Best Travel Credit Cards: Top Rewards Picks for 2021

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Travel credit cards can earn consumers rewards for their spending.
Image Credit: Clark.com

Do you start planning your next vacation as soon as you return from the last one? Or are you constantly on the go with business travel? Travel credit cards can be a great way to earn rewards while you’re exploring the globe.

But do you fit the mold of someone who should carry a travel rewards card? These cards often carry annual fees. And their rewards programs are geared toward a small group of people who actually do travel a lot.

Team Clark has analyzed the travel credit card market to help you pick the best choice for you whether you’re trying to claim rewards for your travel or spend to earn free travel,

Though money expert Clark Howard is an avid traveler who carries a travel credit card in his wallet, he doesn’t think travel cards are the best fit for most people. He believes travel cards are “aspirational” for many consumers, and he says most would be better served by a standard cash back credit card.

“People pay those big annual fees and get those cards because they get sucked in by the fantasy. ‘Hey, I got this card and I’m going to Tahiti!’ and ‘Hey, I got this card, so that’s going to be me on the beach in Maui and on that ski mountain!’ And with all this, we’re actually conspiring against ourselves.”

We’ll go into more detail on why Clark feels this way later in the article.


Table of Contents


Travelers Looking for Rewards vs. Spenders Looking for Travel

Before you sign up for a new travel rewards card, you should think about why you feel the need for this type of credit card in the first place.

Typically, there are two different types of consumers who would get the most out of a travel rewards card:

Travelers Looking for Rewards

These folks are on the move a lot whether for business or leisure. And as such, they’re looking for a way to cash in on their travel with a credit card that rewards them for things like miles flown or nights stayed in a hotel. In this article, we’ll explore brand-specific cards that can help with this as well as cards geared more specifically toward business travel.

Spenders Looking for Travel

These people want to increase how much they travel and so want to earn travel-related rewards with their everyday spending. They’re looking for a way to earn a free or discounted vacation through spending on things like groceries and gas purchases. In this article, we’ll explore cards that reward everyday spending with miles or travel rewards points.


The Top Credit Cards for Travel Rewards Right Now

Best ForCredit CardAnnual FeeRewards Perk
No Annual FeeDiscover it® Miles$0Unlimited 1.5 miles for every dollar spent
No Annual FeeBank of America® Travel Rewards Credit Card$0Unlimited 1.5 points for every dollar spent
Flat-Rate RewardsVenture Rewards from Capital One$952x miles on every dollar spent
Bonus Category RewardsCiti Premier® Card$953x points bonus on 5 spending categories
Sign-Up BonusChase Sapphire Preferred®$952x points on dining and travel
Airline RewardsSouthwest Rapid Rewards® Priority$1492x points on select airfare, hotel and car rentals
Hotel RewardsMarriott Bonvoy Boundless™$956x points on every $1 spent with Marriott; free night each year
Hotel RewardsHilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card$9512x Hilton Honors bonus points on every $1 spent with Hilton
Business TravelChase Ink Business Preferred®$953x points on travel and other business-related categories
High-Volume TravelAmerican Express Platinum Card$5505x points on airline and hotel travel

Team Clark spent hours reviewing the market for these cards and evaluated them according to the guidelines for usage set by Clark himself. In addition to travel rewards programs, when assembling this list, we considered factors like annual fees, welcome bonuses, introductory annual percentage rates (APRs) and bonus categories.

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Clark believes credit cards with high annual fees are a bad idea for most consumers. So for the purposes of these rankings, we paid special attention to the annual fees.

You can read more on our methodology for determining the best travel rewards credit cards here.


Best Travel Cards With No Annual Fees

If you would like to be rewarded with travel, these no-annual-fee cards are an option for everyday spending. They provide a nice, steady rate of return on every purchase you make with the card, and you can put those earnings toward travel, or you can redeem them for cash.

Discover it® Miles

Discover it Miles is a no-annual-fee travel credit card.

