Our pick for
Bonus travel rewards + big sign-up bonus
Recommended Credit Score
- Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
- 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
- Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 60,000 points are worth $750 toward travel
- Get unlimited deliveries with a $0 delivery fee and reduced service fees on orders over $12 for a minimum of one year on qualifying food purchases with DashPass, DoorDash's subscription service. Activate by 12/31/21.
- Earn 5X points on Lyft rides through March 2022. That's 3X points in addition to the 2X points you already earn on travel.
See if you qualify for a better offer with Chase:
ProsYou earn 2 points per dollar spent on dining and travel and 1 point per dollar on everything else. Points are worth 25% more — 1.25 cents apiece — when you redeem them for travel booked through Chase, or you can transfer them to a dozen airline and hotel programs. (Ultimate Rewards® points transferred to this card from other Chase cards can be used the same way.)
ConsSince this is a general-purpose travel card, it doesn't come with the kinds of perks that are standard on branded airline and hotel cards in the same price range.
Why We Like It
Our pick for
Bonus travel rewards + no annual fee
Recommended Credit Score
- Earn 20,000 bonus points when you spend $1,000 in purchases in the first 3 months - that's a $200 cash redemption value
- $0 annual fee and no foreign currency conversion fee
- Earn 3X points on eating out and ordering in
- Earn 3X points on travel including flights, hotels, homestays and car rentals
- Earn 3X points on gas stations, rideshares and transit
- Earn 3X points on popular streaming services
- Earn 1X points on other purchases
- Select "Apply Now" to learn more about the product features, terms and conditions
- View Rates and Fees
ProsYou earn 3 points per dollar spent in a wide array of categories, including (but not limited to) restaurants, travel, transit, gas stations, rideshares and streaming media. Other spending earns 1 point per dollar. Throw in the sign-up bonus and the 0% introductory APR period, and it's a $0-annual-fee travel card like no other.
ConsYou don't have the option to transfer points to airline or hotel partners. As an American Express card, its acceptance is more limited, especially internationally. Travel with a backup card if headed abroad.
Why We Like It
Our pick for
Bonus travel rewards + high-end perks
Recommended Credit Score
- Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
- $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year
- 3X points on travel immediately after earning your $300 travel credit. 3X points on dining at restaurants & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases. $0 foreign transaction fees.
- Get 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 50,000 points are worth $750 toward travel
- 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
- Access to 1,000+ airport lounges worldwide after an easy, one-time enrollment in Priority Pass™ Select
- Up to $100 application fee credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓®
- One Year Complimentary Lyft Pink ($199 minimum value). Complimentary DashPass subscription from DoorDash after activating by 12/31/21.
ProsYou get 3 points per dollar spent on travel and dining and 1 point per dollar on all other spending. Points are worth 1.5 cents apiece when redeemed for travel booked through Chase, or you can transfer them to a dozen hotel and airline partners. You get $300 a year in credit for travel expenses, Priority Pass airport lounge access and reimbursement for the application fee for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry. And don't forget the big sign-up bonus.
ConsThe fee is a significant out-of-pocket expense, and much of the value of the card is tied up in the $300 travel credit. Get this card only if you are a dedicated traveler.
Why We Like It
Our pick for
Recommended Credit Score
- Earn 75,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on qualifying purchases within your first 3 months of Card Membership.
- Get 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights and prepaid hotels on amextravel.com.
- Get 50% more Membership Rewards® points. That's an extra half point per dollar, on each eligible purchase of $5,000 or more. You can get up to 1 million additional points per year.
- 35% Airline Bonus: Use Membership Rewards® Pay with Points for all or part of a flight with your selected qualifying airline, and you can get 35% of the points back, up to 500,000 bonus points per calendar year when you book on amextravel.com.
- Enroll to get up to $200 in statement credits annually by getting up to $100 semi-annually for U.S. purchases with Dell. Terms apply.
- Terms Apply
- View Rates and Fees
ProsNo, this card is not cheap, but it comes with an extensive portfolio of benefits that make it well worth the investment for entrepreneurs who are always on the road: 5X points on flights and prepaid hotels on amextravel.com, access to more than 1,200 airport lounges worldwide, a $200 annual credit for incidental airline fees, plus reimbursement for the application fee for TSA Precheck or Global Entry, and automatic elite status with Marriott and Hilton hotels. That’s not even mentioning the sizable bonus offer for new cardholders.
ConsThe $595 annual fee is very steep. Keep in mind, though, that the fee is a deductible business expense.
Why We Like It
Our pick for
Airline credit card
$0 intro for the first year, then $95
Recommended Credit Score
- Earn 60,000 Bonus Miles.
- $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95.
- Earn 2 miles per $1 spent at restaurants and on hotel stays
- Up to $100 Global Entry or TSA PreCheck™ Fee Credit
- 25% back on United inflight purchases
- Check your first bag for free (a savings of up to $120 per roundtrip) when you use your Card to purchase your ticket
- Enjoy priority boarding privileges and visit the United Club℠ with 2 one-time passes each year for your anniversary
- Earn 2 miles per $1 spent on purchases from United, and 1 mile per $1 spent on all other purchases
ProsEarn 2 miles per dollar on United purchases, at restaurants and on hotel stays purchased directly from the hotel. Other spending earns 1 mile per dollar. You get a free checked bag for you and a companion, priority boarding, two one-time lounge passes each year and reimbursement for the application fee for TSA Precheck or Global Entry. Start with a solid sign-up bonus, too.
ConsAs with any airline card with an annual fee, it's a good deal only if you fly the airline enough to use the perks you're paying for.
