Chase Sapphire Reserve℠

The Top Rewards Credit Cards With No Fee in the First Year

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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here – Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite MasterCard

With the recent launch of the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card, we’ve spent quite a bit of time talking about this premium travel rewards card and how it stacks up to the competition. There’s plenty to like about this card and others like it, but no matter how you look at it, the fact still remains: Not everyone is willing to pay a $450 annual fee.

Luckily, you don’t have to shell out hundreds of dollars each year to enjoy a valuable sign-up bonus, generous earning rates and perks that make travel more bearable. Several top travel rewards cards waive their annual fee entirely for the first year, giving you the chance to reap rewards from the sign-up offer and “test-drive” the card’s other perks before you have to decide whether it’s worth paying a fee to keep it in your wallet. And even then, none of these cards charge you anywhere near $450 per year.

Here’s a look at the best cards that cost you nothing for the first 12 months:

1. Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

The Chase Sapphire Preferred is the perfect card to get 2016 started.
It’s not as fancy as the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card, but Chase Sapphire Preferred is still an excellent pick.

Annual fee: $0 for the first year, then $95

Current sign-up bonus: Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening. That’s $625 in travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards. Earn another 5,000 points when you add an authorized user and make a purchase in the first three months.

Reasons to get it: The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card has faded a bit into the background since its glitzier sibling, Chase Sapphire Reserve, hit the scene last month. True, the Sapphire Preferred Card earns you 2x rather than 3x Ultimate Rewards points on travel and dining, and it doesn’t include fancy extras like a $300 annual travel credit and Priority Pass lounge access, but it’s still a great pick when it comes to return on spending and travel coverage like primary rental car insurance. Based on TPG’s latest valuations, bonus category purchases will get you a 4.2% return — and Chase has very generous definitions for what counts as travel. The Sapphire Preferred was one of TPG’s favorite cards before the Sapphire Reserve Card debuted, and while it doesn’t boast all the bells and whistles of the CSR, it’s still an amazing pick. Spending the $95 to keep the Sapphire Preferred open beyond the first year will ensure that you continue to earn valuable Ultimate Rewards points that can be redeemed with 11 different travel partners.

2. Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express OPEN

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You can pick from a variety of categories to earn 3x points with the Business Gold Rewards Card.

Annual fee: $0 for the first year, then $175

Sign-up bonus: 50,000 Membership Rewards points after you spend $5,000 in the first three months

Reasons to get it: This small business card is a great option if you can maximize its bonus categories. You’ll earn 3x points (a 5.7% return) on your choice of one of the following categories: airfare purchased directly from airlines, US purchases for advertising in select media, US purchases at gas stations, US purchases for shipping or US computer hardware, software and cloud computing purchases made directly from select providers. You’ll earn 3x points on the first $100,000 you spend on the category of your choice in a calendar year, plus 2x points on the first $100,000 you spend in each of the remaining categories in a calendar year and 1x on everything else. The Business Gold Rewards Card earns a place in TPG’s credit card inventory, as he uses it to get 3x points on internet advertising.

3. Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express and the Starwood Preferred Guest Business Credit Card from American Express

Use the Starpoints you earn from these cards' sign-up bonuses to stay at properties across the globe, like the St. Regis Rome. Photo courtesy of Starwood.
The personal and business Starwood Amex cards can help you toward your next award stay. Image courtesy of the St. Regis Rome.

Annual fee: $0 for the first year, then $95 (for each card)

Sign-up bonus: 25,000 Starpoints after you spend $3,000 in the first three months on the personal card/25,000 Starpoints after you spend $5,000 in the first three months on the business card

Reasons to get them: Starpoints are the highest-rated loyalty currency (tied with the decidedly less versatile points in the Amtrak Guest Rewards program) in TPG’s monthly valuations series, thanks to the wide variety of redemption options they open up. While Marriott is indeed moving forward with its acquisition of Starwood, the SPG program remains in tact for the time being, and these two cards are the easiest way to earn Starpoints apart from completing hotel stays. Plus, now’s a great time to apply for one or both of these cards, since they might not be open to new applicants for too much longer.

4. Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard

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You can use miles earned with the Arrival Plus to wipe travel charges from your statement.

