The Top 5 Credit Cards for Travel Rewards

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Since it’s a new year, I’ve already started to hear from a lot of friends and family that they are sick of seeing my amazing travels and not being able to go places themselves. So they’re going to buckle down in 2014 and get into the points and miles game, starting with applying for the right credit cards to get their points portfolios in shape. If you’ve got good credit and can pay off your bills in full every month, travel credit cards can be extremely lucrative and are the main way that I’m able to fly first class internationally and stay at some of the nicest hotels in the world- often for less cash outlay than if I paid to fly coach or stay in a hostel.

I recently transferred 60,000 Chase points to United to fly EVA Airlines to the Maldives in business class- a $4,000 ticket for $24 in taxes and fees.
I recently transferred 60,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points to United to fly EVA & Singapore Airlines to the Maldives in business class – a $4,000 ticket for $24 in taxes and fees.

For anyone else looking to get in the action, here are my picks the top five current credit card offers for beginners. I chose these because the sign-up bonuses are easy earn, the points or miles are easy to use, annual fees are reasonable and the cardholder benefits are valuable. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to use points or miles, the key is having those points or miles to use when you need them. For a full list of top deals, visit our TPG Top Deals page.

1. Chase Sapphire Preferred
Current Bonus: 40,000 points when you spend $3,000 in 3 months
Spending Bonuses:
2 points per $1 on travel (which includes flights, hotels, car rentals, subway, parking, taxis, etc.) and restaurants (basically any food establishment and catering) with no maximum caps.
Benefits:
Points are worth 1.25 cents when redeeming with pay-with-points for airfare, hotel, car rentals and cruises (that means the 40,000 sign-up bonus = $500 towards travel at the very minimum); no foreign transaction fees; extra earning potential through the Ultimate Rewards earning mall; Ultimate Rewards Exclusives experience redemptions, Visa Signature perks and protections, no foreign transaction fees and chip & signature technology
Transfer Partners:
United, British Airways, Southwest, Korean Air, Virgin Atlantic, Hyatt, Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, Priority Club, Amtrak.
Annual Fee:
$95, waived the first year

Why get it? A lot of people ask me what is the one travel credit card they should get, and while it really depends on what you’re hoping to use your points for, the core card I almost always recommend to friends and family is the Chase Sapphire Preferred. That’s because of its powerful earning potential, the ease of transferring to great partners, benefits like no foreign transaction fees (super important if you travel or use your card for foreign purchases), and the fact that even if you don’t use the transfer partners, that 40,000-point bonus is worth $500 in travel. But if you do maximize those travel partners, you can make out like a bandit. For example, I’m writing this post from my room at the newly opened Andaz Papagayo in Costa Rica, where rooms cost $600 a night or 22,000 Hyatt points (which transfer instantly at a 1:1 ratio from Chase Ultimate Rewards). So once you spend the $3,000 and get the 40,000-point bonus, that would be enough for 2 free nights, or $1,200 in value- all from a single credit card sign-up on a card that even has the first year annual fee waived.

My 2014 began at the Andaz Papagayo, thanks to my Chase points transferred to Hyatt Gold Passport at an instant 1:1 ratio
My 2014 began at the Andaz Papagayo, thanks to my Chase points transferred to Hyatt Gold Passport at an instant 1:1 ratio.

For more information, check out these posts:

Details on the Sapphire Preferred 2X on Travel
Ranking the Chase Ultimate Rewards Transfer Partners
Top 10 Ways To Maximize Each Ultimate Rewards Transfer Partner
Why I Love Chase Ultimate Rewards
Ranking the Top Chase Travel Credit Card Offers

2. Barclaycard Arrival Plus
Current Bonus: 40,000 miles with $3,000 spend in the first 90 days
Benefits: Earn 2 miles per dollar spent on all purchases and receive 10% of your miles back when you redeem on travel. Receive a complimentary membership to TripIt Pro. No foreign transaction fees and EMV chip technology. For more information on this card, read my review here, and then check out this post for details on its Travel Bonus Category and Redemption Options, and this one for ideas on the Top 10 Ways To Maximize Barclaycard Arrival Miles.
Annual Fee: $89 waived the first year

Why get it? The sign-up bonus is worth $440 towards travel, simply put. Since there is no annual fee the first year, so it is literally like free money, which is great for covering costs like award ticket fees, train tickets, car rentals, and other expenses you can’t usually use travel points for like b&b’s, Airbnb, car rentals and more.

3. Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve
Current Bonus: Two weekend night certificates, each good for one weekend night (standard room, double occupancy) at most hotels and resorts within the Hilton Worldwide portfolio, after $2,500 in eligible purchases within the first 4 months.
Category Spending Bonuses: 10 points for every $1 spent on hotel stays within the Hilton Worldwide portfolio; 5 points for every $1 spent on airline and car rental purchases; 3 points for every $1 spent on all other purchases.
Benefits: Automatic Hilton HHonors Gold status; Diamond status with $40,000 annual spend; no foreign transaction fees, SmartChip technology; Visa Signature benefits; cardholders who spend $10,000 annually get an anniversary free weekend-night certificate as well that can be used at any property
Annual Fee: $95

Why get it? Those two free nights you get as a sign-up and spending bonus are good at ANY hilton in the world, which can be an amazing value if you redeem at Hilton’s top properties where award nights can cost 95,000 points (for a standard room at the best rates), like I recently did at the Conrad Maldives. That equates to a 190,000-point bonus, or nearly $2,500 in value in my case.

I used my two free weekend nights to stay at the Conrad Maldives and then paid to upgrade to the overwater bungalow
I used my two free weekend nights to stay at the Conrad Maldives and then paid to upgrade to the overwater bungalow.

For more information, check out these posts:

Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card Review
Citi Hilton Honors Reserve Free Weekend Nights Valid at Category 1-10 Hotels
Deciding Between The HHonors Reserve And The Chase Hyatt Visa

4. Starwood Preferred Guest American Express
Current Bonus: Up 25,000 Starpoints – 10,000 with first purchase and another 15,000 with $5,000 spend in the first 6 months of Cardmembership
Category Spending Bonuses: 2x points on Starwood purchases, 1x on other purchases.
Benefits: Get 5,000 bonus Starpoints when you transfer 20,000 Starpoints to a frequent flyer program with more than 30 airlines; 2 stays/5 nights credit toward elite status qualification.
Transfer Partners: 30 airlines
Annual Fee: $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $65

Why get it? This card is great for spend when you can’t get a category spending bonus on other cards because Starpoints are one of the most valuable currencies out there. Plus, Amex has great purchase protections.

SPG points are great for airline transfers- Alaska airlines is one of my favorites, giving the ability to redeem for Emirates first class, which I recently flew on the A380
SPG points are great for airline transfers – Alaska Airlines is one of my favorites, giving the ability to redeem for Emirates first class, which I recently flew on the A380.

For more information, check out these posts:

Maximizing Starwood Cash & Points Awards
Starwood “Enhances” Cash & Points Awards
Major Starwood Preferred Guest Elite Enhancements
Maximizing Starwood Preferred Guest Airline Transfers

American Express Platinum 100,000 sign-up bonus through CardMatch
American Express Platinum 100,000 sign-up bonus through CardMatch

5. Platinum Card from American Express 
Current Bonus: targeted offer for 100,000 points when you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months available through the CardMatch tool). Otherwise, the current public offer is 40,000 points after you spend $3,000 in 3 months.
Benefits: This card also comes with an array of valuable benefits, including a $200 annual airline rebate, access to Delta and Priority Pass lounges (as well as the Amex Centurion Lounges), and a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application rebate (see posts below for more info).
Annual Fee: $450
Why get it? Though the annual fee on this card is among the highest on the market, it has several valuable perks that you can learn more about in the posts I’ve linked to below. If you can maximize benefits like the $200 annual airline rebate, lounge access, Fine Hotels & Resorts perks and credits, and Global Entry or TSA PreCheck fee refunds, you’ll come out way ahead. This card is worth having for the long-term, so you should look into it even if you aren’t targeted for the larger sign-up bonus.

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