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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. Or 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 none of them charge foreign transaction fees.
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). If that weren’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, 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. And, of course, 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 card, even with its pricey $450 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 that’s waived the first year, Citi’s mid-level entry in its ThankYou line 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 ThankYou travel portal for 1.25 cents per point. The card is also currently offering a sign-up bonus of 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months.
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 (that’s waived the first year), 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 car sharing services such as Uber and Lyft. You’ll only get 1.25 cents per point for direct travel redemptions with this card — unless you hold both this card and the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which makes all your points worth 1.5 cents per point — 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.
Even though the Citi Prestige comes with a $450 annual fee, that cost is easily offset in the first year with a $250 air travel credit that can be used on most airline charges, including actual tickets. Since the air travel credit is calendar-based, you should be able to get it twice in the first full year of being a cardholder.
The card also comes with the ability to transfer ThankYou points to travel partners or redeem them at the Citi ThankYou travel portal for 1.25 cents each for airline redemptions. In the meantime, you’re also earning 3x points for both airfare and hotels and 2x for dining and entertainment.
But the real prize of this card is the 4th Night Free benefit, which can provide fantastic value for hotel stays that are four nights or longer. You can now book 4th Night Free stays online and even use ThankYou points for part or all of the cost, while still retaining the option to book 4th Night Free stays with the Citi Concierge to get rates you might find elsewhere.
You’ll get a ton of travel perks with this $550 annual fee card, including Centurion Lounge and Delta Sky Club access (when flying Delta), Gold status with Hilton and Starwood, 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 now added two permanent bonus categories to this card: 5x Membership Rewards points when booking tickets directly with airlines 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 and a 60,000-point bonus when you spend $5,000 in the first three months — it’s clear why this card belongs on this list.
This is the first of three cards on our list that doesn’t come with an associated transferable points program, but if you’re looking to simply save money rather than earn rewards on your travel purchases, the Capital One Venture Rewards card is an intriguing choice since the miles earned with the card (which aren’t really “miles” in the true sense of the word) can be used to “erase” travel purchases in their entirety.
Basically, you can use the miles on the Venture to get a statement credit for any travel charges made on your card in the previous 90 days, and there’s no minimum redemption if your purchase is under $25 (the minimum is $25 for partial redemptions on purchases over that amount). The miles from this card have a fixed value of 1 cent per point, so you won’t get outsized value for them. But you do earn them at a rate of 2 miles per dollar spent on all purchases, which means you’re effectively getting a locked 2% return from this card with the money coming as a reimbursement for your travel expenses.
However, the huge travel value in this card comes from Capital One’s new partnership with Hotels.com. By booking hotel stays through the link at hotels.com/venture and paying for them with your Capital One Venture card, you’ll earn 10 miles per dollar spent. The bonus miles can even stack with earning free nights in the Hotels.com Rewards program for an effective total of 20% back on all your hotel spend. That’s a fantastic return, and unless you’re going for hotel elite status, the Capital One Venture Rewards should potentially be your first choice any time you’re paying for hotel reservations.
At first glance, Bank of America’s newest 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 1.5 points on all other purchases, but like the Capital One Venture, 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 card is definitely one to consider for travel purchases.
Rounding out our list is the other card that also can be used to completely offset travel purchases. Like its Capital One counterpart, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard earns 2 miles-but-not-really-miles per dollar spent on all purchases, and the miles are worth 1 cent each when redeemed against travel charges. You can also redeem Arrival miles for cash back or gift cards, but you shouldn’t because you’ll only get half a cent per mile in value that way.
There’s one little bonus that comes with this card — a 5% rebate on all redeemed miles — which effectively makes the return on this card a slightly better 2.1%. But since it also comes with a $89 annual fee and a $100 minimum for redemptions, it’s probably a wash between this card and the Venture Rewards. Still, it’s another card to consider if you’d prefer to cancel out the cost of 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.
Photo by Li Yang via Unsplash
This is one of the top premium cards out there since you earn 3x on all travel (excluding $300 travel credit) and dining and have access to great perks like a $300 travel credit each cardmember year, 50% more value when you redeem points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards and you get elite travel benefits like Global Entry application fee rebate, Priority Pass Select and special rental car privileges.
- Earn 50K 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®
- Named "Best Premium Travel Credit Card" for 2018 by MONEY® Magazine
- $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✓®