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These offers are no longer available on our site: Bank of America® Premium Rewards® Visa® credit card, Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card, Hilton Honors American Express Card

Hear from our editors: The best travel rewards credit cards of May 2021

Updated April 30, 2021

This date may not reflect recent changes in individual terms.

Editorial note: Credit Vana receives compensation from third-party advertisers, but that doesn’t affect our editors’ opinions. Our marketing partners don’t review, approve or endorse our editorial content. It’s accurate to the best of our knowledge when posted.

Written by: Tim Devaney

The best travel credit cards can make your trip more enjoyable.

Whether you’re looking for a big sign-up bonus, lots of points, lounge access or a way to save money when you travel, we think one of these cards is a good bet to meet your needs.

Best for premium rewards: Chase Sapphire Reserve®

Here’s why: We don’t call it “the Michael Jordan of credit cards” for nothing. The Chase Sapphire Reserve® is one of the most valuable travel rewards card on the planet — as long as the $550 annual fee doesn’t scare you away.

First, you’ll earn 60,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 on purchases during the first 3 months after you open the account. When you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards, that bonus is worth $900. But you could get an even better value by transferring them to one of Chase’s hotel or airline partners. We estimate the welcome bonus could be worth $1,026 when transferred to United MileagePlus®, according to Credit Vana’s point valuations.

Plus, the flexible $300 annual travel credit helps offset the high annual fee. You’ll also get access to airport lounges with a Priority Pass Select membership and a $100 statement credit when you apply for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck.

The ongoing rewards offer value, as well. You’ll earn three points per $1 spent on travel purchases (after earning the full $300 travel credit) and dining at restaurants, and one point per $1 spent on all other purchases.

If you want more info on getting the most bang for your buck, check out our review of the Chase Sapphire Reserve®.

Best for luxury perks: Platinum Card® from American Express

Here’s why: If you’re looking for extra comfort when you travel, take a look at the Platinum Card® from American Express.

The $550 annual fee might be mind-boggling for some folks, but it will get you access to some of the best airport lounges around the world, including The Centurion® Lounge network.

You’ll also be pampered at certain hotels with room upgrades, early check-in, late check-out, and credits for spa treatments, resort activities and dining (when available).

To learn more, check out our review of the Platinum Card® from American Express.

Best for sign-up bonus: AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard®

Here’s why: If you want to get a head start planning your next vacation, the AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard® comes with a sign-up bonus that could be worth about $1,446 when redeemed for flights, based on our estimated points valuation of 2.41 cents per mile.

Not only does the AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard® feature a super-valuable sign-up bonus, but it’s also easy to earn. You can earn 60,000 AAdvantage® bonus miles after you spend any dollar amount on a purchase using your card — you read that right, all you have to do is buy one thing — and pay the $99 annual fee in full within 90 days after your account is opened.

That could be enough miles to book a roundtrip ticket to Europe.

It’s a great option for any aspiring traveler.

Take a look at how the AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard® stacks up with the best American Airlines credit cards.

Best for entry-level travel: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Here’s why: If you want to start traveling more often, but you’re not ready to commit to paying an expensive annual fee, you’ll appreciate that the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, which is a great travel card, charges a very affordable $95 annual fee.

For the $95 annual fee, you’ll earn 80,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 on purchases during the first 3 months after you open your account.

When you redeem for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards, that welcome bonus is worth $1,000. But what really sets the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card apart is the ability to transfer your points to a handful of Chase’s hotel and airline partners, where that bonus could be worth more. We estimated the sign-up bonus to be worth $1,368 when redeemed through United MileagePlus®, according to our point valuations.

While it doesn’t offer some of the fancy perks you might find on higher-end cards, the sign-up bonus alone should be enough to pay for the flight on your next adventure.

Check out our review of the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card to see if its other features fit your needs.

Best for simple rewards: Venture® Rewards from Capital One®

Here’s why: If you want to earn rewards but prefer a straightforward rewards system over a more complicated program, then Venture® Rewards from Capital One® makes things simple.

You’ll earn two miles for every $1 you spend. There are no bonus categories — just one rate for all purchases.

And redeeming your miles is just as easy as earning them. While Capital One does have its own travel portal, there’s no need to use it to book your trip. Instead, within 90 days of making a travel purchase with your card, you can go back and use Capital One’s Purchase Eraser feature to redeem your miles for a statement credit.

For a limited time, you’ll also earn 50,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 on purchases during the first 3 months after your account opens. And you can earn another 50,000 bonus miles if you spend a total of $20,000 on purchases in the first 12 months your account is open.

