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A great way to come up with some extra savings on airfare, hotels, and general travel is to find the best travel rewards credit card and cash in on lucrative points bonuses that many of these cards offer.
As my wife and I were looking at our schedules and budgeting for a vacation, I thought about finding the best travel credit card to open. If you’re anything like us — we have two young children — your budget might be stretched so thin it can be hard to figure out how to come up with the extra cash to enjoy yourselves for a few days of fun. We continued to pore over our budget and I became consumed with the idea of paying for a vacation while laying out the least amount of cash possible.
I ultimately decided the Chase Sapphire Preferred® was my best option.
It has one of the largest signup bonuses in the industry as well as great long-term rewards for travel and dining. The number of ways you can redeem points, including transferring at equal value to many partners is simply unmatched by any card.
I did realize that other travel credit cards are better for different situations. Through my research, I found that travel rewards credit cards could be grouped into several types. Travel itself is a very broad category and all of these cards are worth consideration depending on how you travel or where you book.
The Simple Dollar’s Top Picks
Here are the 5 best travel credit cards of 2014:
- Chase Sapphire Preferred®: Best Travel Credit Card
- Barclaycard Arrival™ World MasterCard®: Best No Fee Travel Credit Card
- Priceline Rewards™ Visa® Card: Best Travel Site Credit Card
- The US Airways® Premier World MasterCard®: Best Airline Credit Card
- Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express: Best Hotel Credit Card
Best Travel Credit Card
If you travel anywhere, especially abroad, you might want to consider the Chase Sapphire Preferred®. There’s plenty of value packed into this smooth, thick, blue card. On top of great rewards like 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants and 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases, cardholders can also earn 40,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 in the first three months on the Chase Sapphire Preferred® card.
So, if you were looking at purchasing a $500 flight, you could immediately use the 40,000 bonus points to put $400 toward the flight and also receive 2,800 points back at the end of the year. If you booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards℠, that same flight could cost nothing because you receive an automatic 20% discount for booking through Ultimate Rewards.
The flexible points transfer to Chase airline and hotel partners is another perk that can net you big savings. Points are transferable on a 1:1 basis for partner airlines and hotels such as United and Ritz-Carlton.
International travelers will really like that there are the no foreign transaction fees and chip-enabled technology on the card. Embedded chip technology has your information encrypted on a chip in your card and is more secure than swiping. Many international merchants have adopted this technology, and it’s more prevalent overseas.
Who Should Get It
Best Way To Use It
- International travelers – no foreign transaction fee
- Foodies and travel spenders – 2x points on dining and travel
- You want a flexible rewards program
- You want extra chip enabled security
- Use this card for everyday purchases.
- Use this card especially while traveling and dining to earn 2 points per dollar.
- Book travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards℠ and get 20% off your points redemption.
- You could also use this card exclusively for travel and dining but use a higher earnings cash back card like the Chase Freedom® Card.
Best No Fee Travel Credit Card
With no annual fee and 2x points on travel purchases, the Barclaycard Arrival™ World MasterCard® is a superb choice.
For instance, if you signed up and spent $1,000 in the first 90 days, you would have an immediate $200 to spend on travel. If you spend $2,000 per month on travel and dining, you would have an additional 12,000 points or $120 to put toward your trip. That nets $520 toward your vacation. It gets better if you booked your travel through the Barclaycard travel site because you receive an extra 10% points back toward your next trip.
One drawback for big mile hackers out there is that points from this card are not transferrable to frequent-flyer or frequent-guest programs. Everything remains within the Barclaycard rewards system.
Who Should Get It
Best Way To Use It
- You want high rewards with no gimmicks
- You dislike paying an annual fee
- You aren’t partial to any one airline or hotel
- International travelers
- Make all of your travel and dining purchases on this card.
- Redeem points for travel whenever possible to take advantage of the 10% bonus.
- Use points on any airline or hotel.
- You really don’t need another card unless you consistently travel on one airline that has a card of 3X miles or higher.
- If you have a preferred airline, use that card to accumulate extra perks like seat upgrades, then use this card for all other purchases.
