Research the 42 best travel credit cardsBelow 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 directoryThe 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.
Perks Tier Level
Sign up Bonus Tier Level
Rewards Tier Level
Great Ongoing Rewards
No Annual Fee
No Foreign Transaction Fee
Rating methodologyTo 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 rateRewards 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 categoriesRewards 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® Card 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 Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® has the same structure — 2% rewards on travel booked through Barclaycard and 2% on dining.
Sign-up bonusSign-up Bonus is the amount of extra points each card offers to a new cardmember when signing up. Sign-up 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 Sign-up 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 Sign-up Bonus. Sign-up 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.
Redemption optionsThe 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® Card 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® Card.
BenefitsThere 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® Card cardholders is that foreign transaction fees are waived. The Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express offers priority boarding, and free checked bags. 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.
Ongoing APRAPRs 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.
Resources for frequent travelersThe science of mastering rewards with your travel credit card is more of a journey than a destination, and even the savviest cardholder still has things to learn along the way. In addition to rewards, many credit cards also provide travel insurance to help you protect yourself as you ramble around the globe. The following section offers useful information to help you maximize the benefits of your travel credit card — not just the rewards points, but also insurance and other features that can improve your travel experience.
Travel credit cards vs. vacation taxesTaking a vacation should mean getting away from it all, but there’s no getting away from taxes. Travel-related taxes can increase the cost of travel by more than half. To put that figure in perspective, consider this: American Express has estimated the average vacation expense at $1,145 per person. By those calculations, the average person would pay about $750 for the vacation itself and $395 in the form of taxes on hotels, airline tickets, rental cars and more. Before you start writing your elected representatives, take a deep breath – we’re not here to debate tax policy. Then take comfort in the fact that using a travel credit card can help you save money on travel in a number of ways, including:
- Hotels. Redeeming reward points toward hotel stays is a central feature of many hotel and travel credit cards. Typically, earning a certain number of points makes the cardholder eligible to redeem the points for a free night. Some cards also offer free nights every year you celebrate your anniversary as a cardholder.
- Transportation. Redeeming rewards points toward airline tickets is another popular feature of airline credit cards and other types of travel cards, as is using points to save on car rentals.
- Recreation. Some cards affiliated with hotel and resort chains offer benefits for onsite activities such as spa sessions.
- International purchases. A growing number of travel credit cards feature $0 foreign transaction fees, which means you avoid paying the extra 1% to 3% per transaction that other cards charge.
What about cruises, where lodging and transportation are part of the same package? Good news — some cards let you redeem points toward vacation cruises.
What about things that cost time instead of money? With a travel credit card that features concierge service, it’s like having a personal assistant who can help you shop, make dinner reservations, find lost luggage, and more.
Don’t let travel taxes cast a shadow over your vacation or business trip. Strategic use of your travel credit card can help you save big.
How credit cards protect you while you travelDecades ago, people used a combination of cash and traveler’s checks when traveling abroad. Unfortunately, carrying around a ton of cash comes with certain risks, and exchanging currencies in each new country can be a huge pain. Modern travelers still carry some cash, but as more of a novelty than anything else. Instead, they make the majority of their international purchases with travel credit cards that not only reward them for making purchases, but also protect them from fraudulent charges and other pitfalls. Here’s how credit cards can protect you (and save you money) while you travel:
- Use a card that offers no liability for unauthorized purchases. When traveling abroad, you want to make sure you use a credit card that won’t hold you accountable if someone gets ahold of your card and starts making purchases. The Discover it® Miles card, for example, comes with no liability for unauthorized purchases and no foreign transaction fee, making it a good option. Just make sure the country you’re traveling to is prone to accept Discover since international acceptance varies.
- Carry your credit card contact information separately from your card. Most credit cards let you call collect from anywhere in the world if your card is lost or stolen. Obviously, you won’t have access to their number if you no longer have your card, which is why most experts suggest keeping these important contact numbers separate from your credit cards in case of loss or theft.
- Choose a card with free travel insurance. If you want to take advantage of free travel insurance, make sure to book the major components of your itinerary with a credit card that offers excellent travel and trip cancellation insurance, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. Doing so can mean getting reimbursed if your trip is cancelled due to flight interruptions, a natural disaster, or other unexpected events.
Do you need additional travel insurance?
Although it’s easy to brush off travel insurance as an unnecessary expense, you should always give it a second look. With all the upheavals that can unravel your travel plans, not to mention your own personal health, you might be wise to purchase a simple travel insurance plan — or at least pay for your trip with a credit card that offers this benefit for free. Your best option might be a combination: buying a travel insurance policy that supplements the coverage provided by your credit card and fills in the gaps.
Also, don’t fall victim to some common misconceptions about travel insurance:
Myth #1: My existing insurance coverage provides all the protection I might need. This myth is exceptionally problematic when it comes to health insurance. The further you travel from home, the more likely you are to be out-of-network for medical care. When you’re out-of-network, your benefits can be less generous and your deductibles higher. Since many policies do not cover doctor or hospital visits outside of the country, a medical travel insurance policy might be a good bet.
Myth #2: If a canceled flight leaves me stranded, the airline will pay to put me up in a hotel. Don’t count on it, unless you see it in the contract. Generally, regulations in the U.S. and Europe avoid making specific requirements to this effect. Depending on the carrier and the circumstances behind the cancellation or delay, the airline may be legally required to offer nothing more than a refund or a ticket on the next available flight. Some airlines are more accommodating than others, if you’ll forgive the pun.
