Whether you're traveling for work, vacationing with family, or setting off on a solo adventure, getting away can be exciting — but also expensive.
A travel rewards card can not only reward you for the money you spend while traveling, it can also help you earn points on everyday purchases that can be redeemed for travel.
Free flights, upgrades, and hotel stays just from responsibly using your credit card are what make these travel reward cards so wonderful.
But if you're not careful, you could end up with a card that accrues miles so slowly you might start to wonder if you'll ever get to pack your bags.
Stories also abound of people accruing thousands of points only to discover that those points expired or that they could only be exchanged for limited benefits.
Or, worse, you could end up paying more in fees than you actually earn in rewards. (As we've discussed on this site, overlooking high annual fees is one of the costliest mistakes when comparing credit cards.)
Can you imagine spending $12,000 on a credit and not even getting enough reward back to cover the annual fee? No thanks!
There's no single travel rewards card that's "the best" for everyone, but there are a few cards that offer a great mix of low fees, fast rewards, and useful perks.
We researched the best travel rewards cards to find the top four credit cards for savvy travelers.
Four Things to Consider
Ask yourself these questions when choosing a travel rewards credit card
First things first: You may be wondering whether you should choose a flexible travel rewards credit card or stick with a branded airline credit card or hotel credit card. Here are a few questions to ask yourself before you decide.
Do you travel often? Travel rewards cards typically offer the strongest rewards when you redeem them for travel purchases — so frequent travelers will get the most out of their rewards card.
Are you a big spender? Some of the most well-known cards in this category, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve and the American Express Platinum card, charge hefty annual fees to match.
For big spenders and jet-setters, those fees are worth it — but for the average consumer, a card with lower fees will likely be a better choice.
Are you a road tripper? While tolls and parking garages typically qualify as travel expenses, gas doesn't — so if filling up your tank is your biggest travel expense, you may be better off looking into the best gas credit cards.
Is flexibility important to you? The biggest benefit of a travel rewards credit card is flexibility — you can redeem your rewards for a statement credit against any travel purchase, so you're not limited to one airline or hotel brand.
What, exactly, are "travel expenses"?Airfare, hotel rooms, taxis, vacation house rentals, and car rentals qualify.
You may be wondering whether any money spent overseas would also qualify, but the answer is no — only purchases that are categorized by the credit card issuer as "travel" will qualify.
For example, if you grab lunch at a café in Paris on vacation, that would still be categorized as "dining" on your travel rewards credit card.
(If you're making a purchase overseas, use an online currency converter to find out how many points you'll earn.)
Check the Fees!
Save more money by choosing a travel rewards card with low fees
A travel rewards card is a great way to save money on future trips — but if you're not careful, you can get blindsided with high fees from the credit card issuer that actually cost you money.
Here's what you need to look out for.
Watch for high-interest rates. Big sign-up bonuses, bonus miles, and fast rewards are important, but don't overlook the APR. If it's high and you carry a balance, you could quickly cancel out any rewards you earn.
Don't pay for overseas purchases.If you're a frequent traveler, you don't want a card that charges a foreign transaction fee when you use it outside the U.S. Otherwise, you could end up spending more on those transaction fees than you earn in rewards.
Make sure you can cover the annual fee.Say you choose a card that offers 2% rewards but charges a $95 annual fee.
You'll need to spend at least $4,750 in a year to earn that $95 back in rewards — so if you're not a big spender, look for a card with no annual fee.
For example, the American Express Platinum card may be one of the best travel credit cards for big spenders — but the $550 annual fee may be too steep for the average traveler to recoup easily, which is why we didn't include it on this particular list.
The best travel cards make it easy to earn and redeem points
The four travel rewards credit cards on our list take the stress and hassle out of earning and redeeming rewards, so you won't feel like you're solving a complicated math problem every time you try to book a free night in a hotel room.
Earning rewards should be easy.If you've ever signed up for a rewards card that offers complicated rewards like "double points on dining purchases on the second Thursday of every month that ends in ‘y'," then you know how frustrating that can be.
The best travel rewards cards have a simple earning structure, so you know exactly how much you're earning every time you swipe your card.
Rewards should rack up fast. Especially if there's an annual fee, you want to be able to earn rewards fast enough to get a few freebies each year.
After all, what's the fun in having a rewards card if you're not getting any rewards?
Rewards should outpace the fees. Don't just look at how many points or miles you'll earn per dollar — consider whether those rewards add up enough to offset the annual fee.
Again, that's why cards like the American Express Platinum card or Chase Sapphire Reserve may not be the best pick for someone on a budget.
Even at three points per dollar — the most rewarding category offered by the Chase Sapphire Reserve — you'd need to spend $15,000 just to offset the $450 annual fee.
Flexible redemption is key.The best travel rewards cards let you earn free flights and free nights without having to worry about blackout dates and other exclusions.
These reward cards make it easy to turn everyday purchases into once-in-a-lifetime travel experiences.
Chase Sapphire Preferred
This is the best air miles card for a card that's not really an air miles card
If you fly often, you may assume that an airline credit card would be the best type of rewards credit card for you.
But the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card may actually be your best bet for earning and redeeming free flights.
Earn a ton of points right off the bat
No slow-and-steady earning here — frequent travelers will earn points quickly.
The sign-up bonus is hard to beat.Get 50,000 bonus points when you spend $4,000 in the first three months.
Points go further when redeemed for travel.The Chase Sapphire Preferred offers a 25% bonus when you redeem points for travel, so that sign-up bonus can be redeemed for $625 worth of travel expenses.
Affordable annual fee. There's a reason we featured this card instead of the Chase Sapphire Reserve.
While the Chase Sapphire Reserve is also an excellent option in the travel rewards category, the $450 annual fee is a bit high for many customers.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred card accrues points at a slightly slower rate, but the annual fee — $0 the first year, and $95 per year after that — is easier on the wallet.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred offers extra convenience for air travelers
Think of the Chase Sapphire Preferred as the air miles card for people who aren't loyal to one specific airline. It offers several great perks for frequent flyers:
Redeem points anywhere.Did you spot an amazing deal for a $75 round-trip flight? Go ahead and book it. You can cash in 6,000 points for a $60 statement credit, and after the 25% bonus, that'll cover the full cost of the flight.
1:1 points-to-miles transfer.Cardholders who fly often love this feature — you can exchange your Chase rewards points for airline miles in several airline loyalty programs, including Southwest Rapid Rewards and United MileagePlus.
Earn freebies faster.Need a few extra miles for a free flight through your loyalty program? No need to wait until your next flight to earn miles — use your Chase Sapphire Preferred for everyday purchases, and then transfer the points.
Rewards are easy to redeem.The Chase Ultimate Rewards program is clear-cut and easy to navigate. Simply log in to the Chase Ultimate Rewards website and click "use points" to find the best ways to redeem.
If you don't travel often, you may be underwhelmed
Keep in mind you'll earn the most points when you spend in the travel and dining categories.
Sign up before your next vacation.Since you earn bonus points on travel purchases, the best time to apply for a Chase Sapphire Preferred card is before you book a trip.
Reconsider if you don't travel much. If you only travel once or twice a year, you may feel like you're spending way too much time (and money!) stuck in the one-point-per-dollar bracket. If that's the case, you may be happier with a card that has a more generous across-the-board earn rate.
Capital One Venture
This is the best card for stress-free travel
- Intro APRN/A
- Regular APR14.74% - 24.74% variable APR
- Annual fee$0 intro for the first year, $95 after that
- Credit levelExcellent
The Capital One Venture credit card is another standout option when you want easy rewards and flexible redemption — and you'll also enjoy a few extra travel perks.
Earn double miles on everyday purchases
Sound familiar? Just like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard, the Capital One Venture card offers two miles per dollar on every purchase.
Earn a big sign-up bonus.Get 50,000 bonus miles when you spend $3,000 in the first three months. That means you only have to spend $1,000 per month to earn your first $500 worth of rewards.
Spend more, earn more.There's no limit to how many double miles you can earn, which is great news if you use your credit card for everything.
Save money on your next trip.Apply for a Capital One Venture card before you book, and charge any travel expenses to the card. Once you hit the spending threshold, you can use your sign-up bonus to get a statement credit for those expenses.
Get the added security of Visa Signature travel benefits
Frequent travelers appreciate the extra protection — and peace of mind — they get from the Capital One Venture credit card's built-in benefits.
Get travel help.Capital One Venture cardholders get complimentary 24-hour concierge service.
Get insured. If you book your car rental using your Capital One Venture credit card, you'll be covered in the event of collision or theft. Visa Signature benefits also include travel accident insurance in case you're injured while traveling.
Get protected. If your card is lost or stolen while you're traveling, Visa will issue an emergency replacement card and a cash advance.
Again, the "miles" aren't really miles
The same rules apply here as for the Barclaycard above — you can't transfer your Capital One Venture miles directly to an airline, but they can be redeemed as a statement credit towards any travel purchase — including airfare on any airline.
But in the end, that just means even more flexibility for redeeming your rewards.
Discover it Miles
If you want to travel and earn miles, but you're still building credit, this is the card for you
If you're not sure if a travel rewards card is right for you, this is a low-risk way to find out — and, even better, you don't need impeccable credit to get approved.
Earn extra points during your first year
If earning travel rewards from your credit card purchases is new to you, the Discover it Miles credit card can start you off on the right foot.
Here are a few things that make it an appealing option.
