The best travel credit cards of July 2021

Written by: Jeanine Skowronski | Edited by: Tracy Stewart | Reviewed by: Emily Sherman
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July 20, 2021

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For travelers, the right credit card not only gets you points to put towards future trips, but it can also provide you with a range of benefits that help make your trips more enjoyable. Many cards come with some form of trip protection or offer ancillary travel perks like airport lounge access, waived baggage fees, and complimentary elite status.

While the annual fees attached to some premium travel credit cards may seem high at first glance, frequent travelers can quickly recoup the cost. For example, the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card charges a $99 annual fee after the first year of membership, but also includes one complimentary checked bag per Delta flight. Delta charges $30 for the first checked bag, so it isn’t difficult to recoup that annual fee if you typically fly Delta three to four times in a year with checked luggage. If you travel often but aren’t so loyal to a specific carrier, a card like the Chase Sapphire Reserve® offers a decent rewards rate and flexible redemption options along with excellent perks such as travel credits and lounge access.

Why trust us? Our team of credit card experts has analyzed over 300 cards and selected the top offers currently available across categories. We assign these cards a one-to-five star rating along with detailed reviews to help you find a travel credit card that best fits with your spending habits and financial goals. For travel credit cards, we examine the rewards structure, redemption values, benefits, travel protections, as well as promotional and regular APRs and fees. All of our card selections are independently assessed by our editors based on their individual research, opinions, and other factors. Compare these travel credit card offers from our partners to find the best one for you.

For travelers, the right credit card not only gets you points to put towards future trips, but it can also provide you with a range of benefits that help make your trips more enjoyable. Many cards come with some form of trip protection or offer ancillary travel perks like airport lounge access, waived baggage fees, and complimentary elite status.

While the annual fees attached to some premium travel credit cards may seem high at first glance, frequent travelers can quickly recoup the cost. For example, the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card charges a $99 annual fee after the first year of membership, but also includes one complimentary checked bag per Delta flight. Delta charges $30 for the first checked bag, so it isn’t difficult to recoup that annual fee if you typically fly Delta three to four times in a year with checked luggage. If you travel often but aren’t so loyal to a specific carrier, a card like the Chase Sapphire Reserve® offers a decent rewards rate and flexible redemption options along with excellent perks such as travel credits and lounge access.

Why trust us? Our team of credit card experts has analyzed over 300 cards and selected the top offers currently available across categories. We assign these cards a one-to-five star rating along with detailed reviews to help you find a travel credit card that best fits with your spending habits and financial goals. For travel credit cards, we examine the rewards structure, redemption values, benefits, travel protections, as well as promotional and regular APRs and fees. All of our card selections are independently assessed by our editors based on their individual research, opinions, and other factors. Compare these travel credit card offers from our partners to find the best one for you.

Best travel credit cards of July 2021

BEST FOR UNITED MILEAGEPLUS MEMBERS
New United Quest℠ Card

Good to Excellent

Credit Recommended (670-850)

CreditCards.com credit ranges are a variation of FICO® Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

Rewards rate

3X
Earn 3X miles on United® purchases.
2X
2X miles at restaurants, on select streaming services & all other travel.
1X
1X on all other purchases.

At A Glance

Intro bonus
Up to 100,000 miles Earn 80k bonus miles after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. Plus, an additional 20k bonus miles after you spend $10,000 in the first 6 months
Annual fee
$250
Regular APR
16.49% - 23.49% variable
BEST FOR ACHIEVING HILTON HONORS GOLD STATUS
Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card
Our rating:3.9 Our writers, editors and industry experts score credit cards based on a variety of factors including card features, bonus offers and independent research. Credit card issuers have no say or influence on how we rate cards. The score seen here reflects the card's primary category rating. For more information, you can read about how we rate our cards.
See Rates & Fees, Terms Apply

Good to Excellent

Credit Recommended (670-850)

CreditCards.com credit ranges are a variation of FICO® Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

Rewards rate

12X
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.
6X
Earn 6X Hilton Honors Bonus Points for each dollar of eligible purchases on your Card at U.S. restaurants, at U.S. supermarkets, and at U.S. gas stations.
3X
Earn 3X Hilton Honors Bonus Points for all other eligible purchases on your Card.

