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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 sign-up bonuses and the key earning features.
|Card||Sign-Up Bonus||Minimum Spend||Bonus Categories|
|Chase Sapphire Preferred||50,000 points||$4,000 in 3 months||2x points on travel, 2x points on dining|
|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|
|United MileagePlus 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||50,000 points||$4,000 in 3 months||3x points on travel, 2x on dining and entertainment|
|The Hyatt Credit Card||40,000 points||$2,000 in 3 months||3x points at Hyatt, 2x points at restaurants, airlines and on car rentals|
|Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express||Up to $200 in statement credits||$1,000 in 3 months ($100 statement credit); additional $100 statement credit after first purchase at SPG or Marriott hotel in six months.||2x points at Starwood hotels|
|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 Select Credit Card||60,000 points||$1,000 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.
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 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 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 World of Hyatt loyalty program — and a free night at a Category 1-4 property after your cardmember anniversary each year.
It may seem at first glance like the Starwood Amex is just another hotel credit card, but American Express 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).
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.
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.
Summary: Best first-time travel credit cards of 2018
- Chase Sapphire Preferred
- Amex EveryDay Credit Card
- United MileagePlus Explorer
- Alaska Airlines Visa
- Citi ThankYou Premier Card
- The Hyatt Credit Card
- Starwood Preferred Guest Card from American Express
- Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
- Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card
- IHG Rewards Club Select 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 via Getty Images.
With great travel benefits, 2x points on travel & dining and a 50,000 point sign up bonus, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is a great card for those looking to get into the points and miles game. Here are the top 5 reasons it should be in your wallet, or read our definitive review for more details.
- Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $625 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
- Chase Sapphire Preferred® named a 'Best Travel Credit Card' by MONEY® Magazine, 2016-2017
- 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
- Earn 5,000 bonus points after you add the first authorized user and make a purchase in the first 3 months from account opening
- No foreign transaction fees
- 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
- Get 25% more value when you redeem for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 50,000 points are worth $625 toward travel.
- No blackout dates or travel restrictions - as long as there's a seat on the flight, you can book it through Chase Ultimate Rewards