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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here – Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express, Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard
It’s a new year, which means it’s time to reevaluate your credit card portfolio and strategize for the travel rewards you hope to earn in 2015.
Credit cards are the single most lucrative way to rack up points and miles to travel the world. Personally, my own cards have allowed me to circle the globe in first class time and again on some of the world’s best airlines, and to stay in amazing hotels all over the world—all for less than I would pay to fly domestically in coach and stay in a youth hostel.
If you have good credit and spend responsibly, you can leverage your finances to earn the points and miles to get where you need or want to go. In this post I’ll lay out some basic guidelines for credit card applications, and offer my picks for the top travel rewards credit cards in 2015.
The Application Process
As you prepare to apply for a new credit card (or cards), it’s a good idea to get a snapshot of your financial situation by checking your credit. It’s imperative to build and maintain a strong credit profile, especially for rewards credit cards, which are premium products and often have a higher APR.
As you get started, see these posts for tips on checking your credit and applying:
- How to Check Your Credit – Preparing for the Credit Card Application Process
- When to Cancel a Card – My Personal Card Inventory and Decision Process
- How Credit Card Applications Affect Your Credit Score
Be sure to check your FICO score—a number between 300-850 issued by the Fair Isaac Company based on your credit—which is a good way to estimate your credit score and whether your credit card applications will be successful.
The five factors that determine your score are:
Scores over 700 are generally considered “good,” and credit card companies generally don’t differentiate much between scores in the 720-850 range.
Anyone with a U.S. Social Security number is entitled to a free credit report each year from each of the three major credit reporting agencies (TransUnion, Experian and Equifax) at annualcreditreport.com. However, if you want your actual FICO score, you’ll have to pay $19.95 through myfico.com directly.
You can also use free services like Credit Sesame and Credit Karma, which will give you their own risk analysis and overall score, but it won’t be the actual score credit card companies use to judge your creditworthiness.
Finally, several credit cards, including the Barclaycard Arrival Plus and the Discover It cards, offer cardholders their FICO score for free, so you can check your score simply by logging into your online account.
When you’ve checked your score and decide to submit your credit card applications, here are the cards you should consider first to start amassing points and miles.
The Top Travel Credit Cards
This is not a list of every offer on the market. For that I recommend checking out the TPG Hot Deals page, where you’ll find a comprehensive roundup of the best deals currently available, as well as specific hotel and airline credit cards that might interest you.
However, if you’re looking to apply for a credit card now, this list features the top options. Check back each month for updates and the latest, best offers out there.
Here’s the short list of cards, but continue reading below for more details.
- Chase Sapphire Preferred
- Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard
- The Platinum Card from American Express
- Citi ThankYou Premier Card
- Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve
- Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite MasterCard
- Citi Prestige
- Starwood Preferred Guest American Express
Here are the details on each card, including their most valuable benefits, why you should consider getting them now, and what else you need to know before applying.
1. Chase Sapphire Preferred
Current Bonus: 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points when you spend $4,000 in 3 months, plus 5,000 points when you add an authorized user and make a purchase on the card within the first 3 months.
Spending Bonuses: 2 points per $1 on travel (which includes flights, hotels, car rentals, subways, parking, taxis, etc.) and restaurants (basically any food establishment and catering) with no maximum caps.
Benefits: Points are worth 1.25 cents when redeemed for airfare, hotel, car rentals, and cruises through the Chase Ultimate Rewards Travel Center. So the sign-up bonus is worth a minimum of $500 toward travel, though I value it much higher. The card waives foreign transaction fees, and offers extra earning potential through the Ultimate Rewards shopping portal. Redeem for Ultimate Rewards Exclusives experiences. Get Visa Signature perks and protections, and Chip + Signature technology
Transfer Partners: United, British Airways, Southwest, Korean Air, Virgin Atlantic, Singapore Airlines Krisflyer, Hyatt, Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, IHG.
Annual Fee: $95, waived the first year
Why get it? Since its launch a few years ago, the Chase Sapphire Preferred has been one of my top all around travel credit cards, and is often my answer to the question I’m asked most, which is “what is the one travel credit card I should get?” While the answer really depends on how you plan to use your points, the Sapphire Preferred has a lucrative earning potential, great travel transfer partners, useful benefits like no forex fees, primary rental car insurance, and more.
