The best travel credit cards of 2020

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At TPG, we are firm believers that travel can be absolutely transformative. It provides an opportunity to learn about different people and cultures and leaves you with unforgettable memories.

Many people have put travel on hold for the time being in light of the coronavirus pandemic. However, there is still a lot of value to get out of travel credit cards, whether you take advantage of temporary benefits or use current everyday expenses to build up your points balances for an amazing redemption in the future. This list encompasses a broad range of exceptional travel credit cards (including a few that are likely to bring home awards from this year’s TPG awards), all considered the best in their own categories.

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Without further ado, here are my top picks:

The Points Guy’s best travel credit cards

In This Post

Here are some comparisons of the best travel credit card offers and bonuses available right now.

Comparing our best travel credit cards

Credit Card Category Bonus Value* Annual Fee
The Platinum Card® from American Express

 

 

 

 

 

Best for welcome bonus $1,500 $550
(see rates & fees)
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card Best for standalone credit card  up to $1,400 $95
Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

 

 

 

 

Best for starter travel $1,200 $95
American Express® Gold Card

 

 

Best for worldwide dining $1,200 $250
(see rates & fees)
Chase Sapphire Reserve Best for travel credits $1,000 $550
Ink Business Preferred Credit Card Best for small business travel  $2,000 $95
Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card Best for premium hotels $900 $450
(see rates & fees)
Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card Best for airline rewards $480 $250 (see rates & fees)
Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card Best mid-tier hotel card $600 $95
Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card Best for Alaska Airlines miles $820 $75
Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®
Best for American Airlines flyers $700 $99 (waived for the first 12 months)
Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card Best for no annual fee $280 $0

*Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer.

The information for the Alaska Airlines Visa and the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select cards has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuers. 

The best travel credit cards

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 card benefits to use.

The Platinum Card from American Express: Best for lounge access

(Photo by Eric Helgas/The Points Guy)

Why it’s the best travel credit card for welcome bonus: The Amex Platinum’s welcome bonus is currently worth $1,500 according to TPG valuations, but that’s only the beginning. Right now, new cardholders also get 10x at U.S. supermarkets and U.S. gas stations (up to $15,000 in combined purchases) for the first six months of account opening.

Current welcome offer: Earn 75,000 Membership Rewards® Points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in your first six months of card membership (valued by TPG at $1,500). However, be sure to check the CardMatch tool to see if you’re targeted for a higher welcome offer (offer subject to change at any time).

Rewards rate: Earn 5x points on airfare purchased directly with the airlines or through Amex Travel (up to $500,000 on these purchases each calendar year, as of Jan. 1, 2021) and 5x points on prepaid hotels booked through Amex; 10x points on eligible purchases on your new card at U.S. gas stations and U.S. supermarkets, on up to $15,000 in combined purchases, during your first six months of card membership; 1x on everything else.

Travel benefits: The Amex Platinum 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 Gold status with Hilton and Marriott, and extra perks with Avis Preferred and National Car Rental Emerald Club Executive.

Annual fee: $550 (see rates and fees)

Why it’s worth it: It’s not just the 75,000-point bonus that lands this card on our list of the most valuable travel credit cards. Besides the up to $500 in credits each year and various lounge access options, the Amex Platinum is a stellar premium travel credit card that can provide amazing redemptions. Among the Membership Rewards program’s travel partners is Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer, which is the only way to book the ultra-premium Singapore Suites using miles. However, keep in mind that premium class service is pretty watered down right now thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, so it might be best to save up for later premium cabin award flights.

Other card highlights include an amazing 5x points per dollar spent on airfare purchased directly with the airline or through Amex Travel (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). Amex has also added several temporary non-travel perks and a general travel statement credit to the card in light of the coronavirus pandemic. This helps make the card’s benefits easier to use if your spending habits and redemption choices have changed in recent months.

Further reading: American Express Platinum review

Apply here: Platinum Card from American Express

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card: Best for earning miles

(Photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy)

Why this is the best standalone travel credit card: With the Capital One Venture, you’re earning at least 2x on every purchase. That makes it easy to rack up rewards without having to juggle different bonus categories or spending caps. And with flexible redemption options and a manageable annual fee, this card is an excellent choice if you’re looking to keep just one credit card in your wallet for all spending.

