What Is The Best Travel Credit Card For 2021?
Sarah Li Cain19-minute read
January 23, 2021
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Globe-trotters already know that travel rewards are one of the most worthwhile money savers. The good news is there are so many choices out there for the kind of travel you’re into, whether that’s the occasional trip to your favorite hotel chain or some big international adventures.
The bad news, though, is that choosing the best travel credit card can feel overwhelming because of the number of choices. That’s why it’s important to choose one that will help you make the most of your spending with signup bonuses, rewards rates and the ability to earn back what you spend on annual fees.
Whether it’s a brand-specific card or a general purpose one for flexibility, check out our list of the best travel credit cards and see if one suits your needs.
The Best Overall Travel Card: Chase Sapphire Reserve
The Chase Sapphire Reserve takes the top spot because of the value you get back in annual credits, access to benefits such as travel insurance, a hefty signup bonus and other perks meant for travelers. Plus, Chase’s rewards program, Ultimate rewards points, allows you to combine all points you earn through other Chase credit cards to redeem for rewards. With all Chase’s airline and hotel partners – including United Airlines and Hyatt – you can maximize your redemptions.
Cardholders get an annual $300 travel credit to offset expenses like transit, airfare, hotels and rental cars. Currently, cardholders can also offset purchases made at gas stations and grocery stores. For frequent travelers, the $100 Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee credit is pretty sweet.
As for earnings, you get three points per dollar on travel once you’ve exhausted your $300 travel credit, three points at grocery stores and eligible restaurants, plus one point on all other purchases. Let’s not forget the free perks for services such as DoorDash and Lyft Pink.
What this means is that while there is a high annual fee, taking advantage of all the benefits offered will more than make up for it.
Here are a few more details about this travel card:
- Annual fees: $550. It’s up there in terms of fees compared to other cards, but if you take advantage of the benefits, it’ll work out in your favor, and is therefore worth considering.
- APR: 99% – 23.99% variable APR. This is on par with other cards, and not really an issue if you pay your balance in its entirety each statement period.
- Sign-up bonuses: 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points after cardholders spend $4,000 on purchases within the first 3 months of account opening. This is worth about $1,000 in travel, in line with many other sign-up bonuses.
- Reward rate: Earn three points per dollar spent on travel above the $300 travel credit, three points on dining and restaurants, three points on qualifying grocery store purchases and one point per dollar on all other purchases.
- Key perks: Cardholders get access to over 1,000 Priority Pass airport lounges, food credits with DoorDash, TSA PreCheck/Global Entry application credit, travel insurance, car rental insurance, no foreign transaction fees, and one to one transfer for participating airline and hotel loyalty programs.
- Cons: The high annual fee may be off-putting for some, especially for the occasional travelers. Plus, those who have opened a fair number of credit cards or who don’t have a high credit score may find it difficult to be approved for the Chase Sapphire Reserve.
The Best Travel Credit Card For Travel Newbies: Chase Sapphire Preferred
Aside from being a great card for travel newbies, we also think that this is one of the best credit cards for international travel because it offers similar benefits to the Chase Sapphire Reserve. The annual fee ($95), although more cost-effective, does reflect the lower amount of benefits. Still, if you’re an occasional traveler, you can more than offset this fee.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred card is great in that the annual fee isn’t steep, making it great for those who want to start earning travel rewards but aren’t ready to commit to more high-end cards. You also get to take advantage of a generous sign up bonus and the Ultimate Rewards program, which allows for flexible redemptions and point transfers to participating airline and hotel partners. If you book travel through their rewards portal you’ll get a 25% bonus, furthering the value of your points.
As far as other perks go, you’ll get better benefits than other cards in this range like more comprehensive car and travel insurance. Other benefits include a 12-month DoorDash membership and the ability to earn two points per dollar on travel, restaurants and groceries. So if you’re not sure if you can justify a higher annual fee and are fine with not having access to perks like airline lounge access, then you can’t go wrong with the Chase Sapphire Preferred.
Here’s how this card performs in the following categories:
- Annual fees: $95. This is average with mid-tier travel rewards cards.
- APR: 99% – 22.99% variable APR. This is consistent with similar rewards cards.
- Sign-up bonuses: 60,000 Ultimate Rewards points after spending $4,000 on purchases within the first 3 months of account opening. The value is worth more compared to other mid-tier cards, considering how flexible the redemption options are.
- Reward rate: Earn two points per dollar on eligible dining, travel, and grocery store purchases. Earn one point per dollar on all other purchases.
- Key perks: Receive a 25% bonus when purchasing travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal, travel and car rental insurance, no foreign transaction fees, DoorDash membership.
