The 9 best travel rewards credit cards for 2021

Girl is in Ireland after reading essential guide to best travel credit cardsImage: Girl is in Ireland after reading essential guide to best travel credit cards
Editorial Note: Credit Karma receives compensation from third-party advertisers, but that doesn’t affect our editors’ opinions. Our marketing partners don’t review, approve or endorse our editorial content. It’s accurate to the best of our knowledge when posted.
Advertiser Disclosure

We think it's important for you to understand how we make money. It's pretty simple, actually. The offers for financial products you see on our platform come from companies who pay us. The money we make helps us give you access to free credit scores and reports and helps us create our other great tools and educational materials.

Compensation may factor into how and where products appear on our platform (and in what order). But since we generally make money when you find an offer you like and get, we try to show you offers we think are a good match for you. That's why we provide features like your Approval Odds and savings estimates.

Of course, the offers on our platform don't represent all financial products out there, but our goal is to show you as many great options as we can.

These offers are no longer available on our site: Chase Sapphire Reserve®, Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, Bank of America® Premium Rewards® Visa® credit card, Hilton Honors American Express Card

Hear from our editors: The best travel rewards credit cards of October 2021

Updated October 13, 2021

This date may not reflect recent changes in individual terms.

Editorial note: Credit Karma receives compensation from third-party advertisers, but that doesn’t affect our editors’ opinions. Our marketing partners don’t review, approve or endorse our editorial content. It’s accurate to the best of our knowledge when posted.

Written by: Tim Devaney

The best travel credit cards can make your trip more enjoyable.

Whether you’re looking for a big sign-up bonus, lots of points, lounge access or a way to save money when you travel, we think one of these cards is a good bet to meet your needs.



Best for premium rewards: Chase Sapphire Reserve®

Here’s why: We don’t call it “the Michael Jordan of credit cards” for nothing. The Chase Sapphire Reserve® is one of the most valuable travel rewards card on the planet — as long as the $550 annual fee doesn’t scare you away.

First, you’ll earn 60,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 on purchases during the first 3 months after you open the account. When you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards, that bonus is worth $900. But you could get an even better value by transferring them to one of Chase’s hotel or airline partners. We estimate the welcome bonus could be worth $1,026 when transferred to United MileagePlus®, according to Credit Karma’s point valuations.

Plus, the flexible $300 annual travel credit helps offset the high annual fee. You’ll also get access to airport lounges with a Priority Pass Select membership and a $100 statement credit when you apply for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck.

The ongoing rewards offer value, as well. You’ll earn three points per $1 spent on travel purchases (after earning the full $300 travel credit) and dining at restaurants, and one point per $1 spent on all other purchases.

If you want more info on getting the most bang for your buck, check out our review of the Chase Sapphire Reserve®.

Best for luxury perks: Platinum Card® from American Express

Here’s why: If you’re looking for extra comfort when you travel, take a look at the Platinum Card® from American Express.

The $695 annual fee might be mind-boggling for some folks, but it will get you access to some of the best airport lounges around the world, including The Centurion® Lounge network.

You’ll also be pampered at certain hotels with room upgrades, early check-in, late check-out, and credits for spa treatments, resort activities and dining (when available).

To learn more, check out our review of the Platinum Card® from American Express.

Best for sign-up bonus: AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard®

Here’s why: If you want to get a head start planning your next vacation, the AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard® comes with a sign-up bonus that could be worth about $1,446 when redeemed for flights, based on our estimated points valuation of 2.41 cents per mile.

Not only does the AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard® feature a super-valuable sign-up bonus, but it’s also easy to earn. You can earn 60,000 AAdvantage® bonus miles after you spend any dollar amount on a purchase using your card — you read that right, all you have to do is buy one thing — and pay the $99 annual fee in full within 90 days after your account is opened.

That could be enough miles to book a roundtrip ticket to Europe.

It’s a great option for any aspiring traveler.

Take a look at how the AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard® stacks up with the best American Airlines credit cards.

Best for entry-level travel: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Here’s why: If you want to start traveling more often, but you’re not ready to commit to paying an expensive annual fee, you’ll appreciate that the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, which is a great travel card, charges a very affordable $95 annual fee.

For the $95 annual fee, you’ll earn 100,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 on purchases during the first 3 months after you open your account.

When you redeem for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards, that welcome bonus is worth $1,250. But what really sets the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card apart is the ability to transfer your points to a handful of Chase’s hotel and airline partners, where that bonus could be worth more. We estimated the sign-up bonus to be worth $1,710 when redeemed through United MileagePlus®, according to our point valuations.

While it doesn’t offer some of the fancy perks you might find on higher-end cards, the sign-up bonus alone should be enough to pay for the flight on your next adventure.

Check out our review of the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card to see if its other features fit your needs.

Best for simple rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

Here’s why: If you want to earn rewards but prefer a straightforward rewards system over a more complicated program, then the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card makes things simple.

