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6 Best Cards for Your 2016 Travel Purchases

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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here – Citi ThankYou Premier

With countless rewards credit cards to choose from, TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Nick Ewen helps you sort out the best picks for earning bonus points on your travel purchases this year.

There are a variety of ways to make the most of your points and miles, whether it’s booking luxurious products that would otherwise be out of reach or taking advantage of the flexibility of transferable point programs. It’s also essential to have a solid strategy for opening and using credit cards, especially when it comes to category bonuses. Today I want to go through my list of the six best cards for your travel purchases in 2016.

Before I get into the list, I want to stress that I am focusing solely on cards that offer the best bang for your buck at a variety of merchants. As a result, I won’t include any airline or hotel co-branded credit cards unless they offer a broader bonus beyond the individual carrier or chain.

That doesn’t mean that you should ignore these cards; on the contrary, a loyal United flyer should definitely consider using the United MileagePlus Explorer Card when buying United tickets, while a regular SPG customer should think hard about using the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express at Starwood properties. This list, however, focuses on cards that offer widespread bonuses on travel purchases.

1. Citi ThankYou Premier Card

The first card on the list wouldn’t have been in the top spot just a year ago. However, the Citi ThankYou Premier Card overhauled its bonus categories back in April 2015, and two of the most significant changes applied to travel purchases:

  • Moving from 2x to 3x points per dollar spent
  • Expanding the definition of travel to include additional merchants like gas stations, tolls and parking (a complete list is available in Jason Steele’s post on what counts for Citi ThankYou Premier bonus categories)

This came less than a year after the ThankYou Rewards program underwent a significant change with the addition of eight new transfer partners (four more have since been added, most recently Virgin America). That has boosted ThankYou points to 1.6 cents apiece in TPG’s most recent valuations. You can also redeem them through the ThankYou Travel Center for 1.25 cents apiece.

Return on travel spending: 4.8%
Other benefits: 2x points on dining and entertainment purchases; no foreign transaction fees; access to the Citi Price Rewind program
Current sign-up bonus: 40,000 ThankYou points after you spend $3,000 in purchases within three months of account opening
Annual fee: $95 (waived for the first year)

For additional information on this card, check out the following posts:

  • Top 10 Uses for Citi ThankYou Premier’s 50k Sign-Up Bonus
  • One Year of Earning and Burning with the Citi ThankYou Premier
  • Redeeming Citi ThankYou Points for Maximum Value

2. Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

 The Chase Sapphire Preferred always earns a place on this list thanks to a higher sign-up bonus and its great benefits and points-earning potential.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred is another terrific card for your travel purchases in 2016.

The next card on the list is one that TPG uses for most of his purchases (a strategy that I follow as well): the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. The card offers 2x Ultimate Rewards points on a variety of travel expenses, including merchants like Uber and cruise lines. TPG pegs these points at 2.1 cents apiece, as they can be transferred to a variety of travel partners like Hyatt and United or can be used to book travel directly. Chase also recently increased the standard sign-up bonus on the card, making it a great time to apply for this card.

Return on travel spending: 4.2%
Other benefits: 2x points on dining; no foreign transaction fees; primary car rental coverage
Current sign-up bonus: 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months from account opening; plus earn an additional 5,000 points after you add the first authorized user and make a purchase in the first three months from account opening
Annual fee: $95 (waived for the first year)

For additional information on this card, check out the following posts:

3. BarclayCard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard

American Airlines plane 757 on tarmac featured
Any type of travel purchase (including taxes and fees on award tickets) can be covered using your Barclaycard Arrival Plus miles.

If you don’t want to bother with transferring points to partners, a great option for your travel purchases is the BarclayCard Arrival Plus. You earn 2 miles per dollar spent on all purchases (including travel), and then you can redeem those miles for statement credits to cover those travel expenditures. You’ll also get 5% of the redeemed miles back when you use them in this way (though it used to be 10% before last year’s devaluation).

Return on travel spending: 2.1%
Other benefits: No foreign transaction fees; World Elite MasterCard benefits
Current sign-up bonus: 40,000 miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 90 days
Annual fee: $89 (waived for the first year)

For additional information on this card, check out the following posts:

4. American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card

The Premier Rewards Gold card may be the best option, but you should consider both cards.
The Premier Rewards Gold card is a great choice for airfare purchases.

The next card on the list isn’t as universally rewarding when it comes to travel purchases, but it’s still a great option for a couple of reasons. For starters, it offers 3x Membership Rewards points on flights purchased directly with airlines, making it a terrific option for your airfare purchases. In addition, you’ll enjoy a $100 airline fee credit every calendar year (added as part of last year’s enhancements), which can be used for airline gift cards and even for Amazon gift cards. You’ll also enjoy access to The Hotel Collection, which includes benefits like a room upgrade and $75 hotel credit.

Return on travel spending (flights only): 5.7%
Other benefits: 2x Membership Rewards points on US restaurants, gas stations and supermarkets; no foreign transaction fees; high purchase protection
Current sign-up bonus: 25,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $2,000 in the first three months of cardmembership (though you’ll want to check the CardMatch Tool to see if you are targeted for a higher sign-up bonus)
Annual fee: $195 (waived for the first year)

For additional information on this card, check out the following posts:

5. Citi Prestige Card

Citi Prestige Featured
The Citi Prestige offers triple points on airfare and hotels plus additional benefits for each of those purchases.

If you are looking for a premium rewards credit card to make the most of your travel purchases in 2016, the Citi Prestige Card is a terrific option. The card offers 3x ThankYou points on airfare and hotel purchases, so while it’s not as varied as the bonus category on the Citi ThankYou Premier, it’s still a nice option. More importantly, the card carries two key benefits that can easily make up for the $450 annual fee when it comes to travel purchases:

Even if it isn’t the most lucrative option out there for all travel spending, these two perks make it a great choice to swipe when paying for airfare and hotel purchases in 2016.

Return on travel spending (flights and hotel): 4.8%
Other benefits: 2x ThankYou points on dining and entertainment; no foreign transaction fees; $100 Global Entry fee credit; three free rounds of golf each year; redeem points for American Airlines flights at 1.6 cents apiece
Current sign-up bonus: 50,000 ThankYou points after $3,000 in purchases within 3 months account opening
Annual fee: $450

For additional information on this card, check out the following posts:

6. Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier Card

Southwest is lanching new service to COsta Rica.
Southwest’s Premier card can also be a great option for these purchases.

The final card on the list is the only airline co-branded card to make the list. The Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier Card, however, doesn’t just offer bonuses on Southwest flights. You’ll also earn 2 Rapid Rewards points per dollar spent on participating hotel and car rental partners, including Hyatt, SPG and Avis. In addition, all points earned from the card will count toward the Companion Pass, one of the most lucrative (and popular) benefits out there. If you play your cards right, you can earn the Companion Pass for two years.

Return on travel spending (Southwest and Rapid Rewards Partners): 2.6%
Other benefits: No foreign transaction fees; 6,000 points after cardmember anniversary
Current sign-up bonus: 50,000 Rapid Rewards points after you spend $2,000 in the first three months you account is open
Annual fee: $99

For additional information on this card, check out the following posts:

Bottom Line

There are a variety of ways to make the most of your travel rewards credit cards, and the start of a new year is a great time to evaluate your points and miles strategy. It’s important to make the most of every dollar you spend, and there are many ways to do this with your travel purchases. Hopefully this post has given you some suggestions for which cards will get you the best return for these expenses in 2016!

What are your favorite cards for travel purchases?
Citi ThankYou® Premier Card