The 10 Best Travel Reward Credit Cards: Fly for Free Everywhere

a couple of months ago

Why pay to travel when you can fly free? When you take advantage of the best travel reward credit cards, you can rack up lots of complimentary flights and more.

So Much Better than Budget Travel

The world is a big and fascinating place, and there are so many exotic locations to discover and explore. But we all have a limited budget, so you have to be careful about how the cost of flights adds up.

One solution to this problem is to take budget flights. They can certainly cut down the overall costs, but you are still spending hard cash to reach your destination. And when you fly budget, you miss out on many of the benefits of more luxurious travel.

So wouldn’t it be great if you could have the best of both worlds - fly for free and still enjoy the privileges of a quality travel experience? Sure it would! And you can enjoy this kind of lifestyle if you take full advantage of what travel rewards credit cards have to offer.

Get this right and you could be flying all over the world for free, often flying business class - or even first class. Add in free hotels, free car hire and other perks, and it’s easy to see why these cards are so attractive.

In this article, we are going to take a close look at the very best travel rewards credit cards on the market today. But first of all, let’s start with the basics and define exactly what we are talking about.

What is a Travel Rewards Credit Card?

Travel rewards credit cards are designed to help you earn free travel all around the world. They allow you to achieve elite member status with hotels and airlines, and entitle you to a whole host of other benefits related to travel. You can often use these cards to get cash back, too, but you will probably get better value by redeeming the points for travel.

All travel rewards credit cards fall into one of three types:

  • Airline cards 
  • Hotel cards
  • General travel cards

Airline and hotel cards are typically co-branded cards that enter you into a particular brand’s loyalty membership club. You get rewarded for all kinds of expenditure, but the points you earn can only be redeemed within that single program (and its partners). The advantage of these types of cards is that the rewards can be higher.

General travel cards have the advantage of working with a wide range of airline and hotel loyalty programs - according to the partnerships secured by the card issuer. However, the rewards tend to be a lower rate. So it’s a trade off between wide range of use and the level of benefits achieved.

But if you are planning to travel this year - or just have itchy feet but not enough budget to foot the travel bills - then you should seriously consider getting one or more travel rewards credit cards. They can really make traveling both cost-effective and a lot more enjoyable.

Now is the Time to Start

While travel credit cards have always offered a good deal, there are powerful reasons why right now is a great time to start applying for cards:

  • Credit card issuers are currently offering attractive rewards to new applicants, in an effort to boost their presence in the market. A study by Make Lemonade showed that you can easily make $1000 in rewards in your first year, with the benefits increasing in subsequent years.
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    A growing number of travel rewards cards are now waiving their annual fee in the first year. This makes the deal even more attractive, and allows you to use the savings to pay down your credit card debt.
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    More and more cards are offering sign-up bonuses. In return for spending a certain amount in the first few months of receiving a travel rewards credit card, you can earn hundreds of dollars in benefits.


Applying for a Travel Rewards Credit Card

First of all, you need to find out if you qualify for the cards that interest you. In order to get accepted into the best loyalty programs, you will need to meet some or all of the following qualifications:

Good to Excellent Credit

Common sense dictates that in order to get a good credit card, you need decent credit in order to qualify. This applies to nearly all cards, including travel rewards and cashback cards. The only exception is a secured credit card, which is backed by your own resources.

You Are an Everyday Credit Card User

The whole points system is based around racking up points in your day-to-day credit card usage, so this really only works for regular spenders. The more often you use your credit cards, and the bigger your expenditures, the more attractive you will be as a user.

Your Balance is Regularly Repaid in Full

While some credit card companies like to see you racking up more and more debt (so they can charge you more interest), travel rewards cards work rather differently. These providers would rather see you paying off your balance each month, so that you have more money to spend on the card the next month.

Loyalty to a Certain Hotel Chain or Airline

Hotel and airline cards provide the greatest benefits, but they do also restrict you to using certain travel options. If you love to stay with one particular hotel chain, or have a preferred airline, then this option may be perfect for you. For other, perhaps, not so much.

