Pack your bags! The best credit cards for travel rewards offer huge sign-up bonuses, valuable rewards, and extra travel perks.
With the right card, you can book free or discounted travel to just about anywhere.
At a glance: The best credit cards for travel rewards
Here’s a quick summary of the best credit cards with travel rewards. Read on to learn more about each card, along with its pros and cons.
Depending on how often you travel and your preferences, you’ll want to compare each of these cards to find the one that’s best for you.
Chase Sapphire Reserve: Best for premium travel perks
It’s “go big or go home” with the Chase Sapphire Reserve. The card’s elite-level perks come with a premium annual fee of $450.
Stellar rewards: With the Reserve, you’ll earn three points per dollar on all travel and dining purchases, plus one point per dollar spent elsewhere. For comparison, the Platinum Card from American Express offers five points per dollar, but only on flights and hotels booked through the Amex Travel website. All other purchases earn a measly one point per dollar.
You’ll also earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months – that’s worth $750 in travel when you book through Chase Ultimate Rewards.
Valuable redemption: If you redeem your points for cash back or gift cards, you’ll get a value of one cent per point. For instance, a $25 gift card would cost you 2,500 points.
But if you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards, you’ll get 50 percent more value. For example, a $200 plane ticket would cost only 13,333 points rather than 20,000.
You can also choose to transfer your points to one of Chase’s 11 airline and hotel partners at a one-to-one ratio. Partners include the following:
- British Airways Executive Club
- Flying Blue Air France-KLM
- Korean Air Skypass
- Singapore Airlines Krisflyer
- Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards
- United MileagePlus
- Virgin Atlantic Flying Club
- IHG Rewards Club
- Marriott Rewards
- Ritz-Carlton Rewards
- World of Hyatt
Premium perks: If the rewards aren’t enough, the Reserve card sweetens the pot with an annual travel credit. Simply use your card to book travel, and Chase will automatically reimburse you up to $300 per year.
You’ll also get the following:
- Free access to more than 1,000 Priority Pass Select lounges.
- An application fee credit for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry, two programs that allow you to move through airport security or U.S. Customs more quickly.
- Special privileges when you use the card to book a rental car with National Car Rental, Avis, and Silvercar.
- No foreign transaction fees.
High annual fee: It can be hard for some people to justify a $450 annual fee. Even if you’re getting more value from the benefits, that’s a large expense you have to pay every year.
Requires excellent credit: Unless your credit is practically flawless, you may have a hard time qualifying for approval. The good news is that there are steps you can take to increase your credit score.Apply for the Chase Sapphire Reserve Credit Card
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card: Best for general travel
If you don’t care for premium perks and you want straightforward rewards, the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card fits the bill.
High rewards rate: With the Venture card, you’ll get two miles per dollar spent on every purchase. Among credit cards with travel rewards, that’s about as good as it gets.
You’ll also earn a 40,000-point sign-up bonus after you spend $3,000 in the first three months – that’s worth $400 in travel.
Flexible rewards redemption: As with the Chase Sapphire Reserve, you can use your Venture miles to book travel through Capital One’s site.
If you want even more flexibility, simply use your card to make a travel purchase anywhere, and you can then use your miles for a full or partial statement credit against the purchase. Feel free to book international travel, too – the card has no foreign transaction fees.
Annual fee: The card has an introductory $0 annual fee for the first year and $59 after that. Granted, this is low compared to most travel credit cards, but if you’re someone who doesn’t spend a lot, you might not earn enough rewards to make it worth it. You’d have to spend $2,950 every year to make up for the fee.
Poor cash-back rewards: If you want the flexibility to use your Venture miles on more than travel, you’re out of luck. Your miles would be worth only half as much as if you used them on travel.Apply for the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express: Best for hotel rewards
If you spend a lot of time in hotels, you probably know that some can be sketchy. The Starwood Hotels brand is fairly upscale and has an outstanding loyalty program. That alone makes the Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) Credit Card from American Express worth having, but it’s not the only reason.
Valuable rewards: With the Starwood Amex card, you’ll get what are almost certainly the best hotel rewards in the business. While it doesn’t seem that way on the surface – you receive a 25,000-point sign-up bonus after you spend $3,000 in the first three months – it’s the value of the points that counts.
Travel rewards website The Points Guy estimates that Starwood Starpoints are worth 2.7 cents apiece on average, as of May 2017. This means that the 25,000-point sign-up bonus could be worth $675. You’ll also earn up to five Starpoints per dollar spent at SPG hotels, and one point per dollar spent elsewhere.
Redemption flexibility: While the best way to use Starpoints is by booking Starwood Hotel stays, you have other options. For example, you can also use your points to book flights with more with 150 airlines, or transfer your points to more than 30 airline frequent flyer programs.
Another option is to redeem your points for “SPG Moments.” These are exclusive experiences that can, for example, include backstage passes at concerts, luxury suites at sporting events, and more.
