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Author: Robin Saks Frankel | Last Updated: August 15, 2018

Author Spotlight: Robin Saks Frankel is a credit cards journalist with multiple years of experience in card reviews, breaking news, points guides and editorial advice. Robin has written content for Bankrate, Nerdwallet, and multiple other financial publications. You can find her on Twitter @robinsaks.


In this article:


How we chose our favorite travel rewards cards

Bankrate uses a proprietary scoring matrix devised by our experts to study 300 credit cards and award our unique Bankrate score. Each card is assessed to generate a final score out of 100. We have devised this method to cut through the fine print and help you find the card that’s right for you.

Scoring matrix

Our experts devised a scoring matrix to shine the light on the best travel rewards credit cards. Each card has been evaluated based on certain attributes: The annual fee, foreign transaction fees, rewards value, sign-up bonus, APR, and any extras or discounts. We then weight each category accordingly to give us the final score. For travel rewards credit cards we have focused more heavily on travel rewards, foreign transaction fees, the cards’ annual fee, and any other discounts or perks.

  • Travel rewards value – We know travel rewards are often the main motivation for travellers, we also know that rewards can get confusing. They can come in the form of cash, miles, or points. The Bankrate scoring method takes into account the type of reward, how you earn them, and how to make the most of them.
  • Foreign transaction fees – Many credit cards charge a foreign transaction fee, this is usually around 3% of every transaction you make while you’re abroad. A travel credit card should both help you get to your destination and make it easier for you once you are there. That’s why we make sure to assess the foreign transaction fees for our recommended travel cards to help you avoid the unwanted surprise extra charges.
  • Annual fee – A lot of credit cards charge an annual fee which gives the cardholder access to rewards and benefits. Many cards waive the fee for the first year. We assess the annual fee against the benefits to determine if the fee is worth it, how to best use the card to make back the expense of the annual fee, and what type of user would most benefit.
  • Extras and Discounts – Many travel rewards credit cards offer additional perks to cardholders. Advantages such as no checking fee for baggage and trip insurance are useful benefits for travelers. We make sure to take all these things into account.

Editor’s analysis: The best travel credit cards

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card: Best overall travel credit card

The Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card is a straightforward travel rewards credit card that can help you earn points toward your next trip without having to worry about categories or caps on earning. Factor in the modest annual fee that is waived in the first year, and the sign-up bonus valued at an estimated $500 in rewards, and you can see why this is Bankrate’s favorite travel credit cards.

Highlights:

  • Earn 50,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 within the first three months of card ownership.
  • Earn 2 miles per dollar with no caps or expiration dates.
  • Flexible rewards that can be redeemed on any airline, hotel, or rental car.

Editor’s take: This card easily takes the spot as our best overall travel rewards credit card because of its straightforward unlimited rewards, flexible redemptions – any airline, any hotel, any time – and no annual fee in the first year. The sign-up bonus is equivalent to $500 in travel when you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first three months – a generous reward for spending just $1,000 a month for the first three months, a target most credit card users won’t have any trouble reaching.

Read our full Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card review.

Bank of America Travel Rewards credit card: Best for no annual fee

If you’re looking for a no-fee card that pays decent and flexible travel rewards, you’ve found it. The Bank of America Travel Rewards credit card pays an unlimited 1.5 points for every $1 spent. Your rewards never expire and can be used on any flight or any hotel without any blackout dates or other restrictions.

Highlights:

  • Like any good travel rewards card, there are no foreign transaction fees on this card.
  • This card comes with an introductory APR on purchases for 12 billing cycles, after that, the regular variable APR is 16.74%-24.74%
  • For anyone who already has a banking relationship with Bank of America, the rewards on this card go from decent to outstanding. Customer bonuses range from a 10% increase in points to as high as a 75% reward increase based on the total of your qualifying accounts.

Editor’s take: This is a solid no annual fee travel rewards card. The 1.5x points for every $1 you spend on purchases is redeemable how and where you want as you are not limited to certain websites or date ranges. If you’re at a high-status level within Bank of America, you can really unlock the value of this card as you can boost those rewards 25%-75% which takes this card from good to great.

Read our full Bank of America Travel Rewards credit card review.

