BEST OF

14 Best Travel Credit Cards of May 2021

NerdWalletMay 6, 2021
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A travel rewards credit card brings your next trip a little closer every time you use it. Each purchase earns points or miles that you can redeem for travel expenses. If you're loyal to a specific airline or hotel chain, consider that company's branded credit cards. Otherwise, check out the general-purpose travel cards on this page, which give you flexible rewards that you can use without the restrictions and blackout dates of branded cards.

Some of our selections for the best travel credit cards can be applied for through NerdWallet, and some cannot.  Below, you'll find application links for the credit cards from our partners that are available through NerdWallet, followed by the full list of our picks.

NerdWallet's Best Travel Credit Cards of May 2021

Best Travel Credit Cards From Our Partners

Our pick for

Flexibility + point transfers + big sign-up bonus

NerdWallet rating 

4.5

/5
Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card

on Chase's website

Annual Fee

$95

Rewards Rate

1x-2xPoints

Intro offer

80,000Points

Rec Credit Score

690-850Good - Excellent

Our pick for

No annual fee

NerdWallet rating 

4.3

/5
Bank of America Travel Rewards® Credit Card

on Bank of America's website

Annual Fee

$0

Rewards Rate

1.5xPoints

Intro offer

25,000Points

Rec Credit Score

690-850Good - Excellent

Our pick for

Big rewards on everyday spending

NerdWallet rating 

4.6

/5
American Express Premier Rewards Gold Credit Card

on American Express's website

Annual Fee

$250

Rewards Rate

1x-4xPoints

Intro offer

60,000Points

Rec Credit Score

690-850Good - Excellent

Our pick for

Bonus travel rewards + high-end perks

NerdWallet rating 

4.7

/5
Chase Chase Sapphire Reserve Credit Card

on Chase's website

Annual Fee

$550

Rewards Rate

1x-3xPoints

Intro offer

60,000Points

Rec Credit Score

720-850Excellent

Our pick for

Flat-rate travel rewards

NerdWallet rating 

5.0

/5
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

on Capital One's website

Annual Fee

$95

Rewards Rate

2xPoints

Intro offer

100,000Points

Rec Credit Score

690-850Good - Excellent

Our pick for

Cash back for travel bookings

NerdWallet rating 

5.0

/5
Chase Freedom Unlimited Credit Card

on Chase's website

Annual Fee

$0

Rewards Rate

1.5%-5%Cashback

Intro offer

$200

Rec Credit Score

690-850Good - Excellent

Our pick for

Triple points on multiple categories

NerdWallet rating 

4.6

/5
Citibank ThankYou Premier Credit Card

on Citibank's application

Annual Fee

$95

Rewards Rate

1x-3xPoints

Intro offer

60,000Points

Rec Credit Score

690-850Good - Excellent

Our pick for

Luxury travel perks

NerdWallet rating 

5.0

/5
American Express Platinum Credit Card

on American Express's website

Annual Fee

$550

Rewards Rate

1x-10xPoints

Intro offer

75,000Points

Rec Credit Score

690-850Good - Excellent

Our pick for

Cash back for travel bookings

NerdWallet rating 

5.0

/5
Chase Freedom Flex

on Chase's website

Annual Fee

$0

Rewards Rate

1%-5%Cashback

Intro offer

$200

Rec Credit Score

690-850Good - Excellent

Our pick for

Airline credit card

NerdWallet rating 

5.0

/5
American Express Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card

on American Express's website

Annual Fee

$0 intro for the first year, then $99

Rewards Rate

1x-2xMiles

Intro offer

40,000Miles

Rec Credit Score

690-850Good - Excellent

Our pick for

Hotel credit card

NerdWallet rating 

5.0

/5
World Of Hyatt Credit Card

on Chase's website

Annual Fee

$95

Rewards Rate

1x-9xPoints

Intro offer

30,000Points

Rec Credit Score

690-850Good - Excellent

Our pick for

Business travelers — bonus rewards + big sign-up offer

Small-business credit cards aren't just for people with storefronts or offices. If you're a freelancer, have a "side hustle" or do gig work, you may a good candidate for a small-business credit card, too. Having a dedicated card for your money-making enterprise helps you keep business and personal finances separate.

NerdWallet rating 

5.0

/5
Chase Ink Business Preferred Credit Card

on Chase's website

Annual Fee

$95

Rewards Rate

1x-3xPoints

Intro offer

100,000Points

Rec Credit Score

690-850Good - Excellent

Our pick for

Business travelers — perks

NerdWallet rating 

5.0

/5
The Business Platinum® Card from American Express OPEN Credit Card

on American Express's website

Annual Fee

$595

Rewards Rate

1x-5xPoints

Intro offer

100,000Points

Rec Credit Score

690-850Good - Excellent

Our pick for

Business travelers — simple rewards

NerdWallet rating 

4.9

/5
Capital One Spark Miles Credit Card

on Capital One's website

Annual Fee

$0 intro for the first year, then $95

Rewards Rate

2xPoints

Intro offer

50,000Points

Rec Credit Score

690-850Good - Excellent

FULL LIST OF EDITORIAL PICKS: BEST TRAVEL CREDIT CARDS

Click the card name to read our review. Before applying, confirm details on the issuer’s website.

Our pick for: Flat-rate rewards

The Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card is probably the best-known general-purpose travel credit card, thanks to its ubiquitous advertising. You earn 2 miles per dollar on all purchases, and miles can be redeemed at a value of 1 cent apiece for any travel purchase, without the blackout dates and other restrictions of branded hotel and airline cards. The card offers a great sign-up bonus and other worthwhile perks. Read our review.