Current sign-up bonus: Earn 100,000 bonus miles after you spend $20,000 on purchases within the first 12 months from account opening (offer ends Dec. 14, 2020). Or still earn 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening.

Rewards rate: Earn 5x on car rentals and hotels booked with the card through Capital One Travel, and 2 miles per dollar spent on every other purchase

Travel benefits: You get an application-fee credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck of up to $100 every four years, a nice perk for a mid-tier card that only costs $95 a year.

Annual fee: $95

Why it’s worth it: The Capital One Venture Card allows you to redeem miles for a fixed-value or transfer the miles you earn to several airline and hotel transfer partners, including Avianca, Etihad and Singapore Airlines. The transfer ratio is 2:1.5 for most partners, although some have a less-lucrative rate of 2:1. This means that for every dollar you spend on this card, you’re effectively getting at least 1-1.5 points or miles with a partner airline. And the ability to earn 5x on eligible hotel and car rentals, plus temporarily 5x on Uber Eats through Jan. 31, 2021, just adds to the appeal of this card.

And for those who know they don’t want to redeem for travel at this time, Capital One recently added fixed-value redemption options for this card that can be utilized through the end of the year — takeout, restaurant delivery and select streaming services. Finally, it’s the one card The Points Guy — Brian Kelly — can’t live without.

Further reading: Capital One Venture Card review

Apply here: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

Chase Sapphire Preferred Card: Best starter travel credit card

(Photo by Isabelle Raphael/The Points Guy)

Why this is the best starter travel credit card: We’ve long suggested the Chase Sapphire Preferred as an excellent 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.

Current sign-up bonus: Earn 60,000 Ultimate Rewards points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening (valued by TPG at $1,200).

Rewards rate: Earn 5x on Lyft through March 2022, 2x on a generous definition of dining and travel purchases, 2x on groceries (on up to $1,000 in spend per month) from Nov. 1, 2020, through April 2021

Travel benefits: When you redeem your points for travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards 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 coverage, baggage delay and primary rental car insurance.

Annual fee: $95

Why it’s worth it: You’ll earn a solid return (4% back) on dining and travel on top of your generous sign-up bonus and you have access to some of the best travel protections offered by any travel rewards credit card.

If you are a frequent Lyft customer, you’ll also enjoy the 5x on Lyft rides. Fans of DoorDash food delivery service can take advantage of at least a 12-month DashPass membership. Although 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 credit card for anyone who can’t justify a higher annual fee. Chase has added new non-travel redemption options for your points.

Further reading: Chase Sapphire Preferred Review

Apply here: Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

American Express Gold Card: Best for worldwide dining

(Photo by Isabelle Raphael / The Points Guy)
(Photo by Isabelle Raphael/The Points Guy)

Why it’s the best travel credit card for worldwide dining: The Amex Gold earns 4x on dining around the globe, with no foreign transaction fees (see rates and fees), meaning you’ll get an 8% return on purchases (based on TPG’s valuations). While a few other cards temporarily offer higher return rates on dining, this is the best option for long-term spending.

Current welcome offer: Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first six months of account opening (valued by TPG at $1,200). However, check the CardMatch tool to see if you’re targeted for a higher welcome offer (offer subject to change at any time).

Rewards rate: Earn 4x at restaurants worldwide and at U.S. supermarkets (on the first $25,000 spent each calendar year, then 1x), 3x on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.

Benefits: You’ll get up to $120 in dining 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: The Amex Gold is a top performer in two categories — dining and groceries. You’re getting a great return on those purchases, plus additional perks such as the dining credit.

The card doesn’t do too bad in the travel sector, either, with 3x on flights booked direct or via amextravel.com. The fact that you’re raking in high-value points across several common spending categories is a major advantage.

The annual fee is $250, but that fee is easily offset if you’re using all the card’s benefits. In fact, The Amex Gold is my most-used credit card right now, with its 4x on global dining and U.S. supermarkets on top of the dining credit. While Membership Rewards aren’t a great value for cash back, I’m saving up my points haul for flights in 2021.

Further reading: American Express Gold review

Apply here: American Express Gold Card

Chase Sapphire Reserve: Best for travel credits

(Photo by The Points Guy)
(Photo by The Points Guy)

Why it’s the best credit card for travel credits: The Chase Sapphire Reserve comes with an annual $300 travel credit. But rather than limiting that credit to airline incidental fees such as competing cards do, you can use it to offset several travel expenses such as airfare, hotels, rental cars, transit and more. Plus, that $300 annual credit has been expanded through June 2021, with any balances being automatically applied to purchases at grocery stores and gas stations through the end of 2020. You’re also getting an up to $100 Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee credit once every four years.

