If you’ve had time to build up an excellent credit history over the years and are starting to think about getting into the rewards credit card game, a travel card is a great option. Particularly for people who travel frequently, a travel rewards credit card can help you get plenty of travel-related perks without having to do any extra leg work. What could be better?
That being said, there are so many different travel credit cards out there that it can be tricky to find the one that’s just right for your needs. With so many options, how could you possibly find the one that’s just right for you?
Luckily, we’re here to help. Coming up, we’ll walk you through the ins and outs of the best travel credit cards and give you some A+ advice on how to choose the one that’s right for your needs.
How to choose the right travel rewards credit card
Selecting a travel rewards credit card is no easy feat. With quite literally dozens of options available to US citizens, it can be difficult to figure out which ones have rewards that are actually worth your time. These are the top things you should look out for when buying a travel rewards credit card:
These days, the vast majority of travel rewards credit cards have an annual fee. An annual fee is a charge that a credit card issuer levies against you just because you have the account open. This may seem ridiculous (and in many cases it is), but these fees are basically in place to protect the card issuers against people who never use the card but abuse the rewards.
For the most part, travel reward credit card annual fees are in the range of $25-$500. At this point, you might be saying, “Whoa, that’s a wide range.” This range might be surprising to you, but the cards that are at the higher end of the range often offer what we call “premium benefits,” or awesome rewards that you get simply for being a member.
These benefits almost always include airline lounge access when you start talking about annual fees in the $300-$500 range. Cards with annual fees in the $25-$300 range often have small premium benefits, like free checked bags, in addition to the ability to earn miles and points. On the other hand, cards with no annual fees tend to offer only pay-as-you-go rewards, where you need to spend money on the card to earn points or miles.
Don’t want to pay an annual fee? No problem. There are quite a few awesome travel rewards credit cards out there that won’t cost you a single penny.
APR (Interest Rates)
While no one likes to talk about interest rates on credit cards, it would be foolish to open a credit card without keeping this important information in mind. The downside to nearly any rewards credit card is that you’re almost always going to get slapped with higher APRs than you would on basic credit card.
This might seem counterintuitive, as you usually need to have good to excellent credit to open one of these cards, but it’s just a another way that issuers get money back for doling out all of these awesome rewards. So, check that fine print before you apply for your new rewards credit card!
Generic vs. co-branded rewards
When you start shopping around for travel credit cards, you’ll quickly start to notice that there are some cards that are linked directly to an airline, hotel, or other travel company, while others are offered directly by a bank. We call the linked cards “co-branded travel rewards credit cards” and the bank options “generic travel rewards credit cards”. Here’s the difference:
Co-branded travel rewards credit cards
These days, pretty much every airline offers a rewards travel credit card, as does nearly every high-end hotel chain. This kind of credit card is fantastic for people who exhibit high levels of brand loyalty and find that they’re frequently flying with the same airline or staying at the same hotel chain.
If this description fits you well, then you might do well with a co-branded travel rewards credit card. These cards make building up massive amounts of miles with a specific airline quite easy as they tend to offer better mile accumulation rates than generic cards. Plus, co-branded cards often offer better associated rewards, like free checked bags, priority boarding, and the like.
But, if you travel on a plethora of different airlines or stay at many different hotels, you might find that a co-branded credit card just isn’t worth it because of the generally high annual fee.
Generic travel rewards credit cards
If you’re not comfortable with the idea of tying yourself down to a particular airline or hotel, you might do better with a generic travel rewards credit cards. This kind of card is becoming more and more common thanks to their popularity among global travelers.
With a generic travel card, you get points for your purchases, which can then either be transferred to certain airline partners or used to “erase” a past travel-related purchase. The drawback to these cards is that they often come with fewer perks, as they don’t offer free checked bags or priority boarding. Also, the conversion rate between dollars and points is usually worse with these generic cards than with co-branded credit cards, so you’re not getting as much bang for your literal buck.
Many travel rewards credit cards offer sizable sign-up bonuses to convince you to open the card and spend money on it. These sign-up bonuses can get you as many as 70,000 miles if you spend $1000-$5000 (depending on the card) in the first 90 days of opening the account.
