A Guide to Choosing the Best Travel Credit Card
A travel rewards credit card is a lending product that offers points and miles for traveling, including for airline, hotel, restaurant and transportation categories and can be your ticket to sandy beaches this summer or that trip to Japan in the fall that you’ve long dreamed of. During the pandemic, you may shy away from travel, but that’s not all you can get right now from a travel card, which we explore.
If you’re hesitant about travel right now, you might think that a travel card isn’t something on your immediate horizon. But if you think in the long term, you can actually leverage your spending on a travel card to earn rewards that you can use when the crisis abates.
Consider cards that reward for things you need to buy anyway, such as toilet paper, soaps, food and other basic needs (although we advise against hoarding purchases). Consider a general-purpose travel card or a card that rewards on popular streaming services, such as the Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card.
The point is to save up your points and miles today for that trip you may be able to take in the future. Here is what else we look at for you:
Is it worth it to get a travel credit card in 2021?
The good news is that you don’t need to travel to accumulate travel rewards. Many of the best travel credit cards allow you to earn points and miles on the purchases you make every day, like groceries. Take the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, which earns an unlimited 2X miles on every purchase. So while travel is still limited, your ability to earn points and miles for a post-pandemic vacay is not.
Many of the top travel cards have introduced limited-time rewards categories to help travelers keep their rewards stash growing in the age of stay-at-home orders.
One of the most popular travel cards, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card*, now earns 2X points on grocery store purchases (on up to $1,000 per month through April 30, 2021), including pickup and eligible store delivery services. Its souped-up sister card, the Chase Sapphire Reserve® card, now allows cardholders to apply grocery store or gas station purchases (instead of travel purchases) to earn their $300 Annual Travel Credit (now through June 30, 2021).
We’ll put it this way: If you’re going to be waiting for travel restrictions to loosen anyways, you might as well be earning points and miles in the meantime. And with so many opportunities to earn points and miles on the everyday essentials, we think travel credit cards are still worth it in 2021.
*All information about the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card has been collected independently by CreditCards.com. The issuer did not provide the content, nor is it responsible for its accuracy.
Summary of the best travel credit cards of 2021
|Credit Card||Best travel perk||Annual Fee||CreditCards.com Rating|
|American Express® Gold Card||Baggage insurance||$250||4.3 / 5|
|Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card||Up to $100 toward Global Entry/ TSA PreCheck||$95||4.2 / 5|
|Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card||Flat earning rate||$0||3.4 / 5|
|Citi Premier® Card||Sign-up bonus||$95||3.8 / 5|
|The Platinum Card® from American Express||Luxury travel benefits||$550||4.5 / 5|
|Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®||Overall travel benefits||$99, waived for the first 12 months||4.1 / 5|
|Discover it® Miles||No annual fee||$0||4.0 / 5|
|Bank of America® Premium Rewards® credit card||Points don’t expire||$95||3.9 / 5|
|American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp℠ Card||No limit on how many miles you can earn||$0||3.5 / 5|
|Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card||Baggage delay insurance||$69||3.7 / 5|
|Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card||No blackout dates||$0||3.5 / 5|
|Chase Sapphire Reserve®||Non-travel rewards during the pandemic||$550||4.6 / 5|
|Marriott Bonvoy Bold™ Credit Card||Hotel stays||$0||3.1 / 5|
Best travel credit cards
Why this is the best travel credit card for travel insurance
Trips with common carriers that are booked with your Gold card are covered for baggage insurance. That means if your bags are lost or stolen, you’ll be reimbursed for up to $1,250 for carry-on bags and $500 for checked bags. The Gold card also covers car rental insurance in the case of damage or theft.
Traveling foodies, rejoice – the 4 points per dollar at restaurants apply worldwide. You’ll also earn 4X points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year, then one point per dollar), 4X points on Uber Eats purchases, and 3X points on flights booked directly with airlines or amextravel.com.
The annual fee is $250, pricier than the annual fees charged by most travel credit cards but not as high as the annual fees of luxury cards. Unless food is a significant portion of your spending, you’ll probably get more value from a different travel card.
Why this is the best travel credit card for international travel
The Venture Rewards card comes with no foreign transaction fee – perfect for sightseeing in London when you feel ready. It also offers more than 10 travel partners, including Air France/KLM and Etihad Airways.
This general-purpose travel card is a solid, straightforward product, offering excellent rewards benefits. The card’s credit of up to $100 toward the cost of Global Entry or TSA PreCheck stands out. You won’t have to pay hundreds in an annual fee for a chance to skip U.S. immigration and customs lines or breeze through airport security without fumbling with your shoes, belt or laptop.
