Top Credit Cards for Frequent Flyers
Learn which card is right for your kind of travel and spending habits. Choosing correctly can mean the difference between a free vacation and just plain old card fees.
It's hard to turn on the TV and not see an advertisement for a travel rewards credit card. We love to travel and credit card companies know it, which is why so many airlines have teamed up with banks to issue reward cards for frequent fliers.
At first, it started out easy. The more miles you flew, the better rewards you could get, like free flights and upgrades. But as the offers and industry evolved, and as consumers grew more savvy, airline companies and their credit card partners began to make things more complex.
No longer could you fly X miles and expect X points or credit. Instead, you had to fly with this sort of ticket during this period of time, and so on. In addition, credit card companies and their airline partners made it trickier and trickier to earn those amazing sign-up offers and cash-in points.
Nowadays, there are hundreds of frequent flyer credit card programs for just about every airline in the world. Banks are more than happy to partner with these airlines because if you're flying, you're spending. And credit card companies love spenders (especially, those who don't regularly pay off their monthly balance).
From Chase to American Express to Bank of America, every issuer offers a travel credit card that is usually associated to an airline company or alliance. With so many on the market, it can be hard to decide which one to get. You have to weigh the various awards against complex terms, annual fees, and how many purchases you need to earn flights.
If you choose the wrong card or misread the fine print, you could miss out on opportunities to earn a free vacation and end up paying a lot in fees.
Some credit card reward points are hard to claim or have blackout dates. They might have a high annual fee. Some can only be used on certain airlines, which may have a limited supply of frequent flyer tickets. Or maybe you save miles to pay for a trip, only to find out they've expired or can't be used at Christmas.
What's crazy is that despite the popularity of travel reward cards—with their big sign-up bonuses and sweet deals—many Americans fail to even use the rewards!
In 2011, the loyalty marketing research company Colloquy estimated that a third of reward points go unredeemed every year. Companies issue at least $48 billion in rewards each year; Americans waste $16 billion.
Colloquy also found that 54 percent of Americans are unhappy with travel loyalty program rewards, and 48 percent feel frustrated when trying to redeem rewards.
As travel credit cards proliferate, the award systems have only become more confusing.
A 2013 survey by the Points Guy and the Princeton Group found that 73 percent of Americans with frequent flyer miles don't know how many they have. 59 percent said they didn't know how these programs worked.
The bottom line is that you have to do your research before getting a travel rewards credit card. The best card for you will depend on what kind of traveler you are, where you go, and whether you will make enough purchases to earn points.
It's time to make your credit card work for you, especially if you fly often.
Our tips will help you learn what to look for and how to decide on the best card. Play the system right and you'll save money, travel more comfortably, and earn perks along the way.
We sifted through the offers and decided on our top five picks for travel reward credit cards.
Even if you've never accumulated points or used the wrong card, here's how to find the best card for you.
1. Reasons to get a travel rewards credit card
If you use a credit card for purchases, you may as well earn free travel while doing so. Travel reward cards allow you to rack up airline miles or travel points while spending money on everyday purchases.
Miles or points can be used to buy airplane tickets, hotels, or train tickets, depending on the card.
It is increasingly difficult to accrue miles through actual flights. In the New York Times, Dave Seminara marveled that he earned a mere 2,120 miles for a round-trip flight from Oregon to Australia and Indonesia. They were awarded based on the amount he paid for the ticket, not actual miles flown. Nowadays, the best way to build up miles is through a credit card.
These credit cards also come with other travel-related perks, such as no foreign transaction fees, trip cancellation insurance, free checked bags, and/or airport lounge access.
Most travel cards come with a major sign-up bonus that in some cases cover the cost of a round-trip flight. You could jet to the Caribbean just for using a credit card.
You have to earn that bonus, though, usually by spending a few thousand dollars in the first three months.
If you can't afford to spend that kind of money or won't be able to pay your bill at the end of the month, stop right there.