The card has a $95 annual fee.

Check out our review of Venture® Rewards from Capital One® to learn more.

Best for budget travel: Bank of America® Premium Rewards® Visa® credit card

Here’s why: There are numerous ways to get your money’s worth out of the Bank of America® Premium Rewards® Visa® credit card.

You’ll earn 50,000 bonus points (worth $500) after spending $3,000 on purchases during the first 90 days after your account opens. You’ll also score two points for every $1 you spend on travel and dining purchases, and 1.5 points per $1 spent on all other purchases.

If you’re on a budget, you should know there’s a $95 annual fee — but it’s offset each year by the $100 airline incidental statement credit that you can use to pay for things like seat upgrades, lounge access, baggage fees and in-flight purchases.

Once every four years, you’ll also receive a $100 airport security statement credit toward a TSA PreCheck or Global Entry application fee.

Take a look at our review of the Bank of America® Premium Rewards® Visa® credit card to learn more.

Best for no annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card

Here’s why: The Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card is the only card on our list that charges no annual fee.

You’ll earn 25,000 online bonus points (worth $250 in statement credit toward travel or dining purchases) after spending $1,000 on purchases during the first 90 days after account opening. You’ll also earn 1.5 points for every $1 you spend on all purchases.

That might not seem like a lot compared to some of the other travel cards on this list, but few flexible travel cards offer this much value for no annual fee.

Read more in our review of the Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card.

Best for airlines: United℠ Explorer Card

Here’s why: The United℠ Explorer Card can help you earn award flights — and possibly make your trip more comfortable.

You can earn 40,000 bonus miles with the card after spending $2,000 on purchases within the first 3 months of account opening. And if you spend $10,000 total on purchases in your first six months with the card, you’ll get an additional 25,000 bonus miles. The full 65,000 miles from the bonus is worth an estimated $1,111 toward award flights, based on Credit Vana’s point valuations.

The card could also make for a more convenient airport experience. You’ll receive a free checked bag, priority boarding, two one-time passes to the United Club℠ each year, and 25% back on United in-flight purchases for food and drinks.

For its $95 annual fee (which is waived the first year), the United℠ Explorer Card also reimburses you up to $100 for the cost of applying for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, which can help you breeze through airport security.

You can learn more in our review of the United℠ Explorer Card.

Best for hotels: Hilton Honors American Express Card

Here’s why: The Hilton Honors American Express Card is a very rewarding hotel credit card, and it comes with a $0 annual fee.

You’ll start off with a huge welcome bonus: 80,000 Hilton Honors bonus points after spending $1,000 on purchases during the first 3 months from account opening.

You’ll also earn …

  • Seven points for every $1 you spend at Hilton
  • Five points per $1 at U.S. gas stations, U.S. restaurants and U.S. supermarkets — excluding superstores and warehouse clubs
  • Three points per $1 on all other purchases

The card comes with complimentary Silver status, which features several benefits including a free fifth night on qualifying reward stays. That means if you save up enough points for four nights, you’ll get a fifth night for free.

For more details, read our review of the Hilton Honors American Express Card.

How to make the most of the best travel rewards cards

To get the most value out of a travel rewards card, start by looking at your travel and spending habits. Try to answer each of these four questions.

  1. How often do you travel? Even the best travel rewards cards won’t do you any good if you never leave home. So it stands to reason that you’ll need to travel every now and then to get your money’s worth out of a travel card.
  2. Do you spend enough to earn the sign-up bonus? Figure out how much money you spend on a regular basis. You’ll be better off with a travel card that offers an attainable sign-up bonus than a travel card that carries a spending requirement that breaks your budget. We never recommend spending more money just to earn a sign-up bonus.
  3. Will you actually use the travel credits? Some travel credits are easier to use than others. Take a close look at the requirements to make sure you qualify. For example, does the airline credit cover the price of your airfare or only incidental fees like checked bags? If you already get free checked bags through another card, an airline incidental fee credit might not make much of a difference when you fly.
  4. Does the card charge any foreign transaction fees? A travel card that charges foreign transactions fees won’t do you much good on international trips.

How we picked the best travel rewards cards

To find the best travel rewards cards, we thought about different types of travelers.

For luxury travelers, we focused on finding a combination of experience and value. But other travelers might be more sensitive to upfront costs and overall prices, so we tried to choose several cards that balance a reasonable fee with quality rewards.

Instead of picking a one-size-fits-all travel card, we picked a handful of travel cards that meet the needs of different types of travelers, all while keeping categories broad enough to apply to a wide range of readers.

