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12 Best Starter Travel Rewards Cards for 2016

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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here – Citi ThankYou Premier, Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard, Citi Hilton HHonors Visa Signature Card

If you’re you new to the pursuit of travel rewards or you just don’t have much experience with travel rewards credit cards, a “starter card” is a great place to begin. TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Jason Steele explains how these types of cards offer solid value from day one, along with reasonable annual fees and rewards that are easy to redeem.

In today’s post, I want to look at what makes a travel rewards credit card ideal for someone who’s just starting out. Below, you’ll find details on 12 of the best starter travel reward cards this year.

Travel Rewards Credit Cards for Beginners

There are plenty of great cards with annual fees under $100, which is ideal when you're just starting out.
There are plenty of great cards with annual fees less than $100, which is ideal when you’re just starting out.

I still recall the feeling of being overwhelmed by all of the information contained in forums like FlyerTalk and sites like The Points Guy when I first got into the points and miles hobby. Here are some tips for those of you in that position today:

Start simple — There are some great travel rewards deals out there, but many of them require going through half a dozen hoops before you see any value. I’m talking about programs that allow you to transfer points to a dozen different airlines (some of them based in foreign countries and with less-than-optimal customer service) to book travel on one their partner carriers, which may or may not appear on their website. I spend all day studying this stuff, and it can still take me hours to put together a complicated award trip, so I know how much beginners can be discouraged by this process. Instead, those new to the game should focus on the more simple credit card rewards programs that offer solid, if not extreme, value.

Watch out for annual fees — Beginners can also be discouraged by a large annual fee in their first credit card statement. Of course, annual fees are the price of admission we all must pay in order to enjoy some of the best travel rewards credit cards, but beginners should start off slow. While there are many travel rewards cards with annual fees of up to $450, there are also plenty of great cards with annual fees less than $100. And of those, many waive the annual fee for the first year, giving you some time to try the card at no cost.

Be careful with minimum spending requirements — Some of the top reward credit cards have large minimum spending requirements that must be met within a specified amount of time in order to receive the sign-up bonus. These offers can be a great way to jump-start your reward balances, but only if you can comfortably meet the requirements. Thankfully, there are some excellent travel rewards credit cards with reasonable minimum spending requirements, and even some that have none at all!

Here are 12 cards that are perfect for beginning award travelers:

1. Chase Sapphire Preferred

The Chase Sapphire Preferred earns valuable Ultimate Rewards points that can be redeemed with a variety of travel partners.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred earns valuable Ultimate Rewards points that can be redeemed with a variety of travel partners.

The beauty of this card is that you earn Ultimate Rewards points, which can be simply redeemed for 1.25 cents each toward airfare, hotels, rental cars, cruises and activities using Chase’s Ultimate Rewards travel portal. Then, as you get to know the ropes, you can transfer your rewards to airline and hotel programs including British Airways, Hyatt, Southwest and United. New cardholders can currently earn 50,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening, and another 5,000 bonus points after adding an authorized user who makes a purchase in the same first three months. There’s a $95 annual fee for this card that’s waived the first year, and no foreign transaction fees. For more information, read TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Nick Ewen’s post, 5 Reasons Chase Sapphire Preferred Should Be Your First Card in 2016.

2. United MileagePlus Explorer Card

Enjoy elite-like United benefits and more with the United MileagePlus Explorer Card.
Enjoy elite-like United benefits and more with the United MileagePlus Explorer Card.

This card offers new applicants 30,000 bonus miles after spending just $1,000 in purchases within the first three months of account opening. It features benefits like a free checked bag for the cardholder and a traveling companion, priority boarding and two free United Club passes each year. Miles can be redeemed for flights on United and partner carriers, including those in the Star Alliance. It comes with a $95 annual fee, which is waived for the first year.

Plus, the card also offers an unpublished benefit of additional Saver award availability when you log in to your account, which helps you get more value from your miles worth more. For more information, read my post, Unlocking United Award Availability with MileagePlus Cards.

3. Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card

Earn an annual companion ticket and enjoy a sign-up bonus without a spending requirement with the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card.
Earn an annual companion ticket and enjoy a sign-up bonus without a spending requirement with the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card.

This card offers 30,000 bonus miles after $1,000 spent within the first 90 days. Miles can be redeemed for travel on Alaska Airlines as well as its diverse array of partners including American Airlines, Air France, British Airways, Delta Air Lines, Emirates, Fiji Airways and Qantas.

Card benefits include a free checked bag for the primary cardholder as well as up to six companions traveling on the same reservation. You also get an annual coach companion fare for $99 plus taxes. This card offers 3x miles on all Alaska purchases and one mile per dollar spent elsewhere, and it comes with a $75 annual fee.

4. Citi ThankYou Premier

The Citi ThankYou Premier offers some great bonus categories.
The Citi ThankYou Premier offers some great bonus categories.

This card is offering new applicants 50,000 Citi ThankYou points after spending $3,000 on new purchases within three months of account opening. These points are worth $500 in gift cards and $625 in airfare, hotels, cruises and car rentals booked directly through Citi’s ThankYou travel center.

Rewards include 3x points on for travel and gas purchases, 2x points for dining and entertainment and 1 point per dollar for all other purchases. You can also transfer your points to miles with 11 other carriers plus Hilton Hotels. Sure, this adds another level of complexity, but you can ignore this option, and still receive great value by using your points to book airfare through Citi. And when you do, you will also earn miles for your flights and be eligible for upgrades if you already hold elite status. There’s a $95 annual fee for this card that’s waived the first year, and no foreign transaction fees.

5. Hyatt Credit Card 

Redeem your two free-night certificates from the Hyatt Card at high-end properties like the Park Hyatt Zurich.
Redeem your two free-night certificates from the Hyatt Card at high-end properties like the Park Hyatt Zurich.

This hotel rewards credit card offers an incredibly valuable sign-up bonus that’s easy to redeem. New applicants receive two free nights at any Hyatt hotel after spending just $1,000 within three months of account opening. Consider that there are some Hyatt properties that sell for nearly $1,000 per night, this is a fantastic offer. Other benefits include instant Platinum status in the Gold Passport program, which offers complimentary room upgrades, late checkouts and bonus points. Hyatt is also offering new cardholders an additional 5,000 bonus points for adding an authorized cardholder who makes a purchase within three months of account opening. Finally, cardholders receive a free night in a category 1-4 hotel each year upon card’s renewal. There’s a $75 annual fee for this card that’s waived the first year, and no foreign transaction fees.

6. Citi Hilton HHonors Visa Signature Card

With the Citi Hilton HHonors Visa Signature Card, you'll enjoy Hilton HHonors Silver status.
With the Citi Hilton HHonors Visa Signature Card, you’ll enjoy Hilton HHonors Silver status.

This is one of the rare travel reward credit cards that doesn’t have an annual fee. New cardholders receive 75,000 bonus points after spending $2,000 on new purchases within four months of account opening. Cardholders also receive instant HHonors Silver status, which offers a 15% points bonus, a fifth night free on award reservations and late checkouts. When using this card, you’ll earn 6 points per dollar spent at Hilton hotels and resorts, 3 points per dollar spent at supermarkets, drugstores and gas stations and 2 points per dollar spent on all other purchases.

7. Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard

This card offers new applicants 40,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 within 90 days of account opening. Miles are worth one cent each as statement credits toward travel purchases, and you receive a 5% rebate on the mileage you redeem. As a World Elite MasterCard, it offers travel benefits such as elite status with Avis, National and Sixt rent a car. For more information on these benefits, see my post, World Elite vs. World MasterCard: Benefits and Value. There’s an $89 annual fee for this card that’s waived the first year.

8. Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

Earn 2x miles on all purchases with the Capital One Venture Rewards Card.
Earn 2x miles on all purchases with the Capital One Venture Rewards Card.

The Venture card offers new applicants 40,000 bonus miles (worth $400 in travel) after spending $3,000 within three months of account opening, plus 2x miles per dollar spent on all purchases. As with the Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card, miles are worth one cent each as statement credits toward travel purchases, and benefits include the Capital One’s Credit Tracker app. This card has a $59 annual fee that’s waived the first year, and no foreign transaction fees.

9. Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard

Redeem miles from the Arrival World MasterCard toward travel expenses like American flights.
Redeem miles from the Arrival World MasterCard toward travel expenses like American flights.

The Barclaycard Arrival is the no-annual-fee version of the Arrival Plus. It offers 20,000 bonus miles after new cardholders spend just $1,000 on new purchases within 90 days of account opening. As with the Arrival Plus, miles are worth one cent apiece as statement credits toward travel purchases, and you receive a 5% rebate on the mileage you redeem. There are no foreign transaction fees on this card.

10. Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card

Redeem miles from the Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card toward travel expenses such as cruises. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Redeem miles from the VentureOne Rewards Credit Card toward travel expenses such as cruises. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

The VentureOne Rewards Credit Card offers new applicants 20,000 bonus miles after spending just $1,000 within three months of account opening, and you get 1.25 miles per dollar spent on all purchases. Miles are simply worth one cent each as statement credits toward travel purchases including airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises. To redeem your reward miles for travel, you simply purchase reservations the way that you normally would, and then claim your reward miles online using Capital One’s Purchase Eraser. Other benefits include Capital One’s Credit Tracker, which offers you a free monthly credit score. This card has no annual fee and no foreign transaction fees.

11. Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Card

Work toward the valuable Companion Pass by earning the sign-up benefit with the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Card.
Work toward the valuable Companion Pass by earning the sign-up benefit with the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Card.

This card offers new applicants 50,000 bonus points after they spend $2,000 on purchases within three months of account opening. Points are worth approximately 1.4 cents each toward airfare in their lowest fare class, called “Wanna Get Away.” Bonus points also count toward Southwest’s valuable Companion Pass benefit. The best thing is that with Southwest’s Rapid Rewards program, there are no change fees, so you can move your flights around with no penalty and even receive points back when you cancel. There’s a $99 annual fee for this card, and you get 6,000 bonus points each year upon renewal.

12. Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express

The new SPG American Express card.
The SPG American Express card.

This is a great card for both beginners and advanced users. New cardholders start with 25,000 Starpoints after making $3,000 in purchases within three months of account opening. Plus, according to TPG’s latest valuations, Starwood points are worth an impressive 2.5 cents each. These points are easy to use for hotel redemptions, since Starwood offers award nights in any unsold standard room, and when you book four award nights in a row, your fifth night is free. As you learn the ropes of award travel, you can start unlocking the numerous possibilities available when you transfer points to miles with 30-plus different airline programs. There’s a $95 annual fee for this card that’s waived the first year, and no foreign transaction fees.

Bottom Line

There are plenty of great cards to kick-start your points and miles strategy in 2016, and luckily many of them come with a low (or no) annual fee. Hopefully this list provides some ideas for cards that complement your travel plans and goals.

What is your favorite starter travel rewards credit card? Share in the comments below!

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

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  • Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $625 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Named Best Credit Card for Flexible Travel Redemption - Kiplinger's Personal Finance, July 2016
  • 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • Earn 5,000 bonus points after you add the first authorized user and make a purchase in the first 3 months from account opening
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 50,000 points are worth $625 toward travel
  • No blackout dates or travel restrictions - as long as there's a seat on the flight, you can book it through Chase Ultimate Rewards
Intro APR Regular APR Annual Fee Foreign Transaction Fee Credit Rating
N/A 16.24%-23.24% Variable Introductory Annual Fee of $0 the first year, then $95 0% Excellent Credit