05/10/2012 02:02 pm ET Updated Jul 10, 2012

Four Credit Cards That Will Make Summer Travel More Affordable

The summer travel forecast is looking increasingly bright for U.S. consumers, despite the toll high gas prices have taken on our wallets. Nearly one in five people are planning to take more vacations this summer than last, according to a recent national survey conducted by Harris Interactive. As most travelers look for ways to stretch their budgets, the benefit of a credit card's initial bonus cannot be ignored -- the right one can give you an extra $500 to play with.

While initial bonuses are nothing new, their value is. Cash back bonuses are 90 percent more lucrative than last year, according to Card Hub's most recent Credit Card Landscape Report, and the value of points/miles bonuses has increased 20 percent. Summer fun therefore isn't the only thing on tap during the coming months -- more robust bank accounts are too.

To help consumers maximize their summer savings, we compared more than 1,000 credit card offers in search of the best initial bonuses, and identified the following four cards as being particularly noteworthy.

Chase Sapphire Preferred:

You get 40,000 bonus points for opening this card and charging $3,000 on it during the first three months. What's that actually worth? Well you can redeem them for $500 in travel or a $400 statement credit, which is sure to help any family's vacation budget, especially since there is no first-year annual fee ($95 after that).

PenFed Platinum Rewards:

Eighty-four percent of people plan to drive to at least one of their vacation destinations this summer, according to the Harris poll, and the PenFed Platinum Credit Card is the Best Gas Credit Card on the market. In addition to giving you five rewards points for each dollar you spend on gas (at any station), it offers 25,000 bonus points for spending $1,000 during the first three months, which equates to $250. And while you might assume Pentagon Federal Credit Union membership to be reserved for Pentagon workers or military personnel, anyone can join for a $15 fee.

Hilton HHonors Surpass Credit Card:

A few free hotel nights could certainly come in handy for the 74 percent of Americans traveling this summer who plan to stay in a hotel on their trip. The Hilton HHonors Surpass Credit Card offers 40,000 bonus points after your first purchase and 20,000 more after you've charged $3,000. That'll help you save whether you choose to go upscale or economy, as 60,000 Hilton points are enough for one free night at a five-star hotel or as many as eight at a lower-end establishment. Free hotel nights are well worth the card's $75 annual fee.

British Airways Credit Card:

Seventeen percent of U.S. consumers plan on traveling abroad this summer, according to a recent survey conducted by the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), and using the British Airways credit card could help them significantly reduce the cost of airfare. This card offers 50,000 bonus miles after your first purchase and the potential to earn even more, depending on your annual spending -- spending at least $10,000 gets you 25,000 more miles and crossing the $20,000 mark results in another 25,000 miles coming your way. Every 50,000 miles is enough for a free round-trip transatlantic flight, and while you will have to pay a $95 annual fee, you won't have to worry about foreign transaction fees, as this card has none.

Overall, things are sure looking up for summer vacationers. Gas prices have gone down a bit, resulting in increased consumer confidence in the economy, according to RBC's consumer outlook index, which is higher than it's been since December 2007. And given how tough recent years have been, we all deserve a good vacation and some savings to boot!

Odysseas Papadimitriou is the CEO of Card Hub, a website that monitors more than 1,000 credit card offers and helps consumers find the right card for their needs.