5 Best Travel Reward Credit Cards

By Jason Steele. Last updated 9 July 2014. 27 comments

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 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 rewards, 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 of 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 5 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: The return in cents per dollar spent
  • Flexibility: Cards that offer the most opportunities for redemptions -- no blackout dates, a variety of partners, etc.
  • Costs And Fees: If fees are justified by its rewards and benefits

Of all the travel rewards cards currently offered, these are the 5 I find most rewarding.

Barclaycard Arrival™ World Mastercard®

A new card that offers a big sign up bonus, plus double miles on travel and dining purchases. Also get 10% miles back when redeeming travel statement credits.

  • Sign up offer: 20,000 bonus miles after spending $1,000 in the first 3 months -- enough for a $200 travel statement credit
  • Sign up offer: 0% introductory APR for the first 12 months
  • 2x miles on travel & dining, 1x miles on all other purchases
  • Complimentary FICO Score
  • Fly any airline, any time, no blackout dates or seat restrictions
  • Redeem for all types of travel -- flights, hotels, resorts, cruises, trains & car rentals
  • Get 10% miles back on travel statement credits
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • Complimentary TripIt Pro subscription ($49 annual value)
  • No annual fee

Click here to apply for the Barclaycard Arrival™ World Mastercard®

*Note: Barclay also offers an Arrival Plus™ World Elite Mastercard® with a $89 annual fee (waived the first year) that gives 40,000 bonus miles and 2x miles on all purchases.

Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card

This innovative card offers two miles per dollar spent on all purchases, plus it's got an attractive bonus offer right now.

  • Enjoy a one-time bonus of 40,000 miles once you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first 3 months, equal to $400 in travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on every purchase, every day
  • Fly any airline, stay at any hotel, anytime
  • Travel when you want - no blackout dates
  • Miles don't expire
  • No limit to the miles you can earn
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • No annual fee for the first year; $59 after that

Click here to apply for the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card

Citi® Platinum Select® / AAdvantage® World MasterCard®

This card from Citi comes with great perks for travelers.

  • Sign up offer: 30,000 bonus miles after spending $1,000 in purchases in the first 3 months
  • First eligible bag checked free for you and up to 4 travel companions
  • Group 1 Boarding
  • $100 American Airlines Flight Discount each year of cardmembership after spending $30,000 or more in purchases
  • Earn 10% of your redeemed AAdvantage® miles back — up to 10,000 AAdvantage® miles each calendar year.
  • 2x miles on American Airline purchases, 1x miles on all other purchases
  • 25% off in-flight food and beverage purchases
  • No annual fee the first year; $95 after that

Click here to apply for the Citi® Platinum Select® / AAdvantage® World MasterCard®

Citi® Hilton HHonors™ Visa Signature® Card

This card from Citi comes with great perks for travelers.

No travel rewards list is complete without a strong hotel card.

  • Sign up offer: 40,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 within the first 4 months
  • 6 HHonors Bonus Points per $1 spent on hotel stays within Hilton HHonors portfolio
  • 3 HHonors Bonus Points per $1 spent at supermarkets, drugstores & gas stations
  • 2 HHonors Bonus Points per $1 spent on other purchases
  • HHonors Silver status with fast-track to HHonors Gold status after 4 stays within your first 90 days of cardmembership
  • No annual fee

Click here to apply for the Citi® Hilton HHonors™ Visa Signature® Card

Chase Sapphire Preferred®

Cardholders earn double points for all dining and travel transactions, and get 20% off travel booked through Chase’s site. Points are then worth one cent each, or 1.25 cents for travel booked through their site.

  • Sign up offer: 40,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months - that's $500 toward travel rewards!
  • 2x points on travel and dining, 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases
  • 20% off airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises when redeemed through Ultimate Rewards site
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading frequent travel programs - that means 1,000 Ultimate Rewards points equal 1,000 partner miles/points
  • No annual fee the first year; $95 after that

Conclusions

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:

Back to the Credit Card Guide

 

4.363635
Average: 4.4 (22 votes)
Your rating: None
ShareThis

comments

27 discussions

Add New Comment

CAPTCHA
This test helps prevent automated spam submissions.
Guest's picture
Debra

Jason, I have read your last two posts on free travel. You have given me just what I was looking for here, what card to get to further this need or want to travel more. I seem to be having a hard time applying for any credit card. I have one. After years of paying them off and going through the experience of ID theft, it is hard for me to take the first step to getting another. My credit is very good, but I was told using a card would improve it. I am now looking at purchasing two tickets from Miami to Minneapolis and can hardly believe the price. So, you suggest the Starwood guest card from AE if it is only one card a person wants to start with? I do not make large purchases, so I'm wondering just how long it would take to make it worth while to purchase a card to receive the benefits of one?

