Best of

Best Travel Credit Cards of May 2019

Paul Soucy, Joe CortezMay 23, 2019

At NerdWallet, we strive to help you make financial decisions with confidence. To do this, many or all of the products featured here are from our partners. However, this doesn’t influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own.

NerdWallet's Best Travel Credit Cards of May 2019

Our pick for

Flat-rate rewards and Hotels.com

Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card

on Capital One's website

on Capital One's website

Annual Fee

$95

Waived first year

Regular APR

17.99% - 27.24% Variable APR

Intro APR

N/A

recommended credit score

Simple rewards and flexible redemption have rightly made the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card one of the most popular travel credit cards on the market.

Our pick for

Airline miles and a large bonus

Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card

on Chase's website

on Chase's website

Annual Fee

$95

Regular APR

18.24% - 25.24% Variable APR

Intro APR

N/A

recommended credit score

If you're staunchly loyal to a single airline, a co-branded card might provide specific benefits that the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card does not. But if you want flexibility in earning and redeeming rewards, this is the best travel credit card around.

Our pick for

Flat-rate rewards with no annual fee

Bank of America BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Credit Card Credit Card

on Bank of America's website, or call (800) 211-3740

on Bank of America's website, or call (800) 211-3740

Annual Fee

$0

Regular APR

17.24% - 25.24% Variable APR

Intro APR

0% on Purchases for 12 billing cycles

recommended credit score

The Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card ranks among the top travel credit cards if you have a lot of money in Bank of America® and associated accounts. You’ll enjoy the flexible redemption policies and you won’t pay an annual fee. Without a Bank of America® account, though, you’ll lose out on a big part of this card’s value.

Our pick for

Bonus rewards with no annual fee

Wells Fargo Wells Fargo Propel American Express (R) Card Credit Card

on Wells Fargo's website

on Wells Fargo's website

Annual Fee

$0

Regular APR

16.24% - 27.24% Variable APR

Intro APR

0% APR for 12 months on purchases and qualifying balance transfers

recommended credit score

If you're looking for exclusive travel perks, this isn't the card for you. But if you want excellent rewards for an unbeatable price, it's hard to do much better than the Wells Fargo Propel American Express® Card, NerdWallet's best travel credit card with no annual fee for 2019.

Our pick for

Relationship rewards

Bank of America® Premium Rewards® Credit Card

on Bank of America's website

on Bank of America's website

Annual Fee

$95

Regular APR

18.24% - 25.24% Variable APR

Intro APR

N/A

recommended credit score

Bank of America® customers with big balances can reap big rewards with the Bank of America® Premium Rewards® credit card.

Our pick for

Flat-rate rewards with chip-and-PIN

Barclaycard Arrival Plus Credit Card

on Barclays's website

Rates & Fees

on Barclays's website

Rates & Fees
Annual Fee

$89

Waived first year

Regular APR

18.24%, 22.24% or 25.24% variable based on your creditworthiness

Intro APR

0% intro APR for the first 12 billing cycles following each balance transfer that posts to your account within 45 days of account opening

recommended credit score

Light on flash but loaded with value, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® is an excellent companion for travelers who value flexibility with their rewards. It was NerdWallet's pick in 2019 for best travel credit card for flat-rate rewards.

Our pick for

Premium travel rewards

Chase Chase Sapphire Reserve Credit Card

on Chase's website

on Chase's website

Annual Fee

$450

Regular APR

19.24% - 26.24% Variable APR

Intro APR

N/A

recommended credit score

The best premium travel card on the market, the Chase Sapphire Reserve® gives you both top-notch rewards (what you get for using the card) and valuable perks (what you get just for carrying the card).

Our pick for

Luxury perks

American Express Platinum Credit Card

on American Express's website, or call (866) 512-6673

Rates & Fees

on American Express's website, or call (866) 512-6673

Rates & Fees
Annual Fee

$550

Regular APR

N/A

Intro APR

N/A

recommended credit score

The luxury benefits come at a high cost, but if you’re willing to pay to be treated like a VIP when you travel, The Platinum Card® from American Express will be rewarding.

