The best travel rewards credit cards of September 2020

 

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The best travel rewards credit cards:

  • Best overall: Chase Sapphire Preferred Card
  • Best travel card with a high annual fee: Chase Sapphire Reserve
  • Best for beginners: Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card
  • Best for luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
  • Best for dining rewards and benefits: American Express® Gold Card
  • Our favorite airline card: Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card
  • Our favorite hotel card: Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card

While it takes more work to use points or miles compared to cash back, the upside is that you can get much more value for your points compared to receiving cash back. For example, Business Insider's David Slotnick got almost 6 cents per point when he used Chase Ultimate Rewards to book a first-class flight to Japan.

In this guide, we're focusing on the best travel credit cards that earn transferable points — points such as American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards that you can transfer to airline and hotel loyalty programs. Airline and hotel co-branded credit cards can make sense if you travel frequently and are loyal to a particular brand, but if your main goal is to earn as many rewards as possible on your spending and have lots of options for using your points, cards that earn transferable points are the best option.

  • How our list compares to other publications
  • The best travel credit cards
  • Other top credit cards that just missed the cut
  • Frequently asked questions
  • The experts' advice on choosing the best travel credit card for you

Our expert panel for this guide

We consulted top credit card experts as well as a certified financial planner for advice on the top travel credit cards. Their input informed our picks for the best cards, and you can find a full transcript of our interviews with each of them at the bottom of this page.

We're focused here on the rewards and perks that come with each card. These cards won't be worth it if you're paying interest or late fees. When using a credit card, it's important to pay your balance in full each month, make payments on time, and only spend what you can afford to pay.

How our list compares to other publications

Getting a new credit card is a deeply personal decision, and it rightfully involves a good amount of research. In addition to drawing from Personal Finance Insider's expert editors, writers, and sources, we've cross-referenced our top travel rewards card recommendations with other top publications. See how our list compares:

 Personal Finance InsiderNerdWalletThe Points Guy
Chase Sapphire Preferred
Chase Sapphire Reserve
Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card
Platinum Card
Amex Gold Card
Amex Green Card  

The best travel credit cards

Best overall:

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Chase Chase Sapphire Preferred® CardChase Chase Sapphire Reserve®Capital One Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit CardAmerican Express The Platinum Card® from American ExpressAmerican Express American Express® Gold Card

Annual Fee
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    Annual Fee

    $250

    Regular APR

    See Rates and Fees

    Credit Score

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    Featured Reward

    35,000 points after you spend at least $4,000 in your first 3 months of account openingChevron iconIt indicates an expandable section or menu, or sometimes previous / next navigation options.

  • Details
  • Pros & Cons
    • Earn 4X Membership Rewards® points when you dine at restaurants worldwide. Earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X). Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
    • Earn up to a total of $10 in statement credits monthly when you pay with the Gold Card at Grubhub, Seamless, The Cheesecake Factory, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Boxed, and participating Shake Shack locations. This can be an annual savings of up to $120. Enrollment required.
    • $100 Airline Fee Credit: up to $100 in statement credits per calendar year for incidental fees at one selected qualifying airline.
    • Choose to carry a balance with interest on eligible charges of $100 or more.
    • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
    • Annual Fee is $250.
    • Terms Apply
    Pros
    • Great rewards for dining and for shopping at US supermarkets
    • Monthly statement credit for eligible dining purchases recoups some of the annual fee
    Cons
    • Underwhelming welcome bonus
    • Annual airline fee statement credit comes with many restrictions

     

    The American Express® Gold Card is an ideal travel rewards card for anyone who frequently eats out and/or shops at US supermarkets. You'll earn 4x Membership Rewards points on these purchases (though note the $25,000 calendar year annual cap for US supermarkets; after that, you'll earn just 1 point per dollar, but that's a pretty high cap). The card also earns 3x points on flights booked directly with the airlines or through AmexTravel.com, and 1 point per dollar on everything else.

    While the $250 annual fee is on the high side, you can offset it by up to $220 thanks to two annual statement credits. You get up to $100 in airline incidental fee credits (it's the same deal as with the Amex Platinum, where you have to select one airline) that you can use to cover baggage fees, in-flight purchases, ticket changes, and more. 

    You also get up to $120 in annual dining credits, but it's divided into up to $10 in credits each month, and the credit only applies at the following restaurants and delivery services: Grubhub, Seamless, The Cheesecake Factory, Ruth's Chris Steak House, Boxed, and participating Shake Shack locations.

    What the experts love: "4x points on restaurants and at US supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per year, then 1x) is great — usually a card favors one or the other," says Rathner. Plus, the card offers monthly dining credits.

    What the experts don't love: Wilson notes that other cards offer similar benefits for a lower annual fee, and Rathner notes that the card's travel and dining credits come with some important limitations — so read the fine print. 

