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The Best Rewards Credit Cards for International Travel

By Eric Rosen

Dec 15, 2020

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To prepare for your next international trip, apply for a credit card with great perks abroad.

Photo by Dominik Scythe on Unsplash

To prepare for your next international trip, apply for a credit card with great perks abroad.

Look for a credit card that waives foreign transaction fees and covers the cost of Global Entry.

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International travel might not be the first thing on your mind right now, with many borders still closed to all but essential workers and repatriating citizens. Countries that are still open to outsiders often require stringent pretravel testing protocols and quarantines. However, several successful (so far) vaccines are on the way, so hopefully a return to safe travel is in the not-too-distant future.

To prepare for your next international trip, you might want to apply for a credit card that can waive foreign transaction fees and speed you through serpentine customs lines. Here are seven benefits to look for in a credit card you intend to use for international travel—and some of the best cards to apply for.

1. Waived foreign transaction fees

The most basic benefit for an international travel card? Waived foreign transaction fees. These charges are negligible but still a nuisance, averaging 2 to 3 percent of the price of your purchase. That doesn’t sound like much, but if you have a $1,000 hotel bill, foreign transaction fees can tack on an extra $20–$30 to your tab. The good news is, more cards than ever waive these fees, so it’s not hard to find one that fits your needs.

2. Global Entry application reimbursements

Global Entry is a Trusted Traveler program run by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The fast pass entitles you to use automated immigration kiosks upon entering the United States as well as expedited customs lines. At the busiest airports, this can shave over an hour off your wait time and—bonus—it includes TSA PreCheck perks. You must apply or renew every five years, at a cost of $100 each time.

Many premium travel rewards credit cards, and even some with moderate annual fees, provide a statement credit toward Global Entry applications once every four or five years. Consider getting one of them to save a little money and breeze through customs.

3. Points or rewards for travel purchases

If you’re planning to travel internationally (or domestically), it pays to get a credit card that actually earns bonus rewards on travel purchases. Many airline credit cards earn extra miles on airfare, and hotel cards tend to earn multiple points per dollar on bookings.

Numerous cards accrue bonus rewards or cash back on a broader range of travel charges. The Chase Sapphire Reserve® earns three points per dollar on travel (after earning your $300 travel credit), which includes airline tickets and hotel reservations, plus vacation rentals, train tickets, and rideshares. Racking up extra points means you’ll have more to redeem you book that next trip.

4. Statement credits for travel expenses

Some credit cards will return money to you in the form of statement credits for travel expenses you accrue. For instance, if you pay for checked bags and seat assignments, either the Platinum Card® from American Express or the American Express® Gold Card might be a good option. The former offers cardholders up to $200 per calendar year in statement credits toward airline incidental fees on a U.S. carrier that they designate, while the latter offers up to $100 each year.

Looking for something more generally usable? The Citi Prestige® Credit Card delivers up to $250 in travel credits each year that you can put toward expenses like airfare, hotels, taxis, cruises, buses, and tolls.

If you’re loyal to a particular hotel chain, consider a credit card that will reimburse you specifically for stays or incidental charges at its properties. The Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant American Express® Card offers up to $300 in statement credits each year toward purchases at participating Marriott hotels, including overnight stays. Cardholders also get a free night each year worth up to 50,000 points, and they receive up to $100 in credit for qualifying charges when using a special cardholder rate to book stays of two nights or more at St. Regis and Ritz-Carlton hotels.

5. Lounge access

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With your normal travel schedule, do you spend a lot of time in airports? If so, carry a card that gets you into lounges so you can pass your time in comfort with free snacks and stable Wi-Fi. The Chase Sapphire Reserve, Citi Prestige, Hilton Honors Aspire American Express Card, and the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant all come with Priority Pass Select access that gets cardholders into more than 1,300 airport lounges worldwide. With the Amex Platinum, meanwhile, you can enroll for Priority Pass Select and also get into chic Amex Centurion Lounges and Delta Sky Clubs (when flying Delta).

6. Travel and purchase protections

Although their policies are subject to plenty of exclusions (like military coups and pandemics) as well as dollar maximums, many credit cards offer travel insurance if you have to cancel your trip or end it prematurely. They’ll likely reimburse you for meals and lodging if you’re delayed and will insure items you purchase against theft or damage. Familiarize yourself with your cards’ protection clauses and then use the one that offers you the most coverage based on the trips you’ll be taking.

7. Chip and tap technology

The U.S. has long lagged behind other countries that require credit cards to have chip and tap technology (where you either tap your card or insert it into the machine rather than swipe it). That’s changing, but it’s worth making sure any card you carry abroad has such capability; some merchants in other countries don’t accept swipe cards anymore. Even if your card has a chip and the symbol for tapping it, test it out before your trip because not all cards are up to date.

The best credit cards for international travel

Of course, which credit card is best for your own international travels will depend on the type of trips you take and your spending habits. Here are some of the top cards to carry abroad thanks to great travel benefits—including waived foreign transaction fees—plus a few you might not know about.

Chase Sapphire Reserve

This is one of the best travel rewards credit cards, whether you tend to cross borders or stick closer to home.

Current welcome offer: 50,000 points after you spend $4,000 within the first three months of account opening. Those points are transferable to 13 airline and hotel loyalty programs, including British Airways, Singapore Airlines, United, Hyatt, and Marriott.

