NerdWallet’s Best Travel Credit Cards, 2015
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, AmtrakThe 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 $4,000 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.
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.
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 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 Card membership. 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.
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|
|Air China Companion||1||1||1.25|
|Air New Zealand Air Points||65||1||0.019|
|Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan||1||1||1.25|
|All Nippon Airways (ANA) Mileage Club||1||1||1.25|
|American Airlines AAdvantage||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|
|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|
|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|
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.