Sadly, this card doesn’t have a 0% intro APR offer for purchases or balance transfers. Also, the $95 annual fee isn’t waived the first year.
Why this is the best travel credit card for travel rewards
Ease of redemption is one important, yet often overlooked element of travel credit cards. With the Bank of America Travel Rewards, you won’t have to jump through any hoops when redeeming your rewards. Instead of having to book your travel through the Bank of America portal or directly with airlines, you can redeem your points for any travel and dining purchases made on your credit card within the last 12 months. That includes third-party sites.
This card rewards general purchases at a rate of 1.5 points per dollar spent, making it a great card for the occasional traveler. Since there’s no annual fee, you can watch your points pile up as you make purchases without worrying about making up the cost of the annual fee. When it comes time for a vacation, you’ll have a nice reserve of points to put toward your trip. Also, Bank of America Preferred Rewards members can get a 25%-75% boost on rewards earnings.
This is a great option for someone who wants to make their everyday purchases work to their advantage and use their rewards to fund travel. But if you’re already a big traveler, you can find a card that rewards your travel purchases at a higher rate. The one exception is if you’re at least a Platinum Preferred Rewards Member. If you’re able to qualify for the 50% boost in rewards or higher, you’ll be earning 1.5 points per dollar spent, plus an additional 50%, making your flat rate effectively 2.25 points per dollar spent (1.5 x 50% = .75, totaling 2.25).
Why this is the best travel credit card for sign-up bonus
Earn 60,000 points after a $4,000 spend within the first 3 months with this card. Based on a 1.25-cents-per-point value, that’s worth up to $750 in airfare when booked through Citi’s ThankYou Travel Center or $600 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com. The 25% bonus value is good until 4/10/21.
Earn mightily at restaurants, supermarkets and gas stations, as well as on air travel and at hotels at the rate of 3 points for every dollar spent. It’s 1X point per dollar spent on all other purchases. Also, points don’t expire, and there’s no limit to the number of points you can earn.
The Citi Premier has a $95 annual fee and it isn’t waived the first year. Also, the ThankYou Travel Center’s 25% boost on travel is due to end on 4/10/21.
Why this is the best travel credit card for travel credits
The Platinum Card’s travel credits are unparalleled – earn up to a $100 fee credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, as well as up to $200 in annual Uber credits (that’s up to $15 a month plus a $20 bonus in December).
You can also earn annual credits of up to $100 each year on Saks Fifth Avenue purchases (enrollment required) and earn complimentary benefits with an average total value of $550 with Fine Hotels & Resorts and a rich welcome offer the first year.
The $550 annual fee might take your breath away when compared to other travel credit cards’ annual fees, although if you use the credits of The Platinum Card, you will more than recoup the cost.
Why this is the best travel credit card for overall travel benefits
This Citi card’s travel features are among the best in the airline landscape – they include 2X miles on eligible American Airlines flight purchases, as well as no foreign transaction fees and a $125 AA flight discount after you spend at least $20k on your card for purchases in your card membership year and renew your card. There’s also preferred boarding.
Like the CitiBusiness®/AAdvantage® Platinum Select® Mastercard®, this card offers some boosted categories that are not necessarily specific to airline travel. For example, you can earn 2X miles at restaurants and gas stations. The sign-up bonus is also quite good: Earn 50k miles after a $2,500 spend within the first 3 months.
Although it’s waived the first year, there is a $99 annual fee.
Why this is the best travel credit card for no annual fee
The Discover it® Miles offers many of the same perks as high-end travel cards, but without the annual fee. You can redeem your rewards at any time without fear of blackout dates, expiration dates or mile limits.
All purchases earn 1.5 miles per dollar spent, which is a fairly average offer. But Discover sweetens the deal by matching all the miles you’ve earned at the end of your first year. When it comes time to redeem your miles, you have a wide range of options. Redemption options include airfare, hotels, travel packages, eligible transit and car rentals.
Discover it Miles only matches the miles earned in your first year, so your earning potential takes a big dip after that. You should also consider the fact that you can’t transfer miles to any airline frequent-flier programs, which limits any possibility of miles boosts in that way.
Why this is the best travel credit card for intro offer
The welcome bonus of 50,000 online bonus points (after you make $3,000 in purchases in the first 90 days of account opening) is worth getting excited about – that’s a value of $500.