Our pick for

Business travelers

Chase Ink Business Preferred Credit Card

on Chase's website

on Chase's website

Annual Fee

$95

Regular APR

18.24% - 23.24% Variable APR

Intro APR

N/A

recommended credit score

If your business needs a good travel card, the Ink Business Preferred℠ Credit Card offers great rewards in common spending categories, and the sign-up bonus is outstanding.

Summary of Best Travel Credit Cards of May 2019

Credit CardBest ForIntro APRRegular APRAnnual FeeLearn More
Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card

Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card

on Capital One's website

Flat-rate rewards and Hotels.com

N/A

17.99% - 27.24% Variable APR

$95

Waived first year

on Capital One's website

Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

on Chase's website

Airline miles and a large bonus

N/A

18.24% - 25.24% Variable APR

$95

on Chase's website

Bank of America BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Credit Card Credit Card

Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card

on Bank of America's website, or call (800) 211-3740

Flat-rate rewards with no annual fee

0% on Purchases for 12 billing cycles

17.24% - 25.24% Variable APR

$0

on Bank of America's website, or call (800) 211-3740

Wells Fargo Wells Fargo Propel American Express (R) Card Credit Card

Wells Fargo Propel American Express® Card

on Wells Fargo's website

Bonus rewards with no annual fee

0% APR for 12 months on purchases and qualifying balance transfers

16.24% - 27.24% Variable APR

$0

on Wells Fargo's website

Bank of America® Premium Rewards® Credit Card

Bank of America® Premium Rewards® credit card

on Bank of America's website

Relationship rewards

N/A

18.24% - 25.24% Variable APR

$95

on Bank of America's website

Barclaycard Arrival Plus Credit Card

Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard®

on Barclays's website

Flat-rate rewards with chip-and-PIN

0% intro APR for the first 12 billing cycles following each balance transfer that posts to your account within 45 days of account opening

18.24%, 22.24% or 25.24% variable based on your creditworthiness

$89

Waived first year

on Barclays's website

Chase Chase Sapphire Reserve Credit Card

Chase Sapphire Reserve®

on Chase's website

Premium travel rewards

N/A

19.24% - 26.24% Variable APR

$450

on Chase's website

American Express Platinum Credit Card

The Platinum Card® from American Express

on American Express's website, or call (866) 512-6673

Luxury perks

N/A

N/A

$550

on American Express's website, or call (866) 512-6673

Chase Ink Business Preferred Credit Card

Ink Business Preferred℠ Credit Card

on Chase's website

Business travelers

N/A

18.24% - 23.24% Variable APR

$95

on Chase's website

Credit CardBest ForIntro APRRegular APRAnnual FeeLearn More
Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card

Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card

on Capital One's website

Flat-rate rewards and Hotels.com

N/A

17.99% - 27.24% Variable APR

$95

Waived first year

on Capital One's website

Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

on Chase's website

Airline miles and a large bonus

N/A

18.24% - 25.24% Variable APR

$95

on Chase's website

Bank of America BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Credit Card Credit Card

Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card

on Bank of America's website, or call (800) 211-3740

Flat-rate rewards with no annual fee

0% on Purchases for 12 billing cycles

17.24% - 25.24% Variable APR

$0

on Bank of America's website, or call (800) 211-3740

Wells Fargo Wells Fargo Propel American Express (R) Card Credit Card

Wells Fargo Propel American Express® Card

on Wells Fargo's website

Bonus rewards with no annual fee

0% APR for 12 months on purchases and qualifying balance transfers

16.24% - 27.24% Variable APR

$0

on Wells Fargo's website

Bank of America® Premium Rewards® Credit Card

Bank of America® Premium Rewards® credit card

on Bank of America's website

Relationship rewards

N/A

18.24% - 25.24% Variable APR

$95

on Bank of America's website

Barclaycard Arrival Plus Credit Card

Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard®

on Barclays's website

Flat-rate rewards with chip-and-PIN

0% intro APR for the first 12 billing cycles following each balance transfer that posts to your account within 45 days of account opening

