The best travel credit cards of 2019
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As the holiday travel season approaches, it’s vital to have the right travel credit card in your purse or wallet so that you’re not missing out on great travel rewards. While there are lots of terrific credit cards for travel out there, the reality is that the best one for you is the one that suits your specific travel needs.
In this guide I’ll review all the details, including bonus offers and perks such as Global Entry fee credits and Priority Pass lounge access, to bring you a list of the very best cards. Remember that travel rewards can add up quickly, especially when a welcome bonus is involved, so it’s important to apply and start earning as soon as you can to start maximizing your points and miles.
Without further ado, here are my top picks:
Best travel credit cards of December 2019
- Chase Sapphire Preferred Card: Best sign-up bonus
- Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card: Best for earning miles
- The Platinum Card® from American Express: Best for lounge access
- Chase Sapphire Reserve®: Best for travel credits
- Capital One® Spark® Miles for Business: Best for business travel
- Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card: Best for hotel rewards
- Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card: Best for no annual fee
- American Express® Gold Card: Best for worldwide dining
- American Express® Green Card: Best for travel/dining
- Bank of America® Premium Rewards® Visa® credit card: Best for TSA PreCheck/Global Entry
- United Explorer Card: Best for airline rewards
- Marriott Bonvoy Boundless™ Credit Card : Best for international travel
- Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card: Best for commuters
- Virgin Atlantic World Elite Mastercard®: Best for partner awards
To start our analysis, here are some comparisons of the best travel credit card offers available right now.
Comparing travel credit card offers
|Credit Card||Best For||Travel Rewards Rate||Bonus Value*||Annual Fee|
|Chase Sapphire Preferred Card||Sign-up bonus||2x on travel
2x on dining
|Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card||Earning miles||2x on all other purchases||$700||$95***|
|The Platinum Card from American Express||Lounge access||5x on airfare booked directly
5x on airfare and prepaid hotels booked through Amex Travel
(see rates and fees)
|Chase Sapphire Reserve||Travel credits||3x on travel
3x on dining
|Capital One Spark Miles for Business||Business travel||5x on hotels and car rentals through Capital One Travel
2x on all other purchases
|Hilton Honors American Express Surpass||Hotel rewards||12x at Hilton
6x at U.S. restaurants, at U.S. supermarkets and at U.S. gas stations
3x on all other purchases
(see rates and fees)
|Capital One VentureOne||No annual fee||1.25x on all other purchases||$280||$0|
|American Express Gold Card||Worldwide dining||4x at restaurants worldwide
4x at U.S. supermarkets (up to $25k per year; then 1x)
3x on airfare booked directly with airlines
(see rates and fees)
|American Express Green Card||No foreign transaction fees (see rates and fees)||3x on travel and transit
3x on restaurants worldwide
|$600||$150 (see rates and fees)|
|Bank of America Premium Rewards card||TSA PreCheck/Global Entry||2x on travel
2x on dining
1.5x on all other purchases
|United Explorer Card||Airline rewards||2x on United
2x on restaurants
2x on direct hotel bookings
|Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card||International travel||6x at Marriott
2x on all other purchases
|Wells Fargo Propel||Commuters||3x on dining
3x on travel
3x on gas stations, rideshares and transit
3x on popular streaming services
|Virgin Atlantic World Elite Mastercard||Partner awards||3x on Virgin Atlantic
1.5x on all other purchases
*Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer.
**For cards that offer tiered bonuses, if the total spending requirement across multiple tiers is higher than $5,000, the bonus value is only for the lowest spending requirement.
***Annual fee waived the first year.
Travel Credit Cards
I’ve done a lot of the research for you, so let’s take a look at the details of each of these travel credit cards and offers, including their bonus values and some of the ways I’ve been able to put the credit cards’ benefits to use. (Note that the bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer.)
Why this is the best credit card for sign-up bonus: The Chase Sapphire Preferred’s sign-up bonus is one of the most valuable bonuses available on a mid-tier travel card. We value Chase Ultimate Rewards points at 2 cents each, meaning this value packs a $1,200 punch.
Current bonus: Earn 60,000 Ultimate Rewards points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months (valued by TPG at $1,200).
