Best Travel Credit Cards 2016

Nov 29, 2016 | 17 Comments

best travel credit cards

In the world of rewards credit cards, the ones focused on travel take the cake. In fact, they're so popular that they've led to a trend called, "travel hacking."

Chances are you probably already know what this is. But if you don't, listen up. Travel hacking is the act of getting as many credit card rewards as possible so you can earn free trips and luxury travel upgrades. Sounds pretty simple, right? Well, travel hackers around the world have been able to use this technique to travel first-class around the world for next to nothing.

If travel is on your wish list and you're looking for a new credit card, then choosing the right travel card is key. Used properly, you too can earn these rewards and even more benefits. Think discounted flights, hotel bookings, and travel packages. And extra benefits like personal concierge, extra upgrades, and travel assistance. These rewards don't just help you save money on travel. They can help you have the best possible travel experience.

So how can you make this work for you? The first step is choosing the travel rewards card (or cards) that will pay you for the spending you already do. The idea is to earn money for your spending, but not to spend more just to earn rewards.

Think that sounds too good to be true? Think again! We've reviewed all the travel cards out there to bring you a list of only the best. Give this list a thorough read and you'll be sure to find the card that works for you.

1. The Best Card for Free Flights Through Multiple Airlines

Chase Sapphire Preferred Lets You Transfer Points to Other Airlines

Chase Sapphire Preferred offers a highly flexible rewards program. You can earn 2 points per dollar spent on travel and dining. You can earn an additional 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases. And you can transfer your points to 10 other travel partners at full value.

How can you manage all these points? Through Chase's rewards portal, Chase Ultimate Rewards. And if you use Chase Ultimate Rewards to book your travel, you can book for 20% less points.

To get the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, you do have to pay an annual fee of $95. However, this fee is waived for the first year. You can then receive 50,000 bonus points if you spend $4,000 on the card in the first three months. As long as you earn more in rewards than you spend on the annual fee, then this annual fee can be well worth it.

How Travel Rewards Credit Cards Provide Free Trips

Different travel credit cards offer different kinds of rewards programs. Some create partnerships with travel brands, including airlines and hotels. These partnerships enable you to transfer points your points to eligible travel loyalty programs. What does that mean for you? Freedom to redeem your points through various travel programs - all from one card.

For example, Chase Ultimate Rewards partners with United Airlines and Marriott Hotels. Therefore, points earned through Chase Sapphire Preferred can be used with United MileagePlus or Marriott Rewards.

There's one caveat: before you redeem, make sure those partners offer the best deals. It's always worth shopping around. The loyalty program you prefer may not always have the best deal. Timing can play a big part in your options.

Also, the points-transfer rate may vary among the credit card’s rewards partners. That means it is possible that your transferred points will lose value if you transfer. In these cases, the points are better off redeemed for something of greater value.

Online Travel Booking Portals Make Travel Rewards Better

Travel-focused rewards credit cards may also come with travel booking portals. Think about how you can search for flights and hotels through online travel websites. Travel booking portals work the same way. Generally, these portals are how you can redeem most of your credit card travel rewards. They're also a good way to search for lower prices for your desired travel destinations.

As an incentive to book through these portals, you may also receive extra discounts or points. That means you may be able to save more on your travel than you would booking elsewhere.

Travel Rewards Credit Cards Have Big Sign Up Bonuses

As if you couldn't already earn a lot of rewards through travel credit cards, some even offer sign up bonuses. These bonuses can amount to huge amounts of extra travel points and miles.

It's not uncommon for there to be a required amount of minimum spend to qualify. Typically, that spend has to happen in the first few months of opening the card. Therefore, if you're planning on making any large purchases, hold off. If you can make that purchase with your new travel rewards card, you can really boost your rewards.

2. The Best Travel Rewards Card for Budget Travelers

Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card Offers Unrestricted Travel Rewards Options

The Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card is great for those how don't want to deal with travel restrictions or complex rewards programs. With this card, you can get 2 miles per dollar spent on all purchase. Each mile is worth 1 cent for travel, to be redeemed as a statement credit. For example, if you have 10,000 miles, you can get $100 towards your travel.