18.24%, 22.24% or 25.24% variable based on your creditworthiness

$89

Waived first year

on Barclays's website

Chase Chase Sapphire Reserve Credit Card

Chase Sapphire Reserve®

on Chase's website

Premium travel rewards

N/A

19.24% - 26.24% Variable APR

$450

on Chase's website

American Express Platinum Credit Card

The Platinum Card® from American Express

on American Express's website, or call (866) 512-6673

Luxury perks

N/A

N/A

$550

on American Express's website, or call (866) 512-6673

Chase Ink Business Preferred Credit Card

Ink Business Preferred℠ Credit Card

on Chase's website

Business travelers

N/A

18.24% - 23.24% Variable APR

$95

on Chase's website

Maximize rewards by pairing these credit cards together.

The buddy system really pays off.

HOW TRAVEL REWARDS WORK

By Joe Cortez, NerdWallet point and miles expert

Modern-day adventurers and once-a-year vacationers alike love the idea of earning rewards toward their next big trip. According to a NerdWallet study, 68% of American adults say they have a credit card that earns travel rewards.

With a travel rewards credit card, you earn points or miles every time you use the card, but you can often earn more points per dollar in select categories. Some top travel credit cards, such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, offer bonus points on any travel spending, while the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless™ Credit Card grants bonus points only when you use the card at Marriott hotels.

Not all points and miles earned on travel rewards credit cards are the same:

  • General-purpose travel credit cards — including the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, the American Express® Gold Card and the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card — give you rewards that can be used like cash to pay for travel or that can be exchanged for points in airline or hotel loyalty programs. With their flexible rewards, general-purpose options are usually the best travel credit cards for those who don't stick to a single airline or hotel chain.
  • Airline- and hotel-specific cards — such as the United℠ Explorer Card and the Hilton Honors American Express Card — give points and miles that can be used only with the brand on the card. (Although it's possible in some cases to transfer hotel points to airlines, we recommend against it because you get a poor value.) These so-called co-branded cards are usually the best travel credit cards for those who always fly one particular airline or stay with one hotel group.

How do we value points and miles? With the rewards earned on general travel cards, it's simple: They have a fixed value, usually between 1 and 1.5 cents per point, and you can spend them like cash. With airline miles and hotel points, finding the true value is more difficult. How much value you get depends on how you redeem them. As a general rule, airline miles go further if you use them for business- and first-class accommodations on international flights.

To better understand what points and miles are worth, NerdWallet researched the cash prices and reward-redemption values for hundreds of hotel rooms and flights. The tables below show average point values derived from that research.

Average value per point/mile, in cents
AIRLINES Domestic International
Alaska 1.2 1.1
American 1.0 5.0
Delta 1.4 2.7
Frontier 0.8 1.1
JetBlue 1.5 1.7
Southwest 1.6 1.9
Spirit 0.4 0.7
United 1.3 3.3

» MORE: NerdWallet's best airline credit cards

Average value per point, in cents
HOTELS Domestic International
Best Western 0.5 0.6
Choice 0.7 0.8
Hilton 0.4 0.4
Hyatt 1.8 1.5
IHG 0.6 0.5
Marriott 0.8 0.7
Radisson 0.3 0.3
Wyndham 0.7 0.7

» MORE: NerdWallet's best hotel credit cards

HOW TO CHOOSE A TRAVEL CREDIT CARD

There are scores of travel rewards cards to choose from. The best travel credit card for you has as much to do with you as with the card. How often you travel, how much flexibility you want, how much you value airline or hotel perks — these are all things to take into account when deciding on a travel card. Our article on how to choose a travel credit card recommends that you prioritize:

  • Rewards you will actually use (points and miles are only as good as your ability to redeem them for travel).
  • A high earning rate (how much value you get in rewards for every dollar spent on the card).
  • A sign-up bonus (a windfall of points for meeting a spending requirement in your first few months).

Even with these goals in mind, there are all kinds of considerations that will influence your decision on a travel rewards credit card.

