The 4 Best Credit Cards for Backpackers

May 6, 2019

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Maximizing every dollar and point is a backpacker’s goal. As our bank accounts (and points and miles accounts) often determine the length or nature of our travels, a good spending strategy can really extend and enhance our trips.

That’s why finding the right credit card can be so valuable. A solid sign-up bonus can cover pricey international flights, and perks such as lounge access and bonus spending categories can reduce costs and overall net expenses.

That’s why I put together a list of my favorite credit cards for backpackers. I’m assuming you will be spending significant time abroad, so all of these cards are either Visa or Mastercard (acceptance of American Express and Discover cards abroad can still be sporadic). None of these cards charge foreign transaction fees either. For each card, I’ve also listed the perks that are most noteworthy for backpackers.

1. Chase Sapphire Reserve

Annual Fee: $550

Sign-up Bonus: 60,000 points after $4,000 on purchases spend in the first 3 months of account opening.

On the surface, it may seem strange that I’m suggesting a budget backpacker carry a credit card with a $550 annual fee. But with the included $300 travel credit, which a backpacker will undoubtedly use, you are left with a net $250 annual fee that comes with a slew of benefits.

Best Perks for Backpackers

Priority Pass: While the network of Priority Pass lounges within the US is limited and often subject to annoying space constraints, the lounges abroad are a different story. Nearly every international airport and most regional airports I’ve visited since joining the program have had a Priority Pass lounge. And, on average, the lounges are better than an airline lounge you’d find in the US. You’ll rarely appreciate a warm buffet meal, nice glass of wine and clean shower more than when you get it for free after a backpacking trip.

Global Entry Reimbursement: The $100 application fee for Global Entry — which comes with TSA PreCheck — gets reimbursed when you pay with this card. (And yes, you should get Global Entry.)

3x Points on Dining and Travel: Almost all of the expenses you’ll have when traveling fall into the categories of dining and travel. As you won’t be spending a whole lot of money, you’ll need to maximize bonus categories on what you do spend.

Redeem Points for 1.5 Cents on Airfare: This is how I use pretty much all of my Chase Ultimate Rewards points. Because I have a flexible travel schedule, I can find cheap airfares at off-peak times. I follow TPG Alerts on Twitter and subscribe to Scott’s Cheap Flights. When I see a deal that interests me, I book it using points.

(Photo by Brian Biros / The Points Guy)
I booked my trip to Switzerland last year by applying Chase UR points to a fare I found through Scott’s Cheap Flights, paying 39,494 points round trip.

2. Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

Annual Fee: $95

Sign-up Bonus: 100,000 bonus miles when you spend $20,000 on purchases in the first 12 months from account opening, or still earn 50,000 miles if you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months.

Capital One Rewards went from a second-tier program to one of the best when it became a transferable points program in 2018.

Best Perks for Backpackers

2x Miles on All Purchases: You can get a solid, straightforward return of 2% on spend when you apply your points to wipe out travel charges on your statement. Or you can transfer your points to various airline programs. Read the full guide to the pros and cons of each method.

Global Entry Reimbursement: See above.

(Photo by Brian Biros / The Points Guy)

3. IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card

Annual Fee: $89

Sign-up Bonus: 125,000 bonus points plus a Reward Night after spending $3,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening.

Chase’s new IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card is definitely a downgrade from its predecessor, but we knew the unrestricted free night would come to end eventually. The new card, however, does still have appeal for backpackers — especially abroad.

And the 125,000-point sign-up bonus can translate to a great value if your journey passes through a city with an IHG PointBreaks hotel. Use it for a free stay from 5,000 to 15,000 points per night. The card’s 4th night on award redemptions also applies to PointBreaks hotels, so using the latest list, you could have stayed at a high-end property (think: the InterContinental Sofia) for four nights for just 30,000 points.

Best Perks for Backpackers

Annual Free Night (Capped at 40,000 Points): While a 40,000-point hotel may not get you much in big US cities, it can land you in some amazing properties throughout Asia and Eastern Europe. It’s not sustainable to regularly stay in nice hotels on a backpacker budget, but one evening in a resort or upscale hotel could be the refresh you need in the middle of a backpacking adventure. Recharge by the pool and maximize the facilities — save the city exploration for days you’re bunking in a crowded dorm. Take advantage of 2pm late checkout for IHG Platinum members, too — status that’s included with the card.

Global Entry Reimbursement: See above.

(Photo by Brian Biros / The Points Guy)
You can use the IHG Anniversary Free Night at the InterContinental Bali Resort, just as I did.

3. Bank of America®️ Premium Rewards®️ credit card

Annual Fee: $95

Sign-up Bonus: 50,000 points (worth $500) after $3,000 spend on purchases in the first 90 days of account opening

If it’s a straight-up cash back you’re after with a decent return across the board, you won’t earn less than 1.5x points on any purchases with the Bank of America Premium Rewards card. No points to transfer or varying values of redemption, and Bank of America Preferred Rewards is an underrated program.

The 50,000 point bonus is worth $500, and the $95 annual fee can be offset by the up to $100 annual airline incidental fee statement credit, which can — in some cases — be used for gift cards.

Best Perks for Backpackers

2% Cash Back on Travel and Dining: Not as good as other cards, but still a bonus.

1.5% Cash Back on All Other Purchases: A great rate on all purchase categories for a card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees.

4. Uber Visa Card

Annual Fee: None

Sign-up Bonus: $100 back after $500 spend in the first 90 days

Despite its name, an association with Uber is not what makes this card valuable. With no annual fee, no foreign transaction fees and plenty of bonus categories, the Uber Visa Card is a great cash back option, especially for low spenders.

The bonus categories cover most of what backpackers would be spending money on (after all, food, lodging and transportation are usually the main expenses on the road). There’s even a $50 statement credit for streaming services after $5,000 annual spend in addition to the bonus category. So when the backpacker trail has you worn out, you can feel less guilty about being antisocial as you curl up in a hostel bed on a Netflix binge.

You can only sign up for the Uber Visa Card in the Uber app. Click the Menu in the top left corner of the home screen, then select “Payment” and scroll down to “View All Offers.” There you’ll find an option to apply for the card.

Best Perks for Backpackers

4% Cash Back on Dining: Includes restaurants, takeout and bars.

3% Cash Back on Travel: Includes airfare, trains, buses, hotels, hostels and home rentals such as Airbnb.

2% Cash Back on Online Shopping: Includes Uber, music and movie streaming services.

Cellphone Protection Against Damage or Theft: Can make a pickpocket or mugging a bit less painful.

You have to apply in the Uber app for the Uber Visa card
You have to apply in the Uber app for the Uber Visa Card


The Bottom Line

Some of these cards carry a significant minimum spend requirement to earn the sign-up bonus, so be sure to have a plan in place to meet it. It will likely be easier to do so before you depart with pre-trip expenses and US prices. That way, when you begin backpacking, you don’t have to worry about spending your dollars. Instead, you just enjoy earning points during your trip.

Featured photo by Qoppi / Shutterstock.

The All-New United Quest℠ Card

WELCOME OFFER: Up to 100,000 bonus miles


CARD HIGHLIGHTS: 3X miles on United® purchases

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

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Earn 80K bonus miles after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. Plus, an additional 20K bonus miles after you spend $10,000 in the first 6 months
  • $250 Annual Fee
  • Earn 3X miles on United® purchases, 2X miles at restaurants, on select streaming services & all other travel, 1X on all other purchases
  • Earn 3X miles on United Airlines purchases
  • Earn 2X miles at restaurants and on select streaming services
  • Earn 2X miles on all other travel
  • Earn 1X mile on all other purchases
  • Each year, receive a $125 credit on United® purchases and two 5k-mile anniversary award flight credits. Terms apply.
Regular APR
16.49% to 23.49% Variable
Annual Fee
Balance Transfer Fee
Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
Recommended Credit
Excellent, Good

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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