What to Know About This Card

  • Annual Fee: $0
  • Travel Rewards Highlights: You’ll earn 1.5 miles on every dollar spent with no category or spending limits
  • Introductory Offers: Introductory 0% APR on new purchases for the first 14 months of card membership
  • Top Perks: Discover will give you a mile-for-mile bonus match on all your spending at the end of the first year

Why We Like It: This straightforward miles card is most attractive because of the generous match at the end of the first year. For example, if you spend $10,000 with your card in the first year, you’d receive a total of 30,000 miles (15,000 earned and 15,000 from the bonus match).

Bank of America® Travel Rewards Credit Card

Credit Card Image

What to Know About This Card

  • Annual Fee: $0
  • Travel Rewards Highlights: Earn unlimited 1.5 points for every dollar you spend on all purchases
  • Introductory Offers: 0% APR on new purchases for the first year plus 25,000 bonus points for spending $1,000 within the first three months
  • Top Perks: No foreign transaction fees as well as the opportunity to earn more rewards through the Preferred Rewards program

Why We Like It: This is another straightforward travel card that does not have the hassle of an annual fee. If you’re not a fan of the end-of-year miles match from Discover, you’ll find an alternative bonus offer here (25,000 points for $1,000 in spending) to go along with your 1.5 points per dollar spent.


Best Travel Card for Flat-Rate Rewards

If you are looking to earn travel-based rewards on your everyday spending, you may find that a flat-rate rewards card is a good way to ensure that you’re getting a steady return on your purchases without concern over spending categories or limits.

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Venture Rewards From Capital One

What to Know About This Card

  • Annual Fee: $95
  • Rewards Program Highlights: Unlimited 2x miles on every purchase that you make
  • Introductory Offers: Earn 60,000 bonus points by spending $3,000 in the first three months of card membership
  • Top Perks: $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck when you pay with the card; no foreign transaction fees

Why We Like It: If you’re an avid traveler, you’re likely going to want a Global Entry and/or a TSA PreCheck membership. Getting one of those for free through this card offsets the $95 annual fee. And the simplified points structure lets you earn miles on everyday purchases.


Best Travel Card for Bonus Spending Categories

Citi Premier® Card

What to Know About This Card

  • Annual Fee: $95
  • Travel Rewards Highlights: 3x on five key spending categories: air travel, hotel stays, gas stations, supermarkets and restaurants
  • Introductory Offers: You can earn 60,000 bonus points when you spend at least $4,000 in the first three months of card membership
  • Top Perks: You can get $100 off a $500-or-more hotel stay each year if booked through Citi’s thankyou.com

Why We Like It: The amount of spending categories that let you earn triple points is worth noting. And they line up perfectly with the type of spending someone with a travel card might be doing. If you’re planning one big trip per year, you can make your $95 annual fee back with that annual $100 credit offer.


Best Travel Card for Sign-Up Bonus

Chase Sapphire Preferred®

Chase Sapphire Preferred(Registered Trademark) credit card

What to Know About This Card

  • Annual Fee: $95
  • Travel Rewards Highlights: 2x points on dining and travel, 5x points on Lyft rides (through 2022) and 2x points on groceries through a promotional offer that ends in April 2021
  • Introductory Offers: Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months you have the card (worth up to $750 if redeemed on Chase Rewards)
  • Top Perks: 25% bonus on points redemptions through Chase Rewards, no foreign transaction fees, no delivery fees on DoorDash purchases

Why We Like It: You could probably find a larger sign-up bonus on a card with a higher annual fee, but this one lands just right with points that are worth $750 in travel on a card with an annual fee under $100. And you’re getting yourself into a pretty solid card once the sign-up bonus disappears. Lyft and DoorDash users, especially, could see real value in the perks for this card.


Best Travel Card for Airline Rewards

Brand-specific airline cards are limiting in that they commit you to one airline, and that might mean you won’t always get the best price for your flight.

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But if you’re unfailingly loyal to one airline over the rest, this kind of card can be a massive help in achieving bonus rewards points goals with that airline. We’re citing the Southwest card as an example of one we like, but you’re probably best served by checking out the rewards card offered by your favorite airline.