For many of us, this huge chunk of miles are the main reason for opening the card. Often, the sign-up bonus alone is enough to book free roundtrip tickets on an airline, so it’s definitely worth taking into account when choosing a card.
However, don’t be fooled by the allure of a sign-up bonus. If you’re tempted to open yet another card that you don’t really need, ask yourself if it’s worth the annual fee that’s almost inevitably associated with this sign-up bonus.
Our advice? Use sign-up bonuses to sway you between two cards that you’d be happy to have. You should always look to open a travel rewards credit card during a sign-up bonus promotion, but don’t recklessly open cards just because you can.
No foreign transaction fees
One of the best things about a travel rewards credit card is that they often have no foreign transaction fees, which is a lifesaver if you’re a frequent international traveler. While most credit cards charge you a 3% fee for using your card outside the US, travel cards will often charge you nothing for the same transaction.
If you travel outside the US frequently, you shouldn’t even consider opening a card with foreign transaction fees. Nowadays, especially in Europe, cash is becoming less and less common, so you’ll be hard-pressed to get around without a credit card. Why should you have to pay an extra 3% just to do so in another country?
Finding the right rewards
Okay, now for everyone’s favorite part: the rewards. When you open a travel credit card, you do so pretty much solely for the rewards, so you’ll want to make sure the rewards you’re getting are worth your time and money. These are the top rewards to look for in a travel credit card:
Miles and points
The best part of a travel credit card is that you can earn airline miles and loyalty points just by doing your regular spending. Basically, this is free money that you’re getting back for no extra work on your end.
While points and miles accumulation rates vary, the vast majority of cards will give you a dollar to mile ratio. The best cards will offer a rate of $1/3 miles while some will offer as little as $1/0.5 miles. We personally wouldn’t take anything less than a $1/1 mile ratio, though you’ll usually have to pay an annual fee for anything better than a $1/2 mile rate.
Free checked bags
If you get a co-branded airline credit card, you’ll want to look for a card with free checked bags. This is one of the few perks that directly saves you money on every flight you take (assuming you frequently check bags) as you can save upward of $50 one way using this checked bag fee waver.
The best co-branded cards will also give you free checked bags for up to 6 people on your travel reservation so you can share the love with family and friends. Generic cards rarely offer this perk, though.
Many co-branded credit cards offer you priority boarding access during a flight. This means you can get on your flight earlier than you would with that basic economy ticket you purchased, for priority access to the overhead bin space. We wouldn’t say that this reward is a dealbreaker for a travel credit card, but it’s a nice perk, especially if you don’t already have premier airline status.
A little known fact about travel credit cards is that many of them offer some form of travel insurance if you book a large portion of your trip on that card. Most airline cards will give you lost luggage, rental car, and even travel delay coverage free of charge. While we wouldn’t rely solely on this perk for our travel insurance, it’s a nice additional policy that doesn’t cost you any extra cash.
Airport lounge access
The best travel credit cards out there (read: the ones with the highest fees) also offer you unlimited access to airport lounges, which are a great retreat from the hullaballoo of the modern airport. These cards almost always have annual fees above $200, with some topping the list at $500 each year.
This perk is really only worth it if you travel a lot but not enough on a given airline to get priority status with them. Plus, you can always pay to get into a lounge, so we wouldn’t decide on a specific card just for this perk.
The Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards
Now that you’re a veritable expert in the world of travel rewards credit cards, let’s get right to the reviews. Coming up, here are our reviews of the top travel rewards credit cards around!
But first, here’s a quick peek at the different cards we’ll discuss in our review:
|Card||Best For||Annual Fee||APR|
|Capital One Venture One||No-fee generic card||$0||17.24% – 24.24%|
|Jet Blue Card||No-fee co-branded card||$0||17.99% – 26.99%|
|Alaska Airlines Visa Signature||Co-branded airline rewards||$75||17.99% – 25.99%|
|Delta SkyMiles Gold||Free checked bags||$95||17.74% – 26.74%|
|AAdvantage Executive World Elite||Premium perks||$450||17.74% – 25.74%|
Capital One Venture One
Best No-fee Generic Travel Rewards Credit Card
For a credit card with no annual fee and a whole lot of great perks, you really can’t beat the Capital One Venture One. This generic travel rewards credit card lets you earn points that are useable on any airline. What more could you want?
