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Author: Madison Blancaflor
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In this article:
Bankrate’s guide to the top travel credit cards of 2019
Both beginner travelers and seasoned road warriors can benefit from the rewards and perks that come with a travel credit card. If you play your cards right, you can easily use your points and miles to fund your next getaway.
What is a travel rewards card?
Travel rewards cards allow cardholders to earn points or miles on travel-related purchases. Typically, these cards also offer rewards for other purchase categories as well. Those rewards can then be redeemed for travel bookings, statement credits, gift cards or more.
Most travel cards also come with perks that help upgrade your travel experience. Trip insurance, annual travel credits, concierge services and lounge access are all common perks. Airline and hotel co-branded credit cards sometimes offer specific discounts and perks for loyalty customers.
The best travel rewards cards offer generous rewards across multiple spending categories, flexible redemption options and an array of ancillary benefits.
How do points work on travel credit cards?
Miles work the same way as credit card points. When you use miles to book travel directly through an airline or travel portal, the airline or issuer will assign a set number of award miles to each ticket. Some airlines have established award charts that give you insight into what each flight would cost in miles, but many have switched to a dynamic pricing model that bases award pricing on multiple factors, including seasonality and route popularity. When you are redeeming miles as a statement credit, they are assigned a monetary value (typically 1 cent per point, though that isn’t the case with all issuers). For example, Barclaycard values each Arrival Plus mile at 1 cent, which means its 70,000-mile sign-up bonus is worth $700 when you redeem as a statement credit for travel. Just remember you’ll have to hit the $5,000 in the first 90 days.
How we compare & review travel credit cards
Finding the right travel credit card can be complicated because there are so many different types of travel rewards cards to choose from. From points and miles to co-branded airline or hotel cards, we cut through the noise to give you the information you will need to make an informed choice. The travel cards industry is home to some of the most lucrative and expensive rewards cards. At Bankrate, we score each card out of 5 against our matrix, which was devised to take into account various card attributes, such as the card’s annual fee, rewards value, sign-up bonus, and any extras or discounts. However, everyone is unique: Just because a card has a lucrative welcome offer doesn’t mean it is the right card for your regular spending habits. Wherever possible, we have identified where we think a card will suit a particular type of spender or traveler. When looking at multiple travel credit cards to find the right one for you, there are three main factors you should consider:
- Rewards structure. You want a card that will allow you to earn the most rewards for your specific spending habits. If you spend a lot of money on dining and an array of travel purchases, the Chase Sapphire Preferred’s 2x points on dining and travel might be best for you. If you are a heavy spender on gas, the Citi Premier might make a better fit.
- Welcome bonus. Welcome bonuses are a large factor in determining the first-year value of a travel credit card. Take a look at the bonus, the minimum spend required and the redemption value of the bonus.
- Additional perks. Some cards offer an impressive lineup of trip insurances while others are more focused on luxury lounge access and airline credits. Know the type of traveler you are and which perks you will use the most.
Let’s look at two popular travel credits cards: The Capital One Venture and Amex Platinum. The Venture is a mid-tier card, and the Amex Platinum is a luxury card. Assuming you spend an average of $2,000 each month ($1,500 on regular expenses and $500 on travel), here is the value each card brings to the table when you also factor in welcome bonuses and any account credits.
||Approx. first-year value
||Approx. second-year value
|Capital One Venture
||$95, waived the first year
*Editor’s note: These valuations are calculated by the Bankrate staff and not the individual issuers. The first- and second-year value calculations do not factor in the annual fee or ancillary perks that do not have a set monetary value.
The Amex Platinum also gives you access to luxury hotel perks and exclusive lounge access — the values of both are hard to exactly quantify. While it’s obvious that the Amex Platinum offers more value on paper, you also have to consider the $550 annual fee. If you are using the card to book a considerable amount of travel through the Amex portal and taking full advantage of its luxury perks, the annual fee is definitely worth it. However, if you don’t travel a lot, the Capital One Venture (with its significantly lower annual fee) might be a better choice.