This card basically "erases" your travel purchases, since rewards are given as statement credits. These statement credits can apply to a broad range of travel costs. Think airfare, hotel stays, ground transportation, and more.

This card has a $59 annual fee, which is waived for the first year. After you sign up, you'll receive 40,000 bonus miles if you spend $3,000 within the first 3 months. That can amount to a $400 statement credit for your recent travel purchases. 

Statements Credits Mean Free Travel

Because travel rewards program can vary, there may be limits on your rewards. For example, many airline credit cards only give free flights to their airline. Similarly, other credit cards might only provide travel rewards from partnered brands. That's why it matters so much which card you choose. Some of the best out there allow you to redeem rewards for statement credits or rewards that work with any travel providers.

A statement credit is more or less like a refund (or partial refund) on your credit card balance. The end result is that your balance is reduced with the help of your rewards. However, your card may require your credit to be applied only to a certain type of purchase, such as travel.

3. The Best Travel Rewards Card With No Annual Fee

BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Keeps Fees to a Minimum

The BankAmericard Travel Rewards® is great for anyone who doesn't want to pay an annual fee. This card offers 1.5 points per dollar spent on all purchases. You can redeem your points two ways. You can book your travel through Bank of America's travel portal. Or you can book elsewhere and opt for a statement credit.

On top of that flexibility, you can also enjoy a number of travel benefits. Think personal concierges, complimentary upgrades, savings at hotels, and no foreign transaction fees. Plus, if you spend $1,000 in the first 90 days, you get an additional 20,000 bonus points.

Travel Rewards Credit Cards Also Have Many Travel Perks

There's a long list of travel benefits that can come with a travel rewards credit card. Not only can these benefits create a more enjoyable experience, they can also help save you time and money.

Personal concierge service is like having a personal assistant. Many credit cards provide this as a complimentary benefit to their customers. For example, all Visa Signature and World MasterCard® cards come with this perk. The more premium American Express credit and charge cards also offer free concierge services.

So what do concierge services do for you? A lot! Concierge agents can look up travel requests, book restaurant reservations, locate  shopping items, and more. Depending on the difficulty of the request, agents may need a few days to respond. It's important to note that concierge agents will not use your credit card information to make purchases. They simply provide you the information you need and you do the rest.

Another perk to look for in a travel credit card is the lack of foreign transaction fees. Whenever you make a purchase internationally, you're subject to a fee of up to 3%. That's called a foreign transaction fee. And it can add up surprisingly fast. Think about it this way.  If you buy two meals, one train ticket, and one event in one day on vacation, that's already four foreign transaction fees. And since the fee is 3% of the cost of the purchase, you can't even predict how high that number could get. That's why getting this fee waived can be so impactful for your budget.

Annual Fees Often Charged by Travel Rewards Cards

Annual fees are often found with travel credit cards because they provide an extraordinary amount of benefits. In fact, many of these benefits are not available from other credit cards.

The annual fees on travel rewards credit cards normally range from around $50-$500. It's only worth paying an annual fee if you can maximize the card’s rewards and perks beyond the fee. In other words, it's only worth paying an annual fee to the point where the total value of the rewards and perks exceed the cost of the annual fee. Otherwise, a well-rounded travel rewards credit card with no annual fee would be a better choice.

How To Maximize Your Travel Rewards

1. Earn More By Earning a Higher Status as a Frequent Flyer

To really start earning bonuses, you have to earn a higher status as a frequent flyer. Typically, that means you have to fly a minimum of 25,000 miles with one carrier in a given period. Achieving a milestone of 50,000 miles in a given period will put you into an even higher category. That will enable you to score perks and first class upgrades. Higher reward levels may also be available, depending on the program.

To make the most of your travel, pick one airline carrier and stick with them to build status. If you’re planning on booking a number of international flights, check out which airlines partner with the carrier you choose.

2. Earn More by Combining with Hotel and Car Rental and Other Miles

If you want to get serious about racking up frequent flyer miles, take a look at your options and develop a strategy.