- Cons: Cardholders won’t get luxury travel perks like priority lounge access and travel credits.
The Best Travel Credit Card For Earning Rewards: American Express Gold Card
We picked the American Express Gold card as the best credit card for travel miles because of the ability to earn top points on everyday purchases and not just travel. Cardholders can earn four points per dollar on worldwide dining and at U.S. supermarkets, up to the first $25,000. There are also dining credits – $120 to be exact – at participating restaurants. Plus, if you do use this card for travel, you can earn three points for every dollar, as long as you book it through amextravel.com or directly with the airline.
What this means is that if you use this card often for these types of purchases (you need groceries pretty often, we’re assuming), you’ll be able to rack up a decent amount of points. We also like that you get 6 months to meet the $4,000 minimum spending requirement.
Here’s how the American Express Gold Card performs in the following categories:
- Annual fees: $250. Compared to other cards with similar rewards, this is slightly higher. However, it’s on par if you add in the dining credit cardholders receive.
- APR: Pay Over Time APR – currently at 15.99% – 22.99% depending on your creditworthiness.
- Sign-up bonuses: 60,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $4,000 in purchases within the first 6 months.
- Reward rate: Four points per dollar on worldwide dining and U.S. supermarket purchases (up to $25,000, then one point afterwards) and three points per dollar on flights booked through amextravel.com or directly with the airline.
- Key perks: No foreign transaction fees, $120 dining credit per year ($10 in monthly statement credits)
- Cons: Cards on the same tier may not earn as many points for dining, but it may be the best card if you’re looking to earn points on all types of purchases. Plus, dining credits don’t mean much if you’re not interested or want more luxury perks, making cards with higher annual fees potentially worth it.
The Best Travel Credit Card For Sign Up Bonus: Bank of America Premium Rewards
There are plenty of cards on this list that boast some great welcome offers, but we like this one because you don’t have to spend as much to earn a similar amount. While many require cardholders to spend at least $4,000, the Bank of American Premium Rewards only requires at least $3,000.
Bank of America customers should also consider this card for the very reason that Preferred Rewards members earn 25% – 75% more points on each purchase. That means you’ll earn more than the standard two points per dollar on dining purchase and 1.5 points per dollar on all other purchases. You can redeem points as statement credits, purchases through the Bank of America Travel Center, and even deposit it into an eligible Bank of American or Merrill account.
If you’re wondering if the annual fee would be worth it, cardholders get up to $100 in airline incidental credits each year, and up to $100 for a TSA PreCheck or Global Entry application.
Here’s more information on how this card performs in the following categories:
- Annual fees: $95, on par with many of the mid-tier competitor cards.
- APR: 99% – 22.99% Variable APR, which is on par with other cards.
- Sign-up bonuses: Earn 50,000 bonus points after making at least $3,000 in purchases within the first 90 days.
- Reward rate: Earn two points per dollar on dining and 1.5 points per dollar on all other purchases. Bank of America Preferred Rewards members earn anywhere from 25% to 75% more.
- Key perks: $100 in incidental travel credits per year, $100 credit for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry, lower minimum spend requirement.
- Cons: Points earned, while high, aren’t nearly as flexible as other competitors like Chase. If you’re looking for more flexibility in terms of where and how you can redeem points for travel, you might want to consider another card.
The Best Travel Credit Card For Hotels: Marriott Bonvoy Boundless
Marriott boats more than 7,000 properties worldwide, making it one of the best hotel chains in terms of its accessibility. Sure, it’s a co-branded card (meaning you’ll need to be loyal to one brand) but with the number of choices of hotels you can stay at worldwide, it could be worth it.
Why is it worth it, you ask? For one, you get a hefty sign-up bonus of five free nights at eligible Marriott properties. There’s also a certificate for a free night worth up to 35,000 points each year and the ability to earn six points per dollar on eligible Marriott purchases. For those who are interested in hotel statuses, the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless offers you Silver Status immediately, with benefits such as late check, free Wi-Fi and 10% bonus points for each stay.
Even if you’re not interested in only using points for Marriott stays, the points you earn can be transferred to participating airline partners, making it a great choice for even the occasional traveler.
Check out these details on the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless card:
- Annual fees: $95. Considering the free anniversary certificate, this more than makes up the annual fee.
- APR: 99% – 22.99% Variable APR, on par with cards of similar tiers.
- Sign-up bonuses: Earn 75,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 in purchases within the first 3 months.
- Reward rate: Earn six points per dollar spent at participating Marriott Bonvoy properties, and two points per dollar spent on all other purchases.
