Best travel rewards credit cards: Spring 2016
The right travel card could save you hundreds of dollars a year on round-trip airfare or luxury hotel stays. But choose wisely: Not all travel cards are equally as generous.
Some travel cards will shower you with three-figure sign-up bonuses, but then stick you with hefty fees after the card’s first year. Others promise an eye-popping number of points, but the points aren’t worth much on their own.
To help you sort through the field, CreditCards.com rounded up the best cards in the travel card category and asked a panel of judges to rate the CreditCards.com staffs’ top three picks. Judges included credit card expert Toby Sembower, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance contributing editor Lisa Gerstner, financial services professional Harriet J. Brackey, CreditCards.com Editor-in-Chief Daniel P. Ray and CreditCards.com Senior Industry Analyst Matt Schulz. (See "Meet the judges")
This spring, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card won the judges’ top honor for best travel credit card. The premium travel card won over judges with its industry-leading 50,000-point sign-up bonus, flexible redemption options and user-friendly rewards. Judges also liked that cardholders who frequently dine out could earn bonus points relatively easily.
“The Chase Sapphire Preferred card has hit the sweet spot for the frequent but not constant traveler,” says CreditCards.com Editor-in-Chief and travel card judge Daniel P. Ray. “The generous sign-up bonus gives you a great head start and, if, like yours truly, you like to eat out and you like to travel, it’s easy to build points effortlessly.”
|CHASE SAPPHIRE PREFERRED CARD|
The Spring 2016 Best Card for travel rewards goes to the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. Judges praised its big bonus and flexibility.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred card also won praise for its generous redemption policy, which allows you to transfer your points to a wide variety of airlines and hotels. “For the frequent traveler, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card wins my vote for its flexible and valuable redemption options,” said Gerstner. “A standout feature is the ability to transfer points at a 1:1 ratio to partner loyalty programs, including Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards and Marriott Rewards. It’s a great benefit if you regularly stay at hotels or fly on airlines that participate.”
Capital One’s Venture Rewards card won second place for best travel card thanks to its lower APR and consumer-friendly redemption policy. “While Chase and Barclaycard offer similar air mile incentives, Capital One’s Venture card separates itself from the travel-card pack based on basic fundamentals – a lower ongoing annual fee and lower APR range than its competitors,” said credit card expert Toby Sembower.
“It has the lowest rates of the three if you qualify,” added financial services professional Harriet J. Brackey. However, like the Chase Saphhire Preferred card, the Capital One Venture Rewards card still carries a high annual fee, notes Brackey, which could eat into your savings if you aren’t an especially heavy spender. “The fee could easily wipe out the value of the travel rewards,” she says. “And there are so many alternatives available without fees.”
This is the first 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 reviewed cards through its credit card reviews program.
A panel of five judges – including independent consumers and personal finance experts and two members of the CreditCards.com’s 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.
|CAPITAL ONE VENTURE REWARDS CARD|
Capital One's Venture Rewards card won praise for its easy points redemption features and lower interest rate.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred card’s dazzling sign-up bonus has earned rave reviews from personal finance experts and helped propel the annual fee card into the top spot for best travel card. New cardholders who spend more than $1,334 a month in the card’s first three months are awarded up to 50,000 bonus points – an industry-leading figure that’s roughly worth up to $625 in free travel if points are redeemed through Chase’s Ultimate Rewards portal.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred card has also won praise from CreditCards.com judges for its flexible redemption options, including the option to transfer points on an equal basis to other hotel and airline loyalty programs. According to CreditCards.com Senior Industry Analyst Matt Schulz, that’s a huge money-saving perk. For example, if you’re a member of Southwest Airlines’ loyalty program, you can convert your 50,000-point sign-up bonus from Chase into 50,000 Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards points, says Schulz. You can then turbocharge your earnings by signing up for the Southwest Airlines Premier credit card and collecting its 25,000-point sign-up bonus. “You just can’t beat that flexibility,” says Schulz.
Judges also liked that cardholders could pile on even more points by adding an authorized user to the card. When you add an authorized user, Chase automatically amplifies your earnings with a 5,000-point bonus. In addition, cardholders receive an automatic 25 percent discount on travel purchases when they redeem their points through Chase’s Ultimate Rewards portal – making each credit card reward point even more valuable. “Cardholders also get a lot of bang for their buck when they use the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal to book travel with their points, with each 100 points worth an impressive $1.25 toward plane tickets, hotel stays and other travel redemption,” says personal finance journalist Lisa Gerstner.
|BARCLAYCARD ARRIVAL PLUS WORLD ELITE MASTERCARD|
A notable sign-up bonus and the highest general rewards rate on the market caught the judges' eyes.
The options for earning points are more limited on the Chase Sapphire Preferred card than other travel cards, so you may want to consider how often you’ll use the card before you apply. For example, the Sapphire Preferred card offers bonus points only on restaurant purchases and travel. But if you spend a lot of time on the road or frequently dine out, you should have no trouble building up your points.
You’ll also want to make sure you can afford the card’s relatively high annual fee. “The $95 annual fee is stiffer than what many of the competitors charge, so potential cardholders should consider whether their travel and spending habits will produce rewards that justify the price tag,” says Gerstner.
The Capital One Venture Rewards credit card also won praise from judges for its simple, consumer-friendly rewards program and less expensive APR. This runner-up in the best travel cards category doesn’t offer the flashiest rewards program or the most generous sign-up bonus. But it does offer a sizable miles bonus worth up to $400 in the first year and an appealingly simple rewards structure that awards two miles for every dollar spent. In addition, the Capital One card sets itself apart from other travel cards by allowing cardholders to price compare rewards-funded tickets and book their rewards-funded travel by themselves rather than go through an issuer to book their tickets.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find a Venture cardholder who doesn’t love how easy Capital One makes it to redeem air miles,” says credit card expert Toby Sembower. “Miles never expire, blackout dates don’t exist, and the issuer’s renowned customer service goes the ‘extra mile’ to ensure cardholder satisfaction.”
The Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard finished in third place this year, but it, too, has won praise for its straightforward rewards program and notable sign-up bonus. Rather than make cardholders keep track of spending categories and rotating bonuses, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard allows cardholders to earn two miles for every dollar they spend. The Arrival Plus card also gives cardholders a head start on earning points by awarding them a generous 40,000-mile bonus. The card’s $89 annual fee and 16.24 percent to 20.24 percent APR range are relatively steep, though, compared to similar cards, so beware if you plan to keep a balance on your card.