The best starter travel credit cards of 2021

Jul 23, 2021

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Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new card details and information. 


The world of credit cards can seem overwhelming when you’re just getting started. But, if you’re looking to move on from your cash-back card (or even a student card), you’re in the right place. The right starter travel card can offer much more rewarding perks — a rite of passage into adulthood.

With so much information and so many options, how do you know which card to choose? Do you want transferable points? Airline miles? Free nights at a hotel chain?

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Analysis paralysis and decision fatigue can really hold you back at the beginning. The key to picking the right card is to start by setting your travel goals. Now’s a great time to start planning your post-pandemic travels. Is your dream trip an international destination like Italy or a backpacking adventure to Patagonia? Are you comfortable traveling in economy or do you want to fly long-haul in a premium cabin? Is the hotel important to you or are you planning to spend most of your time outside your room?

The Torres del Paine mountains, Patagonia, Chile. (Photo by MBPROJEKT_Maciej_Bledowski / Getty Images)
Torres del Paine in Patagonia, Chile. (Photo by MBPROJEKT_Maciej_Bledowski/Getty Images)

There are no right or wrong answers to these questions — it’s all about what’s important to you. You may even change your mind as you gain experience in the world of points and miles, but once you’ve made your decisions, you can start matching your answers to the right card.

We’ve put together this list of the best starter credit cards, so you don’t end up with loyalty points that don’t match your goals. We also kept simplicity in mind when compiling this list — none of these cards are tied to complicated, difficult-to-understand programs, nor do they have intimidating annual fees, and all of them are potentially worth keeping in your credit card inventory for the long term.

In This Post

Best starter travel rewards credit cards

The information for the Amex Green has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Related: TPG’s beginner’s guide to credit cards: Everything you need to know

Comparing the best starter travel rewards credit cards

Here are the key details of the best starter travel rewards cards, including the sign-up/welcome bonuses and the key earning features.

Card Sign-up bonus/Welcome offer Minimum spending Bonus categories
Chase Sapphire Preferred Card 100,000 points $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months of account opening. 5x on Lyft through March 2022

5x on travel when booked through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal

3x on dining

3x on select streaming services

3x on online grocery purchases (excluding Walmart and Target)
2x on travel
1x on everything else

American Express Green Card 30,000 points $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months of account opening. 3x on eligible travel, dining at restaurants and transit
1x on other eligible purchases
Citi Premier Card 80,000 points $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months of account opening. 3x ThankYou points on air travel, hotels, gas stations, restaurants and supermarkets
1x on everything else
Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express Card 70,000 bonus miles $2,000 in purchases on your new card in your first three months card membership. Offer ends 11/10/2021 2x on eligible Delta purchases, dining at restaurants and U.S. supermarkets (terms apply)
1x on other eligible purchases

 

Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

Annual fee: $95.

Sign-up bonus: 100,000 points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months of account opening.

Why it’s a great starter card: There’s a good reason the Chase Sapphire Preferred is our top pick for our list of starter cards: It comes with a great sign-up bonus, earns 3 points per dollar on dining and 2 points per dollar on travel and and the Ultimate Rewards points it earns are easy to use with top airline and hotel programs such as United MileagePlus and World of Hyatt. Your points can also be redeemed for 1.25 cents apiece to book flights or rooms at any airline or hotel through the Ultimate Rewards travel portal, plus the card offers financing options for large purchases and a temporary way to use points at a 25% bonus through the Pay Yourself Back program-(Ends Sept 30, 2021)

Related: Why the Sapphire Preferred should still be the first rewards card in your wallet

The card also comes with terrific travel benefits, including primary insurance when you rent a car and no foreign transaction fees. And you can’t beat the all-time-high sign-up bonus of 100,000 points. Combine it all with an annual fee of only $95, and you’ve got a card that offers great value, especially if you’re starting in the world of travel rewards.

Official application link: Chase Sapphire Preferred Card with a 100,000-point bonus.

Read our full review of the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card.

American Express® Green Card

(Photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy)

Annual fee: $150 (see rates and fees).

Welcome offer: 30,000 points after you spend $2,000 in the first three months of account opening.

Why it’s a great starter card: The Amex Green may come with the highest annual fee on this list, but it also packs the most punch. In addition to earning an amazing 3x across travel, dining and transit purchases, you’ll also get an up-to-$100 statement credit for your Clear membership and an up-to-$100 statement credit for LoungeBuddy passes. Enrollment required for select benefits. The Amex Green earns Membership Rewards that give you access to a wide range of hotel and airline partners. The welcome offer is worth $600, according to TPG valuations. Simply put, this is an incredibly valuable travel card for beginners, especially since the credits more than cover the card’s $150 annual fee (see rates and fees).

Related: Is the Amex Green Card worth the annual fee?

Read our full review of the Amex Green Card.

Citi Premier® Card

(Photo by John Gribben for The Points Guy)

Annual fee: $95.

Sign-up bonus: 80,000 ThankYou® points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months of account opening.

Why it’s a great starter card: The beauty of the Citi Premier Card is its breadth of bonus categories. The card earns 3 ThankYou points per dollar on air travel, hotels, restaurants, gas stations and supermarkets and 1x everywhere else, helping you to rack up lots of points in no time. When it comes to spending those points, you can transfer them to any of Citi’s 15 airline partners. If you’re an American Airlines fan, Citi has offered the ability to transfer your points over to AAdvantage until Nov. 13, 2021. The card comes with no foreign transaction fees and a $95 annual fee.

Related: Chase Sapphire Preferred vs. Citi Premier: Which mid-tier travel card is better?

Read our full review of the Citi Premier card.

Official application link: Citi Premier Card with a 80,000-point bonus.

Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card

(Photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy)

Annual fee: $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $99 (see rates and fees).

