The top travel credit cards offer a lot more than points on your everyday spending. With a solid plan in place, credit card rewards can actually make your travel dreams come true.
Imagine flying business class to Tokyo for pennies on the dollar or spending five nights at a luxury resort in the Maldives for the cost of a boat ride to your secluded private island.
With travel rewards, all of that and more could be yours; all it takes is some planning, some time to build up your stash of points, and a few strategic cards that make sense with your travel goals and finding the best frequent flyer credit card for you.
And if it’s family travel you’re after, travel credit cards are the perfect tool. By putting almost all of your everyday spending on a top travel credit card, you can earn enough points to score free hotel stays, almost-free domestic and international flights, and plenty of other travel experiences your family might not be able to afford otherwise.
Best Travel Credit Cards for 2018
Before we dig into the details, let’s take a closer look at our top picks among all of the best travel rewards credit cards:
- Best All-Around: Chase Sapphire Preferred®
- Best Airline Credit Card for Domestic Flights – Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier® Credit Card
- Best Hotel Rewards – Marriott Rewards® Premier Plus Credit Card
- Best Flexible Card – Discover it® Miles
- Easiest Signup Bonus – BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Credit Card
- No Blackout Dates – Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard
- Best Airline Specific Travel Rewards Card – Citi®/ AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard®
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card: Best All-Around Travel Card
The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card offers more than just a huge signup bonus. As part of the Chase Ultimate Rewards program, this card doles out points that are highly celebrated and touted as some of the most valuable in the industry.
After spending just $4,000 on your card within 90 days, you’ll earn 50,000 points worth $625 in travel if you book through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal. And if you don’t want to book travel directly, you have several other options including transferring your points to the top airline and hotel transfer partners in the business or redeeming them for gift cards or cash back (if you are going to do cashback you should consider a cashback rewards card instead).
Transferring to one of Chase’s travel partners can be especially lucrative since all points transfer at a 1:1 ratio. Your current options include:
- United Airlines
- Southwest Airlines
- British Airways
- Korean Air
- Singapore KrisFlyer
- Virgin Atlantic
- Aer Lingus
If you want to earn flexible rewards you can use in a number of ways, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is probably your best bet. Here are the details you should consider before you pull the trigger and start racking up rewards:
- Earn 50,000 points after you spend $4,000 within 90 days of account opening
- Earn 2X points on travel and dining, plus 1X points on all purchases
- $95 annual fee, waived the first year
- No foreign transaction fees
- Free primary auto coverage, plus trip cancellation/interruption insurance
Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier® Credit Card
If you’re looking for a travel credit card that can help you fly around the U.S. or to the Caribbean, the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier® Credit Card should be at the top of your list. With this card, you’ll earn points good for flights all over the United states and to destinations like Aruba, Punta Cana, Montego Bay, Nassau, and Cancun. The best part is, the Southwest Rapid Rewards loyalty program comes with no blackout dates or capacity controls.
The signup bonus on this card can be worth up to two round-trip flights anywhere in the U.S. or to the Caribbean. As an added bonus, Southwest Airlines lets your first two bags fly free. For a family of four, that’s a savings of at least $100 just on baggage fees alone. Keep reading to learn more:
- Earn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 within 90 days of account opening
- Earn 2X points on Southwest purchases, plus 1X points on all purchases
- $99 annual fee, not waived
Marriott Rewards® Premier Plus Credit Card: Earn Free Stays at Thousands of Hotels Worldwide
The Marriott Rewards® Premier Plus Credit Card is easily one of the most useful hotel credit cards in the business. The current offer on this card is also one of the most lucrative. For a limited time, you’ll earn 75,000 points after you spend just $3,000 on the card within 90 days. Score!
Other perks include a free one-night stay at any Category 1-5 property on your card holder anniversary. Meanwhile, you’ll earn 5X points on Marriott purchases, 2X points one airfare purchased from airlines, car rental agencies, and at restaurants, and 1 points per dollar spent everywhere else.
Before you sign up, consider these pertinent details as well:
- Earn 75, 000 points after you spend $3,000 on the card within 90 days!