Travel cards are for travelers

Travel cards vs. cash-back cards

The very first question to ask yourself when choosing a travel credit card is: Should I get a travel card at all? Travel credit cards are best for frequent travelers, who are more likely to get enough value from rewards and perks to make up for the annual fees that the best travel credit cards charge. (Some travel cards charge no annual fee, but they tend to offer lesser rewards than full-fee cards.) A NerdWallet study found that those who travel only occasionally — say, once a year — will probably get greater overall rewards from cash-back credit cards, most of which charge no annual fee, than from a travel card.

Flexibility and perks: A trade-off

Co-branded cards vs. general travel cards

Travel credit cards fall into two basic categories: co-branded cards and general travel cards.

  • Co-branded cards carry the name of an airline or hotel group, such as the United℠ Explorer Card or the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless™ Credit Card. The rewards you earn are redeemable only with that particular brand, which can limit your flexibility, sometimes sharply. For example, if your credit card's co-branded airline partner doesn't have any award seats available on the flight you want on the day you want, you're out of luck. On the other hand, co-branded cards commonly offer airline- or hotel-specific perks that general travel cards can't match.
  • General travel cards aren't tied to a specific airline or hotel, so they offer much greater flexibility. Well-known general travel cards include the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card and the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. Rewards on general travel cards come as points (sometimes called "miles," but they're really points) that you can redeem for any travel expense. You're not locked into using a single airline or hotel, but you also won't enjoy the perks of a co-branded card.

Evaluating general travel credit cards

What you get with a general travel card

The credit cards featured at the top of this page are general travel cards. They're issued by a bank (such as Chase or Capital One), carry only that bank's name, and aren't tied to any single airline or hotel group. With these cards, you earn points on every purchase — usually 1 to 2 points per dollar spent, sometimes with additional points in certain categories.

Issuers of general travel cards typically entice new applicants with big sign-up bonuses (also known as "welcome offers") — tens of thousands of miles that you can earn by spending a certain amount of money on the card in your first few months.

» MORE: NerdWallet's best credit card sign-up offers

What do you do with those points? Depending on the card, you may have several ways to redeem them:

  • Booking travel. With this option, your points pay for travel booked through the issuer's website, using a utility similar to Orbitz or Expedia. For example, if points were worth 1 cent apiece when redeemed this way, you could book a $400 flight on the issuer's portal and pay for it with 40,000 points
  • Statement credit. This lets you essentially erase travel purchases by using your points for credit on your statement. You make travel arrangements however you want (directly with an airline or hotel, through a travel agency, etc.) and charge it to your card. Once the charge shows up on your account, you apply the necessary points and eliminate the cost.
  • Transferring to partners. The card issuer may allow you to transfer your points to loyalty programs for airlines or hotel chains, turning your general card into something like a co-branded card (although you don't get the perks of a co-brand).
  • Cash back, gift cards or merchandise. If you don't plan to travel, you can burn off your rewards with these options, although you'll often get a lower value per point.

Airline and hotel cards sharply limit your choice, but they make up for it with perks that only they can offer, like free checked bags or room upgrades. General travel cards, on the other hand, offer maximum flexibility but can't provide the same kinds of perks, because the banks that issue them don't operate the airlines or hotels. Still, there are some noteworthy perks on general travel cards, including:

  • Travel credit. This is automatic reimbursement for travel-related spending. Some top travel credit cards offer hundreds of dollars a year in travel credit.
  • Trusted traveler reimbursement. More and more travel credit cards are covering the application fee for TSA Precheck and Global Entry, programs that allow you to move through airport security and customs more quickly.
  • Airport lounge access. Hundreds of lounges worldwide operate separately from airlines under such networks as Priority Pass and Airspace, and several general travel cards offer access to these lounges.

Points programs 

Every major card issuer has at least one travel card with a points program. American Express calls its program Membership Rewards, while Chase has Ultimate Rewards® and Citi pays in ThankYou points. Wells Fargo has Go Far Rewards, and U.S. Bank has FlexPerks. Bank of America® travel cards offer points without a fancy name. Travel cards from Capital One, Barclays and Discover all call their points "miles."

These programs differ in how much their points are worth and how you can use them. Some offer the full range of redemption options, including transfers to loyalty programs. Others let you use them only to book travel or get statement credit.

