7 travel rewards credit cards that pay for themselves

Nov 11, 2019

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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here – Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card

Travel and airline rewards credit cards come in all shapes and sizes. You might get some of them to earn a large sign-up bonus or welcome offer; some for the benefits they offer with your airline or hotel of choice, and others 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. Some cards offer benefits that depend a lot on your expected travel patterns — such as airline credit cards that offer free checked bags and other benefits, but only on that airline. Others 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 seven travel rewards cards that can more than pay for themselves year after year, and that you should think about keeping around for the long term.

Related reading: The best travel cards of 2020


In This Post

AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard®

(Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy)
(Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy)

Sign-up bonus: 60,000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles after you make your first purchase and pay the annual fee

Top benefits: First checked bag free on domestic itineraries (for you and up to four companions), priority boarding, $25 in statement credits toward inflight Wi-Fi purchases, 25% discount on inflight purchases, and a companion certificate when you spend $20,000 in an anniversary year.

Annual Fee: $99

Why you should keep it: If you fly American, the checked bag fee waiver, Wi-Fi statement credit and discount on inflight purchases make it easy to get more than $99 in value from this card every year.

Read our review of the AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard here.

American Express® Green Card

(Photo by Daniel Ross/The Points Guy)
Use your LoungeBuddy credit for a stay at the Plaza Premium Lounge in London Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 2. (Photo by Daniel Ross/The Points Guy)

Sign-up bonus: 30,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first three months.

Top benefits: 3x points on travel, transit, and restaurants worldwide, up to $100 per year in statement credits toward CLEAR expedited security screening, and up to $100 per year in statement credits towards airport lounge access through LoungeBuddy

Annual Fee: $150 (see rates and fees)

Why you should keep it: On top of the 3x Membership Rewards points on travel, transit, and restaurants, the statement credits toward CLEAR membership and LoungeBuddy passes alone are worth more than the annual fee if you’ll use the benefits.

Read our review of the Amex Green Card here.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Use your Chase Ultimate Rewards points to book at stay at the Ritz-Carlton Cancun. (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Sign-up bonus: 60,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months after account opening.

Top benefits: 2x points on travel and dining at restaurants, plus trip delay and cancellation protection

Annual Fee: $95

Why you should keep it: The Chase Sapphire Preferred has long been our top recommendation for people new to the points and miles world, but many experienced travelers still hold on to the card for its ability to transfer Ultimate Rewards points to airline partners, its valuable travel protections and its useful bonus points categories.

Read our review of the Chase Sapphire Reserve here.

Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card

Hilton Waikoloa Village (Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)
The Hilton Waikoloa Village. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Welcome offer: 125,000 bonus points after after you use your new Card to make $2,000 in eligible purchases within the first 3 months of Card Membership.

Top benefits: Complimentary Hilton Gold status; 12x Hilton Honors bonus points at Hilton hotels; 6x Hilton Honors bonus points at U.S. supermarkets, U.S. restaurants, and U.S. gas stations; and no foreign transaction fee (see rates and fees)

Annual Fee: $95 (see rates and fees)

Why you should keep it: Hilton Gold status gives you an 80% bonus on points you earn from stays, room upgrades, free breakfast, and more, plus as an elite member you’ll get the fifth night free on award stays. I value the benefits of Hilton Gold status at $1,260 per year — $50 per night — so if you stay at a Hilton hotel even just once or twice a year, you’ll get some real value out of this card.

Read our review of the Hilton Surpass here.

Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card

The J.W. Marriott Beijing is one Category 5 property with PointSavers availability next month.
The JW Marriott Beijing. (Photo courtesy of Marriott)

Sign-up bonus: Earn 100,000 Bonus Points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. Also, get one free night at a Category 1-4 property (up to 35,000 points)

Top benefits: Get a free night certificate with a redemption value up to 35,000 points on your account anniversary, 15 credits toward elite status each year (enough for Silver elite status) and no foreign transaction fees

Annual Fee: $95

Why you should keep it: The annual free night certificate is like getting a 35,000-point bonus (worth $280, according to TPG’s latest monthly valuations). You can use this certificate at hotels like the JW Marriott Beijing, where rooms in April go for around $215 a night. Just make sure you’re aware of the card’s complicated application restrictions, which could prevent you from earning the sign-up bonus depending on what Marriott cards you have had in the past or currently have across both the Chase and American Express Marriott card portfolios.

Read our review of the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless here.

United Explorer Card

(Photo by Maxian / Getty Images)
(Photo by Maxian/Getty Images)

Sign-up bonus: Earn 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

Top benefits: Free checked bag for you and a companion on the same reservation when you use the card to pay for your United ticket, priority boarding, two, one-time United Club passes per year, up to $100 credit toward Global Entry or TSA PreCheck enrollment, 25% discount on in-flight purchases, access to additional award space, and 2x miles on restaurants, hotels, and United purchases.

Annual Fee: $95, waived for the first year

Why you should keep it: If you fly United just once or twice per year, you can get more value than the annual fee from the baggage fee waiver, the inflight purchase discount and the United Club passes. More importantly, having access to additional award space on United flights can save you tens of thousands of miles on a single award booking.

Related reading: The best airline cards of 2019

World Of Hyatt Credit Card

(Photo by Sara Wass)
The Hyatt card offers an anniversary bonus of one free night at a category 1-4 property, such as the Category 3 Park Hyatt Siem Reap. (Photo by Sara Wass)

Sign-up bonus: Up to 50,000 World of Hyatt bonus points: 25,000 after you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening, and another 25,000 after you spend $6,000 total on purchases within the first six months of account opening.

Top benefits: Get an annual free night at any Hyatt category 1-4 property each year on your account anniversary, earn 4x points at Hyatt, World of Hyatt Discoverist status, 5 qualifying nights toward elite status and no foreign transaction fees.

Annual Fee: $95

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 $95 annual fee (and then some).

Read our review of the World of Hyatt card here.

Bottom line

Each of these cards offer perks that can be worth more than their annual fee, but as with all credit cards, the benefits are only valuable if you’re actually going to use them. So take a look at your travel patterns and plans, and pick the cards with the most valuable benefits that you’ll be able to take advantage of on a regular basis.

Featured image by Summer Hull / The Points Guy.

For rates and fees of the Green from Amex card, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Hilton Honors Surpass, please click here.  

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

WELCOME OFFER: 60,000 Points


CARD HIGHLIGHTS: 2X points on all travel and dining, points transferrable to over a dozen travel partners

*Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer. View our latest valuations here.

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More Things to Know
  • Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 60,000 points are worth $750 toward travel
  • Get unlimited deliveries with a $0 delivery fee and reduced service fees on orders over $12 for a minimum of one year on qualifying food purchases with DashPass, DoorDash's subscription service. Activate by 12/31/21.
  • Earn 5X points on Lyft rides through March 2022. That’s 3X points in addition to the 2X points you already earn on travel.
Intro APR on Purchases
Regular APR
15.99%-22.99% Variable
Annual Fee
Balance Transfer Fee
Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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