This card is packed with perks designed to make your travel experience more enjoyable. Cardholders get up to $100 annually in Airline Incidental Statement Credits, which will automatically be applied to your card statement for qualifying purchases like baggage fees and seat upgrades. Frequent travelers will also enjoy earning unlimited 2 points per dollar spent on travel and dining purchases. Even better, if you’re a qualifying Bank of America Preferred Rewards member, you get a 25%-75% boost on your rewards.
The Preferred Rewards member bonus is broken into 3 tiers, based on how much money you have in a qualifying Bank of America® or Merrill® account. The first tier starts at $20,000 and offers a 25% boost to your rewards earnings. The highest tier, which offers a 75% bonus, is reserved for those with $100,000 in a qualifying Bank of America or Merrill® account. This rewards boost feature is valuable, but only if you meet the requirements. Read more about the Bank of America Preferred Rewards Program for full eligibility requirements.
Why this is the best introductory airline credit card
There certainly are airline cards with better sign-up bonuses and rewards rates, but the lack of an annual fee makes this a great starter airline card. Those who spend modestly and travel occasionally will appreciate the low spend threshold for the sign-up bonus: Spend just $500 within the first 3 months of opening an account and you’ll earn 10,000 miles and a $50 statement credit.
In addition to 2X miles on eligible American Airlines purchases, you’ll also get the same rate at grocery stores, which adds tremendously to the earning potential for the average consumer. All other purchases earn 1 mile per dollar spent.
Be aware that the AAdvantage® travel program does have some limitations. You may run into blackout dates, limited seating for award bookings and restrictive routing requirements.
Why this is the best travel credit card for airline rewards
Earn 125,000 points in a year and you can score one of the most coveted perks in all of travel rewards: the Southwest Companion Pass. This pass lets you bring a companion with you on any Southwest flight you purchase with cash or points for up to the next 2 years for free (minus taxes and fees). Our Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus card review breaks down some strategies for earning the pass, including via credit card spend, sign-up bonus, pairing with a Southwest business card and referring a friend.
With a competitive sign-up bonus, this card also offers 2X points for Southwest purchases, as well as partner hotel and car rental purchases. The Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus has no blackout dates and no seat restrictions. And while long a great domestic carrier, Southwest is increasingly expanding to go abroad.
Sadly, the anniversary bonus of 3,000 points is lower than the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card’s, and there’s an annual fee of $69 that isn’t waived the first year.
Why this is the best travel credit card for miles redemption
Unlike some travel rewards programs that have earned the stigma of being overly complicated, the VentureOne makes it easy to redeem your miles. There are no blackout dates, expiration dates or mile limits. You can also redeem miles in any amount and transfer to 10+ travel partners.
A rewards rate of 1.25 miles per dollar on every purchase isn’t the flashiest offer, but if you’re using your card frequently, you’ll earn miles consistently and without much thought. The sign-up bonus is also decent: 20,000 miles if you spend $500 in the first 3 months of opening an account.
Capital One’s current list of transfer partners doesn’t include any large U.S. airlines, so the miles aren’t quite as flexible as Chase Ultimate Rewards points, for example.
Why this is the best travel credit card during the pandemic
In an attempt to make the Sapphire Reserve more appealing during the pandemic, Chase is allowing you to earn 3X points on grocery store purchases from 11/1/20 to 4/30/21 for up to $1,000 a month. Also, gas and groceries can count toward the $300 travel credit until 6/30/21. Finally, you can earn 50% more when redeeming grocery, dining and home improvement purchases through Chase Ultimate Rewards, as well as contributions to select charities through 4/20/21.
This card comes with a wealth of travel perks and rewards categories, including up to a $100 Global Entry/TSA PreCheck credit every 4 years. After spending $4,000 in the first 3 months of opening an account, you’ll earn 50,000 points, which is worth $750 when redeemed for travel, groceries, select charities or home improvement purchases in the Chase Ultimate Rewards® portal.
With the new non-travel rewards features, this card has a lot to offer, but the annual fee of $550 might give pause, and it’s not waived the first year.
Why this is the best travel credit card for hotel stays
You can earn 3X points at more than 7,000 hotels participating in Marriott Bonvoy. Also, receive 15 Elite Night Credits annually, qualifying you for Silver Elite Status.
With the Marriott Bonvoy Bold, you can earn 2X points on other travel purchases, such as airfare and train tickets, as well as taxi rides.