Alternative: If you already have the Sapphire Preferred, but want to continue boosting your Ultimate Rewards balance, you can consider getting Chase’s Ink Plus business card, which comes with a sign-up bonus of 60,000 points when you spend $5,000 in the first 3 months, and a host of other benefits such as 5x points per $1 on telecommunications and at office stores, and 2x points per $1 at gas stations and hotels.
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
Chase Ultimate Rewards adds Singapore Airlines as 11th Transfer Partner
2. Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard
Current Bonus: 40,000 miles when you spend $3,000 in the first 90 days
Benefits: Earn 2 miles per dollar spent on all purchases, and receive 5% of your miles back when you redeem for travel. Get complimentary membership in TripIt Pro. The card has no foreign transaction fees and EMV chip technology.
Annual Fee: $89, waived the first year
Why get it? The sign-up bonus is worth roughly $400 toward travel, which is basically free money since there’s no annual fee for the first year. It’s great for award ticket fees, train tickets, car rentals, and other expenses you can’t usually use cover with travel points. I personally like this card because it comes with Chip + Pin technology for extra security, and no foreign transaction fees, making it easy to use abroad.
For more information on this card, read my review here, and then check out these posts for details on its Travel Bonus Category and Redemption Options, the Top 10 Ways to Maximize Barclaycard Arrival Miles, Analyzing the Barclaycard Arrival 2.27% Return on Travel Spending, and New Barclaycard Arrival Capabilities.
Alternative: Barclaycard also offers a no-annual fee version of this card, though only travel and dining purchases earn 2x miles per $1 on that one, while all other purchases earn 1x. However, since the first year’s annual fee is waived for the premium version, you can sample the full benefits before downgrading if you so choose.
3. Platinum Card from American Express
Current Bonus: 40,000 points when you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months.
Benefits: This is one of the most premium cards on the market, and it comes with an array of valuable benefits, including a $200 yearly airline rebate, Delta and Priority Pass lounge access, a Global Entry application rebate (see posts below for more info), and complimentary Boingo WiFi.
Annual Fee: $450
Why get it? Though this card has a hefty annual fee, it has a tremendous number of valuable perks that you can learn more about in the posts linked to below. If you can maximize benefits like the $200 annual rebate for airline incidentals, lounge access, the Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts program, and Global Entry or TSA PreCheck fee refunds, you’ll come out way ahead. Some folks report getting targeted sign-up bonus offers for this card in the range of 75,000-100,000 points, so be sure to check any credit card mailers before you toss them in case you’ve been pre-selected.
Alternative: If you’re balking at that hefty annual fee and unsure you’ll maximize the benefits, but still want a solid earner in the Amex Membership Rewards portfolio, consider the EveryDay Preferred card. It comes with a sign-up bonus of 15,000 points when you spend $1,000 in 3 months, earns 3x points at US supermarkets on up to $6,000 annually, 2x at US gas stations, and 1x on everything else. If you use the card to make 30 or more purchases in a billing period, you’ll earn 50% more points on all those purchases. The annual fee is $95
For more information, check out these posts:
- American Express Platinum Card Sign-Up Bonus Increased to 40,000 Points – Worth it?
- My Experience Getting Refunded for the Global Entry Application Fee with My Amex Platinum Card
- Is the Amex Platinum Worth the $450 Annual Fee?
- Maximizing the Amex Platinum $200 Annual Airline Rebate
- Understanding the Amex Platinum Lounge Access Benefit
- The Amex Platinum Fine Hotels & Resorts Program
- New American Express Platinum Card Benefits
4. Citi ThankYou Premier
Current Bonus: 30,000 points when you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months of the second year of cardmembership.
Benefits: Earn 3x ThankYou Points for every dollar spent on dining at restaurants and entertainment, and 2x points per dollar on airfare and hotels. Earn 1 point per dollar on all other purchases. Citi ThankYou also now has 10 transfer partners, including Air France/KLM Flying Blue, Cathay Pacific Asia Miles, Singapore Airlines Krisflyer, and Hilton HHonors. This card also features EMV chip technology, no foreign transaction fees, and Citi Price Rewind.
Annual Fee: $125, waived the first year.
Why get it? There are a lot of reasons to consider the Citi ThankYou Premier, including the current sign-up bonus, the recent improvements to the ThankYou Rewards program, and the category spending bonuses on dining, entertainment, airfare, and hotels.