» MORE: Travel loyalty program reviews

Evaluating airline credit cards

What you get with an airline credit card

Airline credit cards earn "miles" with each purchase. You typically get 1 mile per dollar spent, with a higher rate (2 or more miles per dollar) on purchases with the airline itself. (Some airline cards have also begun offering extra miles for purchases in additional categories, such as restaurants or car rental agencies.) These miles go into the same frequent-flyer account as the ones you earn by flying the airline, and you can redeem them for free flights with the airline or its alliance partners.

Co-branded airline cards typically offer sign-up bonuses (or welcome offers). But what really sets them apart are the perks they give you. With some cards, for example, the checked-bag benefit alone can make up for the annual fee after a single roundtrip by a couple. Common perks of airline cards include:

  • Free checked bags. This commonly applies to the first checked bag for you and at least one companion on your reservation. Some cards extend this perk to more people, and higher-end cards (with higher annual fees) may even let you check two bags apiece for free.
  • Priority boarding. Holders of co-branded airline credit cards often get to board the plane early — after the airline's elite-status frequent flyers but before the general population. This gives you time to settle in and gives you a leg up on claiming that coveted overhead bin space.
  • In-flight discounts or freebies. You might get, say, 25% off the cost of food and beverages during the flight, or free Wi-Fi.
  • Airport lounge access. High-end cards often include a membership to the airline's airport lounges, where you can get away from the frenzy in the terminal and enjoy a complimentary snack. Some less-expensive airline cards give you only limited or discounted lounge access; others give you none at all.
  • Companion fares. This perk lets you bring someone with you for a lower cost when you buy a ticket at full price.
  • A boost toward elite status. Miles earned with a credit card, as opposed to those earned from actually flying on the airline, usually do not count toward earning elite status in an airline's frequent-flyer program. However, carrying an airline's high-end card might automatically qualify you for a higher tier within the program.

The biggest U.S. airlines — American, United and Delta — offer an array of credit cards. Each airline has a no-annual-fee card that earns miles on purchases but provides little in the way of perks (no free bags or priority boarding). Each has a high-end card with an annual fee in the neighborhood of $450 that offers lounge access and sumptuous perks. And each has a "middle-class" card with a fee of around $100 and solid ongoing perks. Southwest offers three credit cards with varying fees; smaller carriers may just have a single card.

» MORE: NerdWallet's best airline credit cards

Choosing an airline

Which airline card you get depends in large part on what airline you fly, and that's heavily influenced by where you live. Alaska Airlines, for example, has an outstanding credit card, but the airline's routes are concentrated primarily on the West Coast. So it's not a great option for those who live in, say, Buffalo, New York, or Montgomery, Alabama.

If your local airport is dominated by a single airline, then you're probably flying that carrier most (or all) of the time by default. Delta, for example, is the 800-pound gorilla at Minneapolis-St. Paul and Salt Lake City. United has the bulk of the traffic at Newark and Washington Dulles. American calls the shots at Charlotte and Dallas-Fort Worth. That airline's credit card may be your only realistic option. If you're in a large or midsize market with frequent service from multiple airlines, you have more choice.

» MORE: How to choose an airline credit card

Evaluating hotel credit cards

What you get with a hotel card

Hotel credit cards earn points with each purchase. As with airline cards, you typically get more points per dollar for purchases from the co-brand partner, and some cards also give bonus points in additional categories. (Hotel cards tend to give you a greater number of points overall than airline cards, but each individual point is generally worth less than a typical airline mile.) Similar to the airline model, the points you earn with the card go into the same loyalty account as the points you earn from actually staying at a hotel. You redeem your points for free stays.

Hotel cards usually offer a sign-up bonus, but like airline cards, they really make their bones with the ongoing perks. Common perks on hotel cards include:

  • Free nights. Several cards offer this perk, which can make up for the card's annual fee. You may get a free night automatically every year, or you may unlock it by spending a certain amount within a year. In the latter case, it comes on top of the points you earn for your spending.
  • Upgrades and freebies. Cardholders may qualify for automatic room upgrades when available, or free or discounted amenities such as meals or spa packages.
  • Early check-in/late check-out. No one likes having to cool their heels in the hotel lobby waiting for 3 o'clock to check in. And no one likes have to vacate their room by 11 a.m. when their flight doesn't leave till evening.
  • Accelerated elite status. Some hotel cards automatically bump you up a level in their loyalty program just for being a cardholder.

