best travel cards
September 01, 2020

7 Best Travel Credit Cards September 2020

Credit Cards

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So you’re in the market for a travel card.  Well, you’re certainly not hurting for options; it seems that every few months some bank drops a new travel card.

But you’re here because you want to know which travel card is best.

Well, the truth is, it’s pretty tough to crown a single travel card as the best.  The best travel card for you may be different than the best travel card for me because we have different spending habits and travel goals.

That said, I’ve been able to narrow down my list of the top travel cards to seven, and I’m pretty confident that the best card for you is somewhere among these seven.

Before we get into the list, though, let’s talk about the basics.

What Is a Travel Credit Card?

Rewards credit cards come in two main flavors: cash back cards and travel cards.

Cash back cards give you, well, cash back.  A good cash back card will either give you 2% cash back on all purchases or 3-6% cash back on at least one bonus category such as dining, groceries, or gas.

Travel cards, on the other hand, give you points — called “miles” by some card issuers — that you can redeem for travel expenses such as airfare, lodging, and transportation.

Why Travel Cards?

You may be wondering why anybody would want to use a travel card rather than a cash back card; after all, wouldn’t you rather have rewards that you can do anything with, like cash, rather than rewards that you can only redeem for travel?

Well, here’s why travel cards are so great: if you strategize correctly, you can earn more value per dollar spent on a travel card than on a cash back card.

For example, when it comes to cash back cards, the highest cash back percentage you could currently earn on dining and entertainment is 4% on the Capital One® Savor® Cash Rewards Credit Card.

But if you use the Chase Sapphire Reserve, one of the top travel cards that we feature in this article, you will earn what amounts to 4.5% back on dining and entertainment spending insofar as you redeem for travel rewards through Chase’s online portal.

There are hundreds of travel cards out there, but they all fall into the three basic categories that I discuss below.  Note that I’ve made up the names of these three categories myself; this isn’t commonly-accepted nomenclature.

Travel Portal Cards

The most common — and perhaps the most lucrative — travel cards are those issued by a bank that has its own travel portal through which you can either 1) directly book travel expenses in exchange for points or 2) transfer points to various travel partners’ rewards programs.

For example, when you use the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, you are earning points to use through Chase’s travel rewards portal called Chase Ultimate Rewards.

Through this portal you can use your points to book flights, hotel stays, rental cars, cruises, and more.

Alternatively, you could transfer your points — oftentimes at a bonus rate — to one of Chase’s hotel or airline partners.

Airline and Hotel Cards

Airline cards and hotel cards constitute another type of travel card.

These cards earn rewards that can be redeemed through specific airlines and hotel chains, and they typically offer special benefits for use on these specific airlines or at these specific hotel chains.

Generally speaking, these cards are worth it only if you are particularly loyal to a certain airline or hotel chain.

Reimbursement Cards

Reimbursement travel cards are perhaps the most straightforward way to earn travel rewards: you simply receive a statement credit for any travel purchases you make with the card.

For example, if you earn $200 worth of travel rewards on a reimbursement card, and you spend at least that much in travel expenses on that card, you could have your $200 rewards applied as a statement credit.

An example of a reimbursement card is the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card, though it does permit transfers to airline partners.

When Travel Cards Make Sense

Travel cards — especially premium cards that provide a lot of value but at the cost of a high annual fee — aren’t for everybody.

But they are right for some people, especially those with an incurable wanderlust.

If you see yourself in any of the profiles below, then a travel card may be your next money move.

You Travel a Lot

This is pretty obvious.  Travel points won’t do you any good if you rarely travel.  But if you make at least a couple trips a year, the right travel card can possibly let you travel for free.

interested in cash back cards

Interested in Cash Back Cards?

If after reading this section you've concluded that cash cards are more your thing, check out our top picks for cash back cards!

See the List

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You Can Hit Sign-Up Bonus Tiers

For many people, the primary draw of travel cards is their massive sign-up bonuses.

These sign-up bonuses typically go something like this: if you spend at least $2,000 on the card within the first three months of card opening, you will receive 40,000 bonus points.

Of course, the devil’s in the details.  How much are those 40,000 bonus points actually worth?  If they’re worth a penny each when redeemed for travel, then they’re essentially worth, in total, $400.  This means you’re getting $400 in rewards on $2,000 spend, which comes out to a 20% redemption rate not including the standard points earned on each transaction.