Current sign-up bonus: Earn 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening (valued by TPG at $1,000).

Rewards rate: Earn 3x points per dollar spent on travel (excluding $300 travel credit) and dining at restaurants, 10x on Lyft through March 2022 and 3x on groceries Nov. 1, 2020, through April 30, 2020.

Travel benefits: In addition to the aforementioned travel benefits, cardholders get a combined up to $120 in food delivery credits with DoorDash between 2020 and 2021. When you’re traveling, you’ll get Priority Pass lounge access and some of the most extensive protections available on any credit card (including trip cancellation/interruption insurance, primary rental car coverage, trip delay insurance, emergency medical and more). The 50% redemption bonus when you use your points to pay for travel through the Chase portal is also a nice perk.

Annual fee: $550

Why it’s worth it: The Chase Sapphire Reserve offers a stellar selection of perks on top of solid earning rates. And if you have this card, the Ultimate Rewards points you earn on other Chase credit cards can be transferred over and redeemed at the 1.5-cent rate. You could get even more value by transferring your rewards to Chase’s 10 airline and three hotel partners, including  Hyatt and United.

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 TPG valuations. And Nov. 1, 2020, through April 30, 2021, you’ll get 3x on grocery spending as well. Plus, for cardholders who can use the new benefits, Lyft Pink, DashPass and the DoorDash credits are all great additions. This credit card is a prime example of benefits more than making up for a steep annual fee.

Further reading: Chase Sapphire Reserve review

Apply here: Chase Sapphire Reserve

Ink Business Preferred Credit Card: Best for small business travel

(Photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy)

Why it’s the best travel credit card for small businesses: You’re earning a solid return (6%) across multiple business-focused categories. Plus, the card gives you access to the Ultimate Rewards program and Chase’s valuable airline and hotel transfer partners. If you’re a small business owner looking for a way to rack up travel rewards on business expenses, this is a great option.

Current sign-up bonus: 100,000 bonus points when you spend $15,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening.

Rewards rate: Earn 3x on the first $150,000 spent each cardmember year on travel, shipping purchases, internet, cable and phone services and advertising purchases made with social media sites and search engines.

Travel benefits: The Ink Business Preferred offers a solid array of travel protections, including trip cancellation/interruption insurance, roadside dispatch, primary rental car insurance, purchase protection and extended warranty protection.

Annual fee: $95

Why it’s worth it: You’re getting a lot of bang for your buck with this card. The bonus alone is worth $2,000 according to TPG valuations and that’s not including the rewards you’ll earn while hitting the spending requirement. You’ll also earn 3x points on several common business expenses. The Ink Business Preferred is an Ultimate Rewards credit card, which means you’ll be able to redeem your points by transferring to Chase partners or through the portal at 1.25 cents each.

Further reading: 5 reasons to get the Chase Ink Business Preferred credit card

Apply here: Chase Ink Business Preferred credit card 

Hilton Honors American Express Aspire: Best premium hotel card

Hilton Honors American Express Aspire card. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

Why it’s the best premium hotel travel credit card: Hilton is one of the top hotel brands in the world and the Hilton Honors Aspire Amex offers a packed lineup of great benefits for hotel customers.

Current welcome offer: Earn 150,000 bonus points after using your new card to make $4,000 in eligible purchases within the first three months of card membership. Plus, for a limited time, earn a one-time $100 statement credit after using your new card to purchase an ExpertFlyer Premium annual subscription ($99.99 plus applicable taxes, followed by automatic renewal) within your first year.

Related: How ExpertFlyer helped me score a first-class experience of a lifetime

Rewards rate: Earn 14x on eligible Hilton purchases; 7x on U.S. restaurants, eligible airfare and eligible car rentals, and 3x on all other eligible purchases.

Travel benefits: With this card, you get some great perks: complimentary Hilton Diamond status, up to two free weekend reward nights (one each year and one after you spend $60,000 on eligible purchases in the calendar year), up to $250 in Hilton resort statement credits, up to $250 in annual airline fee credits, up to $100 Hilton on-property credit at certain hotels and a Priority Pass membership.

