The 6 Most Underrated Travel Rewards Credit Cards
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There are many popular travel rewards credit cards on the market today, and we’ve devoted a lot of time to analyzing these cards here at The Points Guy. However, many other products don’t get the same level of coverage but still offer a fantastic value proposition. Today I want to go through six of the most underrated travel rewards credit cards.
To ensure a consistent framework for this post, I’ll look at each of these cards across five key attributes:
- Sign-up bonus
- Earning rates
- Other benefits
- Annual fee
- Why it’s underrated
So which cards earned a spot on the list? In no particular order:
- Sign-up bonus: Two complimentary nights at any participating Tier 1-4 Ritz-Carlton hotel after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months after account opening
- Earning rates: 5 points per dollar spent at Ritz-Carlton, Marriott and SPG hotels; 2 points per dollar spent with airlines, car rental agencies and restaurants; 1 point per dollar everywhere else
- Other benefits: $300 annual travel credit; Gold status for the first year (and when you spend $10,000 per year after that); Platinum status with $75,000 in spending; three Club Level upgrades per year on paid stays of up to 7 nights; $100 hotel credit on stays of 2 nights or more; Priority Pass Select membership; Global Entry fee reimbursement; $100 airline ticket discount; no foreign transaction fees
- Annual fee: $450
- Why it’s underrated: This card already had a solid set of benefits, but last year’s enhancements made it very compelling in the premium travel rewards credit card arena. While the annual travel credit isn’t nearly as flexible as that of the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, if you regularly have incidental travel expenses (like bag fees or in-flight internet charges), it can be a great benefit. I valued Gold status at almost $2,000 earlier this year, and that also includes SPG Gold status when you link your accounts. Anyone who stays in even a couple of Ritz-Carlton hotels every year should easily get a ton of value from the on-property perks, and with Priority Pass Select and the Global Entry fee credit, this card should earn a spot in many more wallets than it already does.
- Sign-up bonus: 60,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening plus 5,000 bonus points when you add your first authorized user and make your first purchase in the first three months from account opening
- Earning rates: 5 points per dollar spent at IHG hotels; 2 points per dollar spent at gas stations, grocery stores and restaurants; 1 point per dollar spent everywhere else
- Other benefits: Free anniversary night at any IHG hotel every year; automatic Platinum Elite status; 10% point rebate on award redemptions; no foreign transaction fees
- Annual fee: $49 (waived for the first year)
- Why it’s underrated: I opened this card a couple of years ago when Chase was offering the 60,000-point bonus, and I continue to keep it open for one simple reason: the free night cardholders receive every year when they renew the card. For just the $49 annual fee, I get a free night in any IHG hotel around the world. I used it at the InterContinental Lisbon the first year when paid rates were over €150 per night, getting a value of more than triple the annual fee.
- Sign-up bonus: 40,000 bonus points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening plus 5,000 bonus points after you add an authorized user and make a purchase within three months of opening your account
- Earning rates: 3 points per dollar spent at Hyatt properties; 2 points per dollar spent at restaurants, car rental agencies and directly with airlines; 1 point per dollar spent everywhere else
- Other benefits: Free night in Category 1-4 property every year; automatic Discoverist status (with upgrade to Explorist status after spending $50,000 in a calendar year); no foreign transaction fees
- Annual fee: $75
- Why it’s underrated: What makes this card a keeper in the long term is the annual free night certificate. Even though it’s only valid at Category 1-4 locations, you’d still be hard-pressed to find a property with revenue rates of less than the $75 annual fee. This is another card I have held for a number of years, and I’ve always received a ton of value out of these certificates at properties like the Grand Hyatt Seattle, Andaz Savannah and Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress in Orlando.
4. United MileagePlus Explorer Card
- Sign-up bonus: 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first three months your account is open plus 5,000 bonus miles after you add the first authorized user and make your first purchase in the first three months from account opening
- Earning rates: 2 miles per dollar spent on tickets purchased from United; 1 mile per dollar spent everywhere else
- Other benefits: 10,000 bonus miles after spending $25,000 in a calendar year; free checked bag (when you pay for the ticket with your card); priority boarding; 2 United Club passes each year; enhanced award availability; no foreign transaction fees
- Annual fee: $95 (waived for the first year)
- Why it’s underrated: This card is a great option for regular United flyers, but on the surface, it doesn’t appear to be that lucrative. However, what really makes this card underrated is the additional award availability it grants. When you’re logged in to your MileagePlus account as a cardholder, you’ll gain access to a separate inventory of economy award tickets under the “XN” fare class. This can be a lifesaver if you’re trying to redeem your miles and saver award tickets aren’t available (as TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Richard Kerr experienced first-hand in 2015).
5. JetBlue Plus Card
- Sign-up bonus: 30,000 bonus points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 90 days
- Earning rates: 6 points per dollar spent on JetBlue purchases; 2 points per dollar spent at restaurants and grocery stores; 1 point per dollar spent everywhere else
- Other benefits: Free checked bag; 10% of your redeemed points back; 50% savings on in-flight purchases; 5,000 bonus points on your account anniversary; no foreign transaction fees
- Annual fee: $99
- Why it’s underrated: We’ve written before about why the JetBlue Plus card is a no-brainer, and I wholeheartedly believe that (unless you live in a city with limited or no JetBlue service). The bonus you earn on your account anniversary each year is worth $60 based on TPG’s most recent valuations, which covers over half of the card’s annual fee. However, since you get 10% of your redeemed points back, they’re (essentially) worth 10% more. While the earning rates aren’t as lucrative as other cards out there, the savings for when you actually fly JetBlue (both on baggage fees and in-flight purchases) make it a terrific card to keep in your wallet.
6. Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card
- Sign-up bonus: 30,000 bonus miles plus, buy one ticket and get one for just the taxes and fees ($0 fare plus taxes and fees from $22) after you spend $1,000 within the first 90 days.
- Earning rates: 3 miles per dollar spent directly on Alaska and Virgin America and 1 mile per dollar on all other purchases
- Other benefits: Free checked bag on Alaska and Virgin America flights for you and up to six other passengers on the same reservation; annual companion fare; no foreign transaction fees
- Annual fee: $75
- Why it’s underrated: Not only does this Alaska co-branded card earn you a better-than-average 3 miles per dollar for purchases with the airline, but it also features a lucrative companion fare. Usually cardholders get a ticket for a friend or family member priced from $121 ($99 plus taxes and fees from $22) each year on their account anniversary, but now the card is waiving the $99 fare fee for new sign-ups (for the first year of cardmembership). Also notable is the low spending requirement to earn 30,000 miles, which can be redeemed on Alaska, Virgin America or a variety of other carriers — and Alaska’s partners offer some solid business-class award redemptions.
Everyone should be using travel rewards credit cards on a regular basis to open up redemptions like fantastic hotel suites and premium-cabin flights. However, there are a handful of cards that fly under the radar but nonetheless offer a terrific value proposition for a wide variety of travelers. If you haven’t considered one of the above cards, hopefully this post has given you some reasons to give them a try in the near future!
Which credit cards do you consider to be underrated?
Featured image courtesy of the Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay.