The essential guide to the best travel rewards cards

Girl is in Ireland after reading essential guide to best travel credit cards Girl is in Ireland after reading essential guide to best travel credit cards Image:
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card tops our list of the best travel rewards cards, but we found three others that might also appeal to frequent (and not-so-frequent) flyers.

We generally make money when you get a product (like a credit card or loan) through our platform, but we don’t let that cloud our editorial opinions. Learn more about how we keep this compensation from affecting our editorial views.
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.

At a glance: The best travel rewards cards

N/A Best flexible travel rewards
N/A Simplest rewards program with no annual fee
N/A Great for hotel rewards
N/A Most flexible redemption with no annual fee

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. But first, let’s review a quick tip that may help to define the best travel rewards cards for you.

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.


N/A

With its flexible rewards program and generous sign-up bonus, it’s not surprising that many consider N/A the gold standard among travel rewards cards — even after factoring in the N/A 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 N/A, 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 percent 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 N/A, 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 N/A is the sign-up bonus worth up to $625 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. N/A 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 N/A 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 N/A may be a better option for frequent flyers rather than those who only take the occasional family vacation.

BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Credit Card

With the N/A, 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?

Semi-frequent 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 N/A, the N/A 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 N/A‘s sign-up bonus (20,000 online bonus points if you make at least $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days of your account opening) doesn’t quite measure up to what you get with the N/A. 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 percent based on your Preferred Rewards tier. Note, however, that you’ll forfeit the 10 percent loyalty bonus.

N/A

The N/A gives travelers a big incentive to be loyal. Basic cardholders earn two Starpoints® for every dollar of eligible purchases at participating Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG®) and Marriott Rewards® hotels and one Starpoint 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 N/A 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 recent 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 N/A. 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.

N/A

Capital One® advertises its N/A 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 N/A annual fee and prefer more flexible redemption options.

Why we like it

If you do qualify for the N/A, 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 N/A is a decent N/A 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 N/A offers: 40,000 bonus miles, or the equivalent of $400 in travel, once you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first three 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.”


Editorial Note: The opinions you read here come from our editorial team. While compensation may affect which companies we write about and products we review, our marketing partners don’t review, approve or endorse our editorial content. Our content is accurate (to the best of our knowledge) when we initially post it, but we don’t guarantee the accuracy or completeness of the information provided. You can visit the company’s website to get complete details about a product. See an error in an article? Use this form to report it to our editorial team. For questions about your Credit Karma account, please submit a help request to our support team.