Rewards rate: Earn 2x on dining and travel
Travel benefits: When you redeem your points for travel through the Chase portal, you get a 25% bonus that makes your points worth 1.25 cents each. The CSP also comes with an entire suite of travel protections, including trip delay insurance, trip cancellation insurance, baggage delay and lost luggage coverage and primary rental car insurance.
Annual fee: $95
Why it’s worth it: We’ve long suggested the Chase Sapphire Preferred as a great option for those who are new to earning travel rewards, because it lets you earn valuable, transferable Chase Ultimate Rewards points with strong bonus categories and a reasonable annual fee. You’ll earn a solid return (4% back) on dining and entertainment on top of your generous sign-up bonus, and have access to some of the best travel protections offered by any travel rewards credit card. While you won’t get the same travel credits or lounge access as you do with the Chase Sapphire Reserve, this is the perfect starter travel card for anyone who can’t justify a higher annual fee, yet. Read the Chase Sapphire Preferred review.
APPLY HERE: Chase Sapphire Preferred Card
Why this is the best credit card for earning miles: With the Capital One Venture, you’re earning miles on every single purchase. That makes it easy to rack up rewards without having to juggle different bonus categories or spending caps.
Current bonus: Earn 50,000 Capital One miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months (valued by TPG at $700*).
Rewards rate: Earn 2x on every purchase.
Travel benefits: You get a $100 Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee credit every four years, which is a nice additional perk for a mid-tier card that only costs $95 a year.
Annual fee: $95 (waived the first year)
Why it’s worth it: The Capital One Venture was already a solid value proposition with a Global Entry/TSA PreCheck application fee credit, but you can also transfer the miles you earn with this credit card (as well as the VentureOne credit card and Capital One’s two Spark Miles cards) to 15 airline transfer partners including Avianca, Etihad and Singapore Airlines. The transfer ratio is 2:1.5 for 12 partners and 2:1 for two, meaning for every dollar you spend on this card you’re getting 1-1.5 points or miles with a partner airline. This greatly enhances the potential value you can get with this card, as miles are no longer worth a fixed 1 cent apiece. Read the Capital One Venture Card review.
APPLY HERE: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Why it’s the best card for lounge access: With the Amex Platinum, you’ll have access to the American Express Global Lounge Collection (which includes Centurion Lounges), Priority Pass, Airspace and Escapes lounges and Delta Sky Clubs (when flying Delta). No other card (other than the business version) offers this kind of access to lounges around the world.
Current bonus: Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first three months (valued by TPG at $1,200).
Rewards rate: Earn 5x points on airfare purchased directly with the airlines or through the Amex Travel portal and 5x points on prepaid hotels booked through Amex.
Travel benefits: The Amex Platinum really is the king of luxury travel benefits. You’ll get up to $200 in annual airline fee credits, up to $200 in Uber credits, up to $100 in credit at Saks Fifth Avenue and up to $100 credit for your Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee once every four years. Plus, you’ll get unparalleled lounge access, automatic elite status with Hilton and Marriott and complimentary memberships with Hertz Gold Plus Rewards, Avis Preferred and National Car Rental Emerald Club Executive.
Why it’s worth it: As you can see, a ton of factors contribute to this credit card’s overall value; it’s not just the 60k bonus that lands it near the top of this list. But even apart from the $500 in travel credits each year and various lounge access options, the Amex Platinum is a stellar premium travel card that can pave the way to some amazing award flights and other redemptions. Among the Membership Rewards program’s 20 travel partners is Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer, which is your only option if you want to book the ultra-premium Singapore Suites using miles. Other highlights include an amazing 5 points per dollar on airfare (equal to a 10% return on these purchases), and the ability to add three authorized users for a total of $175 (see rates and fees). Read the American Express Platinum review.
APPLY HERE: Platinum Card from American Express
Why it’s the best card for travel credits: The Chase Sapphire Reserve comes with an annual $300 travel credit. But rather than limiting that credit to only airline incidental fees like many other cards, you can use it to offset the cost of a number of travel expenses such as airfare, hotels, rental cars, transit and more. You’re also getting an up to $100 Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee credit once every four years.
Current bonus: Earn 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months (valued by TPG at $1,000).
Rewards rate: Earn 3 points per dollar on travel (excluding $300 travel credit) and dining at restaurants and 1 point per dollar on everything else
Travel benefits: In addition to myriad travel credits that come with the Reserve, you’ll also get a 50% redemption bonus when you use your points to pay for travel through the Chase portal, Priority Pass lounge access and a full suite of travel protections just like the Preferred, but with better coverage.