At A Glance

Intro bonus
130,000 points Limited Time Offer: Earn 130,000 Hilton Honors Bonus Points after you spend $2,000 in purchases on the Card in the first 3 months of Card Membership. Offer expires 8/25/2021.
Annual fee
$0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95.
Regular APR
15.74% - 24.74% variable
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Editorial disclosure: All reviews 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 review is accurate as of the date of the review. Check the data at the top of this page and the bank's website for the most current information.

*All information about the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard has been collected independently by CreditCards.com. The issuer did not provide the content, nor is it responsible for its accuracy.


A guide to travel credit cards

A travel rewards credit card lets you earn points or miles to redeem at airlines, hotels, restaurants or other travel service providers. The best travel credit cards also offer additional benefits, like a free checked bag, travel credits, airport lounge passes and certain travel insurance. They typically tout lucrative sign-up bonuses – extra points or miles you can earn by spending a certain amount of money in a set time period – that are sometimes the equivalent of a free hotel night or hundreds of dollars toward airfare. These points, miles and benefits can go a long way toward covering the cost of that dream vacation. Here, we take a look at:


Comparing the best travel credit cards

Credit cardBest forAnnual feeCreditCards.com rating
The Platinum Card® from American ExpressLuxury travel benefits$6954.4 / 5
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit CardGeneral purpose travel rewards$954.1 / 5
Chase Sapphire Preferred®Welcome bonus$954.1 / 5
Citi Premier® CardRewards for travel & everyday expenses$954.1 / 5
American Express® Gold CardTraveling foodies$2504.5 / 5
Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit cardOccasional travelers$03.7/ 5
Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit CardFirst-time travel credit cardholders$03.6 / 5
Discover it® MilesNo annual fee$03.7 / 5
Bank of America® Premium Rewards® credit cardAirline incidentals$954.2 / 5
American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp℠ CardNo annual fee airline card$03.2 / 5
Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit CardAirlines$693.9 / 5
Chase Sapphire Reserve®Sign-up bonus & welcome perks$5504.5 / 5
Marriott Bonvoy Boundless™ Credit CardHotels$954.4 / 5

best travel credit cards of 2021

Editor’s picks: Travel credit card details

The Platinum Card® from American Express: Best luxury travel card

Why we picked it: The popular premium card from American Express comes fully-loaded with travel benefits, including luxury lounge access, Hilton Honors gold status (enrollment required), which entitles you to free Wi-Fi, late checkout and room upgrades (upon availability), and a laundry list of travel credits that’ll help you recoup its pricey $695 annual fee. Those credits include an up to $100 statement credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, as well as up to $200 in annual Uber Cash credits for rides or eats in the U.S. (that’s up to $15 a month plus a $20 bonus in December using the Uber app).

Pros: For base rewards, cardholders earn 5X points on flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel on up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year and 5X points on eligible prepaid hotels booked with American Express Travel. They also receive 1X points on general purchases. The card currently touts a generous welcome offer: You can earn 100,000 points if you spend $6,000 in your first six months, which we estimate to be worth around $1,000 when you book through AmexTravel (where points are worth around 1 cent each). Plus, you’ll receive 10X points on eligible purchases at restaurants worldwide and when you Shop Small in the U.S. (on up to $25,000 in combined purchases) in your first six months.

Cons: The $695 annual fee is a real commitment, so carefully consider whether you travel enough to justify the price. You must redeem travel rewards through AmexTravel.com – and, unlike with many Chase credit cards, you won’t get a bonus for doing so. Some of the travel credits come with caveats that make them a bit tricky to track or maximize. For instance, the Platinum comes with up to a $100 Saks Fifth Avenue credit (enrollment required), $50 in statement credits that can be redeemed from January through June and $50 that can be redeemed from July through December.

