Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards 2019

Brendan Harkness

Author

Brendan Harkness

Updated Jan 11, 2019

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Best pick for

Sign-up Bonus

Why we picked this card

This card is popular among travelers for earning Chase Ultimate Rewards points. These points are most valuable when they’re redeemed in Chase’s travel portal or transferred to an airline partner.

If you travel a lot or spend on travel and dining often, consider the Chase Sapphire Reserve (Review). It has a higher annual fee, but the benefits and higher rewards value can make up for it. This card is also known for being made out of metal.

  • 2 points per dollar on travel expenses and dining at restaurants
  • 1 point per dollar on all other purchases
  • 50,000 bonus points for spending $4,000 in the first 3 months
  • 20% discount on travel when redeeming points through the Chase Ultimate Rewards® program

Use this card when you pay for travel or dining, but consider pairing it with a general rewards credit card to use for groceries and gas to maximize your rewards.

To earn the most with this card, use it when you pay for travel or restaurants. To maximize point value, redeem points for travel on Chase’s Ultimate Rewards site. Or, you may be able to get more value when you transfer your points to a partner airline or hotel program:

  • Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards®
  • United Mileage Plus®
  • Hyatt Gold Passport®
  • Marriott Rewards®
  • Priority Club® Rewards
  • The Ritz-Carlton Rewards®
  • Amtrak Guest Rewards®
  • IHG® Rewards Club
  • The Ritz-Carlton Rewards®
  • and several more

To maximize credit card rewards, consider pairing the Chase Sapphire Preferred with another card. You can get more rewards value for gas or grocery purchases on another card, like the Blue Cash Preferred.

Other highlights:

  • No foreign transaction fees, but only has Chip-and-Signature, not Chip-and-PIN
  • Protections like Travel Accident Insurance, Lost Luggage Reimbursement, Price Protection, and more
We're currently unable to link directly to an application for the ".$name.", but you can learn more here, on our advertising partner's website.

Best pick for

Chip-and-PIN Card

Why we picked this card

The Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® (Review) has Chip-and-PIN technology and no foreign transaction fee. That makes it a good fit for European travel.

It provides the same reward everywhere, no matter where you’re shopping.

  • 2X miles per dollar for every purchase
  • 60,000 bonus miles for spending $5,000 in the first 90 days after account opening

Redeem your rewards for travel statement credits to get the most value per mile (1 cent each). Spend at least $4,450 per year with this card to earn enough reward value to offset the $89 annual fee, but you should spend more than that to make this card worth the cost.

Chip technology is used a bit differently depending on where you are in the world. In Europe, particularly at unattended terminals and kiosks, some merchants only accept cards with Chip-and-PIN technology. Instead of signing you’ll need to enter a PIN (like at the ATM) when you pay for something.

Many credit cards issued in the United States only have Chip-and-Signature technology. This means they’re not as compatible in Europe. The Arrival Plus is one of a few that will work with both Chip-and-Signature and Chip-and-PIN terminals. Barclays, the issuer, is an international company that offers cards with PIN capability, unlike some other card issuers in the U.S.

When approved for this card you’ll be asked to create a PIN. Then, to activate the PIN function, you’ll need to use the card as normal at a Chip-and-Signature terminal, and sign to verify the transaction. Then you can use the card at Chip-and-PIN terminals.

As long as you get enough value from the Arrival Plus to make up for the annual fee, this can be a great card to have in your arsenal. To maximize your credit rewards, try to spend $15k or $25k per year to get those yearly bonuses.

Other highlights:

  • $89 annual fee
  • 12-month 0% intro APR for balance transfers made during the first 45 days
  • Regular purchase and balance transfer APR of 17.99%, 21.99% or 24.99% Variable
  • World Elite Mastercard travel perks
  • No foreign transaction fees, so you can use this card outside of the country for free
  • Protections like Travel Accident & Trip Cancellation Insurance, Baggage Delay Insurance, an Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, and more

Runners Up

There are about a dozen credit card issuers that provide cards with Chip-and-PIN capability. Some of the best travel cards from that selection, other than the Barclays Arrival Plus, are:

  • No annual fee
  • 12-month 0% intro APR for purchases
  • 1.5X points for every purchase
  • 20,000 bonus points for spending $1,000 in the first 90 days

 

  • $99 annual fee
  • 6X points on JetBlue purchases, 2X points at restaurants and office supply stores
  • 40,000 bonus points for spending $1,000 in the first 90 days
  • 50% inflight savings

Best pick for

No Annual Fee

Why we picked this card

This travel card from Discover effectively earns 1.5% back on all purchases, and 3% the first year, with no annual fee. The only real travel-related perk is $30 in annual in-flight Wi-Fi credits. Read our full review here.