Travel rewards cards are only worth getting if you can pay off your balance each month. Otherwise, you'll get slammed with high interest rates.
Also keep in mind that most rewards cards come with an annual fee. Given that there are many credit cards out there with no annual fee, the annual fee is only worth it if you take advantage of the rewards.
We chose five cards based on their sign-up bonus, ease of redemption, flexibility, customer reviews, and reasonable annual fee. None charge a foreign transaction fee.
The five best credit cards for frequent flyers
- Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, a flexible rewards card with a generous sign-up bonus.
- Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier Visa Credit Card from Chase, which allows you to easily earn points for free Southwest Airlines trips.
- Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, a flexible rewards card that covers a wide range of travel purchases.
- United MileagePlus Explorer Card from Chase, a great rewards card for international travelers with a valuable sign-up bonus.
- Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard, a flexible rewards card with concierge services and chip-and-PIN capability.
While these cards all offer juicy benefits, they're not perfect for everyone. Consider how you travel before signing up.
2. How travel rewards credit cards are different
There are two kind of travel rewards credit cards: brand affiliated and non-affiliated.
Some are affiliated with a particular airline. They offer airline-specific perks like free checked bags, priority boarding, and discounts on in-flight purchases. To get the most out of these types of cards, you need to fly that specific airline regularly.
Examples of these cards are the United MileagePlus Explorer Card, Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier Visa Credit Card, Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card, Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard, or Gold Delta Skymiles Credit Card from American Express.
Other cards are not associated with a travel company, only a credit card issuer. Their points can be redeemed with many airlines or hotels, and in some cases, on car rental or other forms of transportation. Travelers who are brand agnostic and like to have flexibility should consider this type of card.
Examples of non-affiliated cards are Chase Sapphire Preferred, Capital One Venture Rewards, Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard, the Platinum Card from American Express, and Discover It Miles Travel Card.
Each type of travel rewards card has its own benefits. Here are our top picks from both categories.
3. Best travel card for flexible rewards: Chase Sapphire Preferred card
The Chase Sapphire Preferred card is a great all-around travel rewards card. It is best for domestic or international travelers who like flexibility and are not loyal to a particular airline.
Accepted worldwide, it offers a generous sign-up bonus, flexible point redemption, and no foreign transaction fees. Users earn two points per $1 spent on travel and restaurants, and one point per $1 on all other spending.
Since JPMorgan Chase launched Chase Sapphire Preferred in 2009, experts have praised it as one of the best rewards cards around.
Brian Kelly, aka The Points Guy, says that if you're only going to get one travel credit card, it should be the Chase Sapphire Preferred.
It's "the core card I almost always recommend to friends and family," he writes.
Why? Its hefty 50,000-point sign-up bonus is equivalent to $625 in travel, for starters.
Plus, points can be redeemed on airlines, like British Airways or United, or on hotels, including the Ritz-Carlton and Hyatt. Kelly says that if you milk those travel partners, "you can make out like a bandit."
However, to earn that bonus you have to spend a significant sum: $4,000 on purchases in the first three months.
If you wouldn't normally spend that much money, you should reconsider getting this card, especially if you'll have trouble paying your bill.
After the first year, the annual fee is $95, which easily pays for itself if you make enough purchases to earn points.
The card is targeted to affluent consumers and requires a very good credit score. It charges a very high APR to those with lower scores. A balance transfer costs $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is more.
Should you apply for the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Freedom Unlimited at the same time?
According to The Points Guys, even if you're just starting out, going for these two cards in one sitting shouldn't be a problem. That being said, order matters.
"When it comes to Chase cards, Sapphire Preferred should probably be your first application, since it earns you a very valuable 2 points per dollar on dining purchases and a wide variety of travel spending — equal to a 4.2% return based on TPG's valuations. It also allows you to transfer points to a variety of travel partners.