- Get a free Category 1-5 hotel stay after on your account anniversary
- $85 annual fee
- Get automatic Marriott Silver status
Discover it® Miles: Best Flexible Card
If you’re looking for a card that lets you earn miles good for anything, the Discover it® Miles is a smart option. With this card, you’ll earn 1.5 miles for every dollar you spend. Plus, Discover promises to double the amount of miles you earn after the first year!
After 12 months, you will have effectively earned 3 miles for every dollar spent. Since each “mile” is worth one cent, you can see how this could add up quickly. For example, $10,000 in annual spending would earn 30,000 miles worth $300 after the first year, while $20,000 in spending would equal 60,000 miles worth $600.
The best about this card is, you’ll never pay an annual fee. Keep reading for more details:
- Earn 1.5 points for every dollar you spend
- No annual fee
- Earn double the miles during your first year
BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Credit Card: Easy-to-Earn Signup Bonus
While the BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Credit Card isn’t one that would normally make our list, this card currently sits here because of its increased signup bonus and low minimum spending requirement.
With this card, you’ll score an online bonus of 20,000 points worth $200 after you spend just $1,000 on the card within 90 days. In addition to the bonus, you’ll also earn an unlimited 1.5 points on every dollar you spend.
While the points you earn with this card don’t transfer to specific hotel or airline loyalty programs, they are good for travel with any hotel chain or airline. Simply book any type of travel you want, then redeem your points in the form of a statement credit. It’s as simple as that.
Before you sign up, here are some more details to consider:
- Earn 1.5 points for every dollar you spend
- No annual fee and no foreign transaction fees
- Spend $1,000 on your card within 90 days and earn 20,000 bonus points worth $200 in travel
- 0% Introductory APR for 12 billing cycles for purchases, then 15.24% – 23.24% Variable APR
Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®: Book Travel with No Blackout Dates
The unique way the Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® doles out points makes it one of the most transparent travel credit cards currently on the market. With this card, you’ll earn 2 points per dollar spent on all purchases, plus a signup bonus worth 60,000 points – or $600 in travel – after you spend just $5,000 within the first 90 days. That’s enough for one free round-trip domestic flight or several nights at your favorite lower-tier hotel or resort!
The cool thing about this card is that you can book any type of travel without worrying about blackout dates or capacity controls. Simply book any travel experience, flight, or hotel stay that works for your schedule with your card, then redeem your points as a statement credit.
Most details you should know include:
- Earn 60,000 “miles” worth $600 in travel after you spend $3,000 on your card within 90 days
- Earn 2X miles for every dollar you spend
- No foreign transaction fees
- $89 annual fee, not waived the first year
Citi®/ AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard®: Best Airline Credit Card
The Citi®/ AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard® is the perfect card for anyone with a focus on international or domestic itineraries. Either way, the American AAdvantage program is known for offering plenty of availability (most of the time) and airline partners that make it easy to find award flights to nearly anywhere in the world.
With this card, you’ll earn 60,000 American AAdvantage miles after you spend just $3,000 on the card within 90 days. That’s enough miles for two round-trip domestic flights. Beyond the signup bonus, this card awards you and four travel companions with a free checked bag on domestic itineraries, group 1 boarding on American flights, and no foreign transaction fees on purchases made abroad.
- Earn 60,000 American AAdvantage miles after you spend $3,000 on your new card within 90 days
- $95 annual fee, waived the first year
- No foreign transaction fees
- Free checked bag for you and up to four travel companions
Getting Free Travel with Credit Card Rewards: How to Get Started
For the most part, the key to figuring out which card is best for your needs is deciding where you want to go. What does your ideal trip look like? Do you want to stay in a hotel or condo?
Do you want to fly all over the world or mostly stick to train travel?
Would you rather sink into a white sand beach with a cold drink, or go hiking through the Swiss Alps?
When it comes to rewards, the sky is truly the limit. You can truly go almost anywhere, but your first step is figuring out a way to narrow your selection of destinations down.
Aside from deciding where you want to go and when, here’s what you’ll need to get started:
- A credit score over 700, but ideally over 720. The best travel credit cards are geared to individuals with good or excellent credit, which usually means a score over 720. Lower scores are occasionally acceptable if other employment and income conditions are met.
