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NerdWallet’s Best Travel Credit Cards, Fall 2014

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Looking for free flights, hotel stays and constant rewards? With a travel card, you can take advantage of awesome rewards like nights at top-tier hotels, access to exclusive airport lounges and free flights anywhere, anytime. When searching for a solid travel card, make sure to look beyond the shiny signup bonus. You’ll want to pay extra attention to rewards rates and other perks that could sway your decision. Here are our picks for the best travel cards.

Best airline miles credit card: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Use points on: United MileagePlus, Southwest, British Airways, Korean Air, Singapore KrisFlyer, Ritz-Carlton, Marriott, Hyatt, Priority Club, Amtrak 

The Chase Sapphire Preferred is a top-notch card, offering one of the best signup bonuses in the business: Earn 40,000 bonus points after you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months. That's a great way to start off, and the annual fee is reasonable for such a high-earning card: Introductory Annual Fee of $0 the first year, then $95. It gets even better on the redemption front since your points are worth 25% more if you redeem for travel booked through Chase's tool. If you know your way around frequent traveler programs, you may also want to transfer your points to one of the approved travel partners at a favorable 1:1 ratio. Travel partners include British Airways Executive Club, Korean Air SKYPASS, Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards, United MileagePlus, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club, Amtrak Guest Rewards, Hyatt Gold Passport, Marriott Rewards, IHG Rewards Club and The Ritz-Carlton Rewards.

As for ongoing rewards, the Sapphire Preferred gives 2 Ultimate Rewards Points per $1 spent on travel and restaurants, and 1 point per $1 spent elsewhere. Your effective rewards rate, then, can be as high as 1.25% base and 2.50% bonus at a valuation of one cent per point. The card has no foreign transaction fee and it comes with chip-and-signature technology, making it a great choice for a traveler looking to score some free flights.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card
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on Chase's
secure website

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  • Earn 40,000 bonus points when you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $500 in travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate RewardsSM.
  • Earn 5,000 bonus points after you add the first authorized user and make a purchase in the first 3 months from account opening.
  • 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases
  • No foreign transaction fees, plus Chip and Signature enabled for international travel.
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading frequent travel programs at full value — that means 1,000 Ultimate Rewards points equal 1,000 partner miles/points.
  • 24/7 direct access to dedicated customer service specialists
  • Introductory Annual Fee of $0 the first year, then $95
thumbsupPros
  • No foreign transaction fee
thumbsdownCons
  • Has annual fee
Annual Fee Signup Bonus APR , Variable* APR Promotions
Introductory Annual Fee of $0 the first year, then $95. Earn 40,000 bonus points after you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months. 15.99% (Variable) Purchase: None
Transfer: None

Best flat-rate travel card: Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®

Use miles on: Any airline, hotel or car rental – redeem as statement credit for travel expenses 

The Barclaycard Arrival Plus card is one of the best flat-rate travel cards out there, offering a killer signup bonus, versatile rewards and one of the best rewards rates in the business. You’ll earn 2.2% rewards on every dollar you spend when you redeem as a statement credit against any travel expense. It works like this: You earn a flat 2 miles on every $1 spent, which you can redeem as a general statement credit (against any purchase) or as a statement credit against travel purchases – that’s plane tickets, airline taxes and fees, hotels, car rentals and the like. If you redeem as a general statement credit, your miles are worth 1 cent each, so you get a 2% rewards rate. If you redeem as a statement credit against any travel expense, though, you get 10% of all the miles you spend credited back to your account. This raises your rewards rate to a full 2.2% – you pretty much can’t get rewards that good unless you commit yourself to redeeming at a certain hotel or airline.

It also comes with a signup bonus: Earn 40,000 bonus miles when you spend $3,000 or more on purchases in the first 90 days from account opening. And, like any other travel card worth noting, it has no foreign transaction fee, effectively saving you 3% of all the money you spend abroad. So, if you spend about $3,000 abroad (which is hard not to), you’ll make up for the annual fee of $89 - Waived first year. One of the best cards in the business, it’s a real standout and a great card for the globetrotter in everyone.

Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®
Barclays Arrival Plus Credit Card
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on Barclays's
secure website

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  • Earn 40,000 bonus miles when you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 90 days — that's enough to redeem for a $400 travel statement credit
  • 0% intro APR for 12 months for each Balance Transfer made within 45 days of account opening. After that, a variable APR currently 14.99% or 18.99%, depending on your creditworthiness.
  • Earn 2X miles on all purchases - Miles don't expire as long as your account is open, active and in good standing
  • Chip card for increased confidence and convenience to pay abroad as easily as you do at home
  • Redeem your miles for travel statement credits - redemptions start at 2,500 miles for $25 toward travel purchases made in the last 120 days
  • Get 10% miles back to use toward your next redemption every time you redeem for travel statement credits
  • No foreign transaction fees on anything you buy while in another country
  • Complimentary online FICO® Credit Score access for Barclaycard Arrival cardmembers
thumbsupPros
  • High rewards rate
  • 0% for 12 mos on transfers
thumbsdownCons
  • Has annual fee
Annual Fee Signup Bonus APR , Variable* APR Promotions
$89 - Waived first year Earn 40,000 bonus miles when you spend $3,000 or more on purchases in the first 90 days from account opening. 14.99% or 18.99%* Variable 0% on balance transfers for 12 months

Best no annual membership fee travel card: BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Credit Card

Use points on: Flights, hotels, vacation packages, cruises, rental cars, or baggage fees with no blackout dates

The BankAmericard Travel Rewards® credit card boasts the triple crown of travel benefits — no annual fee, no foreign transaction fees and it’s EMV-enabled with PIN capability. It earns 1.5 points on every $1 spent, which can be redeemed for travel in the form of hotels, flights, rental cars and more by calling or going online and requesting a statement credit. It also comes with a signup bonus: Online exclusive 10,000 bonus points if you make at least $500 in purchases in the first 90 days- that can be $100 towards travel purchases.