- Key perks: Automatic Silver Elite status, accelerated path to Gold Status and a free night away for each cardholder anniversary (worth up to 35,000 points).
- Cons: Redeeming for anything other than for Marriott stays isn’t as lucrative compared to other rewards cards offering more flexibility.
The Best Travel Credit Card For Airline Lounge Access: American Express Platinum Card
The Platinum Card is one of the most coveted among luxury travelers since it offers great airline lounge access in addition to myriad other benefits. Even if your travel plans are on hold as you’re waiting out the pandemic, this card is worth a second look.
First, you get up to $500 in credits each year and many opportunities to earn points. You can earn 10 points per dollar at U.S. gas stations and supermarkets — up to $15,000 — for the first 6 months of account opening. This is in addition to the 75,000-point sign-up bonus and the ability to earn five points per dollar spent on amextravel.com or purchases directly with an airline.
Another perk for luxury travelers is the access to travel partners like Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer if you’re interested in accessing premium class services.
Here’s a closer look at some of the card’s features:
- Annual fees: $550 – for a luxury card, this is pretty much on par, and the perks (if you take advantage of all of them) will make up for the fee.
- APR: Pay Over Time APR – currently at 15.99% to 22.99% depending on your creditworthiness.
- Sign-up bonuses: Earn 75,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $5,000 in purchases within 6 months. Some may be eligible for higher bonuses if they receive a targeted offer.
- Reward rate: Earn five points per dollar when purchasing airfare with Amex Travel or directly with the airline (up to $500,000), 10 points per dollar at U.S. gas stations and supermarkets for the first 6 months (up to $15,000 in combined purchases), one point per dollar on all other purchases.
- Key perks: Receive up to $200 in Uber credits, $200 in airline fee credits, $100 in Saks Fifth Avenue credits and $100 credit for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry application fee. Cardholders also receive airport lounge access, automatic Gold status with Marriott and Hilton, and National Car Rental Emerald Club Executive access.
- Cons: This card has one of the most expensive annual fees, so consider carefully whether you’ll take advantage of all the perks and travel frequently enough to do so.
The Best Travel Credit Card For Airline Rewards: Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus
While there are plenty of airline credit cards, the Southwest Rapid Rewards tops our list because of the amount of free flights you can earn. Travel enthusiasts probably know Southwest Airlines offers the Companion pass, allowing Rapid Rewards members to add another person to their flight itinerary for free. With this card, all points you earn will count toward the companion pass requirement, allowing you to maximize the purchases you make.
We also like that cardholders have the ability to earn a high sign-up bonus — 80,000 points to be exact. You can earn up to 50,000 points once you spend $2,000 on qualifying purchases within the first 3 months. Plus, if you spend $10,000 in purchases within the first 9 months, you can earn an additional 30,000 points. There’s also the 3,000 bonus points you’ll get each year after your cardmember anniversary.
Take a look at other features when considering signing up for this card:
- Annual fees: $69, which is average for airline credit cards.
- APR: 99% – 22.99% Variable APR
- Sign-up bonuses: Earn 50,000 points once you spend $2,000 on qualifying purchases in the first 3 months, plus an additional 30,000 points when you spend $10,000 within the first 9 months. And, every year you’ll earn 3,000 bonus points on your cardmember anniversary.
- Reward rate: Earn five points per dollar spent on Southwest purchases, up to $2,000 per month and two points per dollar afterward, plus one point per dollar on all other purchases.
- Key perks: 3,000 points on cardholder anniversary and points earned count toward Companion Pass.
- Cons: This card is only valuable if you plan on flying often with Southwest Airlines. If you’re not ready to make this sort of commitment, then consider a card with more flexible rewards and the ability to transfer to other airline partners.
The Best Travel Credit Card For Small Businesses: Ink Business Preferred
Business owners who want to maximize their business purchases and have access to flexible rewards will love that cardholders will have access to Chase’s Ultimate Rewards program and myriad airline and hotel transfer partners. You’ll be able to earn points relatively easily if you make a lot of purchases through some common business spending categories.
Businesses that can easily make the minimum spending requirement will reap the benefit of earning 100,000 bonus points (you’ll need to spend at least $15,000 within the first 3 months). You’ll also get access to travel benefits typically offered from other Chase cards such as roadside assistance, travel cancelation insurance and primary car rental insurance.
- Annual fees: $95 – at this price, it’s quite competitive for a business credit card.
- APR: 99% – 20.99% variable APR
- Sign-up bonuses: Earn 100,000 bonus points after spending $15,000 on purchases within the first 3 months.
