NerdWallet’s Best Travel Credit Cards, Winter 2014

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Looking for free flights, hotel stays and constant rewards? With a travel card, you could take advantage of some awesome rewards like nights at top tier hotels, access to exclusive airport lounges, and free flights anywhere, any time. 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 really sway your decision. Here are our picks for the best travel cards that you should never leave home without!

Best flat-rate travel card: The Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard

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

The Barclaycard Arrival 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 $89 annual fee, which in any case is waived the 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™ World MasterCard® - Earn 2x on All Purchases
Barclays Arrival 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 or more on purchases in the first 90 days from account opening. 40,000 bonus miles equates to $400 off your next travel redemption!
  • 0% intro APR on purchases and balance transfers for the first 12 months after account opening. After that, variable APR, currently 14.99% or 18.99%, based upon your creditworthiness
  • Earn 2X miles on all purchases
  • No mileage caps or foreign transaction fees
  • Get 10% miles back when you redeem for travel statement credits (i.e. redeem 25,000 miles for travel and get 2,500 miles back)
  • Use your card to book through any airline, hotel or discount travel engine with no blackout dates or seat restrictions
  • Easily redeem your miles for statement credits towards all or a portion of your travel purchases within the last 90 days
  • Complimentary online FICO® Score access for Arrival cardmembers
thumbsupPros
  • High rewards rate
  • 0% on purchases and balance transfers for 12 months
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 purchases and balance transfers for 12 months

Best no annual membership fee travel card: The Capital One® Quicksilver® Cash Rewards Credit Card

Use points on: Anything, it’s a cash back card

If you want a no annual membership fee travel credit card, the Capital One® Quicksilver® Cash Rewards Credit Card is perfect. Not only does it have no foreign transaction fee (key for overseas travel) but it earns a full 1.5% cash back on every purchase that you make. This gives it an advantage over cards that offer bonus categories but just 1% base rewards, because it’s up to the individual merchant to categorize itself in a bonus category, and many overseas retailers don’t bother to list themselves on our American systems. The value of the Quicksilver is that it’s simple. No annual fees, no foreign transaction fees, and no unwieldy point or mile programs. If you travel often but desire a no-frills, no-hassle card, this one’s for you.

Capital One® Quicksilver® Cash Rewards Credit Card
Capital One Cash Credit Card Credit Card
Apply Now

on Capital One's
secure website

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  • One-time $100 bonus after you spend $500 on purchases within the first 3 months
  • Earn unlimited 1.5% cash back on every purchase, every day
  • No rotating categories and no sign ups needed to earn cash rewards
  • Redeem the cash back you earn for any amount, any time
  • Your cash back doesn't expire
  • 0% intro APR on purchases and balance transfers until January 2015
  • No annual fee
thumbsupPros
  • High rewards rate
  • No annual fee
  • 0% until January 2015
  • No foreign transaction fee
Annual Fee Signup Bonus APR , Variable* APR Promotions
$0 One-time $100 bonus after you spend $500 on purchases within the first 3 months. 12.9% - 22.9% (V) 0% on purchases and balance transfers until January 2015

Best airline miles credit card: The Chase Sapphire Preferred

Use points on: United MileagePlus, Southwest, British Airways, Korean Air, Ritz-Carlton, Marriott, Hyatt, Priority Club, Amtrak The Chase Sapphire offers one of the best signup bonuses in the business: A whopping Earn 40,000 bonus points after you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months.. Plus, that bonus is worth 25% more when you redeem for travel booked through Chase’s online tool. It has no foreign transaction fees, key for international travel, and its $95 annual fee is waived the first year. As for ongoing rewards, it gives 2 points for every dollar spent on travel and restaurants, and 1 point per dollar everywhere else. Plus, you get a 7% points dividend at year’s end, on points both spent and unspent. If you combine the 25% travel redemption boost and the 7% points dividend given at the end of the year, your base rewards rate could get bumped up to 1.34% and bonus rate up to 2.68%. Moreover, you needn’t worry that Chase is jacking up the prices on its booking tool – airfare and hotel stays are equivalent to what’s listed on Kayak and Expedia. Popular among NerdWallet staff, the Sapphire Preferred offers versatility and value.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card
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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 additional 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 participating 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
  • High rewards rate
  • 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 Hotel Card: The Starwood American Express

Use points on: Starwood (obviously), 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 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 MC. 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.

Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express
American Express Starwood Credit Card
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on American Express's
secure website

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  • Starpoints® 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 Cardmembership
  • That's enough for a weekend getaway to a Category 4 Hotel.
  • Free Hotel Nights: redeem Starpoints at over 1,100 hotels in nearly 100 countries worldwide - with no blackout dates. Some hotels may have mandatory service and resort charges.
  • Free Flights: redeem Starpoints on over 350 airlines with SPG Flights - with no blackout dates
  • No limits on the number of Starpoints you can earn
  • $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $65
  • Terms and Restrictions apply.
thumbsupPros
  • High rewards rate
thumbsdownCons
  • Has annual fee
  • Needs excellent credit
Annual Fee Signup Bonus APR , Variable* APR Promotions
$0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $65 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. 15.24% - 19.24% variable None
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
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
Hawaiian Airlines 1 1 1.25
Japan Airlines (JAL) Mileage Bank 1 1 1.25
LAN LANPASS 1 2 2.5
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 1 1 1.25
US Airways Dividend Miles 1 1 1.25
United Mileage Plus 2 1 0.625
VARIG Smiles 2 1 0.625
Virgin Atlantic Flying Club 1 1 1.25
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