Comparison: Bankrate’s best travel rewards credit cards of 2019
|Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
||2x miles per every dollar spent
||$95, waived in the first year
|Chase Sapphire Preferred Card
||2x per $1 spent on dining and travel; 1x on everything else
|Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard®
||2X miles for every $1 spent on all purchases
||$89, waived the first year
|Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card
||1.25x miles on every purchase. Plus 10x miles on thousands of hotels at hotels.com/venture
|Discover it® Miles
||Unlimited 1.5x miles per $1 spent
|Wells Fargo Propel American Express® Card
||3x points on dining, gas, rideshares, transit and travel; 1x on everything else
|Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
|| 1.5 points per $1 spent
|American Express® Gold Card
||4X Membership Rewards points at U.S. restaurants. Earn 4X at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 in spend each year, then 1X)
|Citi PremierSM Card
|| 3X points on travel & gas, 2X points on restaurants & entertainment
||$95, waived for the first 12 months
|The Platinum Card® from American Express
||5X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel. 5X Membership Rewards points on prepaid hotels booked on amextravel.com.
Who should get a travel rewards credit card?
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be a jet setter to reap the benefits of a travel credit card — there is a travel credit card out there for every kind of traveler.
Simple yet flexible rewards are the name of the game for beginner travelers. If you’re just getting into points and miles, the last thing you need is a complicated rewards structure and redemption process. Cards like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® and the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card are great options. You’ll earn 2x miles on every purchase, and both cards come with a competitive sign-up bonus and waived annual fee the first year. If you’re just starting out, a luxury card might not be the best for your current situation. The Platinum® Card from American Express, for example, charges a hefty annual fee and only earns significant rewards on travel-related purchases.
Some people like to fly with the same airline whenever possible or stay at the same hotel brand wherever they go. If you are the same way, a brand-specific card will probably provide you with the best value. Most of the time, brand-specific cards have brand-related purchases as a bonus category and other perks for loyal customers. The Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card, for example, earns 3x miles on eligible Alaska Airlines purchases and offers a companion fare starting at $121 ($99 plus taxes and fees from $22) each year. While you’ll still get value out of a more general travel card, you can really maximize your rewards by sticking to a card that is brand-focused.
Some of the most valuable travel credit cards are actually business cards. Whether you are a freelancer who travels a lot to meet new clients or the CEO of a Fortune 500, the right travel credit card can help you reap the rewards of everyday business purchases while helping you keep your personal and business expenses organized. For example, The Hilton Honors American Express Business Card offers 12x points at Hilton hotels and resorts, 6x points on select travel and business purchases and 3x points on everything else. The card comes with a competitive welcome offer and a low annual fee. Plus, Hilton has an impressive partner list. You can earn points with your Hilton card and then transfer them to your favorite airline to redeem. In order to keep business and personal expenses separate, you should think twice before getting a consumer card to use for your business travel purchases. It makes it harder to organize your receipts during tax season.
If you’re interested in upgrading your travel experience, there are many great choices. The Chase Sapphire Reserve is a fan favorite, offering a well-rounded selection of perks and a 50% redemption bonus when you book award travel through the Chase portal. Another popular choice is The Platinum Card® from American Express, which comes with access to Centurion Lounges. While top-tier cards also come with higher annual fees, the costs are outweighed when you take full advantage of the trip insurance, travel credits and other perks. While the Capital One Venture and Chase Sapphire Preferred are both great all-around cards, they lack some of the luxury perks that come with the Chase Sapphire Reserve and Amex Platinum. If you’re really looking for a luxury travel experience, you need a top-tier travel card.
Summer travel can be hard on your wallet
Think a 2019 summer vacation is too far out of reach financially? You aren’t alone. In a recent study, we found that only 52% of Americans are definitely taking a vacation this year. Unsurprisingly, most people who aren’t planning a summer vacation cited affordability as the number one reason.
Specifically, day-to-day bills and paying down debt were the most common financial roadblocks to affording a getaway. Considering, Americans expect to spend an average of $1,979 on a summer vacation, it’s no wonder many are worried about a trip busting their budgets.
With the right travel cards in your wallet, you can help minimize the costs of your trip while you upgrade your overall experience.
