The best travel credit cards for 2019

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In a Nutshell

Travel credit cards can unlock a world of opportunities. Between sign-up bonuses and regular points-earning opportunities from regular day-to-day purchases, you can build up and redeem points and miles for everything from flights to hotels. We’ll take a look at our picks for the best travel credit cards for beginners, international travel, flexible redemptions, no annual fee, restaurants and students.

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A great travel credit card allows you to earn valuable miles or points with each purchase, whether you shop online or at a brick-and-mortar store. Choosing the best travel credit card isn’t always an easy process, but we sifted through dozens of cards with potential for earning valuable travel rewards every time you use your card.

Best for beginners: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Here’s why: The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card balances valuable points, a reasonable $95 annual fee and a wide range of redemption options. If you are new to the world of travel credit cards, this card is a great place to get started.

This card offers new cardholders 60,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 on purchases within the first 3 months of opening an account. You’ll then earn two points per $1 spent on travel and dining purchases and one point per $1 spent on everything else. That adds up to meaningful rewards from meals and travel activities you might have purchased anyway.

The card also allows you to book travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal with a 25% bonus (making every 100 points worth $1.25). Or you can transfer points to a wide range of partners (including Southwest Airlines, United Airlines and Marriott hotels) at a 1:1 ratio. This system gives you plenty of flexibility in how you choose to use your points.

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card also includes no foreign transaction fees, several valuable travel and purchase benefits and a dedicated customer service number.

Keep reading for more advice on how to maximize the value of a Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card.

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Best for international travel: Chase Sapphire Reserve®

Here’s why: Chase Sapphire Reserve® offers comprehensive travel rewards that can add up to serious value, even with a $450 annual fee.

This card gives you airport lounge access with Priority Pass Select, a $300 annual travel credit that can be used on airfare, straightforward point-earning opportunities and a 50% value boost (making every 100 points worth $1.50) when you redeem through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal. 

Although the Chase Sapphire Reserve® card charges a big annual fee, it’s simple enough to see how the card can more than pay for itself in benefits each year. You’ll start out with a sign-up bonus of 50,000 points after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months after your account opens. Then, you’ll earn three points per $1 spent on travel after using your $300 travel credit, three points per $1 on dining and one point per $1 spent on all other purchases.

As part of your annual travel credit, Chase will issue statement credits for the first $300 you spend on travel each account-anniversary year. And don’t forget this card offers the Priority Pass Select membership, which gives you access to more than 1,200 airport lounges around the world. And the card covers the cost of a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee (up to $100) every four years.

Those benefits create not only real value for your card membership, but a more luxurious travel experience. If you travel frequently or take regular international trips, this card can make all that time in airports a lot more fun and comfortable. Plus there’s no foreign transaction fee.

Learn more about the Chase Sapphire Reserve® from our in-depth review.

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Best for flexible redemptions: Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card

Here’s why: The Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card gives you an unlimited two miles per $1 spent on every purchase. And through January 2020 you can earn 10 miles per $1 on thousands of hotels. You can redeem your miles for any travel purchase or transfer points to eligible partner airlines or hotel programs, too. 

Some cards only make it easy to redeem miles for one specific airline or hotel. Others might limit you with blackout dates and limited redemption options. Thankfully, this card’s Venture miles are easy to use, with the Purchase Eraser feature giving you an especially flexible method to pay for travel purchases with your miles balance.

To redeem, use your card to make a purchase from any airline, hotel, cruise operator, travel agent, etc. When the purchase shows up on your online statement, you can choose to redeem miles to cover the purchase before your monthly payment is due.

Note that this card charges a $95 annual fee, although it is waived for the first year. It also offers purchase and travel protections, no foreign transaction fees and a fee credit for a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application.

Read our full review of the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card for more details. 

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Best for no annual fee: PenFed Pathfinder Rewards American Express® Card 

Here’s why: While there are some eligibility requirements to qualify, the PenFed Pathfinder Rewards American Express® Card offers great points-earning opportunities and benefits with no annual fee.

