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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? Or airline miles? Free nights at a hotel chain? Or maybe even miles you can turn into statement credits?
The key to picking the right card is to set your travel goals first. Is your dream trip an international destination like Rome or a ski trip to Vail? Are you comfortable traveling in economy or do you want to spend the extra time and effort to be able to fly in a premium cabin? Is the hotel important to you or are you planning to spend most of your time outside of the room? There’s no right or wrong answer to these questions — it’s all about what’s important to you. But once you’ve made your decisions, it’s important to match the right points to the right card.
With that in mind, we’ve put together this list of the best starter cards to help lead you in the right direction, so you don’t waste time and end up with loyalty points that don’t match your travel 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 worth getting and potentially keeping in your credit card inventory for the long term.
Just remember, if you’re dipping your toe in the travel rewards water for the first time, take it slow. You don’t have to get every card on this list in one shot. Pick one or two that have minimum spending requirements and annual fees you feel comfortable with and start with those. Don’t worry, it won’t be long before you’re a travel rewards expert!
The Top Starter Travel Rewards Cards
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; and the Ultimate Rewards points it earns are easy to use at top airline and hotel programs such as United and 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. Finally, the card comes with several terrific benefits, including primary insurance when you rent a car and no foreign transaction fees. Couple it all with an annual fee that’s $0 for the first year, then $95 thereafter, and you’ve got a card that offers great value, especially if you’re just starting out in the world of travel rewards.
Since it comes with no annual fee, the Amex EveryDay card might be the best way to dip your toe in Amex’s Membership Rewards program. You’ll have access to the exact same airline and hotel transfer partners as the much more expensive Platinum and Gold cards, and can earn double points on all US supermarket purchases (on up to $6,000 in purchases per year; then 1x). On top of that, you’ll get a 20% point bonus for each billing period you use the card for 20 transactions or more. With access to Amex Offers and no fee for adding authorized users, you really can’t go wrong with the Amex EveryDay as a first travel rewards card. Just keep in mind that it does charge a 2.7% fee on foreign transaction fees, so you won’t want to use it abroad.
As a member of the Star Alliance, United has access to plenty of award space on international flights, which is what makes the MileagePlus Explorer card so useful. You’ll also get access to even more award space on United itself when you have this card and log in to your United frequent flyer account while searching for award flights. When flying on United you’ll get the benefits of priority boarding — even on Basic Economy fares — and when you pay for your tickets with the card, you’ll get a free checked bag for both you and a companion on the same reservation. You also get two United Club passes each year and won’t pay any foreign transaction fees when traveling overseas — all for just a $95 annual fee.
Even if you don’t travel on Alaska Airlines, its frequent flyer program with a diverse roster of partners can deliver terrific value, which means the Alaska Airlines Visa is a great choice for a starter travel rewards card. With a wide array of possible redemptions on carriers such as Cathay Pacific and Emirates (in addition to Alaska, of course), even a small number of Mileage Plan miles can be useful, especially as the airline continues the process of merging with Virgin America. And if you do fly on Alaska itself, you’ll get a free checked bag for yourself and up to six companions on the same reservation. Speaking of companions, this card also comes with a valuable $99 annual coach companion fare (plus $22 in taxes), which alone can easily more than recoup the card’s $75 annual fee. Finally, there are no foreign transaction fees.
The beauty of the Citi ThankYou Premier is its plentiful bonus categories. With 3 points per dollar spent on travel — a broadly defined category on this card that includes gas purchases — and 2 points per dollar on dining and entertainment, you’ll be able to rack up lots of ThankYou points in no time. When it comes to spending those points, you can transfer them to any of 13 airline and hotel partners or redeem them for 1.25 cents per point at the Citi ThankYou travel portal. The card comes with no foreign transaction fees and a $95 annual fee that’s waived for the first year.
You’ll get a ton of value right off the bat with the Hyatt Credit Card because the sign-up bonus is 40,000 bonus points after you make $2,000 in purchases on the card in the first three months, plus an additional 5,000 bonus points for adding an authorized user and making a purchase with the card in the first three months. Hyatt has some fantastic high-end properties where you can redeem those points, such as the Park Hyatt Zurich and the Andaz Maui. The card, which has a $75 annual fee and waived foreign transaction fees, gets 2x points at restaurants, car rental agencies and on tickets booked directly with airlines, and it also comes with Discoverist status in the recently launched World of Hyatt program — and a free night at a Category 1-4 property after your cardmember anniversary each year.
