My picks for the best travel cards broken down by bonus category

Jul 14, 2021

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There are many different types of rewards cards. As such, it can be confusing to sort through all the available cards and determine which card (or cards) is best for you.

So, today I’ll discuss my top picks for travel rewards cards. And I’ll break down my top picks by bonus category. If you’re looking for a new card for a particular type of purchase — such as dining, travel, groceries or gas — you’ve come to the right place.

However, in today’s post, I’ll only discuss consumer travel rewards cards. So, if you’d prefer a business rewards card or a cash-back rewards card, you’ll want to check out my posts on the best cash-back cards for each bonus category and the best business cards for each bonus category.

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Best travel rewards credit cards for each bonus category

The information for the Citi Prestige and 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.

In This Post

Comparison of the best travel rewards cards

Card Category Earning rate for category (return*) Annual fee
Citi Prestige Card Dining 5x (8.5%) $495
Chase Sapphire Reserve General travel 3x (6%) $550
American Express Green Card Hotel stays 3x (6%) $150 (see rates & fees)
The Platinum Card from American Express Airfare (when booked directly with airlines or through Amex Travel, on up to $500,000 in purchases per calendar year) 5x (10%) $695 (see rates & fees)
American Express Gold Card Groceries at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 in purchases per calendar year) 4x (8%) $250 (see rates & fees)
Citi Premier Card Gas 3x (5.1%) $95
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card Non-bonus spending 2x (3.4%) $95

*Based on TPG valuations and not provided by issuers. See more information here

The above table shows the top travel rewards card for each spending category. However, in reality, no one card is absolutely the best for any bonus category. Instead, the best card for you in each bonus category will depend on your spending habits, annual fee preferences and the other cards in your wallet.

Related: How to assess and build your credit card portfolio

Best cards for dining

Close up of young Asian woman enjoying freshly made pizza in an Italian restaurant
(Photo by d3sign/Getty Images)

Some consumers spend a large amount of their budget on dining while others focus more on groceries. But, if you like dining out or ordering in — and spend a lot of money doing so — it’s worth adding one of the best cards for dining to your wallet.

Comparison of the top travel rewards cards for dining

Card Dining category bonus Value of the points* Total earned per dollar spent Annual fee
Citi Prestige Card 5x 1.7 cents 8.5 cents $495
American Express® Gold Card 4x at restaurants 2 cents 8 cents $250 (see rates & fees)
American Express® Green Card 3x at restaurants 2 cents 6 cents $150 (see rates & fees)
Chase Sapphire Reserve 3x 2 cents 6 cents $550

*Based on TPG valuations and not provided by issuers. See more information here

Each of the four cards listed in the above table might be the best dining card for a particular consumer. For example, the Amex Green Card is an excellent choice if you’re looking for a card with a modest annual fee that earns 3x Membership Rewards points at restaurants, on travel and transit. And the Amex Gold Card is great if you also spend a lot at U.S. supermarkets. But, my top choice for dining purchases is the Citi Prestige Card.

Why the Citi Prestige Card is the best travel rewards card for dining

The Citi Prestige Card has lost a lot of perks over the years. And it’s currently closed to new applicants. But, it’s still my go-to card for dining in the U.S. and abroad because it earns 5x points at restaurants. Based on TPG’s valuation of Citi ThankYou Rewards points at 1.7 cents each, 5x earning equates to a return of 8.5%.

Plus, the Citi Prestige offers a $250 travel credit each calendar year that automatically applies to eligible purchases you make with your card. And you can use this travel credit for dining and groceries through the end of 2021. You may also get some value from the Citi Prestige’s complimentary fourth night  perk, which you can use up to twice each year. And you’ll also earn 5x points on air travel, 3x points on hotels and cruise lines and 1x on all other purchases.