- Reward rate: Earn three points per dollar on the first combined $150,000 in spending on shipping, internet, cable, phone service, social media and search engine advertising and travel services. Plus, earn one point per dollar spent on all other purchases
- Key perks: Cardholders receive travel protections such as trip cancellation insurance, primary rental car insurance and roadside dispatch.
- Cons: There isn’t much downside to this card. However, if your business won’t be able to generate $15,000 worth of expenses within 3 months, it might not be worth signing up if you can’t earn the bonus points.
The Best Travel Credit Card For No Annual Fee: Discover it Miles
There’s plenty of no-fee credit cards on this list, but this one stands out because of what budget-conscious travelers will get: unlimited bonus miles. Yes, Discover will match the miles you’ve earned in the first you’re a cardholder. That means if you earn 10,000 miles, you’ll end up getting 20,000 automatically.
Another cool perk is that not only do you earn 1.5 miles on every dollar you spend on all purchases, you can redeem them in different ways. Options include redeeming it as a statement for purchases at gas stations, hotels, restaurants and for airfare. Otherwise, you can redeem it for cash at a flat rate of one cent per mile – and you can use it to pay your Discover bill.
For those who are looking to save some money on interest, this card offers a 0% introductory APR on purchases for the first 14 months, making this an even more attractive card that doesn’t charge an annual fee.
Here’s how it performs in the following categories:
- Annual fees: $0
- APR: 0% introductory APR on purchases and 10.99% on balance transfers for the first 14 months. Afterwards, 11.99% - 22.99% Variable APR, slightly lower than other rewards credit cards.
- Sign-up bonuses: Discover will match all the miles you earn in the first year you’re a cardholder.
- Reward rate: Earn a flat 1.5 miles for every dollar you spend on all purchases.
- Key perks: Matched miles, and the ability to redeem points for travel or cash back at one cent per mile.
- Cons: Although this is a great card for budget-conscious travelers, the travel redemption options aren’t as generous as some of the other no-fee cards.
The Best Travel Credit Card For Everyday Categories: Citi Premier Card
The Citi Premier card offers three points per dollar at gas stations, restaurants and supermarkets. Considering transportation and food tends to be a pretty big line item on most people’s budgets, this is a great way to rack up travel rewards. There’s also the bonus of 60,000 points if you can spend $4,000 within the first 3 months. Even if you don’t feel comfortable traveling by air, you can still enjoy hotel benefits, where if you book a hotel stay of at least $500 through thankyou.com, you’ll receive $100 off, once per year.
Take a look at an overview of what this card has to offer:
- Annual fees: $95, on par with many of the others on our list.
- APR: 99% – 23.99% variable APR
- Sign-up bonuses: 60,000 bonus ThankYou Points after spending $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months.
- Reward rate: Earn three points per dollar on air travel, hotel, supermarket and gas station purchases, and one point per dollar on all other purchases.
- Key perks: Receive a 25% higher redemption rate if you redeem points through the ThankYou Travel Center, ability to transfer points to select airline and hotel partners, and points don't expire.
- Cons: Sadly, the highest point redemption rate is if you get gift cards. Plus, travel can only be booked through Citi.
The Best Travel Credit Card For American Airlines: Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard
American Airlines loyalists will love this card as it literally rewards you for flying with them and at a reasonable $99 annual fee. You have the opportunity to earn elite-like benefits without need to achieve a status tier, perfect for those who aren’t looking for a ton of luxury perks or access to airport lounges.
Of course, you’ll earn the most miles for purchases made through American Airlines, but you’ll also earn for two other common categories (restaurants and gas stations) which makes it a decent card for everyday use. Cardholders will also like the fact that flying with American Airlines can now feel more enjoyable, with flight discounts, free checked bags and reduced mileage awards.
Here’s how it fares in the following categories:
- Annual fees: $99 (waived for the first 12 months, which is becoming exceedingly rare).
- APR: 99% – 24.99% variable APR.
- Sign-up bonuses: 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage bonus miles after spending $2,500 within the first 3 months.
- Reward rate: Earn two points per dollar spent on restaurants, gas stations and eligible purchases with American Airlines. Earn one point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
- Key perks: Cardholders receive discounts on eligible purchase inflight, free checked bag on domestic flights, $125 American Airlines discount if you spend over $20,000 in a calendar year and renew the card, plus access to reduced mileage awards.
- Cons: The biggest benefits you’ll receive are for American Airlines purchases and redeeming flights. For the occasional traveler, these perks may be worth it, but there are other cards for extreme loyalists.