Annual fee: $450 (see rates and fees)

Why it’s worth it: Hilton’s premium card, the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire, offers a terrific haul of points and an array of perks. In addition to some stellar benefits, it provides an excellent 14x bonus category on spending at eligible Hilton properties — equivalent to an 8.4% return based on TPG’s point valuations — among solid returns in other spending categories. This card is also among the Amex cards to receive temporary benefits during 2020 to help you utilize this card while at home.

Further reading: Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Credit Card review

Apply here: Hilton Honors American Express Aspire

Delta SkyMiles Platinum American Express Card: Best for airline status

(Photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy)

Why it’s the best travel credit card for airline rewards: When it comes to cobranded airline cards, it doesn’t get much better than Delta’s lineup of cards. The Delta SkyMiles Platinum Amex is a great card for travelers hoping to hit Medallion elite status with the airline while racking up miles across a wide range of purchases.

Current welcome offer: Earn 40,000 bonus miles and 5,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $2,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Plus, earn a $100 statement credit after making a Delta purchase with your new Card within your first 3 months.

Rewards rate: Earn 3x on eligible Delta purchases and hotel stays; 2x on restaurants and U.S. supermarkets, and 1x on everything else.

Travel benefits: The revamped Delta SkyMiles Platinum Card offers a Global Entry/TSA PreCheck application fee credit (up to $100), an annual companion certificate for a domestic main cabin round-trip ticket each year, elite-like perks such as a free checked bag and priority boarding and a way to hit Medallion status faster: Earn 10,000 MQMs after $25,000 in eligible purchases and another 10,000 MQMs after spending $50,000 in a calendar year. You can also get a Medallion Qualification Dollar (MQD) waiver — but only if you spend $25,000 in a calendar year.

Annual fee: $250 (see rates and fees)

Why it’s worth it: In January 2020, Delta and Amex relaunched all seven of their cobranded cards with a new suite of benefits. The Delta SkyMiles Platinum Amex added enhanced bonus categories (including increased 3x earning on Delta) and a host of new travel benefits (plus new temporary perks such as 5x on Delta and the potential to earn even more MQMs).

The card’s annual fee increased to $250 (see rates and fees), so make sure you will get at least that much in value from the card each year. This card is best suited for regular travelers who are loyal to Delta and want a little help earning Medallion status with the airline.

Further reading: Delta SkyMiles Platinum Amex Card review

Apply here: Delta SkyMiles Platinum American Express Card

Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card: Best mid-tier hotel card

(Photo by Isabelle Raphael / The Points Guy)
(Photo by Isabelle Raphael/The Points Guy)

Why it’s the best mid-tier hotel travel credit card: There are more than 7,000 Marriott properties around the world — plus, this card offers some substantial perks for casual travelers.

Current sign-up bonus: Earn75,000 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 earn 15 elite-night credits every year, good enough for Marriott Bonvoy Silver Elite status and just 10 nights away from Gold. 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: The Marriott Bonvoy Boundless is a TPG reader favorite — it won Best Cobranded Hotel Credit Card at the 2019 TPG Awards.

Further reading: Marriott Bonvoy Boundless credit card review

Apply here: Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card

Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card: Best for Alaska Airlines miles

(Photo by The Points Guy)

Why it’s the best travel credit card for Alaska Airlines miles: Alaska Airlines miles are among the most valuable airline miles you can earn today, in part because of Alaska’s mix of airline partners and distance-based award chart.

Current bonus: Earn 40,000 bonus miles and Alaska’s Famous Companion Fare (from $121 — $99 fare, plus taxes and fees from $22) after you spend $2,000 or more on purchases in the first 90 days your account is open.

Rewards rate: Earn 3x miles on eligible Alaska Airlines purchases

Travel benefits: Get a free checked bag on Alaska flights for you and up to six guests on your reservation, receive an annual Companion Fare on your account anniversary, enjoy 50% off Alaska Lounge and 20% back on all inflight purchases.

Annual fee: $75

Why it’s worth it: Whether you live on the West Coast or not, the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature is a good cobranded airline card to consider adding to your wallet. The Seattle-based airline is mostly limited to North American routes (with some international destinations through partners), but that will change when the airline joins the Oneworld alliance by 2021. The announcement came with the news that American Airlines and Alaska Airlines are renewing (and strengthening) their partnership. Both developments will help Alaska Airlines add new ways for customers to use the Mileage Plan program as the airline establishes a global footprint.

