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The prospect of earning free travel through credit card rewards is an exciting one. But with so many different types of travel credit cards on the market, it’s generally not a good idea to apply for the first offer you see.
That’s because travel credit cards are often highly specialized. So, it’s important to consider a few things about your credit, spending habits, travel plans, and more before you apply for one.
This guide can help walk you through those questions to help you find the right card for you.
What are travel rewards?
There are many different types of credit card rewards, but travel rewards are specifically designed to help you earn free or mostly free travel.
There are three types of travel rewards, depending on which credit card you get: general travel rewards, hotel rewards, and airline rewards.
General travel rewards
Many credit card issuers offer travel credit cards that use the issuer’s proprietary travel rewards program. Depending on the program, you may have more or less flexibility when redeeming your points or miles.
With the Capital One(R) Venture(R) Rewards Credit Card, for instance, you can redeem your miles as a statement credit against just about any travel purchase.
Most, if not all, major hotel brands have one or more credit cards that allow you to rack up loyalty points with that hotel chain.
Depending on the hotel rewards program, you may have the option to redeem your points for other things like gift cards and airfare. But you’ll typically always get the best value by redeeming them for free nights.
Hotel credit cards tend to offer fringe benefits on top of their rewards programs, such as elite status with the hotel brand and a free night stay every time you renew and pay your annual fee.
Just about every airline has one or more co-branded cards that make it easy to earn miles or points with your everyday purchases.
Like hotel rewards programs, some frequent flyer programs offer several ways to redeem your points. But you’ll almost always get the best redemption rate if you use them to book free flights.
In addition to a rewards program, airline credit cards often provide cardholders with perks specific to that airline. Common benefits include priority boarding, a free checked bag for you an others on your itinerary and discounts on in-flight purchases.
Who should (and shouldn’t) use travel rewards?
A travel rewards credit card is a great choice whether you travel frequently or only once or twice a year. But there are some drawbacks to consider before you pick one.
For example, while many travel credit cards allow you to redeem your points or miles for cash back, they’re typically at a terrible redemption rate. So, if you’re looking for a card that will give you rewards you can use on travel and everything else, you may be better off with a cash back credit card.
Also, many travel credit cards charge annual fees. And while they often offer enough benefits to make up for the fee, it’s typically not worth it if you don’t use those benefits enough to do so. There are, of course, some no-annual-fee travel cards. But they don’t usually offer big sign-up bonuses or a lot of extra benefits.
How to evaluate travel rewards credit cards
If you’re not sure what type of travel credit card to get, there are a few things you should consider.
Most travel credit cards are designed for people with good or excellent credit. This means that if you have bad or fair credit, you may not be able to get any of the decent travel cards available.
Most travel rewards credit cards offer bonus rewards on certain purchases, but some offer a high rewards rate on all purchases you make.
As you compare various travel cards, consider where you spend most of your money. If your top spending categories align with bonus rewards categories a card offers, it may be easier to rack up rewards with that card than with others.
But if your spending doesn’t specifically align with any card, you may be better off with a card that offers a high rewards rate on everything.
While sign-up bonuses and rewards are typically the most heavily marketed features of credit cards, it’s important to look beyond them. Depending on how you travel, one credit card’s perks may be better for you than another’s.
For example, if you spend a lot of time in hotels, it may be worth it to have a hotel credit card that offers elite status that includes room upgrades, better Wi-Fi and other perks. Or if you have a large family, you may benefit from an airline credit card that offers free checked bags for you and several others on your itinerary.
As you shop around, look at each credit card as a whole to determine how much value you can get out of it.
There’s no best credit card out there for everyone because every person is unique in their needs and desires. As you look at different travel credit cards, consider what you want most out of the card.
If it’s no annual fee, go with a card that doesn’t charge one. If it’s a massive sign-up bonus, focus on that in your search. Keep in mind that it’s possible that there’s no credit card out there that gives you everything you want. In this situation, it may be worth getting more than one card to achieve your travel goals.
Credit cards with the best travel rewards
There are countless travel rewards credit cards on the market today. And while there’s no single best card out there for everyone, there are some that stand above the rest with their rewards programs and other perks.
Chase Sapphire Preferred(R) Card
- Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $625 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
- Chase Sapphire Preferred named "Best Credit Card for Flexible Travel Redemption" - Kiplinger's Personal Finance, June 2018
- 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
- No foreign transaction fees
- 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
- Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 50,000 points are worth $625 toward travel
- No blackout dates or travel restrictions - as long as there's a seat on the flight, you can book it through Chase Ultimate Rewards
- See additional Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card details
|Regular APR||Annual Fee|
|N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||18.24% - 25.24% Variable||$0 Intro for the First Year, then $95|
The Chase Sapphire Preferred(R) Card is one of the best travel credit cards out there for several reasons. For starters, it offers a sign-up bonus of 50,000 points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months. If you redeem those points for travel through Chase, they’re worth $625.
You’ll also earn 2 points per dollar spent on travel and dining, and 1 point per dollar spent elsewhere. Every time you redeem those points for travel through Chase, you’ll get a 25 percent value boost. But you can also transfer them to one of Chase’s airline and hotel partners.
Discover it(R) Miles
- INTRO OFFER: Discover will match ALL the Miles you've earned at the end of your first year, automatically. For example, if you earn 30,000 Miles, you get 60,000 Miles. That's $600 towards travel!
