Comparing the Best Travel and Hotel Credit Cards

Should you get a general-purpose travel credit card or hotel credit card? The key difference comes when you need to redeem those rewards. Explore which is the best credit card for your next trip.

By Mike Faden | American Express Credit Intel Freelance Contributor

5 Min Read | November 06, 2019 in Travel



Travel credit cards help frequent travelers quickly earn points for free travel, upgrades, and other benefits.

General-purpose travel cards offer greater flexibility; hotel cards deliver more benefits if you’re loyal to a specific chain.

It may make sense to have both types to maximize travel perks.

For the true travel enthusiast, there’s one thing better than exploring new destinations, enjoying diverse cultural experiences, and finding new exotic foods: getting it all for free! Well, if you travel enough—whether for business or pleasure—travel credit cards can help you achieve that goal.

With travel credit cards, frequent travelers can earn free flights, hotel stays and upgrades, trips on ride-share services, and a range of other rewards. That could mean an extra family vacation to an alluring destination this year, or a business-trip upgrade from a mid-range hotel to a luxury spa.

Travel cards come in several different flavors, with two of the main categories being general-purpose travel credit cards and co-branded hotel credit cards. The choice of which card works best for you will depend largely on your individual goals and travel patterns.

General-purpose travel credit cards usually provide more flexibility in how you can exchange points for travel, so they suit people who use a variety of travel providers. Hotel credit cards and their benefits are closely linked to specific hotel brands, so they’re most beneficial if you frequently use hotels owned by the same company. But each card has its own unique set of rewards—so it’s worth looking closely at each offer to determine whether it fits your needs.


How Travel Credit Cards Work

Generally speaking, travel cards pay dividends for everyday spending—you earn points as you pay for purchases with the card, though certain spending categories may be excluded. But they are particularly beneficial if you travel a lot. That’s because when you use the cards for travel-related spending, you accumulate points more quickly—usually at a rate of several points for every dollar you spend. You can then cash in those points for more travel or travel-related perks.

Some issuers provide several “tiers” of cards with different levels of benefits and annual fees. “If the sky is your home,” as Forbes put it in a recent article,1 it’s more likely that the additional benefits of a premium card—which comes with a higher annual fee—will pay off. Also, some cards include big sign-up bonuses, awarding tens of thousands of points if you spend a specified amount within a few months of signing up—more than enough for some domestic or even international flights.


How General-Purpose Travel Credit Cards Work

With general-purpose travel credit cards, your rewards are not tied to a specific airline or hotel chain. You accumulate points in the card issuer’s program, and you can use those points to buy travel via the issuer’s online portal or transfer them to a variety of partners such as airlines, hotel chains, and ride-share services.


Benefits of General-Purpose Travel Credit Cards

When redeeming the points earned with general-purpose travel credit cards, the most popular options include free domestic flights and hotel stays, according to a survey by U.S. News and World Report.2 But some cards also provide benefits you can use throughout your journey. Depending on the card, these may include:

  • Free access to airport lounges, priority boarding, credits against fees for checked bags or flight changes, and discounts for TSA Precheck and Global Entry fees
  • Free rental-car insurance and roadside assistance
  • Credits for ride-share services and restaurant meals
  • Elite membership status at selected hotel chains, entitling you to perks like room upgrades, free breakfast, Wi-Fi, and early check-in
  • Elimination of fees that are usually added to each transaction in a foreign country—the savings can add up if you spend a lot while traveling abroad


How Hotel Credit Cards Work

Hotel credit cards are co-branded by a hotel company and a card issuer. With a hotel credit card, you accumulate points in the hotel’s rewards program, not the card issuer’s program.

As with general-purpose travel cards, you earn points for everyday purchases, but rewards are bigger for travel-related spending on flights, restaurant meals, and some other expenses, such as gas. As you might expect, you often earn even more points per dollar when you spend directly at the chain’s hotels and resorts.

Because your points accumulate in the hotel’s rewards program, experts say the best way to spend them is with the hotel chain or other hotel brands owned by the same company. That’s why they say hotel credit cards deliver the biggest benefits for people who are loyal to a particular hotel chain and spend a significant amount on hotel expenses.3


Benefits of Hotel Credit Cards

Typical hotel credit card benefits include:

  • Membership in the hotel’s loyalty program, which comes with perks like free breakfast, late checkout, and room upgrades
  • Free hotel stays, room upgrades, and vacation packages at resorts owned by the same company
  • Some loyalty programs let you transfer points—although sometimes at a lower exchange rate—to different companies for airline miles, car rentals, and other services.
  • Some cards pass along card-issuer benefits such as auto rental insurance, roadside assistance, no foreign transaction fees, and access to airport lounges.


Why Not Have Both General-Purpose and Hotel Travel Credit Cards?

Depending on your travel patterns and goals, it could make sense to combine a general-purpose travel card with a hotel card, experts say.4 The hotel card maximizes the benefits of staying at your favorite hotel chain, while the general travel card provides points-earning opportunities that a branded hotel card may not cover, such as flights, cruises and stays at different hotels.

hotel and travel credit card


The Takeaway

General-purpose travel credit cards and hotel credit cards both help frequent travelers turn everyday spending into free flights and hotel stays. General-purpose travel cards usually offer greater flexibility, while hotel cards deliver the biggest benefits for people who are loyal to a hotel chain. For true travel enthusiasts, it may make sense to have both types of travel reward cards and combine them to maximize your perks.

Mike Faden

Mike Faden has covered business and technology issues for more than 30 years as a writer, consultant, and analyst for media brands, market-research firms, startups and established corporations.


All Credit Intel content is written by freelance authors and commissioned and paid for by American Express. 

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