    Read more about the Amex Gold card:

    • Amex Gold card review
    • Amex Platinum versus the Amex Gold card

    Other top credit cards that just missed the cut

    Our list of the best travel rewards credit cards contains our very top picks, but there are dozens of other travel credit cards out there. Here are some cards that almost made the cut, along with why we opted to leave them off our final list.

    • American Express® Green Card — This card earns 3x points on travel and dining and has a moderate $150 annual fee. The points earning is great, but the welcome bonus isn't anything to rave about, and the card's statement credits for CLEAR and LoungeBuddy aren't easy for everyone to use.
    • Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card — If you want to earn travel rewards without an annual fee, this card is worth considering. Says NerdWallet's Sara Rathner, "It doesn't have the same high rewards earning rate as cards that charge fees, but there's a valuable sign-up bonus and easy redemptions."

    Frequently asked questions

    How did we choose the best travel credit cards?

    Personal Finance Insider evaluated dozens of travel rewards credit cards currently available to new applicants and narrowed down the list to the best options based on the following factors:

    • Sign-up bonus — do new cardholders get a valuable incentive to sign up and meet a minimum spending requirement?
    • Ongoing rewards — how many points or miles you earn on your purchases
    • Benefits — beyond rewards, does the card offer valuable perks such as statement credits for travel, primary car rental insurance, and airport lounge access?
    • Annual fee
    • Overall value — does the card justify its annual fee by offering useful benefits and valuable rewards, and is it worth it?

    What is the best travel rewards card?

    We think the Chase Sapphire Reserve® is the best overall travel rewards card, but the best card for your particular situation will depend on what benefits you care about the most, as well as how you feel about paying a high annual fee. You don't need to spend $550 a year for a great travel rewards card; there are great options under $100 as well.

    We'd recommend opening a travel rewards card that earns Amex or Chase points, since these are among the easiest rewards to redeem and you have various travel partners to utilize. But if you've investigated your options and are confident that you can get value out of their rewards, cards that earn Capital One miles or Citi ThankYou points can make sense as well.

    What are the different types of travel credit cards?

    There are two main types of travel rewards cards:

    • Cards that earn transferable points: Transferable points are generally bank rewards that you can move over to travel partners. Transferable points currencies include Amex Membership Rewards points, Capital One miles, Chase Ultimate Rewards points, Citi ThankYou points, and Marriott Bonvoy points (which transfer to more than 40 airline partners).
    • Airline and hotel co-branded cards: These cards earn points or miles within a respective hotel or airline program; you don't have the option to redeem your rewards with a wide variety of travel partners (or if you do, the transfer ratio usually isn't great). See our guide to the best airline credit cards, as well as our guide to the best hotel credit cards.

    How do I pick a travel credit card?

    There are a few different things you'll want to evaluate when deciding on the right travel rewards card for you:

    • Sign-up bonus — Is this card offering an attractive intro bonus to new cardholders? 
    • Bonus categories — Does the card earn you bonus rewards on your most common purchases, such as dining out or travel?
    • Ease of use — How easy is it to use your points? A travel rewards card can offer all the points in the world, but if the options for using them aren't convenient for you, chances are you'll be leaving value on the table. Make sure you research your options for redeeming rewards with a travel credit cards before you apply. That means taking a look at the rewards program's travel partners, as well as your options for using rewards to book travel directly through the credit card issuer's website.
    • Perks — The more benefits a credit card has, the higher its annual fee tends to be. So you'll want to make sure you'll be able to utilize most of its perks, such as annual statement credits, airport lounge access, and complimentary elite status.
    • Annual fee — If you don't want to pay a high annual fee, you can rule several travel rewards cards out. Luckily, though, you still have some great options under $100.

    Are annual fees worth it?

    Travel rewards cards with annual fees are worth it if you're able to get significant value out of their benefits and rewards. Before you apply for a card, make sure you'll actually use all the features that contribute to the card's annual fee. For example, if a card offers an annual statement credit of up to $200 toward travel but you can't use it, you're probably not getting what you pay for.

    How do travel rewards cards work?

    Travel rewards cards earn you points (or miles) on every purchase you make, with the goal of helping you earn enough rewards to book free travel. The best travel rewards cards earn points that can be transferred to various airline and hotel partners — like Amex, Chase, or Citi points. 

    How do I get a free flight?

    Applying for a travel rewards credit card and earning its welcome bonus is a great way to work toward a free flight. Domestic award flights in economy typically require about 25,000 points, so depending on the welcome bonus, you could have enough rewards for a flight right out of the gate. 

    The experts' advice on choosing the best travel credit card for you

    We interviewed a certified financial planner and three credit card and travel experts about what makes a good travel credit card. Their feedback informed our list of cards, and you can find the full text of our interviews below.