Further reading: Maximizing the Alaska Airlines Visa Companion Fare

Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®: Best for American Airlines flyers

(Photo by John Gribben for The Points Guy)
(Photo by John Gribben for The Points Guy)

Why it’s the best travel credit card for American Airlines flyers: If you fly American Airlines often, it can be handy to have a cobranded credit card from the airline. The Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select offers a nice mix of benefits and earning opportunities for a manageable $99 annual fee, which makes it great for A.A. flyers who aren’t looking for lounge access or an abundance of luxury perks.

Current bonus: Earn 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,500 in the first three months of account opening.

Rewards rate: Earn 2x miles on eligible American Airlines purchases, restaurants and gas stations.

Travel benefits: You’ll get preferred boarding, a free checked bag on domestic itineraries, discounts on eligible inflight purchases, access to reduced mileage awards and a $125 American Airlines flight discount when you spend more than $20,000 in a calendar year and renew your card.

Annual fee: $99 (waived for the first year)

Why it’s worth it: For a low annual fee, American Airlines customers can enjoy elite-like benefits without breaking the bank or needing to hit an elite status tier. You’ll earn 2x (a 2.8% return) on three different bonus categories and a few nice benefits to help make the flight experience more enjoyable. Plus, the card is currently offering a welcome bonus that TPG values at $700. If you know how to maximize your AAdvantage redemptions, that bonus could potentially be worth even more.

Related: What credit score do you need to get the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard?

Capital One VentureOne Card: Best for no annual fee

(Photo by Eric Heglas/The Points Guy)

Why it’s the best travel card for no annual fee: The no-annual-fee Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card has the same decent redemption options as its sister card, the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card — but with a lower rewards rate and fewer perks. The miles earned on the card can also be transferred to airline and hotel partners as well as some other benefits not usually seen with a no-annual-fee card.

Current bonus: 20,000 bonus miles after spending $500 within the first three months from account opening.

Rewards rate: You’ll get 5x on hotels and car rentals booked with the card through Capital One Travel, plus a flat 1.25 miles per dollar on all other purchases, which equates to a solid 1.75% return.

Travel benefits: Some of the perks include travel accident insurance — get up to $250,000 in coverage for common carrier accidental death or dismemberment when you pay for your entire travel fare with your card. There’s also lost luggage reimbursement for up to $3000 per trip if your bags are lost or stolen. You’ll get extended warranty, too — double the manufacturer’s warranty or up to one extra year for warranties of three years or less, with a maximum of $10,000 per claim and $50,000 per cardholder. On top of all that, the VentureOne card is only of the only no annual fee options that don’t charge foreign transaction fees.

Why it’s worth it: The VentureOne card is a strong card to have in your arsenal and great if you are budgeting due to its no annual fee. After all, there aren’t many no-annual-fee cards with the ability to transfer points/miles directly to travel partners, so it’s a big bonus that this card offers that. The VentureOne also beats other no-annual-fee cards when it comes to perks such as purchase protection and no foreign transaction fees. Its earning scheme is practically identical to the $95-a-year card, but with a slightly lower return on everyday spending — so if you think you’ll spend $12,667 on everyday purchases per year — this card is for you.

Related: Capital One Venture vs. Capital One VentureOne

How we chose the best travel credit cards

I reviewed numerous travel credit card offers and spent countless hours studying the pros and cons of each offer. I assigned value to these credit cards based on the following criteria:

  • Sign-up bonus/welcome offer value — The first thing I look at for each card is the value of each sign-up bonus. Although you shouldn’t choose a credit card based solely on that metric, 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 — Bonus value is important, but so is the long-term value each card offers. I looked at the rewards rates to see which cards would reward cardholders for the long term.
  • Travel credits — The best travel credit cards often offer an assortment of travel credits for cardholders. Some cards, including the Chase Sapphire Reserve, offer broadly-defined travel credits. Others, such as the Amex Platinum, provide shopping and airline-fee credits. Several 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.
  • Rewards program — Not all credit card rewards programs are created equal. Each program has its own valuation, which you can study here. The value of each currency is vitally important 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 — Last, I look at what travel protections each card offers. These benefits are often overlooked but can save travelers hundreds or even thousands of dollars when things go awry during trips.