This card’s sign-up bonus is not the most generous – earn 30,000 points after you spend $1,000 within the first 3 months – although it’s worth noting that there is no annual fee or foreign transaction fee.
How do travel credit cards work?
Like other rewards cards, travel cards reward you for using the card by granting you points or miles for purchases made. That’s where the similarities end.
Travel cards vary widely in which categories earn the most points. While some reward for non-travel categories like groceries, others are so specific that they primarily reward for using a specific brand. There may be blackout dates, but there also may be perks like free first checked bag.
All credit cards allow you to carry a balance to the next month, but that’s inadvisable with a travel card because you may get stuck with interest charges, which can negate your rewards earned. Also, although foreign transaction fees are rare with travel cards, annual fees are common, so make sure that’s something you can live with.
How to choose a travel credit card
You’ve decided to pursue a travel credit card to earn travel rewards. Where to start? Answer these questions and you’ll get closer to the right decision.
- Do I want to avoid an annual fee? Some travel cards offer no annual fee, but an annual fee isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you are an occasional traveler, a card with no annual fee is likely best for you. But if you seek certain perks or rich rewards, do the math to see if a card with an annual fee is worthwhile – you want to be able to recoup more than the cost of the annual fee.
- Am I loyal to a specific travel brand? If there is a particular hotel or airline brand that you use often, cards that co-brand with that company may be worth your while. Otherwise, go with a card that rewards for a wide variety of categories and brands.
- How often will I travel? If you plan to travel often or if there are travel perks you are likely to use, the right travel card can earn you rewards and save you money. Don’t be afraid of high annual fees if perks are a must for you.
- Am I planning a big trip? If you have a major trip planned, look closely at the card’s sign-up bonus, because the right one can help you earn rewards you can redeem for that trip or part of that trip.
- Will I travel overseas? While most travel cards waive foreign transaction fees, some are not widely accepted in other parts of the world. Pay attention to the network that the card participates in (Visa, Mastercard, Discover, American Express), and where they are accepted.
With the presence of a pandemic, travel insurance is no longer a perk but a necessity. A number of credit cards, particularly travel cards, offer everything from trip delay insurance to protection for lost baggage. We have a number of favorites, including Chase Sapphire Reserve for coverage amounts and The Platinum Card from American Express for a range of benefits. Here are top types of travel insurance.
- Travel cancellation/interruption
- Lost baggage or baggage delay
- Trip delay
- Emergency travel and assistance
- Emergency evacuation and transportation
Which type of travel credit card is best for you?
Travel cards come in a few different flavors, including general-purpose travel cards and co-branded travel cards. Here, we look at the pluses and minuses of key types of travel cards.
General travel credit cards
What is a general travel credit card?
A general travel card is a product that will typically offer more flexibility on travel redemption than the co-branded travel cards, but sometimes that’s at a cost.
How does a general travel credit card work?
While some general travel cards simply post all manner of travel for you to redeem through a statement credit, others offer boosted rewards when redeeming for travel through an issuer-specific portal, such as the Citi ThankYou program. These cards will also often have partnerships with select airlines and hotel brands.
Who are general travel cards best for?
If you need flexibility in choice of airlines and hotel brands or you are a last-minute booker, then a general travel card is probably the best option, because they typically partner with a variety of brands and blackout dates are often not a problem with these cards.
Advantages and disadvantages of general travel credit cards
|Airport lounge access: Premium travel cards can offer access to airport lounges, great for that lengthy layover.||Limited redemption value: You may get more points valuation with an airline card, and hotel cards are packed with perks you may not see with these cards.|
|TSA PreCheck and Global Entry: Some cards can offer up to $100 in reimbursement through a statement credit for these programs.||Limited travel and purchase benefits: Travel cards benefits can be scanty, while some can offer benefits like car rental insurance and travel accident insurance.|
|Special card issuer rewards boosts: A few cards offer an increase for redemptions for booking travel through their travel portals.|
Airline credit cards
What is an airline credit card?
An airline credit card, also called a co-branded card, is a product that partners a bank with an airline and encourages loyalty through rewards earned by favoring the brand.
How does an airline credit card work?
Typically, you earn boosted miles by spending on specific items, such as plane tickets, in-flight purchases, and sometimes such expenditures as restaurants, gas stations and even grocery stores. Heads up that redemption values can be at a lower rate when you choose to redeem for merchandise, donations to charities or gift cards. Instead, opt for redeeming for flights and other airline-specific purchases.
Who are airline credit cards best for?
