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Travel credit cards come in a wide variety of types. For some, a no-fee card that offers rewards that can be redeemed towards travel is enough while others may find the value in shelling out hundreds of dollars for a premium travel card that comes with elite benefits and enhanced reward potential. If you pay your bill in full and on time every month, owning a travel credit card could save you lots of money when it comes time to book your next trip.

In this article:

Bankrate’s Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards
Editor’s Analysis: The best travel credit cards of 2018
What is a travel rewards credit card?
Who should get a travel rewards card?
Types of travel rewards credit cards
How to redeem your travel rewards points
Recap: Bankrate’s favorite travel rewards credit cards

Bankrate’s Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards:

How we chose our favorite travel rewards cards

We studied over 300 credit cards in our database, grading them on our proprietary Bankrate Score, to find our top travel rewards credit cards. We evaluate each card on metrics like APR, annual fee, late fee, foreign transaction fees, intro bonus, rewards, perks, and credit threshold. Travel rewards cards are weighted more heavily on rewards value, intro bonus, and annual fee, as well as additional travel perks.

Editor’s analysis: The best travel credit cards of 2018

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

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The Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card is a straightforward travel rewards credit card that can help you earn points towards 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 one of 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.

Bank of America Travel Rewards Credit Card: Best for no annual fee

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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.

Chase Sapphire Preferred: Best for your first travel credit card

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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.

Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Credit Card: Best for airline travel credit cards

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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.

The Platinum Card from American Express: Best for luxury travel

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If you’re the type who travels by air so often, you’re on a first name basis with airport security, you’ll probably love the perks and benefits that come with owning The Platinum Card from American Express. The first credit card aimed at status seekers, the Platinum Card has upped its premium offerings as other luxury travel cards have infiltrated the market. No other card offers as many high-end air travel perks as this one, which may help you justify the hefty price tag.

Highlights:

  • This card pays 5X Membership Rewards points for air travel booked directly with the airline or through American Express Travel. It also pays 5X the points for prepaid hotels stays booked through AmexTravel.com.
  • Access to premium airport lounge access including The Centurion Lounge, Delta Sky Club and Priority Pass Select.
  • Get a $200 airline incidental free credit every year and a fee credit every four years for a TSA PreCheck or Global Entry application.

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

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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 60,000 bonus American Airlines AAdvantage bonus miles after spending $3,000 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.

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

For anyone who travels fairly often and wants free trips, upgrades and other perks, or someone who wants to stockpile rewards to save up for a big trip, a travel rewards card can help you achieve those goals. The best travel rewards cards are usually aimed at those who have good to excellent credit. If your credit standing isn’t great, you should work on improving your score first before applying for a travel rewards card.

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 roadtripping 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 2X per $1 spent on dining and travel; 1X on everything else $89, waived the first year
Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Credit Card 3 miles per $1 spent on the airline, 1 mile on everything else $75
The Platinum Card from American Express 5X points on airlines and prepaid hotels booked directly through Amex; 1X on everything else (Terms Apply) $550
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 12 months

This editorial content is not provided or commissioned by any of the referenced financial institutions or companies. Opinions, analysis, reviews or recommendations expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any financial institutions or companies, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any such entity. All products or services are presented without warranty. Bankrate.com is an independent, advertising-supported publisher and comparison service. This post contains references to our partners, and Bankrate may be compensated in exchange for featured placement of certain sponsored products and services, or your clicking on certain links posted on this website.