Chase Sapphire Preferred Card: Best for your first travel credit card

If you’re ready to take the plunge and apply for your first travel rewards card, look no further. The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card pays generous rewards of 2X the points on all dining and travel. Plus, Chase’s definition of travel includes expenses that other cards typically exclude like tolls, parking fees and ride-sharing costs.

Highlights:

  • One of the best perks of this card is that rewards points take on 25% more value when used to book travel through the Chase portal. So, if you have 50,000 points saved, they’re worth $625 when you use them to book travel this way.
  • The $95 annual fee is waived the first year, giving you 12 months to enjoy the card’s benefits for free.
  • This card comes with auto and travel insurances and protections.

Editor’s take: Chase Sapphire Preferred Card is ideal as a first-time travel rewards card due to its generous rewards, uncomplicated points structure (2x point on travel and dining, 1x rewards on everything else), and you can get 25% more value when you redeem travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards. The sign-up bonus of 50,000 bonus points (worth $625 if redeemed through Chase Ultimate Rewards) if you spend $4,000 within the first three months really sweetens the deal.

Read our full Chase Sapphire Preferred review.

Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card: Best for airline travel credit cards

Anyone who aspires to attain tourist status in multiple time zones can benefit from this card’s Famous Companion Fare offer. If you buy one round-trip coach ticket on Alaska Airlines you can get a second companion ticket for $99 plus taxes and fees which start at $22. This could save you hundreds, if not thousands off the price of a ticket. The offer is only available to holders of an Alaska Airlines credit card and it renews every year.

Highlights:

  • The card comes with an introductory offer where you earn 30,000 bonus miles after making $1,000 or more in purchases within the first 90 days of opening the account.
  • Get a free checked bag for you and up to six other passengers on the same reservation as you.
  • Earn 3 miles for every $1 spent directly on Alaska Airlines purchases.

Editor’s take: Alaska’s Famous Companion Fare™ Offer means you can buy one ticket and get one for just the taxes and fees. This makes the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature a very rewarding airline travel card that could save you hundreds of dollars every year. On the anniversary of opening your card each year, you get a companion fare; the card also gets you free checked bags for you and up to six other guests on the same reservation. If you’re often flying accompanied and on routes frequented by Alaska Airlines, this card is worth serious consideration.

Read our full Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card review.

Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®: Best for loyal AA travelers

The Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard is the middle tier of three consumer credit cards offered in partnership between Citi and American Airlines. It offers modest travel perks, a nice sign-up bonus and fairly standard everyday rewards.

Highlights:

  • Earn 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage bonus miles after spending $2,500 within the first three months of opening your account.
  • Earn 2 AAdvantage miles for every $1 spent on eligible AA purchases, while earning 1 miles per $1 spent on everything else.
  • Enjoy one free checked bag with every flight and priority boarding, along with other travel protections that come standard with many Citibank cards.

Editor’s take: American Airlines enthusiasts should be paying close attention because this could be the card for you. If you fly regularly with this airline this card offers some valuable perks and the sign-up bonus itself is worth a free domestic round-trip to many locations. Extras for frequent travelers include things like; a free checked bag on domestic flights, preferred boarding, 10% rebate on redeemed miles, and savings on in-flight food and beverage purchases. If you’re flying constantly or want more flexibility of how you spend your rewards, you might be better off looking elsewhere.

Read our full Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard review.

What is a travel rewards card?

A travel rewards card is a credit card where you earn rewards back on your spending that can be redeemed for travel expenses. So, similar to a cash-back card, you’ll earn a percentage back on your spending, typically ranging from 1 percent to 5 percent. Some travel rewards cards let you use the rewards to book travel through their own Website—sometimes called a portal. Other cards let you book your travel any way you like and then will issue a statement credit toward the cost of your purchase by using your rewards. Hotel and airline co-branded cards typically have you apply the points or miles earned as a redemption for free or reduced cost flights or nights.