Annual fee: $450
Why it’s worth it: The Chase Sapphire Reserve won our battle of the premium credit cards for a reason: It offers a stellar selection of perks on top of solid earning rates. Best of all, if you have this card, the Ultimate Rewards points you earn on other Chase Credit Cards can also be redeemed at the 1.5-cent rate. You also get an impressive 3x points on travel (after the $300 travel credit is exhausted) and dining purchases, which equates to a 6% return based on my valuations. This credit card is a prime example of benefits more than making up for a steep annual fee. See the Chase Sapphire Reserve review here.
APPLY HERE: Chase Sapphire Reserve
Why its the best card for business travel: When you’re a business owner, you have more important things to worry about than juggling bonus categories. The Capital One Spark Miles card will earn 2x on every purchase, plus 5x on eligible hotel and rental car bookings.
Current bonus: Earn up to 200,000 Capital One miles: 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $5,000 in the first 3 months, and 150,000 bonus miles when you spend $50,000 in the first 6 months of your account opening (valued by TPG at $2,800*).
Rewards rate: Earn 5x miles on hotel and rental car bookings through Capital One Travel and 2x on all other purchases.
Travel benefits: In addition to a stellar sign-up bonus and rewards rate, you’ll also get an up to $100 credit for your Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee.
Annual fee: $95 (waived the first year)
Why it’s worth it: If you’re a business looking for a travel credit card, this is your chance to score a great card for all your everyday business purchases and a huge sign-up bonus at the same time. For a limited time, you can get up to a whopping 200,000 bonus miles when you apply for the card and spend $50,000 on it in the first six months. That’s a large spending requirement, but entirely feasible for many businesses with significant monthly expenses. Since the card already earns 2x miles on all other purchases, you’ll end up with at least 300,000 miles just from the bonus and $50,000 in minimum spend. Capital One has greatly expanded its mileage program in the last year, adding 15 airline transfer partners, which means you can book premium cabins such as Lufthansa First Class using the miles earned with the Spark Miles card. Read the Capital One Spark Miles for Business credit card review.
APPLY HERE: Capital One Spark Miles for Business
Why it’s the best card for hotel rewards: Hilton is one of the top hotel brands in the world, and the Hilton Honors Surpass Amex will help you earn rewards while upgrading your hotel stay experiences.
Current bonus: Earn 150,000 Hilton Honors points after you spend $3,000 in purchases on the card within the first 3 months of card membership (valued by TPG at $900). Plus, a $100 statement credit after your first purchase on the card in the first 3 months. (Offer ends 12/31/2019. Terms Apply.)
Rewards rate: Earn 12x on eligible Hilton purchases, 6x at U.S. restaurants, U.S. supermarkets and U.S. gas stations, 3x on everything else
Travel benefits: With this card, you get complimentary Hilton Gold elite status and a Free Weekend Night after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases in the calendar year.
Annual fee: $95 (see rates and fees)
Why it’s worth it: If you’ve been waiting to get Hilton’s primary hotel card, the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass, there literally is no better time than now. That’s because as an exclusive limited-time welcome offer for TPG readers, the card currently comes with not only 150,000 bonus points after you spend $3,000 in the first three months, but also a $100 statement credit just for making your first purchase with the card in the same timeframe. Plus, the card itself is a solid offering for travelers who stay at Hiltons even a few times a year, since it offers an excellent 12x bonus category on spending at Hilton properties — equivalent to a 7.2% return based on TPG’s point valuations. Read the Hilton Honors American Express Credit Card review.
APPLY HERE: Hilton Honors American Express Surpass
Why it’s the best card for no annual fee: With the VentureOne, you’re earning Capital One miles on every purchase, with no annual fee..
Current bonus: 20,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 on purchases within the first three months.
Rewards rate: Earn 1.25x miles on every purchase
Travel benefits: Compared to the Venture, this card doesn’t have any perks such as travel credits. However, that’s to be expected with a no annual fee card. You do get valuable protections, including travel accident insurance, lost luggage reimbursement, purchase security and extended warranty.
