Whether you’re actually traveling or working your way toward a trip, the right credit card can be a big help in getting you there.
There are three things that rewards credit cards can do for you, and it’s important to know why you’ve taken a particular card, and to use it accordingly.
Some are best for the sign-up bonus miles. They’ll give you a ton of points for taking the card, but there’s not really a reason to keep the card after you’ve earned the bonus.
Some are best for ongoing spending. They reward you with valuable points, and lots of them—bonuses for spending on travel, dining, groceries, and the like.
Some are best for the valuable perks. If you fly an airline a lot but not quite enough to earn elite status, the airline’s co-branded credit card will give you many of the same perks, such as priority boarding and free checked bags. Still others get you lounge access or special discounts on airfare. You want to carry these cards, but you don’t necessarily want to put spending on them.
The Chase Sapphire Reserve Card has been the ‘it’ card on the market. It launched with a 100,000-point sign-up bonus, though that’s been dialed back to a still-generous 50,000 points. Ongoing spending is rewarded generously with triple points on travel and dining. The points can either be used to purchase airfare directly at 1.5 cents in value per point or transferred to a variety of airline and hotel frequent-flier programs. And though the annual fee is $450, the card’s perks are generous: a $300 travel credit, credit of the application fee for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, and a Priority Pass Select card with unlimited visits and privileges for two complimentary guests each time, providing lounge access in about 40 U.S. airports and to about 1000 airport lounges around the world. Travel protections are generous, including primary collision-damage coverage when you rent cars, and there are no foreign-transaction fees.
Here are some of the best cards in each category:
Cards With the Best Bonuses for Signing Up
Chase Sapphire Preferred Card: You’ll earn 50,000 points after spending $4,000 on the card within three months. This isn’t the biggest number bonus you’ll ever see, but the points are among the most valuable out there, transferring to airlines including United, British Airways, and Singapore, and to hotel programs including Hyatt and Marriott. The card’s $95 fee is waived the first year.
If you have a small business, then the Chase Ink Business Preferred Credit Card will be very tempting. You’ll earn 80,000 points after spending $5,000 on purchases within three months of opening your account. This card earns the same transferable points as the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Sapphire Reserve, so they transfer to various airlines and hotels. Here’s a hint: The card has a $95 annual fee, but if you apply at a Chase branch, they’re waiving the fee for your first year.
Cards that are Best for Ongoing Spending
Chase Sapphire Reserve: The card earns a valuable currency that transfers to several airline and hotel programs, and it also earns triple points on all travel and all dining. It’s a Visa card, so it is accepted almost everywhere, and there are no foreign-transaction fees either.
Amex Everyday Preferred: American Express went about designing a card for multi-tasking moms and wound up building the strongest American Express Membership Rewards–earning card on the market. It gives you a 50% bonus on all points earned if you use it 30 times in a month, and it also has spending bonus categories on top. AmEx points transfer to many airlines, including Singapore, British Airways, All Nippon, Air France, Delta, and Alitalia. Note that the sibling of this card, the Amex Everyday, is the only no-annual-fee card whose points transfer 1-to-1 into your choice of airline miles.
Chase Freedom Unlimited: If you have a Chase Sapphire Preferred or Reserve or the Ink Business Preferred, then get the Freedom Unlimited to go along with it. This no-fee card earns 1.5 points per dollar on all spending, and you can transfer these points to your Sapphire or Ink account and from there to airline or hotel points. Then use your other cards where they earn bonuses, and use this one where they don’t. That way you never earn fewer than 1.5 points per dollar on your spending.
American Express Gold Card: American Express renamed the “Premier Rewards Gold” card and really improved it. It earns 4 points per dollar at US restaurants and supermarkets, and 3 points per dollar with airlines. It has a $250 annual fee, which is offset by a $100 travel credit (like American Express Platinum, I’ve had luck choosing American Airlines as my preferred airline for the credit and buying a $100 electronic gift card). They’ve also added a $120 annual dining credit with certain food delivery services and restaurants. Use this card where it earns bonuses, and the Amex Everyday Preferred where it doesn’t, so you’ll never earn fewer than 1.5 points per dollar.
Cards With the Best Perks and Benefits
Generally, airline co-branded credit cards are worthwhile for the benefits if you fly one airline most of the time but don’t fly enough to earn elite status. You’ll get waived checked-baggage fees and priority boarding (so you can avoid having to gate-check your carry-on when the plane runs out of overhead-bin space). With United’s card you’ll also get two annual airline lounge passes. These cards aren’t as rewarding as the others on this list, though, for your ongoing spend. So consider getting them for the benefits, but put your spending on other cards.
American Express Platinum: This card is great for lounge access. It gets you into Delta lounges, as well as into American Express’s own network of Centurion lounges (currently in Las Vegas, San Francisco, Dallas–Fort Worth, New York-LaGuardia, Seattle, Philadelphia, Houston, and Miami, and coming to Los Angeles, Denver, and New York–JFK), and it comes with a Priority Pass Select card, which provides access to lounges around the world. You also get National Car Rental’s Executive status (that means you can pick from better cars when you rent), Hilton’s Gold status (good for upgrades and breakfast), and Marriott’s Gold status (which enables you to avoid unfortunate rooms and get 2pm late checkout). You also get unlimited Boingo internet access on the road, an annual credit of of $200 for airline fees (I’ve had success just buying a couple of American Airlines electronic gift cards and having those count toward the credit), and an annual Uber credit of $200. In addition, they’ll refund the application fee for Global Entry. That all, to me, makes this card’s $550 annual fee worth paying.
Alaska Airlines Visa Signature: This Bank of America card comes with the unique benefit of a $99+tax companion ticket that isn’t like most companion tickets in travel—it really is good for any seat on any of their flights. If you pay for an economy ticket on Alaska, you can book a companion for only slightly more than $100. I consider the companion ticket to be worth the card’s $75 annual fee, since it’s good throughout Alaska’s route network—even for trips between the U.S. East Coast and Hawaii.
Note: Canadian readers, please see our article Best Credit Cards for Canadian travelers.