Alex Lam's picture

I'd never heard of the PenFed Amex or the PenFed credit union, and that bonus is going to be easy to earn. I also like that it has no annual fee. Thanks for another useful article.

Guest's picture
Guest

PENFED is the worst card I have ever had. Poor service. Very inflexible. Flight availability is very poor. Must use the PENFED Travel Rewards site to sked flights no alternatives to having points deducted after paying with the card. We have cancelled our card - PENFED service reps are not connected to the card reps so no help from either! Not sure why WiseBread would rate them so highly.

Guest's picture

Very good article and I agree with all of the choices listed. For those who are brand loyal I also think that the new Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card is going to be on this list soon due to the fact that it comes with an EMV chip and also charges no foreign transaction fees. The weekend night certificate bonus is also a pretty good deal, but again you need to be fairly brand loyal.

Guest's picture

I like the Amex card that has the $320.00 promo towards airfare. I actually have this card and would highly recommend it.

Guest's picture
Guest

I am an American living in the UK with my British husband. We travel internationally (to California) at least once a year. Which card is the best fit for a family in that situation? We can not afford the AmEx yearly fee....

Guest's picture

Your family is adorable Jason! I've been reluctant to try out travel cards. It just seems like cash back cards are easier to figure out. But after this tutorial who knows -- I might give it a try. Do you have any suggestions for the best card for absolute beginners who don't know how to calculate miles?

Guest's picture
Guest

One card you missed is the Citibank Advantage Visa; my personal favorite, so yes, I'm biased.

Points are earned based on the card level, but the Gold is 1 point for each dollar spent on anything. It is tied to American, so awards are limited to American and their partners. In my opinion, this is overcome by the lowest point level required by any other program to earn flights; 12,500 miles for one way or 25,000 round trip. I just flew from Key West to SFO round trip for 25,000 miles and I doubt you will get a better deal from any other carrier.

Bottom line, if you are looking for a card mostly for making your air travel affordable, and American flies where you want to go, this card is tough to beat.

Guest's picture
Guest

This is a good point that almost every article forgets to mention. While it is nice that these cards give you basically cash back to redeem on flights, their value is much less than an airline card. For example, I just used 40,000 points to book a round trip flight to Hawaii on United. The cost of the flight was $900 but it only cost me 40,000 points. If I had one of these cards that was not an airline card, I would have only received $400 off that $900 flight. Not really a great deal.

Guest's picture

I love earning amazing travel rewards from credit cards. The rewards from using the cards can be good, but the perks for opening the cards can be amazing. Sometimes you have to spend a certain amount of money in the first 3 months or so to qualify for these perks.

Guest's picture

I like your analysis about the value being about where you can expect the most return from a credit card, in cents per dollar spent. I would have to say that flexibility is the most important feature to me when I am looking at credit cards for the reason that you have identified which is that I hate earning miles that I can’t redeem. Costs are also important to me but not as important as the other two. I personally prefer the Captial One Credit Card because of its links to the other features of the Capital One Range.

Guest's picture
Guest

Hi,

Is the 20,000 sign up bonus for PenFed still available?

Guest's picture
Robert

I just came across a new rewards credit cards called Dynamics ePlate rewards card. This claims to allow consumers to earn rewards faster than any other 1% credit card in the world. They are giving out some innovative rewards such as the one from Jet Limo, where you can earn a private jet seat after spending only $1,250 on your everyday purchases.
Also there are 100% travel rewards from Henry Cookson. For every $1 you spend on any purchase you earn $1 discount towards an African Safari. You might want to have a look at this card. Is there anyone who is using this card? Need a feedback.

Guest's picture
J.P.