Annual fee: $0
Why it’s worth it: If you are a beginner traveler spending less than $12,667 a year, this is a great starter credit card for earning miles — especially through hotels.com. You’re earning Capital One miles, which TPG values at 1.4 cents each. You can redeem them as a statement credit just like the Venture, or you can transfer to one of Capital One’s transfer partners. If you decide that you would like the added earning capabilities and perks of the Venture, you can always request an upgrade down the line. Read the Capital One VentureOne review.
APPLY HERE: Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card
Why it’s the best card for worldwide dining: The Amex Gold earns 4x on dining worldwide with no foreign transaction fees (see rates and fees) (meaning you’ll get an 8% return on purchases), which makes it one of the best personal cards to use when you eat out while abroad.
Current bonus: Earn 35,000 Membership Rewards points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months (valued by TPG at $700).
Rewards rate: Earn 4x at restaurants worldwide and at U.S. supermarkets (on the first $25,000 spent each year; then 1x), 3x on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
Travel benefits: You’re getting a $100 annual airline fee credit with this card that can be used on things like checked baggage, inflight food and beverages, seat assignments and more. Plus, you’ll get up to $120 in statement credits each year when you pay with the Amex Gold card at participating dining partners.
Annual fee: $250 (see rates and fees)
Why it’s worth it: Amex revamped its Premier Rewards Gold Card and reintroduced it as the Amex Gold Card, with new bonus categories and a strong focus on dining. With this credit card, Amex finally has a strong option for dining purchases. The annual fee is now $250 and not waived the first year, but thanks to the new earning rates and benefits, it could be worth it for you. Read the American Express Gold review.
APPLY HERE: American Express Gold Card
Why it’s the best card for no foreign transaction fees: The Amex Green card was recently revamped with new bonus categories, new benefits and the removal of foreign transaction fees. This is now an excellent card to use, both at home and abroad.
Current bonus: Earn 30,000 American Express Membership Rewards points after you spend $2,000 in purchases within the first three months (valued by TPG at $600). Plus for a limited time, get up to $100 in statement credits for eligible purchases made directly with Away within the first 3 months (Offer ends 1/15/2020. Terms Apply.)
Rewards rate: Earn 3x on travel, dining and transit
Travel benefits: You can take advantage of up to $100 in statement credits per calendar year when you pay for your Clear membership with the card and up to $100 in statement credits per calendar year when you use the card to purchase lounge access through LoungeBuddy.
Annual fee: $150 (see rates and fees)
Why it’s worth it: The brand new changes on the Amex Green card bring the card back into the conversation when it comes to top travel credit cards. The mid-tier card offers 3x points on travel and dining purchases, with a broad definition of “travel” that includes common daily transit costs such as taxis, rideshares, subways and more. On top of that, the revamped card comes with up to a $100 annual credit for your Clear membership and up to $100 in credits for lounge access purchased with LoungeBuddy, meaning that if you can utilize both those credits in full, you’ve more than covered the $150 annual fee right off the bat. Read the Amex Green Card Review.
APPLY HERE: American Express Green Card
Why it’s the best card for TSA PreCheck: It’s not incredibly common for a mid-tier card to offer a perk like a TSA PreCheck application fee credit. This card not only offers that benefit, but also a solid rewards rate and other travel benefits.
Current bonus: Earn 50,000 bonus points after you make at least $3,000 in purchases in the first 90 days of account opening (valued by TPG at $500).
Rewards rate: Earn 2x on travel and dining, 1.5x on everything else
Travel benefits: In addition to the up to $100 TSA PreCheck/Global Entry application fee credit, you’ll also get an up to $100 airline incidental statement credit for qualifying purchases. Bank of America Preferred Rewards elites can also supercharge their traveling purchases by earning an additional 25%-75% points on every purchase.
Annual fee: $95
Why it’s worth it: You might not think of the Bank of America Premium Rewards card as a typical travel credit card, since the points it earns can’t be transferred to travel partners but rather are redeemable at 1 cent apiece for cash, gift cards or by booking travel at the Bank of America travel portal. But it can potentially be a valuable option for your purse or wallet as an everyday spending card. Its basic earning rates are reasonable, but where the card really shines is if you’re able to participate in Bank of America’s separate Preferred Rewards program. Reach the top Platinum Honors tier in Preferred Rewards and you’ll earn a 75% bonus on each purchase you make with this card, bringing the earning rate on travel and dining expenses to an impressive 3.5x points per dollar and the everyday earning rate on all other purchases to a market-leading 2.625x points per dollar. Read the Bank of America Premium Rewards credit card review.