- A debt-free lifestyle. If you are paying down credit card debt, you need credit card rewards like you need a hole in the head. Pay down your consumer debts and get on solid financial footing before you even consider travel hacking or pursuing rewards.
- A plan to stay organized. While it’s easy to keep track of a single rewards card, having two, three or four can easily cause you to forget some of the important details. To stay on top of it all, you’ll want to keep a simple spreadsheet or list with details such as when you sign up, when you earned the signup bonus, and when (or if) an annual fee will be charged.
Rules for Getting the Most Out of Your Travel Credit Card
Before you sign up for any of the best credit card offers, it’s important to set yourself up for success. For most people, that means creating a long-term plan to pursue the upside of credit card rewards while minimizing your exposure to the downside.
Here are some tips that can help you earn an almost unlimited number of points and miles without getting in over your head – or worse, spiraling into credit card debt:
Rule #1 Only spend what you can afford to repay right away.
If you’re credit for the sole purpose of earning rewards, the most important thing you can do is avoid paying credit card interest at all costs! Paying interest will mostly likely cancel out the value of your rewards, which defeats the purpose of having a rewards card to begin with!
To avoid getting into debt, only use your card for purchases you know you can pay off right away. Never use your card for unplanned expenses or “splurges,” and pay your entire bill promptly as soon as you receive it.
Rule #2 Use your credit card as a compliment to your monthly budget – not in place of it.
If you’re worried using credit might cause you to overspend, try using your credit card as a compliment to a monthly budget you create.
Write out a list of expenses you can charge on your credit card – then use your card to fulfill your spending plan for the month. Once you have put all of your planned monthly expenses on credit, feel free to pack your card away or stick it in the back of your wallet. The best way to make credit work in your favor is to only use it for planned expenses, and use it conjunction with a monthly budget or spending plan.
Rule #3 Rack up extra points by using your card for everyday spending, but pay it off right away.
The easiest way to rack up rewards quickly is to focus your credit spending on bills and expenses you needed to pay anyway – things like groceries, gas, and utility bills. However, some of these expenses tend to take on a life of their own if left unchecked. This works VERY well for business owners who use a travel card as their business credit card.
If you want to stay on track, it might be smart to “check in” with your credit card bill at least once per week as the month progresses. That way, you won’t be surprised when your monthly bill arrives in the mail.
When it does, however, you should pay it off right away. Don’t let a balance carry over or you could easily wind up with a revolving balance that will only grow over time.
Rule #4 Keep track of rewards details in a simple spreadsheet.
If you get to the point where you’re juggling multiple rewards cards, it’s extremely smart to keep track of any pertinent details in a simple spreadsheet. Factors you may want to track include when you signed up for a new card, when you earned the signup bonus, and when the annual fee comes due.
By keeping track of all of your rewards cards in one place, you can check in for a “snapshot” of your comprehensive rewards plan at any time.
Rule #5 Don’t forget to budget your entire trip – not just the parts you got for free.
The final rule to follow when using credit card rewards for travel is to budget for your entire trip – not just the parts you paid for with rewards. If you’re flying somewhere on airline miles, for example, you’ll need to budget for a hotel stay, food and drink, and entertainment once you arrive at your destination.
While travel rewards can make nearly any trip a lot more affordable, you shouldn’t let a lack of planning destroy your budget. Earning enough rewards for a free flight or hotel for a week is an awesome plan, but you still need to have money to eat, have fun, and enjoy yourself. And if you don’t plan ahead, you could wind up spending significantly more money than you ever dreamed.
If you’ve been trying to save for the perfect getaway but can’t seem to set aside the funds, it might make sense to look into airline miles, hotel points, and other types of rewards to see what kind of savings you can find. With the right strategy, you could even fly around the world, visit places you have never dreamed of seeing, or take your children or parents on a trip that will cause envy among even your closest friends.
With the right combination of cards, good or excellent credit, and some self-discipline, any trip you can dream up can be within your reach.
If you have any questions, feel free to ask away in the comments.
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