The Best Credit Cards for the Avid Traveler
These days it can pay well to use the right credit card to get the maximum miles
By Shane Fay
Whether you travel frequently or occasionally, it is very important to choose a credit card that will abundantly reward your spending. Between travel rewards cards, airline cards, and cash back cards, there are a variety of different cards that can suit a variety of different spenders.
Each category of credit cards has its own unique benefits and characteristics that make it attractive to certain customers. For example, many travel rewards cards offer more money in reward value than a typical 2% cash back credit card. But, the typical 2% cash back card does not require an annual fee while most travel rewards cards do require such a fee.
There’s a whole world of benefits and drawbacks for each credit card out there. Choosing the best credit card strongly depends on your spending habits, the frequency of your travel, and whether or not you wish to pay an annual fee.
However, certain credit cards may hold more appeal to the average nomad than other credit cards.
Benefits of a Travel Rewards Card
Picking the best travel credit card depends on your own personal preferences, but it is helpful to know exactly what to look for when choosing a travel related credit card.
Look for a fairly large sign-up bonus, which entails you to earn points back per every dollar spent in a certain time frame. “Typical card bonuses range between 25,000 to 50,000 points, though sometimes they can be as high as 100,000,” said Nomatic Matt.
Most of the time, to recieve a big sign-up bonus, you have to reach a minimum spending requirement, depending on your specific card. But you can’t complain about getting free flights and thousands of points back on a single purchase!
Another important feature you should keep an eye out for is additional category spending bonus’. Certain credit cards will give you extra points for shopping at specific retailers and brands. That means you can earn up to 5x points back for every dollar spent. Talk about a deal.
Depending on how much you are looking to spend on your card, you may want to look for a card with a low spending minimum. That way you can avoid the pressure of having to spend too much in a short amount of time.
Lastly, don’t forget about the annual fees. No one enjoys being surprised by seeing money withdrawn from their account, only to find out it’s a forgotten annual fee. Some of the best credit cards have annual fees, they help to give you better rewards.
Make sure to check out what added benefits and special treatments come with your card. Free dinner and priority boarding arent something you want to miss out on!
Tips for Travelers
Brian Karimzad, Director and Loyalty Analyst for MileCards.com, has these tips for travelers who want to make their everyday purchases turn into airline miles.
“To boost those everyday purchases I use a Chase Freedom Unlimited. It earns 1.5x points on everything and because it’s part of Chase’s Ultimate Rewards program I can move the points into a Sapphire or Ink account anytime to take advantage of transferring points to the travel partners,” states Karimzad.
Mr. Karimzad further discusses the importance of transferable points. “My goal is to earn as many transferable points as possible, so I’m not locked into just one airline mile or hotel point program.”
To accomplish his goal, Karimzad utilizes a Chase combo. Karimzad notes that “the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Reserve and Ink Preferred for Business earn Ultimate Rewards points you can transfer into United, Southwest, Marriott, Hyatt and more airline and hotel programs one for one, so one point with Chase equals one mile with the transfer partner.”
However, while “the Preferred and Reserve earn 2x on dining and travel and 3x on dining and travel respectively, which is a nice earn rate for those categories…the downside is they just earn a basic one point per dollar on everything else,” says Karimzad.
Free Breakfasts and Lounge Passes
Karimzad also touches on some of the best credit cards for perks. “I carry a Platinum Card from American Express. That gives me lounge access (Delta, Centurion, Priority Pass) and four hour grace periods on Hertz rentals that come in really handy. It also has Hilton Gold status which gets me free breakfast at many hotels, and the Starwood Gold status that also comes with the card can be leveraged to get Marriott Gold status, since Starwood and Marriott are merging right now, and that gets upgrades and breakfast at many Marriotts.
“It also has Hilton Gold status which gets me free breakfast at many hotels, and the Starwood Gold status that also comes with the card can be leveraged to get Marriott Gold status, since Starwood and Marriott are merging right now, and that gets upgrades and breakfast at many Marriotts.”
However, Karimzad typically tends to use the Platinum Card from American Express primarily on airfare because purchasing airfare on the card “earns 5x points per dollar spent” while “other spending on the card earns a basic one point per dollar,” notes Karimzad.
As you can see from Karimzad’s expertise, it pays to use a variety of credit cards because different cards hold different benefits. This sentiment is further supported by a recent MileCards 2017 Cash vs. Miles study.
The Best Cards for Travelers
This study revealed some interesting findings regarding the best credit cards for travel:
In terms of domestic flight rewards, 11 travel rewards cards outperformed a 2% cash back card and three of said travel rewards cards were miles ahead of the competition (no pun intended). The Chase Sapphire Preferred, Amex Everyday Preferred, and the Barclaycard Arrival Plus all offer over $300 more reward value than a 2% cash back card.
But, a cash back card has its advantages.
An annual fee is required for most travel rewards cards, but “for consumers who want to pay no annual fee, a 2% cash back card like the Citi Double Cash is usually a better bet than using a travel rewards card for domestic flight awards,” the study states.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred,
Amex Everyday Preferred, and the
Best Cards for Travelers
In fact, the only travel rewards card without an annual fee that matches the earning power of a 2% cash back card is the Discover It Miles, which comes “with a generous first-year offer that effectively offers 3x points on all spending,” as noted in the study.
While travel rewards cards and 2% cash back cards are fairly close in terms of reward value and earning power, airline cards are far behind.
The study found that most airline cards “only earn a basic one mile per dollar spent with few bonus categories like dining or groceries,” and “excluding Southwest, the average price of a domestic award in miles is a high 37,332 miles round trip.”
Southwest provided the only two airline cards that beat a 2% cash back card. The Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier and the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus from Chase include multiple bonuses and average round trip flight prices of 13,722 points.
The Best Cards for the Non-business Traveler
For unbelievable hotel points, Geoff Whitmore of JohnnyJet.com places The Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express at the top of the list for multiple reasons.
SPG hotel points can be transferred to airlines, making these points extremely valuable. Furthermore, the value of SPG points can be redeemed for Starwood property stays as well as Marriott property stays.
Starwood reward nights also require fewer points than many other credit cards. And the $95 annual fee is waived for the first year. These benefits are just a few of the many perks that come with the SPG Amex card.
The SPG Amex has no foreign transaction fee which means you can use the card globally; a perfect card for the frequent intercontinental traveler!
There are tons of bonus offers that reward your spending with massive amounts of hotel points. For example, $3,000 spent in the first three months with the SPG Amex is rewarded with 25,000 bonus points. And with free nights at SPG properties starting at just 3,000 points, you won’t even make a dent in your acquired points!
With your reward points, you can stay at a variety of SPG properties for just 3,000 points per night. Such properties include Sheraton, Four Points, Aloft, Westin, Element, St. Regis, The Luxury Collection, and Le Meridien. You can even transfer your SPG points to Marriott if you don’t prefer to stay at SPG properties. For every one point from SPG, you get three points for Marriott because Marriott stays require more points.
However, if you are an SPG cardholder you should consider the benefits of staying at SPG properties, which include but are not limited to free in-room internet, complimentary bottled water, Free Night Awards without blackout dates, and transfers based on a point for point ratio to many airline programs.
Being a member of American Express also comes with benefits such as complimentary Boingo wi-fi hotspot access, complimentary roadside assistance, rental car collision damage waiver, and extended manufacturer’s warranty up to one year for eligible purchases.
Overall the low points requirement for redeeming free nights and the benefits that come with staying at Starwood properties, and being an American Express cardholder, make The Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express one of the best hotel credit cards available.
Benefits of Having More than One Credit Card
Nomadic Matt of NomadicMatt.com shares tons of travel advice on his website. Because of the sheer amount of credit cards to choose from, it’s very hard to pick one. Nomadic Matt states that “the short answer is” to pick “all of them.” Matt advises readers to “grab as many as you can. Why put a limit on how many points you can get?”
There are many scenarios in which having multiple credit cards can pay off. Nomadic Matt mentions, “if you’re a loyal flier with American Airlines, the best cards to start off with would be the Citi American AAdvantage card (50,000 point sign-up bonus) and the Starwood American Express card (25,000 sign-up bonus plus 20% transfer bonus that you can use with your AA account).”
Matt also suggests using Chase or American Express cards if you’re looking to maximize points that you can use wherever you choose. According to Nomadic Matt, “they each have their own rewards programs and points can be transferred to muliple airline or hotel partners and used to book travel directly through their sites.”
If you just want free hotel rooms, Matt urges the use of hotel cards. As you can see, it really depends on what you’re looking for when choosing a credit card(s). The card(s) you choose is heavily dependent on your “travel goal.” Nomadic Matt notes that “the card that gets you to your travel goal is the best travel credit card to get. It all comes down to that simple fact!”
Credit Cards Compared
Here is a comparable list of different credit cards that highlights each card’s earning power and average miles required for a roundtrip. (Table and its contents courtesy of MileCards 2017 Cash or Miles Study)
|Name and Type of Credit Card||Average miles required for a roundtrip||Points earned over 3 years||Flight value earned over 3 years|
|Barclaycard Arrival Plus (cash for travel, annual fee)||33,734||228,448||$2,104|
|Amex Everyday Preferred – Delta Transfer (transferable points, annual fee)||27,871||187,202||$2,074|
|Chase Sapphire Preferred – Southwest Transfer (transferable points, annual fee)||13,722||148,411||$2,027|
|Chase Sapphire Reserve – Book via Chase (transferable points, annual fee)||22,489||162,380||$1,983|
|Chase Sapphire Reserve – Southwest Transfer (transferable points, annual fee)||13,722||162,380||$1,976|
|Capital One Venture (cash for travel, annual fee)||33,734||208,882||$1,969|
|U.S. Bank Altitude Reserve (cash for travel, annual fee)||22,489||142,787||$1,915|
|U.S. Bank FlexPerks Gold American Express (cash for travel, annual fee)||20,000||122,798||$1,899|
|U.S. Bank FlexPerks Travel Rewards Visa Signature (cash for travel, anual fee)||20,000||116,486||$1,865|
|Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier (airline miles, annual fee)||13,722||142,441||$1,831|
|PNC Premier Traveler Visa Signature (cash for travel, annual fee)||33,734||198,882||$1,817|
|Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus (airline miles, annual fee)||13,722||133,441||$1,787|
|Discover it Miles (cash for travel, no annual fee)||33,734||168,882||$1,687|
|Cash Back – 2%(cash back, no annual fee)||33,734||168,882||$1,687|
|Amex Everyday Preferred – Book via Amex (transferable points, annual fee)||33,734||187,202||$1,680|
|Chase Sapphire Preferred – Book via Chase (transferable points, annual fee)||26,987||148,411||$1,663|
|First National Bank TraveElite American Express (cash for travel, no annual fee)||33,734||160,008||$1,598|
|U.S. Bank FlexPerks Select+ American Express (cash for travel, no annual fee)||20,000||94,441||$1,591|
|Amex Everyday – Delta transfer (transferable points, no annual fee)||27,871||125,783||$1,521|
|American Express Premier Rewards Gold – Delta transfer (transferable points, annual fee)||27,871||139,639||$1,498|
|Merrill+ Credit Card (cash for travel, no annual fee)||25,000||109,441||$1,475|
|Bank of America Travel Rewards (cash for travel, no annual fee)||33,734||146,662||$1,465|
|Citi ThankYou Premier Card (cash for travel, annual fee)||29,867||145,124||$1,447|
|Wells Fargo Propel (cash for travel, annual fee)||25,301||114,238||$1,432|
|Starwood Preferred Guest American Express – Delta transfer (transferable points, annual fee)||22,871||109,441||$1,423|
|TD First Class Visa Signature (cash for travel, no annual fee)||33,734||137,380||$1,372|
|PenFed Platinum Rewards Visa (cash for travel, no annual fee)||33,734||133,611||$1,335|
|Citi Prestige (cash for travel, annual fee)||25,364||142,584||$1,294|
|Starwood Preferred Guest American Express – Book via SPG (transferable points, annual fee)||25,000||109,441||$1,285|
|SunTrust Travel Rewards (cash for travel, no annual fee)||33,734||127,584||$1,275|
|Wells Fargo Propel 365 American Express (cash for travel, no annual fee)||33,734||126,778||$1,266|
|Wells Fargo Rewards (cash for travel, no annual fee)||22,489||84,441||$1,265|
|Amex Everyday – Book via Amex (transferable points, no annual fee)||33,734||125,783||$1,257|
|Capital One Venture One (cash for travel, no annual fee)||33,734||125,551||$1,254|
|Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card (airline miles, annual fee)||27,871||119,441||$1,254|
|Blue Sky from American Express (cash for travel, no annual fee)||25,301||91,941||$1,225|
|Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card (airline miles, annual fee)||27,871||149,441||$1,222|
|American Express Premier Rewards Gold – Book via Amex (transferable points, annual fee)||33,734||139,639||$1,205|
|United MileagePlus Explorer (airline miles, annual fee)||42,613||164,441||$1,110|
|Starwood Preferred Guest American Express – Alaska transfer (transferable points, annual fee)||29,102||109,441||$1,077|
|PenFed Premium Travel Rewards American Express (cash for travel, no annual fee)||33,734||104,441||$1,043|
|Chase Sapphire Reserve – United transfer (transferable points, annual fee)||37,339||162,380||$1,016|
|Chase Sapphire Preferred – United transfer (transferable points, annual fee)||42,613||148,411||$984|
|Alaska Airlines Visa (airline miles, annual fee)||34,102||114,441||$906|
|Cash Back – 1% (cash back, no annual fee)||33,734||84,441||$844|
|Starwood Preferred Guest American Express – American transfer (transferable points, annual fee)||40,000||109,441||$732|
|The Platinum Card from American Express – Book via Amex (transferable points, annual fee)||33,734||144,441||$693|
|Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select (airline miles, annual fee)||47,017||123,163||693|
|Barclaycard AAdvantage Aviator Red (airline miles, annual fee)||47,017||133,163||$669|
Shane Fay is a creative writer and soccer enthusiast from Shrewsbury, Massachusetts intent on traveling across Europe to enhance his knowledge of the beautiful game, and explore the vast and various landscapes that the continent has to offer.