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority

What to Know About This Card

  • Annual Fee: $149
  • Rewards Program Highlights: 5x points on all Southwest purchases (promotional rate that runs through March 31, 2021), 2x points on rental cars and hotels purched through Southwest and one point per dollar spent on all other purchases
  • Introductory Offers: Earn 50,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening. Earn an additional 30,000 points after you spend $10,000 on purchases in the first nine months from account opening
  • Top Perks: $75 annual Southwest travel credit, no foreign transaction fees, discounts on in-flight Wi-Fi and helps build points toward A-List and Companion Pass statuses

Why We Like It: A lot of the perks some other airline cards offer, such as waivers on bag fees or change, are standard for all Southwest Airlines customers. That allows this card to focus on going a little deeper with its promotions such as unlimited rewards seats and no blackout dates. Also, that annual $75 Southwest credit is like slashing the annual fee in half. Clark carries this card in his wallet.


Best Travel Cards for Hotel Rewards

If you make frequent hotel stays, you’ve probably figured out that it’s best to pick one of the major brands and stick with it for the perks. You can take that to the next level by getting a branded credit card.

As you might imagine, brand-specific hotel cards mostly offer rewards that you have to use at that hotel chain. But they do offer a lot of opportunities to multiply your rewards. Marriott and Hilton are the two largest brands in this space, and each has a variety of credit cards from which to choose. If you’re a frequent Hyatt or Choice hotels customer, you may want to consider those brand-specific cards instead.

Marriott Bonvoy Boundless™

MARRIOTT BONVOY BOUNDLESS Credit Card

What to Know About This Card

  • Annual Fee: $95
  • Rewards Program Highlights: 6x points for every dollar spent with Marriott, 2x points for all travel purchases and one point per dollar on all other purchases
  • Introductory Offers: 75,000 bonus points if you spend at least $3,000 on purchases within the first three months
  • Top Perks: Free reward night each year, automatic Silver Elite status and 15 Elite night credits per calendar year

Why We Like It: The free reward night each year should cancel out the $95 annual fee on this card. You also receive an automatic renewal of Siliver Elite status each year, as well as complimentary Wi-Fi.

Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card

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What to Know About This Card

  • Annual Fee: $95
  • Travel Rewards Highlights: 12x Hilton Honors points for purchases made at Hilton, 6x points on restaurant, supermarket and gas purchases, 3x points on all other purchases
  • Introductory Offers: Earn 130,000 Hilton Honors Bonus Points after you spend $2,000 or more in purchases with your new Card within the first 3 months of card membership
  • Top Perks: Complimentary Hilton Honors Gold status, with the ability to upgrade to Diamond status with $40,000 in annual spending. Also, no foreign transaction fees

Why We Like It: Hilton has three tiers of American Express cards that range from no annual fee all the way up to $450. This one is in the sweet spot at $95. While the 12x points on Hilton spending is nice, you can also rack up the rewards with 6x spending on three key everyday spending categories.


Best Travel Card for Business Travel

Chase Ink Business Preferred®

Chase Ink Business Preferred credit card

What to Know About This Card

  • Annual Fee: $95
  • Travel Rewards Highlights: Earn three points per $1 spent on purchases involving travel, shipping, internet, cable, phone services and on advertising purchases made with social media sites and search engines (maximum of $150,000 in spending per year)
  • Introductory Offers: 100,000 bonus points after you spend $15,000 on purchases in the first three months after account opening
  • Top Perks: 25% bonus if you redeem points as travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards, can add employee cards at no additional cost

Why We Like It: If you have your own business, you can really rack up travel rewards points based on both your spending and that of your employees. And with a 25% redemption bonus on travel, you can make sure you get the most out of that spending. For example, you’d be able to claim travel worth $1,250 with the welcome bonus and redemption bonus combined.