To get this card, you have to be a member of PenFed Credit Union. Military households are eligible, but joining is still relatively easy even if you’re not a member of the military or other eligible group. It just takes a $17 donation to a PenFed affiliated nonprofit and a refundable $5 deposit to open a savings account. 

Once you’re eligible and approved, this card offers an unlimited three points per $1 spent on travel purchases and 1.5 points per $1 on everything else. PenFed Honors Advantage members are bumped up to four points per $1 on travel purchases, too.

The card offers a $100 annual air travel credit good for baggage fees, in-flight purchases and other incidentals. It also covers your Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee, worth up to $100 when you apply.

This level of benefits is typically reserved for cards with an annual fee around $100 or more. However, this card charges no annual fee and no foreign transaction fee.

Get more details from our review of the PenFed Pathfinder Rewards American Express® Card.

Best for restaurants: American Express® Gold Card

Here’s why: The American Express® Gold Card offers four Membership Rewards points per $1 spent on purchases at U.S. restaurants, four points per $1 spent on purchases at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per year, then one point), three points per $1 spent on flights booked directly with airlines and, and one point per $1 spent on everything else. When you add in restaurant and travel credits, this card packs plenty of value into a card that is ideal for frequent diners and travelers. 

In addition to the standard four points per $1 at U.S. restaurants, you’ll get a $100 annual credit on airline incidental fees at one qualifying airline (things like checked bags, seat upgrades and in-flight purchases) and a $10 monthly statement credit toward restaurant purchases (worth up to $120 per year) at participating restaurants. To receive the credit, cardholders must enroll. These credits alone — for services you might use even without the card — nearly cover the $250 annual fee.

This premium American Express card is also packed with travel and purchase protections, and it includes a variety of useful perks like concert presale offers and exclusive events. In addition, it supports contactless payment on purchases of up to $30 and also has no foreign transaction fee.

Read this article for more details on how to get the most value out of your American Express® Gold Card.

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Best for students: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card for Students

Here’s why: If you are new to credit, you may not qualify for a top-tier travel card. The Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card for students offers a good way to get your foot in the door for no annual fee and with the ability to earn 1.5 points per $1 spent on every purchase. 

This travel rewards credit card also gives you the flexibility to redeem points as a statement credit to reimburse yourself for flights, hotels, vacation packages, cruises, rental cars or baggage fees.

You can earn 25,000 bonus points to start after spending $1,000 in purchases on the card in the first 90 days of your account opening. If you have an active checking or savings account at Bank of America, you can earn a 10% points bonus when you make purchases, too.

The Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card for students has no foreign transaction fee.

Our picks for the best credit cards for students include more card options for this group, too.

How we picked these travel credit cards

To choose our best travel credit cards, we sifted through dozens of rewards cards from a variety of issuers. Major review factors included annual fees, sign-up bonuses, mile- and point-earning opportunities, and flexible redemption options.

Various cards in this space offer additional benefits like no foreign transaction fees, a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck credit, and purchase and travel protections. These factors didn’t carry as much weight as earning and redeeming rewards in our assessment, but they add a lot of value to some cards and acted as tiebreakers for some cards that were otherwise similar.

We also tried to pick categories that cover the most common uses for travel rewards cards. Rather than focus on specific airline and hotel rewards cards, which are often most useful to loyal customers of a particular brand, we wanted to feature cards that give you varied redemption options for airfare, hotels and other travel preferences. Whether you want to visit family a short plane ride away or take a long trip to an exotic locale, every card on this list can help you make it happen. 

How to make the most of these travel credit cards

Qualifying for the sign-up bonus will get you the best value from a travel rewards card. Just keep in mind that credit card interest adds up fast — so while you’re trying to rack up points, also remember that it’s best to only buy what you can afford to pay off in full when the monthly statement arrives.

You’ll also want to remain aware of your card’s particular points-earning rates. If your card offers a higher rate on dining purchases, for instance, then you’ll want to prioritize using it in those circumstances when setting your budget.

It’s also possible that a travel rewards credit card isn’t right for your particular lifestyle. If you don’t travel much, you may do better with a cash back rewards card. In some cases, you may even want to mix and match multiple cards to earn the best benefits from every type of purchase you make.