But here’s the thing: you need to be able to put enough on these cards to hit its sign-up bonus tier (in the example above, this would be spending $2,000 in the first three months).  If you can’t possibly put $2,000 on the card in three months, then maybe you should look at a card with a lower sign-up bonus tier.

Don't Be Fooled.

Sign-up bonuses are great, but remember that you shouldn’t spend extra money that you wouldn’t have spent otherwise just to obtain a sign-up bonus.  It doesn’t make much sense to unnecessarily spend $1,000 just to earn a bonus worth $500.  Be wise!

You Go Out a Lot

In terms of per-transaction earnings, travel cards really shine when it comes to “fun” spending such as on restaurants, entertainment, and travel expenses themselves.  Many travel cards give their holders double, triple, quadruple, or more points when it comes to these kinds of charges made on the card.

So if you spend a lot on “fun” expenses, then you can really rack up the points if you charge them to a travel card.

Don't Settle. Ever.

You don’t have to settle for one cash back card! I personally use five cash back cards on a regular basis.  Of course, keep in mind that it may not be the best idea from a credit score perspective to apply for all nine of the cards below, so study the qualities of each and only apply for the one(s) that you think will truly benefit you the most.

7 Best Travel Cards

Like I said previously, it’s pretty tough — if not impossible — to state that such-and-such travel card in unequivocally the “best” travel card on the market today.

There are so many factors that go into choosing which travel card is best for someone, including their individual spending and travel habits.  As habits are by nature personal and unique to every individual, I strongly hesitate to make a claim that any particular travel card is the “best” for everybody.

However, I did spend hours researching travel cards and contrived seven different “awards” for travel cards.  Hopefully you’ll gravitate toward one of these award categories and find the travel card that makes the most sense for you.

American Express Platinum Card

  • The Platinum Card From American Express
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    American Express Platinum Card: Best for Perks
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    • Basics: The American Express Platinum Card gives you five Membership Rewards points per dollar spent on airfare purchased directly from the airline as well as on airfare and hotels booked through Amex Travel and one point per dollar spent on other categories. By our math (see below), each point is worth 1 cent each when you redeem for travel through Amex Travel, making your return 5% on the specified travel spending described previously and 1% on other categories. Where this card really shines, though, is in its perks.
    • Our Math: Through Amex Travel, you can use 50,000 points to cover $500 worth of travel. This comes out to a value of 1 cent per point. Because you earn five points per dollar spent on the travel categories specified above, your return on spend is essentially 5% for these purchases.
    • Bottom Line: If you're both a frequent flyer and a frequent diner who will also put all of this card's generous perks to work, this is a phenomenal premium travel card.
    • Welcome Offer

      60,000 points with $5,000 spend within first three months from opening account. Since 60,000 points is worth approximately $600 when they are redeemed for travel through Amex Travel, this results in a 12% return on spend from the bonus alone.

    • Annual Fee

      $550. Yes, this is tied with the Chase Sapphire Reserve for the highest annual fee among cards on this list, but you will get more than $550 of value if you use all the perks annually.

    • Perks

      • Up to $200 airline fee credit
      • Up to $200 Uber credit
      • Up to $100 credit every four years for Global Entry or up to $85 for TSA Pre✓ every four and a half years
      • Up to $100 hotel credit
      • Up to $100 Saks Fifth Avenue credit
      • Priority Pass, Delta, and Centurion lounge access
      • Hilton Honors Gold Status
      • No foreign transaction fee

Capital One Venture Rewards

  • capital one venture
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    Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card: Best for Simplicity
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    • Basics: The Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card gives you two miles per dollar spent on the card. By our math (see below), each point is worth 1 cent each when you redeem for travel through Capital One, making your return 2%. There is a welcome offer of 50,000 miles with $3,000 spend within the first three months from opening the account.
    • Our Math: The easiest ways to redeem Capital One Miles are to either receive a statement credit for travel purchases made on the card within the last 90 days or to book travel through Capital One travel. With both of those options, 100 Capital One miles is worth $1 of travel, making the miles worth 1 cent each. Note that transferring your miles to one of Capital One's airline partners could increase (as well as decrease) the value of your miles.
    • Bottom Line: This card is a great credit card for those who value simplicity when it comes to rewards, but at the end of the day you're getting 2% rewards with a $95 annual fee. The Citi Double Cash, on the other hand, can earn you 2% cash back without an annual fee. That said, the Double Cash comes with a 3% foreign transaction fee. The Venture Rewards does not have a foreign transaction fee, so if you spend more than $3,166.67 ($95/3%) abroad per year, you would come out ahead with the Venture Rewards, assuming you value simplicity and just want one go-to card for everything.
    • Welcome Offer