Best Travel Site Credit Card
I was new to credit card offerings from travel booking websites, but quickly found that the Priceline Negotiator easily wins this battle with the Priceline Rewards™ Visa® Card. If you like booking regular travel through Priceline, you can use this card to earn 5X points on all travel booked through the site, and 1 point per dollar on every other purchase. While the 10,000 bonus-point signup offer is lighter than other cards on this list, this card has no annual fee.
The issue I had with cards from travel sites is that none of them presented a great way to immediately pay for a large chunk of your 2014 vacation. The best strategy I could find was to use 10,000 points for $100 off your trip, book through Priceline, and get 5X the points to use on your next vacation.
So, if you charged a $3,000 family vacation through Priceline on this card, you would rack up 15,000 points to redeem for future travel, gift cards, cash, or statement credits. Only the Priceline Rewards™ Visa® Card offered 5X points on travel. The other cards I looked at offered 3X or less. This is also a huge advantage over many other cards on this list, which might earn you only 3,000 to 6,000 points for the same $3,000 vacation.
Who Should Get It
Best Way To Use It
- You spend a lot at the travel booking site, Priceline.com
- Frugal spenders who want to avoid annual fees
- You like to redeeming points for cash, gift cards, and travel
- You like big rewards for your travel spending
- I would save this card just for travel purchases to max out the 5X points.
- Use another good travel card or general rewards card for everyday purchases. Make sure you can redeem points for cash with that card.
- Book all your travel on your Priceline Rewards™ Visa® Card and use the cash redemptions from your other card to pay for other items while you travel.
- Good cards to pair for this strategy would be the Barclaycard Arrival™ Plus World Elite MasterCard® or the Chase Sapphire Preferred®
Best Airline Credit Card
If you’re looking to max out rewards on one airline, consider US Airways and their US Airways® Premier World MasterCard®. Any purchase at US Airways earns 2 miles per $1 spent and 1 mile per dollar on all other purchases. These miles can be transferred easily to partner airlines, and a 40,000 signup bonus is a great deal.
As you may know, US Airways and American Airlines officially merged on December 9, 2013. However, this card will stay active. The only notable difference is that US Airways is transferring out of the Star Alliance program and into the oneworld program with different airline partners like British Airways and Cathay Pacific.
If you’re booking a flight this year, there are many ways to save. First, flights can be booked through US Airways for 5,000 fewer miles. So, that $400 ticket can be yours for just 35,000 points and have 5,000 to spare. Next, you receive two annual companion vouchers valued at $99 each. Use the extra 5,000 points to put toward any additional costs for your companion ticket. This card is also loaded with great upgrades like First Class check-in on arrival at the airport and Zone 2 boarding, right after first class.
Who Should Get It
Best Way To Use It
- Frequent US Airways fliers
- United or other oneworld partners frequent fliers
- Travelers to US Airway hubs like Charlotte, Philadelphia, or Phoenix
- You want huge bonus miles for signing up
- You enjoy upgrade perks like early boarding and First Class check-in
- Make one purchase to collect 30,000 bonus miles (offer subject to credit).
- Then, transfer a balance within 90 days to get an extra 10,000 miles.
- Make all of your US Airways flights and in-flight purchases with the card.
- Book awards flights for 5,000 fewer miles. For example, that 25,000 point flight will only cost you 20,000 points.
- One great option is to pair this card with the Barclaycard Arrival™ Plus World Elite MasterCard® or a solid hotel card like the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express to rack up additional points for travel.
Best Hotel Credit Card
If you’re spending a lot of time in hotels each year, why not pick a card with one of the best rewards programs around? The Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express earns 1 point per dollar on most purchases, but earns between 3-5 points per dollar on purchases made at a Starwood property. Starwood covers many hotel chains such as Sheraton, Westin, and W Hotels. With a total of around 1,100 properties in over 100 countries, your options to earn Starpoints are endless.
This card is currently running a 25,000 bonus-point offer. With 25,000 points, you could take the kids to Orlando and receive six nights free at a Category 2 hotel like the Sheraton Lake Buena Vista Resort. If you wanted a bit swankier trip to Orlando, that same 25,000 points could land three nights at the Category 3 Aloft Orlando Downtown.
