The best starter travel credit cards of 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. 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? Or maybe even miles you can turn into statement credits?
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. We may not be traveling much now, but it’s still a great time to start planning. 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?
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.
Best starter travel rewards credit cards
- Chase Sapphire Preferred Card
- American Express® Green Card
- Citi Premier® Card
- Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card
Comparing the best starter travel rewards credit cards
Here are the key details of the best starter travel rewards credit cards, including the welcome bonuses and the key earning features.
|Card||Bonus||Minimum Spend||Bonus Categories|
|Chase Sapphire Preferred Card||80,000 points||$4,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening. Plus, earn up to $50 in statement credits towards grocery purchases in the first year of account opening.||5x on Lyft through March 2022
2x points on travel and dining
|American Express® Green Card||30,000 points||$2,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening||3x on eligible travel, dining and transit|
|Citi Premier® Card||60,000 points||$4,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening||3x points per dollar on airfare, hotels, gas stations, restaurants and supermarkets|
|Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card||40,000 bonus miles and up to $50 back in statement credits for eligible purchases at U.S. restaurants||$1,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening||2x on Delta purchases, restaurants and U.S. supermarkets (Terms Apply)|
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.
Annual fee: $95
Sign-up bonus: 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months of account opening. Plus, earn up to $50 in statement credits towards grocery purchases in the first year of account opening.
Why it’s a great starter card: There’s a good reason the Chase Sapphire Preferred tops our list of starter cards: It comes with a great sign-up bonus, earns 2x points on travel and dining at restaurants (plus a couple of temporary bonus categories) and the Ultimate Rewards points it earns are easy to use with top airline and hotel programs such as United 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 now offers new financing options for large purchases and a way to use points at a 25% bonus through the Pay Yourself Back program.
The card also comes with terrific travel benefits, including primary insurance when you rent a car and no foreign transaction fees. Couple 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.
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 revamped 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 purchases. The Amex Green earns valuable Membership Rewards that give you access to a wide range of hotel and airline partners. Although the welcome offer isn’t anything to write home about, you can still get a lot of value from 30,000 points. When travel resumes, this will be an incredibly valuable card for beginners.
Annual fee: $95
Sign-up bonus: 60,000 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 bonus categories. The card now earns 3x ThankYou points per dollar on air travel and hotels, restaurants, gas stations and supermarkets and 1x ThankYou point everywhere else, helping you to rack up lots of ThankYou points in no time. When it comes to spending those points, you can transfer them to any of the 16 airline partners. The card comes with no foreign transaction fees and a $95 annual fee.
Annual fee: $99, waived the first year (see rates and fees)
Welcome offer: Earn 40,000 bonus miles after spending $1,000 in purchases on and up to $50 back in statement credits for eligible purchases at U.S. restaurants within your first 3 months of account opening.
Why it’s a great starter card: The Delta SkyMiles Gold card is a great option for beginners. Although your miles should only be used on Delta 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. You may not be traveling a ton right now, but saving up miles now could mean a great redemption later. 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.
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 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.
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 700+ score 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 like 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 reading: 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 towards 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
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. So make your travel goals for the year, then use this guide to pick the right card.
Featured photo by Artur Debat/Getty Images.
Additional reporting by Madison Blancaflor.
Welcome to The Points Guy!
WELCOME OFFER: 80,000 Points
TPG'S BONUS VALUATION*: $1,650
CARD HIGHLIGHTS: 2X points on all travel and dining, 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 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,000 when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. Plus earn up to $50 in statement credits towards grocery store purchases within your first year of account opening.
- Earn 2X points on dining including eligible delivery services, takeout and dining out and travel. Plus, earn 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
- Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,000 toward travel.
- With Pay Yourself Back℠, your points are worth 25% more during the current offer when you redeem them for statement credits against existing purchases in select, rotating categories.
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