The 7 best cards for travel purchases in 2020
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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with the latest credit card information and benefits. It was originally published on Jan. 18, 2019.
While we’d all love to be able to book every trip for free using only points and miles, once in a while we have to break down and actually pay cash for a flight, hotel, rental car or other travel expense. But if we can’t burn miles on a trip, we should at least be certain that we’re earning them, and preferably as many as possible. Alternately, if a travel expense can be reimbursed via a travel or airline fee credit, that can effectively offset the cost of the trip even better than any loyalty currency.
So which cards should you use for your travel purchases? We’ve put together this list of the best ones for this year, which can all stay in your wallet wherever you go — even overseas — since they all offer the benefit of no foreign transaction fees.
Related reading: The best travel credit cards for 2020
There’s a ton of value to be had from the Chase Sapphire Reserve on travel purchases. The card comes with a $300 travel credit that can be used for a ton of different expenses, and it also includes travel as a 3x bonus points category (along with dining; 1x on all other purchases). If that wasn’t generous enough, Chase has made the travel category rather broad for this card, so not only will you be able to get 3x points for purchases at airlines and hotels, you’ll also receive it for using the card at online travel agencies such as Expedia and Orbitz, as well as on trains, buses, taxis and cruises. You’ll even get the bonus points at toll booths and parking lots.
But the cherry on top is the 1.5 cents per point you get when redeeming these points through the Ultimate Rewards travel portal. That’s the best guaranteed redemption on any personal credit card on the market. The points are also transferable to Chase’s airline and hotel partners, so you can also use them for standard loyalty program awards that might otherwise be extraordinarily expensive.
When you consider all the benefits on this travel credit card, despite its pricey $550 annual fee the Chase Sapphire Reserve is clearly our choice for the top card to use on travel purchases this year.
With a $95 annual fee, Citi’s mid-level card doesn’t cost much to keep in your card collection, but it’s got an awfully nice 3x travel category of its own. You’ll get those bonus points on the same collection of purchases as the Sapphire Reserve, but interestingly, the Citi Premier also counts gas stations as travel. So this can be a great card to use when you’re just filling up the tank at home or on your rental car.
Once you’ve earned ThankYou points with this card, you’ll have the option to transfer points to Citibank’s travel partners, which aren’t as strong as its competitors but do have some sweet spots, especially with the addition of Avianca LifeMiles as an airline partner. Plus you’ll also have the option to redeem points directly for airfare at the Citi travel portal for 1.25 cents per point. The card is also currently offering a sign-up bonus of 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months.
The information for the Citi Premier has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
After all the excitement about the Chase Sapphire Reserve, it’s easy to forget its little sibling. But the Chase Sapphire Preferred is still here, and with just a $95 annual fee, it’s still a very attractive option for regular travelers.
While its bonus on travel purchases is 2x instead of 3x like the CSR’s, the category still encompasses the same generous list of merchants, which also includes ride sharing services (1x on all other purchases). You’ll only get 1.25 cents per point for direct travel redemptions with this card, but the Ultimate Rewards points continue to be extremely valuable when transferred to partners such as United and Hyatt.
Finally, the CSP also provides primary car insurance when you’re renting vehicles, which is a fantastic benefit if you don’t want to rely on your own personal auto insurance to cover you and drive up your premiums if an accident happens.
You’ll get a ton of travel perks with this $550 annual fee card (see rates and fees), including Centurion Lounge and Delta Sky Club access (when flying Delta), Gold status with Hilton and Marriott, a Global Entry/TSA PreCheck application fee credit and many others. But the Platinum Card from American Express hasn’t necessarily been a great card for travel purchases — until now.
American Express has two great bonus categories on this card: 5x Membership Rewards points when booking tickets directly with airlines or with American Express Travel and 5x points on prepaid hotels booked on amextravel.com. That’s better than any other card on the market for airfare, and extremely competitive for hotel reservations. Add to that a $200 annual airline fee credit, up to $200 per year in Uber credits, a $100 Saks Fifth Avenue credit and a 60,000-point bonus when you spend $5,000 in the first three months, and it’s clear why this card belongs on this list.
This card used to be a fixed-value points card, meaning it didn’t have transfer partners and instead offered rewards you could redeem for 1 cent apiece toward travel purchases made with your card. However, that all changed in late 2018, when Capital One announced the ability to move miles over to more than a dozen airline programs, including Aeroplan, Avianca and Etihad. It recently added two hotel transfer partners — Accor and Wyndham. Miles transfer to 13 of the airline partners at a 2:1.5 ratio, while transfers to Emirates and Singapore Airlines are at a 2:1 ratio. You can score some great redemptions with your Venture miles, especially if you’re willing to put a little effort into learning the ins and outs of these programs.
The Citi Prestige is another card that has seen some big changes. It now offers 5x points on dining and air travel, as well as 3x on cruise lines and hotels, so it can be a stellar option for frequent travelers. Another positive change to this premium card is an improved annual $250 credit for travel purchases. Previously, it could only be used toward air travel purchases, but now it applies to all travel purchases.
On the less-positive side, the card’s extremely valuable 4th Night Free perk is capped at two times per year — and you can no longer book 4th Night Free stays through the Citi concierge to get elite credit and benefits. The card’s $495 fee is also a downside.
The information for the Citi Prestige has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
At first glance, Bank of America’s entry in the travel rewards market might not seem that exciting. The Premium Rewards card earns a respectable 2x points on both travel and dining and 1.5x points on all other purchases, but there are no transfer partners with this card. Instead, you can redeem your points for a statement credit, a bank deposit, gift cards or travel booked directly at a rate of 1 cent per point.
However, the real value of this card comes when you combine it with Bank of America’s Preferred Rewards banking program. Depending on how many assets you maintain at Bank of America and Merrill Lynch — including checking accounts, savings, retirement, investment portfolios and the like — you’ll earn one of three status tiers in the Preferred Rewards program, which translate to higher earning rates with the Premium Rewards card. At the highest Platinum Honors tier, the normal 2x on travel turns into 3.5x and the everyday earning rate on this card becomes 2.625x instead of 1.5x. With those returns, the Bank of America® Premium Rewards® Visa® credit card is definitely one to consider for travel purchases.
Since so many credit cards focus on travel, there are a ton of great options for purchases, and you can’t go wrong with any of these cards. Whether your interest is points and miles or using up travel credits, this list has the pick of the litter. So the next time you find yourself facing a significant travel expense — or even a minor one — make sure you know which card to use.
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Feature photo by Li Yang via Unsplash.
For rates and fees of the Amex Platinum card, please click here.
This is The Points Guy’s permanent page with the best currently available credit cards for travel purchases, so you can bookmark it and check back regularly for updates. Keep in mind you may see some reader comments referring to older offers below.
SIGN-UP BONUS: 50,000 Points
TPG'S BONUS VALUATION*: $1,000
CARD HIGHLIGHTS: 3X points on all travel and dining, $300 annual travel credit, 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.
- Earn 50,000 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®
- $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year
- 3X points on travel immediately after earning your $300 travel credit. 3X points on dining at restaurants & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases. $0 foreign transaction fees.
- Get 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 50,000 points are worth $750 toward travel
- 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
- Access to 1,000+ airport lounges worldwide after an easy, one-time enrollment in Priority Pass™ Select
- Up to $100 application fee credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓®
- One Year Complimentary Lyft Pink ($199 minimum value). Complimentary DashPass subscription from DoorDash after activating by 12/31/21.