Even many advanced travelers like to keep the IHG Rewards Club card in their wallets, because not only does it have a low $49 annual fee (which is waived for the first year) and no foreign transaction fees, but cardholders also receive an anniversary free night at any IHG property in the world each year. Since you can choose any hotel in the IHG portfolio — including InterContinental locations — you can realize some truly significant value with this benefit. You’ll also get 2 points per dollar at gas stations, grocery stores and restaurants, a 10% rebate on all IHG point redemptions and IHG Platinum status for as long as you keep the card.
It may seem at first glance like the Starwood Amex is just another hotel credit card, but Amex has managed to build an incredibly impressive list of SPG transfer partners. On top of that, anytime you transfer 20,000 Starpoints all at once, you’ll get a 5,000-mile bonus, making the effective earning rate for all general spend on this card 1.25 points per dollar. You’ll get 2x Starpoints for purchases at any Starwood property (or Marriott property, thanks to their recent merger), plus benefits such as free premium in-room Wi-Fi and credit for 5 nights and 2 stays toward SPG elite status each year, all for just a $95 annual fee that’s waived in year one (with no foreign transaction fees).
Southwest features a fixed-value loyalty program, which means you might not get an outsized return when you redeem your points, but you’ll also never have to worry about a lack of award space since there’s always availability as long as there are still open seats on the plane. That makes the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus card one to look at if your main interest is simplicity and economy-class travel. Not only will you get a sign-up bonus of 50,000 points after spending $2,000 in the first three months, but since Southwest never has change fees, you can also book and rebook award travel repeatedly until you find the award price you want. The $69 annual fee also gets you 3,000 bonus points at each cardmember anniversary, and spend on this card still counts toward Companion Pass qualification! Note that this card does have a 3% foreign transaction fee.
The beauty of the Barclaycard Arrival Plus MasterCard is its flexibility — you don’t have to book a specific flight or hotel room or struggle to find awards with limited availability. All you have to do is pay for your travel using your card and then redeem the miles you earn with it for statement credits, starting at a minimum of $100 and with each mile worth 1 cent. You’ll also get 5% of your miles back for every redemption you make, which means since you’re earning 2 miles for every dollar spent on this card, you’re effectively earning 2.1% in value on all your purchases. The card comes with a sign-up bonus of 40,000 Arrival miles after $3,000 in spending in the first 90 days, no foreign transaction fees and an $89 annual fee that’s waived for the first year.
Last but certainly not least is the Capital One Venture Rewards card, which also earns flexible miles that can be redeemed against any travel purchase you make with the card using the “Purchase Eraser” feature, with just a $25 minimum for redemptions. The card earns 2 miles per dollar on all purchases, and the miles are valued at 1 cent each, which makes the 50,000-mile sign-up bonus (after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months) worth $500. There are no foreign transactions fees, there’s no annual fee for the first year and you’ll only pay $95 a year after that to hang onto the card. And as an added bonus, Capital One is now offering new cardholders a special metal card with a stainless-steel veneer instead of the usual plastic, so this is a card that will look good coming in and out of your wallet.
With so many travel rewards cards out there, choosing a new one to apply for might seem treacherous. But you can’t go wrong with any of the choices on this list. So make your travel goals for 2017, then use these options as a guide to pick the right card to get you there. And get yourself off and running!
Featured image courtesy of Bruskov via Getty Images.
The American Express Platinum card has some of the best perks out there: cardholders enjoy the best domestic lounge access (Delta SkyClubs, Centurion Lounges, and Priority Pass), a $200 annual airline fee credit as well as up to $200 in Uber credits, and mid-tier elite status at SPG, Marriott, and Hilton. Combined with the 60,000 point welcome offer -- worth $1,140 based on TPG's valuations -- this card is a no-brainer for frequent travelers. Here are 5 reasons you should consider this card, as well as how you can figure out if the $550 annual fee makes sense for you.
- Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you use your new Card to make $5,000 in purchases in your first 3 months.
- Up to $200 for Uber rides annually. Credit and Uber VIP status available to Basic Card Member only.
- 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel.
- 5X Membership Rewards® points on eligible hotels booked on amextravel.com.
- As a Platinum Card Member, you can enjoy access to the Global Lounge Collection, the only credit card airport lounge access program that includes proprietary lounge locations around the world.
- Receive complimentary benefits with an average total value of $550 with Fine Hotels & Resorts. Learn More.
- $200 Airline Fee Credit, up to $200 per calendar year in baggage fees and more at one qualifying airline.
- Terms Apply.
- See Rates & Fees