Nice post Jason. I shared it as a tweet. The best line in here is that none of these benefits are worth it if you don't pay them off! We wrote an article similar to that at WeekDayDreamer.com regarding sticking to the travel budget you set...which can be hard! Happy travels!

Guest's picture
Guest

Thank you for your great input, Jason! How does Starwood Preferred Guest compare to American Express Blue Sky card?

Guest's picture
Alex

Great job here with some excellent suggestions! For me, the American Express card, with all of it's stay power. has always been the way to go in terms of unsecured credit cards. Over the years, I have literally saved thousands of dollars through their many discounts and promotions. A grade A lender in my opinion! Thanks. Here is some good related information http://blog.mycreditlocker.com/credit-improvement-to-get-unsecured-credi...

Guest's picture

The Sapphire card is unavailable now? Rats! ;-)

Guest's picture

I "prefer" the Starwood Preferred Guest card for its flexibility in transferring points to airline programs at a value of (1.25 cents per point if transferring 20,000 SPG points at a time).

I also like the PenFed card for the 8% rewards on airfare. Tough to beat that.

Guest's picture
WTM

I would definately not put the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card in the top 5 travel rewards credit cards! As pointed out above by TBB, the Chase Sapphire preferred card is definately available, just do a little google search.

Guest's picture
Jerome

Hi Jason,
Being a french citizen, living in French Polynesia, which credit card can I apply for to score free travel ? Flying out of Tahiti is very expensive !
I look forward to your answer.

Guest's picture
FormerAmexUser

I was glad to learn of PenFed, but I note that American Express is behind most of these cards. I used to swear by American Express, but they have become the worst value in credit cards over the past 2.5-3 years. I have gotten rid of all of my American Express branded cards, except my Delta card and that's going soon as I can get situated with another card. American Express cannot be trusted. HOPE YOUR MILEAGE VARIES!

Guest's picture
Guest

How can you honestly quote 4 of the top 5 travel cards as Amex and Mastercard based credit cards? I have been to so many countries where anything other than visa is just a piece of plastic. To me there is only one credit card on this list. Try using an American Express outside of a handfull of countries and you are sh*t out of luck. Guys, I was hoping this website would be more helpful, but once you leave the US, these cards are no good.

Guest's picture

I prefer the Barclay Arrival to the Venture card, it earns at 2%, but you get a 10% rebate when redeeming for travel. It has a slightly higher annual fee ($89) but it also comes with an extra 20,000 miles as a sign up bonus so in the end it comes out ahead - at least for the first 5-6 years.

Guest's picture

I absolutely love my Capital One venture card. 2 miles per dollar spent really helps me earn miles much faster. The Capital One rewards program is one of the best too. I recommend redeeming the miles for gift cards such as Amazon or other retail stores where you shop often because gift cards give the maximum value for your miles.

Guest's picture
Tara

Great card suggestions. I have the Amex Starwood and it's is THE nest reward program that I know of. The points have so much flexibility and SPG has the most flexible program available.

Guest's picture
Guest

I checked this out, and Starpoints may be great if you're based in the U.S. The card is also available to those of us in the U.K., but instead of earning one point per dollar spent, you're only getting one point per POUND spent, which is 1.8 to 1.9 dollars. So basically you're only getting roughly half the benefit. To purchase a ticket this summer on StarPoints London-Vancouver, it will cost 155,000 points if I purchased today. That requires 155,000 GBP of spending, or CAD$285,000 to earn. On my existing Air Canada Aeroplan card from Canada (I recently emigrated to the UK) that spending would have earned me 285,000 Aeroplan points, enough for 4.5 round trip tickets to Europe!! The only caveat being that those tickets are almost never available unless I book them 10-11 months in advance as soon as the seats are released. So my choices are suffer endlessly through lack of seat availability, or pay through the nose for them. There is, unfortunately, no great answer from where I sit. But thank you for the well-written article. Certainly provides a good jumping off point for individual research based on personal preferences (as you mentioned).

Guest's picture
Guest

Capital One will NOT honor the online offer! I signed up for 2X rewards and they then noticed that they are only giving me 1.2 per mile!!!!
WTF! They are a bunch of CROOKS-- I called them, and after talking with THREE different people, they said that all I could do was sign up for another card! My answer: WTF, Why would I do that when you cheated me the first time!