Alternative: If you want to earn Citi ThankYou points but don’t want to pay the annual fee, your best bet might be the Citi ThankYou Preferred Card. This card earns 2x points per dollar on dining and entertainment, then 1 point per $1 on everything else.
5. 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 spending $2,500 in 4 months.
Benefits: Earn 10x HHonors points for every $1 spent on hotel stays within the Hilton Worldwide portfolio, 5x points for every $1 spent on airline and car rental purchases, and 3x points for every $1 spent on all other purchases. Get automatic Hilton HHonors Gold status, and earn Diamond status with $40,000 in annual spending. The card has no foreign transaction fees, SmartChip technology, and Visa Signature benefits. Cardholders who spend $10,000 annually get an anniversary free weekend night certificate that can be used at any Hilton property.
Annual Fee: $95
Why get it? The two free weekend nights and anniversary weekend night after spending $10,000, plus automatic Gold status and the ability to earn Diamond status all make this card a top choice for Hilton fans. However, the sign-up bonus alone can provide enormous value depending on where you redeem those weekend night certificates.
For more information, check out these posts:
- Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card Review
- Maximizing Citi Hilton Reserve Free Nights
- Deciding Between the HHonors Reserve and the Chase Hyatt Visa
6. Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite MasterCard
Current Bonus: 50,000 AAdvantage Miles after $3,000 spend within the first 3 months.
Benefits: Get a free checked bag for you and up to 4 companions. Earn 2 miles per dollar spent on American Airlines and US Airways purchases. Get group 1 boarding and save 25% on eligible in-flight purchases. Receive 10% of your redeemed miles back up to 10,000 miles per calendar year.
Annual Fee: $95 waived the first year
Why get it? As part of the merger between American Airlines and US Airways, the US Airways World MasterCard is no longer available so this card is your best option for earning AA miles.
If you were a US Airways cardholder prior to the merger you should have received notice that your card will be converted to an AAdvantage Aviator Red card.
Current Bonus: 40,000 ThankYou Points after $4,000 spent within the first 3 months.
Benefits: This is Citi’s premium card that comes with a host of great benefits like a $250 Air Travel Credit each year, complimentary 4th night free on any hotel stay, 3x points earned on Air Travel and Hotels, 2x earned on dining and entertainment and 1 point on other purchases. Cardholders will also receive a $100 Global Entry fee credit and Priority Pass and Admirals Club lounge access.
Annual Fee: $450
Why get it? The Citi Prestige card comes with a bunch of value-added benefits that can make its $450 annual fee more than worthwhile. The annual $250 air travel credit covers more than half the annual fee, and Citi made a ton of improvements to the ThankYou program in general over the last year, including the addition of new transfer partners (and there may be more to come). I value Citi ThankYou Points at 1.6 cents apiece, in my latest monthly valuations, meaning the value of the sign-up bonus is worth a minimum of $800 in award travel.
8. Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express
Current Bonus: Up 25,000 Starpoints—10,000 with your first purchase, and another 15,000 after spending $5,000 in the first 6 months of Cardmembership.
Category Spending Bonuses: 2x points on Starwood purchases, 1x on other purchases.
Benefits: Get 5,000 bonus miles when you transfer 20,000 Starpoints to any of the 30 airline transfer partners. Earn 2 stays/5 nights credit toward elite status qualification.
Annual Fee: $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $65.
Why get it? This card is great for any purchases that don’t earn a category spending bonus on other cards, because Starpoints are one of the most valuable currencies out there (I currently value them at 2.4 cents apiece). If you spend a lot at SPG properties, you can’t beat the earning rate here, and you can get Gold status automatically by spending $30,000 on the card in a year. Furthermre, having the card gives you 2 stays/5 nights of elite credit each year automatically, and that airline transfer bonus is pretty compelling.
For more information, check out these posts:
Maximizing Starwood Cash & Points Awards While this premium card has one of the highest annual fees on the market, it has several valuable perks that could make it worthwhile, depending on your travel patterns. These include a $200 annual airline rebate, lounge access, free Hilton Gold status and free Starwood Preferred Guest Gold status.
Starwood “Enhances” Cash & Points Awards
Major Starwood Preferred Guest Elite Enhancements
Maximizing Starwood Preferred Guest Airline Transfers
While this premium card has one of the highest annual fees on the market, it has several valuable perks that could make it worthwhile, depending on your travel patterns. These include a $200 annual airline rebate, lounge access, free Hilton Gold status and free Starwood Preferred Guest Gold status.