      50,000 miles with $3,000 spend within first three months from opening account. Since 50,000 miles are worth approximately $500 when they are redeemed for travel through Capital One, this results in a 16.66% return on spend from the bonus alone.

    • Annual Fee

      $95, waived for first year

    • Perks

      • Up to $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓ every four years
      • No foreign transaction fee

Chase Sapphire Preferred

  • chase sapphire preferred
    Chase Sapphire Preferred: Best for Semi-Frequent Travelers
    • Basics: The Chase Sapphire Preferred gives you two Chase Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent on travel and dining worldwide and one point per dollar spent on all other categories. By our math (see below), each point is worth 1.25 cents each when you redeem for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards, making your return 2.5% on travel and dining spending and 1.25% on other categories.
    • Our Math: If you book through Chase Ultimate Rewards, you can use 80,000 points to cover $1000 worth of travel. This comes out to a value of 1.25 cents per point. Because you earn two points per dollar spent on travel and dining worldwide, your return on spend is essentially 2.5% for these purchases since 1.25% x 2 = 2.5%.
    • Bottom Line: This card provides a higher rewards rate than other cards at its annual fee level and is great for those who travel once or twice a year. If you travel more frequently than that, a more premium card such as the American Express Platinum or Chase Sapphire Reserve may be a better option.
    • Sign-Up Bonus

      80,000 points with $4,000 spend within first three months from opening account. Since 80,000 points is worth approximately $1000 when they are redeemed for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards, this results in an 25% return on spend from the bonus alone.

    • Annual Fee

      $95

    • Perks

      • Doordash delivery fees with a DashPass subscription
      • No foreign transaction fee

Chase Sapphire Reserve

  • Chase Sapphire Reserve
    Chase Sapphire Reserve: Best for Foodies
    • Basics: The Chase Sapphire Reserve gives you three Chase Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent on travel and dining worldwide and one point per dollar spent on all other categories. By our math (see below), each point is worth 1.5 cents each when you redeem for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards, making your return 4.5% on travel and dining spending and 1.5% on other categories.
    • Our Math: If you book through Chase Ultimate Rewards, you can use 50,000 points to cover $750 worth of travel. This comes out to a value of 1.5 cents per point. Because you earn three points per dollar spent on travel and dining worldwide, your return on spend is essentially 4.5% for these purchases since 1.5% x 3 = 4.5%.
    • Bottom Line: If you're both a frequent flyer and a frequent diner who will also put all of this card's generous perks to work, this could be the card for you.
    • Sign-Up Bonus

      50,000 points with $4,000 spend within first three months from opening account. Since 50,000 points is worth approximately $750 when they are redeemed for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards, this results in an 18.75% return on spend from the bonus alone.

    • Annual Fee

      $550. This sounds steep, but keep in mind the perks whose value will easily exceed the annual fee if you use them all.

    • Perks

      • $300 travel credit
      • Up to $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓ every four years
      • Priority Pass lounge access
      • One year of complimentary Lyft Pink
      • Complimentary DashPass from DoorDash

Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card

  • gold delta skymiles
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    Gold Delta SkyMiles: Best Airline Card
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    • Basics: The Gold Delta SkyMiles gives you two miles per dollar spent directly with Delta, at restaurants worldwide, and at U.S. supermarkets, plus one mile per dollar spent on everything else. By our math (see below), each point is worth an average of 1.5 cents each when you redeem for travel, making your return on spend 3% on Delta spending, restaurants, and U.S. supermarkets and 1.5% on everything else. There is a welcome offer of 60,000 bonus miles with $2,000 spend within the first three months from opening the account.
    • Our Math: The value you will extract per Delta SkyMile depends on where and how you fly. For example, you could extract as much as two cents per mile by redeeming them for an international trip in Delta's Main Cabin class but as little as one cent per mile by redeeming them for a domestic first class flight. We simply took the average of these and derived a value of 1.5 cents per mile.
    • Bottom Line: If you're a frequent Delta flyer, then this card is a no-brainer. The perks alone outweigh the annual fee. But if you don't fly Delta very often, it's probably best to opt for a more universal travel card.
    • Welcome Offer