You’ll earn two miles for every $1 you spend. There are no bonus categories — just one rate for all purchases.

And redeeming your miles is just as easy as earning them. While Capital One does have its own travel portal, there’s no need to use it to book your trip. Instead, within 90 days of making a travel purchase with your card, you can go back and use Capital One’s Purchase Eraser feature to redeem your miles for a statement credit.

You’ll also earn 60,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 on purchases during the first 3 months after your account opens.

The card has a $95 annual fee.

Check out our review of Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card to learn more.

Best for budget travel: Bank of America® Premium Rewards® Visa® credit card

Here’s why: There are numerous ways to get your money’s worth out of the Bank of America® Premium Rewards® Visa® credit card.

You’ll earn 50,000 bonus points (worth $500) after spending $3,000 on purchases during the first 90 days after your account opens. You’ll also score two points for every $1 you spend on travel and dining purchases, and 1.5 points per $1 spent on all other purchases.

If you’re on a budget, you should know there’s a $95 annual fee — but it’s offset each year by the $100 airline incidental statement credit that you can use to pay for things like seat upgrades, lounge access, baggage fees and in-flight purchases.

Once every four years, you’ll also receive a $100 airport security statement credit toward a TSA PreCheck or Global Entry application fee.

Take a look at our review of the Bank of America® Premium Rewards® Visa® credit card to learn more.

Best for no annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card

Here’s why: The Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card is the only card on our list that charges no annual fee.

You’ll earn 25,000 online bonus points (worth $250 in statement credit toward travel or dining purchases) after spending $1,000 on purchases during the first 90 days after account opening. You’ll also earn 1.5 points for every $1 you spend on all purchases.

That might not seem like a lot compared to some of the other travel cards on this list, but few flexible travel cards offer this much value for no annual fee.

Read more in our review of the Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card.

Best for airlines: United℠ Explorer Card

Here’s why: The United℠ Explorer Card can help you earn award flights — and possibly make your trip more comfortable.

You can earn 40,000 bonus miles with the card after spending $2,000 on purchases within the first 3 months of account opening. The bonus is worth an estimated $684 toward award flights, based on Credit Karma’s point valuations.

The card could also make for a more convenient airport experience. You’ll receive a free checked bag, priority boarding, two one-time passes to the United Club℠ each year, and 25% back on United in-flight purchases for food and drinks.

For its $95 annual fee (which is waived the first year), the United℠ Explorer Card also reimburses you up to $100 for the cost of applying for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, which can help you breeze through airport security.

You can learn more in our review of the United℠ Explorer Card.

Best for hotels: Hilton Honors American Express Card

Here’s why: The Hilton Honors American Express Card is a very rewarding hotel credit card, and it comes with a $0 annual fee.

You’ll start off with a huge welcome bonus: 80,000 Hilton Honors bonus points after spending $1,000 on purchases during the first 3 months from account opening.

You’ll also earn …

  • Seven points for every $1 you spend at Hilton
  • Five points per $1 at U.S. gas stations, U.S. restaurants and U.S. supermarkets — excluding superstores and warehouse clubs
  • Three points per $1 on all other purchases

The card comes with complimentary Silver status, which features several benefits including a free fifth night on qualifying reward stays. That means if you save up enough points for four nights, you’ll get a fifth night for free.

For more details, read our review of the Hilton Honors American Express Card.


How to make the most of the best travel rewards cards

To get the most value out of a travel rewards card, start by looking at your travel and spending habits. Try to answer each of these four questions.

  1. How often do you travel? Even the best travel rewards cards won’t do you any good if you never leave home. So it stands to reason that you’ll need to travel every now and then to get your money’s worth out of a travel card.
  2. Do you spend enough to earn the sign-up bonus? Figure out how much money you spend on a regular basis. You’ll be better off with a travel card that offers an attainable sign-up bonus than a travel card that carries a spending requirement that breaks your budget. We never recommend spending more money just to earn a sign-up bonus.
  3. Will you actually use the travel credits? Some travel credits are easier to use than others. Take a close look at the requirements to make sure you qualify. For example, does the airline credit cover the price of your airfare or only incidental fees like checked bags? If you already get free checked bags through another card, an airline incidental fee credit might not make much of a difference when you fly.
  4. Does the card charge any foreign transaction fees? A travel card that charges foreign transactions fees won’t do you much good on international trips.

How we picked the best travel rewards cards

To find the best travel rewards cards, we thought about different types of travelers.

For luxury travelers, we focused on finding a combination of experience and value. But other travelers might be more sensitive to upfront costs and overall prices, so we tried to choose several cards that balance a reasonable fee with quality rewards.

Instead of picking a one-size-fits-all travel card, we picked a handful of travel cards that meet the needs of different types of travelers, all while keeping categories broad enough to apply to a wide range of readers.


About the author: Tim Devaney is a personal finance writer and credit card expert at Credit Karma. He’s a longtime journalist who prides himself on being a good storyteller who can explain complex information in an easily digestible wa… Read more.