Many hotels and car rental companies offer programs that allow you to earn free nights. Lower your travel expenses even more by getting into these programs. Then stick with as few hotel networks to maximize bonuses and offers as possible. That way you can build them up in one place instead of scattering the points among several.

3. Save More by Finding the Lowest Cost-Per-Mile Flights

The trick to booking mileage runs is to find the lowest cost-per-mile flights.

The most dedicated mileage junkies will take long flights from airport to airport over a period of several days. Sometimes, these trips involve short layovers so that the flyer can rack up as many miles over several days as possible. If spending a lot of time in airports doesn’t appeal to you, this may not be a good idea.

Others frequent flyers will use a long, discounted flight to take a short visit to a distant place. For example, it could be a trip like Alaska for East Coasters or an island in the Caribbean for West Coasters. This way, travelers get to enjoy a destination (even if briefly) on top of earning additional miles.

4. Save More by Booking Flights with Layovers

When taking regular trips, booking the longest trip possible is the way to go. Gone are the days of non-stop flights for most mileage junkies. This is usually only possible for long, international routes. If you have some patience and know how to keep yourself entertained, you can earn a lot of additional miles by taking an out of the way route to and from your destination.

However, some long-distance, direct flights are preferred by many mileage junkies. For example, you could book a direct flight from Los Angeles to Johannesburg, South Africa. That flight alone could earn you about 22,000 miles. That's only 3,000 miles short of the required miles needed to fulfill preferred status. It can also be used to increase your status to an even higher level. The round-trip rate is typically just over $1,000, often in November and December each year (and potentially at other times during the year). At the time of publishing, round-trip fares were available for as low as $1,063, plus tax.

Of course, this kind of journey is only for those who don’t mind sitting in the same seat for a very long time. These flights range from 21-28 hours in length.

5. Don't Forget to Jump on Bonus Times

While it’s hard to predict if airline carriers will continue to do so, some carriers have been known to offer double miles on certain flights to help fill seats. Many mileage junkies will book these flights to get the most miles for their ticketing dollars, regardless of the destination. As soon as you know of your travel plans, look around for bonus times like these to see if they can help you quickly increase your miles for that dream trip.

A Quick Note About Travel Hacking

Travel hacking is one of those things that sounds really easy to do, and in some ways, it is! It doesn't take much to transfer your debit card spending (or regular credit card spending) to a travel rewards credit card.

But this method of saving money on travel can get out of hand. With credit cards, anyone could slowly lose control of their spending. After all, swiping a credit card doesn't have the same immediate implications on your money as swiping a debit card. And if that happens and your balance is too much to pay off at the end of the month, then there are a few issues that could happen.

One: you could lose more money to interest payments than earn in travel rewards. Two: if you don't get control of the balance that carries over each month, then you could end up in months (or worse, years) of debt.

What's more, some people engage in a tactic called credit card churning to gain more rewards. That's opening and closing credit cards frequently to take advantage of sign up bonuses. Again, this can work if you maintain control over those balances. But if they slip beyond your means, it could take years to regain control of your finances.

None of this is to say that travel hacking will inevitably lead to debt. If you stay on budget and pay your balance off every month (so you don't have to deal with interest payments), then it could work very well for you.

Like all good things, keep an eye on your goals and don't let anything slip through the cracks. Do that and you'll be raking in those rewards in no time.

Credit Cards for Travel

Best Credit Cards for Travel Notable Features Who It's Best For
Chase Sapphire Preferred Earn bonus miles on travel and dining. Points can be transferred to partnered airline and hotel programs. Redeem rewards travel at a discount through Chase Ultimate Rewards. People who want to earn travel rewards that can be transferred to multiple airline and hotel programs while getting different travel protections.
Capital One Venture Rewards Earn unlimited 2X miles per dollar on all purchases. People who travel often and don't want to restrict their rewards to a particular airline or hotel.
BankAmericard Travel Rewards Earn 1.5 miles per dollar spent on all purchases. People who want to earn travel rewards without any annual fee.