Related: Even though the Citi Prestige has lost a lot of benefits, I’m still keeping mine (for now); Here’s why

Best cards for general travel

An Amtrak passenger train traveling through rural during Michigan
(Photo by Focused Adventures/Shutterstock)

If you spend a lot on travel each year, it’s worth having one of the best travel rewards cards for travel purchases. Even if you have a card that earns bonus points on hotel stays and a card that earns bonus points on airfare, it’s still essential to have a card for broader travel purchases such as trains and rental cars. So, here are some of the best travel rewards cards for travel purchases.

Comparison of the top travel rewards cards for general travel

Card Travel category bonus Value of the points* Total earned per dollar spent Annual fee
Chase Sapphire Reserve 3x 2 cents 6 cents $550
American Express Green Card 3x 2 cents 6 cents $150 (see rates & fees)
Chase Sapphire Preferred Card 2x 2 cents 4 cents $95

*Based on TPG valuations and not provided by issuers. See more information here.

I could make an argument for any of these three cards being the best travel rewards card for travel. After all, the Amex Green Card packs a lot of value with 3x earning on travel, at restaurants and on transit for its modest $150 annual fee. And the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card offers an excellent sign-up bonus and access to valuable Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partners for a sub-$100 annual fee. But, I ultimately chose the Chase Sapphire Reserve as the best travel rewards card for general travel.

Why the Chase Sapphire Reserve is the best travel rewards card for general travel

The Chase Sapphire Reserve is at the front of my wallet when I travel. After all, most purchases I make while traveling earn 3x points as a travel or dining purchase. And since TPG values Chase points at 2 cents each, 3x earning gives me an effective 6% return on these purchases. And, I’ll still earn 1x points on other purchases for a 2% return.

Admittedly, I’d get a similar return with the lower-annual-fee Amex Green Card. But, I prefer the Chase Sapphire Reserve‘s travel perks and protections. For example, the Chase Ultimate Rewards program offers a solid selection of 1:1 airline and hotel transfer partners. And Chase Sapphire Reserve cardholders can also redeem points for 1.5 cents apiece through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal. Plus, the card provides Priority Pass Select membership (including restaurant lounges) and excellent travel protections.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve has a $550 annual fee. But, a $300 annual travel statement credit effectively lowers the annual fee to $250. And the Chase Sapphire Reserve card currently offers a sign-up bonus of 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening. Based on TPG’s valuations, this bonus is worth about $1,200.

To learn more, check out the full Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card review.

If you decide to apply, you can do so here: Chase Sapphire Reserve.

Related: 12 reasons to choose the Chase Sapphire Preferred over the fancier Chase Sapphire Reserve

Best cards for hotel stays

Hyatt Place Melbourne / Palm Bay in Florida
Hyatt Place Melbourne/Palm Bay in Florida (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

You could use one of the best cards for travel to pay for your hotel stays. But, some credit cards provide a slightly higher earning rate on select hotel purchases. So, here’s a quick look at the best travel rewards cards for hotel stays.

Comparison of the top travel rewards cards for hotel stays

Card Hotel category bonus Value of the points* Total earned per dollar spent Annual fee
The Platinum Card® from American Express 5x (only for prepaid hotels booked with American Express Travel) 2 cents 10 cents $695 (see rates & fees)
Hilton Honors Aspire Card from American Express 14x (only at participating Hilton properties) 0.6 cents 8.4 cents $450 (see rates & fees)
World of Hyatt Credit Card 4x (only at Hyatt properties) 1.7 cents 6.8 cents $95
Chase Sapphire Reserve 3x 2 cents 6 cents $550
American Express Green Card 3x 2 cents 6 cents $150 (see rates & fees)

*Based on TPG valuations and not provided by issuers. See more information here.
The information for the Hilton Aspire Amex 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.

The Platinum Card from American Express technically provides the greatest return, but you have to book a prepaid hotel through Amex Travel to get the 5x earning rate. I rarely book through Amex Travel since I value getting elite perks and earnings, which you typically won’t get when booking through an online travel agent. Likewise, some cobranded hotel credit cards provide a high return, but only at select hotels.

So, my choice for the best travel rewards card for hotel stays comes down to the Chase Sapphire Reserve or American Express Green Card. And, although I use the Chase Sapphire Reserve for most hotel stays, the American Express Green Card will be a better choice for many consumers due to its lower annual fee.