The Best Travel Credit Card For Delta Airlines: Delta SkyMiles Platinum American Express Card
For a co-branded credit card, this one is a good contender, especially if you already fly often with Delta. You get the opportunity to get Medallion elite status – perks include unlimited upgrades, ability to earn more miles and waived fees for checked bags. You’ll also be able to earn higher points for Delta flights and a $100 statement credit for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry, not bad for a mid-tier card.
Let’s see how this card stacks up to the others:
- Annual fees: $250. Although you’ll get a $100 statement credit for a TSA PreCheck or Global Entry application, make sure you can earn enough points for the annual fee to be worth it.
- APR: 74% – 24.74% variable APR
- Sign-up bonuses: 40,000 bonus miles and 5,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after spending $2,000 in purchases within the first 3 months. You can also earn a $100 statement credit if you make a purchase with Delta within the first 3 months.
- Reward rate: Earn three points per dollar on eligible Delta purchases, two points per dollar at restaurants and U.S. supermarkets, and one point per dollar on all other purchases.
- Key perks: Cardholders receive an annual companion certificate (domestic main cabin round trip tickets only) every year and earn Medallion status faster if you make eligible purchases ($25,000 earns you 10,000 MQMs and $50,000 earns you an additional 10,000 MQM). Other perks include priority boarding and a free checked bag on Delta flights and a $100 credit for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry application fee.
- Cons: You’ll probably need to spend a lot on this card if you want to qualify for more MQMs.
The Best Travel Credit Card For Premium Hotels: Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card
As one of the biggest and best hotel brands worldwide, this Hilton card offers some decent luxury perks, potentially making up for the higher annual fee. You'll receive complimentary Hilton Diamond status, earning you 20 points per dollar spent at Hilton properties and guaranteed discounts. Plus, if you spend at least $60,000 in eligible purchases, you can receive an additional free weekend reward night and up to $250 in airline free credits (no minimum purchase necessary). That’s in addition to the attractive sign-up bonus of 150,000 points once you spend $4,000 in qualifying purchases in the first 3 months.
- Annual fees: $450, rather high considering it’s a co-branded card.
- APR: 74% – 24.74% variable APR
- Sign-up bonuses: Earn 150,000 bonus points after making $4,000 in eligible purchases within the first 3 months. Cardholders can also receive a $100 statement credit for an Expert Flyer Premium annual subscription within the first year.
- Reward rate: Earn 14 points per dollar on eligible Hilton purchases, seven points per dollar on eligible airfare, car rentals and U.S. restaurants, as well as three points per dollar on all other eligible purchases.
- Key perks: Cardholders receive up to $250 in Hilton resort statement credits, up to $100 for qualifying Hilton on-property credit, complimentary Hilton Diamond status, Priority Pass membership, and up to two free weekend reward nights per year.
- Cons: Unless you’re intending to take advantage of all the perks and spend enough to take advantage of your stays at Hilton, you’re probably better looking at another co-branded card.
Choosing The Best Travel Card For You
When picking the best travel card suited for your needs, think carefully about factors such as your personal budget, travel goals and the type of flexibility you want. For instance, check to make sure you can really afford the minimum spending requirements to get any of the sign-up bonuses required. This means looking at your spending habits and whether you can divert all your spending to one card for the next few months.
While it’s great to earn a lot of points, make sure you can afford to pay off the balance each month. Otherwise, you’re just paying for these points and if you can’t make the minimum payments, you’re at risk of having a negative impact on your credit score. Don’t forget to look at the bonus categories offered by these credit cards and whether certain cards help you earn more points based on your everyday spending.
Also consider your travel plans. Are you looking to earn enough points for the occasional flight or hotel stay? In this case, a co-branded card, a mid-tier card or one with no annual fee might help you get to your goals. If you’re willing to spend a bit more on annual fees upfront but want access to luxury travel perks (and be able to squeeze all the value you can out of them), then a luxury credit card might be a good idea.
What Should I Consider Instead Of A Travel Card?
If you’re not sure if you’re interested in getting a credit card for the travel perks, that’s fine. There are plenty of other types of credit cards that can offer plenty of other benefits. For instance, if you’re interested in debt consolidation or you’re looking to finance a large purchase, there are credit cards that offer 0% introductory APRs. Of course, you’ll only save money if you can pay off your balance within the introductory period.
Other types of reward cards include cash back, perfect for those who want to earn rewards but not necessarily for travel. While you may not be able to earn as many rewards in terms of the value you’ll receive for travel perks, it’s still worth checking out. Any rewards are better than none, right?
Rocket HQSM has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Rocket HQ and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. Opinions, reviews, analyses & recommendations are the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, endorsed or approved by any of these entities.
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