Annual fee: $550

Why it’s great for international travelers: Where to begin? The card earns three points per dollar on travel (after earning the $300 travel credit) and dining, so you can boost your earning without spending on things you wouldn’t otherwise. Cardholders receive up to $300 in annual travel credits and up to $100 once every four years for either a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee. This card’s travel and purchase protections are second to none, with high-cap travel accident, trip interruption, cancellation, and delay coverage, as well as primary insurance on car rentals, which is a rarity. It also gets cardholders plus up to two guests into Priority Pass airport lounges around the world.

The Platinum Card from American Express

Despite a high annual fee, this card earns its keep with plenty of value-added perks.

Current welcome offer: Enjoy one of the best introductory bonuses this card has ever offered—earn 75,000 bonus points after spending $5,000 within the first six months. Also earn 10 points per dollar on up to $15,000 in combined purchases at U.S. gas stations and U.S. supermarkets in the first six months. Amex Membership Rewards points can be transferred to more than 20 airlines and hotels, including Delta, Air France/KLM, Emirates, and Hilton.

Annual fee: $550

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Why it’s great for international travelers: A points powerhouse, this card accumulates five per dollar on flights booked directly with airlines or on Amex Travel (on up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year starting on 1/1/2021) as well as on prepaid hotel stays booked through Amex. Cardholders get into all kinds of airport lounges; they also can take advantage of up to $200 per year in airline incidental fee credits and reimbursement of up to $100 once every four years for Global Entry. Carrying the Amex Platinum allows you to book luxury hotel stays through Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts with perks like room upgrades, complimentary breakfast, and on-property credits, similar to the benefits you can enjoy by registering for automatic Marriott and Hilton Gold elite status.

Citi Prestige

Citi’s top-shelf card offers a familiar slate of travel-related benefits.

Current welcome offer: Earn 50,000 points when you spend $4,000 in the first three months. Citi ThankYou® points are transferable to 15 airline partners, including JetBlue, Avianca, Etihad, and Turkish Airlines.

Annual fee: $495

Why it’s great for international travelers: Carry this card and you can register for Priority Pass Select lounge access, get a Global Entry application fee reimbursement once every five years, and earn $250 worth of annual travel statement credits. However, it’s the Prestige’s earning potential that truly sets it apart. It accumulates five points per dollar on air travel and at restaurants, and three per dollar on hotels and cruise lines—pretty much anything you’d need to purchase for a trip—then one per dollar on everything else. Cardholders can also get a fourth night free on up to two stays of four nights or more per year booked through Citi’s travel portal, ThankYou.com, a benefit that can top $1,000 or more in value depending on where you use it.

Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card

Though not as perks-rich as the other cards on this list, this solid option does have one advantage: a much lower annual fee.

 Annual fee: $95

Why it’s great for international travelers: The Venture will give you a statement credit of up to $100 for a Global Entry application once every four years, which is unusual for a card with an annual fee this low. It earns two miles per dollar on all purchases, which are then redeemable for a cent apiece toward travel, netting you a decent  2 percent return on your spending. The miles can also be transferred to 14 airline and 2 hotel partners, including Air Canada, Cathay Pacific, and Wyndham Rewards.

Bank of America® Premium Rewards® credit card

This card’s airline fee credits more than offset its moderate annual fee.

Current welcome offer: Earn 50,000 points (worth $500) after spending $3,000 in the first 90 days.

Annual fee: $95

Why it’s great for international travelers: This card offers two distinct advantages. First, you can count on a Global Entry application fee statement credit once every four years, plus you get up to $100 in airline incidental credits each year, which offsets its annual fee. Although this card earns simple cash-back rewards, you can rack up 2 percent back on travel purchases and dining and 1.5 percent on everything else with bonuses if you’re a Bank of America Preferred Rewards banking customer. It also offers up to $10,000 per claim in purchase protection.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

This card’s travel protections make it an excellent option if you want some reassurance without a high annual fee.

Current welcome offer: 60,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 within the first three months of account opening. Chase Ultimate Rewards points are transferable to numerous airlines, including United, Southwest, Iberia, and Virgin Atlantic, plus IHG Rewards Club, World of Hyatt, and Marriott Bonvoy on the hotel side.

Annual fee: $95

Why it’s great for international travelers: Put simply, this card’s travel protections are one of the best reasons to use it to pay for trips. It’ll cover cancellation and interruption up to $10,000 per person or $20,000 per trip, will reimburse you up to $500 for expenses incurred during delays, and will give you up to $100 per day for up to five days for delayed bags starting six hours in. It also extends primary insurance for car rentals, which can be invaluable. Put all those purchases on your card, and you’ll earn two points per dollar thanks to its travel bonus, and double points on dining, too.

Those are the general rewards credit cards to keep an eye on for international travel. However, you might also want to consider airline cards like the United Explorer Card and the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card, or hotel ones like the Hilton Honors Aspire, the IHG® Rewards Club Premier Credit Card, and the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant, all of which feature a Global Entry statement credit benefit and waive foreign transaction fees.

While the offers mentioned above are accurate at the time of publication, they are subject to change at any time, and may have changed or may no longer be available.

>> Next: Where to Go in 2021—When We Can

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