Airline cards, hotel cards, travel rewards cards… frequent travelers have many options when choosing a new card. While some travel cards offer redemption options like gift cards, merchandise, etc., you’ll usually get the most favorable redemption rate when redeeming points for travel. Some travel cards also offer a higher rewards rate on travel-related purchases.
The best travel credit cards meet one or more of the following criteria:
- An attractive rewards rate of 1.5X points per dollar (or greater)
- A significant signup bonus
- Travel perks for cardmembers, like seat or room upgrades, or free in-flight Wi-Fi
- Flexible points redemption
- Redemption bonuses
Take our top pick, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. It’s consistently at the top of our list because it offers 2X points on travel and dining (that will come in handy for your next trip!) and boasts one of the most impressive signup bonuses available today.
Our top travel rewards credit cards for 2017
With this card, you’ll enjoy access to the popular Chase Ultimate Rewards program, with 1:1 points transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs. For even greater rewards potential, consider pairing the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card with the Chase Freedom®. (Points are transferrable between the two, and the Chase Freedom® gives you 5% cash back in rotating bonus categories.)
Our next recommendation, the Discover it® Miles – Unlimited 1.5x Rewards Card, is a relatively new travel credit card option. While it offers 1.5X miles per dollar (a bit lower than the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card’s 2X points), you’ll get that rate on every purchase you make on the card.
Plus, you’ll get a nice bonus: Discover will match any miles you’ve earned at the end of your first year. That’s a pretty unique offer that could go a long way toward helping you earn free travel!
Not sure which card fits your needs best? Browse our top picks to find your ideal card, and apply online in minutes.
The Simple Dollar’s Best Travel Credit Cards of 2017
- Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
Best Travel Credit Card
- Discover it® Miles – Unlimited 1.5x Rewards Card
Best No Annual Fee Travel Credit Card
- Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®
Best Fixed-Value Travel Credit Card
- BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Credit Card
Best BofA Credit Card
- Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card
Best Airline Credit Card
- Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express
Best Hotel Credit Card
Our Favorite Travel Credit Card
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
For frequent travelers, it’s tough to find a card that’s more well-rounded than the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. Cardmembers earn 2X points per dollar on travel and at restaurants worldwide (plus 1X points on other purchases), but the rewards potential is just the beginning. Since you’ll get a 25% points bonus when you redeem for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards℠, the 50,000 point signup bonus is worth $625 toward your next trip (as long as you book through the rewards portal).
This card also boasts extremely flexible rewards redemption. Cardmembers can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards℠ points 1:1 to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs, like Marriott Rewards® and United MileagePlus®. For that reason, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card (rather than a more specific airline or hotel card) is the best fit for most people. That flexibility — combined with the large signup bonus and rewards potential — is well worth the $95 annual fee (which is waived for your first year).
Traveling abroad? Bring the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card along for the ride. It features $0 foreign transaction fees to help you get the best exchange rate on every purchase you make. And because this card is backed by Visa, it will be accepted almost anywhere.
How To Use It
- Use this card for everyday purchases to earn 1 point per dollar.
- Use this card especially while traveling and dining to earn 2 points per dollar.
- Consider pairing with a card with rotating bonus categories like Chase Freedom®. Points are transferrable between Chase cards.
- Get 25% more points value when you book travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards℠.
Best No Annual Fee Travel Credit Cards
Discover it® Miles – Unlimited 1.5x Rewards Card
Want to earn travel rewards without tracking spending in certain categories? If so, the Discover it® Miles – Unlimited 1.5x Rewards Card could be just the ticket. While many cards offer high rewards rates on certain types of purchases, this card makes earning rewards very straightforward, with 1.5X miles per dollar on every purchase, every day. Its lack of an annual fee makes it an even more low-maintenance option.
The Discover it® Miles – Unlimited 1.5x Rewards Card also features a unique first-year rewards bonus. At the end of your first year, Discover will match any miles you’ve earned, doubling your travel rewards automatically. Put another way, with Discover Match® program, you’ll essentially earn 3X miles per dollar instead of 1.5X. (Of course, you’ll have to wait a year to get the bonus — but those additional miles will go a long way toward a free trip!)
How To Use It
- Unlimited 1.5x rewards on every purchase, every day. For every $1 you spend, you earn 1.5x Miles.
- Get a mile-for-mile match of all the rewards you’ve earned at the end of your first year, automatically.
- Redeem your rewards in any amount for cash or a travel credit. You’ll always get $1 for every 100 Miles you’ve earned.
- Get your FICO® Credit Score for free on monthly statements, on mobile and online.
- 100% U.S. based customer service. Talk to a real person any time.
- No Annual Fee.
- Click "APPLY NOW" to see rates, rewards, FICO® Credit Score terms, Discover Match® details & other information.
- Earn unlimited 1.5x rewards on every purchase, every day. For every $1 you spend, you earn 1.5x Miles.
- Redeem your points for travel purchased with your Discover it® Miles – Unlimited 1.5x Rewards Card, or get a cash back statement credit ($1 for every 100 Miles).
Best Fixed-Value Travel Credit Card
Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®
The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card gets a lot of attention for its rewards structure and flexible redemption options. But the Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® has a lot to offer, too. With this card, you’ll also earn 2X points per dollar — but you’ll get them on every purchase, not just on travel and at restaurants. This flat rewards structure is very convenient and is popular with travelers who’d prefer not to track their spending in select bonus categories.
And its rewards redemption is flexible in a different way. Instead of booking travel through a rewards portal or transferring points to a loyalty program, the points you earn with the Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® are good for a travel credit.
That means you can book the itinerary of your choice, regardless of the airline or hotel you choose — then pay yourself back with a statement credit. With this card, you can even book your trip through a discount travel site like Expedia or Travelocity to stretch your rewards even further.
Don’t want to redeem your rewards for travel? Other redemption options include merchandise and gift cards — but keep in mind you’ll get the best redemption rate for travel. (Travel redemption rate is one cent per point, while redemption for gift cards, etc. is closer to one half-cent per point.) Make the most of your rewards points by redeeming them for travel statement credits.
How To Use It
- Use this card for all of your everyday purchases to earn 2x miles.
- Transfer balances from other credit cards to get 0% introductory APR for 12 months.
- Redeem for travel or cash back statement credits, gift cards and merchandise (redemption values vary).
Best BofA Credit Card
BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Credit Card
The BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Credit Card is a newer addition to our shortlist. It’s notable for its rewards potential, which is pretty exceptional for a card without an annual fee. Unlimited 1.5X points per dollar spent on all purchases means you won’t need to track spending in certain rewards categories — or try to hit certain spending benchmarks to justify an annual fee. You’ll simply earn flat-rate rewards on every purchase you make with the card. You’ll also get 3X points on purchases you make in the Travel Center. Many cards out there offering a similar rewards structure charge an annual fee for rewards like this.
This card is an even stronger contender for current Bank of America® customers. If you have an eligible Bank of America® or Merrill Lynch account, you’ll enjoy a 10% bonus on each purchase. That’ll make the rewards stack up even faster.
Additionally, because points are redeemable for a travel statement credit, you won’t have to contend with blackout dates or travel restrictions when you’re booking a trip. Simply book your desired itinerary with the airline, hotel chain, etc. of your choice, then reimburse yourself with a travel statement credit. (You will have to pay for the trip up front; if this is a drawback for you, consider a card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, which will allow you to book trips with points directly.)
How To Use It
- Use this card to make all of your everyday purchases and earn 1.5 points for each dollar you spend.
- Redeem points for a statement credit to pay for flights, hotels, vacation packages, cruises, rental cars, or baggage fees.
Best Airline Credit Card
Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card
The Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card is ideal for people who 1) travel frequently and 2) always book flights with Southwest. That’s because you’ll earn 2X points on Southwest® and eligible Rapid Rewards® purchases (plus 1X points on other purchases). This card also offers Southwest-specific perks, like free checked bags. (That perk will save a family of four about $200 per trip!)
Another important note: because the Rapid Rewards® program is fare-based, choosing your travel dates strategically and booking during Southwest fare sales can help you stretch your points as far as possible. There are no blackout dates for rewards redemption, so if you start booking your trip far enough in advance, you’ll have a good chance of booking the itinerary you want!
Note: points you earn with the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card transfer 1:1 to Southwest Rapid Rewards®. Consider pairing the two cards to combine the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card’s flexibility with this card’s Southwest-specific perks!
How To Use It
- Use this card to make everyday purchases (1X points) and when buying travel with Southwest Airlines or Rapid Rewards® Hotel and Car Rental partners (2X points).
- Redeem your travel rewards when you book a flight with Southwest airlines or book travel with Rapid Rewards® Hotel and Car Rental partners.
- Consider pairing this card with the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. Chase Ultimate Rewards points transfer 1:1 to Southwest, so you can earn free trips even faster.
Best Hotel Credit Card
Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express
If you love staying at Starwood properties and/or flying with Delta, this card boasts significant rewards potential with many flexible redemption options. If you choose the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express, you’ll earn 2 Starpoints® per dollar on eligible purchases spent at participating SPG® & Marriott Rewards® hotels, plus 1 Starpoint per dollar on other purchases.
You can redeem points earned with this card at over 1,300 participating hotels and resorts or for flights with 150+ airlines. You also can transfer points 1:1 to several popular airline programs. And for yet another option, if you pair this card with the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express, Skymiles and Starpoints are transferrable via the Crossover Rewards™ program. That level of flexibility is rare among hotel cards (and airline cards!), and it makes the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express really stand out from the crowd.
