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Best travel credit cards for beginners

If you’re looking for your first travel credit card, here are your best options

Summary

Earning travel rewards is a great strategy to fund future travel. Your first travel credit card can help get you there,  but which card should it be?

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If you’ve decided to take the leap into travel credit card rewards, where do you start? Earning points and miles can help fund travel and gain access to other valuable travel rewards. But the first decision you’ll need to make is which travel credit card you should choose.

You may not be feeling ready to commit to a high-annual-fee rewards card, but you still want to make sure you get a card that offers plenty of value. Read on to learn about the best starter travel cards and find an option that best fits your lifestyle.

Chase Sapphire Preferred Card: Best for flexible travel rewards

Why we picked it: Few credit card rewards programs offer as much flexibility as Chase Ultimate Rewards, and the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card gains you entry into this rewards ecosystem.

While it carries a $95 annual fee, the card comes with a host of benefits that any travel enthusiast can appreciate. Plus, it earns points in popular spending categories: 5X points on Chase Ultimate Rewards travel, 3X points at restaurants, select streaming services and online grocery purchases (excluding Target, Walmart and wholesale clubs), 2X points on all other travel purchases and 1X points on everything else.

Ultimate Rewards points have excellent value, and points earned with this card, in particular, are worth 1.25 cents apiece when booking travel through the Ultimate Rewards portal.

Pros

  • 80,000-point welcome bonus for spending $4,000 in the first three months (worth $1,000 in Chase Ultimate Rewards travel)
  • $50 annual Ultimate Rewards Hotel Credit
  • 10% anniversary points bonus
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • Various coverages, such as trip cancellation and interruption insurance and baggage delay insurance

Cons

  • $95 annual fee

Who should apply: Individuals with another Chase Ultimate Rewards card who want to maximize points will benefit from the Chase Sapphire Preferred. Those who travel and dine out frequently (or want to get started with a solid first travel card) should consider this Chase credit card option.

Who should skip: Those who’ve opened five or more new credit cards in the last 24 months should pause on applying due to the Chase 5/24 rule. Further, if you’re not keen on paying an annual fee, you might consider no-annual-fee travel card options.

Bank of America Travel Rewards credit card: Best for no annual fee

Why we picked it: Annual fees often scare away would-be travelers from signing up for travel rewards credit cards. Thankfully, the Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card carries no annual fee.

Besides no annual fee, cardholders can enjoy decent flat-rate rewards: an unlimited 1.5X points on every purchase. Further, Preferred Rewards members can earn between 25% and 75% more points on purchases made with this card. To receive this benefit, you must have a three-month average of at least $20,000 total in Bank of America or Merrill investment accounts.

Pros

  • No annual fee
  • 25,000-point online bonus points when you spend $1,000 in the first 90 days
  • Card qualifies for boosted rewards through the Preferred Rewards program
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • Car rental insurance

Cons

  • Cash redemption holds a value of only 0.6 cents per point
  • Preferred Rewards program requires Bank of America bank accounts with large balances
  • Card lacks premium travel benefits

Who should apply: Those who want to earn rewards for award travel but without the cost of an annual fee should consider the Bank of America Travel Rewards credit card. The card is also a good option for those looking to skip a complicated rewards structure, as well as current Bank of America customers who meet the Preferred Rewards program’s requirements.

Who should skip: If you’d prefer to earn higher bonus rates in specific spending categories or want premium travel benefits, it’s best you look elsewhere.

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card: Best for simple travel rewards

Why we picked it: If simplicity is what you aim for in your credit card strategy, you’ll probably like the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card. Cardholders earn 5X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 2X miles on everything else. With a $95 annual fee and minimal maintenance, this card is a dream for individuals jumping into the travel card space.

Points are redeemable for a wide range of travel purchases, as well as standard redemption options like cash back and gift cards.

Pros

  • 75,000-mile bonus when you spend $4,000 in the first 3 months
  • Up to $100 in credits toward Global Entry or TSA PreCheck
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • Travel accident insurance and an auto rental collision damage waiver

Cons

  • $95 annual fee
  • Transfer partner list doesn’t include major carriers like Delta Air Lines and American Airlines

Who should apply: If you dine out frequently and use public transportation – and also travel regularly but not enough to splurge for a high-end luxury card – the Capital One Venture could be the card for you.