» MORE: NerdWallet's best hotel credit cards

Choosing a hotel group

If you decide to go the hotel-card route, you'll need to decide which hotel group gets your business. Hotels aren't as market-concentrated as airlines, so if your travels take you mostly to metropolitan areas, you'll have a decent amount of choice. Keep in mind that even though there are dozens of nationally recognizable hotel brands, ranging from budget inns to luxury resorts, many of them are just units in a larger hotel company, and that company's card can unlock benefits across the group.

Marriott, for example, includes not only its namesake properties but nearly 30 other brands, including Courtyard, Fairfield, Renaissance, Residence Inn, Ritz-Carlton, Sheraton and Westin. The Hilton family includes DoubleTree, Embassy Suites, Hampton Inn and Waldorf-Astoria. InterContinental includes Holiday Inn, Candlewood, Staybridge and Crowne Plaza. Wyndham and Choice have more than 15 mid-tier and budget-oriented brands between them.

HOW TO COMPARE TRAVEL CREDIT CARDS

No travel rewards credit card is going to have everything you want. You're going to be disappointed if you expect to find a high rewards rate, a generous sign-up bonus, top-notch perks and no annual fee. Each card delivers value through a different combination of features; it's up to you to compare cards based on the following features and choose the best travel credit card for your needs and preferences.

Annual fee

Most of the best travel cards charge an annual fee. Fees in the range of $90 to $100 are standard for travel cards. Premium cards with extensive perks will have fees of $450 or more. Weigh the value of the rewards and perks you'll get to make sure they'll make up for the fee.

Can you find good cards without an annual fee? Absolutely! There are no-fee options on our list of the best travel credit cards, and we've rounded up more here. Just be aware that if you go with a no-fee travel card, you'll earn rewards at a lower rate, your sign-up bonus will be smaller, and you won't get as many (if any) perks.

Rewards rate

Rewards can be thought of in terms of "earn rate" and "burn rate".

  • The earn rate is how many points or miles you receive per dollar spent. Some general travel cards offer flat-rate rewards, meaning you get the same rate on all purchases, all the time — 2 miles per dollar, for example, or 1.5 points per dollar. Others, including most co-branded cards, offer a base rate of maybe 1 point per dollar and then pay a higher rate in certain categories, such as airline tickets, hotel stays, general travel expenses or restaurant meals.
  • The burn rate is the value you get for those points or miles when you redeem them. The industry average is about 1 cent per point or mile.  Some cards, particularly hotel cards, have lower value per point on the "burn" side but give you more points per dollar on the earning side.

When comparing rewards rates, don't just look at the numbers. Look at the categories to which those numbers apply, and find a card that matches your spending patterns. Getting 5 points per dollar seems great — but if those 5X points come only on purchases at, say, office supply stores, and you don't spend money on office supplies, then you're getting lousy value.

Sign-up bonus

Travel cards tend to have the biggest sign-up bonuses — tens of thousands of points that you earn by hitting a certain amount of spending. But there's more to consider when comparing sign-up bonuses than just how many points or miles you earn. You must also take into account how much you have to spend to earn the bonus. While cash-back credit cards often require just $500 to $1,000 in spending over three months to unlock a bonus, travel cards commonly have thresholds of $3,000 to $5,000.

Never spend money you don't have just to earn a sign-up bonus. Carrying $3,000 in debt for a year in order to earn a $500 bonus doesn't make economic sense — the interest you'll pay could easily wipe out the value of the bonus.

Finally, keep in mind that the biggest bonuses will come on cards with annual fees.

Foreign transaction fees

A good travel card will not charge a foreign transaction fee. These fees are surcharges on purchases made outside the U.S. The industry standard is about 3%, which is enough to wipe out most if not all of the rewards you earn on a purchase. If you never leave the U.S., then this isn't much of a concern, but anyone who travels abroad should bring a no-foreign-transaction-fee card with them.