About the author: Tim Devaney is a personal finance writer and credit card expert at Credit Vana. He’s a longtime journalist who prides himself on being a good storyteller who can explain complex information in an easily digestible wa… Read more.

FAQ: Editors’ answers

Editorial Note: Credit Vana receives compensation from third-party advertisers, but that doesn’t affect our editors’ opinions. Our marketing partners don’t review, approve or endorse our editorial content. It’s accurate to the best of our knowledge when posted. Read our Editorial Guidelines to learn more about our team.

How do travel credit cards work?
A travel rewards card typically offers points or miles for your qualifying purchases. Generally, you earn more rewards as you spend more. Some of these cards offer a base rewards rate for all your purchases, or they may offer a higher rewards rate for the purchases you make in bonus categories.
You can then redeem your rewards points or miles toward travel expenses like flights and hotel stays, or perhaps for other items like cash back or gift cards. These cards may offer other benefits and perks, too, but the ability to redeem your rewards toward travel is the most consistent trait across all travel rewards cards.
What kinds of travel credit cards can I get?
Travel credit cards generally fall into two categories — flexible-use cards and co-branded cards.
Flexible-use cards allow you to redeem your earned rewards for a number of different travel expenses, giving you the ability to hop between participating travel brands for the best or most convenient deal. Some of these cards may require you to redeem your points through an issuer-branded travel rewards program, but others allow you to make any eligible travel purchase you like and then redeem your points via statement credit.
Co-branded cards are issued by specific companies, like an airline or hotel, in partnership with one of the credit card issuers. These cards feature the names of those brands and reward members loyal to them. Rewards can often be redeemed only for travel expenses with the advertised airline or hotel (and sometimes its participating partners). This system is usually less flexible, but it might come with potentially valuable perks, such as preferred treatment at the airport or automatic hotel status.
Neither type of card is inherently better than the other — it all depends on what you value most in your rewards and perks.
What credit scores do I need to get a travel credit card?
The credit scores and histories needed to qualify for a travel credit card differs between issuers (and sometimes between applications), but you may need good or excellent credit to be approved for a rewards credit card.
But good credit scores don’t guarantee approval. Premium cards with high annual fees may be more selective, and less exclusive cards also use their own systems to determine who’s worth approving.
If you’re a Credit Vana member, consider consulting your Approval Odds when shopping on Credit Vana to gauge your likelihood of getting a particular card. While your Approval Odds aren’t a guarantee that you’ll be approved for a card, they might give you a better sense of how likely you are to end up with your preferred choice.
Is it worth it to pay an annual fee for a travel credit card?
A travel credit card with an annual fee is often worth it, even if that fee runs several hundreds of dollars. It just depends on how you plan to use the card, and how much value you can get out of it.
To figure out whether it’s worth it to pay an annual fee for a travel card, consider how you plan to use the card and what it offers to help offset that cost. For instance, if a card offers travel credits or specific perks, think about how often you’ll actually use those features. Similarly, if the card features bonus points for purchases in particular categories, take a look at your spending habits to see if you’ll be able to earn a lot of points. And if there’s a sign-up bonus, consider if it offers much value and whether you can earn it without stretching beyond your budget.
Plus, remember that value is not the same for everyone. Even if a card feature holds lots of potential value, it might not be worth much to you if you don’t want to navigate a complicated rewards program or if you don’t want to be required to hit numerous spending thresholds.
How do I maximize value with a travel credit card?
Not everyone maximizes the value of a travel credit card in the same way, and so we recommend picking a card that best suits your spending habits and lifestyle. Ultimately, you’re likely to get the most value by picking the card that fits your budget and spending habits the best.
For example, you might not like navigating complicated rewards-earning and redemption systems. In that case, we’d recommend you look for a card with several easy-to-use perks and a straightforward rewards program that might include bonus categories that clearly match your spending.
Or maybe you don’t mind spending time to get the best possible value for your rewards, regardless of whether that means digging through travel listings for a great deal or even scheduling a trip around the best available price. You’re likely to get the most value from a flexible-use travel card with several bonus categories and a host of redemption options, although individual users’ mileage may vary.
No matter which path you take, it’s important to be honest with yourself and consider how much effort you’re really willing to put in to get value out of a card. Even the most feature-rich credit card isn’t worth much if you’re not willing or able to fully take advantage of its benefits.
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†† The opinions you read here come from our editorial team. Credit Vana receives compensation from third-party advertisers, but that doesn’t affect our editors’ opinions. Our marketing partners don’t review, approve or endorse our editorial content. It’s accurate to the best of our knowledge when it’s posted.