Travel rewards credit cards are not one-size-fits-all. They fall into several broad categories.
These categories include airline rewards credit cards designed to reward spending with specific airlines or airline partnerships, hotel credit cards that focus their rewards firepower on hotel stays and related expenses, and even cash back credit cards that offer accelerated cash back earnings on travel-related purchase categories like gasoline, airfare, and restaurant purchases.
If you’re a frequent traveler, you likely stand to benefit from all of these card types. And if you own your own business, you can count on many consumer travel credit cards having small business credit card counterparts, often with additional features and benefits for small business owners.
Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards
Here’s a look at today’s best travel rewards credit cards.
Pay close attention to these cards’ annual fees, redemption options and point or mile values for each, travel credits, and potentially valuable fringe benefits, such as complimentary airport lounge memberships or hotel credits.
Best Flat-Rate Card: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
The Venture Rewards card rewards most eligible purchases equally, but generous travel loyalty points transfer arrangements and a special bonus category (5x points) for Capital One Travel purchases make it a strong choice for travelers who aren’t loyal to any particular airline or hotel family.
$100 (TSA PreCheck/Global Entry)
Methodology: How We Select the Best Travel Credit Cards
We evaluate travel credit cards using 10 key metrics that matter to frequent travelers.
Some relate to the structure of the card itself, like whether it has a welcome offer for new cardholders (and if so, how generous it is) and the type of rewards it earns (cash back, points, miles).
Others tie back to the card’s intended user: road trippers, frequent flyers, people who prefer a particular hotel brand, and so on.
Here’s why they’re important.
Depending on the issuer, you might see these advertised as “welcome offers,” “early spend bonuses,” or “new cardmember offers/bonuses”.
But no matter what we call them, we can agree on one thing: The travel credit card category is famous for extending ridiculously generous offers to new cardholders able to meet often-hefty spend requirements. With our top travel sign-up bonus pick, the IHG Rewards Premier Credit Card, you can fund well over a week of free accommodations at select InterContinental Hotel Group properties.
When is an annual fee not really an annual fee?
When it’s reduced dollar-for-dollar by an annual travel credit. As long as you spend enough on eligible travel purchases to earn the full credit value each cardmember anniversary year, you’ll lower your effective annual fee by a corresponding amount.
A $200 travel credit turns a $500 annual fee into a $300 annual fee, a $300 travel credit turns a $550 annual fee into a $250 annual fee, and so on.
Nontravel Bonus Categories
Many travel credit cards reward nontravel spending over and above the baseline rewards rate. Some cards do this better than others, however. Our top pick, the Citi Premier® Card, pays 3x points on purchases in five categories:
- Air travel
- Gas stations
Of these, two are very clearly not travel-related (restaurants and supermarkets) and one straddles the line between travel and nontravel (gas stations). All three nontravel or travel-adjacent categories are broad and popular.
Rewards and Benefits for Frequent Flyers
Few frequent travelers get around exclusively on the ground. It takes too long and it’s more dangerous than flying besides.
Accordingly, we give deference to cards that offer frequent flyer benefits like elite status with co-branded airlines, in-flight and pre-flight perks (like priority boarding), and value-adds like complimentary airport lounge access.
Rewards and Benefits for Frequent Hotel Guests
Unless you’re truly committed to the short-term rental game or have an extensive network of family and friends in every city you visit, you’re going to want a travel credit card that rewards you for staying in hotels.
On this measure, the top travel credit cards offer some or all of the following:
- Automatic elite status or accelerated progress toward elite status
- Bonus points on eligible purchases at participating hotels
- One or more award nights (free night’s stay) after your cardmember anniversary and/or meeting qualifying annual spend
- An automatic award night tacked onto the end of a minimum-length stay, often four or five consecutive nights at the same property
Rewards and Benefits for Road Warriors
Whether your travel driving consists entirely of tooling a rental car around your destination or you prefer road tripping from start to finish, you’ll want a travel card that delivers solid value on gas spending and offers driver-friendly benefits like complimentary rental car insurance coverage and 24/7 roadside assistance.
Because its potential value is so great for frequent travelers loyal to specific brands, elite status is worth calling out in its own category. The best travel cards for elite status are generally super-premium cards with annual fees north of $400, but that expense can easily pay for itself if you’re on the road as often as you’re home.
Luxury Perks and Benefits
Even travel cards that defy easy categorization as “airline cards” or “hotel cards” can distinguish themselves with grab-bags of high-value perks and benefits for frequent flyers and hotel guests. When evaluating these cards, pay attention to “below the fold” benefits that can be worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars annually when fully exploited.
Rewards and Benefits for Business Travelers
Some of the best cards for business travelers have close cousins on the consumer side. The Business Platinum Card® from American Express, our top pick in this category and near-twin to The Platinum Card® from American Express, comes to mind.
Type of Rewards
Many travel credit cards earn points or miles best redeemed for travel purchases. Their rewards programs revolve around specific spending categories or tiers — often travel-related — in which cardholders earn at accelerated rates.
Some travel cards break this mold though. They might be cash back credit cards that favor travel purchases, earning honorary distinction as travel cards, or more traditional travel rewards cards that apply one flat rewards rate to all spending. Both types of alternative cards appeal to casual travelers and so deserve a place on this list.