Myth #3. One travel insurance policy is the same as any other. Actually, policies vary widely in scope and levels of coverage.
Certain type of travel credit cards offer certain travel benefits to cardholders. Take the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, for example. Premium travel insurance, including trip cancellation, is included as a card member benefit. If you wanted to take advantage of this perk, all you would need to do is use your card to purchase your airfare and accommodation. Other types of travel insurance your credit card might offer include trip interruption insurance, which can reimburse you for nonrefundable travel expenses if you end up getting sick before your trip or it gets cancelled for almost any other reason. Different cards offer different versions of trip cancellation or trip interruption insurance, so make sure you understand your card’s policy before you count on it for coverage. You can usually buy travel insurance at the same time you purchase airfare or book your hotel.
If you want to compare travel insurance policies, check out our post on the best travel insurance options currently available. Just remember, travel insurance only seems frivolous until you need it. If your trip gets cancelled, travel insurance could protect you from thousands of dollars in losses. Some common events that are covered with various types of travel insurance include personal illness or illness of a family member, natural disaster, emergency evacuations, or even lost or stolen baggage or belongings. Obviously, none of those events are ones you can plan for ahead of time, so it’s best to be adequately insured instead.
10 questions to ask yourself when buying travel insuranceBefore you hit “buy,” on your next travel insurance plan, ask yourself the following questions:
- Is the region I plan to visit considered “high-risk?” Potential issues can vary depending on where you are going. And if you’re visiting an area deemed “high-risk,” your travel insurance policy may deny coverage altogether. Before you set sail or get on that plane, check your travel insurance policy to see if your intended destination is, in fact, covered. Also check for travel advisories that might alert you to any upcoming safety concerns you need to be aware of.
- Do I travel often enough to consider a long-term policy? If you travel more than once or twice per year, you may be better off buying a more comprehensive, multi-trip plan. This type of coverage is great for families who travel or vacation often, those planning multi-country or extended trips, last-minute travelers, or those who travel often for business.
- What will my current health insurance cover if I become injured or get sick abroad? Assuming that your health insurance will provide coverage overseas is always a mistake. The fact is, many health insurance plans don’t provide comprehensive coverage outside of your home country or territory. Medicare, for example, never provides coverage overseas. If you want to ensure that you’re covered, a travel insurance plan that includes major medical is always a good bet.
- Do I have any pre-existing conditions that might flare up? If you do purchase a travel insurance plan that includes medical coverage, it’s important to note that pre-existing conditions are rarely covered. If you have a medical condition that is prone to act up, your trip abroad might pose a greater risk than you realized.
- Do I plan on bringing anything expensive with me? Baggage insurance protects you from financial loss if your valuable items become lost or stolen. If you plan on bringing expensive items with you, it might be a good idea to buy travel insurance that includes this perk. Likewise, if you aren’t bringing anything valuable with you, you might consider opting out of this specific coverage.
- How likely is it that I will need to cancel my trip? When you’re traveling with kids or aging parents, the likelihood of a trip cancellation due to illness or injury increases. However, the risk still exists when you leave those same loved ones at home. If something happened, you might need to cancel your trip to take care of them. Trip cancellation/interruption insurance can help mitigate those risks for you.
- Do I want to be able to cancel my trip for “any reason?” Some types of trip cancellation or trip interruption insurance require you to prove your cancellation was due to unforeseen circumstances such as an illness, a death in the family, or a job loss. Meanwhile, other policies let you cancel for “any reason” — even if you just changed your mind. Make sure you know the difference, and buy a policy that offers terms you can live with.
- Will I be driving a rental car? Some travel insurance policies offer either collision coverage on rental cars or other types of rental car coverage. However, others do not. If you plan on driving during your stay and don’t have coverage otherwise, you might want to seek out a travel insurance policy that offers this perk.
- Do I plan on doing anything risky? If your trip involves any adventurous activity such as rock climbing, cross-country biking, or skiing, you need to ensure that your travel insurance provides coverage for those activities. Never assume it does, and always check to make sure.
- Do I already have life insurance? Some travel insurance policies offer extra coverage that basically amounts to life insurance that pays out only if you die. If you already have life insurance (as you should), you may not need this additional coverage and may not want to pay extra for it.
Strategies to maximize travel rewardsWhen 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 every dayExperienced 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 cardGetting 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 cardExpert 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® Card. If you must have a no annual fee card, a good choice is the Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®.
Tip #2: Go for flexibilityI 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® Card 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® Card, 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 expireWorking 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® Card 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 programsYour 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
- Delta SkyMiles
- United MileagePlus
- Hilton Honors Rewards
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 neededOnce 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 categoriesTravel 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® Card, earns 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases worldwide. You could earn much more travel rewards if you find another card that earns in different categories like gas or groceries too.
Personal + business cardsA 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® line of cards to supplement my Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card spending. The Ink Plus® 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 cardsYou 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:
- Delta Skymiles
Add a no annual fee cardAs 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 Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®. This card does not have an annual fee and earns 2X points on travel and dining just like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. 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 Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® with no annual fee is a great option to boost your rewards with no additional cost or commitment.
Bringing it all togetherIf 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:
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!
- 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