How To Use It
- Use this card for everyday purchases (1X Starpoints) and at Starwood hotels and resorts (2X Starpoints).
- Redeem your Starpoints® for stays at participating SPG® & Marriott Rewards® hotels and resorts, or to book flights with participating airlines.
- Consider pairing this card with the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express. Skymiles and Starpoints are transferable between accounts via the Crossover Rewards™ program, so you can earn rewards even faster.
Best Travel Credit Cards: Summed Up
|Travel Credit Card||Best For…|
|1||Discover it® Miles – Unlimited 1.5x Rewards Card||No Annual Fee Travel Credit Card|
|2||Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card||Travel Credit Card|
|3||Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®||Fixed-Value Travel Credit Card|
|4||BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Credit Card||BofA Credit Card|
|5||Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card||Airline Credit Card|
|6||Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express||Hotel Credit Card|
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® 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™ World MasterCard® has the same structure — 2% rewards on travel booked through Barclaycard and 2% on dining.
Sign-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.
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® 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.
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® 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.
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.
Resources for Frequent Travelers
Once you master the art of credit card rewards, you might be tempted to trot all over the globe and never look back. However, it’s crucial that you understand not only how credit card rewards work, but how to protect yourself while you travel. The following resources can help you maximize travel rewards while also protecting yourself from financial losses.
Using a Travel Credit Card to Save Money
Not only do travel credit cards offer perks that can help make travel easier and safer, but most offer certain types of rewards that you can redeem for free hotel stays, airfare, or cash back. And that’s what most people have trouble understanding. If you know how to use them, travel credit cards can actually save you money.
Here are some features of travel credit cards that help you save money:
- Opportunities to earn points you can use to pay for travel
- Flexible choices for redeeming points across travel networks
- Travel insurance and extra protections
- Concierge services
- No foreign transaction fees
- Large sign-up bonus incentives
5 Steps to Use Credit Cards to Save Money on Travel
Step 1: Learn about the different types of travel credit cards available. The good news is, you’re in the right place to start your research. Cards and their benefits differ, so you need a good comparison site. For instance, if you’re more interested in free hotel stays than airfare, look for a hotel credit card that offers rewards specific to a hotel loyalty program at a chain you like. Or if you want more flexibility with your rewards, look into cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. Make sure you understand how the rewards program works before you choose to sign up.
Step 2: Meet the minimum spending requirement. Most travel rewards cards offer a sign-up bonus to customers who can meet a minimum spending requirement during a specific timeframe, usually around three months. A typical sign-up bonus is worth $300-$500, and a typical minimum spending requirement is between $1,500 and $3,000 within the first three-month period. For most families, this is attainable — and even if you never charge another dollar after this, you’ll still receive the bonus.
Step 3: Use your card for everyday spending. In order to earn as many rewards as possible, you’ll want to use your card for all of your everyday expenses. Use it for groceries, gas, insurance, miscellaneous expenses, and anything else that you would be purchasing anyway. No matter what, always pay your balance in full in order to avoid paying interest.
Step 4: Use your rewards to pay for travel you were going to book anyway. Here’s where the savings come into play. Once you’ve earned a considerable amount of rewards, use them to book travel you planned to book regardless. Using your points for free hotel stays or airfare helps you save on the total cost of your trip.
Step 5: When traveling abroad, use a card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. Most credit cards charge a foreign transaction fee, usually around 3%, on purchases made in another country. However, the best travel cards waive this fee, and this feature can save a considerable amount of money when you travel internationally.
If you want to save as much money on travel as possible, it helps to have a rough idea of where you plan to go ahead of time. That way you can tailor your strategy to your ideal itinerary. And, as I mentioned above, it is crucial that you never pay interest on your purchases if your goal is saving money. When you choose to carry a balance, the interest you will inevitably pay will likely cancel out any rewards you receive.
How Credit Cards Protect You While You Travel
Decades 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.
For starters, you should determine whether your health insurance will cover you if you need to see a doctor abroad. Since many policies do not cover doctor or hospital visits outside of the country, a medical travel insurance policy might be a good bet. It’s also important to note that Medicare doesn’t cover health care expenses outside of the U.S., although some Medigap policies might. Before you go anywhere, you should always verify whether or not you will have coverage and consider purchasing a policy for your trip if you do not.
Outside of major medical, you may not need to purchase comprehensive travel insurance at all. That’s because certain type of travel credit cards offer certain travel benefits to cardholders. Take the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card 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 Insurance
Before 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 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® Card.
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® 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 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® 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 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
- Delta SkyMiles
- United MileagePlus
- 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® 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 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® 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 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:
- Delta Skymiles
Starwood offers up to 5 points per dollar spent on Starwood properties, which include Westin and W Hotels. I have already pointed out how you can double dip between Delta and Starwood.
Several airline cards are perfect to combine with Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card because you can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points 1:1 to airline miles programs like British Airways, United and Southwest.
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® 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™ 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!