"As for the Chase Freedom Unlimited card, it makes a good second application because of the high return you'll get on everyday, non-bonus-category spending. The card offers an uncapped 1.5% cash back on all purchases, but as I'll discuss that can equate to 1.5x Ultimate Rewards points per dollar — a great earning rate for a card with no annual fee."
It's crucial you keep Chase's 5/24 rule in mind, though: The bank denies applicants who have opened five or more accounts in the last 24 months.
Apply for the Chase Sapphire Preferred card here
APR 16.74% to 23.74% based on credit score
Annual fee: $0 first year, $95 thereafter
Sign up bonus: 50,000 points after you spend $4,000 in first three months
With its big sign-up bonus and flexible rewards, Chase Sapphire Preferred is a great travel card for frequent flyers.
4. Best airline card for domestic travel: Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier Visa credit card from Chase
Southwest Airlines flies to 90 destinations in the United States, Mexico, and the Caribbean. It has hubs in Chicago, Las Vegas, and Baltimore.
The Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier card is useful for domestic travelers who live near a Southwest hub. Not only can you earn free travel, but it helps make flying more comfortable.
It currently offers an easy-to-earn 60,000 point sign up bonus. Cardholders earn two points per $1 spent on Southwest purchases and with partner hotels and car rental companies. Every year they score another 6,000 bonus points.
For 20 years, Southwest has partnered with JPMorgan Chase, which issues its Rapid Rewards Premier card.
Writing for Good Financial Cents, Holly Johnson says that the Southwest Rapid Rewards card is a particularly good choice for families. She says it's easy to rack up points, and when you do, cheap to redeem. Since points are allocated based on seat prices, you can really cash in during a sale.
"Southwest Airlines is adamant about the fact that they don't limit award seats on single flights, and this is crucial if you have a family in tow.
Each time I fly my family using Southwest Rapid Rewards, I can rest assured there will be at least four award seats waiting for me – as long as the flight isn't sold out! If you have ever dealt with award availability on another airline before, you know what a huge deal this is."
Cardholders also get two free checked bags, and are not charged change fees or foreign transaction fees.
If you make purchases of more than $10,000 annually, you will earn 1,500 Tier Qualifying Points, which can go toward earning A-List Status for priority boarding and other perks. That's something of an empty reward, though, since you need to earn 35,000 TQP each year to make that status.
These benefits come with a $99 annual fee that is not waived the first year. That's probably not worth it if you travel internationally a lot, since Southwest doesn't cross the Atlantic.
Like most rewards cards, the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier card requires very good credit and charges a high APR to those with lower credit scores. But it offers a reasonable balance transfer of $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer.
Is it worth upgrading from the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus card to the Premier card?
The Plus card charges 3% on foreign transactions, so if you travel internationally than you should consider the Premier. However, the Premier card costs $30 more per year.
Apply for the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier card here
APR % 16.74% to 23.74% based on creditworthiness
Annual fee: $99
Sign up bonus: 60,000 bonus points when you spend $2,000 in the first three months.
The Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus card lets you earn miles easily for free, comfortable domestic flights.
5. Best travel card for ease of use: Capital One Venture Rewards credit card
Launched in 2010, the Capital One Venture card is one of the most flexible rewards cards on the market.
Capital One Venture Rewards points can be used at many hotels or on flight purchases. They are not limited to particular brands.
They count toward a range of travel purchases, including things not usually covered by reward cards: train tickets, taxis, buses, bed and breakfasts, and travel agents.
Consumers earn two miles for every $1 spent. Spend $3,000 in the first three months of your membership to get a 40,000 mile bonus, worth $400 in travel.
Since the Capital One card is not tied to a single airline, there are no blackouts. Miles can be used anytime and don't expire.
These perks come with a surprisingly reasonable $59 annual fee, which is waived for the first year.
You can redeem your miles in two ways.
- Use the Capital One Venture card to make purchases directly with the service provider. Then use the Capital One Purchase Eraser to retroactively apply the miles to your purchases.
- Book travel using points online at Capital One's Rewards Center.
