5 Best Travel Reward Credit Cards

By Jason Steele. Last updated 17 March 2014. 23 comments
Photo: iStockphoto

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 (review here). 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.
  • Free Hotel Nights: redeem Starpoints at over 1,100 hotels in nearly 100 countries worldwide - with no blackout dates. Some hotels may have mandatory service and resort charges.
  • Free Flights: redeem Starpoints on over 350 airlines with SPG Flights - with no blackout dates
  • No limits on the number of Starpoints you can earn
  • $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $65
  • Terms and Restrictions apply.

Click here to apply for the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express

 

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 (review here) 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 40,000 points after you spend $3,000 on purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months.
  • With the Platinum Card, you can receive up to $200 a year in statement credits for airline incidental fees like checked bags fees, flight-change fees, and snacks.
  • To receive the statement credit, you need to enroll and select a qualifying airline.
  • There are no foreign transaction fees with purchases made on your Platinum Card.
  • Platinum Card Concierge is your personal resource to help secure a last minute restaurant reservation, or shop for a hard-to-find gift.
  • Terms and restrictions apply.

Click here to apply for The Platinum Card® from American Express


Capital One® Venture® 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.

  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on every purchase, every day
  • Enjoy a one-time bonus of 20,000 miles once you spend $2,000 on purchases within the first 3 months, equal to $200 in travel
  • 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

Chase Sapphire Preferred®

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

Citi® Platinum Select® / AAdvantage® World MasterCard®

This card from Citi comes with great perks for travelers (review here).

  • Get the first eligible bag checked free for you and up to 4 travel companions.
  • Enjoy Group 1 Boarding and use the extra time to prepare for your flight.
  • Earn a $100 American Airlines Flight Discount each year of cardmembership in which you spend $30,000 or more in purchases and renew your cardmembership.
  • Earn AAdvantage® miles for using AAdvantage® miles. Earn 10% of your redeemed AAdvantage® miles back — up to 10,000 AAdvantage® miles each calendar year.
  • No annual fee for the first 12 months, and then $95. fees.

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

 

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

Disclaimer: This content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuer. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer. This site may be compensated through the credit card issuer Affiliate Program.

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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.