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Author: Bankrate Staff | Last Updated: September 19, 2018
In this article:
- How we chose our favorite travel rewards cards
- Our favorite travel rewards credit cards
- What is a travel rewards credit card?
- Editor’s analysis on some of the best travel credit cards of 2018
- Who should get a travel rewards card?
- Types of travel rewards credit cards
- How to redeem your travel rewards points
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.
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 travelers, 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.
Our favorite travel rewards cards
|Card Name||Rewards Rate||Annual Fee|
|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||$95, waived the first year|
|Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®||2x miles for every $1 spent on eligible American Airlines purchases, 1x mile for every $1 spent on all other purchases||$99, waived for the first year|
|Wells Fargo Propel American Express® Card||3x points on eating out, ordering in, gas stations, rideshare spending, transit, travel (flights, hotels, homestays and car rentals). 1x points on everything else||$0|
|Discover it® Miles||Unlimited 1.5x miles per $1 spent||$0|
|Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card||1.25x miles on every purchase. Plus 10x miles on thousands of hotels at hotels.com/venture||$0|
|Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card||1.5 points per $1 spent||$0|
|Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express||3x points on flights booked directly with airlines. 2x points at US restaurants, US gas stations, and at US supermarkets. 1X points on everything else||$195, waived for the first year|
|Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®||2x AAdvantage miles for every $1 spent on eligible American Airlines purchases and 1x miles on everything else||$450|
|Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card||3 miles per $1 spent on the airline, 1x mile on everything else||$75|
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 — in the form of points or miles — typically ranging from 1 percent to 5 percent. Some travel rewards cards let you use the rewards to book travel through their own Website, which is 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.
There is a big range in the travel rewards credit card space with some great no annual fee cards and some of the most expensive annual fees in the credit card industry. The most premium of these cards can offer a ton of travel-centric extras like annual flight credit, hotel credit, insurances, lounge access, and bonuses or discounts. These cards are often designed for frequent travelers valuing luxuries (like upgrades and lounge access) and business travelers who clock a lot of miles.
The best travel rewards cards will offer generous rewards rates and flexible redemption. Blackout dates and restrictions on when and where you can use your points and miles can reduce the real value of the card for you. Make sure to check out how your points or miles are redeemed to ensure that they work best for your travel habits.
The good news is that there is so much choice. If you travel a lot already or want to start turning your everyday spending into flights, hotel stays, or road trips then there will be a travel rewards card that suits you. Make sure that the points and miles you earn can be redeemed in the way you want and make use of the bonus features that often come with travel credit cards.
Bankrate’s picks for 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- Earn 2 AAdvantage® miles for every $1 spent at gas stations
- Earn 2 AAdvantage® miles for every $1 spent at restaurants
- Earn 2 AAdvantage® miles for every $1 spent on eligible American Airlines purchases
Wells Fargo Propel American Express Card: Best for dining out and gas spending
If your paycheck regularly goes on travel expenses like fueling up your car and on dining out then this could be the car for you. With high rewards rates, the Wells Fargo Propel card offers valuable rewards incentives on both restaurant spending and ordering in. So if you like getting pizza delivered to your door more than sit-down dinners, you will still be richly rewarded with 3x points.
- Earn 30,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 in the first three months.
- Earn 3X points for eating out and ordering in, on gas station spending as well as for rideshares and transit.
- Earn 3X points for travel, which includes flights, hotels, homestays and car rentals.
- Earn 1X points on other purchases.
- There’s no annual fee with this card.
Discover it® Miles: Best for first-year bonus
With this card, you earn unlimited 1.5x miles on every dollar spent on all purchases, all for no annual fee. The best part? At the end of your first year, Discover will match all of the miles you have earned on your spending during the last 12 months. That means if you earn 40,000 miles at the end of your first year, you would get another 40,000 from Discover, that’s $800 towards travel. This card could help you fund your next flight or vacation stay.
- Unlimited 1.5x Miles on every dollar.
- Discover will match all the miles you earn in your first year automatically.
- No blackout dates – fly any airline, stay at any hotel.
- Redeem miles towards travel purchases.
Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card: Best for hotel stays
The Capital One VentureOne Rewards card is the little brother to the Capital One Venture card. It’s a great option for anyone looking for decent returns without paying an annual fee. Though the standard rewards rate isn’t the most competitive, you can earn 10x miles on bookings and purchases made through Hotels.com/Venture. If you hate the idea of paying an annual fee, and you often spend on hotel stays, this card is a good choice.
- 20,000-mile bonus ($200 in travel) after you spend $1,000 in the first three months.
- 1.25x miles on every dollar you spend with your VentureOne card.
- Flexible rewards, which means that miles can be redeemed for any hotel, airline, or car rental company (including travel discount sites).
- 10x points on purchases made with the card at Hotels.com/Venture.
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.
- 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.
Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express: Best for airline fee credit
If you fly frequently and want to earn maximum points then the Premier Rewards Gold Card is a great option. Despite the card’s steep annual fee ($195, waived for the first year), it offers the right user a lot of value. Its 3x Membership Rewards points per $1 spent on airfare (purchases made directly with the airlines), is hard to beat. On top of that, the card has a lot of travel-centric features like $100 incidental airline credit with an airline of your choosing, $75 hotel credit on qualifying charges when available with The Hotel Collection, and auto and luggage protections.
- $100 annual airline fee credit to cover incidentals.
- 25,000 rewards points after you spend $2,000 on purchases within the first 3 months.
- 3x points for flights booked directly with airlines. 2x points at U.S. restaurants, U.S. gas stations, and at U.S. supermarkets, and 1x points on other purchases.
Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®: Best for big spenders
For American Airlines loyalists who spend heavily on travel, this card offers plenty of value despite its sizable annual fee of $450. After you spend $40,000 on your card during the year you are eligible to receive an additional 10,000 AAdvantage® Elite Qualifying® miles. Additionally, regular flyers will grow their AAdvantage points quickly with 2x miles on every dollar spent with American Airlines and 1x miles on all other spending.
- Admirals Club® membership for you and access for guests traveling with you.
- 75,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles after spending $7,500 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening.
- 2x AAdvantage® miles for every $1 spent on eligible American Airlines purchases and 1x AAdvantage® mile for every $1 spent on other purchases.
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.
- 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.
Who should get a travel rewards card
It goes without saying but 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, like lounge access or status benefits. These cards can also be a boon for those who travel overseas. Good travel rewards cards offer no foreign transaction fees, a perk that can keep you from racking up extra charges every time you swipe your card abroad. Foreign transaction fees are charges levied by the credit card issuer for transactions you make outside the U.S. and are usually around 3%.
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 to earn bonuses or don’t pay off your balance each month, negating your rewards with interest payments.
Make sure to 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
There are many different types of travel rewards credit cards; from a co-branded airline or hotel card to luxury high-annual fee cards to basic travel rewards cards. No matter your spending level, if you’re looking for travel benefits there are plenty of options. Generally, travel rewards credit 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 hundreds of 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 rewards gas or transit spending.
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. Look at the amount of travel you plan to do and do the math on whether the additional perks that come with a high-annual fee card make sense 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.
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