Why the American Express Green Card is the best travel rewards card for hotel stays

There’s a lot to like about the American Express Green Card. First off, it earns 3x Amex Membership Rewards points at restaurants, on transit and travel (including hotels). Plus, you’ll still earn 1x points on other purchases. TPG’s valuations peg the value of Amex Membership Rewards points at 2 cents each, so you’ll get a 6% return on purchases in 3x categories. And, a 6% return on a wide variety of purchases is pretty great for a card that only charges a $150 annual fee.

But, despite the annual fee, you may come out ahead with this card without even considering the points you’ll earn through spending on your card. This is because the card offers up to $200 in statement credits each calendar year (enrollment required):

  • Up to $100 per calendar year when you pay for your CLEAR membership with your card
  • Up to $100 per calendar year when you purchase lounge access through LoungeBuddy with your card

The Amex Green is a compelling competitor to the Chase Sapphire Preferred. However, if you’re looking to add a new card to your wallet right now and are debating between the Amex Green and the Chase Sapphire Preferred, it’s worth considering the Sapphire Preferred’s current 100,000-point sign-up bonus (after spending $4,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening). As you decide, be sure to check out our full Amex Green card review.

Related: Who should — and who shouldn’t — get the Amex Green card?

Best cards for airfare

United Boeing 767 parked at a gate
(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

As with hotel stays, you could use one of the best cards for travel to pay for airfare. But, some credit cards provide a higher earning rate on select airfare purchases. So, here’s a quick look at the best travel rewards cards for airfare purchases.

Comparison of the top travel rewards cards for airfare

Card Airfare category bonus Value of the points* Total earned per dollar spent Annual fee
The Platinum Card from American Express 5x (only when you book directly with the airline or with American Express Travel, on up to $500,000 in purchases per calendar year) 2 cents 10 cents $695 (see rates & fees)
Citi Prestige Card 5x 1.7 cents 8.5 cents $495
Chase Sapphire Reserve 3x 2 cents 6 cents $550
American Express Green Card 3x 2 cents 6 cents $150 (see rates & fees)

*Based on TPG valuations and not provided by issuers. See more information here.

You’ll only earn 5x points with the Amex Platinum Card when you book directly with the airline or through Amex Travel. And you’ll only earn 5x on up to $500,000 of eligible airfare purchases each calendar year. But, neither of these restrictions will be a limiting factor for most travelers. Perhaps a more significant issue is that the travel protections provided by the Amex Platinum are more restrictive than those provided by the Chase Sapphire Reserve. Even so, due to its 10% return on airfare booked directly with airlines or through Amex Travel, I’ll give the Amex Platinum Card the win in this category.

Why The Platinum Card from American Express is the best travel rewards card for airfare

The primary reason the Amex Platinum is the best travel rewards card for airfare is its earning rate. You’ll earn 5x American Express Membership Rewards points on flights booked directly with airlines or American Express Travel (on up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year). Points are worth 2 cents apiece (according to TPG’s latest monthly valuations), so you’re getting a return of 10%.

Amex just revamped the Platinum Card with new lifestyle-focused benefits, a higher annual fee and a big welcome bonus. Before applying, make sure you’ll get enough value from all the card’s perks to justify the massive $695 annual fee.

The Amex Platinum currently offers new cardmembers a welcome offer of 100,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $6,000 on purchases on your new card in your first six months of card membership. Plus, earn 10x points on eligible purchases on your new card at restaurants worldwide and when you Shop Small in the U.S. (on up to $25,000 in combined purchases) during your first six months of card membership.

To learn more, check out the full Amex Platinum card review.

If you decide to apply, you can do so here: The Platinum Card from American Express.