APPLY HERE: Bank of America Premium Rewards
Why it’s the best card for airline rewards: While there have been some negative changes to United’s awards program, the United Explorer Card remains a great option for United flyers. You’ll earn rewards on more than just flights and can rack up as many as 65,000 miles with this current bonus.Current bonus: Earn 40,000 MileagePlus bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open, plus an additional 25,000 bonus miles after you spend $10,000 total in purchases in the first 6 months.
Rewards rate: Earn 2x miles on United purchases, restaurants and hotel bookings made directly with the hotel.
Travel benefits: This card comes with some nice benefits for United flyers, including a free checked back for you and a companion, priority boarding, 25% back on United inflight purchases and two United Club one-time passes each year. Plus, you’ll get up to $100 in credit for your Global Entry/TSA PreCheck application fee.
Annual fee: $95 (waived the first year)
Why it’s worth it: The United Explorer Card was revamped in 2018 to include several bonus categories beyond just purchases on United Airlines, which now makes it more feasible to use as a primary card for United flyers. But the real value is in the card’s perks. When flying United, you’ll get a free checked bag for both yourself and a companion, so if you fly United even once a year, that perk alone can make up for the card’s annual fee. The two one-time United Club passes are also a sweet benefit, allowing even occasional United flyers to visit the lounge before their flight. And if you’re a true United road warrior, you’ll save a lot more with the card’s 25% discount on inflight purchases, which even includes Wi-Fi. Read the United Explorer credit card review.
APPLY HERE: United Explorer Card
Why it’s the best card for international travel: Marriott properties can be found all over the world, which means this card can help you fund your trip no matter where you’re going.
Current bonus: 75,000 bonus points after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.
Rewards rate: Earn 6x at participating Marriott Bonvoy hotels and 2x on all other purchases
Travel benefits: You’ll get complimentary Marriott Bonvoy Silver elite status with a pathway to Gold if you spend $35,000 on the card in a calendar year and 15 elite credits toward the next level of status. Plus, you’ll receive a free award night good for stays costing up to 35,000 points every year after your account anniversary.
Annual fee: $95
Why it’s worth it: If you stay at Marriott properties on a regular basis, this is a great time to get this card and score its current welcome bonus of 75,000 Marriott points. Just make sure you’re aware of the card’s complicated application restrictions, which could prevent you from earning the sign-up bonus depending on what Marriott cards you have had in the past or currently have across both the Chase and American Express Marriott card portfolios. Read the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless credit card review.
APPLY HERE: Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card
Why it’s the best card for commuters: The 3x you’ll earn with this card includes (but isn’t limited to) flights, hotels, taxis, ridesharing, car rentals, passenger railways and trains, ferries, tolls, limos and gas stations. No matter your preference for getting to the office, you’re almost guaranteed to get 3x.
Current bonus: 30,000 Bonus Points after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.
Rewards rate: Earn 3x on travel, dining, gas stations and select streaming services.
Travel benefits: This is a no-annual-fee card, meaning it doesn’t offer a ton in the way of travel benefits. However, you will get cell phone protection (important if you’re always on the go), as well as an array of standard purchase and travel protections.
Annual fee: $0
Why it’s worth it: For no annual fee, you’re getting quite a lot of bang for your buck with the Wells Fargo Propel. It has a similar rewards structure to the Amex Green, but with the addition of select streaming services. You can also pair the Propel with the Wells Fargo Visa Signature® Card to redeem all of those points earned at 1.5 cents each (which is the same as the Chase Sapphire Reserve travel portal redemption rate). If you spend $50,000 on the card a year, that actually increases to 1.75 cents each. Anyone looking to maximize their rewards game without paying any annual fees should seriously look into this underrated duo. Read the Wells Fargo Propel card review. 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.
APPLY HERE: Wells Fargo Propel American Express card
Why it’s the best card for partner awards: Virgin Atlantic is an incredibly valuable frequent flyer program in large part due to the incredible value you can get from its partners like Air New Zealand and Delta.