How travel credit cards work

Travel credit cards offer rewards on different purchases that can help you book flights, hotels and more for little-to-no out-of-pocket expenses. Some cards also provide valuable perks and benefits that upgrade the overall travel experience — from Global Entry application fee credits to lounge access to complimentary elite status. If you have the right card (or cards) in your wallet, the sky is the limit on where your travels can take you — literally.

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.

Related: The complete history of credit cards, from antiquity to today

Different types of travel credit cards

The reason to hold any travel rewards credit cards is to earn rewards, but there are different types of travel credits:

Transferable-rewards credit cards

Singapore Airlines A350 Business Class. Photo by Zach Honig / The Points Guy
Transfer your American Express Membership Rewards or Chase Ultimate Rewards points to book a seat in Singapore Airlines’ Airbus A350 business class. (Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy)

These cards earn rewards which can be redeemed through a card’s rewards program directly or by transferring them to a travel partner. Many of our best travel credit cards fall under this category because they are the most valuable type of points you can earn. Transferable 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.

Related: A guide to earning transferable points and why they’re so valuable

Airline credit cards

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, a certain number of elite-qualifying miles to help you reach status, priority boarding privileges, inflight discounts and more.

Related reading: Best airline credit cards

Hotel credit cards

Hotel cobranded cards work like airline cards. You’ll earn rewards that are redeemable for a particular hotel program, such as Hilton or Marriott. Hotel cards come with their own 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.

(Photo courtesy of the Miami Marriott Biscayne Bay)
(Photo courtesy of the Miami Marriott Biscayne Bay)

For example, if you have the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless card, you’ll earn 6x at participating Marriott properties on top of the 10x base points you get as a member of 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 have.

Related: Best hotel credit cards

Fixed-value credit cards

Fixed-value cards earn points or miles that are always redeemed for the same value. For example, the Bank of America® Premium Rewards® credit card earns points that are always worth 1 cent each. These cards are great for beginners who haven’t quite gotten the hang of maximizing transferable points or casual travelers who don’t want to worry about 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 becoming more popular.

The information for the Bank of America Premium Rewards 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.          

Related reading: Comparing the best fixed-value point credit cards

Pros and cons of travel credit cards

The American Express Centurion Lounge at JFK Airport. (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Travel credit cards are a great way to earn rewards that allow you to travel the world for less money — or practically for free — simply by using a credit card to buy the same 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 — 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 for travel rewards cards can often get more value from points than from cash back.

However, there are a few drawbacks to travel rewards cards. Because travel credit cards are focused on earning and redeeming for travel expenses, your redemption options are slightly limited when it comes to maximizing value. For example, you can redeem your Amex Membership Rewards points as a statement credit — through Amazon, for gift cards and more — but 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.

Still, the advantages of travel rewards cards almost always outweigh the drawbacks for frequent travelers. You can’t beat the potential redemptions, travel benefits and sign-up bonuses that top travel credit cards offer. Plus, many of these cards provide temporary perks that extend their value beyond just travel, at least in the short-term.

Compare travel credit cards

With so many travel credit cards on the market, it’s essential to ask yourself which credit card benefits 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 specific hotel brand or airline? Are you a casual traveler or a frequent flyer? Whi spending categories will be most beneficial to you?

(Photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy)

For example, if you want a card to help you hit elite status with Delta while giving you elite-like perks, you should strongly consider getting a Delta credit card, such as the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card. Multiple Amex Delta cobranded cards give you perks such as earning MQMs when you hit certain spending thresholds and offer free checked bags and priority boarding.

Related: Delta now makes it even easier to earn elite status — but is it worth it?

On the other hand, if you only fly occasionally and aren’t exclusively loyal to one airline, you might be better off with a flexible travel credit card, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred. While it doesn’t offer perks on any one airline, it earns points that can be transferred to various airlines (and hotels). And if you’re typically 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:

As always, head to TPG’s cards hub to see the best credit cards currently available.

Frequently asked questions about travel credit cards

How much is a point or mile worth on a travel credit card?

Every point or mile from an airline, hotel or bank 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 point and mile is worth. You can use those valuations to determine how much a sign-up bonus or bonus category is worth.

