5 Best Travel Reward Credit Cards
There are few things as alluring as the promise of free travel to exotic destinations. The banks know this, and have long offered travel rewards to their customers for receiving and using their credit cards. In turn, savvy credit card users have learned how to exploit these offers to travel in comfort and style well beyond their means. (See also: 6 Ways My Family Scores Free Travel With Credit Cards)
Recently, I was explaining this to an European executive sitting next to me in Lufthansa’s Airbus A380 business class while returning home from a vacation in Italy. I told him that my family and I could not possibly have paid for our three, $7,000 tickets for this flight. But thanks to my travel rewards credit cards, my journey was all but free after some taxes and fees. Through careful selection and use of these product, these kinds of trips have become an annual occurrence for our family. While there are innumerable ideas, tips, and tricks to be gleaned from endless hours research, my mission is to do the work for you and deliver only the most valuable advice to busy people who lack the time and patience to discover and decipher these deals.
Choosing The Five Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards
It would be nice to pick the best travel reward cards in a purely empirical manner, the way one would choose a card with the lowest interest rate. Unfortunately, each travel rewards card offers a unique mix of benefits and drawbacks, and rarely is one card ideally suited for everyone's travel aspirations. I have read thousands of blog and forum posts, written hundreds of credit card reviews, and personally held dozens of different travel rewards cards over the last twenty years. In the end, I judge these cards based on three criteria:
- Value –What is the most return you can expect from a credit card, in cents per dollar spent.
- Flexibility – Since everyone hates earning miles that they can’t redeem, how can cardholders redeem awards for travel services from multiple providers.
- Costs And Fees – A top travel rewards card should have reasonable fees that are more than justified by its rewards and benefits.
Of all the travel rewards cards currently offered, these are the five I find most rewarding:
Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express
If I had to choose only one travel rewards card, I would pick this one without hesitation. Hardcore travel hackers and newbies alike love this card as it combines exceptional hotel rewards with unparalleled options to transferring points to airline miles with 30 different carriers.
Here are the updated offer details:
- Starpoints® bonus: earn up to 25,000 bonus points: 10,000 after your first purchase and another 15,000 after you spend $5,000 within the first 6 months of Cardmembership
- That’s enough for a weekend getaway to a Category 4 Hotel like the Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa, or six free nights at a Category 2 Hotel
- Earn up to 5 Starpoints® for each dollar of eligible purchases at participating SPG hotels and resorts – that’s 2 Starpoints for using the Card in addition to the Starpoints you earn as an SPG member. Earn 1 Starpoint for all other purchases.
- Free Hotel Nights: redeem Starpoints at over 1,100 hotels in nearly 100 countries worldwide — with no blackout dates
- Free Flights: redeem Starpoints on over 350 airlines with SPG Flights — with no blackout dates
- Get 5,000 bonus Starpoints after you transfer 20,000 Starpoints to a frequent flyer program with more than 30 airlines
- No limits on the number of Starpoints you can earn
- $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $65
- Terms and Restrictions apply
The Platinum Card® from American Express
This card is a must if you are one of the lucky few who enjoy frequent international travel. The Platinum card offers a list of features as long as the options on a high end luxury car. Perhaps that is why Mercedes-Benz just announced a co-branded version of this popular card.
Here are the latest offer details:
- Earn 25K Membership Rewards® points when you spend $2,000 during your first three months of Card membership
- Premium travel benefits: access over 600 lounges worldwide when you enroll in Priority Pass(TM)Select, no foreign transaction fees
- Receive up to $200 annually in a statement credit with the airline of your choice to use towards baggage fees, flight-change fees, in-flight food and beverage purchases and more
- Entertainment benefits: get Advance Tickets before the public and access once in a lifetime events with By Invitation Only®
- 24/7 Platinum Card® Concierge service for assistance with reservations, travel, gifts, and more
- Terms and restrictions apply.
Capital One® VentureSM Rewards Credit Card
This innovative card offers two “miles” per dollar spent on all purchases. Capital One’s miles can then be redeemed for one cent each as statement credits against any travel related expense such as airfare, hotel, and rental car charges.
- 2 miles per dollar on every purchase, every day
- As seen in Money® Magazine’s “Best” issue three years in a row. - Money® Magazine May 2010, 2011, 2012
- Earn 10,000 bonus miles when you spend $1,000 on purchases within the first 3 months, equal to $100 in travel
- Redeem your miles for any travel expense
- No limit on the miles you can earn and miles don’t expire
- Fly on any airline, any time with no blackout dates
- No foreign transaction fees
- $0 intro annual fee for the first year; $59 after that
Sapphire Preferred from Chase
Cardholders earn on point for most purchases, with double points for all dining and airfare transactions, and triple points for travel booked through Chase’s site. Points are then worth one cent each, or 1.25 cents for travel booked at their site.
- 40,000 bonus points after you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months- that's $500 toward travel rewards!
- 2 points per dollar spent on travel and dining at restaurants & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases
- Get 20% off airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises when you redeem through Ultimate RewardsSM
- No foreign transaction fees
- Receive a 7% Annual Points Dividend on all new points earned on purchases - even on points already redeemed
- 1:1 point transfer to leading frequent travel programs - that means 1,000 Ultimate Rewards points equal 1,000 partner miles/points
- Direct access to expert service advisors anytime
- Introductory Annual Fee of $0 the first year, then $95
Sorry, this offer is currently unavailable
PenFed Premium Travel Rewards American Express Card
PenFed is the Pentagon Federal credit union, but anyone can join if they are not already eligible. Like all of their products, this card offers maximum benefits with few hassles or fees.
- Earn one point per dollar spent on most purchases, with five points per dollar spent on airfare.
- Points are worth 1 cent each when redeemed for gift cards, but 1.6 cents towards airfare purchases.
- Use this card to purchase airfare and you can earn eight cents per dollar spent (5 points x 1.6 cents per point) towards future airfare purchases.
- 20,000 points available as a sign up bonus; worth $320 towards an airfare purchase.
- No annual fee and no foreign transaction fees.
No discussion of rewards credit cards is complete without the warning that these products are only best for those who always pay their balances in full and never incur interest. Everyone else should use the card with the lowest APR. That said, if you do pay your balance off every month, and you love to travel, then you have much to gain by applying for and using one of these top travel rewards cards. Join me in the exciting world of those who regularly travel for free.
My wife and daughter on one of our trips earned through travel rewards cards: