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TIPS FROM THE MONEY COACH
A Credit Card Perks Column
Lynnette Khalfani-Cox, The Money Coach®, is a personal finance expert, speaker, and the author of more than a dozen books. She now works as a financial educator, helping Americans to better handle their money - especially managing credit and debt.

How to pick the best travel rewards credit card (and a few top choices from our partners)

Our credit card articles, reviews and ratings maintain strict editorial integrity; however we may be compensated when you click on or are approved for offers from our partners. How we make money.

Updated July 20, 2017

Travel rewards cards are popular with both leisure and business travelers, and it’s easy to understand why.

These credit cards provide a slew of attractive features, including airline miles; free or discounted hotel stays; and even concierge service before, during and after your travel experiences.

Having visited more than 30 countries – for work and play – I’ve become an avid user of travel rewards cards and have cashed in on their many benefits, but I also know that travel rewards cards typically come with a few drawbacks, such as annual fees and higher interest rates than other pcards that don’t offer travel rewards.

That means you need to make sure that your travel perks outweigh any costs.

>> Related content: Compare travel rewards credit cards side by side

With hundreds of cards on the market, it’s easy to get confused about which one is best for your specific circumstances. To help you save time, effort and money, I’ll explain what to look for in a good travel rewards card and then give you my recommendations for five fabulous cards.

Fortunately, finding the best travel rewards card for your needs doesn’t have to be an epic adventure – unlike some vacations I’ve taken.

In fact, picking a travel rewards card was a cakewalk compared to that time I went zip lining in the rain forest of Costa Rica and then hung on to a rope and took a heart-pounding 150-foot drop known as the “Tarzan Swing.”

By keeping a level head, you too can easily pick a good travel rewards card – one that helps you create your own great travel memories.

What do you need from a travel rewards credit card?

To select the best travel rewards card, start by evaluating your spending patterns, analyzing your true travel needs and thinking about the travel perks you value most and will actually use.

For example, if you often travel out of the country, you’ll definitely want to have a travel rewards credit card that’s widely accepted overseas and that has no foreign transaction fees.

And what about figuring out your true travel needs? One key strategy is to assess your net out-of-pocket costs and then try to limit them.

Assume, for instance, that you frequently travel for business and you strongly prefer a particular hotel brand. You might naturally think it’s best to get a travel rewards card that gives you discounts or free nights at that particular hotel chain.

There’s no doubt that it’s great to score hotel perks and to stay where you like when traveling for business. But assume also that your spouse or a significant other often (or always) travels with you.

In this case, you might consider a rewards card that grants you a lot of airline miles or free companion tickets. It’s possible that a single rewards card could pull double duty, letting you earn both benefits. But in terms of redeeming these awards, or if you had to choose one card over another, a travel rewards card with nice airline freebies could work out to be the much better deal.

Why?

Your company probably covers your hotel bill anyway – reimbursing you for the accommodations and lodging expenses you incur during business travel. And your spouse or another individual traveling with you will stay in the same room as you, so his or her presence won’t generate a bigger hotel bill. 

Of course, I’m not counting hotel dining or room service expenses that might be incurred by an extra person. Even those costs, though, could likely be reimbursed by your job or paid to you as part of your daily meal charges or per diem expenses.

But your employer likely won’t pay for your companion’s airline tickets, so that’s a net out-of-pocket cost you’ll have to cover. In this case, your true need is to lower airfare expenses.

Focusing on travel perks you actually use

Finally, some people – especially those who travel often for work – like to leverage their business travel spending by turning it into travel perks they can later use for personal or leisure travel.

That’s a good idea, but it’s also important to keep tabs on how you actually use your travel benefits and the value of those awards.

Sticking with the same scenario described above, let’s say your spouse plans to travel with you once a quarter and your credit card spending and the airline perks offered by a given card earn you four free airline tickets for you or your spouse, annually. Let’s put the value of those tickets at $500 each, or $2,000 total.

Now let’s say your spending and travel benefits on a different card allow you to accrue a free seven-night stay at your favorite hotel brand. If that hotel costs a total of $250 a night, the value of this award is $1,750.

As you can see, the airline deal wins out; always do a cost comparison to know what’s best.

You should further consider how likely it is that you will truly use that hotel benefit for personal travel. 

Sure, you might like a hotel for business travel, but is that the same hotel chain you’d want to stay at when you’re on a summer vacation or traveling with your loved one or kids during the holidays? If so, great; if not, consider all your options. 

Also, will you actually book that seven-day personal trip in order to take advantage of your free hotel stay? Some of us think we’ll do it and have the best of intentions, but when work and other obligations take precedent, we sometimes fail to lock in personal travel time. 

Regardless of whether you travel most often for business or leisure, you can find a travel rewards card that suits your needs, giving you and your wallet a much-needed break.

Six Great Travel Rewards Cards 

Below are six outstanding travel rewards cards from CardRatings partners that offer fantastic opportunities to earn and redeem all the travel perks you deserve – including those you’ll really use. Looking for something beyond those discussed below? You can click here to compare travel rewards credit cards side by side.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

This card is best for: frequent travelers who enjoy eating out. Foodies should take note.

If you’re seeking to maximize your travel rewards every times you eat out or book travel for work or a personal getaway, look no further than the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card card.

You’ll earn two times points on travel and dining at restaurants. In this case, travel expenses can include everything from hotel stays, train tickets and airfare to rental cars and highway tolls. And, of course, the dining at restaurants rewards will pay off handsomely whether you’re grabbing a quick breakfast at a fast-food drive-through as you take the kids to school or you’re wining and dining clients for lunch, dinner and drinks at high-end restaurants. On top of those rewards, you also earn one point per $1 spent on all other purchases worldwide.

The card also allows you to earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening. If you converted those points into airfare or hotel credit, that's $625 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, a program considered among the best in the industry. That $625 initial spending bonus more than offsets the card’s $95 annual fee, which goes into effect after a $0 intro for the first year.

Because of its excellent all-around features – a hefty signup bonus, nice ongoing earnings opportunities and a wide array of redemption possibilities – the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card card is a favorite among people who find themselves on the road or taking to the skies whether for business or pleasure.


BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Credit Card

BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Credit Card

This card is best for: people who want maximum flexibility with travel rewards.

If you don’t want to be locked into using your travel rewards for one particular category – like airline tickets or hotel stays – consider the flexibility and variety offered by the BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Credit Card.

Even if you only travel once or twice a year, it’s a solid travel rewards card that you can use to score discounts and free rewards on anything you’d like: cruises, hotel bookings, vacation packages, rental cars, flights, baggage fees and more. Best of all, earning travel rewards doesn’t require you to be a particularly big spender or a particularly organized credit card user; nor do you have to spend money on travel itself just to be able to reap travel rewards.

Instead the BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Credit Card gives you 1.5 points for every $1 you spend on all purchases, with no caps and no expiration dates. Bank of America customers with a BofA checking or savings account or an eligible Merrill Lynch investment account get a 10 percent point bonus, effectively pushing their rewards up to 1.65 points per dollar spent. If you happen to be a Preferred Rewards client, that bonus percentage could be as high as 75 percent.

Lastly, this card features a nice starting bonus for new customers: 20,000 bonus points after making $1,000 in purchases within the first 90 days of your account opening. Since the points are valued at 1 cent apiece, your signup bonus could be worth $200 in statement credit – a good value for a card with no annual fee and a 0 percent APR on purchases for the first 12 billing cycles (then, 15.99% - 23.99% Variable APR on purchases).


Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card

Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card

This card is best for: average spenders who routinely charge a variety of expenses and pay their balances in full. 

If you’re looking for a quality card that will let you quickly amass travel benefits, take a good look at the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card.

With this card, after you’ve spent $3,000 on purchases within the first three months of opening your account, you get 40,000 bonus miles. At a redemption rate of 1 cent per mile, that works out to $400 worth of travel. There’s no annual fee for the first year, but afterwards the yearly fee for the the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card is $59, which is quite decent for a travel rewards card of this caliber.

The main highlight of this card, though, is its high earnings rate: two miles per dollar on all your purchases – everything from trips to the supermarket and clothing expenses to your utility bill payments or entertainment charges.

Even if you just spent money on food, this card would more than pay for itself.

Consider this: The average family of four spends $800 a month on groceries, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At this level, if you used your Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card at the grocery store, you’d charge $9,600 in a year – netting you 19,200 miles worth $192 (or 1 cent apiece) when redeemed for travel.

Are you single, don’t have kids or do you eat out more frequently than you eat at home? This card is equally valuable to you since your grocery store bills, bar tabs and restaurant charges all equally help you to speedily and easily reap benefits with the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card.

By the way, if you’re eating out frequently these days, rest assured that you’re not alone. Research shows that over the past year, for the first time in history, Americans have collectively spent more dining out at restaurants and bars ($55 billion) than they have at grocery stores ($52.5 billion).

So with the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card, eat and spend where you like (as long as you’re not racking up debt and you can pay your credit card bills in full each month to avoid unnecessary finance charges). Then pick the travel perks of your choosing – including air travel, hotel stays and more. The card gives you extra benefits that go with Visa Signature cards, too. Those valuable benefits range from rental car insurance and complimentary upgrades to roadside assistance and lost luggage reimbursement – all of which keep money in your pocket.


Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card

Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card

This card is best for: frugal travelers and modest spenders seeking a basic, no frills travel rewards card.

Think of the Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card as the more economical version of the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card. Like its brethren, this card has a signup bonus, but it’s 20,000 miles, worth $200 in travel credit rather than 40,000 miles valued at $400. You get those 20,000 miles once you’ve spent $1,000 within the first three months of having the Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card.

Why the miles difference? The big reason is that the Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card has no annual fee, making it a good pick if you’re determined to have a rewards card with no yearly cost attached to it. 

The Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card also has smaller earnings, 1.5 miles for every $1 dollar spent on everything, versus the two miles earned per dollar with the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card.

But even at 1.5 miles, that’s still far better than your run-of-the mill travel rewards card that typically gives you just one mile or point for every dollar spent. This is a good, no frills pick that could make a nice, easy addition to your wallet.


Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express

Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express

(American Express is a cardratings.com advertiser)

This card is best for: avid travelers who are looking to rack up points for that travel as well as on common everyday purchases.

The Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express is certainly designed with the regular traveler in mind, but it also offers plenty of features and perks that might appeal to someone who only travels occasionally.

For starters, cardholders earn 25,000 bonus points after spending $2,000 within the first three months of card ownership and those points can be redeemed for everything from travel to dining out to statement credit to donations for charity and more. Beyond those introductory bonus points, you earn three times points on all airfare purchases; two times points on U.S. gas station, supermarket and restaurant purchases; and one point per dollar spent on everything else. The redemption options combined with the earning options make this a decent card if you don't consider yourself a regular jetsetter.

The Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express does come with a fairly hefty annual fee of $195 (waived for the first year), but one benefit of carrying the card is that you'll receive up to $100 each year in statement credit to cover incidental airline charges such as luggage fees, in-flight refreshments and more. When you consider the statement credit available, the annual fee is considerably less daunting for cardholders who will take full advantage of that credit.

Keep in mind that this is a charge card, not a credit card. The upside of that is no interest charges; the downside is that you could incur hefty late fees if you don't pay your balance in full each statement period.


Citi Prestige® Card

Citi Prestige® Card

(Citi is a Cardratings.com advertiser; this card is not currently available on CardRatings)

This card is best for: big spenders who do a lot of international travel.

For those who travel abroad often (for business or personal reasons), using this card provides all the elite perks that frequent flyers and well-heeled jetsetters appreciate: 24/7 concierge service at your fingertips, free use of airport lounges and rental car perks.

The card has no foreign transaction fees, plus it helps you bypass those dreadfully long customs lines when you return stateside. Once every five years Citi covers your $100 application fee for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Global Entry program. Those last two benefits, in particular, make the Citi Prestige® Card card perfect to use when jaunting in and out of the United States.

Naturally, all those perks do come at a cost: a $450 annual fee. At first glance, that may seem excessive. But take a closer look and you’ll discover that $450 is a small price to pay for the laundry list of travel perks that make this card worthwhile.

In addition to the benefits previously mentioned, Citi Prestige® Card gives you up to $250 annually in statement credit that is automatically applied to flight-related expenses like tickets, baggage fees and more, so that knocks the net cost of this card down to just $200. You also earn 40,000 bonus points after making $4,000 in purchases in the first three months the account is open. Redeeming those 40,000 points is worth a $500 flight on any airline. Ka-ching! If you don't have a flight in your future, redeem those bonus points for $400 worth of gift cards.

As for hotel perks, there’s an incredible and unique freebie worth noting: For any four-night consecutive hotel booking done through a Citi Prestige card concierge, your fourth night is free. You can also transfer your points to a variety of travel loyalty programs including those for airlines and hotels. 

Overall, the Citi Prestige® Card card lets you earn three Citi ThankYou® points for every dollar spent on airfare and hotels; two points for every $1 in purchases on dining and entertainment, and one point for each $1 spent on everything else.

Bottom line: If you’re looking for a travel rewards card that lets you travel in luxury, this card is in a class of its own.

Hotel and airline-specific cards

If your home away from home means laying your head on the pillows of a particular hotel brand or reclining the seat back of a particular airline, you might want to consider a branded credit card. 

There are myriad options out there, but here is just a quick look at a few of my favorites.

Hotel credit cards:

  • Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express: Besides earning up to five points per dollar spent at more than 1,300 Starwood hotels and resorts worldwide, you'll enjoy free in-room premium internet as a cardholder. You can also earn 25,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 within the first three months.
  • Marriott Rewards® Premier Credit Card: Enjoy one free night at a Category 1-5 hotel every year after your account anniversary; that perk alone likely offsets the $85 annual fee after the first year. Plus, right now new cardholders can collect 80,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 within the first three months of card membership.
  • IHG® Rewards Club Select Credit Card: There are a number of perks with this card, including a free night annually after your account anniversary, all for a $49 annual fee that is waived the first year.
  • Hilton Honors™ Card from American Express: (This card is not currently available on CardRatings).

Airline credit cards:

Selecting a good travel rewards card needn’t confuse you.

If you recognize yourself in any of the traveler descriptions above, you can’t go wrong – unlike that nearly disastrous wrong turn my husband once made near Naguabo, Puerto Rico late one dark night when he accidentally began to enter a highway… via the highway’s exit lane.

Luckily, a friendly police officer helped redirect us onto the right path. But that’s a travel story for another day!

Still researching your options? Click here to compare travel rewards credit cards side by side.

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