Our pick for: Flat-rate rewards + no annual fee

One of the best no-annual-fee travel cards available, the Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card gives you a solid rewards rate on every purchase, with points that can be redeemed for any travel purchase, without the restrictions of branded airline and hotel cards. Bank of America® has an expansive definition of "travel," too, giving you additional flexibility in how you use your rewards. Read our review.

Our pick for: Bonus travel rewards + high-end perks 

The high annual fee on the Chase Sapphire Reserve® gives many potential applicants pause, but frequent travelers should be able to wring enough value out of this card to more than make up for the cost. A fat sign-up bonus, annual travel credits, airport lounge access, 3X points on travel and dining, and a 50% boost in point value when you redeem for travel booked through Chase all add to the appeal. Points can also be transferred to about a dozen airline and hotel partners. Read our review. 

Our pick for: Flexibility + point transfers + big sign-up bonus

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card earns 2X points on travel and dining for a reasonable annual fee. Points are worth 25% more when you redeem them for travel booked through Chase, or you could transfer them to about a dozen airline and hotel partners. The sign-up bonus is stellar, too. Read our review. 

Our pick for: Triple points in multiple categories

The Citi Premier® Card earns bonus points on airfare, hotels, supermarkets, dining and gas stations. There's a solid sign-up bonus as well. Read our review.

Our pick for: Cash back for travel bookings

The Chase Freedom Unlimited® was already a fine card when it offered 1.5% cash back on all purchases. Now it's even better, with bonus rewards on travel booked through Chase, as well as at restaurants and drugstores. On top of all that, new cardholders get a 0% introductory APR period and the opportunity to earn a sweet cash bonus. Read our review.

Our pick for: Cash back for travel bookings

The Chase Freedom Flex℠ offers bonus cash back in quarterly categories that you activate, as well as on travel booked through Chase, at restaurants and at drugstores. Category activation can be a hassle, but if your spending matches the categories — and for a lot of people, it will — you can rack up hundreds of dollars a year. There's a fantastic bonus offer for new cardholders and a 0% intro APR period, too. Read our review.

Our pick for: Luxury travel perks 

The Platinum Card® from American Express comes with a hefty annual fee, but travelers who like to go in style (and aren't afraid to pay for comfort) can more than get their money's worth. Enjoy extensive airport lounge access, hundreds of dollars a year in travel and shopping credits, hotel benefits and more. That's not even getting into the high rewards rate on eligible travel purchases and the rich bonus offer for new cardholders. Read our review.

Our pick for: Big rewards on everyday spending  

The American Express® Gold Card can earn you a pile of points from everyday spending, with generous rewards at U.S. supermarkets, at restaurants worldwide and on certain flights booked through amextravel.com. Other benefits include hundreds of dollars a year in available dining and travel credits and a solid bonus offer for new cardholders. There's an annual fee, though, and a pretty substantial one, so it's not for smaller spenders. Read our review.

Our pick for: Airline credit card

The Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card pays bonus rewards not only on Delta flights but also at restaurants worldwide and at U.S. supermarkets, making it the rare airline card that's great for everyday spending. A best-in-class checked-bag benefit (first bag free for you and up to eight others on your reservation), priority boarding and the opportunity to earn a flight credit each year make this card a bargain for Delta stalwarts. Read our review.

» Not a Delta flyer? See our best airline cards for other options.

Our pick for: Hotel credit card

Hyatt isn't as big as its competitors, but World of Hyatt Credit Card is worth a look for anyone who spends a lot of time on the road. You can earn a lot of points even on non-Hyatt spending, and those points have a high value compared with rival programs. There's a great sign-up bonus, free nights, automatic elite status and more. Read our review.

» Not a Hyatt customer? See our best hotel cards for other options.

Our pick for: Small business — bonus categories + big sign-up offer 

The Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card starts you off with one of the biggest sign-up bonuses of any credit card anywhere (assuming you spend enough to earn it), then gives you bonus rewards in common business spending categories. Points are worth 25% more when redeemed for travel booked through Chase, or you can transfer them to about a dozen airline and hotel partners. Read our review.

Our pick for: Small business — simple travel rewards

The Capital One Spark Miles for Business is basically a business version of the popular Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card. You earn 2 miles per dollar on all purchases, and miles can be redeemed at a value of 1 cent apiece for any travel purchase, without the blackout dates and other restrictions of branded hotel and airline cards. The card offers a great sign-up bonus, too. Read our review.

Our pick for: Small business — travel perks

Like the consumer version of this card, The Business Platinum Card® from American Express comes with a big annual fee. But business travelers who prefer to go in style will find plenty that appeals to them: high rewards on certain travel purchases, bonus rewards on larger non-travel purchases, a superb newcomer bonus offer, extensive airport lounge access, elite hotel status, hundreds of dollars a year in available credits and a list of perks as long as your arm. It's not cheap, but luxury never is. Terms apply. Read our review.

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 miles are worth, NerdWallet researched the cash prices and reward-redemption values for hundreds of flights. Our results:

AIRLINE MILE VALUES

Program

Mile value

1 cent

1 cent

0.9 cent

0.3 cent

1.1 cents

1.1 cents

1.6 cents

1 cent

HOTEL POINT VALUES

Program

Point value

0.7 cent

0.4 cent

2 cents

0.9 cent

0.9 cent

0.3 cent

0.9 cent

For details about our methodology, see our valuations page.

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 on our valuations page, 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.

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.

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.

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.

To view rates and fees of the American Express® Gold Card, see this page. To view rates and fees of The Platinum Card® from American Express, see this page. To view rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card, see this page. To view rates and fees of The Business Platinum Card® from American Express, see this page.

Last updated on May 6, 2021

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.

Frequently asked questions