If you are loyal to a specific brand or you live near a hub of a specific airline, airline cards can be a good choice. Also, if you enjoy the idea of looking for ways to max on your rewards and redemptions, these cards can get you what you are looking for. Finally, there are unique benefits to many of these cards.
Advantages and disadvantages of airline credit cards
|Airport lounges: If you travel often but don’t love time spent in airports, this is an excellent benefit for you.||Blackout dates: Airline cards are notorious for having blackout dates and requiring more miles during peak periods.|
|Travel and purchase benefits: Although card issuers are increasingly opting out of offering travel and purchase benefits, airline travel cards will often still offer features such as travel insurance and extended warranties.||Miles may expire: Do your research and keep your account active to ensure that your miles are still good for future travel use.|
|Free checked bag: The average first checked bag costs $30, which can add up for the frequent flyer.||Limits to redemptions: While an airline program may allow redemptions for merchandise and gift cards, it’s usually best to redeem for airline purchases.|
|Priority boarding: Some airline cards offer the added advantage of priority boarding in the main cabin.|
|Companion fares: Airline credit cards will sometimes offer companion fares, but the details depend on the card. Some tickets are dependent upon the cabin class, while others can be based on card spending.|
|Elite Status: Luxury cards can offer lucrative features that make traveling much more comfortable, like lounge access and upgrades.|
Hotel credit cards
What is a hotel credit card?
Like an airline card, a hotel credit card encourages loyalty to a specific hotel brand, whether through using a favored credit card or choosing the brand’s properties for stays.
How does a hotel credit card work?
With a hotel card, you can enjoy specific perks for staying at that brand’s locations while earning points for making purchases. In exchange, you can enjoy free nights and other benefits with your award points.
Who are general hotel credit cards best for?
Like airline cards, a hotel card best serves the cardholder who favors that brand or travels to a certain area. The reason is two-fold: You get better deals on your points and perks specific to the chain and you can then redeem the points you’ve earned at the brand you’ve chosen.
Advantages and disadvantages of hotel credit cards
|Use any time: Blackout dates are less of an issue with hotel rewards programs, although there may be limited available rooms during a peak period.||Confusing opportunities: Hotel rewards programs usually have multiple tiers, each with their own perks, making it potentially tough to understand what you qualify for.|
|Free nights: In addition to nights earned through hotel rewards programs, there are free night opportunities through select hotel cards.||Limited locations: With larger chains there are thousands of locations worldwide, but you may not find a large chain in the neighborhood or small town that you are going to.|
|Early check-in/late check-out: Some cards offer express check-out or late check-out. Others offer early check-in as well.||Annual Fee: The charge may be waived the first year, but plan on it appearing on your statement every year thereafter. You’ll want to weigh the perks and free nights with the annual fee.|
Expert opinion: What is the most surprising travel credit card benefit?
“The most rewarding benefit I have found on a travel credit card is cellphone protection. It came in handy when I needed a new phone because of an accident while traveling. This little-known perk saved me $10.99 a month since I do not have to pay for insurance through my service provider.”
Itz a family thing
Editor’s pick: American Express Blue Business Cash™ Card
“One of the most underrated and rarely used perks (that) a lot of the premium credit cards have is a concierge service. This can come in handy in a number of ways, but most importantly, I’ve found them a wonderful resource for when you’re in need of something urgent. As an example, we had a group of people who rented a small bus to take us to a football game that never showed. We ended up calling American Express Concierge Service the last minute, who had a bus there inside of an hour.”
The Ways to Wealth
Editor’s pick: The Platinum Card® from American Express
“The most surprising benefit I received on a travel credit card was the Priority Pass membership that came with the Chase Sapphire Reserve card. I got this card early in 2016, a year before I traveled full-time for 10 months, and this benefit was indispensable in traveling abroad through airports and having layovers while having complimentary airline lounge access. Having Priority Pass as a benefit has gotten me free wifi, space to do work on a laptop, designated napping areas, and free snacks and meals all around the world while traveling through airports.”
Half Half Travel
Editor’s pick: Chase Sapphire Reserve
Research methodology: How we chose the best travel cards
Number of cards we analyzed: 300
Criteria Used: Rewards rates, rewards categories, sign-up bonus, point values, transfer partners, redemption options, redemption flexibility, annual fee, other rates and fees, travel credits, airport lounge access, travel accident insurance, lost luggage reimbursement, concierge service, other travel benefits, travel portal functionality, credit needed, customer service, events or other perks.
Related Travel and Rewards Card Categories: