5 Best Travel Reward Credit Cards
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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 five I find most rewarding.
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
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 25,000 bonus Starpoints®
- 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.
- Redeem Starpoints for free nights at over 1,100 hotels & resorts in nearly 100 countries and for free flights on over 150 airlines with SPG Flights - all with no blackout dates.
- Some hotels may have mandatory service and resort charges.
- Starpoints stay active as long as you continue to spend on your Card.
- $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $65.
- Terms and Restrictions apply.
Barclaycard Arrival™ World Mastercard®
- Sign up offer: 20,000 bonus miles after spending $1,000 in the first 90 days -- enough for a $200 travel statement credit
- Sign up offer: 0% introductory APR for the first 12 months for each Balance Transfer made within 45 days of account opening. (After that, a variable APR applies, currently 14.99% or 18.99% depending on your creditworthiness.)
- 2x miles on travel & dining, 1x miles on all other purchases
- Complimentary online FICO® Credit Score access for Barclaycard Arrival cardmembers
- Redeem for all types of travel -- airfare, hotels, cruises and more and earn miles on your purchase
- Get 10% miles back on travel statement credits
- No foreign transaction fees on anything you buy while in another country
- No annual fee
*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
- Earn unlimited 2X miles on every purchase, every day
- 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
- Fly any airline, stay at any hotel, anytime
- Travel when you want - no blackout dates
- Miles don't expire and there's no limit to how many you can earn
- No foreign transaction fees
- No annual fee for the first year; $59 after that
- 100% free Capital One® Credit Tracker — see your monthly credit score anytime and get automatic alerts
American Express® Premier Rewards Gold Card
American Express Membership Rewards allow its card members to transfer points to travel partners, adding more value to their reward points. Members can also get discounted travel deals by purchasing through AMEX's travel portal. The Premier Rewards Gold Card offers 3X points for flights booked directly with airlines, 2X points at US gas stations and US supermarkets, and 1X points on other purchases.
Sign up offer: Earn 25,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $2,000 on purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership. The annual fee of $175 is waived for the first year.
- Earn 25,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $2,000 on purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership.
- 3X points for flights booked directly with airlines, 2X points at US gas stations and US supermarkets, 1X points on other purchases.
- You can transfer points to over 20 frequent traveler programs or use points for gift cards at popular stores.
- $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $175.
- Terms and Restrictions Apply.
Citi® Platinum Select® / AAdvantage® World MasterCard®
This card from Citi comes with great perks for travelers.
- Sign up offer: 30,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles and 2 Admirals Club® Passes after spending $1,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of cardmembership
- 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
Editor's note: This offer is no longer available.
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:
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 card issuer.