    What features make a travel rewards credit card good?

    Sara Rathner, travel and credit cards expert at NerdWallet:

    Generous ongoing rewards on common spending categories is something I look for, because a sign-up bonus, while lucrative, can only get you so far. NerdWallet's 2019 Travel Credit Card Study found that a 50,000-point bonus can cover about 1.6 flights, depending on where and when you travel. If you want to offset a trip in a more major way, you need opportunities to earn more.

    Easy redemptions are also really important. No one wants to navigate a maze of rules and restrictions. Those points are yours, so you should be able to spend them without sweating the details.

    Luis Rosa, certified financial planner:

    Airport lounge access, a statement credit toward Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, and a significant bonus point incentive during the first couple of months.

    Sarah Silbert, credit cards editor at Personal Finance insider:

    It needs to offer benefits that are useful for you, so it ultimately depends on how you travel and what perks you value. But a few key things to look for are a high welcome bonus, strong bonus rewards in your top spending categories, trip protection such as trip cancellation insurance, and no foreign transaction fees. Good premium travel credit cards should offer higher-end benefits such as airport lounge access and annual travel credits as well.

    Benét Wilson, credit cards editor at The Points Guy: 

    They're a great way to earn rewards that allow you to travel the world for less money — or practically for free. All you have to do is use a travel credit card to buy the same items you'd otherwise buy with cash or a debit card, but make sure you pay it off every month. With some travel credit cards, you can also get great travel perks, from airport lounge access and hotel elite status to free airline companion certificates and discounts or credits on travel purchases. You often get more value from points than from cash back.

    How can someone decide whether a travel credit card is a good fit for them?

    Sara Rathner, NerdWallet:

    You always want to make sure that the value you get out of a card each year exceeds the cost of holding onto it. From there, make sure the card's other benefits are relevant to you — for example, a credit toward a Clear membership isn't useful if your local airport doesn't participate in the Clear program.

    Luis Rosa, CFP:

    I recommend looking at the sign-up bonuses and also the rewards on non-travel related purchases. Right now you might not be traveling much, but you want a card that'll provide you with enough rewards on non-travel purchases so that you can take advantage once you resume traveling as usual post-COVID-19. 

    Sarah Silbert, Personal Finance Insider:

    It's all about how the card's benefits and rewards align with your lifestyle. For example, if you spend a lot on dining, you should look for a card that offers bonus points on those purchases. For cards with annual fees, it'll only be worth it if you actually take advantage of the premium benefits. Additionally, make sure the points you're earning are the best type of rewards for you. Chase Ultimate Rewards points are my personal favorite since I can redeem them for travel through Chase or with my favorite travel partners including Hyatt and United, and I can also redeem them for groceries and dining through Chase Pay Yourself Back.

    Benét Wilson, The Points Guy:

    You need to ask some questions. Do you plan on using the points and miles you earn on your cards for travel? Are you hoping to use your sign-up bonus for a specific redemption? Are you looking for a card that gives you luxury travel perks? Are you hoping to hit elite status with a certain hotel brand or airline? Are you a casual traveler or a frequent flyer? What spending categories will be most beneficial to you? 

    For example, if you want a card to help you hit elite status with United Airlines while giving you elite-like perks, then consider applying for a United credit card. Chase's United co-branded cards give you perks such as lounge access, free checked bags, and priority boarding.

    However, if you only fly occasionally or you're not loyal to one airline, a flexible travel credit card that doesn't offer perks on any one airline but earns points or miles that can be redeemed on a variety of airlines — like the Chase Sapphire Preferred — might be a better choice. 

    If you're a road warrior who flies every week, you'll want to think about a premium travel credit card that offers lots of perks to make your travels smoother, such as the Amex Platinum, which comes with airport lounge access and hotel elite status.

    Is there anything else that you think is important to note when it comes to picking a travel credit card?

    Sara Rathner, NerdWallet:

    Depending on how often you travel, you may get more value out of a cash-back credit card. A NerdWallet study found that travelers who spend more than $8,600 in travel per year, or take at least one international trip per year, get the most out of travel cards. If that doesn't sound like you, there are other rewarding cards available.

    Luis Rosa, CFP:

    Don't necessarily be afraid of the annual fee. Cards with annual fees can have enough perks to make them worth it.

    Sarah Silbert, Personal Finance Insider:

    There are so many great travel credit cards available that it can be tempting to sign up for several and earn their welcome bonuses, but don't bite off more than you can chew. Start slow with one rewards cards, get a feel for its perks and rewards, and adjust your credit card strategy as needed if you want additional benefits or aren't finding the annual fee to be worth it.

    Benét Wilson, The Points Guy:

    All covered above!

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