Who should apply? This card ticks off all the boxes for big spenders and frequent travelers looking for luxury travel perks, particularly complimentary airport lounge access.

Who should skip? Infrequent travelers who won’t use the card benefits enough to justify the annual fee should look elsewhere.

Read our American Express Platinum Card review.

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card: Best general-purpose travel card

Why we picked it: This popular Capital One credit card offers simplicity without skimping on rewards. Cardholders earn a generous 2X miles on every purchase – which can be redeemed as a statement credit toward travel, including hotel and airline purchases – for a reasonable $95 annual fee.

Pros: The card currently touts a big sign-up bonus: Cardholders can earn 60,000 bonus miles when they spend $3,000 in their first three months. They also enjoy a number of ancillary travel benefits, including no foreign transaction fees, travel accident insurance and an up to $100 credit toward the cost of Global Entry or TSA PreCheck (which alone can cover the cost of the card’s annual fee every 4 years).

Cons: The biggest drawback is Capital One’s lack of large domestic travel transfer partners. Plus, most Venture miles transfer at a 1:1 ratio, which might feel like a letdown to rewards maximizers. People looking for luxury travel perks are likely better served by a premium travel rewards credit card, like The Platinum Card® from American Express, which charges a pricey $695 annual fee, but includes benefits like complimentary airport lounge access.

Who should apply? This card will certainly appeal to those looking for a top-notch travel credit card without the pricey annual fees associated with many premium cards in this category.

Who should skip? Travelers who mostly fly domestic and are looking for top-drawer travel perks.

Read our Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card review.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card: Best welcome bonus

Why we picked it: With its very long list of top-notch travel benefits, an excellent rewards rate and one of the highest welcome bonuses of any card we’ve ever seen, it’s not difficult to see why the Chase Sapphire Preferred is at the top of its class.

Pros: Earn a massive 100,000 point welcome bonus after spending $4,000 within the first three months of card membership. At current valuation, that bonus comes out to $1,250 in travel purchases when redeemed via the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal. You’ll also earn 2X points at restaurants and on travel purchases and 1X points on all other purchases.

Cons: The $95 annual fee may be more than some folks are willing to pay, but most frequent travelers will find that this card easily pays for itself in rewards and ancillary benefits. Still, those perks are not quite on par with the sort of premium offerings you’d get with the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, such as a $300 travel credit and lounge access.

Who should apply? If – after a year of being sidelined by the pandemic – you’re eager to jump back into travel, this card offers a lot of earning opportunities to keep you on the go.

Who should skip? If you tend to be loyal to one airline, you may be better off with an airline branded card or the card of an airline partner.

Read our Chase Sapphire Preferred Card review.

Citi Premier® Card: Best for rewards on travel & everyday spending

Why we picked it: If you can’t decide between a travel or general rewards credit card, the Citi Premier is a good compromise. For a $95 annual fee, cardholders earn 3X points on air travel, hotels and restaurants, but they also get a bonus (3X points) on supermarkets and gas stations, two popular everyday spending categories, along with 1X points on all other purchases.

Pros: There’s a competitive sign-up bonus: Cardholders can earn 80,000 ThankYou points if they spend $4,000 in their first three months. We estimate that bonus is worth around $800 when you book through the ThankYou Travel center, given those points are worth 1-cent a piece.

Cons: You have a lot of redemption options, including statement credits, gift cards and travel, but none of them really let you stretch your Citi ThankYou points, which are, on average, worth between 0.5 to 1 cent each. Most of Citi’s airline transfer partners are based overseas: JetBlue is it’s only partnering domestic carrier.

Who should apply? Someone looking to earn rewards on travel and everyday expenses will appreciate the versatility of this card, not to mention its excellent welcome bonus.