One of the best features of this card is you can transfer Starpoints to many airline miles programs, usually on a 1:1 basis, and even receive a 5,000-point bonus when you transfer 20,000 Starpoints to select miles programs.
Who Should Get It
Best Way To Use It
- You prefer American Express to Visa or MasterCard
- Frequent visitors of Starwood hotels
- You are a savvy point transferer and and can take advantage of free nights and free flights
- You spend more than $30,000 per year
- You have good credit
- Sign up and take advantage of up to 25,000 bonus points.
- Use for all purchases, especially at Starwood hotels.
- Swap 20,000 Starpoints for 25,000 airline miles on many airlines.
- Do not use this card for international travel because there is a 2.7% foreign transaction fee! This is the only card with this fee on the list.
- A good strategy is to accumulate points because they never expire. Then monitor your upcoming travel options so you can take advantage of promotions and can redeem up to five times their point value on hotel stays.
- Another great strategy is to pair this card with my top pick for the best airline card: US Airways® Premier World MasterCard®. With this relationship, you can max out your points on airlines and hotels, then easily transfer points between the two. Their partnership enables you to receive a 5,000-point bonus when you transfer 20,000 Starpoints to US Airways Dividend miles on a 1-to-1 ratio.
Research the 42 Best Travel Credit Cards
Below is a directory of the most popular travel credit cards. I used this directory as a starting point for my research and analysis on travel cards. The directory is updated weekly to reflect any new changes, to add new cards, and to remove expired cards.
The travel credit cards directory is a sub-directory of rewards credit cards. This directory highlights the most important features specific to travel cards and displays all important information about each card.
Travel Credit Cards Directory
The travel rewards credit card directory lists every travel credit card and high level information for each of the cards, so you can make quick comparisons. In order to rank and value each of these cards, certain features were weighted accordingly based on overall importance to the prospective cardholder.
Sort, filter, or search for what matters most to find the best travel credit card for you.
To develop an overall rating for each travel credit card, we used the features and corresponding data from the directory above. To better describe the ratings of each card, there were a number of elements to consider. Some of the valuable information is displayed in the directory, while additional information is outlined below.
Rewards Rate refers to the actual rate at which you can earn rewards using the travel rewards card. This rate, typically 2% or higher, will usually be highest on travel-related purchases. Travel credit cards usually have a base rate of at least 1% which enables you to earn points on everyday purchases as well. The very best travel credit cards will have an incentive to book travel through their own travel portals.
Some of the best rewards rates are on hotel, airline, or travel site cards. These cards try to entice you to only use that specific hotel, airline, or travel site. If you travel often and prefer one brand over others, this approach is fine. Others who prefer flexibility in how they travel will want to consider a more general rewards program that still carries a generous Rewards Rate on travel.
Rewards Categories are the spending categories in which your travel card earns greater than 1%. Most travel cards offer better Rewards Rates in certain categories. The more ways you can earn greater than 1% in rewards, the better a card will score in Rewards Categories.
For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® offers 2% rewards on travel booked through the Ultimate Rewards platforms and 2% for dining out. The card earns 1% on all other purchases. The Barclaycard Arrival™ World MasterCard® has the same structure — 2% rewards on travel booked through Barclaycard and 2% on dining.
Signup Bonus is the amount of extra points each card offers to a new cardmember when signing up. Signup Bonuses can be very lucrative on travel cards, with the best travel cards offering around 40,000 bonus points. That translates to at least $400 of cold-hard cash to spend on travel. If you’re strategic about redeeming the points, you can turn those points into much more.
The important thing to note about Signup Bonuses is that there are usually certain spending requirements to make before you actually earn the points. It’s common for credit card issuers to require you to spend $4,000 in the first three months you have the card before you get your Signup Bonus.
Signup Bonus carries a high importance rating because it’s a quick way to grab a large chunk of points to use for an upcoming travel adventure.