      60,000 bonus miles with $2,000 spend within first three months from opening account plus 10,000 bonus miles after first anniversary of opening account. This offer expires April 1, 2020. Since 60,000 miles are worth approximately $600, this results in a 30% return on spend from the bonus alone, plus the 10,000 additional bonus miles after one year.

    • Annual Fee

      $99, waived for the first year

    • Perks

      • No foreign transaction fee
      • 20% in-flight savings
      • First checked bag free (Delta flights only)
      • Main Cabin 1 Priority Boarding (Delta flights only)
      • $100 Delta Flight Credit when you spend $10,000 on the card in a calendar year

Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Card

  • marriott bonvoy boundless
    Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card: Best Hotel Card
    • Basics: The Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card gives you six points per dollar spent at hotels participating in Marriott Bonvoy and two points per dollar spent on everything else. By our math (see below), each point is worth an average of 0.7 cents each when you redeem for hotel stays, making your return on spend 4.2% at hotels participating in Marriott Bonvoy and 1.4% on everything else. There is a limited time welcome offer of 100,000 bonus points with $3,000 spend within the first three months from opening the account.
    • Our Math: The value you will extract per Marriott Bonvoy point depends on how you use them. Most will use their points on hotel stays, so that's what we used to come up with our valuation. We averaged the at over 50 hotels around the world and came up with an average value per point on hotel stays of 0.7 cents per points.
    • Bottom Line: If you like Marriott Bonvoy hotels and stay at them frequently, this can be a great card to use during your stays, with the whopping 4.2% return at hotels participating in Marriott Bonvoy. That said, there are better cards on this list for everyday spending.
    • Welcome Offer

      100,000 bonus points with $3,000 spend within first three months from opening account. Since 100,000 points are worth approximately $525, this results in a 17.5% return on spend from the bonus alone.

    • Annual Fee

      $95

    • Perks

      • Free night award (valued up to 35,000 points) given every anniversary of opening your account
      • Automatic Silver Status
      • Upgrade to Gold Status with $35,000 annual spend on card
      • 15 Elite Night Credits per year
      • No foreign transaction fee

Wells Fargo Propel Amex Card

  • Wells Fargo Propel
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    Wells Fargo Propel American Express Card: Best No Annual Fee Travel Card
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    • Basics: The Wells Fargo Propel gives you three points per dollar spent on eating out, ordering in, gas stations, rideshares, transit, flights, hotels, homestays, car rentals, and certain streaming services. It also gives you one point per dollar on all other purchases. By our math (see below), each point is worth 1 cent each when you redeem for travel, making your return on spend 3% in the bonus categories and 1% for other purchases. There is a welcome offer of 20,000 points with $1,000 spend within the first three months from opening the account.
    • Our Math: Not much math is involved here: Wells Fargo Propel points can be redeemed for travel through Wells Fargo Rewards for a penny each. Simple.
    • Bottom Line: While not offering the perks of some of the other cards on this list that charge an annual fee, the Wells Fargo Propel provides an incredible 3% back rewards on bonus categories for no annual fee. If you want a travel card without having to worry about whether or not the annual fee is worth it, the Wells Fargo Propel is the card for you.
    • Welcome Offer

      20,000 bonus points with $1,000 spend within first three months from opening account. Since 20,000 points are worth approximately $200 when they are redeemed for travel, this results in a 20% return on spend from the bonus alone.

    • Annual Fee

      $0

    • Perks

      • No foreign transaction fee

Responses are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

Logan Allec, CPA

Logan is a practicing CPA, Certified Student Loan Professional, and founder of Money Done Right, which he launched in July 2017. After spending nearly a decade in the corporate world helping big businesses save money, he launched his blog with the goal of helping everyday Americans earn, save, and invest more money. Learn more about Logan.

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