Ahhh, travel. Just the thought of jet-setting to a tropical paradise can turn a gloomy day into a joyful one.
But this trip you’re dreaming about likely isn’t cheap! So instead of starting to plot and plan your next excursion, you might be tempted to avert your gaze to more humdrum tasks, devolving back into a hardened realist.
Well, turn that frown upside down! Because the truth is that travel rewards cards can allow you to take epic trips for little to no money. That trip (like Beyonce’s love) might not cost you a dang thing.
We talked about that very thing with Brian Kelly (aka The Points Guy) in episode 571 of the How To Money podcast and got so excited about the prospect of jet-setting for nearly free that we decided to share some of the best cards if you’re ready to get started travel hacking.
Chase Sapphire Preferred
The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is the best all-around travel rewards card – and it has been for quite some time. And while some of the best travel cards come with exorbitant annual fees, this one will only cost you $95.
You might retort, but aren’t fees against the HTM ethos? Typically, yes. But not if the price of admission is less than the value you’re going to receive from that card- the “ROI” could easily make it worth it.
First things first, the sign-up bonus of 60,000 points is legit. In order to qualify, you’ll need to spend $4,000 in the first three months of receiving the card. This perk alone translates to $750 worth of airfare or hotel bookings. Not too shabby!
If you travel on the reg, the other benefits you’ll get from this card will more than cover that annual fee too. If you are a habitual rideshare user, 5x points on Lyft rides is pretty sweet. You’ll also net 3x points when you use the card for eating out. Plus, you snag 5x points on travel booked through Chase ultimate rewards.
Want more no-cost benefits? The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card charges no foreign transaction fees. You’ll also get free trip cancellation insurance and primary rental car insurance which help make this card a slam dunk.
Because of the value that this card provides, most folks really should have this credit card in their wallet, including reward card newbies.
Capital One Venture Rewards Card
The Capital One Venture Rewards Card is easily one of the top credit cards for travel reward beginners. This card also comes with an annual fee of $95. Although you’ll be able to earn 75,000 points when you spend $4,000 within the first three months of receiving this card.
And you don’t need to be a habitual traveler who is on the road every month in order to maximize the rewards this card has to offer. Instead of unlimited airport lounge visits, you only get two per year in one of the 100+ Capital One airport lounges. That’s perfect for someone who is just getting started! And it helps keep the annual fee to a minimum.
Other perks include 2x miles for every dollar you spend. That might sound basic, but it’s pretty generous considering it applies to every single purchase you might make! So rather than shuffling through all your different credit cards to optimize your points, keep it simple with a standard 2x travel card. (Plus, nobody wants an exploding wallet!)
You’ll also get a $100 credit that will cover your fee for Global Entry & TSA Precheck. The more you travel the more valuable that time-saving benefit gives you.
This credit card is definitely in contention for the top travel reward credit card out there.
Side note: Some folks might also want to check out the Venture X card. It comes with a bigger annual fee but also comes with some additional perks like a $300 annual travel credit and cell phone protection.
Citi Premier Card
The Citi Premier Card is in the vein of the two cards we just talked about, albeit with slightly fewer perks. You will get 80,000 points for spending $4,000 over the course of the first three months, which is pretty great.
The best feature of this card is the plethora of categories for which you can earn 3x points when you spend with it. You’ll score that 3x perk at restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations, and, of course, hotels and airlines. If those are your top spend categories this card can make a whole lot of sense for you.
Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card
In our recent conversation with Brian Kelly (aka The Points Guy) we talked about the massive benefits that the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card can provide for folks who like to travel domestically. The thing is, Southwest is an incredible airline known for their low costs and top-notch customer service.
But you won’t typically get very far on a Southwest flight. They don’t fly to Europe, Asia, or Australia. Southwest does serve some markets outside the US including Mexico, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, The Bahamas and Jamaica, but that’s not their bread and butter.
You can snag 50,000 Southwest points when you spend $1,000 in the first three months on this card. That alone can get you out there for a few domestic explorations!
The airline-specific card lacks many of the rewards and perks that the other cards we’ve mentioned boast in spades. But if regular domestic travel on Southwest fits your travel lifestyle, it can be a worthwhile card to have in your wallet.
American Express® Gold Card
This is the first card we’ve recommended where the annual fee creeps into triple digits. It’s $250 on this card. That’s not cheap! But, with the ability to earn 4x on groceries and at restaurants, it could still be worthwhile for you.
This card also has an intro offer of 60,000 points when you spend $4,000 within the first six months of card membership.