The best travel rewards cards give you a number of ways to redeem your lucrative points. These Redemption Options can dramatically impact how much your points are worth. Top cards like Chase Sapphire Preferred® use the Chase Ultimate Rewards platform to help you book travel. When you redeem your points through Chase Ultimate Rewards for travel, your points are worth 25% more. For example, you can redeem 40,000 points for $500 in airfare instead of the usual $400.
Most cards also allow you to redeem points for non-travel. You may redeem points for gift cards and merchandise, but this is not recommended because points on the best travel credit cards are usually more valuable when used for travel.
Your third option on several of the best travel credit cards is to transfer your points to a partner airline, hotel, or other partner. This is where the point geeks go crazy to maximize and hunt for last-minute point deals. American Express allows point transfers to many partners as does Chase Sapphire Preferred®.
There are some additional benefits of owning a travel credit card that become important when you’re actually traveling. A huge benefit for Chase Sapphire Preferred® cardholders is that foreign transaction fees are waived. The US Airways MasterCard offers First Class check-in, seat upgrades, and companion tickets.
Additional benefits of top cards include 24/7 customer service, car rental insurance, and emergency travel assistance. Benefits are of medium importance when compared to how points can be accumulated by the card, but Benefits can often swing a decision between two comparable cards.
APRs on travel credit cards are of low importance, mainly because we always recommend paying off your balance each month. Interest charges negate point accumulation, so it never makes sense to have a travel credit card if you plan to carry a balance.
Travel cards have ongoing APRs that range as low as 10.99% and go beyond 20%. The key determinant of your ongoing APR is usually your credit score and history. If you have good credit, the APR rate for you will be on the lower end. If you need a low-interest rate card, consider one of the best balance transfer cards on the market today.
Choosing the Best Travel Credit Card for You
I normally don’t advocate opening a new credit card if it’s not completely necessary, but many travel cards are also great everyday cards with long-term value. These cards offer flexible rewards, simplified rules for accumulating or transferring points, and exceptional programs to protect you while you’re traveling.
Here are some components of the top travel credit cards:
- Opportunities to earn at least 2 points per dollar on travel
- Flexible choices for redeeming points across travel networks
- Travel insurance and extra protections
- Concierge services
- No foreign transaction fees
- Large signup-bonus incentives
These categories start to separate when you look at where and how you use them. There are three characteristics that may define your card of choice:
- Brand preference for a single airline, hotel, or travel site
- Accumulating points vs. travel benefits
- International vs. domestic travel
First, many of you may have your own airline or hotel preferences. Depending on your access to airline hubs, you might choose a particular airline’s card. For instance, if you’re in Phoenix (a US Airways hub), you might benefit most from the US Airways® Premier World MasterCard®. If you’re in Denver, the Frontier Airlines World MasterCard® is a smart choice.
This makes comparing these cards difficult because your own personal preferences may trump introductory offers or other unique features.
Accumulating Points vs. Travel Perks
The best card for accumulating points may not have the best benefits and protection features. Some airline cards, for example, will offer much higher rewards earning potential, while others offer you priority boarding and an annual companion fare at a low price. Your situation and how you will use the card, rewards, and benefits ultimately will be the deciding factor for choosing between these cards.
International vs. Domestic
The best travel credit card for you may depend on if you’re traveling internationally vs. domestically. If you’re traveling internationally, you want to avoid foreign transaction fees at all costs. I learned that the hard way when I took a family trip to Ireland. It ended up costing me 3% more than I planned for because I was more worried about having a card that was widely accepted and less worried about foreign transaction fees.
Strategies to Maximize Travel Rewards
When I was younger, I didn’t travel that much. My job didn’t require it and, aside from the occasional vacation, I was usually too busy to explore the world. I could always afford a single round trip ticket, so I was never looking to “earn” my occasional travel.
Now that I have kids, the prospect of $1,000 (coach) airfare + car rental + hotel every time I want to take my family somewhere had me scrambling to learn the ins and outs of travel rewards maximization. This guide is meant to bring a travel rewards novice into the 21st century world of travel rewards so that you can start being more strategic about accumulating and using your travel points.