Who should skip? While this is a great card for general spending, certain spenders may miss out on opportunities to maximize earnings through specific bonus categories offered by other cards.

Read our Citi Premier Card review.

American Express® Gold Card: Best for traveling foodies

Why we picked it: Traveling foodies, rejoice – this card offers an industry-leading 4X points at restaurants, including takeout and delivery. 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.

Pros: 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.

Cons: The annual fee is $250, pricier than the annual fees charged by most travel credit cards though 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.

Who should apply? Anyone who makes dining out a staple of their vacations and staycations will find a lot of value in this card.

Who should skip? If your top spending categories don’t include groceries at U.S. supermarkets and restaurants, you may be better served by a more general rewards card or something with a bit more flexibility.

Read our American Express Gold Card review.

Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card: Best for occasional travelers

Why we picked it: This Bank of America credit card offers 1.5X points on general purchases for no annual fee, so it’s a good option for someone looking to earn and redeem travel rewards without worrying whether they travel enough or spend enough at airlines or hotels to justify an annual fee.

Pros: In lieu of booking through a designated travel portal, 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 like Expedia or Travelocity. Cardholders can earn 25,000 online bonus points if they spend $1,000 in their first 90 days. Also, Bank of America Preferred Rewards members can get a 25% to 75% boost on rewards earnings. (Learn more about the Bank of America Preferred Rewards program.)

Cons: If you’re 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 (meaning you have at least $50,000 stored across qualifying Bank of America® or Merrill® accounts. If you’re able to qualify for the 50% boost in rewards or higher, you’ll be earning 1.5X points, plus an additional 50%, making your flat rate effectively 2.25X points (1.5 x 50% = .75, totaling 2.25).

Who should apply? This is a great match for less frequent travelers who still want to earn rewards but without having to pay an annual fee.

Who should skip? Jetsetters hoping to maximize rewards on flights and hotels will probably find more value with a premium travel credit card.

Read our Bank of America Travel Rewards credit card review.

Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card: Best first-time travel credit card

Why we picked it: The VentureOne is another solid option for someone looking for a straightforward, simple general-purpose travel credit card that skips the annual fee.

Pros: A rewards rate of 1.25X miles 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 three months of opening an account. You can redeem miles for any travel purchase.

Cons: As we mentioned earlier. 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. The Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card and the Discover it® Miles outpace the VentureOne on base earnings, as they offer 1.5X points/miles on general purchases. You also might be able to earn more, while recouping the annual fee, with the Capital One Venture Rewards credit card. (See how the Venture and the Venture One stack up.)

Who should apply? Someone who likes the Capital One Venture Rewards credit card, but doesn’t like its annual fee, will likely find this card to be a better fit.

Who should skip? Someone hoping to maximize rewards on specific categories, or high-spenders looking for lux frills will be disappointed.

Read our Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card review.

Discover it® Miles: Best no annual fee travel credit card

Why we picked it: 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.

Pros: All purchases earn 1.5X miles, 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.

Cons: 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-flyer programs, which limits any possibility of miles boosts in that way.

Who should apply? This generous first-year welcome offer is ideal for travel credit card newbies.

Who should skip? Anyone loyal to a specific carrier and looking for airline-specific perks will find this card to be a little too general.

Read our Discover it Miles review.

Bank of America® Premium Rewards® credit card: Best for airline incidentals

Why we picked it: 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.

Pros: Cardholders earn unlimited 2X points on travel and dining purchases. Plus, they earn 2X points on grocery store purchases (through Dec. 31, 2021), and 1.5X points on all other purchases. If you’re a qualifying Bank of America Preferred Rewards member, you get a 25% to 75% boost on your rewards. The welcome bonus of 50,000 online bonus points (after you make $3,000 in purchases in the first 90 days of account opening) has a value of $500.

Cons: You’ll pay a $95 annual fee, not waived the first year. The Preferred Rewards member bonus is broken into three 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 qualifying Bank of America or Merrill® accounts. This rewards boost feature is valuable, but only if you meet the requirements.