- Earn unlimited 1.5x Miles for every dollar spent on all purchases all with no annual fee.
- No Blackout Dates - fly any airline, stay at any hotel.
- Redeem your Miles as a statement credit towards travel purchases.
- Freeze your account in seconds with an on/off switch either on the mobile app or website to prevent new purchases, cash advances, and balance transfers.
- Get your free Credit Scorecard with your FICO® Credit Score, number of recent inquiries and more.
- Receive FREE Social Security number alerts-Discover will monitor thousands of risky websites when you sign up.
- No Annual Fee.
- See additional Discover it® Miles details
|Regular APR||Annual Fee|
|0%||14 months||10.99%||14 months||14.24% - 25.24% Variable||$0|
If you’re concerned about having an annual fee, the Discover it(R) Miles is the card for you. It has no annual fee but still offers rewards. You can earn unlimited 1.5x Miles for every dollar spent on all purchases.
Plus, at the end of your first year as an account holder, Discover will match your rewards—effectively doubling your rewards that first year.
Capital One(R) Venture(R) Rewards Credit Card
- Enjoy a one-time bonus of 50,000 miles once you spend $3,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $500 in travel
- Earn 2X miles on every purchase, every day. Plus earn 10X miles on thousands of hotels, through January 2020; learn more at hotels.com/venture
- Named ‘The Best Travel Card' by CNBC, 2018
- View Capital One(R) Venture(R) Rewards Credit Card details and how to apply »
If you want to choose how you book your travel, the Capital One(R) Venture(R) Rewards Credit Card has you covered. Simply use your card to book travel anywhere then redeem your miles for a full or partial statement credit against the purchase.
When you first get the card, you’ll earn 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in the first three months. You’ll also get unlimited 2 miles per dollar spent on all of your purchases, plus 10 miles per dollar on hotel stays booked through hotels.com/venture.
Bank of America(R) Travel Rewards credit card
- Earn unlimited 1.5 points per $1 spent on all purchases, with no annual fee and no foreign transaction fees and your points don't expire
- 25,000 online bonus points if you make at least $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days of account opening - that can be a $250 statement credit toward travel purchases
- Use your card to book your trip how and where you want – you’re not limited to specific websites with blackout dates or restrictions
- Redeem points for a statement credit to pay for flights, hotels, vacation packages, cruises, rental cars, or baggage fees
- Comes with chip technology for enhanced security and protection at chip-enabled terminals
- 0% Introductory APR for 12 billing cycles for purchases, then 17.24% - 25.24% Variable APR
- Get an additional 10% customer points bonus on every purchase when you have an active Bank of America® checking or savings account
- If you’re a Preferred Rewards client, you can increase that bonus to 25% - 75%
- See additional Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card details
|Regular APR||Annual Fee|
|0% Introductory APR on purchases||12 billing cycles||N/A||N/A||17.24% - 25.24% Variable APR on purchases and balance transfers||$0|
If your top priority is to avoid an annual fee, the Bank of America(R) Travel Rewards credit card is your best bet. The card offers 1.5 points per dollar spent and double that when you use it for non-insurance purchases through the Bank of America Travel Center.
You’ll also get 25,000 bonus points after you spend $1,000 in the first 90 days—that’s worth $250 in free travel. Like the Capital One(R) Venture(R) Rewards Credit Card, you can use your points to get statement credits against travel purchases.
FAQs about travel rewards credit cards
Travel rewards can get complicated, so it’s possible that you still have questions that have gone unanswered. Here’s a handful to help you better understand how travel credit cards work.
What’s the difference between points and miles?
Miles used to be specific to frequent flyer programs, but now they’re used by some rewards program simply as another name for points. There’s no relation to the actual measurement of a mile.
How do I know if an annual fee is worth it?
Depending on the card, it can be easy or hard to know whether its annual fee is worth it. If it has a $500 sign-up bonus and a $95 annual fee, for instance, you know that the sign-up bonus covers five years’ worth of the fee.
If the card has benefits or perks that you can’t assign a value to, consider how valuable it is to you. For example, you may not choose to pay for airport lounge access. But if you had a card that offered it for free, the convenience and comfort lounges offer could be worth paying an annual fee.
Do my rewards expire?
It depends on the rewards program you have. Many general travel rewards programs don’t have an expiration date, as long as you keep your account open and in good standing. If you cancel the account, though, you’ll likely forfeit your rewards.
With hotel and airline programs, there’s typically an expiration date. But it’s not tied to your credit card activity, so you don’t have to worry about losing them if you cancel your account.
How do I know how much a point or mile is worth?
With some general travel rewards cards, valuing your points or miles is simple. Venture Miles, for instance, are worth 1 cent apiece when you redeem them for travel. The same goes for Bank of America cards.
But with Chase Ultimate Rewards points and hotel and airline cards, things can get complicated real quick. With these cards, it generally depends on how and when you redeem your rewards. This means you may need to run some numbers to determine how much value you’re getting out of a redemption.
What if I decide I can’t afford the annual fee?
Depending on the card issuer, you may be able to downgrade the card to a version with no annual fee. If that’s not an option, you can close the account. That said, it’s best to determine whether you can afford an annual fee before you apply, so you don’t have to make this decision later on.
Travel credit cards can be incredibly rewarding, but it takes a lot of time and effort to find the right one for you.
If you’re considering a travel rewards card, it’s essential that you do your due diligence to understand what you’re getting and how to squeeze as much value out of a card as possible.