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NerdWallet’s Best Travel Credit Cards, 2015

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Best Travel Credit Cards

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 when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening 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.

Example image of Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

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Apply Now on Chase's secure website

Pros

  • No foreign transaction fee

Cons

  • Has annual fee

Sign-up Bonus

earn 40,000 bonus points when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening

Annual Fee

Introductory Annual Fee of $0 the first year, then $95

Intro APR Promotions

None

APR

  • APR: 15.99% (Variable)
  • Penalty APR: Up to 29.99%, Variable
  • Cash Advance APR: 19.24%, Variable

Card Details

  • Earn 40,000 bonus points when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $500 in travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • 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-enabled for enhanced security and wider acceptance
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading frequent travel programs at full value – that means 1,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points equal 1,000 partner miles/points
  • Premium Travel and Purchase Protection Benefits, including Trip Cancellation/Trip Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Purchase Protection and more
  • 24/7 direct access to dedicated customer service specialists
  • Introductory Annual Fee of $0 the first year, then $95

Best flat-rate travel card: Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card

Use miles on: Any airline or hotel, and more besides – redeem as a statement credit against any travel expense

One of the most flexible travel cards out there, the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card gives 2 No Hassle Miles on all purchases. That means bonus rewards on everything and No Hassle Miles are great in the ways you can redeem them! They can be used as a credit against travel expenses like tickets or hotel rooms booked through your favorite site, and the miles don’t expire as long as your account is active. This flexible rewards program allow you to book through discount sites like Kayak and to fly on the airline of your choice, rather than limiting you to just one carrier. If you fly on a number of different airlines or prefer bargain-hunting, there’s no better airline card.

Like all Capital One credit cards, it has no foreign transaction fee which will save you a pretty penny when you travel abroad. Also, the there’s the low annual fee: $0 intro for first year; $59 after that. Enjoy a one-time bonus of 40,000 miles once you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first 3 months, equal to $400 in travel.

Example image of Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card

Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card

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Apply Now on Capital One's secure website

Pros

  • High rewards rate
  • No foreign transaction fee

Cons

  • Has annual fee

Sign-up Bonus

Enjoy a one-time bonus of 40,000 miles once you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first 3 months, equal to $400 in travel

Annual Fee

$0 intro for first year; $59 after that

Intro APR Promotions

None

APR

  • APR: 12.9% - 22.9% (Variable)
  • Penalty APR: Up to 29.4%, Variable
  • Cash Advance APR: 24.9%, Variable

Card Details

  • Enjoy a one-time bonus of 40,000 miles once you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first 3 months, equal to $400 in travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles per dollar on every purchase, every day
  • Fly any airline, stay at any hotel, anytime
  • Travel when you want with no blackout dates
  • Miles don't expire and there's no limit to how many you can earn
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • No annual fee for the first year; $59 after that
  • 100% free Capital One® Credit Tracker - see your monthly credit score anytime and get automatic alerts

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 chip-enabled. It earns 1.5 points on every $1 spent; these points 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.

What’s more, if you’re a Bank of America® banking customer, you’ll have the opportunity to earn a points dividend of 25%, 50% or 75% through the Preferred Rewards program. The bonus you’ll receive depends on the type of account you have and the total amount of your assets. But even if you don’t qualify for Preferred Rewards status, just having a Bank of America® checking or savings account will give you a boost: You’ll get a 10% dividend on the points you earn.

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.

Example image of BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Credit Card

BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Credit Card

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Apply Now on Bank of America's secure website

Sign-up 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.

Annual Fee

$0

Intro APR Promotions

0% on purchases for 12 billing cycles

APR

  • APR: 14.99% - 22.99% Variable on purchases & balance transfers
  • Penalty APR: See Terms
  • Cash Advance APR: See Terms

Card Details

  • Earn unlimited 1.5 points per $1 spent on all purchases, with no annual fee and no foreign transaction fees and your points don't expire
  • 10,000 online bonus points if you make at least $500 in purchases in the first 90 days — that can be $100 towards travel purchases
  • Use your card to book your trip how and where you want — no blackout dates and restrictions
  • Redeem points for a statement credit to pay for flights, hotels, vacation packages, cruises, rental cars, or baggage fees
  • Now with chip technology for enhanced security and protection at chip-enabled terminals
  • 0% Introductory APR for 12 billing cycles for purchases, then 14.99% - 22.99% Variable APR
  • Get an additional 10% customer points bonus on every purchase when you have an active Bank of America® checking or savings account
  • If you're a Preferred Rewards client, you can increase that bonus to 25%-75%. Click "Apply Now" to learn more about Preferred Rewards.

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

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! The card comes with a generous sign-up bonus: Earn 25,000 bonus Starpoints after you use your new Card to make $3,000 in purchases within the first 3 months. If you redeem your points for hotel stays, your point value will skyrocket and make the 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.

Example image of Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express

Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express

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Apply Now on American Express's secure website

Pros

  • High rewards rate

Cons

  • Has annual fee
  • Needs excellent credit

Sign-up Bonus

Earn 25,000 bonus Starpoints after you use your new Card to make $3,000 in purchases within the first 3 months.

Annual Fee

$0 intro annual fee for the first year, then $65.

Intro APR Promotions

None

APR

  • APR: 15.24% - 19.24% variable
  • Penalty APR: Up to 27.24%, Variable
  • Cash Advance APR: 25.24%, Variable

Card Details

  • Earn 25,000 bonus Starpoints after you use your new Card to make $3,000 in purchases within the first 3 months.
  • Earn free nights at over 1,100 hotels and resorts in nearly 100 countries with no blackout dates.
  • Some hotels may have mandatory service and resort charges.
  • Earn up to 5 Starpoints on purchases at participating SPG hotels.
  • That's 2 Starpoints for which you may be eligible as a Card Member in addition to the 2 or 3 Starpoints for which you may be eligible as an SPG member.
  • $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $65.
  • Terms and Limitations Apply.

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. Chart current as of February 2015:

Program Starpoints ProgramMiles 20K Transfer 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
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
Jet Airways 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