Related: 14 things to do when you get the Amex Platinum

Best cards for groceries at U.S. supermarkets

Man selecting tomatoes at the grocery store
(Photo by Yagi Studio/Getty Images)

For many consumers, purchases at U.S. supermarkets account for a sizeable part of their annual budget. If you spend a lot on groceries, you may want to add one of the best grocery credit cards to your wallet. However, if you shop for groceries at a store that isn’t classified as a U.S. supermarket (such as Walmart or Target), you’ll want to use one of the top cards for everyday spending instead.

Comparison of the top travel rewards cards for groceries at U.S. supermarkets

Card Grocery category bonus Value of the points* Total earned per dollar spent Annual fee
American Express Gold Card 4x (only at U.S. supermarkets up to $25,000 per calendar year, then 1x) 2 cents 8 cents $250 (see rates & fees)
Amex EveryDay® Preferred Credit Card from American Express 3x (only at U.S. supermarkets up to $6,000 per year, then 1x; 50% bonus when you use the card 30 times a month) 2 cents 6 cents (9 cents with 50% bonus) $95
The Amex EveryDay® Credit Card from American Express 2x (only at U.S. supermarkets up to $6,000 per year, then 1x; 20% bonus when you use the card 20 times a month) 2 cents 4 cents (6 cents with 20% bonus) None

*Based on TPG valuations and not provided by issuers. See more information here.
The information for the Amex EveryDay® Preferred Credit Card and Amex EveryDay® Credit 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.

The Amex EveryDay Preferred and Amex EveryDay are excellent options if you’ll use your card frequently for small purchases and don’t plan to spend more than about $500 on groceries each month. However, the American Express Gold Card will be a better choice for most consumers.

Why the American Express Gold Card is the best travel rewards card for groceries at U.S. supermarkets

The American Express Gold Card offers 4x Membership Rewards points at U.S. supermarkets (up to $25,000 in purchases each calendar year; then 1x points). You’ll also earn 4x points at restaurants, 3x points on flights booked directly with airlines or through Amex Travel and 1x on other purchases. Based on TPG’s valuation of Amex points at 2 cents each, you’ll get an 8% return on spending in 4x categories.

Plus, you’ll get up to $10 in statement credits monthly when you enroll and then pay with your Amex Gold Card at Grubhub, Seamless, Boxed and other participating partners. And once you add your Amex Gold Card to your Uber account, you’ll get $10 in Uber Cash each month to use on Uber Eats orders or Uber rides in the U.S. If you maximize these statement credits, you could get up to $240 back each calendar year. The Amex Gold Card’s $250 annual fee might not look so bad once you consider these credits and other perks.

Finally, if you apply for the Amex Gold Card now, you could earn a welcome bonus of 60,000 Membership Rewards points after you spend $4,000 on purchases on your new card in your first six months of card membership. Based on TPG’s valuations, this bonus is worth about $1,200.

To learn more, check out the full Amex Gold Card review.

If you decide to apply, you can do so here: American Express Gold Card.

Related: 4 reasons why the Amex Gold is the one card we can’t live without

Best cards for gas

Fueling up a vehicle at a gas station
(Photo by Pramote Polyamate/Getty Images)

Gas is a significant expense for some travelers and commuters. So, in this section, I’ll focus on travel rewards cards that offer bonus earnings on gas purchases.

Comparison of the top travel rewards cards for gas

Card Gas category bonus Value of the points* Total earned per dollar spent Annual fee
Citi Premier® Card 3x 1.7 cents 5.1 cents $95
PenFed Platinum Rewards Visa Signature Card 5x 0.85 to 1.27 cents** 4.35 to 6.35 cents None
Amex EveryDay® Preferred Credit Card from American Express 2x (only at U.S. gas stations; 50% bonus when you use the card 30 times a month) 2 cents 4 cents (6 cents with 50% bonus) $95
Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card 6x (only at U.S. gas stations) 0.6 cents 3.6 cents $95 (see rates & fees)

*Based on TPG valuations and not provided by issuers. See more information here
**TPG does not assess the value of PenFed points. However, PenFed has provided examples to us that indicate points are worth 0.85 cents toward gift cards and perhaps a little more for merchandise. When booking travel, points are worth around 0.85 to 0.90 cents each for air travel, but as much as 1.27 cents toward hotel bookings, with many hotel reservations returning about 1.18 cents in value per point redeemed.