Annual fee: $0 for the first year, then $89

Sign-up bonus: 50,000 miles after you spend $3,000 in the first 90 days

Reasons to get it: Despite some negative changes that went into effect last year, this card is still a great option for travelers — especially those whose travel expenses are more off the beaten path and can’t be covered by transferring rewards to a big-name travel partner. The Barclaycard Arrival Plus earns you 2 miles per dollar on all purchases, and you can use these “miles” to wipe travel-related costs of $100 or more from your statement. The card’s currently offering a higher-than-usual sign-up bonus of 50,000 miles, so now’s a great time to apply and enjoy the first year of cardmembership for free.

5. United MileagePlus Explorer Card

united dreamliner business featured
If you frequently fly United, consider its co-branded credit card.

Annual fee: $0 for the first year, then $95

Sign-up bonus: 30,000 miles after you spend $1,000 in the first three months, plus another 5,000 miles when you add an authorized user and make a purchase in the first three months

Reasons to get it: Even if you only fly United a few times a year, this card can come in handy. You’ll enjoy a first bag checked free, priority boarding and two United Club passes per year. The card also opens up additional award space, making it easier to put your miles to use for award flights. You’ll earn 2 miles per dollar on United purchases and 1 mile per dollar on everything else, and if you spend at least $25,000 on the card in a calendar year you’ll get a 10,000-mile bonus and a Premier Qualifying Dollar (PQD) waiver for elite status.

6. Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite MasterCard

Annual fee: $0 for the first year, then $95

Sign-up bonus: 30,000 miles after you spend $1,000 in the first three months

Reasons to get it: This card gets you some solid perks when you’re traveling on American — which come in handy if you don’t hold elite status with the airline. You get a first bag checked free on domestic itineraries (for you and up to four companions on the same reservation), Group 1 boarding and 25% off eligible in-flight purchases when you use your card. You’ll also earn 2x miles on American Airlines purchases (1x miles everywhere else), and you’ll get 10% of your redeemed AAdvantage miles back (up to 10,000 miles per calendar year).

7. Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express

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The Gold Delta SkyMiles Card earns you 2x miles per dollar on purchases with the airline. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Annual fee: $0 for the first year, then $95

Sign-up bonus: 30,000 miles after you spend $1,000 in the first three months, plus a $50 statement credit when you make a Delta purchase in the first three months

Reasons to get it: As with the previously mentioned American Airlines co-branded card, the Gold Delta SkyMiles Card can improve your airport experience if you don’t enjoy perks through airline elite status. You get priority boarding, a first bag checked free and 20% off eligible in-flight purchases. Cardholders can also access Delta Sky Club lounges for a reduced fee: $29 per person, rather than the full price of $59 per person. You’ll earn 2x miles for Delta purchases and 1x miles on everything else.

8. IHG Rewards Club Select Credit Card

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The IHG Rewards Club Select Credit Card offers an impressive selection of perks.

Annual fee: $0 for the first year, then $49

Sign-up bonus: 60,000 points after you spend $1,000 in the first three months, plus another 5,000 points when you add an authorized user and make a purchase in the first three months

Reasons to get it: Even once this card charges a fee after the first 12 months, it’s lower than any other’s on the list: $49. In addition to getting you a solid haul of points through the sign-up bonus, this card earns you 5x points on IHG purchases; 2x points at gas stations, grocery stores and restaurants; and 1x points everywhere else. Other perks include a free night each year after your cardmember anniversary, complimentary Platinum Elite status as long as you’re a cardmember and a 10% point rebate on redemptions.

Bottom Line

As this list demonstrates, you don’t have to pay a steep annual fee to enjoy great perks with a travel rewards credit card. In fact, you don’t have to pay an annual fee at all for the first 12 months. All the cards on this list earn you valuable rewards and benefits that make your trips more comfortable, and even when the fee sets in, in most cases it will set you back less than $100.

Due to the sign-up bonuses you can earn as a new cardholder, the first year of cardmembership is almost always the most lucrative, so if you decide to cancel a card when the annual fee becomes due on your account anniversary, you still won’t have wasted your time. That said, you may find it’s worth paying to keep the card open due to the rewards you earn and the variety of perks you enjoy.

What’s your favorite travel rewards card that waives its annual fee for the first year?

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