Why We Like It
Our pick for
Hotel credit card
Recommended Credit Score
- Earn 25,000 Bonus Points after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. Plus, 25,000 Bonus Points after you spend $6,000 total within 6 months of account opening.
- Free nights start at 5,000 points
- Receive 1 free night at any Category 1-4 Hyatt hotel or resort after your Cardmember anniversary
- Earn an extra free night at any Category 1-4 Hyatt hotel if you spend $15,000 during your cardmember anniversary year
- Get automatic World of Hyatt Elite status and 5 qualifying night credits every year as long as your account is open
- Earn 2 qualifying night credits towards tier status everytime you spend $5,000 on your card
- Earn 9 points total for Hyatt stays - 4 Bonus Points per $1 spent at Hyatt hotels & 5 Base Points per $1 you can earn as a World of Hyatt member
- Earn 2 Bonus Points per $1 spent at restaurants, on airlines tickets purchased directly from the airlines, on local transit and commuting and on fitness club and gym memberships
ProsYou earn 4 points per dollar spent with Hyatt, 2 points per dollar on an array of common spending categories (see the product details tab), and 1 point per dollar on other spending. Hyatt points are also worth significantly more than most other hotel points. You get a free night each anniversary year and can earn another with $15,000 a year in spending. There's a decent sign-up bonus, automatic elite status and more.
ConsHyatt's relatively small footprint — about 850 properties compared with 5,000 or more for other chains — means you won't have as many locations to choose from as you'd get with other hotel cards.
Why We Like It
Maximize rewards by pairing these credit cards together.
The buddy system really pays off.
FULL LIST: Best Travel Credit Cards
Click the card name to read our review:
- Bonus travel rewards + big sign-up bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
- Flat-rate rewards: Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card
- Bonus travel rewards + no annual fee: Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card
- Luxury travel perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
- Big rewards on everyday spending: American Express® Gold Card
- Bonus travel rewards + high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
- Flat-rate rewards + no annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
- Relationship rewards: Bank of America® Premium Rewards® credit card
- Small business bonus travel rewards: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card
- Small business flat-rate rewards: Capital One® Spark® Miles for Business
- Small business luxury travel perks: The Business Platinum Card® from American Express
- Airline credit card: United℠ Explorer Card
- Hotel credit card: The World Of Hyatt Credit Card
HOW TRAVEL REWARDS WORK
By Sam Kemmis, 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.
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. For details about our methodology, see our valuations page.
|AIRLINES||Average value per point/mile, in cents|
|HOTELS||Average value per point, in cents|
Our valuations are different from many others you may find. That’s because we looked at the average value of a point based on reasonable price searches that anyone can perform, not a maximized value that only travel rewards experts can expect to reach.
You should therefore use these values as a baseline for your own redemptions. If you can redeem your points for the values listed above, you are doing well. Of course, if you are able to get higher value out of your miles, that’s even better.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.)
"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
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.
To view rates and fees of the The Platinum Card® from American Express, please visit this page.
To view rates and fees of the American Express® Gold Card, please visit this page.
To view rates and fees of the The Business Platinum Card® from American Express, please visit this page.
Last updated on April 8, 2020
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.
Frequently asked questions
Travel credit cards earn points (sometimes called miles) each time you buy something. The standard earning rate is 1 to 2 points per dollar spent, and many cards give you extra points for certain purchases, particularly travel expenses. The value of a point depends on the card that earned it and how you redeem it, but a good rule of thumb is to assume each point is worth an average of about 1 cent.
Your points accumulate in a rewards account, where you can use them to pay for travel. Most cards let you book travel directly using a portal similar to those at online travel agencies or on airline and hotel websites, but instead of paying cash, you pay with your points. Depending on the card, you may also have the option of booking travel any way you want, paying for it with the card and then cashing in your points for a credit against those expenses.
Points and miles are just different names for the same thing: the currency used in a travel rewards program. Some travel credit cards call them points, some call them miles.
Airline frequent flyer programs have long used the term “miles” to refer to the rewards you earn for flying. That’s because at one time, you really did earn rewards according to how many miles you flew — the longer the flight, the more miles you earned. Nowadays, most domestic airlines give out “miles” based on how much you spend, not how far you fly, so they’re really just points. (There are a few exceptions, though, notably Alaska Airlines.)
Especially when it comes to redeeming your rewards, there’s no difference between points and miles. The number of points or miles you need is based mostly on the cost of what you’re redeeming them for. It takes more than 500 miles (value about: $5) to get a free 500-mile flight!
The value of a point or mile depends on the card you earned it with and how you redeem it. A common rule of thumb is to assume that each point or mile is worth an average of 1 cent, although you can certainly get a much higher (or lower) redemption value. See our travel loyalty roundup page for NerdWallet’s current valuations for airline miles and hotel points.
Travel credit cards fall into two main categories: co-branded and general-purpose.
- Co-branded travel cards carry the name of an airline or hotel chain. The rewards you earn on the card can typically be redeemed only with that brand (or maybe its partners). Co-branded cards limit your flexibility, but because they are issued in partnership with an airline or hotel, they can give you special perks, like free checked bags or room upgrades.
- General-purpose travel cards are issued by a credit card company and are not directly tied to any particular airline or hotel. They earn points in the issuer's own program, such as American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards® or Citi ThankYou. These points are a lot more flexible, as you can use them to pay for a range of travel expenses, including flights on any airline or stays at any hotel. However, they don’t offer the airline- or hotel-specific perks of co-branded cards.
Travel cards — like rewards cards in general — typically require good to excellent credit for approval. Good credit is generally defined as a credit score of 690 or better. However, credit scores alone do not guarantee approval. Every issuer has its own criteria for evaluating applications.