5 Best Travel Reward Credit Cards

By Jason Steele. Last updated 1 May 2015. 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 maximize their rewards to travel in comfort and style well beyond their means. (See also: How Travel Rewards Credit Cards Really Work)

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 my 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. (See also: Cash Back vs Travel Rewards: Pick the Right Card for you)

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 ones I find most rewarding.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Chase Sapphire Preferred® cardholders are able to transfer their points to Chase travel partners at full value - 1,000 Chase points equal 1,000 partner miles/points. For most cards, some value gets lost during the transfer. Or get 20% off travel booked through Chase's site. Get double points for dining and travel transactions (1 point per $1 on other purchases). There are no foreign transaction fees, and the card is equipped with the Chip and Signature technology for enhanced security when using abroad. The annual fee of $95 is waived for the first year. 

Sign up offer: Earn 40,000 bonus points when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $500 in travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards. Earn 5,000 bonus points after you add the first authorized user and make a purchase in the first 3 months from account opening.

Click here to apply for the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Credit Card today!

Discover it® Miles

A new travel rewards card from Discover which offers good rewards and flexibility in redemption. With Discover it® Miles, you earn 1.5x miles on every dollar spent on purchases. At the end of your first year, you'll get a huge bonus -- Discover will double all the miles you've earned. Essentially, that's 3x miles on all purchases for a whole year! 

Miles can then be redeemed for statement credit on travel expenses, or deposited as cash into an account you designate. Unlike other travel rewards cards, you can book and travel whenever and with whoever you like, and use Miles to pay for those expenses. You're not limited to a specific airline or hotel, and you don't have to deal with blackout dates and limited award seats. Plus, by paying for your travel first, you earn miles even when redeeming rewards!

An additional benefit is you can get up to $30 a year of in-flight Wi-Fi fees credited back to your account. You'll also get a free FICO Credit Score on our monthly statements, to keep track of your credit. There are no foreign transaction fees, and there is no annual fee.

Click here to apply for the Discover it® Miles today!

Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express

Don't mistake the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card for simply a co-branded hotel credit card. The great thing about this card that earns you Starwood Points is that you can not only redeem them for hotel stays, but transfer them to airline programs for flight awards through American Express Membership Rewards. You also get discounted travel if you purchase or redeem tarvel through their travel portal. Earn up to 5 points on purchases charged directly with SPG hotels and resorts, and 1 point for all other purchases. Terms and limitations apply. The annual fee is $0 for the first year, then $65.

Sign up offer: Earn 10,000 Starpoints after your first purchase on the Card and an additional 15,000 Starpoints after you use your new Card to make $5,000 in purchases within the first 6 months. Terms and Restrictions apply.

Click here to apply for the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card today!

Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card

The Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card is a simple travel rewards card that offers two miles per dollar spent on all purchases. Earn unlimited miles and redeem them for statement credit on travel purchases, allowing you to choose any airline or hotel, and earn miles on your travel rewards. There is no annual fee for the first year. It's $59 thereafter.

Sign up offer: Get 40,000 miles once you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first 3 months, equal to $400 in travel.

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

AT&T Access More Card from Citi

A new card from Citi, the AT&T Access More MasterCard allows you to earn 3x points on purchases made at retail and travel websites, as well as products and services directly purchased from AT&T. Get 1x point for every $1 spent on other purchases. ThankYou points can be redeemed for merchandise, gift cards, travel, or cash. Cardmembers will also receive 10,000 anniversary bonus points after spending $10,000 in the prior year. There is a $95 annual fee.

Sign up offer: A new phone! Spend $2,000 in purchases within the first 3 months, make your phone purchase (from AT&T) using your unique phone offer link and charge it on your card, activate and maintain service with AT&T for 15 days, Citi will then credit your card for the cost of the phone (up to $650). 

Click here to apply for the AT&T Access More Card from Citi today!

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

Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any bank, card issuer, airline or hotel chain.

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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
Credit Card Rewards Geek

PenFed? I didn't see any mention of that in the article. Did I miss something?

Guest's picture
Guest

I didn't see it mentioned above but found the PenFed Premium Travel Rewards card that pays you 5 points per $1 on airfare purchases, which is pretty nice.

It looks like the points are worth less that a penny though. The reward calculator at CreditCardTuneUp. com will calculate the value you'd get from this card for your spending as compared to other cards.

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?

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
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
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

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!

Guest's picture
Robert

I've been using the Barclay arrival MasterCard for about 12 months and really like it. You get 2 points for every $1 (and they round up so $20.55 is 42 miles) you spend. So it's not just travel and dining, but everything. You then apply the miles (points) against any charges associated with travel - airfares, hotels, rental car etc. I can pick and choose. I also get 10% of the miles I'm using back again as a credit. Really like the flexibility, free FICO score, no foreign transaction fees .... The benefits just keep on compig.

Guest's picture
Guest

If you spent $21K for 3 RT tickets to Europe, you would have to spent a little over $1 million on the card (assuming 2 miles for every dollar of purchases) in a year. I find that hard to believe, and it certainly doesn't apply to the typical working stiff, like me.

Guest's picture

great list, would try one of them while abroad. nice post :)

Guest's picture
GuestBill

Capital One Venture card gets 2 mile for every dollar on EVERY PURCHASE and equal points transfer.