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5 Travel Rewards Credit Cards that Pay for Themselves

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Travel Rewards credit cards come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them you might get to earn a large sign-up bonus; others you might get for the benefits they offer with your airline or hotel of choice; and still others you might pick up for their lucrative bonus categories.

When you’re evaluating whether to keep a rewards credit card, you should weigh the value of both the points and benefits you get from it against the annual fee to see if holding onto it is justified. Some cards offer benefits with an uncertain value (like free checked bags on a co-branded airline when you don’t know how often you’ll actually fly with that carrier). If a benefit is difficult to use or just not particularly useful to you, then it’s clearly less valuable. However, some cards offer perks that so dramatically outweigh the cost of the annual fee, that holding onto them is a no-brainer.

Here are my picks of 5 travel rewards cards that more than pay for themselves year after year, and that you should think about keeping around for the long term.

intercontinental IHG hong kong featured
The IHG Rewards card offers an anniversary bonus of one free night at any IHG property, like the Intercontinental Hong Kong.

1. IHG Rewards Club Select Credit Card
Sign-up bonus: This card currently offers a sign-up bonus of 70,000 IHG Rewards points after you spend $2,000 in the first three months of cardmembership.
Top benefits: Get an annual free night at any IHG property each year on your account anniversary; Platinum Elite status; automatic 10% points rebate for award redemptions; earn 5x points on IHG no foreign transaction fees.
Annual Fee: $49, waived the first year.
Why you should keep it: The annual free night is good at any IHG property worldwide, which includes plenty of quality Intercontinental and Crowne Plaza hotels, as well as The Venetian and The Palazzo in Las Vegas. For more info on the free night certificate, see Jason Steele’s post on Maximizing the IHG Rewards Card for Free Nights.

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The Hyatt card offers an anniversary bonus of one free night at a category 1-4 property, like the category 3 Grand Hyatt in Bali.

2. The Hyatt Credit Card
Sign-up bonus: 2 free nights at Hyatt properties worldwide after you spend $1,000 in the first three months of cardmembership.
Top benefits: Get an annual free night at any Hyatt category 1-4 property each year on your account anniversary; Hyatt Gold Passport Platinum status; no foreign transaction fees.
Annual Fee: $75, waived the first year.
Why you should keep it: The annual free night can only be used at category 1-4 hotels, but there are plenty of worthwhile properties that fit the bill. For more info on the free night certificate, see Nick Ewen’s post on Maximizing Chase Hyatt Visa Free Night Certificates. I rarely use this card, but I keep my account open just for the free night, which easily pays for the $75 annual fee (and then some).

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The Club Carlson Premier Rewards card has one of the best travel perks out there: your last night is free for any award redemption of two or more nights.

3, Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature Card
Sign-up bonus: 50,000 points after your first purchase, plus 35,000 more after you spend $2,500 in the first three months of cardmembership.
Top benefits: Get your last night free for award redemptions of two or more nights; automatic Gold Elite status; anniversary bonus of 40,000 points.
Annual Fee: $85
Why you should keep it: In addition to the 40,000 points you earn on your account anniversary (worth $240 according to my latest monthly valuations), the last award night free benefit is one of the premier travel rewards offered with any credit card, possibly doubling the value of your points. For more info, check out Nick Ewen’s recent review.

The preview of the Chase Freedom 5% cash back categories for 2015 includes groceries, restaurants and gas stations.
The Chase Freedom gets you access to rotating 5% cash back categories with no annual fee.

4. Chase Freedom
Sign-up bonus: $100 after you spend $500 on purchases in the first three months of cardmembership. Earn another $25 after you add your first authorized user and make a purchase within the first three months.
Top benefits: Earn 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in purchases in rotating bonus categories each quarter. 0% introductory APR on purchases and balance transfers for the first 15 months.
Annual Fee: none.
Why you should keep it: 5x bonus categories and no annual fee make this card easy money. Plus, if you team it up with the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Chase Ink Plus, you can transfer points earned on your Freedom card to Ultimate Rewards, and then on to transfer partners like United, Southwest, Hyatt, Marriott, and more.

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You can stay at the JW Marriott Beijing with your annual free night certificate from the Marriott Rewards Premier card.

5.  Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card
Sign-up bonus: 70,000 Marriott Rewards points after you spend $2,000 in the first three months of cardmembership. Also, get one free night at a category 1-4 property.
Top benefits: Get a free night certificate for a category 1-5 property each year on your account anniversary; 15 credits toward elite status each year (enough for Silver elite status); 1 elite credit for every $3,000 spent annually.
Annual Fee: $85, waived the first year.
Why you should keep it: The annual free night certificate is like getting a 25,000 point bonus (worth $175 according to my valuations). Category 5 properties include the JW Marriott Beijing, where rooms in May go for 1,530 CNY, or $245.

IHG® Rewards Club Select Credit Card

Apply Now
  • Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months of account opening
  • Enjoy a free night each year of card membership at over 4,900 hotels worldwide
  • Earn 5 points for each $1 spent at our hotels
  • Earn 2 points per $1 spent on purchases at gas stations, grocery stores and restaurants
  • Bonus points redeemable at hotels such as Intercontinental® Hotels & Resorts, Crowne Plaza® Hotels & Resorts and Holiday Inn®
  • Automatic platinum elite status, as long as you remain a credit cardmember
  • $0 introductory annual fee the first year, then $49
Intro APR Regular APR Annual Fee Foreign Transaction Fee Credit Rating
N/A 16.24% -23.24% Variable $0 introductory annual fee the first year, then $49 0% Excellent Credit