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MyBankTracker
Friday, 29 Apr 2016 8:00 PM
<p>Gayle, if you're referring to the BankAmericard Travel Rewards Visa Signature, that specific card does not charge any foreign transaction fees.</p>
MyBankTracker
Friday, 29 Apr 2016 7:52 PM
<p>Ana, the Ultimate Rewards points earned through Chase Sapphire Preferred do not expire as long as your account remains open.</p>
MyBankTracker
Friday, 29 Apr 2016 7:48 PM
<p>Lucy, there are student credit cards that can still offer generous rewards on spending (even travel rewards). The BankAmericard Travel Rewards card for Students may be a great fit for you.</p>
SimonMBT
Friday, 29 Apr 2016 7:14 PM
<p>Jace, if you're worried about meeting the high amount of minimum spending for the big bonuses, you can consider the BankAmericard Travel Rewards Visa Signature, which has a lower minimum spending requirement.</p><p>Also, here are a couple tips to meet large spending:</p><p>- Purchase gift cards that don't expire.<br>- Offer to pay for things with family and friends and get reimbursed in cash.</p>
Friday, 29 Apr 2016 5:21 PM
<p>We're planning on a family reunion next summer in Ireland, looking at these cards. So, Bank of America does charge a foreign transaction fee?</p>
disqus_IYKrUxW1Xy
Thursday, 28 Apr 2016 7:08 PM
<p>Is Chase Sapphire Preferred the only one on here that has miles/rewards that expire? I see they don't on the other two.</p>
disqus_g6hihp3YOD
Tuesday, 26 Apr 2016 3:34 AM
<p>Fantastic that none of these have foreign transaction fees. The last time I got a new travel rewards credit card, I purchased my new camera and that easily got me over the spending amount needed for the points—instant free flight!</p>
disqus_IK833n1mzI
Monday, 25 Apr 2016 7:45 PM
<p>Are there any companies that will offer rewards for someone who is still in school, and don't have much credit?</p>
Friday, 22 Apr 2016 2:35 PM
<p>I'm seeing the 1st two cards give a good amount of points if you spend $3,000 in the 1st three months. That seems like a good deal for those that use their credit cards daily, but what about us that don't spend that much and we aren't a student? I try not to use my credit cards too much, as we don't want to start going crazy with them. Is there a card for lower amounts that anyone offers?</p>
MyBankTracker
Wednesday, 20 Apr 2016 10:02 PM
<p>Paul, depending on your travel patterns, our recommendation could vary. Do you often fly with the same airline(s)?</p>
Wednesday, 20 Apr 2016 7:12 PM
<p>Hi, I'm traveling to Paris, next month. I have discover it credit card that has no foreign transaction fees, but I have low credit limit and I was think to apply for a new card. Which card would you recommend?</p>
MyBankTracker
Tuesday, 19 Apr 2016 4:12 PM
<p>Because it's still a little early to tell what will happen to the Virgin Elevate cards, it's hard to say if there will be a better card alternative right now. In this moment of uncertainty, a versatile travel rewards card such as Chase Sapphire Preferred, Barclaycard Arrival Plus and Capital One Venture Rewards.</p>
Saturday, 16 Apr 2016 8:12 PM
<p>I'm looking for a new travel credit card since Virgin America was bought-out by Alaska airlines, what are you recommending? thank you!</p>
MyBankTracker
Thursday, 14 Apr 2016 6:54 PM
<p>All of the top travel rewards credit cards listed above do not charge any foreign transaction fees. Many other credit cards will charge roughly 3% for this fee. Consider your spending habits, card bonuses and rewards methods of the above cards to pick the right one for you.</p>
disqus_Yt4MG2GKLe
Thursday, 14 Apr 2016 6:32 PM
<p>I'm traveling outside of US and I need a card that has no international fees, what would you recommend?</p>
MyBankTracker
Friday, 08 Apr 2016 8:03 PM
<p>DonaldK, if you're looking into the Citi Advantage Platinum Select MasterCard from American Airlines, you'll need a FICO credit score of roughly 650 to 720 for approval.</p>
Friday, 08 Apr 2016 6:05 PM
<p>I'm Traveling to Europe next month and I was looking into american airlines credit card, what credit score do I need to have to get approved?</p>