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Annual fees for travel rewards cards generally correspond to the benefits they offer, with the more lucrative cards carrying a higher premium. However, if you’re just getting into award travel and want to minimize expenses up front, there are plenty of worthwhile cards that carry no annual fee. Today, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Jason Steele looks at the top options.
Whether it’s a matter of principle or practicality, some travel rewards enthusiasts simply don’t like paying an annual fee. Card issuers recognize that these customers represent a significant part of the market, so most offer travel rewards cards with no fees, which you can use to earn points and miles with no overhead. You can apply for these base cards directly, though you might also downgrade to one if you’re hesitant to pay an annual fee for a card you already have, and are considering closing your account.
While all of TPG’s Top 10 Travel Cards incur an annual fee, there are plenty of others that offer great value. In this post I’ll compare these entry-level card options, and find out which is the best travel rewards card you can get with no annual fee.
Sign-up bonus: This card offers 10,000 Membership Rewards points after you spend $1,000 within three months of account opening. That’s worth $190 according to TPG’s latest monthly valuations.
Benefits: You’ll earn one point per dollar spent on most purchases, and double points at US supermarkets on up to $6,000 spent each calendar year. You also receive a 20% bonus each statement when you make at least 20 purchases with your card.
Membership Rewards points are worth only about one cent each toward travel reservations or gift cards when redeemed directly with Amex. However, these points can also be transferred to airline and hotel partners, which is unique for a travel rewards card with no annual fee.
Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard:
Sign-up bonus: Earn 20,000 bonus miles when you spend $1,000 on new purchases within the first 90 days after you open your account. Points can be redeemed for 1 cent apiece, plus you get a 5% rebate when you redeem for travel statement credits (meaning you effectively get 1.1 cents each). Thus, the sign-up bonus is worth $200 of travel.
Benefits: The no-fee version of this card offers double miles on dining and travel expenses, and one mile per dollar spent elsewhere.
Sign-up bonus: Earn 20,000 miles after spending $1,000 on your card within three months of account opening. Each point is worth one cent toward travel purchases, so the sign-up bonus is worth $200.
Benefits: Earn 1.25 miles for every dollar spent. There are no foreign transaction fees with this card (or any Capital One card), and you can get free access to your credit score via the Credit Tracker tool.
Citi ThankYou Preferred Card
Sign-up bonus: Earn 15,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening.
Benefits: Earn double points for dining and entertainment, and one point per dollar spent on all other purchases. ThankYou Points are worth about one cent each toward gift cards, travel reservations, or loan repayments. However, if you also have the Citi ThankYou Premier Card or Citi Prestige, then points can be transferred to airline and hotel partners, making them much more valuable (1.6 cents apiece in TPG’s latest valuations). You can also transfer points to any other ThankYou Rewards account immediately and at no charge, so if someone you trust has one of the premium cards, you can get access to the more lucrative redemption options.
Sign-up bonus: Earn $100 (10,000 points) after spending $500 within the first three months of account opening. You can also earn a $25 (2,500 point) bonus when you add your first authorized user and make a purchase. These points are worth one cent each, so it’s possible to earn a sign-up bonus worth $125 total when adding an authorized user.
Benefits: Earn a base rate of one point per dollar spent on all purchases, and four additional points per dollar on up to $1,500 in purchases each quarter at qualifying merchants in rotating bonus categories. For example, In the first quarter of 2015, qualifying merchants include grocery stores, movie theaters, and Starbucks. Points can be redeemed for rewards such as gift cards, travel reservations, and cash back. You can transfer points to Ultimate Rewards travel partners if you also have an eligible account like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Ink Plus Business Card.
Hilton Honors Card from American Express
Sign-up bonus: 80,000 Hilton HHonors points after spending $2,000 within three months of account opening. That’s worth $400 according to TPG’s latest monthly valuations.
Benefits: Earn seven points per dollar spent at Hilton properties, five points per dollar at US restaurants, US supermarkets, and US gas stations, and three points per dollar elsewhere. You also get HHonors Silver status, and can earn Gold status when you spend $20,000 on your card during a calendar year.
Citi Hilton HHonors Visa Signature Card
Sign-up bonus: Earn 75,000 Hilton HHonors™ Bonus Points after making $2,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening. Again, 20,000 HHonors points is worth $200.
Benefits: Earn six points per dollar spent at Hilton properties, three points per dollar spent at supermarkets, drugstores, and gas stations, and double points on other purchases. You also get automatic HHonors Silver status, and can earn Gold status when you stay four times at a Hilton property within 90 days of account opening, or when you make $20,000 in purchases in a calendar year.
There’s a surprising diversity of travel rewards cards available with no annual fee. If you’re looking for travel statement credits, The Barclaycard Arrival and the Capital One VentureOne are pretty closely matched, but give the edge to the Arrival card for its ability to earn 2x miles and its 10% mileage rebate.
The two Hilton cards are among the only no-fee cards co-branded with travel providers, and between the two, the Hilton HHonors Amex is the clear winner thanks to its higher earning rates across the board.
Nevertheless, my favorite card of the bunch has to be the Amex EveryDay card, which offers all cardholders Membership Rewards points that can be transferred to airline and hotel programs. By earning double points at US supermarkets, and even a 20% bonus, this no-fee card has proven itself even more capable than some cards that do have an annual fee. Of course, since there’s no fee to carry any of these cards, you can make use of more than one.
What’s your favorite travel rewards card with no annual fee?