  • 1.5X miles for every dollar you spend, with no limit (which will come to equal 3 miles per dollar at the end of the year)
  • DOUBLE all of the miles you earn in your first year (new cardholders only)
  • Up to $30 credit for in-flight WiFi per year

Note that Discover may not be as widely accepted outside the United States as cards with other networks. If you’re traveling abroad you may want to take another card as a backup.

Other highlights:

  • 0% intro purchase APR for 14 months, then 14.24%–25.24% Variable
  • 10.99% Variable intro balance transfer APR for 14 months, then 14.24%–25.24% Variable
  • No foreign transaction fees, but only has Chip-and-Signature, not Chip-and-PIN
  • No penalty APR

Best pick for

Premium Travel Card

Why we picked this card

The Chase Sapphire Reserve is the better (and more expensive) cousin of the Chase Sapphire Preferred (Review). It also earns Ultimate Rewards points, but at higher multiples for dining and travel than the Sapphire Preferred. Read our full review here.

Other highlights:

  • $450 annual fee
  • 3X Ultimate Rewards points per dollar for travel and dining
  • 50,000 bonus points for spending $4,000 in the first 3 months
  • 50% point bonus when redeeming through Chase Ultimate Rewards
  • Airport lounge access with Priority Pass Select
  • $300 travel credit, automatically applied as a statement credit to your first $300 in travel purchases each year
  • Credit for a Global Entry or TSA Pre✓ application fee (up to $100)
  • Special privileges on car rentals from National Car Rental, Avis and Silvercar
  • No foreign transaction fees, but only has Chip-and-Signature, not Chip-and-PIN
  • Protections like Travel Accident Insurance, Lost Luggage Reimbursement, Price Protection, and more

Runners Up

We're currently unable to link directly to an application for the The Platinum Card® from American Express, but you can learn more here, on our advertising partner's website.
  • $550 annual fee
  • 5X points per dollar for:
    • flights booked directly with airlines
    • flights and prepaid hotels booked with American Express Travel
  • 2X points per dollar for other eligible purchases from American Express Travel
  • 60,000 bonus points for spending $5,000 in the first 90 days
  • Global Lounge Collection for wide-ranging airport lounge access
  • $200 annual airline fee credit for the airline of your choice
  • $200 in Uber credits per year ($15 per month, with $35 in December)
  • $75 hotel credit for every eligible stay of two nights or more
  • Credit for a Global Entry or TSA Pre✓ application fee (up to $100)
  • Fine Hotels & Resorts program
Want to see how these two premium travel cards compare to each other? Check out The Chase Sapphire Reserve vs Amex Platinum: Which One Is Better for You? 

 

  • $400 annual fee
  • 3X points per dollar for travel and mobile wallet purchases
  • 50,000 bonus points for spending $4,500 in the first 90 days
  • $325 annual travel credit
  • Priority Pass Select membership for airport lounge access
  • Credit for a Global Entry or TSA Pre✓ application fee (up to $100)
We're currently unable to link directly to an application for the ".$name.", but you can learn more here, on our advertising partner's website.

Best pick for

Hotel Card

Why we picked this card

The Starwood Preferred Guest (or SPG) card from American Express is widely regarded as one of the most rewarding hotel cards, although it really only makes sense if you spend and stay at Starwood or Marriott hotels frequently. Read our full review here.

Other highlights:

  • SPG loyalty credits to help you get to SPG Gold or SPG Platinum status faster
  • Free in-room premium Internet access
  • No foreign transaction fees, but only has Chip-and-Signature, not Chip-and-PIN
  • Protections like Flight Accident Insurance, Car Rental Loss and Damage Insurance, and more

Is a Travel Card Right For You?

As long as you’re a responsible credit card user, a credit card with travel rewards can save you tons of money. The best travel card for you depends on your preferences and lifestyle. It may even make sense for you to get more than one card. For example, you may be able to maximize your rewards value if you use a travel card for travel purchases and a cash back rewards card for everything else.

Travel credit cards come in several types:

If you travel often, one or more travel cards may be a good fit for you.

