Best Credit Cards for Long-Term Travelers / Part-Time Expats

Long-term or frequent travelers often have specific needs and preferences when it comes to credit card benefits. This post looks at the features of cards that are best for international travel, vs. cards that are focused on US purchases.

Part time expats should pay extra attention to their choice of credit card. Long term or frequent travelers often have specific needs and preferences when it comes to credit card benefits. In this post, we will look at some of the benefits that you may find valuable, and provide a rundown on what companies offer. Please keep in mind that credit card offerings can change over time, so it's important to verify the information with the latest sources before making any decisions. IN this post we focus on cards that we think are best for international travel, vs. cards that focus on standard purchases.  

But before we begin, let's keep a few things in mind:

  • MOST IMPORTANT - It is critical to make sure that you pay off the balance on   your purchases each month for these types of travel cards! Paying 20% - 30% interest on a credit card balance will cancel out any benefit you get from the cards.  Use your card as convenience for purchasing, not as a financing method! If you are going to use the card to  finance a purchase and hold any balance at all on the card for some  period, get a new card with a zero interest for the first 18 months, and  pay it off before the zero interest period.
  • The best travel cards have an upfront fee that can look substantial (as high as $550 / year), but they rebate back at least half of that amount if you charge a few thousand in the first 3 months, give you a free hotel night credit, or offer other benefits and rebates that also help offset that cost (at least for the first year). For any travel card, the typical sign up bonus of 50,0000 points is worth at least $500, so that also helps offset any annual fee. Or the card may offer a free hotel night that can be worth $200 or so.
  • Points are not necessarily your primary objective for travel  cards. The bonus points you get for signing up have a decent value.  Getting 50,000 signup points is worth around $500 or more. But for ongoing purchases, points are only worth a 1% - 3% return. Spend $1000 on travel, get back $20 or so in points. The bigger return for travel cards are often things like lounge   access, hotel rewards programs, car rental insurance, Global Entry program rebates, or other specific discounts or programs. For example, cards that are part of the Marriott rewards program offer points and credits for nights help you reach Platinum status or higher (50 nights a year) at which point you get upgraded rooms (worth $25 or more per night), free breakfast (worth around $30 a couple), and late checkouts. So estimate how much you will be traveling to determine if a standard cash back percentage will be a better option than travel-specific benefits.  
  • If you are going to be traveling a lot, think about getting more than one travel rewards card, and allocate your spending strategically. For example, a general travel card, and a hotel branded card that gives you higher hotel status that provide room upgrades, and an airline card that gives you extra point for air travel purchases, and use these to make your purchases in a manner that maximizes your returns. But make sure that you will be able to spend the required amounts to ensure that you get the welcome bonus points for all of your cards to help offset any yearly fees.
  • And again, do not maintain any balances on these cards that will immediately wipe out any savings.

The following credit card benefits are generally considered important for such travelers:

  • Points for purchases: Travel credit cards offer generous travel rewards, such as miles or points, for every dollar spent on travel-related expenses. These rewards can add up for long term travelers, and can be redeemed for flights, hotels, car rentals, and other travel expenses. Points are based on the amount spent.  Spend $1000, get 1000 points worth around $10. Travel cards generally offer more points that other cards for these purchases. For example, some cards offer 2 - 3 times the points for travel purchases. (NOTE: The 5 or 10 times points they advertise for travel purchases usually only refers to purchases made through their site, which may not be the best deal).  You may also be able to transfer your rewards to airline or hotel loyalty programs, potentially maximizing the value of your points or miles.

    Using your points for flights and car rentals and hotels requires shopping around to find the best deals. Hotels in popular vacation destinations usually charge much higher points than hotels in other areas, compared to the nightly cash rates, so it may be better to pay cash for a vacation weekend and save your points for hotel stays in more mundane areas. Most airline and hotel sites allow you to compare the cash cost and points cost for a hotel or flight to see if the amount of points they are charging is a good relative value.    

    Some cards may have special offers to use your points for purchases, or transfer points to "travel partners" at an enhanced rate. We have gotten 50% bonus points added for transferring points from Chase to Marriot for hotel stays, and from Chase to Apple for equipment purchases, which we used to buy an IPhone 14 and iPad air. Check out where the card allows you to redeem your points for before signing up so that you will be able to spend your points on something that you want.

  • Sign-Up Bonus points: Most cards offer a sign-up bonus that provides a large number of miles or points if you meet a spending requirement within the first few months of card ownership. These points provide a baseline to your points balance, so you may be able to begin redeeming points for a hotel or other reward much sooner than your purchases would allow. If you don't have a travel card now, try to time obtaining the card so you can use it to make your larger travel purchases to be sure to meet the minimum purchase requirements for the bonus points, and get the most points for the purchases.  

  • Some cards reimburse application fees for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck: Global Entry or TSA PreCheck are programs that give passengers an opportunity to undergo security screening  assessments that, if you pass the screening, result in reduced scrutiny when passing through airport security and returning to the US. Each will speed your check in at US airports, with shorter lines and reduced inspection requirements, and can save you a lot of the time that you would spend standing in line at security. When you return to the US, Global Entry which can expedite the security and customs process at airports. These programs last 5 years once you are accepted, and are a must for frequent travelers. The standard fee is $78 for TSA PreCheck and $100 for Global Entry, which some of the credit cards will rebate to you if you charge the fee to the card.  Each program will require that you visit a service center to provide your ID and fingerprints. The programs last 5 years - so they are a great deal if you travel at least once a year.

    We suggest that you apply for the Global Entry program instead of TSA Precheck, since Global Entry provides the same benefits that precheck provides, but also adds the expedited immigration clearance when you return to the US.

  • Airport Lounge Access: Some card provide access to airport lounges that can make travel more comfortable by providing a quiet space to relax, work, and enjoy complimentary snacks and beverages. The most common lounge access program is Priority Pass. This provider has lounges available throughout the world. Some cards provide access to airline lounges or other lounges.

    We love this perk. Lounges usually provide buffet food and an open bar for alcohol, and a comfortable place to wait for your flight. Some have showers you can use to freshen up after a long flight, while waiting for your connection.  However, for busier airports, the lounges are often full, and deny access to pass holders. Some lounges now have wait queues, with a text     message when an opening is available. Or if you don't have a membership, you can pay for lounge access - $45 is not a bad deal if there is a buffet and all you can drink alcohol.

  • Car Rental Insurance: Automatic rental car insurance collision coverage that can save a lot compared with purchasing additional insurance from rental companies. If you have good rental insurance from the credit card, and coverage from your own car insurance, you should never need to purchase a collision damage waiver from a rental car agency. We recently had a ding on our bumper that resulted in a $600 charge that was covered by our credit card insurance.

  • Travel Insurance: Some cards offer travel insurance coverage, including trip cancellation/interruption insurance, lost luggage coverage, and travel accident insurance. These can come in handy, so make sure that you know about the coverages prior to your trips so that you know when you can recover losses.

  • No Foreign Transaction Fees: Make sure that your card does not charge foreign transaction fees. This can save you money on international purchases. These cards also usually have favorable currency exchange rates in place for your purchases. A good thing to remember when you are buying something abroad is to always purchase in the local currency, instead of     selecting the option to purchase in dollars, that way your get the exchange rate charged by the credit card, instead of the local merchant.
  • Purchase Protections: Most higher end cards provide purchase protection for items bought with the card, including extending warranty coverage and possibly offering protection against theft or damage during travel.

Other card benefits may include:

  • Priority Boarding: Priority boarding privileges can help travelers secure overhead bin space for their carry-on luggage and settle into their seats more quickly.  

  • Hotel and Rental Car Benefits: Special perks like room upgrades, late check-out, and discounted rates at partner hotels and rental car companies. We have a Marriott card that gives us a credit for 15 days towards maintaining the yearly 50 nights required for Marriott Platinum status, which provides a range of valuable benefits.  

  • Concierge Service: Access to a concierge service that can assist with travel-related tasks, such as booking reservations, securing event tickets, and making travel arrangements.

  • Complimentary Wi-Fi: Some credit cards offer complimentary access to in-flight Wi-Fi or internet at select airports, helping travelers stay connected.

  • Travel Assistance: Emergency assistance services, such as help with lost passports or medical referrals while traveling abroad.

When choosing a credit card it's important to assess your personal travel habits, preferences, and spending patterns to find a card that aligns with your needs and offers the most relevant benefits. Annual fees may apply for premium travel cards, so weigh the benefits against the cost.


Here are some examples of premium credit cards for international travel

Credit card offerings can change over time, so it's important to verify the information and terms and conditions with the latest sources before making any decisions. And remember that the effectiveness of a credit card depends on your individual spending habits, travel preferences, and selecting cards with specific benefits that align with your needs.

Here are some links to people that provide more detailed information on credit card programs, including benefits and rates:

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