Who should skip: If you’re looking for a wider variety of airline and hotel transfer partners, a travel card from a different issuer may be a better fit. But if you’re more so worried about the $95 annual fee, consider the Venture’s no-annual-fee sister card – the Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card.

Citi Premier Card: Best for bonus categories

Why we picked it: The Citi Premier® Card offers rewards for spending in everyday categories, making it a great option for a wide variety of cardholders. You’ll get 3X points on restaurant, supermarket, gas station, air travel and hotel purchases, as well as 1X points on everything else. Similar to the other cards on our list, the Citi Premier charges a $95 annual fee.

Pros

  • 60,000 ThankYou points when you spend $4,000 in first 3 months (worth $600 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com)
  • $100 annual hotel savings benefit
  • Access to Citi Concierge
  • No foreign transaction fees

Cons

Who should apply: Anyone interested in earning rewards on restaurant, supermarket, gas station, air travel and hotel purchases (and are fine with paying the $95 annual fee) should certainly consider this card.

Who should skip: Those who don’t want to pay an annual fees or would prefer to have access to hotel transfer partners should consider other options.

Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card: Best for airline benefits

Why we picked it: No travel rewards cards list is complete without a co-branded airline rewards card. While there are many airline credit cards to choose from, including many with lower annual fees than this card’s $149 fee, the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card is definitely worth considering.

First, cardholders earn 3X points on Southwest purchases and 2X points on local transit, commuting (including rideshare), internet, cable, phone services and select streaming, as well as 1X points on everything else.

The Rapid Rewards Priority also rewards you with 7,500 points each card anniversary, a $75 annual Southwest travel credit, four upgraded boardings per year and 25% back on in-flight purchases.

Pros

  • 7,500 annual bonus points
  • $75 Southwest travel credit
  • Four upgraded boardings annually
  • No change fees
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • Various travel benefits, such as car rental insurance and baggage delay insurance

Cons

  • $149 annual fee
  • Southwest doesn’t have transfer partners
  • Card doesn’t come with automatic elite status

Who should apply: If you frequently book flights on Southwest Airlines and could make use of the various benefits offered by the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority card, it might be a good option.

Who should skip: If you want the option to transfer your rewards elsewhere, it’s best to consider other travel cards. Further, if a $149 annual fee is too high, there are other Rapid Rewards cards to consider, such as the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card ($69 annual fee) and Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card ($99 annual fee).

Compare the best travel credit cards for beginners

CardBest forWelcome bonusRewards rateAnnual fee
Chase Sapphire PreferredFlexible travel rewards80,000 points if you spend $4,000 in first 3 months5X points on Chase Ultimate Rewards travel (excluding hotel purchases that qualify for the $50 Anniversary Hotel Credit); 3X points at restaurants and on select streaming services and online grocery purchases (excluding Target, Walmart and wholesale clubs); 2X points on general travel; 1X points on everything else$95
Bank of America Travel Rewards credit cardNo annual fee25,000 online bonus points after spending $1,000 in the first 90 days1.5X points on every purchase$0
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit CardSimple travel rewards75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 in the first 3 months5X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel; 2X miles on all other purchases$95
Citi Premier CardBonus categories60,000 points when you spend $4,000 in the first 3 months3X points on restaurant, supermarket, gas station, air travel and hotel purchases; 1X points on everything else$95
Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit CardAirline benefitsN/A3X points on Southwest purchases and 2X points on local transit, commuting (including rideshare), internet, cable, phone services and select streaming, as well as 1X points on everything else$149

How to choose a travel credit card for beginners

There are so many great travel cards on the market that choosing just one can be quite difficult. The easiest way to get the right card for you is to look for one that matches your travel goals, spending habits and, of course, budget.

First, decide which categories you spend the most in each month and go for a card that rewards you in those areas. Next, you can use your travel goals to narrow down the choices you’ve gathered. For example, if you don’t travel enough to make up for a card’s annual fee, go with a lower- or no-annual-fee card.

Lastly, consider which card will give you the best mix of rewards and perks – or a combination of both – before you apply.

Bottom line

A good first travel credit card isn’t expensive but fits your spending habits, offers plenty of value and helps you save on travel. To see travel cards tailored to your credit profile, check CardMatch; it’s free and doesn’t impact your credit score.

Editorial Disclaimer

The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

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