It's all very simple, writes Gabi Logan on Reward Expert.
"One of Capital One's biggest selling points is that its rewards are low-stress, and that also comes into play in terms of the value of your redemption.
There is no need to sit on your miles because you are waiting to use them for a big or valuable purchase; Venture Rewards miles always have the same value, no matter what you redeem them for: 1 cent per dollar."
But some experts complain that the rewards aren't as great as the celebrities in TV ads make them seem. Their fixed monetary value means that you don't get special deals through travel partners.
Ben Schlappig, who blogs at One Mile at a Time, says the card's double miles are largely meaningless, since companies measure miles differently.
"55,000 American miles is enough for a one-way Cathay Pacific business class ticket between the US and Asia. 55,000 Capital One miles is enough for up to $550 in travel."
The Capital One Venture card, he says, is "essentially a 2% cash back card, with the catch that you can only redeem the cash back towards travel at that rate."
For a flexible rewards card, Schlappig prefers a card like the Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express, though that comes with a hefty $195 annual fee.
How many Capital One miles do you need for a flight?
It depends. Capital One miles do not correspond with actual airline miles, but are points that can be redeemed toward flights. The 40,000 sign-up bonus is worth $400 in travel. On many airlines, that's enough to buy a round-trip domestic flight. Capital One miles can be used to buy tickets on any airline.
Apply for the Capital One Venture Rewards card here
APR: 13.74%, 18.74% or 23.74% based on creditworthiness
Annual fee: $0 first year, $59 thereafter
Sign up bonus: 40,000 miles when you spend $3,000 in the first three months.
If you want to use your miles on a wide range of travel purchases, the Capital One Venture card is an excellent choice.
6. Best airline card for international travel: United MileagePlus Explorer card from Chase
The United MileagePlus Explorer card is a great airline card for international travelers.
Members can earn 50,000 miles as a sign-up bonus, enough for a round-trip flight from North America to Peru.
Add an authorized user in your first three months for an extra 5,000 miles. Spend $25,000 in a year and you get another 10,000 miles.
Otherwise, you earn two miles per $1 spent on United, and one mile per $1 on other purchases.
United Airlines flies to 337 destinations in 54 countries, from Havana to Hong Kong. It has many direct international flights from hubs like Newark, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
Chase unveiled the United MileagePlus Explorer card in 2011. It has become a popular choice for travelers who live near one of its hubs and travel abroad regularly.
United is part of the Star Alliance. Its MileagePlus rewards can be redeemed with 28 Star Alliance members like Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines.
Each year on your cardmember anniversary, you receive two passes to the United Club, a $118 value, where you get free wine and a break from airport chaos.
That alone covers the $95 annual fee. So does the free checked bag for you and a companion, worth $25 each.
The card also gives you reimbursements for baggage delays, lost luggage, and trip delays. If a flight on any common carrier, not just United, is delayed more than 12 hours, you are covered for expenses like lodging up to $500.
Like other Chase cards, it charges a balance transfer fee of $5 or 5%.
J.R. Duren, a writer for consumer review site HighYa, says all of these perks are valuable for frequent flyers: "The United MileagePlus Explorer card is one of the best airline rewards cards for consumers who want a comprehensive rewards experience," he says.
"United's rewards flights are pretty reasonable. You can find round-trip flights starting at 25,000 miles, which is a great deal considering you get 50,000 bonus miles…
Two free flights sound great, right? Better yet, there aren't any restrictions or blackout dates when you use your miles, which means you can pretty much book any flight you want as long as there's an open seat."
He cautions that there are a limited number of the lowest-cost Saver seats on each flight, so you have to book well in advance to get the most out of your miles.
If you do not live near a United hub, you may want to consider a similar affiliated airline card like the Gold Delta SkyMiles card from American Express.
Will canceling the MileagePlus Explorer card zero out my United miles?
No. However, United miles expire after there has been no activity for 18 months. You must earn or redeem miles, such as by taking United flights, within that time.
