Best travel rewards credit cards: Spring 2017

By  |  Published: April 19, 2017

Best rewards card: Spring 2017

 

Best rewards card: Spring 2016

 

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A travel credit card with an ample sign-up bonus and generous rewards could help you pay for the vacation of your dreams -- without wiping out your pocketbook.

Some travel cards, for example, currently offer sign-up bonuses worth $750 or more in free travel. Other cards are loaded with headache-saving perks, such as premium travel insurance and faster security screening.

To help you pick the best card for your travel plans, CreditCards.com evaluated some of the top-rated cards in the travel card category and asked a panel of judges to rate CreditCards.com staff’s top three picks. Judges for the Best Travel Credit Card of Spring 2017 were travel expert Johnny Jet (johnnyjet.com), personal finance expert Holly Johnson (clubthrifty.com), Money magazine staff writer Taylor Tepper, CreditCards.com Editor-in-Chief Daniel P. Ray and CreditCards.com senior industry analyst Matt Schulz.

FIRST PLACE: The Chase Sapphire Reserve card, a breakout star in the travel card category, landed in the top spot for this year’s best travel card after wowing judges with its impressive rewards bonuses and generous benefits for travelers. 

 

#1 CHASE SAPPHIRE RESERVE CARD
Best card
  • 3 points per dollar on travel and restaurant purchases
  • 1 point per dollar on other purchases
  • 50,000 points if you spend  $4,000 in first 3 months
  • $300 annual travel credit (applies to most travel purchases)
  • 1:1 point transfer to most frequent flier partners
  • $450 annual fee

Other features: $100 Global Entry or TSA Precheck credit, no foreign transaction fee, complimentary airport lounge access, select Visa Infinite hotel, air and car rental perks

Editor's rating:
star-rating4.4/5
Read our review

 

#1 CHASE SAPPHIRE RESERVED CARD

Best card

  • 3 points per dollar on travel and restaurant purchases
  • 1 point per dollar on other purchases
  • 50,000 points if you spend  $4,000 in first 3 months
  • $300 annual travel credit (applies to most travel purchases)
  • 1:1 point transfer to most frequent flier partners
  • $450 annual fee

Other features: $100 Global Entry or TSA Precheck credit, no foreign transaction fee, complimentary airport lounge access, select Visa Infinite hotel, air and car rental perks

Editor's rating:
star-rating
4.4/5
Read our review

Chase has trimmed the Sapphire Reserve’s famously high 100,000-points sign-up bonus to 50,000 points, but “even with a cut in its ridiculously lucrative sign-up bonus, the Reserve remains the standard-bearer for serious travelers looking for a card to lighten their budget,” says Money Magazine's Taylor Tepper. 

Even with a cut in its ridiculously lucrative sign-up bonus, the Reserve remains the standard-bearer for serious travelers looking for a card to lighten their budget.

— Taylor Tepper
Money magazine

If you can afford the Sapphire Reserve’s $450 annual fee and spend $4,000 in first three months, you'll have little trouble earning a free flight or luxury hotel stay with this travel card. 

For example, cardholders who use Chase’s Ultimate Rewards portal to redeem their 50,000 sign-up bonus points for free travel (thus earning them a 50 percent rewards bonus) should still be able to claim up to $750 in free travel. 

Tepper adds: “The annual fee is high, but totally worth it when you take into account the rewards you’ll earn for travel and dining spending, the Global Entry/Pre-check voucher, and the $300 travel credit. Not to mention that sign-up bonus.”

Other pluses: Frequent restaurant visitors earn three points for every dollar spent on dining purchases, while travelers receive a triple-point bonus on airfare, hotel stays, taxi and train fare and other travel purchases. 

The Sapphire Reserve also lets cardholders transfer points on a one-to-one basis to “popular airline and hotel loyalty programs such as United MileagePlus, Southwest Airlines, Hyatt, Marriott and IHG Rewards,” says personal finance expert Holly Johnson. 

This is a huge perk, she says, for cardholders who have amassed points with their favorite hotels or airlines and are eager to pool their points for a bigger purchase. 

“Flexibility is key when it comes to the Chase Sapphire Reserve card,” Johnson says. “You can transfer points to loyalty programs, use them to book travel directly with the Chase travel portal, or redeem for cash or gift cards.

“While some travel credit cards offer points that are difficult to use, Chase points offer so many options you won’t be able to decide.”

Judges also praised the Sapphire Reserve for its above-average insurance benefits, including baggage and trip delay coverage, lost luggage reimbursement and trip cancellation insurance, and for waiving foreign transaction fees. 

“The Reserve card brings to the table everything a traveler wants,” says CreditCards.com Editor-in-Chief Daniel P. Ray. “You get airport lounge access, a $300 travel credit to take the sting out of the annual fee, money toward TSA and Global Entry. And let’s not forget that still-large sign-up bonus that puts travel dreams within immediate reach. ”

SECOND PLACE: The Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard was awarded second place in the best travel card contest for offering many of the same benefits as its pricier competitors -- but without the supersized fee.  

