• If Continental/United is your airline of choice or necessity, the Continental Airlines OnePass Plus Chase MasterCard may be worth a look. BudgetTravel editors note a favorable reputation for this frequent-flier program as one of the easiest to use: fewer miles to qualify for a free ticket and fewer blackout dates. It starts with a 25,000-mile bonus with first purchase. The annual fee after the first year is $95.
[See the Secret to Living Well on $20,000 a Year.]
• For globetrotters who want their card to work for them when building up points and when spending those points, BudgetTravel highlights the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. It earns high marks because it charges no foreign transaction fees. Points are turned into miles with a 1:1 exchange for Continental/United Airlines and British Airways. The introductory offer turns $3,000 charged in the first three months into 50,000 miles. The annual fee after the first year is $95.
• For cardholders focused on the destination as much as the means of travel, BudgetTravel likes the Starwood Preferred Guest/American Express Starpoints earned on this card can be redeemed at over 1,000 hotels in nearly 100 countries. The first time the card is used, the holder earns 10,000 Starpoints, enough for a free night at a four-star property. Points can also transfer on a 1:1 basis into more than 30 frequent-flier programs, with Starpoints instantly doubled when moved onto LAN's frequent flier program (LAN is a largely Central and South American destination airline.) For this card, the annual fee after the first year is $65.
• Chargers who put more than $2,000 a month on their card might opt for the American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card. This program triples points for a plane ticket purchase and doubles points for gas and groceries. Earned points never expire and can be used on any airline, anytime, by reserving a flight through American Express Travel. Points can be transferred to a preferred frequent flyer program. The annual fee after the first year is $175.
Diligent budget-followers must make sure to pay off any outstanding balance as quickly as possible; ideally, before interest charges kick in. Consumers who might find themselves tempted to let balances ride shouldn't let reward-points programs trigger bad habits. Heavy debt loads could scuttle dream vacation plans—no matter how many reward points are built up.