The essential guide to the best travel rewards cards

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In a Nutshell

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card tops our list of the best travel rewards cards, but we found several others that might also appeal to frequent (and not-so-frequent) flyers.

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At a glance: Credit Karma’s picks for the best travel rewards cards

Best flexible travel rewards Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
Best premium travel card Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Best airline rewards credit card United℠ Explorer Card
Simplest rewards program with no annual fee Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Great for hotel rewards Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express
Most flexible redemption with no annual fee Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card

When shopping for a travel card, find the one that offers big rewards on purchases you make every day.

Not sure which travel rewards card will offer you great rewards? We’ve researched the top credit card blogs, Credit Karma user reviews and issuer fine print so you don’t have to.

First: How do you pick the best travel rewards cards?

Roman Shteyn, CEO of RewardExpert, a service that helps travelers get the most out of rewards programs, says more credit card issuers are offering unprecedented sign-up bonuses, flexibility and perks because of intense competition and to encourage cardholders to swipe more often.

Still, once you get a card, Shteyn says, there’s one tried-and-true way to maximize your rewards: Be categorically correct.

“To determine which rewards card is best for you, review your spending habits and assess which types of purchases are your most frequent — whether it’s dining, travel, groceries, entertainment or otherwise,” he says. “Choose a card that offers the most lucrative return on the types of purchases that are most important to you.”

On that note, let’s dive into the cards.


Best flexible travel rewards: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

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Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

From cardholders in the last year

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With its flexible rewards program and generous sign-up bonus, it’s not surprising that many consider Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card the gold standard among travel rewards cards — even after factoring in the $0 intro, $95 after first year annual fee.

Who’s it for?

Frequent flyers who value a flexible rewards program and aren’t loyal to just one airline.

Why we like it

With the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, you’ll earn two points on travel and dining purchases and one point on all other purchases. But Chase offers an even sweeter deal to ensure cardholders’ loyalty: Points are worth 25% more when redeemed for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through the Chase Ultimate Rewards® travel portal, giving each point a potential value of 1.25 cents.

Watch out for

Shteyn says portals such as Chase Ultimate Rewards® can help you save big — but he’s also noticed that many cardholders tend to overlook them while shopping online.

“Card members are prone to forgetting that they can earn more points per dollar when they shop at their favorite online retailers if they just log into their credit card rewards (portal) first,” Shteyn says.

So if you’re looking at the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, know that you’ll have to get in the habit of using the Ultimate Rewards® portal to maximize the card’s benefits.

How to use it

One of the best features of the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is the sign-up bonus worth up to $625 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card also offers a flexible redemption program to help you transform your points into actual rewards. If you’re a member of a loyalty or frequent-flier program with one of Chase’s seven airline partners or four hotel partners, you’ll benefit from a 1-to-1 points transfer, meaning your Chase points can be redeemed for awards in other loyalty programs.

Many experts agree that the sign-up bonus and redemption flexibility set Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card apart from its competitors. You’ll need to spend around $350 on travel or dining every month (or more on other purchases) to justify the card’s annual fee after the first year, so the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card may be a better option for frequent flyers rather than those who only take the occasional family vacation.


Best premium travel card: Chase Sapphire Reserve®

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Chase Sapphire Reserve®

From cardholders in the last year

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Who’s it for?

The Chase Sapphire Reserve® is geared toward serious travelers.

Why we like it

Chase Sapphire Reserve® offers 50,000 bonus points after you spend at least $4,000 on purchases during the first 3 months from account opening.

You can receive a travel statement credit of up to $300 each year after your account anniversary that can be used for everything from flights to Uber rides. You’ll also score three points for every dollar you spend on eligible dining purchases, as well as one point per dollar on all other eligible purchases.

What’s more? When you redeem your points for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, you’ll get 50% more value for your points.

Chase Sapphire Reserve® also features some luxury travel benefits.

For example, you’ll be eligible to enroll in Priority Pass™ Select, which grants you access to more than 1,000 airport lounges around the world.

The card will also provide a credit to cover the cost of applying for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓®, which could help you get through airport security lines more quickly.

Watch out for

The biggest, and really the only, drawback of the Chase Sapphire Reserve® is the hefty $450 annual fee.

It may make you second-guess whether you need this card, particularly if you don’t travel often.

How to use it

We recommend you redeem the 50,000 bonus points through Chase Ultimate Rewards® for your next trip so that you’ll get more value out of the points. It could be worth as much as $750 toward your airfare, hotel, rental car or cruise.

The card also offers a credit of up to $300 as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year.

Also, don’t forget to apply for Global Entry. And while you may enjoy breezing through airport security, take a little time to enjoy the journey by visiting airport lounges at more than 1,000 airports after enrolling in your complimentary Priority Pass™ Select membership.


Best for airline rewards: United℠ Explorer Card

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United℠ Explorer Card

From cardholders in the last year

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Who’s it for? 

Finding the best airline credit card really comes down to your personal preference. United℠ Explorer Card is a great option for frequent United flyers who want to be rewarded for their loyalty.

But if you prefer flying with another airline, then this may not be the right card for you.

Why we like it 

You can earn 40,000 bonus miles if you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

You’ll also receive two miles for every dollar you spend on tickets purchased through United, at restaurants and on hotel stays, and one point per dollar on all other eligible purchases.