The Citi Premier is my go-to card for gas purchases. But, if you have one of the other cards listed in the table above, you’ll also get a reasonable return on your gas purchases.

Why the Citi Premier Card is the best travel rewards card for gas

The Citi Premier Card offers 3x points on air travel, hotels, gas stations, supermarkets and restaurants plus 1x points on all other purchases. TPG’s valuations peg the value of Citi ThankYou points at 1.7 cents per point. So, you can expect a 5.1% return on purchases in the 3x bonus categories.

You can transfer your ThankYou points to airline loyalty programs. Doing so will provide the best value and is the basis for TPG’s 1.7 cents per point valuation. But, you can also redeem your points at a rate of 1.25 cents each by booking airfare through the ThankYou Travel Center.

The Citi Premier carries a $95 annual fee, which can be difficult to justify since the card’s perks are minimal. However, you can get $100 off a single hotel stay of $500 or more (excluding taxes and fees) up to once per calendar year when you book through the Citi ThankYou Travel Center. Plus, new cardholders can get a sign-up bonus of 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months of account opening. Based on TPG’s valuations, this bonus is worth $1,360.

To learn more, check out the full Citi Premier credit card review.

If you decide to apply, you can do so here: Citi Premier Card.

Related: Here are the top 5 ways to save on gas this summer

Best cards for non-bonus spending

Someone shopping on their computer
(Photo by Guido Mieth/Getty Images)

Finally, every consumer should have a card for purchases that don’t fall into a particular bonus category. My card for non-bonus spending is often a card for which I’m working to meet minimum spending requirements for a sign-up bonus or a threshold bonus. But when I’m not working toward a bonus, here are my favorite travel rewards cards for everyday spending.

Comparison of the top travel rewards cards for non-bonus spending

Card Non-bonus earning Value of the points* Total earned per dollar spent Annual fee
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card 2x 1.7 cents 3.4 cents $95
Citi® Double Cash Card 2x (2% cash back: 1% when you buy, 1% as you pay) 1.7 cents if converted to ThankYou points 3.4 cents $0
Chase Freedom Unlimited 1.5x (1.5% cash back) 2 cents if you have an Ultimate Rewards-earning card 3 cents $0
Amex EveryDay® Preferred Credit Card 1x (50% bonus when you use the card 30 times a month) 2 cents 2 cents (3 cents with 50% bonus) $95

*Based on TPG valuations and not provided by issuers. See more information here.

Admittedly, I often use The Blue Business® Plus Credit Card from American Express for everyday spending. But, since this guide focuses on consumer travel rewards cards, I’ll discuss my second favorite card for everyday spending: the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card. However, any of the four cards in the above table would be reasonable everyday spending cards; you simply need to choose what type of transferrable rewards you want to earn.

Why the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card is the best travel rewards card for non-bonus spending

With the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, you’ll earn unlimited 2x miles on every purchase you make. You can transfer Capital One Venture Rewards miles to airline and hotel partners or you can redeem miles to offset eligible charges on your card. You’ll get a statement credit for a TSA PreCheck or Global Entry application fee up to every four years when you use your card to pay the fee (up to $100).

Best of all, the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card currently offers a sign-up bonus of 60,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening. Based on TPG’s valuations, the 60,000-mile bonus is worth $1,020.

To learn more, check out our Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card review.

If you decide to apply, you can do so here: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card.

Related: Is the Capital One Venture card worth it?

Bottom line

In this guide, I discussed my favorite travel rewards cards for each bonus category. But, you may have different favorites. And be sure to check out my posts on the best cash-back cards for each bonus category and the best business cards for each bonus category while building the best credit card portfolio for your spending and lifestyle.

For rates and fees of the Amex Gold Card, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Amex Green Card, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Hilton Aspire Card, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Hilton Surpass Card, please click here.
For rates and fees of Amex Platinum Card, please click here.

Featured photo by Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images.

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.