Have Card, Will Travel

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Most of us have wallets full of credit cards, each dangling different promises to inspire you to pull it out first.

From free coffee (Starbucks Duetto Platinum Visa) to free books (Amazon.com Platinum Visa) to dollars donated to your favorite alumni association, the perks are endless.

What if your personal passion isn't coffee or books, but travel?

For a lot of us, a travel freebie is hard to beat. We like to reward ourselves for our hard work, and when that reward is free, so much the better.

So I thought I'd seek out the credit cards that offer the best travel-related perks.

Now, when thinking credit cards, airline frequent-flier miles are the first travel freebie to come to mind. But I'm grounding airline points before we even get started.

Why? First, they're commonplace. And as illustrated by those cute Capital One commercials, they come with so many restrictions that, well, planning a trip can take you right out of the vacation mood.

So with that ground rule in mind, I shuffled the deck to uncover five great card ideas.

  • Big City Cards

    Are you, like me, a New York buff? Then check out the American Express (AXP) IN:NYC card. This no-fee credit card lets you earn points from purchases anywhere towards dinners, massages and other treats in the Big Apple. In addition to earning rewards, you can enjoy immediate perks such as 2-for-1 admission at the Guggenheim or 10%-off Tuesdays at a long list of retailers.

    Similar cards are available if your favorite destination is Los Angeles or Chicago, and I expect others soon.

  • Cruise Cards

    Cruise-ship devotees will want to use the Norwegian Cruise Line MasterCard (MA), Celebrity Cruises Visa or the Royal Caribbean (RCL) Visa, which earn points toward cabin upgrades or cruise discounts through ordinary spending.

 

  • Hit the Beach

    The Sandals and Beaches all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean have a Visa affiliate card that, like the cruise-ship cards, lets you earn points to use at the resorts. Money you spend while at the resorts earns double points.

     

  • Shopping Spree

    The Saks Fifth Avenue (SKS) World Elite MasterCard is one of my favorites. It isn't just free travel -- you get some upgrades to make the experience better. You'll get the Priority Pass, a low-fee, worldwide airport-lounge access program; free companion tickets with your international, full-fare, business-class seat; and 24-hour access to a travel concierge. And yes, you will also get special perks at Saks Fifth Avenue itself, so you can shop for a new outfit before you leave on your next big trip.

     

  • Family Road Trip

    If you plan to pile your kids in the car anytime soon for a drive across the country, you could start using the Choice Privileges Visa. You can accrue points that can be used to stay at midpriced hotel chains such as the Comfort Inn, Quality Inn and Sleep Inn. They're not exactly luxury destinations, but they'll help you get there.

  • Now, if the five I've listed here don't do it for you, here's a great resource: mycardchoices.com. This card portal allows you to compare several travel-related credit-card offers at once -- just select "travel rewards" or "airline rewards." You may not see all card offers, but it will help you get a fast handle on what's out there, even beyond travel rewards.

    Don't see a card deal to your favorite destination (or way to get there)? I've also found it helps to visit the destination's corporate site. Or just Google "Disney affiliate card" if you're interested in Disney properties. Not all affiliate cards or other offers have made it into the marketing mainstream, so a little digging can go a long way.

    To truly benefit from any of these cards, you have to use them enough to earn rewards in a meaningful amount. Most of these cards are no-fee, but you'll have to run the numbers to see if it makes sense otherwise, especially if you don't pay off your balances. Also, do a little research -- check the fine print and talk to their agents to make sure you get what you think you're getting.

    But if it all works, it's essentially free money. There's nothing wrong with that! Bon voyage.

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