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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.
Best Starter Travel Rewards Credit Cards
Let’s start by taking a look at 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||50,000 points||$4,000 in 3 months||2x points on travel, 2x points on dining|
|The Amex EveryDay® Credit Card from American Express||10,000 points||$1,000 in 3 months||2x points at supermarkets, 20% bonus on all points after 20 purchases a month|
|Wells Fargo Propel American Express® Card||30,000 points||$3,000 in 3 months||3x on dining, travel, gas station purchases and select streaming services|
|United Explorer Card||40,000 miles||$2,000 in 3 months||2x miles on United purchases|
|Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card||30,000 miles||$1,000 in 90 days||3x miles on Alaska purchases|
|Citi ThankYou Premier Card||60,000 points||$4,000 in 3 months||3x points on travel, 2x on dining and entertainment|
|The World of Hyatt Credit Card||60,000 points||$6,000 in 6 months||4x points at Hyatt, 2x points at restaurants, airlines, local transit and gyms|
|Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card||50,000 miles||$3,000 in 3 months||10x miles at Hotels.com, 2x miles on all other purchases|
|Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card||40,000 points||$1,000 in 3 months||2x points on Southwest purchases|
|IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card||100,000 points||$3,000 in 3 months||5x points at IHG hotels, 2x at gas stations, grocery stores and restaurants|
Now let’s take a deeper dive into these cards and explore the points, miles and benefits of each one.
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.
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 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 into 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.
This no-fee card relaunched in July 2018 with much-improved bonus categories. Now, you’ll earn 3x points on travel (including everything from rideshares to hotels to flights), dining, gas stations and select streaming services including Apple Music, Hulu, Netflix and Spotify Premium. In addition to more standard benefits like purchase and travel protection, the card also offers cell phone protection, with a maximum of $600 in coverage per claim and $1,200 per year toward damage or theft when you pay your phone bill with the Propel Card.
You can redeem points at a rate of 1 cent apiece toward travel, cash back, gift cards or charity donations, so you’re getting a 3% return on the bonus categories mentioned above, which is very solid for a card with no annual fee. Plus, once you get more advanced, you could look into upping the value of your points; if you have the Wells Fargo Visa Signature Card as well as the Propel Card, you can redeem points for 1.5 cents apiece toward airfare — and if you spend $50,000 on the card in a calendar year, that rate jumps to 1.75 cents per point. (The information for the Wells Fargo Visa Signature Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.)
As a member of the Star Alliance, United has access to plenty of award space on international flights, which is what makes the United 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 completes 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 15 airline 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 recently revamped World of Hyatt Credit Card because the sign-up bonus is 60,000 bonus points, split into two tiers. You’ll earn 40,000 bonus points after you make $3,000 in purchases on the card in the first three months, plus an additional 20,000 bonus points for a total of $6,000 in spend in the first six 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 $95 annual fee and waived foreign transaction fees, gets 4 points per dollar at all Hyatt properties and 2x points at restaurants, gyms, local transit and on tickets booked directly with airlines. The card also comes with Discoverist status in the World of Hyatt loyalty program, plus you’ll get 5 qualifying night credits toward Hyatt elite status each year, plus an additional 2 qualifying night credits for each $5,000 you spend on the card. Finally, you’ll receive a free night at a Category 1-4 property after your cardmember anniversary each year, and another Category 1-4 free night after spending $15,000 on the card in a cardmember year.
The Capital One Venture Rewards card earns flexible miles that can be redeemed against any travel purchase you make with the card using the “Purchase Eraser” feature. 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.
But the Venture card recently became a lot more valuable with the addition of Capital One’s partnership with Hotels.com, since you can now earn 10x miles on all hotel reservations made at hotels.com/Venture and paid for with your Venture Rewards card. There are no foreign transactions fees on this card, there’s no annual fee for the first year and you’ll only pay $95 a year after that to hang onto the Venture.
Southwest also 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 40,000 points after spending $1,000 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.
Earlier this year Chase introduced its new IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card, and the issuer just recently increased the card’s sign-up bonus to a whopping 100,000 points after $3,000 in purchases in the first 3 months. You’ll also get 2 points per dollar at gas stations, grocery stores and restaurants, your fourth night free on all IHG point redemptions, a 20% rebate on points purchases and IHG Platinum status for as long as you keep the card. Then starting with your first anniversary, the IHG Premier provides a free night at any IHG property that normally goes for up to 40,000 points per night. The IHG Premier charges no foreign transaction fees and has an annual fee of $89 per year.
Summary: Best first-time travel credit cards of 2018
- Chase Sapphire Preferred
- Amex EveryDay Credit Card
- Wells Fargo Propel American Express Card
- United Explorer
- Alaska Airlines Visa
- Citi ThankYou Premier Card
- The World of Hyatt Credit Card
- Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
- Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card
- IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card
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 2018, then use these options as a guide to pick the right card to get you there. And get yourself off and running!
Featured image by Bruskov / Getty Images.
One of the most unique benefits of this new card is that you can get up to $600 protection on your cell phone (subject to $25 deductible) against covered damage or theft when you pay your monthly cellular telephone bill with your Wells Fargo Propel Amex. This card is also a great option for gas purchases since you'll earn 3X points and the 30,000 point sign up bonus is worth $300 cash back.
- New! Earn 30K bonus points when you spend $3,000 in purchases in the first 3 months – that's a $300 cash redemption value
- Earn 3X points for eating out and ordering in
- Earn 3X points for gas stations, rideshares and transit
- Earn 3X points for travel including flights, hotels, homestays and car rentals
- Earn 1X points on other purchases
- $0 annual fee
- 0% intro APR for 12 months on purchases and balance transfers, then a 14.24%-26.74% variable APR; balance transfer fees apply
- Select "Apply Now" to learn more about the product features, terms, and conditions