Remember to apply for your travel card several months before you intend to travel. This will give you time to rack up some expenditure and earn the points you need to get on the road.

When you receive your card, be sure to read all the accompanying documentation. You may find that you are entitled to all kinds of additional benefits, such as free car insurance, waived luggage fees and emergency assistance.

Criteria to Consider Before Applying

There are many options available in the travel rewards credit card market, so be sure to comparison shop so that you get the deal that’s right for you. Here are a few criteria to look for when considering your options:

  • How are rewards earned?
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    Is there a sign-up bonus?
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    How are rewards redeemed?
  • What other perks are offered? 
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    Are they any foreign transaction fees?
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    Do you need to pay an annual fee?

Take all these factors into account and find the card that has the ideal mix of benefits for you. Don’t be afraid to call and ask questions, or to see if you can get a better deal by negotiating...anything is possible, but you have to ask!

The Best of the Best in Travel Reward Credit Cards

There is plenty of choice in the world of travel reward credit cards. However, not all cards are created equal, and the range of benefits varies greatly from one card to another.

Offers will vary from time to time, and you always need to check out the options to see what is available to you. But here are the best of the best cards currently available in this highly-competitive market.

Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

This is a great choice for picking up bonus points on dining and travel, as well as enjoying some valuable travel protection along the way. This is a more cost-effective option than the pricy Chase Sapphire Reserve card, although the benefits are naturally cut down to size, too.

Nevertheless, this is a good all-round pick that offers great value and lots of options. You can currently pick up 50,000 bonus points if you spend $4000  in the first three months, which translates to $625 in travel benefits. Add another authorized user in the same time frame and you get an extra 5000 points.

You pick up two points for every dollar spent on travel and dining, plus one point on everything else. Your points can be transferred to 13 different partners, and you also get auto rental insurance, trip cancellation cover and a free pass on foreign exchange fees. The annual fee of $95 is waived in the first year.

Chase Sapphire Reserve Card

If you really want to rack up maximum points and benefits, then the Chase Sapphire Reserve card is the way to go - but it does require a bigger commitment than most.

You collect a whacking great three points per dollar spent on travel and dining, plus one point per dollar on all other spending. If you spend over $4000 in the first three months, you pick up 50,000 reward points worth around $900.

In addition, this card gives you a $300 annual travel credit, plus trip cancellation insurance, car rental insurance and zero foreign transaction fees. You are also entitled to use the Priority Pass Select lounge. But on the downside, you have to be prepared to stump up an annual fee of $450 to get all these benefits.

Citi ThankYou Premier Card

If you travel a lot by car, then this card may be a good option for you. This is one of the few cards that offers three points per dollar spent at gas stations. You can also pick up 60,000 extra points if you spend $4000 in the first three months, worth around $1020.

You can transfer your points to 15 airline programs, or book your flights directly through the Citi travel portal at a rate of 1.25 cents per point. You also benefit from zero transaction fees. The annual fee of $95 is waived in the first year.

Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard

If you fly regularly with American Airlines, then this card deserves serious consideration. As well as getting two miles per dollar spent on AA flights, you also get one mile per dollar on all other purchases.

An expenditure of $20,000 in a year gets you a $100 flight discount, plus preferred boarding and a free checked bag on domestic flights.  With a sign-up bonus of 50,000 points also available (after spending $2500 in the first three months), there is every reason to take a close look at this card. The $99 annual fee is waived in the first year.

United Explorer Card

For travellers who fly regularly with United, this card may well be the best bet. As well as the usual benefits, this card also allows you to book seats that are not available to non-cardholders. You also get priority boarding, plus a free checked bag for you and one companion.

In addition, you are exempted from foreign transaction fees, and you get two United Club passes. You can collect a bonus of 40,000 points by spending $2000 in the first three months, worth $660 in free travel. You also get a statement credit of $100 after your first purchase. The annual fee of $95 is waived in the first year.