Strategy #1: Start By Earning Points Everyday
Experienced business travelers already know their preferred airline, hotel, and rental car agency, and they stick with these to earn maximum points on their travel. But what if you’re just starting to increase your travel? Where should you start?
Find the Best Travel Credit Card
Getting a really good travel rewards credit card is your first step to accumulating points to use for travel. Only the best travel rewards card lets you start racking up points for everyday purchases and earn more when you finally do travel. The best travel credit cards have a base rate of 1% and the opportunity to earn at least 2% on travel. Many of these cards also have point and redemption bonuses to enhance your earnings power.
Use the guide above to research the best travel credit cards. The guide goes into great detail on each of the best travel credit cards. Use it to get an idea of which card might be best for you. Here are a few other tips to help you decide:
Tip #1: Pick One Card
Expert travelers often recommend having all sorts of cards and combining points in the most efficient manner. We want to work you up to that level, but the best starting point is to pick just one card. The main reason is that most travel cards charge an annual fee and you don’t know how much you’ll be traveling yet.
Using a secondary card to earn more points in different categories seems like a good idea, but paying two annual fees might not make sense. If you were to pay two $95 annual fees that equals $190 per year, that wipes out 19,000 points! You’d better be a big spender to justify carrying the additional card.
That’s why starting with one card is important. Any annual fee card will beat out a no annual fee card when it comes to rewards. That’s why, if you’re going to go for one card, my top pick is the Chase Sapphire Preferred®.
If you must have a no annual fee card, a good choice is the Barclaycard Arrival™ World MasterCard®.
Tip #2: Go for Flexibility
I often hear about people signing up for an airline miles credit card they received on a flight. For anyone other than expert flyers, these offers are usually not optimal because the opportunity to earn good travel points is usually confined to purchases on that airline. Options for redeeming points are also limited. You may be able to transfer your points to partner airlines or hotels but at less desirable transfer rates.
If you’re unlikely to have an alliance to any one airline or hotel chain, find a travel card with flexible earning and redemption programs. My absolute favorite right now is the Chase Sapphire Preferred® because it comes with the ultra-flexible Ultimate Rewards program from Chase.
Through Ultimate Rewards, you can book any airline and, when you do, your points are worth 25% more and it’s NOT dependent on which airline you choose. Also, through Chase Sapphire Preferred®, you can transfer your points to any one of its partner airline frequent-flyer programs at a 1-to-1 ratio. This is a unique feature the pros take advantage of all the time.
Tip #3: Make sure your points never expire
Working hard to accumulate points is only valuable if the points are there for you to use when you want to travel. Many frequent-flyer programs and frequent-guest programs have points that expire, blackout dates, or other restrictions on usage. If you were to solely rely on frequent-flyer or frequent-guest programs for your travel rewards, you will surely find some of your points expiring at the end of each year.
The best travel credit cards, on the other hand, usually have points that never expire so they’re always there when you need them. Some cards like Chase Sapphire Preferred® and US Airways Premier World MasterCard® let you transfer points to frequent-flyer partners. This can be done to keep the balance of your frequent-flyer points fresh.
Strategy #2: Get Familiar With Loyalty Programs
Your next strategy for getting your frequent traveler training wheels off is to get familiar with loyalty programs and alliances. Frequent-flyer/guest programs are opportunities for you to double dip on points. The pros know the ins and outs of each program, where and when you can transfer points, and what the best programs are for their frequent routes and dream travel destinations.
Every airline and hotel chain has their own program. When you travel on an airline or stay at a hotel, you earn points and other perks you can use in the future. Here are some common ones:
- Starwood Hotels Starpoints
- US Airways Dividend Miles
- Delta Skymiles
- Hilton Honors Rewards
Additionally, many of the large airlines are part of travel alliances. These alliances allow you to transfer points to other partners more easily.
Below are two of the largest programs and their partners.