Some issuers, including Discover and Capital One, don't charge foreign transaction fees on any of their cards. Others charge them on some cards but not all.

International acceptance

Not all travel credit cards are great companions for international travel. While Visa and Mastercard are good pretty much worldwide, you may encounter limited acceptance for American Express and, especially, Discover, depending on the destination. This doesn't mean world travelers should dismiss AmEx and Discover. Just know that if you take one of these cards with you overseas, you'd be smart to bring along a backup in case you run into acceptance problems. (Having a backup card is good advice within the U.S., too, really.)

Travel protections

Consider which travel protections — car rental insurancetrip cancellation coverage, lost baggage protection — are important to you.

Perks

"Rewards" are what you get for using a credit card — the points earned with each transaction and the bonuses you unlock with your spending. "Perks" are goodies that you get just for carrying the card. There's a very close correlation between the annual fee on a card and the perks you get for carrying it. Cards with no annual fee are all about rewards and go very light on perks. Premium cards with annual fees of $450 or more are laden with perks (although sometimes their rewards aren't too special). Midtier cards (in the $100 range) tend to have solid rewards and a handful of high-value perks.

Assuming you take advantage of them, the perks often make up for the annual fee on a card quite easily. This is especially true with co-branded cards. Free checked bags can pay for an airline card several times over, and a free night is usually worth more than the fee on a hotel card. When comparing the perks of various cards, be realistic about which ones you will and won't use. Sure, that card may entitle you to a free spa package the next time you're at a five-star hotel, but how often do you stay at five-star hotels?

SHOULD YOU GET A TRAVEL CARD? PROS AND CONS

Pros: Why it's worth getting a travel card

  • The sign-up bonus gives you a big head-start on travel. Bonuses on the best travel credit cards typically run $500 or more — enough for a roundtrip ticket in many instances.
  • Perks make travel less expensive and more relaxing. You won't have to worry about cramming a week's worth of clothes into a carry-on if your travel credit card gives you a free checked bag (or automatically reimburses you for the bag fee). Hate the crush of travelers in the terminal? Escape to the airport lounge. Renting a car? Use a travel card that provides primary rental car insurance.
  • Rewards get you closer to your next trip with every purchase. Spending money on the mundane activities of daily life has a silver lining when you know that every $1,000 you spend will knock $10 or $20 off the cost of that future beach vacation or trip home to see Mom and Dad.
  • No foreign transaction fee can mean big savings. Take just any old credit card with you on vacation outside the U.S., and $1,000 worth of purchases can cost you $30 off the top due to the foreign transaction surcharge. Good travel cards don't charge this fee.
  • "Double dipping" gives you more points on travel purchases. Buy a plane ticket or book a hotel room, and you'll earn loyalty points or miles regardless of how you pay. Use the right credit card, though, and you'll earn even more points and miles on top of those.
  • Strategic redemption can multiply your value. With cash-back credit cards, 1 cent is worth 1 cent, and that's just how it goes. The points and miles on many travel credit cards have variable value based on how you redeem them — booking travel with them vs. transferring them to a partner, booking domestic vs. international flights and economy vs. business class, staying at budget hotels vs. high-end resorts, and so on.

Cons: Why a travel card might not be for you

  • The best cards charge annual fees. In many cases, the value you get from a credit card more than makes up for the annual fee. But some people are dead set against paying a fee under any circumstances. If that's you, your options in travel cards will be sharply limited, and you won't get the perks that provide a big portion of the value on many cards.
  • Sign-up bonus spending requirements can be steep. A bonus worth $500, $600 or $700 is attractive, but only if you can afford to earn it with spending you were going to do anyway. If you have to amass thousands of dollars in debt and then pay interest on it, it's not worth it.
  • Travel cards aren't ideal for infrequent travelers. In the first year with a travel card, you're probably going to come out ahead: You can earn a big sign-up bonus, and several popular cards waive the first year's annual fee, too. In subsequent years, though, you'll break even on that fee only if you use the card enough to make up for it (with the rewards you earn and redeem and the perks you use). Infrequent travelers are more likely to get more total rewards from a cash-back card with no annual fee.
  • Cash back is simpler and more flexible. Some travel cards allow you to redeem your rewards only for travel. Others give you poor value unless you redeem for travel. Still others have complicated redemption options, making it hard to get the most out of your rewards. With cash-back credit cards, you can use your rewards on anything, you know exactly how much your rewards are worth, and redemption is usually simple.
  • Rewards cards tend to charge higher interest rates.  If you regularly carry a balance from month to month, a travel credit card — or any rewards credit card — probably isn't your best choice. The interest you pay is eating up the value of your rewards. You're better off with a low-interest card that reduces the cost of carrying debt.