Hilton Honors Aspire Card from American Express

If you don’t mind stumping up the $450 annual fee, this card offers a lot of valuable benefits.  You get an amazing 14 points per dollar spent at Hilton hotels, plus seven points per dollar on flights and car rentals. Other purchases earn you a healthy 3 points per dollar.

Spending $4000 in the first three months gets you 100,000 bonus points. You also enjoy complimentary Hilton Diamond status, one weekend night stay each year, plus an additional night if you spend over $60,000 in a year. You are also entitled to many other benefits that make this card well worth checking out.

IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card

This card comes with a sign-up bonus of 100,000 points, worth around $600. You are rewarded with 10 points per dollar spent at IHG hotels, plus two points per dollar at grocery stores, gas stations and restaurants. You pick up one point per dollar spent everywhere else.

You are also entitled to an anniversary free night every year, plus Platinum Elite status. If you are a regular at IHG hotels, then this card is a no-brainer. The annual fee is $89.

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

This card offers a bonus of 50000 miles on expenditure of $3000 within the first three months, plus a whole range of additional benefits that make it attractive.

A new partnership with Hotels.com has upped the stakes considerably, providing you with a way to claw back up to 20% of the cost of all your hotel stays. The annual fee is $95, and that is waived in the first year. You earn 2 miles per dollar spent on all non-hotel purchases, and you are exempted from foreign transaction fees. This card is a great option if you want something that is simple to use, but which provides great benefits.

Wells Fargo Propel American Express Card

One of the biggest attractions of this card is that there is no annual fee, ever, so you don’t have to worry about paying for something you may not use.

Despite this, the card has a lot to offer. You get a bonus of 30,000 points after spending $3000 on purchases in the first three months, equating to a bonus of around $300.  You also earn three points per dollar spent on everything from gas stations and streaming services to dining and travel. Mobile phone protection is included, and there are no foreign transaction fees.

To really get the best value from this card, use it in conjunction with a Wells Fargo Visa Signature Card. Then you can combine the points from both cards to get maximum value when redeeming for airfares.

The Platinum Card from American Express

You will have to stump up an annual fee of $550 to enjoy the rewards that this card offers. However, the benefits make it a very good deal if you are in a position to take advantage of them.

For starters, you earn points at a 5x rate on airfares and hotels booked directly through Amex Travel. The points you earn can also be transferred to 20 different airline and hotel partners.

The card also comes with 60,000 membership rewards points if you spend $5,000 in the first three months, plus many other benefits. You get up to $200 in Uber credits, $200 annual airline rebate for incidental fees and $100 in credit at Saks Fifth Avenue. Add in priority lounge access, and you are getting a good deal all round.

Choosing the Right Card for You

So there are plenty of great travel rewards around - all you have to do is pick the one that is best for you. There is no one card that is the all-round best choice for everyone. The choice depends so much on your circumstances, you travel needs and other factors.

If you don’t travel that much, then you may want to go for a card with no annual fee and flexible options. That way, you can keep the cost down, but still benefit from the rewards when you need them.

If you are a frequent traveler, then you may find that it’s worthing paying a high annual fee in order to benefit from higher rewards and a broader range of benefits. Over a year, you could easily save thousands of dollars on flights, hotels, dining, gas and other expenses - making it well worth paying  a few hundred dollars to earn those benefits.

So be realistic about your plans and expectations for the year ahead. Choose a travel rewards card that fits your lifestyle and budget, and enjoy the benefits accordingly.

Why pay to travel when you can fly free? When you take advantage of the best travel reward credit cards, you can rack up lots of complimentary flights and more. We examine the credit cards that give you the most points for flights, hotel stays, gas station purchases and more. Discover how to get free access to priority lounges, first class flights, upgrades and other valuable benefits. Travel in style and luxury. CLICK TO READ NOW!

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About the author

    Mandy

    I'm a busy Mom who loves blogging and spending quality time with my family. I also love helping other people to succeed in saving and making money.