For instance, Amex Membership Rewards are worth 2 cents each based on TPG’s valuations, which means the 75,000-point bonus on the Amex Platinum is worth $1,500. That’s because 75,000 x 2 cents = $1,500. 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 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, although 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 more in return. If you’re using your credits every year and regularly visiting lounges, that annual fee is already paying for itself even before factoring in any rewards you earn with the card.

Related: Battle of the premium travel rewards cards: Which is the best?

Even cards that don’t offer a lot in the way of travel credits are often worth the annual fee for cardholders. Take the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, 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 to make the annual fee worth it ($2,375 x 2 points per dollar = 4,750 points; 4,750 points x 2 cents per point = $95). If you know you’ll use the benefits and perks offered by a card while also earning rewards through bonus spending, annual fees are easily worth it.

Related: 5 reasons why the Chase Sapphire Preferred should be your first card

Should I get a cash-back or travel credit card?

Ideally, you should have both types of cards in your wallet. Travel credit 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 almost anything else. On the other hand, cash-back cards can be used to offset the cost of expenses your points and miles won’t cover.

Related: The best cash-back credit cards for 2020

Let’s say you are taking a trip to London in the spring. With the points earned through your Amex Platinum, you transfer 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 transportation, eating out or tourist attractions while you’re there. But you can use cash-back rewards to offset those costs.

For example, if you use a card like the Capital One Savor Cash Rewards Credit Card for your dining and entertainment spending, you can use the cash back you’ve saved up previously as a statement credit to cover those purchases even while earning 4% back.

The information for the Capital One Savor Cash Rewards 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.

If you wonder 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 in a while may get more value out of a cash-back card that they can use to offset the cost of other expenses. However, if you hope to use the rewards from your card to book award flights and hotels, a travel credit card is the way to go.

Are there different considerations for choosing a card for international travel?

Not all travel credit cards are best for spending outside of the U.S. Some tack on fees for purchases that are not made within the U.S. or on a U.S. site. Others may not be widely accepted overseas. Plus, some cards offer more benefits that help you on your international adventures.

Here are a few of the things to look out for when choosing a card for international travel:

  • Foreign transaction fees — Some cards charge a fee (typically 3% to 5% of each transaction) when you use your card outside of the U.S. (including sites that are considered international and not U.S.-based). That fee will wipe out any rewards you may earn, so make sure to have a card that charges no foreign transaction fees.
  • TSA PreCheck/Global Entry — TSA PreCheck and Global Entry can make security lines go faster and reentry into the U.S. smoother. Luckily, plenty of top travel credit cards come with a TSA PreCheck/Global Entry application fee credit typically worth $100 every four years.
  • Insurance benefits —  In 2019, travel insurance benefits declined across many credit cards, but it remains an important factor. No one wants to think about the worst-case scenario happening on vacation, but it’s better to be prepared with a card that offers some form of travel protection.
  • Earning abroad — Some cards limit your bonus categories to U.S. merchants. If you plan to use a credit card abroad, make sure it will earn rewards on purchases no matter where you are.

Bottom line

Travel credit cards are great at helping you meet your vacation goals. They can save you thousands of dollars on 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.

It all comes down to choosing a card that will help you maximize your spending. Adding one of these cards to your wallet now could help you save up rewards for a fantastic redemption in the future.

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

Featured photo by Victoria Walker/The Points Guy.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

WELCOME OFFER: 60,000 Points

TPG'S BONUS VALUATION*: $1,200

CARD HIGHLIGHTS: 2X points on all travel and dining, points transferrable to over a dozen travel partners

*Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer. View our latest valuations here.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide, eligible delivery services, takeout and dining out & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 60,000 points are worth $750 toward travel.
  • With Pay Yourself Back℠, your points are worth 25% more during the current offer when you redeem them for statement credits against existing purchases in select, rotating categories.
  • Get unlimited deliveries with a $0 delivery fee and reduced service fees on orders over $12 for a minimum of one year on qualifying food purchases with DashPass, DoorDash's subscription service. Activate by 12/31/21.
  • Earn 2x total points on up to $1,000 in grocery store purchases per month from November 1, 2020 to April 30, 2021. Includes eligible pick-up and delivery services.
Regular APR
15.99%-22.99% Variable
Annual Fee
$95
Balance Transfer Fee
Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
Recommended Credit
Excellent/Good

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.