Become a Travel Credit Card Expert: Your Travel Rewards Questions Answered
You have questions about travel credit cards and travel rewards. We’ve got answers.
What Are the Different Types of Travel Credit Cards?
There are two main types of travel credit cards: general-purpose travel cards and co-branded travel cards.
General-purpose travel cards earn points or miles that can be redeemed through the issuer’s loyalty program. For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve and Chase Sapphire Preferred Card both earn Chase Ultimate Rewards points. You can redeem Ultimate Rewards points in the Chase Travel portal for airfare, hotel stays, and other travel services from a variety of travel merchants, or transfer your points to participating travel loyalty programs and redeem directly with them.
Co-branded travel cards earn loyalty points or miles issued by a particular travel merchant, such as Delta or Marriott. The best way to redeem this type of loyalty currency is for free or discounted travel services (award travel) from the issuing merchant. Co-branded cards often but not always offer better redemption value than general-purpose cards.
A general-purpose travel card is a better fit for you if you’re not loyal to one particular travel brand. A co-branded card makes more sense if you are loyal to a particular brand and want to maximize your rewards’ value within their loyalty program.
Can You Get a Travel Credit Card With Bad Credit?
With difficulty, maybe. Credit card companies prefer to market travel rewards cards to applicants with good to excellent credit and ample spending power. There’s not much of a market for subprime travel credit cards.
If you have impaired credit or limited credit and hope to get your hands on a travel card in the near future, do the following:
- Apply for a general-purpose secured credit card or credit-builder credit card right now
- Use it responsibly, keeping your credit utilization rate low and making timely payments
- Make sure the card issuer reports your payment behavior and card utilization to the three major credit reporting bureaus
- Closely monitor your credit score
With responsible use and no black marks elsewhere, your credit score should increase over time. Eventually, you’ll have a credit profile strong enough to qualify for one of the cards on this list.
Is the Annual Fee Worth It for Travel Credit Cards?
It depends on the card, but the answer is often “yes.” The best travel rewards credit cards justify sometimes-hefty annual fees with perks and value-adds like:
- Annual Travel Credits. If you spend enough on travel each year, your card’s travel credit acts as a one-for-one offset for the annual fee. For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card’s $300 annual travel credit reduces its $550 annual fee down to $250 on net.
- Elite Status. Permanent elite status can be extremely valuable for travelers loyal to specific hotel or airline brands.
- Airport Lounge Access. Airport lounges typically charge $60 per person at the door. If your long-haul travels involve layovers long enough to get comfortable at a lounge (and enjoy what’s often an all-you-can-eat-and-drink refreshments table), you’ll quickly earn back your annual fee and then some.
- Discounts and Privileges With Participating Travel Partners. Really high-end travel cards often partner with similarly high-end hotels and resorts (often boutique properties) to offer discounts and perks worth hundreds of dollars per stay. These vary from card to card and property to property, and you sometimes have to work to claim them, but they’re totally worth it if you can.
Should You Get More Than One Travel Card?
It depends on a number of factors, including:
- How often you travel
- How much you spend on travel
- How you typically travel — for example, do you prefer to stay in nice hotels, crash on a friend’s couch, or nest in a short-term rental?
- Whether you’re loyal to specific travel merchants or simply seek the most affordable, convenient options
If you’re an occasional traveler who doesn’t spend much when you leave home, a single general-purpose travel credit card is adequate. Ideally, this card would have no annual fee, or you’d be able to extract enough value from it to offset the hopefully modest charge.
If you’re a frequent traveler who enjoys the finer things and/or spends a good amount of money on the road, you’ll want at least two cards.
One should be a high-end general-purpose card that affords maximum flexibility when you travel and ensures you’re maximizing your travel spend. Another should be a co-branded card backed by the travel brand with which you spend the most money year in and year out. And if you have more than one preferred travel merchant, perhaps one favorite airline and one favorite hotel, you’ll want a co-branded card for each.
The first recognizable travel rewards card was the Air Travel Card. Starting in the 1930s, upscale travelers used the Air Travel Card to purchase discounted airfare from participating airlines on a promise to pay later.
We’ve come a long way since then. (And air travel is a lot cheaper after adjusting for inflation.)
But with more choice comes more potential decision points. Which means the process of choosing the right travel rewards credit card is more important than ever.
Not sure where to start? Review the cards on this list, then consider:
- Whether you’re willing to pay an annual fee
- If you are willing to pay an annual fee, what your annual fee budget is, and whether you’d like to offset it with an annual travel credit
- Your preferred rewards currency: general-purpose or branded
- Whether you’d like to be able to transfer your points or miles to participating travel partners
- The types of purchases that earn bonus rewards
- The cards’ welcome offers for new cardholders, if any
- Any value-added perks that you can take advantage of, like hotel credits or airport lounge access
Answer these questions and you’ll be a lot closer to figuring out which travel credit card works best for your needs. Then, once you have your selection, there’s just one thing left to do: put in your application and cross your fingers for good news.
For rates and fees of the Platinum Card® from American Express, please visit this rates and fees page.
For rates and fees of the Business Platinum Card® from American Express, please visit this rates and fees page.
For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Business American Express Card, please visit this rates and fees page.