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.
Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite Mastercard®
The Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite Mastercard® offers a big sign up bonus, plus double miles on all purchases. Also, get 10% miles back when redeeming travel statement credits. The annual fee of $89 is waived the first year.
- Sign up offer: Earn 40,000 bonus miles when you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 90 days - that's enough to redeem for a $400 travel statement credit
- Sign up offer: 0% intro APR for 12 months for each Balance Transfer made within 45 days of account opening. After that, a variable APR currently 14.99% or 18.99%, depending on your creditworthiness.
- Earn 2X miles on all purchases - Miles don't expire as long as your account is open, active and in good standing
- Chip card for increased confidence and convenience to pay abroad as easily as you do at home
- Redeem your miles for travel statement credits - redemptions start at 2,500 miles for $25 toward travel purchases made in the last 120 days
- Get 10% miles back to use toward your next redemption every time you redeem for travel statement credits
- No foreign transaction fees on anything you buy while in another country
- Complimentary online FICO® Credit Score access for Barclaycard Arrival cardmembers
Discover it® Miles
A new travel rewards card from Discover offers good rewards and flexibility in redemption. You earn 1.5 miles for each dollar spent on any purchase, with no cap. 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. The downsides of this card are that Discover is not as widely accepted and there is no sign-up bonus. There is no foreign transaction fee, and there is no annual fee.
- No annual fee.
- Unlimited 1.5x Miles on every dollar you spend on purchases.*
- Exclusive Double Miles Offer: At the end of your first year — when other travel rewards cards charge an annual fee — Discover doubles all the Miles you've earned.
- 100 Miles = $1 value. Redeem Miles in any amount toward travel purchases on your statement. Or get cash as a direct deposit to your bank account.
- Discover pays you back for your in-flight Wi-Fi fees — up to $30 a year — with an automatic statement credit.
- Free FICO Credit Score on your monthly statements, on mobile app and online.*
- 100% U.S. based service at your dedicated phone number -- day and night
- *See rates, rewards, free FICO Credit Score terms and other info. See complete Discover it Miles details.
Chase Sapphire Preferred®
Chase Sapphire Preferred cardholders are able to transfer their points to Chase travel partners, which means more value per point. Members also get 20% off travel booked through their site. To earn points, get double points for dining and travel transactions, and get 20% off travel booked through Chase’s site. That means that their points are worth 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.
American Express® Premier Rewards Gold Card
American Express Membership Rewards allow its card members to transfer points to their selection of frequent traveler programs, adding more value to their reward points. Members can also use points for rewards from over 500 leading brands in travel, gift cards, merchandise, or entertainment. 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.
- With the Membership Rewards® program, you can use points for rewards from over 500 leading brands in travel, gift cards, merchandise, or entertainment.
- You can also transfer points to our selection of frequent traveler programs.
- $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $175.
- Terms and Restrictions Apply.
Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard®
For travelers who are fans of American Airlines, this card offers some nice rewards and perks. With their generous sign up bonus and travel benefits like Group 1 boarding, this card is worthy of a place in any frequent traveler's wallet.
- Sign up offer: For a limited time, earn 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles after making $3,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
- Your first eligible checked bag is free
- Group 1 boarding and 25% savings on eligible in-flight purchases
- Double AAdvantage® miles on eligible American Airlines purchases
- Earn 10% of your redeemed AAdvantage® miles back – up to 10,000 AAdvantage® miles each calendar year
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.