Travel Tuesday Top 10: No Annual Fee Credit Cards for Travelers

by on July 3, 2012 · 11 comments

in American Express, Capital One, Cash Back Rewards, Chase, Citi, Credit Cards, Discover, PenFed, Top 10

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There are a lot of great rewards credit cards out there that offer lucrative sign-up bonuses and opportunities to redeem points and miles for fantastic travel options. One downside to many of them, though, is the annual fees many of them levy on cardholders each year for the privilege of earning those points and miles. Depending on the value you get out of each card, it may not make sense to keep an entire arsenal of these cards open since the fees can negate the value you receive, so I recommend always having a no-fee card you can fall back on for each of the major issuers. (Related: When Should I Cancel My Credit Card?) It’s always good to keep one card open to maintain the positive relationship with the credit card company, plus having accounts that have been open for a long time will help increase your credit score.

There are, however, a number of great credit cards that still earn you points to use for travel or cash back that won’t charge you a cent to carry them in your wallet:

Chase Freedom

1. Chase Freedom: This is a great card to carry because not only do you earn 1 point per $1 you spend on everyday purchases, but the card also gives cardholders 5x points on quarterly rotating bonus spend categories such as gas stations and restaurants (currently) up to $1,500 in spending each quarter. Additionally you will earn 1% cash bank on all other purchase. The current sign-up bonus is 10,000 points after $500 spent within 3 months, the equivalent of $100 cash back, though historically it has been up to 20,000 points. However, if you also have the Sapphire Preferred card, instead of liquidating these points for a penny each, you can transfer them to any of the Ultimate Rewards partners at an instant 1:1 ratio!

2. Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card: Cardholders of this Capital One card earn 1.25 points for every dollar they spend which can then be redeemed for travel at a fixed rate of 1 cent per point. These aren’t points to redeem for premium travel, but rather are good for people who are looking to purchase economy airfare on fixed dates without any blackout periods. The current sign-up bonus is 20,000 points when you spend $1,000 in 3 months. One other great perk this card has, however, is that there are no foreign transaction fees, so it’s a good one to take abroad with you.

3. Citi Forward Card for College Students: This is a good cash-back card that rewards its holders with 1 cent per point they rack up. Cardholders can Redeem points for things like statement credits, gift cards, electronics, student loans rebate and charitable donations. All purchases earn 1 point per dollar spent. But beyond the cash back, if you can also redeem ThankYou points at a rate of 1 cent each for travel through the ThankYou rewards portal. (Unfortunately, that’s not as good as the rate of 1.33 cents each you get with the Citi ThankYou Premier card.) Not only that, but since this card is geared toward young people building their credit, there are also special perks such as the bank will lower your APR for purchases by up to 2% when you make a purchase, stay under your credit limit, and pay on time 3 billing periods in a row (they will reduce it 0.25% every quarter, a maximum of 8 times). The current sign-up bonus is 2,500 points when you spend $500 within 3 months.

4. Amex Blue Sky: Update – this offer is no longer available. Cardholders earn just 1 point per dollar on all purchases, though because every 7,500 points can be redeemed for a $100 statement credit toward eligible travel expenses. They are essentially getting a 33% bonus on the worth of those points.  Cardholders have the freedom to use those statement credits with no blackout dates, so essentially they’re just purchasing airfare, hotel reservations, etc., and getting cash back on their statement for those expenses, meaning you can earn elite status and miles you make on these reservations. Cardholders also get discounts at select merchants including Marriott and Hertz through the Blue Savings Program.

Citi ThankYou Preferred

Update: The offer mentioned below for the Citi ThankYou Preferred card has expired. View the current offer here

5. Citi ThankYou Preferred: The current bonus for this card is 10,000 points after $1,500 spent in the first 3 months. You will earn an additional 20,000 points if you make another $3,000 in purchases within the next 3 months.Points can be used for cash back or redemption for gift cards and merchandise at the usual rate of 1 cent per point, but you can also use ThankYou points for travel at the rate of 1.33 cents each. Cardholders earn 1 point on every $1 they spend. Cardholders also receive anniversary bonuses (1% for 1 year–not including the sign-up bonus, 2% for their second year, and 3% for every year thereafter), so there are a few extra points coming your way for program loyalty sort of like the 7% annual dividend on the Chase Sapphire Preferred card.

Pen Fed Travel Rewards

6. PenFed Travel Rewards: Earn 5 points on airfare purchases and 1 point on all other purchases. Cardholders also enjoy complimentary 24-hour concierge service, free LOUNGE CLUB membership which gives access to airport lounges throughout the world (upon spending $15,000 on the card annually), and travel offers and discounts through the American Express Travel Privileges program. The current sign-up bonus is 20,000 bonus points when you spend $650 in the first 3 months of opening the card, worth over $200 toward your next round-trip airline ticket This card also charges no foreign transaction fees.

Discover More

7. Discover More: This card offers its holders 1% cash back on most purchases, 5% on certain spending categories that change periodically (for summer it’s gas stations, theme parks and movies), and between 5-20% on purchases made through the Discover online shopping mall. This cash back comes in the form of gift cards, merchandise or statement credits. Though you can’t use these points for travel, unfortunately, the great thing about cash back like this is you know exactly the amount of return you’re getting on each and every dollar that you spend, and if you’re just looking for a way to get some credit back on your monthly statement, this is a good card for you.

8. Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express (Update: This offer is no longer available): This versatile card is a good one for young people just starting out with credit since it’s all about the cash back. When you spend $1,000 within the first 3 months of membership, you get $100 Rewards Dollars. The first $6,000 of purchases at U.S. stand-alone supermarkets in a calendar year qualifies for 3% cash back; 1% thereafter. Cardholders can get 3% cash back at U.S. stand-alone supermarkets, 2% cash back on gasoline at U.S. stand-alone gas stations and select major department stores; 1% cash back on other purchases. Cardholders can simply take the cash back in statement credits, or redeem their points for merchandise or travel at the rate of 1 cent per point (for travel, merchandise varies). Plus, cardholders can take advantage of the Blue Savings program, and those who recommend the card to friends who apply and get it also earn $25 cash back per person. Not a bad referral fee.

Capital One LSU TIgers Mastercard

9. Capital One LSU Tigers Mastercard: You don’t have to be a die-hard Louisiana State Tigers fan to take advantage of this card (though it helps since the card designs are definitely campus-centric). Beyond the regional pride, however, this can be a great value card for young people since they earn 2 points per $1 on purchases at gas stations and major grocery stores and 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases. Points can then be redeemed for travel, cash back and merchandise, just like with Capital One’s other cards, though at a fixed rate of 1 cent per point for travel and cash back (merchandise and gift card rates vary). Perhaps even more valuable for those starting out with credit, this card (currently) carries a 0% APR on purchase (not balance transfers) until June 2013, and cardholders enjoy the full suite of Mastercard Platinum benefits including $0 fraud liability, travel services, and roadside assistance. Also great for students thinking of studying abroad? No foreign transaction fee on this card. One drawback: no sign-up bonus.

Citi Hilton Visa Signature

10. Citi Hilton Visa Signature: The current sign-up bonus on this card is now 40,000 Hilton HHonors points (enough for a free night at a Category 7 property like the The Drake in Chicago) when you spend $1,000 within 4 months. Cardholders earn 6 points per dollar spent at Hilton; 3 points at supermarkets, drugstores and gas stations; 2 points per dollar on phone, cable, satellite and internet bills; 2 points per dollar on everything else; and are awarded with automatic Hilton Silver status. Plus it’s a Visa Signature card, with a host of perks including travel experiences and discounts, restaurant and fine dining events, luxury hotel reservations and shopping discounts.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • Grant Thomas

    You can transfer citi forward points to your citi thank you card. Citi forward earns 5 pts/$ on restaurants and when transferred to citi thank you and redeemed for travel at a 33% bonus will net you 5(1.33) = 6.65 points per dollar for travel.

    I believe the citi forward card gives you an additional 1,000 points each month you pay your bill on time and stay under your credit limit.

    I thought the citi thank you cards had an annual fee too.

  • Mike H

    I thought the AMEX Hilton Honors (NOT the Surpass) was fee free as well, no? That would be my #2 on this list. I think hotel falls under “travelers”. I like the X they offer on basic every day categories and 40k in Honors points. The AMEX X is better than the Hilton X. Both cards together however with a combined $1,750 in spend would net 90k in Honors points, not a shabby start and from two different issuers.

  • matt greco

    quick note: chase checking is free if you have direct deposit of $500 or more each month, or $1500 MINIMUM DAILY BALANCE, not average daily balance. if for even one day your balance is $1499, you get charged a fee.

  • Todd

    I’m surprised that the BankAmericard Travel Rewards Visa Signature did not make this list. It gives 1.5 points per dollar spent which is slightly better than the Venture One card by Capital One. It also has no foreign transaction fees and has all of the Visa Signature benefits.

  • Pkirby78

    You get 100 thank you points a months not a thousand for the forward card. The thank you citi preferred card for the first 12 months parlayed with the forward and thnk you premier card gives you a phenomenal 5+ Ty pointsj on travel redemptions. I think ry shod ank higher thn e Amex and cap 1


    Amtrak card .

    Especially once United returns as 1:1 transfer partner.

  • Erik

    I have a quick question related to #1 Chase Freedom. Thanks in advance for any help.

    I want to find a way to meet direct deposit requirements on a checking account. I am self employed, so I don’t have any payroll direct deposit.

    I would really like to take advantage of having a Chase checking account to max out the Freedom card’s bonuses. I don’t have an extra $1,500 to park there to avoid the monthly fee.

    If I could make a Paypal or Amazon transfer look like direct deposit, I could easily meet requirements. (This would also be really useful for the SunTrust Delta Skymiles check card (I think that offer had bonus miles for direct deposit setup)

    Let me know if you have any ideas on how to send myself a qualifying direct deposit.

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