Current bonus: Earn 60,000 Virgin Atlantic miles after you spend $2,000 in purchases within the first 90 days of account opening, 5,000 bonus miles when you add additional authorized users and 15,000 bonus miles at your card anniversary after you spend $25,000 in purchases in 12 months (valued by TPG at $900).
Rewards rate: Earn 3x on direct Virgin Atlantic purchases and 1.5x on all other purchases.
Travel benefits: Spend $25,000 in purchases annually to qualify for a companion award in the same cabin class when you redeem Flying Club miles for a Virgin Atlantic award ticket. You’ll also earn 25 tier points towards Virgin Atlantic elite status for every $2,500 in purchases (max 50 tier points per month).
Annual fee: $90
Why it’s worth it: Most people get frustrated when they try to use Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles to fly to the United Kingdom on Virgin Atlantic, and rightly so since Virgin adds significant carrier surcharges to its transatlantic awards. But the real value in Virgin miles is using them to book on partners, especially for Delta Air Lines flights. The current up to 80,000-mile bonus is slightly lower than the up to 90,000 miles we’ve seen before on this credit card, but the current offer comes with a much lower and more manageable spending requirement, which should make it a better choice for a lot of folks. And if you’re aiming to earn Virgin Atlantic elite status, the tier points earned from this card can speed you along. Read the Virgin Atlantic World Elite Mastercard review.
APPLY HERE: Virgin Atlantic World Elite Mastercard
How we choose the best travel credit cards
I reviewed numerous travel credit card offers and spent countless hours studying the pros and cons of each offer. My method for assigning value to these credit cards relied on assessing a number of criteria:
- Sign-up/welcome bonus value – The first thing I look at for each card is the value of each sign-up bonus. While you shouldn’t choose a credit card based solely on the welcome offer, you can use bonus values as a tiebreaker of sorts between similar cards or as a way to prioritize which card to get first.
- Earning rate – While bonus value is important, so is the long-term value each card offers. I looked at the rewards rates to see which cards would reward cardholders throughout usage.
- Travel credits – The best travel credit cards often offer an assortment of travel credits for cardholders. Some cards, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, offer broad travel credits. Others like the Amex Platinum offer shopping and airline fee credits. It’s also not uncommon to see cards that offer a Global Entry/TSA PreCheck application fee credit.
- Travel benefits – In addition to travel credits, top travel credit cards often come with benefits like complimentary elite status or lounge access. I took these into consideration as well when choosing our best travel cards.
- Rewards program – Not all credit card rewards programs are created equal. Each points program has its own point valuation, which you can study here. The value of each individual type of point will always be a vitally important factor when rating travel credit cards and their promotional offers.
- Foreign transaction fees – This is a huge factor when choosing a credit card. If you plan to use your travel rewards credit card abroad or on websites hosted abroad, you want to ensure you don’t have a foreign transaction fee biting into your earnings.
- Travel insurance coverage – Lastly, I look at what travel protections each card offers. These are often overlooked benefits that can potentially save travelers hundreds or even thousands of dollars when things go awry during trips.
How travel credit cards work
Travel credit cards help you upgrade your travel experiences in a number of ways. You’ll earn rewards across spending categories that can help you score free flights and hotel stays, you’ll get access to certain travel and purchase protections, and they often also come with premium perks like lounge access, travel credits and more.
Are you new to the travel rewards card game? Check out our beginner’s guide to all things points and miles. You’ll learn about top loyalty programs, how to maximize your credit card strategy to reach your travel goals and so much more.
Different types of travel credit cards
While the overarching goal of all travel rewards credit cards are to help you earn rewards on and for travel purchases, there are multiple different types of travel credits out there.
These are cards that earn rewards that can be redeemed through a card’s rewards program or by transferring them to a travel partner. A lot of our best travel credit cards fall under this category because they are the most valuable type of points you can earn. Transferrable rewards give you the flexibility to redeem your rewards in a way that will be most beneficial to you. Examples of top transferable rewards cards are the Chase Sapphire Reserve and Amex Platinum.
Airline cobranded cards earn a specific type of airline miles. These cards also generally come with perks specific to that airline. For example, an airline card may offer free checked bags for you and a companion, a certain number of elite-qualifying miles to help you reach status, priority boarding privileges, inflight discounts and more. Examples of airline credit cards include the United Explorer Card and the Virgin Atlantic World Elite Mastercard.