Oneworld Partners (and Affiliates)
|American Airlines (AmericanConnection, American Eagle®, US Airways, and US Airways Express)|
|British Airways (BA Cityflyer, British Airways (BA) Limited, Comair, OpenSkies, and SUN-AIR of Scandinavia)|
|Cathay Pacific (Dragonair)|
|Finnair (Flybe Finland)|
|Iberia (Iberia Regional Air Nostrum, and Iberia Express)|
|Japan Airlines (JAL Express, J-AIR, and Japan Transocean Air)|
|LAN (LAN Argentina, LAN Colombia, LAN Ecuador, LAN Express, and LAN Peru)|
|Quantas (QantasLink and Jetconnect)|
|S7 Airlines (Globus, LLC)|
Star Alliance Partners
|Air New Zealand|
|LOT Polish Airlines|
|South African Airways|
Strategy #3: Upgrade or Add a Card As Needed
Once you travel a few times and get a handle on how you spend your travel dollars, you’ll have a much better feel for you preferred airlines, hotels, and some of the tricks of the trade. You can use this information to add a second travel rewards card to your arsenal. You have two objectives with a secondary travel rewards card:
- Capitalize on other spending categories your current card does not max out.
- Capitalize on carrier-specific deals with airline or hotel credit cards you use exclusively for your travels.
Cover Your Spending Categories
Travel credit cards do a great job of earning points on travel but are usually limited when earning rewards in other spending categories. For instance, my top pick, the Chase Sapphire Preferred®, earns 2X points on travel and dining, but only 1X on everything else. You could earn much more travel rewards if you find another card that earns in different categories like gas or groceries too.
Personal + Business Cards
A great strategy is to open a business credit card. Many people are self-employed, but you don’t need to own a business to qualify for a business credit card; you simply use your Social Security number. I use the Chase Ink Bold® card to supplement my Chase Sapphire Preferred® spending. The Ink Bold® card earns 5X on cable/Internet, landline, and cell phone bills and at office supply stores. It also earns 2X on gas and hotel stays. This combination of cards maps well to my spending categories so I’m able to max out my non-travel related points and sock them away for my next trip.
The best part of this strategy is that both cards use the Chase Ultimate Rewards program, so my points can be combined and used together, netting me a 25% savings when I redeem them for travel.
Combine General Travel Rewards With Carrier-Specific Cards
You also have an opportunity to combine your general travel rewards with more targeted travel cards that airlines and hotels offer. These cards often have upgrades like first-class boarding or room upgrades, which can make travel more pleasant. These cards also let you earn much more for purchases on their airlines or at their hotel properties.
Two great programs are:
- US Airways
Starwood offers up to 5 points per dollar spent on Starwood properties, which include Westin and W Hotels.
The US Airways card is the perfect card to combine with my Chase Sapphire Preferred® because I can transfer my Chase Ultimate Rewards points 1:1 to British Airways. British Airways is also part of the oneworld alliance. US Airways joined the oneworld alliance when it merged with American Airlines in late 2013. So, I’m able to transfer my Chase points to US Airways Dividend Miles to capitalize on point deals or bonuses offered through US Airways.
Add a No Annual Fee Card
As I said before, the main reason not to add multiple cards when you first start out is because most travel credit cards carry an annual fee, and having multiple fees can knock out a lot of points. A notable exception is the Barclaycard Arrival™ World MasterCard®. This card does not have an annual fee and earns 2X points on travel and dining just like the Chase Sapphire Preferred®.
I do not use this card because Chase Ultimate Rewards points are much more flexible and worth more when redeemed for travel. However, if you already have a carrier-specific card such as a Starwood Hotel card, adding the Barclaycard Arrival™ World MasterCard® with no annual fee is a great option to boost your rewards with no additional cost or commitment.
Bringing It All Together
If you take anything from this guide of tips, take this: The travel rewards landscape is difficult to understand, so you need to be armed with a strategy and then learn as you go.
The best way to avoid getting travel credit cards you don’t use, or committing to an airline you will come to hate, is to do the following:
- Start earning travel points with the most flexible travel rewards card
- Learn about loyalty programs and find your preferred airlines and hotels
- Add a more targeted travel credit card using what you’ve learned
By keeping it simple and taking it slow, you’ll graduate from being a novice traveler in no time, and you’ll soon be experiencing first-class travel for less — just like the pros!