When you fly with United, you and up to one guest will receive one free checked bag and priority boarding, as long as you buy the tickets with your card and include your United MileagePlus® number in your reservation.

You’ll also receive two United Club℠ passes each year as a card member anniversary bonus.

Feel free to use the United℠ Explorer Card during your trip overseas because it charges $0 in foreign transaction fees.

And you can rest assured that you’re covered when you travel — the United℠ Explorer Card offers several forms of travel insurance, including trip delay reimbursement, baggage delay insurance and lost luggage reimbursement.

Watch out for

The United℠ Explorer Card has a $0 intro, $95 after first year annual fee.

So make sure you fly with United at least once a year to get the most value out of this card.

How to use it 

Use the card’s sign-up bonus toward your next vacation. While you’re at it, don’t be shy about checking your luggage and relaxing in the United Club lounge.


Simplest rewards program + no annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card

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With the Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card, you can rack up points with every swipe while steering clear of annual or foreign transaction fees. You’ll get a simple 1.5 points for every dollar you spend, saving you the pain of strategizing your spending across points categories to maximize rewards.

Who’s it for?

Semifrequent travelers who don’t have the time to navigate the ins and outs of a complicated rewards program.

Why we like it

As with the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, the Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card rewards loyalty. Bank of America® checking or savings account holders get a 10 percent bonus on top of their base points for every purchase. Spending $100 in a given month, for example, will earn you 150 base points plus an additional 15 points with the loyalty bonus. The experts we talked to love the fact that there’s no annual fee and no foreign transaction fees.

Watch out for

The Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card’s sign-up bonus (25,000 online bonus points if you make at least $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days of account opening) doesn’t quite measure up to what you get with the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. Still, the flat 1.5 points rewards structure and lack of an annual fee combine to make the card more competitive.

How to use it

If you’re a Bank of America® personal checking account holder, you can maximize your rewards by signing up for the Preferred Rewards program and maintaining a three-month average combined account balance of at least $20,000 in a qualifying Bank of America® banking account and/or Merrill Edge® and Merrill Lynch® investment accounts. This will net you a rewards bonus between 25% and 75% based on your Preferred Rewards tier. Note, however, that you’ll forfeit the 10% loyalty bonus.

Great for hotel rewards: Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express

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The Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express gives travelers a big incentive to be loyal. Basic cardholders earn six Starpoints® for every $1 of eligible purchases at participating Starwood Preferred Guest® and Marriott Rewards® hotels and two Starpoints for all other eligible purchases. Members of the SPG® loyalty program can earn up to five Starpoints® for every dollar of eligible purchases at participating Starwood hotels.

Who’s it for?

Business travelers who frequently stay at SPG® and Marriott Rewards® hotels.

Why we like it

With no foreign transaction fees, possible free flights on over 150 airlines with SPG® Flights, and more than 30 participating airline programs, many experts agree that the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express is a great all-around hotel card.

Business travelers who sign up for the card should join the loyalty program to increase their base points from two to as much as five points for every dollar spent. And, with the merger of Marriott and Starwood creating the world’s largest hotel brand, cardholders will soon have more than 5,700 properties from which to choose.

Watch out for

There’s an annual fee of $0 intro, $95 after first year. And while there are no blackout dates for the free rewards nights, this perk applies only to standard rooms and excludes suites.

How to use it

If you spend more than $30,000 on the card during any calendar year, Starwood will automatically enroll you as a Gold Preferred Guest in its loyalty program for 12 months, allowing you to earn three points for every dollar spent at Starwood hotels. That threshold may sound high, but frequent business travelers who put expenses on this card should find it pretty easy to reach.

Check out the best hotel credit cards

Most flexible redemption + no annual fee: Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card

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Capital One® advertises its Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card as a travel card for people with excellent credit.

According to Capital One®, this generally means that you’ve never declared bankruptcy, defaulted on a loan or been 60 days late on a bill and that you’ve had a loan for three years or more with a credit limit above $5,000. You can always use Credit Karma to get an idea of where you stand and see your approval odds.

Who’s it for?

This card may be best for consumers who want a $0 annual fee and prefer more flexible redemption options.

Why we like it

If you do qualify for the Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card, you could be eligible for perks such as 1.25 miles for every dollar spent and a sign-up bonus of 20,000 miles (equal to $200 in travel) once you spend $1,000 on purchases within the first three months from account opening.

And if you’re approved for a credit line of $5,000 or more, your card will come with Visa Signature® benefits, which include 24-hour complimentary concierge services and room upgrades and savings at hotels, resorts and spas. Aside from those perks, the experts we talked to love the lack of annual and foreign transaction fees.

Watch out for

The general consensus is that the Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card is a decent $0 annual fee travel card, but don’t expect a lot of perks.

Experts say the sign-up bonus of 20,000 miles isn’t as impressive as the one Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card offers: 50,000 bonus miles, or the equivalent of $500 in travel, once you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first 3 months from account opening.

How to use it

This card offers flexible redemption options, though keep in mind that redeeming for merchandise instead of travel will net you a lower rewards rate than the $1 per 100 miles Capital One® touts on its website.


Bottom line

If you don’t qualify for one of these rewards cards, don’t worry — Shteyn says you may have another option.

“If a consumer already has a relationship with a bank, it’s not unheard of for their bank to offer reward cards,” he says. “It never hurts to call the bank or, better yet, go in person to a branch and inquire about a reward card.”