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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 or that trip to Japan that you’ve long dreamed of.
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:
Summary of the best travel credit cards of 2020
||Best travel perk
|The Platinum Card® from American Express
||Luxury travel benefits
||4.5 / 5
|Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card
||Up to $100 toward Global Entry/ TSA PreCheck
||4.2 / 5
|American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp℠ Card
||No limit on how many miles you can earn
||3.5 / 5
|American Express® Gold Card
||4.3 / 5
|Discover it® Miles
||4.0 / 5
|Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card
||No blackout dates
||3.5 / 5
|Chase Sapphire Reserve®
||Priority Pass™ Select
||4.6 / 5
|Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®
||Overall travel benefits
||$99, waived for the first 12 months
||4.1 / 5
|Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card
||Baggage delay insurance
||3.7 / 5
Research methodology: How we chose the best travel cards
With international travel slowing down, we understand the concerns around carrying a travel credit card. However, we’re here to help you navigate through this time and maximize your card for future travel. Read on to find out more about the best travel credit 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.
Best Travel Credit Cards
The Platinum Card® from American Express
Why this is the best travel credit card for annual travel credits
The Platinum Card’s annual travel credits are unparalleled – earn up to a $200 annual airline fee credit for checked baggage and more, 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. Read our Amex Platinum Card review.
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.
Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit 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 $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. Check out our Capital One Venture Rewards review.
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.
American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp℠ Card
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.
American Express® Gold Card
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) 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.
Discover it® Miles
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 points, you have a wide range of options. Redemption options include airfare, hotels, travel packages, eligible transit and car rentals.
Discover 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 the overall flexibility of Discover miles.
Capital One® VentureOne®
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 $1,000 in the first three 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.
Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Why this is the best travel credit card for travel credits
Each year you get a $300 travel credit, which can be applied to most travel purchases. You’ll also get up to a $100 Global Entry/TSA Pre✓® credit every four years.
This card comes with a wealth of travel perks and rewards categories, including 3X points on travel and dining. But you don’t have to wait until you’ve traveled to see your rewards pile up. After spending $4,000 in the first three months of opening an account, you’ll earn 50,000 points, which is worth $750 when redeemed for travel in the Chase Ultimate Rewards® portal.
Though the annual travel credit softens the blow of the $550 annual fee, this card is mainly for frequent travelers who value luxury and comfort. If you’re a casual traveler or someone who doesn’t care much about perks like lounge access, you’re probably better off with the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card.
Citi®/AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®
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 cardmembership 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. Also, like the CitiBusiness/AAdvantage Platinum Select, this card requires excellent credit, so you’ll need to have your credit-score ducks in a row to get this product.
Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card
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.
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.
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.
Comparing a general, airline and hotel travel credit card
|Costco Anywhere Visa® Card by Citi (General)
||4% cash back on eligible gas worldwide*, 3% on restaurant worldwide and eligible travel purchases, 2% on all other Costco purchases, 1% on all other purchases.
|Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus® Credit Card (Airline)
||2 points per $1 spent on Southwest® purchases and Rapid Rewards® hotel and car rental partner purchases, 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases.
||40,000 points (after spending $1,000 in the first 3 months)
|Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card (Hotel)
||Earn 12X Hilton Honors Bonus Points for each dollar of eligible purchases charged on your Card directly with a hotel or resort within the Hilton Portfolio, earn 6X Hilton Honors Bonus Points for each dollar of eligible purchases on your Card at U.S. restaurants, U.S. supermarkets, and U.S. gas stations and earn 3X Hilton Honors Bonus Points for all other eligible purchases on your Card.
||125,000 bonus points(after spending 2,000 on eligible purchases in first 3 months)
The cards listed above that have annual fees offer generous intro bonuses and rewards rates, and can supersede those that do not carry annual fees. However, whether an annual fee is worth it for you depends on your travel purchases and how much you spend in certain areas. If an annual fee is a deal breaker for you, we’ve found that consumers have had good luck with getting the annual fee waived when they asked, so that’s an option.
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Laura is an editor and writer at CreditCards.com. She has written extensively on all things credit cards and works to bring you the most up-to-date analysis and advice. Laura’s work has been cited in such publications as the New York Times and Associated Press.