Who should apply? People who tend to carry a bag when traveling or those who are in the market for a travel rewards credit card and already have a Bank of America checking account will find a lot to love about this card.

Who should skip? If you tend to fly one airline or aren’t already a Bank of America customer, you may not find much value in this card.

Read our Bank of America Premium Rewards credit card review.

American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp℠ Card: Best no annual fee airline card

Why we picked it: There certainly are airline cards with better sign-up bonuses and higher rewards rates, but the lack of an annual fee makes this a great starter airline card for American Airline customers.

Pros: 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 1X miles. Those who spend modestly and travel occasionally will appreciate the low spend threshold for the sign-up bonus: Spend just $500 within the first three months of opening an account and you’ll earn 10,000 miles and a $50 statement credit.

Cons: 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.

Who should apply? This is an excellent option for frequent American Airlines flyers looking for a no annual fee credit card.

Who should skip? Those who don’t fly American or its partners often and don’t live near an American hub may not get much out of this card.

Read our American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp Card review.

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card: Best airline credit card

Why we picked it: 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 two years for free (minus taxes and fees). Our review below 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.

Pros: 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.

Cons: Sadly, the anniversary bonus of 3,000 points is lower than the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card’s bonus, and there’s an annual fee of $69 that isn’t waived the first year. This is a Southwest-centric card so if you don’t frequently fly the discount carrier, you’ll be better served by a different travel rewards credit card.

Who should apply? Southwest frequent flyers who would prefer to pay a $69 annual fee rather than the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card’s higher annual fee of $99.

Who should skip? Those who don’t fly Southwest often and don’t live near a city serviced by Southwest may not get much out of this card.

Read our Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card review.

Chase Sapphire Reserve®: Best sign-up bonus & welcome perks

Why we picked it: This popular Chase credit card recently introduced its highest sign-up bonus since 2017: Cardholders can earn 60,000 points for spending $4,000 in their first three months, which we estimate to be worth around $900 in Ultimate Rewards travel. (Points redeemed through Chase’s travel portal have a 50% higher value.) Plus, they get a free one-year membership to Lyft Pink and DoorDash’s DashPass.

Pros: This card comes with a wealth of travel perks and rewards categories, including a $300 annual credit for travel purchases, up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck and complimentary lounge access. The $300 travel credit is easy-to-redeem, given it can be put toward a large variety of purchases, including flights, hotel stays, taxi rides, public transportation and, through Dec. 31, 2021, gas station and grocery store purchases.

Cons: This card has a lot to offer, but the annual fee of $550 might give pause, and it’s not waived the first year. If you’re looking for luxury lounge access, the Platinum Card from Amex offers a wider network.

Who should apply? This card is a great match for someone looking to at least partially fund a post-pandemic vacation with a generous sign-up bonus.

Who should skip? If you travel infrequently, the annual fee may be hard to justify. If you’re looking for perks specific to your favorite airline, you may be better off with a co-branded card.

Read our Chase Sapphire Reserve review.

Marriott Bonvoy Boundless™ Credit Card: Best hotel credit card

Why we picked it: Now’s the time to apply for this generous hotel rewards card, which recently revamped its sign-up bonus: earn 3 free nights (each night valued up to 50,000 points) after qualifying purchases + 10X total points on eligible purchases in select categories.

Pros: Cardholders earn 6X points at participating Marriott Bonvoy hotels and 2X points on all other purchases. They also enjoy a bevy of other Marriott benefits, including free in-room Wi-Fi, late checkout and a fifth night free on any rewards stay of five consecutive nights or longer.

Cons: The card carries a $95 annual fee, so make sure you spend and travel enough to recoup that charge.

Who should apply? Marriott hotel fans who travel enough to recoup a $95 annual fee.

Who should skip? The rewards apply to Marriott hotels, so if you don’t frequent the brand, you’ll be better served by a different hotel credit card.

Read our Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card review.

How do points and miles work with travel credit cards?

Travel rewards credit cards let you earn points or miles you can redeem for travel purchases. Some offer a flat-rate of return on general purchases, but many offer bonus rewards for specific travel purchases or tangential travel spending categories, like restaurants, gas or even groceries.

Redemption options vary by card, but most travel credit cards stipulate you redeem points or miles for travel purchases. (Some let you redeem for gift cards or cash back.) You can typically redeem points or miles by booking future trips through a designated portal, like Amextravel.com or Chase Ultimate Rewards, or transferring rewards to an issuer’s travel partners to book flights or hotel stays. Many travel credit cards let you apply points or miles as a statement credit to refund eligible purchases you made with the card. (See how popular credit card issuers define travel categories.)

All credit cards allow you to carry a balance to the next month, but that’s inadvisable with a travel credit 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 you can recoup the fee in the long term. (Learn when an annual fee is worth it.)

Is a travel card worth it for me?

A travel credit card may be worth it if you travel at least occasionally and aren’t prone to carrying a balance month to month. (If you carry a balance, you’re generally better off with a low-interest credit card.) Keep in mind, you don’t have to travel to accumulate rewards; many travel credit cards let you earn points or miles on general spending. The best ones also forego expiration or blackout dates, so you can generally amass rewards and redeem them when you’re ready to go on vacation.

If you travel frequently for business or pleasure, annual fee travel credit cards might be worth the added cost, given they tend to tout the most lucrative sign-up bonuses and ancillary perks, like airport lounge access or priority boarding, which can make your trips more enjoyable.

Types of travel credit cards

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

  • How general travel credit cards work: General travel credit cards let you redeem points or miles for most travel expenses, regardless of brand. They also often let you earn points or miles on general purchases. While some general travel cards simply let you redeem rewards through a statement credit, others offer boosted rewards when redeeming for travel through an issuer-specific portal. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card allows cardmembers to earn 25% more value when redeeming via the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal. When redeeming via an issuer’s portal, you’ll often find partnerships with select airlines and hotel brands.
  • Benefits: You have a ton of flexibility when it comes to redeeming rewards, including the ability to put points or miles toward travel booked through travel fare aggregators, like Expedia. There are generally no blackouts or miles expiration dates. Earning rewards on general purchases is decidedly low maintenance. Many premium credit cards offer widespread complimentary airport lounge access.
  • Drawbacks: You may get more points valuation with an airline card, and hotel cards are packed with perks you may not see with these cards. Ancillary travel benefits or special perks are sometimes scant, though many general travel credit cards do offer car rental insurance and travel accident insurance.
  • Who general travel cards are 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.

Airline travel credit cards

  • How airline credit cards work: An airline credit card lets you earn miles and special perks at a particular carrier. 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.
  • Benefits: You generally get access to a ton of extra perks with the carrier co-sponsoring the card, including a free checked bag, priority boarding, airport lounge access, elite status, companion fares and more.
  • Drawbacks: Those perks are restricted to that one particular airline. Airline cards are notorious for having blackout dates and requiring more miles during peak periods. They’re also more likely to impose expiration dates on miles. While an airline program may allow redemptions for merchandise and gift cards, it’s usually best to redeem for airline purchases.
  • Who airline credit cards are 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 maximize your rewards and redemptions, airline credit cards offer frequent promotions and they generally allow you to pool points earned with the credit card with points earned by being a member of an airline’s loyalty program.

Hotel credit cards

  • How hotel credit cards work: 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. 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.
  • Benefits: You can often pair points earned with your card with points earned as a member of the hotel’s loyalty program, increasing your ability to earn free nights faster. Cardholders are often entitled to free amenities, like complimentary Wi-Fi, express check-in, late checkout and even free bottles of water. Blackout dates are less of an issue with hotel rewards programs, although there may be limited available rooms during a peak period.
  • Drawbacks: Hotel rewards programs usually have multiple tiers, each with their own perks, making it potentially tough to understand what you qualify for. Rewards are restricted to the partnering brand and you may not find a chain in the locale that you are going to. Annual fees may be waived the first year, but plan on it appearing on your statement every year thereafter.
  • Who hotel credit cards are 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.

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 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.
  • How much are the points or miles worth? Points or miles valuations vary by issuer, partner or, even, by the method you choose to redeem. Read the fine print to understand what your rewards will be worth and how best to maximize their value.

How to make the most out of your travel credit card

Now that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has updated its travel guidance related to the coronavirus pandemic – including allowing fully vaccinated Americans to travel domestically without testing before or quarantining after their trip – you may be ready for a long, overdue vacation. A travel credit card can help fund or sweeten your trip. Here are some ways to best leverage one.

  • Score a welcome offer. These promotions award you big bonus points if you spend a certain amount of money within a set timeframe, usually between your first three to six months as a cardholder. Consider charging the airfare or hotel stay on a new travel credit card with a strong offer to fund the remaining or future travel expenses. If you’re looking for the largest welcome bonus currently available, look no further than the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card which, as of June 2021, is offering a whopping 100,000 points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months of card membership. For additional card recommendations, CreditCards.com expert Emily Sherman has rounded up some of the best credit cards for your summer ‘vaxication’.
  • Redeem rewards through a travel portal or transfer partner. If you’re using existing points or miles, these options tend to give you the most bang for your buck. For instance, if you have a premium Chase credit card, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, you can redeem points for travel through the Ultimate Rewards travel site for a 50% bonus. Meanwhile, transferring American Express Membership rewards to an airline partner, like Delta, garners the best cent-per-point ratio.
  • Know what perks are available to you. It’s likely been a while since you’ve redeemed your travel rewards, so if you’re unfamiliar with your redemption options, revisit your rewards program’s terms and conditions. That’ll help you identify any ancillary perks you can take advantage of during your vacation, like supplemental travel insurance, or free checked bags. In just one trip, a family of four could easily recoup a card’s annual fee through baggage fees alone. Likewise, your card may also cover incidentals in the event your baggage is lost. That means the issuer could reimburse you for any clothing, toiletries or medication you had to purchase, even if your bag was only delayed by a few hours (up to a specified amount).
  • Skip the foreign transaction fees. Make sure to take along a card that skips this common overseas charge if you are traveling internationally. Many travel credit cards waive foreign transaction fees, but so do Capital One and Discover credit cards.

Looking for more pandemic-related travel tips? Check out our guide to planning a rewards trip as travel restrictions ease.

Must-have perks of a travel credit card

There’s no shortage of travel credit cards on the market and each has its own unique set of perks for cardmembers to enjoy. Typically, the more you spend in annual fees, the more lux the perks become. These are the base level perks you want to look for when determining which card is best for you.

Generous rewards return rate

Look for a general-purpose travel credit card that offers between 1.25X to 2X points or miles on all purchases. Travel credit cards with bonus categories generally offer between 2% to 5% in those respective categories. Expect airline credit cards or hotel credit cards to offer anywhere from 3X miles/points to 10X miles/points on purchases made at that specific airline or hotel.

Welcome offer

A solid welcome offer will go a long way to funding your next trip. Premium credit cards, in particular, are known to offer a bonus that can cover a domestic flight or hotel stay. (Think anywhere between a $150 and $900 value, depending on how you redeem your rewards.) Just make sure you can meet the required spend associated with any welcome offers in the required timeframe. You don’t want to wind up carrying a balance and losing bonus points or miles to interest.

No foreign transaction fee

Many credit card issuers charge a fee when you use your card overseas or with a foreign merchant. These fees are generally 3% to 5% of each transaction. The best travel credit cards let you skip this charge. (Note: There are non-travel credit cards that will waive these fees. Learn more about the best no foreign transaction fee credit cards.)