MAKING THE MOST OF YOUR TRAVEL CARD

Maximize your rewards with the following tips:

  • Plan your credit card application around a big purchase to earn the sign-up bonus.
  • Seize every opportunity to pick up the tab, especially if your travel credit card pays bonus rewards on dining; your friends can pay you back while you collect rewards.
  • Redeem rewards for travel instead of gift cards, merchandise or (in most cases) cash back to get the best value.
  • Join the loyalty program associated with a co-branded card — a frequent-flyer or frequent-guest program.
  • Shop for essentials in your card’s online bonus mall or through its exclusive offers, if available, to get extra rewards.

OTHER CARDS TO CONSIDER

It’s worth considering whether a travel credit card is even right for you in the first place. A NerdWallet study found that cash-back credit cards often earn more money — even for many travelers.

If you carry a balance from month to month, the higher interest rates typically charged by rewards cards can cancel out any rewards earned. If you have a good credit score, you're better off with a low-interest credit card that can save you money on interest.

A good travel credit card shouldn't charge foreign transaction fees, but there are good non-travel cards that also don't charge them. See our best cards with no foreign transaction fee.

If you value transparency and flexibility in your rewards, you can't go wrong with a cash-back card — and you can still use the rewards for travel, if you want.

Finally, if you're still not sure what's right for you, take a look at our best rewards credit cards for options beyond travel and cash back.

HOW THEIR REWARDS RATES STACK UP

Card Our pick for ... Rewards rates
Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card Flat-rate rewards and Hotels.com • 2 miles per $1 spent on all purchases
• 10 miles per dollar at Hotels.com/venture (through January 2020)
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card Airline miles and a large bonus • 2 points per $1 spent on travel and dining
• 1 point per dollar on all other spending
Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card Flat-rate rewards with no annual fee • 1.5 points per $1 spent on all purchases
Wells Fargo Propel American Express® Card No annual fee • 3 points per $1 spent on eating out and ordering in
• 3 points per dollar on gas stations, rideshares and transit
• 3 points per dollar on travel
• 3 points per dollar on popular streaming services
• 1 point per dollar on all other purchases
Bank of America® Premium Rewards® credit card Relationship rewards • 2 points per $1 spent on travel and dining
• 1.5 points per dollar on all other spending

Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard®

Flat-rate rewards with chip-and-PIN • 2 miles per $1 spent on all purchases
Chase Sapphire Reserve® Premium travel rewards • 3 points per $1 spent on travel and dining
• 1 point per dollar on all other spending
The Platinum Card® from American Express Luxury perks • 5 points per $1 spent on airfare booked directly with airlines or through American Express Travel, and on prepaid hotels booked on amextravel.com
• 2 points per dollar on other eligible travel booked through amextravel.com
• 1 point per dollar on all other spending
• Terms Apply
Ink Business Preferred℠ Credit Card Business travelers • 3 points per $1 on the first $150,000 spent on travel and select business categories each account anniversary year
• 1 point per dollar on all other spending

To view rates and fees of the The Platinum Card® from American Express, please visit this page.

Last updated on May 23, 2019

Methodology

NerdWallet's Credit Cards team selects the best travel rewards credit cards based on overall consumer value, as evidenced by star ratings, as well as their suitability for specific kinds of travelers. Factors in our evaluation include each card's annual fee, foreign transaction fees, rewards earnings rates, ease of use, redemption options, domestic and international acceptance, promotional APR period, bonus offers, and cardholder perks such as automatic statement credits and airport lounge access.