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Do you spend your free time flying to exotic destinations? Maybe you’re a frequent road-tripper, driving from hotel to hotel across the country. However you like to vacation, travel-focused credit cards can help you earn free flights, hotel stays and other perks that can make your travels less expensive.
Travel credit cards allow you to earn either rewards points or airline miles whenever you make a purchase. The most lucrative of these travel cards often require high credit scores — but what if you don’t have a long credit history? What if you’re a recent college graduate who’s rarely used credit cards or someone who’s made most of their purchases with cash? Don’t worry. While you typically need a FICO credit score of 700 or better to qualify for a travel card, several solid cards are within reach for consumers with limited credit histories.
Here are Bankrate’s recommendations for travel cards that offer solid rewards programs even to consumers who haven’t yet built up years-long credit histories.
Comparing the top starter travel credit cards
|Best travel credit cards for beginners||Reward highlight||Welcome offer||Annual fee||APR||Bankrate score|
|Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card||5x on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, 3x on dining, 2x on all other travel purchases||60,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 in purchases within first 3 months||$95||21.49% – 28.49% variable||5.0|
|American Express® Green Card||3X Membership Rewards® points on restaurants, 3x points on travel, 1x points on other purchases||60,000 points when you spend $3,000 on purchases within 6 months of account opening||$150||21.24% – 29.24% variable||3.9|
|Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card||5x miles on hotels and car rentals booked through Capital One Travel, 1.25x miles on other purchases||20,000 miles after spending $500 within 3 months of account opening||$0||19.99% – 29.99% variable||4.7|
|Citi Premier® Card||3x points at restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations, hotels and air travel, 1x point on other purchases. Plus, for a limited time, earn a total of 10 ThankYou® Points per $1 spent on hotel, car rentals, and attractions (excluding air travel) booked on the Citi TravelSM portal (through June 30, 2024).||60,000 ThankYou® Points after spending $4,000 within the first 3 months of account opening||$95||21.24% – 29.24% variable||4.7|
A closer look at the best travel credit cards for consumers without a long credit history
If you’re hunting for a rewards credit card that earns miles or points, you have several options, even if you’re new to using credit cards. Here are four solid choices:
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card: Best for earning travel rewards quickly
The Chase Sapphire Preferred is one of the more valuable travel cards available thanks to its generous rewards program. You’ll earn 5X points on any travel purchases you make through the Chase Ultimate Rewards online portal and 2X points on all other travel purchases.
You’ll also earn 3X points on dining (including eligible delivery services), 3X points on online grocery purchases (except for those at Target, Walmart and wholesale clubs), 3X points on select streaming services and 1X points on all other purchases. Additionally, through March 2025, you’ll earn 5X points on Lyft Rides.
The Sapphire Preferred comes with a generous welcome offer, too; you’ll earn 60,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 on purchases within the first three months of opening your account. That equals $750 toward travel when you redeem these points through Chase Ultimate Rewards. In general, you can redeem your points for flights, hotel stays, gift cards, statement credits and more.
The downside? This card does charge an annual fee (though at $95 a year, you can easily generate enough rewards points to cover it). Also, because the Sapphire Preferred does come with such a generous rewards program, you’ll need a higher credit score to qualify for this card. If you already have a solid score and travel and eat out a lot, this can be a lucrative rewards card for your wallet.
American Express® Green Card: Best for frequent traveling and dining out
With the American Express Green Card, you’ll earn 3X points on travel purchases (including airfare, hotels, ride-share services and tours), 3X points on transit purchases (including bus rides, ferries, subways and trains), 3X points at restaurants worldwide and 1X points on all other purchases.
For a welcome offer, the Amex Green Card gets you 60,000 Membership Rewards points when you spend $3,000 on purchases during your first six months of account opening.
The Green Card isn’t the most exclusive of American Express credit cards, though you will need a solid credit score — a FICO score of 700 or better, for example — to qualify. Fortunately, even consumers with shorter credit histories should be able to generate a credit score of 700 or higher.
On the negative side of things, this card comes with a higher annual fee of $150. Again, though, if you spend enough on travel and dining out during the year, the points you earn will more than cover this fee.
Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card: Best for no annual fee
The Capital One VentureOne Rewards card (Offer not available) is one of the more straightforward rewards cards available. You’ll earn 1.25X miles on all purchases and 5X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel. You can redeem your miles for flights and hotels and even transfer them to one of Capital One’s 19 transfer partners.
This card does not charge an annual fee — a nice perk for beginners on a budget — and you can earn a welcome offer of 20,000 bonus miles when you spend $500 on purchases within the first three months of opening your account.