Apply for the United MileagePlus Explorer card here
APR 16.74% to 23.74% based on creditworthiness
Annual fee: $95
Sign up bonus: 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months.
If you fly United Airlines frequently, the MileagePlus Explorer Card is a great value.
7. Best card for frequent European travelers: Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard
The Barclaycard Arrival Plus is a straightforward, easy-to-use rewards card. Like the Capital One Venture card, its points can be used on many types of travel purchases.
Introduced in 2013, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus is a great choice for international travelers who aren't loyal to a particular airline and want the flexibility to choose where to redeem miles.
Cardholders earn double miles on every $1 spent, so purchases can quickly add up to valuable points. Miles are worth 1.05 cents thanks to a 5% miles rebate every time you redeem them.
The 50,000 sign-up bonus is worth $500 in travel purchases. Money spent on airlines, hotels, car rentals, or cruise lines qualifies.
Cardholders redeem miles as a statement credit toward a travel purchase of $100 or more. You can essentially use miles to scrub travel items from your bill within 120 days.
Plus, the card gives you access to World Elite MasterCard concierge travel services and Luxury Hotel & Resorts portfolio, including complementary breakfasts.
It charges a reasonable balance transfer fee of either $5 or 3% of the amount of each transfer.
Like many travel cards, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard does not charge foreign transaction fees. But what makes it really convenient for international travel is its chip-and-pin capability.
While many American credit cards now have a chip, they do not have a PIN, which is often required in Europe. This can be maddening when you try to use a card at a parking or ticketing machine that requires a PIN.
Summer Hull, who blogs under the name Mommy Points, says that this capability made it much easier to travel in Spain.
"The real upside to [the] PIN feature came when we needed to buy Metro tickets in both Madrid and Barcelona at the automated machines in the stations. Both places accepted cards for Metro tickets, but they both asked for the PIN number which I (for the first time ever) finally had…
After not having a good solution for that dilemma on previous trips, I was ecstatic to be able to use one of my everyday rewards credit cards at an automated machine in Europe thanks the PIN feature!"
People who don't travel abroad regularly may find that these perks aren't worth the $89 annual fee.
Some cardholders take issue with the $100 minimum redemption, which they find restrictive. Consumers also complain about fraud alerts that block the card too often, even when they use it on purchases close to home.
What counts as a travel purchase?
Lots. Money spent on airfare, hotels, timeshares, campgrounds, limousines, ferries, and more. What doesn't count: In-flight goods, airport purchases, or rental properties.
APR: 16.74%, 20.74% or 23.74% based on creditworthiness
Annual fee: $0 first year, $89 thereafter
Sign up bonus: 50,000 miles when you spend $3,000 in the first three months.
The Barclaycard Arrival Plus is perfect for people who want flexible point spending and a card that's easy to use abroad.
8. How many frequent flyer credit cards should you get?
Travel credit cards are so potentially lucrative that it can be tempting to sign up for many of them at once. That's probably a bad idea.
Matthew Kepnes, aka Nomadic Matt, urges caution. If you don't spend enough money to get the sign-up bonus, a rewards card is largely useless, and you'll still have to pay that annual fee. Making unnecessary purchases simply to earn flights could land you in debt.
"It's easy to go crazy and sign up for 10 cards in a short amount of time. But then to get the bonus points, you might find yourself stuck with having to spend $10,000-30,000 USD in a very short period of time. That's a lot of pressure.
Managing your ability to meet the minimum spending requirements is key because if you are spending more money than you usually do just to get these points, the points are no longer free. Only spend what you normally would and not a penny more."
So start small. Choose the one airline or rewards card that is the best fit for you and watch those miles take you on flights to Philadelphia, Paris, or Perth.
What's the best trip or perk you've ever heard of using rewards from a credit card? Or, how did a travel reward card not live up to your expectations? We'd love to know. Tell us in the comments below.