Some of the coolest secondary perks that the American Express® Gold Card offers are no foreign transaction fees, extended warranty protection, which gives you a full year of additional coverage on items you buy, and purchase protection, which means that damaged or stolen items you bought within the last 90 days are fully covered.
One random perk for you style-conscious folks is that you can opt to get this card in an adorable rose gold color. But please don’t pick this card for that reason alone.
The Platinum Card® from American Express
This card is the flashier, slightly more expensive twin to the American Express® Gold Card. And my little sister has sworn by this one for years. My personal hesitation has always been that it comes with a $695 annual fee, which is way more than the other cards on this list.
Sounds shocking, right!? But the truth is this card can be well worth that annual fee because of the secondary perks it comes with. That is, if you use them properly.
So let’s list out some of those fabulous perks! The Platinum Card® from American Express comes with a $200 annual hotel credit, a $240 digital entertainment credit (aka streaming), a $155 Walmart+ credit, and 100% reimbursement for Clear membership (a $189 value). There’s also a significant Uber Eats credit and an airline fee credit. If you end up getting value from just half of the secondary perks that American Express offers on this card it’ll be well worth forking over that annual fee.
Many travelers also covet the access they receive to the American Express global lounges which exist across more than 1,400 airports around the world. If you like to get out and see the world often, this perk will make your time in the airport a little more comfortable. It’s hard to put a price tag on this benefit but dedicated travelers are likely to enjoy it heartily.
What About The Dozens of Other Travel Reward Credit Cards?
There are, of course, other travel credit cards in existence that will suit folks well too. Some come with even richer rewards and higher annual fees. Others will garner you rewards for specific hotel chains or airlines. And some of those might be a perfect fit for you!
But, it’s our belief that for travel reward credit card beginners, that it makes sense to stick to some of the pieces of plastic that we’ve mentioned above because they offer the most flexibility when it comes to earning and redeeming those perks across a wide range of travel providers.
Important Caveats Before You Apply For a Travel Reward Credit Card
These travel cards can be a boon for your ability to see the world while paying less money. But here are the rules you’ll want to abide by before you start applying willy nilly.
- Read the fine print. There are minimum spend limits on many of these cards in order to get the headline sign-up bonus. If you can’t spend that much money in the allotted time, don’t apply for the card. Running the math on the likely benefits you’ll receive based on how you spend before you sign up for one of these cards would be wise.
- Don’t spend extra just to accrue points. If getting one of these cards is going to cause you to spend more than you should, don’t do it. We don’t want you to buy things that you don’t need just to bank points for future travel. That’s like cutting off your nose to spite your face!
- Pay attention to your credit score. Do you have a good enough credit score to qualify for one of these cards? You’ll want to make sure before you submit an application. The truth is that signing up for a new credit card will ding your credit score just a bit. But that minor damage doesn’t last long. Plus, having more credit available to you will actually boost your score over time. Still, be careful because that new credit card could be too costly- especially if you’re applying for a mortgage.
- Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Dip your toe in by signing up for one of these cards that will offer you the most substantial rewards based on your spending patterns. It’s possible to go too hard too fast which could sour you on the whole idea. Remember, the tortoise wins the race. Starting small increases your chances of success. Plus, these bonuses and rewards aren’t going anywhere.
- Consider the overall value of that card in your life. Paying for goods and services you would normally buy via a tool that offers substantial perks makes sense to us. But it’s important to consider your own money goals and spending habits before jumping in with both feet. Will the hassle of accruing rewards outweigh the benefits? The answer to that depends on your specific situation.
Does It Even Make Sense to Get A Credit Card for Travel Rewards?
It is possible to nerd out on travel rewards cards too hard. And in order to optimize the rewards you’re accruing, it’s important to do your research. Whether you redeem rewards through the portal of your credit card provider or through an airline directly depends on a few factors. And the route you choose will have a direct impact on the value you get from them.
Depending on which card you get, the difficulty level for redeeming points can vary. But the cards we’ve recommended in this article offer the simplest and broadest accrual and spending options.
If travel isn’t your thing or you find the whole travel rewards credit card game to be a bit complex, simple cash back credit cards can still offer 2x on every purchase you make, allowing you to partake in the rewards bounty without getting a migraine.
But, if you don’t mind doing a little extra work, adding the right credit cards that specialize in travel rewards can be a boon to the disciplined spender, allowing you to take incredible trips at a fraction of the cost you’d otherwise pay.
Enjoy your trip and don’t forget to send us a pic from your exotic destinations!
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