Lastly, the VentureOne card offers an introductory 0 percent APR on any purchases and balance transfers you make during the first 15 months (followed by a variable APR of 19.99 percent to 29.99 percent) — meaning you have a full year to pay off any purchases before incurring interest charges.
Citi Premier® Card: Best for varied spending
With the Citi Premier Card, you can earn ThankYou points on a wide variety of purchases. You’ll earn 3X points on gas station, air travel and hotel purchases (making this a lucrative card if you travel often) as well as 3X points on restaurant and supermarket purchases. Plus, for a limited time, earn a total of 10 ThankYou® Points per $1 spent on hotel, car rentals, and attractions (excluding air travel) booked on the Citi TravelSM portal (through June 30, 2024). All other purchases earn 1X points. You can redeem your points for everything from travel to cash back to gift cards and more.
Additionally, the Citi Premier card offers a generous welcome bonus of 60,000 ThankYou points when you spend $4,000 in purchases during the first three months of account opening. Keep in mind this card does charge an annual fee of $95.
Is a travel card right for you?
Before you apply for a travel rewards card, consider the following to determine if it’s the right fit for you.
Is the annual fee worth it?
The challenge with travel cards is that the most lucrative ones usually charge annual fees that can range from $95 to $150 or more a year. You’ll have to determine whether you travel enough or spend enough to make paying this fee worthwhile.
Say your card charges an annual fee of $95 and you can earn 3X rewards points for every dollar you spend on travel purchases and dining out. If every 100 rewards points equal $1.25 in redemption value, earning 10,000 rewards points in a year would equal $125 — more than covering your annual fee. To earn those 10,000 rewards points, you’d need to spend about $3,334 in dining and travel purchases during the year.
Of course, the more you spend on those purchases, the more you’d earn. If you spend $6,000 on dining out and travel using the same card outlined above, you’d earn 18,000 rewards points from those purchases. That would come out to a redemption value of $225. And that doesn’t cover any additional points you’d earn from other purchases. Some travel rewards cards offer lower rewards points for every dollar you spend on non-travel purchases, and those dollars can add up to solid rewards points, too.
Overall, you’ll need to determine if you spend enough each year on travel or other points-generating categories to easily cover your annual fee and generate enough points to earn miles or hotel stays.
Qualifying for a travel rewards card
If you have no credit history or you’re concerned about your current FICO score, you might consider applying for a secured credit card before searching for a travel rewards card. This type of card works like a traditional credit card, but the credit limit is based on the amount of your initial security deposit.
Qualifying for secured credit cards is easier versus a traditional credit card, even without a credit history. Once you make on-time payments over several months, you build your history and possibly increase your score, which means eventually you can apply for a traditional travel rewards card. Eventually, you can apply for a traditional credit card, including those with travel rewards.
How to choose a starter travel credit card
There are several factors to consider when you are ready to pick a travel credit card. Here are some of the most important.
Points vs. miles
Some travel cards earn free miles while others generate points that you can turn into free miles or use for other rewards, such as free hotel stays, gift cards or cash back. Looking at how you travel will help determine which type of card is best for you:
- If you are a frequent flyer, a card that earns miles might be the best choice.
- If you often travel by car, take cruises or enjoy cross-country train trips, you might do better with the flexibility offered by a card that earns points.
- If you want the ability to spend your rewards on anything you’d like, a card that generates points rather than airline miles is probably the better choice.
General travel or airline-specific card
Several airlines offer their own co-branded credit cards. These cards earn miles, but only for a specific airline (though some will let you transfer miles to partner airlines). If you always travel on one specific airline, an airline credit card is a smart choice. But if you prefer to hunt for the lowest airfare and aren’t committed to flying one specific brand, it may make more sense to look for a general travel card. These cards allow you to turn your rewards into miles that you can use with a variety of airlines.
When choosing a travel rewards card, it’s important to look not only at the miles or points it generates, but also at the perks it provides. Some cards give you a credit for TSA PreCheck, so you won’t have to pay any fee to skip the long security lines at airports. Others offer free access to airport lounges around the globe or let you check bags at no cost. And if you plan on working during your flight? Some rewards cards will pay for any WiFi connection fees while you’re flying. These perks can provide a lot of value if you are a frequent traveler.
The bottom line
Traveling is expensive, but a travel rewards credit card can help you reduce or, if you spend enough, eliminate expenses, from the cost of your flight to your hotel stay. The key is finding the rewards card that earns you the most, depending on your spending habits. Fortunately, there are plenty of choices available, even for applicants who don’t have the longest credit history.