 

#2 BARCLAYCARD ARRIVAL PLUS WORLD ELITE MASTERCARD
Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard card
  • 2 points per dollar on all purchases
  • Redeem points as statement credits to cover travel purchases
  • 5% bonus when you redeem points for statement credits
  • 50,000 points if you spend $3,000 in first 90 days
  • $89 annual fee, waived first year

Other features: No foreign transaction fees, free upgrades and discounts on business class tickets with partner airlines

Editor's rating:
star-rating
4.4/5
Read our review

 

#2 BARCLAYCARD ARRIVAL PLUS WORLD ELITE MASTERCARD

Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard card

  • 2 points per dollar on all purchases
  • Redeem points as statement credits to cover travel purchases
  • 5% bonus when you redeem points for statement credits
  • 50,000 points if you spend $3,000 in first 90 days
  • $89 annual fee, waived first year

Other features: No foreign transaction fees, free upgrades and discounts on business class tickets with partner airlines

Editor's rating:
star-rating
4.4/5
Read our review

The Barclaycard Arrival Plus card charges cardholders $89 a year after the card’s first 12 months, but it showers cardholders with an array of high-dollar benefits, including a 50,000-point sign-up bonus, a 5 percent redemption bonus and a generous rewards value for every purchase.

“Other cards might offer splashier bonuses and grab more headlines, but the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard should take a backseat to no card,” says CreditCards.com senior industry analyst Matt Schulz.

The Barclaycard Arrival Plus card avoids complicated rewards programs and spending categories by awarding a flat rate of two miles for every dollar spent. Cardholders also can maximize their savings by booking their own travel and getting reimbursed for it. 

Other pluses: The Barclaycard Arrival Plus card offers a number of premium benefits that make travel easier abroad, including no foreign transaction fees and the ability to use chip-and-PIN rather than just chip-and-signature like most U.S. credit cards.

“What helps it stand out is the fact that it is chip-and-PIN compatible,” says Schulz. “For foreign travelers, that’s a big deal that even higher-end cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve can’t offer.”

With chip-and-PIN capability, cardholders don’t have to worry whether their card will be accepted. “This can really make a difference traveling internationally if you need to buy a train ticket or gas at an unmanned kiosk,” says travel expert Johnny Jet.


THIRD PLACE: The United Mileage Plus card, with its generous sign-up bonus and special perks for loyal passengers, placed third in the travel card contest. 

 

#3 UNITED MILEAGE PLUS CARD
United Mileage Plus card
  • 2 miles per dollar on United Airlines purchases
  • 1 mile per dollar on general purchases
  • 50,000 bonus miles if you spend $3,000 in first 3 months
  • 5,000 bonus miles if you add authorized user and make purchase in first 3 months
  • 10,000 bonus miles each year you spend $25,000

Other features: No foreign transaction fees, free upgrades and discounts on business class tickets with partner airlines

Editor's rating:
star-rating
4.5/5
Read our review

 

#3 UNITED MILEAGE PLUS CARD

United Mileage Plus card

  • 2 miles per dollar on United Airlines purchases
  • 1 mile per dollar on general purchases
  • 50,000 bonus miles if you spend $3,000 in first 3 months
  • 5,000 bonus miles if you add authorized user and make purchase in first 3 months
  • 10,000 bonus miles each year you spend $25,000

Other features: No foreign transaction fees, free upgrades and discounts on business class tickets with partner airlines

Editor's rating:
star-rating
4.5/5
Read our review

For cardholders willing to forgive United’s customer service and public relations struggles, the $95-annual-fee United Mileage Plus card offers a significant amount of value to frequent flyers.

With the Mileage Plus card, frequent United passengers get two miles for every dollar spent on United Airlines purchases, priority boarding, no foreign transaction fees and a free standard checked bag for you and your companion.

In addition, cardholders who spend $3,000 in the card’s first three months earn an impressive 50,000-miles sign-up bonus.

“If you are a loyalist for United, the Chase United Mileage Plus Explorer card is an excellent value,” Ray says.

This is the second year that CreditCards.com has held a contest for best cards in their class. To help choose the best cards for each category, the CreditCards.com staff consulted credit card and personal finance experts and nominated the top three cards as finalists. CreditCards.com staff also rated cards through its credit card reviews program.

A panel of five judges – including credit card and personal finance experts and two members of the CreditCards.com staff – were asked to independently judge the three finalists and rank them in order of preference. The card with the best average rank was chosen as the winner. 

See related: Travel rewards cards: How to avoid the pitfalls, Use your airlines rewards for more than seats, 7 ways to get the most from rewards credit cards

All best credit card stories are prepared by CreditCards.com staff. Opinions expressed therein are solely those of the reviewer and have not been reviewed or approved by any advertiser. The information, including card rates and fees, presented in the story is accurate as of the date of the story. Check the credit card terms and conditions link on the issuing bank’s website for the most current information.

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About this Award

CreditCards.com’s Best Credit Cards awards program brings together prominent industry experts and journalists to choose the best credit card within a monthly category. Our editorial staff nominates cards based on a set of objective criteria. CreditCards.com is not compensated for any of the nominations or awards. Advertiser disclosure.



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Meet the judges