Welcome offer: Earn 70,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 in purchases on your new card in your first three months card membership. Offer ends 11/10/2021.

Why it’s a great starter card: The Delta SkyMiles Gold card is a great option for beginners. Although your miles can only be used on Delta (and SkyTeam partner) flights, you can often find great deals on flights if you have a stash of Delta miles. Over the past year, Delta has offered some great flash sales and redemption options. Of course, the card also comes with nice perks such as a first checked bag free on Delta flights, priority boarding and the opportunity to earn a $100 flight credit when you spend $10,000 in a calendar year on the card.

Related: Choosing the best card for Delta flyers

Read our full review of the Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express card.

Official application link: Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card with a 40,000-mile welcome bonus.

How to choose the right starter travel card for you

There is no one-size-fits-all travel card. With so many great options, it can be hard to decide which card (or cards) to get to begin building your credit card portfolio. Make sure you’re choosing a card that fits your spending habits, travel goals and budget.

Start by taking inventory of what categories you spend the most money on each month.

Do you live in a large city where transit and dining typically make up most of your monthly spending? Then consider cards such as the Citi Premier or Amex Green Card that offer rewards across those categories.

From there, narrow your options based on your travel goals. Do you want the option to transfer points to partners? Then the Sapphire, Premier and Green are the better options. Do you want to travel internationally more than a couple of times a year? In that case, the Green’s annual statement credits, paired with its more valuable transfer partner list, make the most sense.

Last, consider your budget. If you don’t think you’ll get more than $150 in value from the Amex Green every year, maybe the Premier’s lower $95 annual fee is a nice compromise between your travel goals and budget.

At the end of the day, it’s all about considering which cards will give you the most value each year, either through earned rewards, perks or a mix of both.

Related: Why there’s no such thing as the ‘best’ credit card

What credit score do you need for a travel credit card?

Most travel credit cards require good to excellent credit, meaning you’ll want a score over 650, at least. A score over 700 is ideal*. That’s not to say that you won’t be approved if your score isn’t that high, but it is a good rule of thumb when you consider applying for a credit card.

The cards on this list are a bit easier to be approved for than luxury cards such as The Platinum Card® from American Express or the Chase Sapphire Reserve, but you’ll still need to have established credit and a good score to have the best chance of getting approved.

If you don’t currently have a credit score, you’ll want to build credit with a beginner card, a secured card or by becoming an authorized user on someone else’s card. If your credit score is less than stellar, it’s a good idea to take the necessary steps to improve your score before applying for a travel rewards credit card.

Related: What credit score do I need for the Chase Sapphire Preferred?

Don’t forget about Chase’s 5/24 rule

It’s worth talking about the elephant in the room: Chase’s 5/24 rule. According to this rule, Chase will automatically reject your application if you’ve opened five or more cards in the last 24 months across all issuers (although most business cards don’t count toward your total).

Because of this restriction, conventional wisdom is to start by using up your five slots with Chase before moving on to other issuers. When you’re just starting with travel rewards, it can be easy to underestimate the importance of this rule, but Chase offers some of the most valuable travel rewards cards on the market, and if you don’t get them first, you might not be able to get them later.

Many times, it makes sense to ignore the 5/24 rule and set off in a different direction, but it’s not a decision you should make lightly. Unless you have a very good reason for looking elsewhere, you should probably start with a Chase card first. And there aren’t many better choices than the Chase Sapphire Preferred.

Related: What to do after you reach 5/24

Bottom line

With so many travel rewards cards out there, choosing which one to apply for might seem overwhelming. But you can’t go wrong with any of the choices on this list, as all of the options offer great rewards rates and an introduction to the world of points and miles. So make your travel goals for the year, then use this guide to pick the right card.

Then, make sure you meet the minimum spending threshold on the card. For example, if you have just graduated from college (congrats!) and are soon moving to a new city to start your first job, you should apply for one of the cards above now to meet the sign-up bonus requirements. You’ll then have a stash of points and miles that can be incredibly useful as you plan your post-pandemic trips.

Related: The 5 credit cards this recent grad keeps in her wallet

Additional reporting by Stella Shon and Madison Blancaflor.

For rates and fees of the Amex Green, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles Gold card, please click here.

Featured photo by Francesco Carta fotografo/Getty Images.

*The Points Guy credit ranges are derived from FICO Score 8, which is one of many different types of credit scores. If you apply for a credit card, the lender may use a different credit score when considering your application for credit.

Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card

Earn 90,000 bonus miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new card in the first three months of card membership. Offer ends 11/10/2021.

With Status Boost™, earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, up to two times per year getting you closer to Medallion Status. Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels, 2X Miles at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets and earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases. Terms Apply.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 90,000 Bonus Miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer expires 11/10/2021.
  • Earn up to 20,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) with Status Boost® per year. After you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, you can earn 10,000 MQMs two times per year, getting you closer to Medallion® Status. MQMs are used to determine Medallion® Status and are different than miles you earn toward flights.
  • Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels.
  • Earn 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide, including takeout and delivery and at U.S. supermarkets.
  • Earn 1X Miles on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a Domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate each year upon renewal of your Card. *Payment of the government imposed taxes and fees of no more than $75 for roundtrip domestic flights (for itineraries with up to four flight segments) is required. Baggage charges and other restrictions apply. See terms and conditions for details.
  • Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.
  • Fee Credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓®.
  • Enjoy an exclusive rate of $39 per person per visit to enter the Delta Sky Club® for you and up to two guests when traveling on a Delta flight.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • $250 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Regular APR
15.74%-24.74% Variable
Annual Fee
$250
Balance Transfer Fee
N/A
Recommended Credit
Excellent/Good
Terms and restrictions apply. See rates & fees.

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.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.