, and clever travelers are flexing travel-related credit cards to land everything from bonus miles and free baggage to rebates on gas purchases and airline club passes at the airport.

However, a new survey from U.S. News and World Report found that most travelers don’t fit that “clever” description. In fact, consumers are leaving money on the table.

So, do you, Mr. and/or Mrs. Consumer have a travel-related credit card you use? If not, you’re one of 54 percent of Americans who don’t; but the ones who do (49 percent) have earned $1,051 or more in rewards over the last year.

“Overall, men are more likely than women to have a travel credit card and redeem the corresponding rewards,” writes Beverly Harzog, “But most Americans aren't grabbing this money-saving opportunity.”

Like nearly all perks-driven credit cards, there’s some gamesmanship to landing those freebies and upgrades.

"Purchasing big-ticket items like vacations on a credit card may seem intimidating, but it can actually be financially savvy," Harzog said. "Using a credit card responsibly can mean consumers benefit from travel rewards like cash back, free nights at hotels or free flights. If you're planning on spending the money, you should reap the rewards."

Picking your pleasure

Every credit card has a different rewards angle to work. According to the survey, cash back is the most preferred, followed by a free night at a hotel and free domestic flights. Of the respondents who prefer hotel upgrades, 63 percent were women; men (65 percent) tend to favor flight upgrades.

It should go without saying that credit card holders need to take note of all the little if’s, and’s, or but’s. While reading all that fine print isn’t exactly fun, understanding all the subtleties up front can save you time and disappointment.

As an example, one consumer commented on ThePointsGuy’s review that Southwest Airlines has three different credit cards -- Priority, Plus, and Premiere -- and each of those can be distinctively different.

In the case of Southwest’s Plus versus Priority cards, the reader notes that there are differences between foreign transaction fees, reimbursements for upgraded boardings, and a difference in points awarded on each anniversary of the date the consumer started using the card.

The smart money is on the consumer who takes the time to decide what’s most important to them -- say upgrades or cash back -- and finds the credit card issued by the airline they fly that most matches that goal.

“Co-branded airline credit cards usually make the most sense for those who fly with that airline several times a year,” Sarah Silbert, Senior Editor, Credit Cards at ThePointsGuy told ConsumerAffairs.

“You'll get perks like priority boarding and a free checked bag, which can improve your trip, but generally non-airline cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Capital One Venture Card are better choices for non-airline purchases, since the rewards they earn are more valuable. If you're looking for a credit card that really pulls its weight, some benefits to keep an eye out for are Global Entry/TSA PreCheck application fee credits and protections like primary car rental insurance.”

Lots of choices to pick from

ThePointsGuy picked up where U.S. News & World Report left off and put together a list of the fringe benefits consumers can get without a fee if they’re a new applicant:

Airline

Welcome Bonus

Earning Rate(s)

Benefits

Fees

American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp Card

10,000 bonus miles and a $50 statement credit after spending $500 in the first three months

2x at grocery stores and on American Airlines purchases, 1x on everything else

25 percent savings on inflight food and beverage purchases

3 percent foreign transaction fee

 

Blue Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express

10,000 bonus miles after spending $500 in purchases within three months of account opening. Terms apply.

2x at US restaurants and on Delta purchases, 1x on everything else

20 percent savings on inflight purchases, various purchase protections.

2.7 percent foreign transaction fee (See Rates & Fees)

JetBlue Credit Card

10,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 in the first 90 days

3x on all JetBlue purchases, 2x at restaurants and grocery stores and 1x on everything else

50 percent savings on inflight food and beverage purchases

No foreign transaction fee

SkyBlue SkyPass Visa Card

5,000 bonus miles after your first qualifying purchase

1 Korean Air SkyPass mile for every $2 spent

Car rental and travel accident insurance

3 percent foreign transaction fee (2 percent for transactions in US dollars)

United TravelBank Credit Card

$150 in United TravelBank cash after spending $1,000 in the first three months

2 percent of your spending back in TravelBank cash on tickets purchased from United, 1.5 percent in TravelBank cash on all other purchases.

25 percent back as a statement credit when you use your card to purchase food and beverages on United-operated flights

No foreign transaction fee

Flying outside the U.S.?

If you’re flying internationally, you might take note of these two credit cards:

  • United TravelBank card. With United being a member of the Star Alliance, the miles earned with its TravelBank card can also be used on other Star Alliance member flights.
     

  • Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Bank of America card. While many travelers in the eastern U.S. rarely board an Alaska Airlines flight, the airline is a fan favorite of those who do. Not only did the airline take home the top prize in the latest airline rankings, ThePointsGuy says that its miles may be the most valuable airline “currency” (meaning bonuses) thanks to Alaska Airlines’ airline partners like Cathay Pacific (rated as one of the safest airlines) and Fiji.

“There aren’t many options for earning Alaska miles, though, so having this credit card can be a great tool. It helps that it comes with an awesome companion fare benefit, too,” ThePointsGuy notes.


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