Best Travel Card for High-Volume Travel

American Express Platinum Card

American Express Platinum Card

What to Know About This Card

  • Annual Fee: $550
  • Travel Rewards Highlights: 5x points on airline and hotel purchases
  • Introductory Offers: Earn 75,000 points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in your first six months of membership. Plus earn 10x points at gas stations and supermarkets during your first six months of membership (up to $15,000 in spending).
  • Top Perks: Automatic gold status with both Marriott and Hilton’s reward programs, reimbursement for Global Entry or TSA Precheck membership, $200 in annual Uber credits, $100 annual shopping credit and $100 annual on-site hotel credits

Why We Like It: Clark recommends against spending this much on an annual fee, but if you’re a high-volume traveler who enjoys the finer things, it’s hard to go wrong with this elite card. Depending on your habits, you can recoup much of the $550 annual fee by claiming the statement credit offers. You’ll also get access to premium travel programs like the Fine Hotels & Resorts® Program, The Global Lounge Collection® and the International Airline Program.


Clark Howard’s Warning for Travel Credit Cards

Travel cards have rewards that can help take you to the most desirable places on the globe. It’s easy to see why they’re popular.

But are they actually in your best financial interests? Clark cautions against getting too carried away with the fantasies associated with travel credit cards.

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“If you’re going to do any type of airline or hotel card, you need to understand that they’re typically going to have, at minimum, an annual fee of roughly $100. And in some cases that is actually more like $300-$500,” Clark cautions.

“So you need to have a really high charge volume to make it work. I’m talking about charge volumes of a minimum of $10,000 per month to make many of these cards worth getting.”

That level of spending is often achieved by business owners. But if you’re considering this for a personal card, make sure that your monthly spending is on that level.

Clark says he sees people pulling travel cards out of their wallets all the time, but few of those people are spending enough each month to make these cards worth it.

“There are so many people that I see all around who pull out these Sky Miles reward cards, and I know that they’re not traveling constantly on Delta. They’re not charging $10,000 per month. And it just doesn’t pay,” Clark says.

So who’s actually best served by travel cards? Clark says that the market for people who spend enough to see the benefits is pretty small.

“Typically, it’s for corporate travelers who are not paying for their own tickets,” Clark says. “They use the card and the points for their personal and family travel.”

Before the pandemic, Clark averaged between 25 and 30 trips per year. This frequent travel is why he carries a Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority credit card in his wallet.


Clark Howard’s General Strategy for Credit Cards

Clark believes it’s important to have a credit card to build and maintain a solid credit history. That’s to prepare you for big life events, like a home purchase or a job application, which require credit checks.

He also believes that, before you start focusing on credit card rewards, you need to be paying off your balance each month.

If you carry a balance each month, Clark would point you to a credit card with the lowest possible fixed interest rate or advise you to avoid credit cards altogether.

Assuming you’re here because you’re looking to get the maximum benefits from your credit cards, Clark wants you to think about how you spend your money and how that might best be complemented by a card rewards program.

“Really think through your charge patterns and whether or not those rewards really give you a bang for your buck.”

Clark carries the Costco Anywhere Visa card in his wallet because he’s a frequent Costco shopper. He also likes the Citi Double Cash card because its unlimited 2% cash back program is so simple.


Methodology for Travel Rewards Credit Card Analysis

For the purposes of determining which travel rewards cards are “best,” we got input from Clark and sought to find cards that fit his credit card strategy best.

Team Clark spent many hours reviewing the travel rewards credit cards on the market, assessing them for several factors including:

  • Annual fees (Clark recommends avoiding them)
  • Travel rewards programs
  • Welcome bonuses
  • Length of introductory APR periods
  • Balance transfer introductory periods
  • Additional fees (transaction or otherwise)
  • Perks offered to cardholders

We did not factor in non-introductory APRs as a part of the evaluation, because interest rates will vary based on your financial circumstances. If you’re able to follow Clark’s advice to pay off your balance every month, the regular interest rate shouldn’t matter to you anyway.

We also did not include offerings from local or regional banks or credit unions because those cards aren’t available to everyone. Often, local institutions will have desirable cards, so we recommend that you compare your local bank or credit union’s travel rewards credit cards to the ones that have made this list.


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