Simple earning structure. Earn 1.5 points for every dollar spent, no matter where you spend it.
There's no annual fee. If you're not a big spender, you don't have to worry about whether you'll earn enough rewards to make the annual fee worth it — the Discover it Miles card doesn't have one.
Points are matched the first year. The Discover it Miles card doesn't have a typical sign-up bonus. Instead, Discover will match all the points you earn in the first year. If you earn 50,000 points, Discover will give you another 50,000.
Get a low intro APR.Rewards cards aren't quite as rewarding when you carry a balance from month to month because high-interest rates can offset the rewards you earn. But the Discover it Miles card offers a 0% intro APR for the first 14 months on purchases.
Transfer balances from high-interest cards. Discover it Miles also offers an introductory APR of 10.99% on balance transfers. (Just keep in mind that balance transfers don't count as purchases and won't earn rewards.)
The Discover it Miles card can help you build credit
Many of the top travel rewards credit cards require "Good" to "Excellent" credit scores to qualify. But if you're still building or repairing your credit history, there are ways the Discover it Miles credit card can help you get on the road to better credit.
Easy to qualify. According to MileCards.com, as long as your credit score is 600 or higher, you have a chance of qualifying.
Track your score. Discover offers free access to your FICO Score. You can view your score on your monthly statement, the Discover website, or on the mobile app.
Protect your credit. Discover will also monitor every purchase for suspicious activity. And if your card gets lost or stolen, you can simply freeze your account to prevent fraudulent purchases.
Other travel rewards credit cards will offer faster earn rates
While the Discover it Miles card is a great option for those who don't qualify for a more premium travel rewards card — or just don't want to pay an annual fee — its earn rate won't exactly "wow" you.
One rate to rule them all. The simple earning structure means there's no opportunity to rack up bonus points. While other cards sometimes offer promotions to earn 3x or 5x points in certain categories, the Discover it Miles card holds steady at 1.5 points per dollar.
Low spending limits.The accessibility of this card is appealing if your credit score is good but not great, but some users complain about low spending limits.
One blogger at BoardingArea.com wrote, "The limit was initially $500, and for our spending, that isn't high enough to be an everyday card." If you use your credit card for everything, you may need a card with a higher spending limit.
Sign up before a big purchase.Since there's no sign-up bonus, your best bet for earning miles quickly is to take advantage of the matching points offer by signing up for the Discover it Miles card before you make a high-dollar purchase, like a home repair or a vacation.
For more information, we've also done an in-depth comparison of this card against the Chase Sapphire Preferred.
Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Business
If you're traveling for business domestically, check this card out
In general, a flexible travel rewards card is likely to earn rewards faster and give you more options for redeeming them.
However, if you fly often for work — and you do most of your traveling within the United States — you may want to consider the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Business credit card.
The business perks for this card separate it from the standard version in a big way.
Earn points for your business expenses
Get rewarded for business travel.You'll earn two points per dollar on all Southwest Airlines purchases, and one point per dollar on all other purchases.
Earn money when your employees spend. Want to earn points faster? Get employees their own travel rewards cards at no additional cost, and earn points on their purchases, too.
Enjoy rewards right away.Earn 60,000 bonus points when you spend $3,000 in the first three months. You'll also receive 6,000 additional bonus points on your first cardmember anniversary.
Enjoy member perks when you travel on Southwest Airlines
Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Business credit cardholders get special treatment when they fly on Southwest Airlines, including two free checked bags and unlimited rewards seats with no blackout dates.
Look elsewhere for lounges. Unlike some frequent flyer programs and travel reward cards, Southwest does not offer free airport lounge access.
We think the other perks outweigh this, but if airport lounge access is a must-have for you, consider shopping around for another travel rewards card.
You need to spend $3,000 with Southwest to recoup the value of the annual fee
The Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier credit card has an annual fee of $99. If you fly on Southwest often, it should be relatively easy to recoup this fee.
Beware of the "burn rate."According to MillionMileSecrets.com, the cheapest fares on Southwest require about 60 points per dollar.
That means to recoup your annual fee, you would need to accrue at least 6,000 points, which means you need to spend $3,000 at Southwest Airlines or $6,000 elsewhere.
Gauge your Southwest loyalty. Before you apply for a Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Business credit card, consider how much domestic travel you plan to do this year.
If you don't expect to fly Southwest often, you'll likely be happier with a more flexible travel rewards card.
With the right travel rewards card, today's purchases can pay for tomorrow's vacation
From bargain hunters to luxury jet-setters there are all types of travelers, so it only makes sense that there's a lot of variety when it comes to travel rewards credit cards.
When you're choosing the best travel credit card, think about how often you travel and where you spend the most money each month — then choose a travel rewards credit card that'll turn those purchases into points you can use for a much-deserved getaway.