Consider A General Travel Credit Card If You:

  • Have experience using a credit card (so you know how to pay your bill, avoid interest, and stay out of debt)
  • Travel often (otherwise, you may want a cash back card instead)
  • Don’t prefer a particular airline or stay with a particular hotel brand (otherwise, an airline or hotel card might be a better fit)
  • Plan to learn about and take advantage of any benefits, like airport lounge access or hotel room upgrades
  • Will use the card enough to make any annual fees worthwhile

If you can say yes to all of these, a travel credit card will probably make your trips cheaper and more enjoyable.

If you’re a student traveling abroad, check out this page about the best credit cards for studying abroad.

Selection Criteria: What Makes a Great Travel Rewards Card?

The right travel rewards credit card for you depends on your situation.

Is a card with an annual fee worth it for you? Or are you looking for simpler travel card with no annual fee?

Many credit cards designed for travel have an annual fee. Generally, the higher the fee, the better the benefits and rewards-earning potential the card has. Depending on how much you use a travel card, you can easily offset the cost of the annual fee with the value of the benefits and rewards.

If you travel frequently you may want to pay a high annual fee to get valuable benefits, like travel credits worth $200 or more, and airport lounge access.

We’ve considered hundreds of cards, and these are our top travel card picks. We chose these cards for their travel rewards, benefits, account opening bonus points, and card features.

To find the right card, examine these two aspects of any travel card’s rewards program:

  • Earning rewards: how many points or miles you’ll get, and for what kinds of purchases
  • Redeeming rewards: how you can redeem points to pay for travel expenses (and how much value you get per point for different redemption methods)

Here are the most important things to consider in any general travel, airline, or hotel card:

  • Point Value – Travel, airline, and hotel cards earn points. These are usually called “miles” on airline cards. The value of your points can vary a lot depending on how you redeem them. Before you apply for a card, learn how to redeem rewards points for the greatest value.
  • Signup Bonus – Most travel cards award bonus miles or points if you spend a certain amount within a few months of opening the card. For example, you might get 50,000 extra points if you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months of opening a card. These sign-up bonuses can sometimes earn you enough for more than one free flight or hotel stay. But make sure you’re not getting yourself into credit card debt to earn a bonus. You’ll end up paying more in interest than the value of the sign-up bonus.
  • Earning Points – Some cards earn more points for spending in specific categories. If you spend a lot at restaurants, for example, you could choose a card that earns 2x or 3x points on dining.
  • Annual Fee – Many travel cards have an annual fee, which could range anywhere from $50 to over $500. Generally, cards with an annual fee will earn you more points and offer more benefits. Before you apply for a card, consider the benefits and rewards value compared to the annual fee. Make sure you’ll get more value in benefits and rewards than you’ll pay in fees. It’s common for travel cards to waive the annual fee the first year to entice you to sign up and try it.
  • Foreign Transaction Fees – When you buy something in a foreign currency, your card issuer may charge a fee. On cards that have one, it’s usually around 3%. Many travel-oriented cards don’t have a foreign transaction fee, but some do. If you plan to travel abroad it’s best to have at least one card without a foreign transaction fee. If you plan to stay in the country, though, this is less important.
  • Benefits – Many travel cards have travel-related benefits. On most cards you’ll get rental car collision insurance, for example. Some cards have automatic trip cancellation insurance if you buy a plane ticket on the card. Airline cards might give you priority boarding or free checked bags. You might get free room upgrades during hotel stays with certain hotel cards. There are usually better benefits on cards with higher annual fees. For example, you’ll find airport lounge access on most cards with an annual fee over $300. You may also get a statement credit for travel purchases. When deciding whether a card is a good fit for you, it’s important to weigh the benefits against the annual fee.
  • Restrictions & Blackout Dates – Some travel card rewards programs have restrictions on how or when you can use rewards. For example, you may not be able to book flights with points on peak travel days. Make sure you understand restrictions on a card’s rewards program before you apply to make the most of it.
  • EMV Technology – There are two major kinds of EMV (or “chip”) technology: Chip-and-PIN and Chip-and-Signature. Most credit cards issued in the U.S. only support Chip-and-Signature. Some places in Europe only accept Chip-and-PIN cards. If you’re planning to use your card abroad, pick a card that supports Chip-and-PIN. Otherwise, you may be stuck and unable to use your card in certain situations.
  • Your Credit History – Most banks design their travel cards for people with excellent credit. If your credit is less than excellent, you may want to build up your credit with other cards first. But remember, credit card approvals are based on more than a credit score.
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