The value of the BankAmericard® is that it’s simple, but packs a punch — no annual or foreign transaction fees and no confusing rewards program. If you travel often, but desire a no-frills, no-hassle card that you can bring all over the world, this one’s for you.

BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Credit Card
Bank of America Travel Rewards Credit Card
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on Bank of America's
secure website

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  • Earn 1.5 points per $1 on every purchase, every time with no annual fee and no foreign transaction fees
  • Online exclusive 10,000 bonus points if you make at least $500 in purchases in the first 90 days - that can be $100 towards travel purchases
  • Book travel as you normally would and go online or call to redeem your points for a statement credit toward all or part of your travel purchases
  • Redeem points to pay for flights, hotels, vacation packages, cruises, rental cars, or baggage fees with no blackout dates
  • No limit to the total number of points you can earn and points don't expire
  • Bank of America customers: Get an annual 10% customer points bonus on your total purchases when you have a Bank of America® checking or savings account
  • 0% Introductory APR for 12 billing cycles for purchases, then 14.99% - 22.99% Variable APR
Annual Fee Signup Bonus APR , Variable* APR Promotions
$0 Online exclusive 10,000 bonus points if you make at least $500 in purchases in the first 90 days- that can be $100 towards travel purchases. 14.99% - 22.99% Variable* on purchases & balance transfers 0%* on purchases for 12 billing cycles*

Best Hotel Card: Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express

—Aw, nerds! Looks like this offer’s temporarily unavailable.

Use points on: Starwood, as well as a number of airline partners, including American Airlines, British Airways, United MileagePlus and Virgin Atlantic (see full list)

If you like living large when you’re away, the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express specializes in making a luxurious lifestyle just a swipe away. Its base rewards rate of 1 Starpoint per dollar spent may seem a little thin at first glance, but we value these points at about 2.3 cents on average and 5 if you play your cards right – that’s a better base rate than the famed Venture! If you redeem your points for hotel stays, your point value will skyrocket and make the Earn up to 25,000 bonus points: 10,000 after your first purchase and another 15,000 after you spend $5,000 within the first 6 months of Cardmembership. bonus even sweeter. You’ll get up to 5 Starpoints for every dollar spent at SPG hotels (1 base + 2 for elite status + 2 for having the card). You’ll be sitting on a mountain of points in no time! The various hotel perks are what really move this card up the ranks. If you stay at a Sheraton, your third night is free, you get credits toward elite status, and you’ll get gold status after spending $30,000+ each year. Unfortunately, there is a 2.7% foreign transaction fee, and since it’s AmEx, it might not be as widely accepted as Visa or MasterCard. If you’re just looking for an all-around travel card, look to the CapOne Venture, but if you frequent SPG hotels, the Starwood AmEx is the way to go.

Transferring Starpoints to airline mile programs Starwood allows you to trade in your Starpoints to many major airline programs, usually at a 1:1 value. However, they’ve added a sweetener: If you transfer 20,000 Starpoints, they’ll throw in an extra 5,000 Starpoints for free. Therefore, if you redeem at a 1:1 ratio, you’re actually getting 1.25 miles for every Starpoint that you transfer as long as you do so in 20k-point blocks.

Program Starpoints Program Miles Conversion Ratio
Aeromexico Club Premier 1 1 1.25
Aeroplan/Air Canada 1 1 1.25
Air Berlin 1 1 1.25
Air China Companion 1 1 1.25
Air New Zealand Air Points 65 1 0.019
Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan 1 1 1.25
Alitalia MilleMiglia 1 1 1.25
All Nippon Airways (ANA) Mileage Club 1 1 1.25
American Airlines AAdvantage 1 1 1.25
Asia Miles 1 1 1.25
Asiana Airlines 1 1 1.25
British Airways Executive Club 1 1 1.25
China Eastern Airlines 1 1 1.25
China Southern Airlines’ Sky Pearl Club 1 1 1.25
Delta Air Lines SkyMiles 1 1 1.25
Emirates Skywards 1 1 1.25
Etihad Airways 1 1 1.25
Flying Blue 1 1 1.25
Gol Smiles 2 1 0.625
Hainan Airlines 1 1 1.25
Hawaiian Airlines 1 1 1.25
Japan Airlines (JAL) Mileage Bank 1 1 1.25
LAN Airlines LANPASS Kms 1 1.5 1.875
Miles and More 1 1 1.25
Qatar Airways 1 1 1.25
Saudi Arabian Airlines Alfursan 1 1 1.25
Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer 1 1 1.25
Thai Airways International Royal Orchid Plus 1 1 1.25
US Airways Dividend Miles 1 1 1.25
United Mileage Plus 2 1 0.625
Velocity Frequent Flyer 1 1 1.25
Virgin Atlantic Flying Club 1 1 1.25