Check out a deeper analysis of our 2019 Summer Vacation survey results here.
How to use your travel credit card during your 2019 summer vacation
A travel rewards credit card can help you mitigate the costs of summer travel while also upgrading your overall experience.
Simple rewards can be a game changer for busy families. Cards like the Capital One Venture that offer rewards on every purchase take the guesswork out of earning rewards. The sign-up bonus and Hotels.com partnership add even more value for families looking to cash in miles on this year’s vacation.
If you’re getting married this summer, the right credit card can help you fund an amazing honeymoon. If you’re planning a luxury vacation to celebrate your nuptials, a card like the Amex Platinum is a great choice. You’ll have access to exclusive lounges across the world (for some added privacy and relaxation during your layover), and booking your travel directly with airlines or through amextravel.com with the card can help you easily hit the minimum spend for the introductory bonus — all while earning 5x points.
Music festival road trip
The Citi Premier is one of the only credit cards that offers bonus points for travel (including gas), dining and entertainment purchases. Plus, the card comes with Citi Private Pass, which can help you score presale tickets and exclusive access to events. If you use this card for your 2019 music festival road trip, you can rack up enough points to pay for holiday travel or next year’s vacation.
Editor’s notes on our picks for the best travel credit cards
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
If you’re looking for a simple way to earn and redeem rewards, the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card is a great option. Because of Capital One’s partnership with Hotels.com, the Venture is an exceptionally great card if you prefer hotel accommodations over Airbnb and similar sites.
Partner this card with: The Capital One Savor Rewards Credit Card. Use the Savor for dining and entertainment purchases and the Venture for everything else. Use the cash back you earn from the Savor to cover travel expenses that your Venture rewards does not.
Read our full Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card review.
Chase Sapphire Preferred Card
This card is easily one of the best all-around travel cards on the market. The points you earn with the Sapphire Preferred are worth 25% more when you redeem for travel through the Chase portal. Plus, the card offers one of the most competitive sign-up bonuses.
Partner this card with: The Chase Freedom Unlimited. This is an all-star combination for beginner travelers, especially in the first year. You can earn 3% cash back on your first $20,000 spent with the Freedom Unlimited in the first year, then transfer those points to your Chase Sapphire Preferred for maximum value when you redeem. If you hit the minimum spend for the Sapphire Preferred and the $20,000 cap for the Chase Freedom Unlimited, you’ll earn 120,000 points (worth $1,500 when you redeem through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal).
Read our full Chase Sapphire Preferred review.
Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard®
The Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard isn’t quite as well-known as some of the others in this list, but it still offers a lot of value. With a strong sign-up bonus and possibly the most flexible redemption process, it’s a great card for beginners just getting into the travel rewards game.
Partner this card with: A co-branded card like the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless†. You’ll be able to rack up a lot of Marriott Bonvoy points on hotel stays and reap benefits like an annual night free (conditions apply) and automatic silver elite status. For airline and other purchases, use your Barclaycard Arrival Plus.
Read Bankrate’s full Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard review.
Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card
If you’re not a fan of annual fees, try out the Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card. You’ll be able to cash in on the Capital One partnership with Hotels.com, but you won’t have to pay the $95 annual fee that comes with the Venture. Partner this card with: The Capital One SavorOne Rewards Credit Card. This is essentially the same matchup as the Venture/Savor, but without the annual fees. You’ll still earn some impressive rewards, just not at the same rate. If you one day decide the annual fees are worth it, you can always call Capital One to request these cards be upgraded to their big sisters.
Read our full Capital One VentureOne Rewards card review.
Discover it® Miles
Another flat-rate card, the Discover it® Miles is a solid option for the no-frills traveler. This card comes with a great intro APR offer, and you’ll also earn 1.5x miles on every purchase. Discover matches all of the miles you earn at the end of your first year, which is a great first-year perk.
Partner this card with: The Discover it® Cash Back. The Discover it® Cash Back offers 5% cash back on rotating categories (on up to $1,500 in purchases each quarter, then 1%; enrollment required). You can maximize rewards across every purchase category when you pair these cards strategically.
Read our full Discover it Miles card review.
Wells Fargo Propel American Express® Card
If you’re looking for a way to maximize your earning potential across a wide range of spending categories, you should check out the Wells Fargo Propel. Bonus categories include all dining — whether you’re going out or ordering in — and all travel — including gas stations, rideshares, transit, flights, hotels, homestays and car rentals. Plus, this no-annual-fee card comes with a 30,000-point welcome bonus after you spend $3,000 within the first 3 months of account opening. Partner this card with: The Wells Fargo Visa Signature® Card†. With your Propel card, your points are worth 1 cent each pretty much no matter how you redeem them. However, you can pool your Go Far Rewards between Wells Fargo cards. The Wells Fargo Visa Signature Card allows cardholders to redeem points for airfare at a rate of 1.5 cents per point (if you book through the Wells Fargo portal). For two cards with no annual fee, this is an amazing value. Read our full Wells Fargo Propel card review.
Bank of America Travel Rewards credit card
Bank of America banking customers can earn some serious rewards with this card. If you’re a Preferred Rewards member, you can earn 25% to 75% more points — on top of the 1.5x base points you’ll earn with each purchase.
Partner this card with: The Bank of America® Cash Rewards credit card. You can choose one category to earn 3% cash back in, plus earn 2% at grocery stores and wholesale clubs (up to $2,500 in combined bonus rewards quarterly). You’ll earn the same Preferred Rewards bonus with both cards. Read our full Bank of America Travel Rewards credit card review.
American Express® Gold Card
One of the top luxury cards available, the American Express® Gold Card offers some great perks for frequent travelers. The card’s annual fee is lower than most luxury cards, and you still get a lot of value, including a strong rewards structure and benefits like up to a $100 airline fee credit.
Partner this card with: A co-branded luxury card like The Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant†. You can earn bonus rewards on travel purchases with your co-branded card (along with some sweet brand-specific perks like automatic elite status or exclusive discounts) while earning awesome rewards on everyday spending categories with your Amex Gold Card. Membership Rewards can be transferred to many loyalty programs, which is another reason to pair your Amex strategically with a co-branded card. Read our full American Express® Gold Card review.
Citi PremierSM Card
Citi’s mid-tier credit card in its ThankYou® Rewards lineup offers impressive rewards on travel (including gas stations), dining and entertainment. It’s rare to find a card that assigns bonus points to all four of those categories. If you’re willing to book your award travel through Citi’s portal, this card is definitely worth the $95 annual fee (waived for the first 12 months).
Partner this card with: The Citi Rewards+ Card. These two cards make a great matchup. You’ll earn 2x points at gas stations and supermarkets with the no-annual-fee Citi Rewards+ on up to $6,000 in purchases each year (then 1x). Plus, every time you earn points, they get rounded up to the nearest 10. Make sure to hit the minimum spend on your Premier first, and use it for all of your travel, gas, dining and entertainment purchases. The Citi Rewards+ is great for groceries and smaller purchases. Then, you can pool your points and maximize their value through the Premier’s travel portal. Read Bankrate’s full Citi Premier Card review.
The Platinum Card® from American Express
If you’re looking for a card to help you upgrade your travel experience, The Platinum Card® from American Express is an excellent choice. The card offers a generous rewards structure for frequent travelers, premium lounge access (including Centurion Lounges), up to a $200 airline fee credit, complimentary gold elite status with both Hilton and Marriott and many more luxury perks.
Partner this card with: The Blue BusinessSM Plus Credit Card from American Express. The Platinum Card’s high annual fee makes the no-annual-fee Blue Business Plus a great supplement option for business owners who travel often for work or fun. You’ll earn 2x points on your first $50,000 in business purchases each year, then 1x thereafter. Your Membership Rewards points automatically pool to one account (even if one is a business card and one is a personal card), so it’s easy to maximize your points with both of these cards. Read Bankrate’s full The Platinum Card® from American Express review.
†The information on the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless, the Wells Fargo Signature Visa, and the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant has been collected independently by Bankrate.com and has not been provided or reviewed by the respective card issuers.