Elite status

Co-branded hotel or airline credit cards commonly provide cardholders with some level of automatic elite status – or bulk points that can be put toward achieving a level of elite status – within that brand’s loyalty programs. For instance, if you have a Hilton Honors American Express Card, you receive automatic silver elite status in the Hilton Honors loyalty program. These status bumps entitle you to extra benefits and help you earn free flights or nights faster. In the Hilton Honors example, silver elite status members receive free Wi-Fi, late checkout and a fifth-night-free award (when these members book a stay of five consecutive nights or longer with their points, they can receive the fifth night free), among other perks.

Access

Travel credit cards often let you, well, travel in style. The best airline or premium travel credit cards, for instance, generally come with complimentary airport lounge access. They also tend to entitle you to Priority Boarding or provide a credit for Global Entry or TSA Precheck.

Travel insurance

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. Learn more about the best credit cards for travel insurance.

In the news: As you plan your summer 2021 ‘vaccine vacation,’ avoid these common travel card mistakes

If you’re new to travel credit cards and feeling a tad atrophied after a year of staying home, there are plenty of potential pitfalls you’ll want to steer clear of when planning your first big post-vax vacation.

Everyone wants a leg up when it comes to collecting points and miles, but that doesn’t mean you should blindly seek out whatever card currently has the largest sign up bonus. If receiving the bonus is contingent on you spending more than you can comfortably pay back, you could end up paying a ton in interest and negating the value of the bonus.

Similarly, you should think realistically about how much you’ll travel and the types of ancillary perks you’d get the most use out of before committing to a premium card’s high annual fee. If you’re only going to be able to squeeze in one or two trips in a year, it may not be worth it to shell out for a premium card just because it offers lounge access. Instead, save your money and just purchase a one-time lounge day pass.

When shopping around for an airline branded credit card, consider which airlines serve your nearby airports. If you have your heart set on a Delta branded card but live in the Dallas area, you might find an American Airlines branded card to be a more practical option as Dallas-Fort Worth is an American Airlines hub airport.

For mile hoarders with an expiration date approaching but no trips on the calendar, you may be able to keep your miles active by making a purchase through your card’s shopping portal. Even a small purchase of just a few dollars will do.

Creditcards.com’s Barri Segal has more great tips to help you successfully plot a hassle-free getaway with your travel credit card this summer.

How we picked the best travel cards

Research methodology: We analyzed 300 travel rewards credit cards to identify the best offers currently on the market. The major factors we considered include:

  • Rewards rate: Does the card offer a competitive rewards rate for the travel category? For general purpose travel cards, this rate is generally between 1.25X to 2X rewards. For co-branded hotel or airline credit cards, we looked for a rate between 3X and 10X points on brand purchases, plus a competitive rate in other bonus categories.
  • Welcome offer: Many travel credit cards offer a welcome offer or sign-up bonus that’s equivalent to a hotel stay or airline ticket when you spend a certain amount of money in a specific time frame, usually your first three to six months. Annual fee travel credit cards, in particular, may offer a welcome bonus valued between $500 to $900. We considered the value of the sign-up bonus, alongside the required spend to receive it.
  • Ancillary travel perks: We considered whether the card offers additional travel benefits beyond base rewards. For instance, for airline credit cards, we considered whether they offered priority boarding, a free checked bag or lounge access. For hotel credit cards, we considered whether they offered upgrade opportunities, for Wi-Fi and free hotel stays with a card anniversary. For premium travel credit cards, we considered whether the card touted travel credits, travel insurance and other benefits that justified the high annual fee.
  • Rates and fees: Travel credit cards do tend to carry annual fees and higher APRs than low-interest credit cards. However, we considered how a card’s APRs compared to the current credit card industry average and whether any fees could be avoided or recouped by its travel rewards and benefits.

All 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.

More information on travel credit cards

For more information on all things travel cards, continue reading content from our credit card experts:

Frequently asked questions about travel credit cards