Who should get a travel rewards card

Individuals who travel frequently for business or pleasure may benefit greatly from a travel card. Travelers can rack up frequent flier miles, discounts on car rentals and hotels, and receive other incentives when traveling. These cards can also be a boon for those who travel overseas. Some cards offer no foreign transaction fees, a perk that can keep you from racking up extra charges every time you swipe your card abroad. Airline and travel cards are typically offered to individuals with good to excellent credit. You may not qualify if your credit is subpar. If your credit standing isn’t great, you should work on improving your score first before applying for a travel rewards card.

These cards offer the ability to earn miles for everyday purchases. Some even offer bonus miles and perks on hotel stays, saving you cash every time you’re away from home. That’s a plus. But many airline credit cards come with annual fees, and some are high enough that they can put a dent in the overall rewards you receive. This is especially true if you aren’t spending enough in order to earn bonuses or don’t pay off your balance each month, negating your rewards with interest payments. If you pay your bill in full and on time, a travel rewards card can be a great way to save money and enjoy other benefits just for spending the way you normally would. Anyone who typically carries a balance will likely fare better with a low-interest credit card over a travel rewards card as the value of any rewards are far likely to be outweighed by the interest charges accrued on your debt.

Types of travel rewards cards

Generally, travel rewards cards fall into one of the following categories:

      • General purpose travel rewards cards. These cards earn flexible rewards that can be redeemed for multiple types of travel including airfare, hotels or rental cars. Some come with a low cost of ownership while others can cost hundreds of dollars but include plush perks and other extras.
      • Co-branded travel rewards cards. These are cards offered in conjunction with a specific hotel or airline brand and usually include an enhanced rewards rate and other brand-specific perks like free checked luggage or free room upgrades. Usually, the higher the annual fee for the card, the greater the “extras” that come with ownership.
      • Premium travel rewards cards. If a credit card charges you several hundred dollars in annual fees, it’s likely to come with high-end perks and benefits. Examples of these bonuses include premium airport lounge access, increased rewards earning potential, annual travel credits that can reduce the overall cost of owning the card. These cards are best for those who travel often and can take full advantage of the extras.

Which travel credit card is best for me?

Before choosing a travel rewards card consider your lifestyle. If you favor road tripping over globetrotting, you may prefer hotel rewards over airline ones. If you regularly commute for work, it might be best to choose a card that considers that travel and offers bonus rewards on spending in that area. You also need to take a look at your budget, as even though some of pricier cards sound enticing, if you aren’t going to take advantage of the accompanying perks, it may not be the best card for you. Finally, consider your travel goals and think about how a potential card’s earning power will help you attain that next trip.

If you’re torn between two cards that seem pretty similar, you may want to choose the one that offers a more valuable welcome bonus if you can meet the card’s minimum spending requirement. Some of the best travel rewards cards offer juicy introductory offers to lure you into applying. But, if there’s no value to you beyond that bonus, it may not be worth the cost of ownership over the long term.

How to redeem travel rewards

Each card has its own redemption program. Some issuers prefer that you book your rewards travel through their online Web portal, or by calling a rewards representative to book the travel for you. Other cards require you to book the travel first and then apply the redemption towards the cost of the trip as a statement credit. Still, other cards require enough rewards to pay for an entire trip while some let you use your rewards for partial payment.

Before applying for a travel rewards card, consider carefully the type of spender you are and how much travel you’re likely to do. If you rarely take a plane, a premium travel rewards airline card is likely not worth the high cost of ownership for you. But if you fly at least several times a year and typically with luggage, an airline card with a free checked baggage perk could save you hundreds of dollars a year.

In review: The best travel rewards cards

Card Name Rewards Rate Annual Fee
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card 2 miles per every dollar spent $95, waived in the first year
Bank of America Travel Rewards credit card 1.5 points per $1 spent $0
Chase Sapphire Preferred Card 2X per $1 spent on dining and travel; 1X on everything else $95, waived the first year
Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card 3 miles per $1 spent on the airline, 1 mile on everything else $75
Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard® 2 miles for every $1 spent on eligible American Airlines purchases, 1 mile for every $1 spent on all other purchases. $99, waived for the first year

* See the online application for details about terms and conditions for these offers. Every reasonable effort has been made to maintain accurate information. However all credit card information is presented without warranty. After you click on the offer you desire you will be directed to the credit card issuer's web site where you can review the terms and conditions for your selected offer.