Extra perks: If the rewards aren’t enough, there are other benefits you’ll get from the card as well. As with the Capital One Venture Rewards card, it has no foreign transaction fees. You’ll also have exclusive access to ticket presales for Broadway shows, concerts, sporting events, and more.
Annual fee: The card waives its annual fee the first year, but after that it’s $95. If you’re not a big spender, this could be a roadblock.
Not as flexible as general travel cards: Like any hotel credit card, you’re limited in how you can redeem your rewards as compared with a general travel or cash-back card. The Starwood Amex is more flexible than other hotel cards, but may not be worth it if you want to use your rewards on other travel purchases.
Limited overseas acceptance: American Express isn’t as widely accepted internationally as Visa and Mastercard. Even in the U.S., Amex lags behind those two, as well as Discover, according to The Nilson Report. That’s not to say the card is completely useless, but it might be wise to have a Visa or Mastercard as a backup.Apply for the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card
United MileagePlus Explorer: Best for airline rewards
If you’re loyal to a specific airline, it may be best to use their credit card. But if you haven’t settled on one, the United MileagePlus Explorer Credit Card is worth considering.
Valuable miles: As of May 2017, the Points Guy valued United miles at 1.5 cents apiece. With the current sign-up bonus at 50,000 miles, you’ll have $750 worth of travel on average after you spend $3,000 in the first three months. You’ll also get two miles per dollar spent on United purchases, and one mile per dollar spent elsewhere.
United perks: When flying United, you and everyone on your reservation will get priority boarding. You’ll also get a free checked bag for you and one companion on your itinerary, a benefit worth up to $100 per roundtrip flight.
To make things even more worth your while, the card throws in two United Club passes each year that you can use in the airline’s airport lounges. You’ll also pay no foreign transaction fees.
Spending bonus: With most credit cards, the only bonus you’ll receive is the sign-up bonus. With the Explorer card, however, you can get a 10,000-mile bonus annually when you spend at least $25,000 on the card. So, if you spend at least $2,083 per month, you’ll get a nice miles boost every year.
Annual fee not waived: Most travel credit cards waive their annual fee the first year, but the Explorer card’s $95 fee is due from the get-go. This drops the value of the sign-up bonus a bit when compared with other cards that don’t have a fee for the first year.
Limited flexibility: If you want to use your miles for anything other than flights, your options are extremely limited. On the bright side, United Airlines is part of the Star Alliance, so you can use your miles to book flights with other alliance members, including Air Canada, Lufthansa, and Singapore Airlines.Apply for the United MileagePlus Explorer Credit Card
BankAmericard Travel Rewards Credit Card: Best for no annual fee
The best of the best credit cards for travel rewards have big sign-up bonuses and annual fees. But if you’re fee-averse or you don’t spend a lot, the BankAmericard Travel Rewards Credit Card is a perfect fit.
High rewards rate: Many travel cards offer bonus rewards on certain purchases and a low rewards rate for everything else. But this one offers 1.5 points per dollar spent on everything. You’ll also get a 20,000-point sign-up bonus after you spend $1,000 in the first 90 days – that’s worth $200 in free travel.
What’s more, you can get up to 75 percent more points if you’re an existing Bank of America customer. That’s 10 percent if you have a Bank of America checking or savings account, and 25 percent to 75 percent as a Preferred Rewards client.
Flexible redemption: Like the Venture card, the BankAmericard Travel card lets you use your rewards on any travel purchase. Use the card to book travel, and you’ll have up to 12 months to use your points to get a statement credit. You’ll also pay no foreign transaction fees, so feel free to use it abroad.
Decent 0% APR promotion: If you need time to pay off a vacation or other large purchase, you’re in luck. The card offers a 0% APR promotion on purchases and balance transfers for 12 billing cycles.
While that isn’t necessarily long compared with other 0% APR cards, it’s a rare perk for credit cards with travel rewards.
Low sign-up bonus: A sign-up bonus worth $200 in travel is impressive for a card with no annual fee, but a higher bonus with another card could make up for its annual fee.
For example, take the Venture’s $400 sign-up bonus and $59 annual fee after the first year. The extra $200 essentially pays for the annual fee for a little more than three years – giving you four free years, since the fee is waived for the first year.
And depending on how much you spend, Venture’s higher rewards rate could also make up for the annual fee.
Poor cash redemption: If you want more than travel rewards, you may want to opt for a cash-back card instead. This one gives you half as much value for cash redemptions as for travel.Apply for the BankAmericard Travel Rewards Credit Card
As you’re considering the best credit cards for travel rewards, it’s important to understand that there’s no one best credit card for everyone.
Know what your travel goals and spending habits are, and don’t be afraid of an annual fee. In many cases, you can still get more value out of a card with an annual fee than one without one. Be sure to weigh the fee against the benefits to make sure it works for you.
Once you choose a card, make sure you research all of its benefits. Many travel credit cards offer perks that aren’t as evident as others. These can help make your next vacation a more pleasant experience overall.
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