With the Capital One Venture One, you earn 1.25 miles per dollar on every single purchase you make, plus an astounding 10x the miles when you book hotels with the card through Hotels.com (offer valid until January 2020). Plus, the Venture One has no foreign transaction fees, allowing you to make purchases anywhere in the world.
Also, Capital One has one of the best generic card rewards conversion programs with the ability to transfer your earned points into miles with a selection of different airline partners. Or, you can use their Purchase Eraser to pay off a travel-related transaction using your miles.
Ultimately, the Capital One Venture One is a solid bet for anyone looking to get quality travel rewards without a major annual fee, making this a great option for new and experienced credit card users, alike.
Best No-fee Co-Branded Travel Rewards Credit Card
JetBlue made a name for themselves as an affordable, yet comfortable airline. Their travel rewards card fits perfectly into this model.
With no annual fee and a selection of worthwhile perks, the JetBlue Card is a good all-around credit card for entry-level users. This card gives you 3x the points on any purchases made with JetBlue, plus 2x the points on any purchases made at restaurants or grocery stores.
When using the JetBlue card, you also get no foreign transaction fees and a 50% inflight savings on all food and drink purchases with the airline. Although you don’t get any free checked bags, the JetBlue Card allows you to use your miles to buy flights on any day for any seat, which is more than you can say for other airlines.
The best part of this card is the 2x mileage bonus for purchases on food, plus the lack of annual fee. So, if you need a no-frills card that gets you tangible rewards, the JetBlue Card might be for you.
Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card
Best Domestic Airline Travel Rewards Credit Card
Long known to be one of the best airline credit cards in the game, the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature wins the award for the best co-branded card in our review.
What makes this credit card so amazing, you might ask? First and foremost, the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature card comes with one annual “Companion Fare” ticket, which allows you to buy a second ticket on nearly any reservation for your partner for just $121 when booking on alaskaair.com. Depending on where you’re flying to, you could save a whole lot of money with this benefit.
Plus, this card gives you a free checked bag on Alaska flights for you and up to six guests that you include on your reservation. You also get 20% back on in-flight purchases on Alaska, plus 50% off on Alaska Lounge day passes when you pay using your card.
If all of that wasn’t good enough, this card has no foreign transaction fee so you can use it anywhere in the world. With a relatively low annual fee of just $75 and the ability to earn 1 mile per dollar spent, the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature is one of the best co-branded cards around.
Delta SkyMiles Gold Card
Best Free Checked Bags Travel Reward Credit Card
The old stalwart of Delta’s co-branded credit card offerings, the Delta SkyMiles Gold Card offers well-rounded benefits for a reasonable annual fee.
With the Gold Card from Delta, you get two miles for every dollar spent on Delta flights, as well as one mile for every dollar spent in your day to day life. Plus, you get instantly upgraded to Main Cabin 1 Priority when you book your reservation using this card, regardless of the fare type you choose.
The best part about this card? You get a free checked bag for each person in your reservation, which could save you $240 on a round-trip flight for a family of four. Oh, and this card now gets you discounted access to Delta’s exclusive lounges in airports around the world.
With no foreign transaction fees and a reasonable $95 annual fee that’s waved for the first year, the Delta SkyMiles Gold Card is designed for a life on the move.
AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard
Best Premium Travel Reward Credit Card
Premium travelers deserve a travel credit card with premium benefits – that’s where the AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard comes into the picture.
With the same set of standard mileage benefits (1x miles for every $1 spent, plus 2x miles for ever $1 spent on American Airlines), this card makes up for an otherwise lackluster miles program with an insane set of premium travel benefits.
The AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard gives you complimentary access to the Admirals Club (a $650 value), plus access for authorized user. You also get a Global Entry or TSA Pre Check application fee credit and free checked bags on American flights for you and up to 8 guests on your reservation.
Oh, and with priority boarding on American flights as well as priority check in and airport screening, you’ll whiz through the airport and be well on your way to a trip around the world. Sure the annual fee is $450, but if you travel enough, the benefits make this card well worth the money.