Hotel cobranded cards work in a similar manner to airline cards. You’ll earn rewards that are redeemable for a certain hotel program, such as Hilton or Marriott. Hotel cards come with their own specific benefits, such as complimentary elite status or free award night stays. One of my favorite things about hotel cards is that you can stack your earnings on hotel stays with the hotel’s program. For example, if you have the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless card, you’ll earn 6x at Marriott properties on top of the 10x base points you get through the Bonvoy program. That means you’re really earning 16x on Marriott stays when you use your hotel card to pay for your booking. If you have Bonvoy elite status, you’ll also earn a bonus on those base points. You could earn up to 23.5x on eligible hotel stays, depending on what level of status you’re at.
Fixed-value cards earn points or miles that are always redeemed for the same value. For example, the Bank of America Premium Rewards Card earns points that are always worth 1 cent each. These types of cards are great for beginners who haven’t quite gotten the hang of maximizing transferable points or for casual travelers who don’t want to worry with transfer partners or dynamic pricing. As more hotels and airlines move to a dynamic pricing model where award pricing shifts dramatically, fixed-value rewards programs are actually becoming a hot commodity.
Pros and cons of travel rewards credit cards
Travel credit cards are a great way to earn rewards that allow you to travel the world for less money — or even practically for free — simply by using a credit card to buy the same daily items you’d otherwise buy with cash or a debit card. With certain travel credit cards, you can also get perks to use while traveling, which include everything from airport lounge access and hotel elite status to free airline companion certificates and discounts or credits on your travel purchases. Those who are well versed in award charts and redemption options available for travel rewards cards can also often get more value from points than from cash back.
However, there are a few drawbacks to travel rewards cards to consider. Because travel cards are focused on earning and redeeming for travel expenses, your redemption options are slightly limited when it comes to maximizing value. For example, while you can redeem your Amex Membership Rewards points as a statement credit, through Amazon, for gift cards and more, you’re generally only getting the best value when you transfer your points to partners. But when it comes to transfer partners, the value you’re getting can also change drastically depending on the partner and redemption you book. More airlines and hotels are switching to dynamic pricing models, which means the value you get from your points/miles can vary drastically.
How to compare travel rewards credit cards
With so many travel credit cards on the market, there are a ton of options and it’s important to ask yourself what credit card benefits would best meet your travel goals. Are you hoping to use your sign-up bonus for a specific redemption? Are you looking for a card that gives you luxury travel perks? Are you hoping to hit elite status with a certain hotel brand or airline? Are you a casual traveler or a frequent flyer? What spending categories will be most beneficial to you? These are all questions to consider before applying.
For example, if you’re wanting a card to help you hit elite status with Delta while giving you elite-like perks in the meantime, you should strongly consider getting a Delta credit card. Multiple Amex Delta cobranded cards give you perks like earning MQMs when you hit certain spending thresholds and offering free checked bags and priority boarding.
On the other hand, if you only fly occasionally and aren’t exclusive to one airline, you might be better off with a flexible travel credit card that doesn’t offer perks on any one airline, but that earns points or miles that can be redeemed across a variety of different airlines, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred. And if you’re a road warrior who flies every week, you’ll want to think about a premium travel credit card that offers lots of travel perks, such as the Amex Platinum with airport lounge access and hotel elite status.
Things to consider before applying:
- 5 things to understand about credit before applying for cards
- 3 key considerations for improving your credit score
- Debunking credit card myths: Does applying for a card permanently impact my credit score?
As always, head to the all cards hub to see our best credit cards currently available.
Frequently asked questions about travel rewards cards
How much is a point or mile worth on a travel credit card?
Every type of airline, hotel and flexible bank point and mile is worth a different amount, so you can’t assume that a 50,000-point bonus on one card is equivalent to a 50,000-point bonus on another. That’s why The Points Guy maintains a guide to point and mile valuations, which explains how much each type of points and miles are worth for all the major programs. You can use those valuations to determine how much a sign-up bonus is actually worth, or even a bonus category.
For instance, Amex Membership Rewards are worth 2 cents each based on TPG’s valuations, which means the 60,000-point bonus on the Amex Platinum is worth $1,200. That’s because 60,000 x 2 cents = $1,200. And since that card earns 5 points per dollar on airfare, you can also determine that each dollar you spend on airfare will get you 10 cents back in points, because 5 points x 2 cents = 10 cents.
Is an annual fee worth it?
Many of the top travel rewards credit cards do come with hefty annual fees. But cardholders who maximize the perks and rewards structures on these cards will almost always come out net positive by the end of the year.
For example, while the Amex Platinum comes with a $550 annual fee (see rates and fees), you’re getting up to $500 in annual credits, unrivaled lounge access, a TSA PreCheck/Global Entry application fee credit, elite status with Hilton and Marriott and so much more in return. If you’re utilizing your credits every year and visiting lounges regularly, that annual fee is already paying for itself even before factoring in any rewards you earn with the card.
Even cards that don’t offer a lot in the way of travel credits are oftentimes worth the annual fee for cardholders. Take the Chase Sapphire Preferred, for example. There are no travel credits to offset the cost of the annual fee, but you only have to spend $2,375 on dining and travel each year in order to make the annual fee worth it ($2,375 x 2 points per dollar = 4750 points; 4750 points x 2 cents per point = $95). If you know you’ll use the benefits and perks offered by each card while also earning rewards through bonus category spending, annual fees are easily worth it.
Should I get a cash back or travel rewards card?
Ideally, you should have a mix of both types of cards in your wallet. Travel cards are great when you want to redeem points and miles for travel purchases, but you aren’t getting a great redemption value when you redeem for pretty much anything else. Cash back cards, on the other hand, can be used to offset the cost of expenses your points and miles won’t cover.
Let’s say you are taking a trip to London in the spring. With the points earned through your Amex Platinum, you’ve transferred points to partners for your award flights and hotel stays. However, those aren’t the only expenses that go into a trip. Points and miles won’t cover expenses like ground transport, eating out or tourist attractions while you’re there. But you can use cash back rewards as a statement credit to offset those costs. For example, if you use a cash back card like the Capital One® Savor® Cash Rewards Credit Card for your dining and entertainment spending while abroad, you can use cash back you’ve saved up previously to cover those purchases while still earning 4% back.
If you are wondering which type of card would be best as your first travel credit card, consider what type of rewards you will find more valuable. Cardholders who only plan to travel every once and a while may be able to get more value out of a cash back card that they can use to offset the cost of other expenses. However, if you are hoping to use your new card rewards to book award flights and hotels for an international trip, a travel card is going to be the way to go.
Travel rewards cards are an excellent tool to help you hit your travel goals. When used strategically, they can help you experience the world without costing you thousands of dollars in out of pocket expenses for airfare and hotel costs. Whether you’re a beginner who wants a card to offset the cost of your first big international trip or a road warrior looking to upgrade your travel experiences, there is a travel credit card out there for you. At the end of the day, it all comes down to choosing a card that will help you maximize your specific spending habits and hit your goals.
Related credit card guides
- Best rewards credit cards
- Best airline credit cards
- Best hotel credit cards
- Best cash back credit cards
- Best credit cards with no foreign transaction fees
This is The Points Guy’s permanent page for the best travel credit cards, so you can bookmark it and check back regularly for updates. Keep in mind you may see some reader comments referring to older offers below.
LIMITED TIME OFFER: Earn up to 200,000 bonus miles with this business card, plus 5x miles on hotels and car rental booking through Capital One Travel, and 2x miles on all other purchases.
- Limited Time Offer: Earn up to 200,000 bonus miles worth up to $2,000 to spend on travel—flights, hotels and more
- Earn 50,000 bonus miles when you spend $5,000 in the first 3 months and earn 150,000 bonus miles when you spend $50,000 in the first 6 months of your account opening
- Earn unlimited 2X miles per dollar on every purchase, everywhere, no limits or category restrictions, and miles won't expire for the life of the account
- Earn 5X miles on hotel and rental car bookings through Capital One Travel℠ using a Spark Miles card
- Transfer your miles to 10+ leading travel loyalty programs like JetBlue™, Air Canada, and Emirates™
- Redeem your miles instantly for any travel-related purchases, from flights and hotels to ride-sharing services
- Fly through security with one statement credit for either the $85 TSA Pre✓® application fee or the $100 Global Entry application fee
- $0 intro annual fee for the first year; $95 after that