Best Travel Credit Cards and How to Use Them

Consumer reward programs have existed in one form or another for over 200 years, but they experienced their heyday in the 1980s with the advent of frequent flyer programs. Travel reward programs are still some of the most generous reward programs in retail, giving you air miles every time you spend and letting you use these miles to see the world.

Whether you’re a big spender or not, if you want to get more from the purchases you make every day, a travel rewards card could be just the ticket. Keep reading to discover what the best travel reward cards are and to learn essential information like:

  • Are travel reward cards better than standard reward cards?
  • How do air miles compare to cash back programs?
  • How much is an air mile worth?
  • What’s the best way to spend frequent flyer miles?

How do Travel Cards Work?

Travel credit cards are reward cards aimed at frequent flyers. They include cards that offer increased cash back every time a user purchases transportation and hospitality expenses, but generally the term is used to refer to cards that offer air miles or frequent flyer miles.

Where these cards are concerned, there are generally two types of air mile, those aimed at specific airlines and those available for use with all airlines. With the former, your options are limited. If you have $1,000 to spend on a holiday, you’d look for the cheapest flight, hotel, car transfer, etc., If you were forced to use a specific airline and service provider, that $1,000 might not stretch as far as you’d like.

As a result, generic air miles are generally the better option. 

A good rule of thumb for travel credit cards is that 1 mile is worth one cent, but this changes depending on whether you’re flying domestic or international and whether you’re opting for first-class or economy. Generally speaking, the more expensive the flight and the more premium services you choose, the more value you will get from your air miles.

Travel Cards (Air Miles) vs Reward Cards (Cash Back)

Typically, cash back reward cards are the better option if you don’t fly that often. However, frequent flyers hitting the skies several times a year will nearly always benefit more from air mile rewards, as these give you more bang for your buck. The exact value will depend on the program and the purchase, but airmiles can often net you a value that is 2 to 4 times larger than a cash back scheme.

That’s not all, either. In addition to air mile programs, travel cards offer several other benefits, including priority boarding, discounts on hotels and services, and a bunch of freebies. Again, none of this will make sense to the average consumer, but for someone who flies frequently these services can save a lot of time and money. 

The Best Travel Cards

What follows is a list of the best travel reward cards based on our own criteria. This list can help you find the right card for you, but it shouldn’t serve as your only research. Just because a credit card is right for one consumer doesn’t mean it will be right for everyone. 

How and where you spend your money will dictate which cards are right for you, as will your job, salary, and even marital status, as cards that are ideal for businesspersons and solo travelers may not be a good fit for families.

Capital One Venture Rewards

Every 10,000 miles on the Capital One Venture Rewards card equates to $100 in cash, which means the 50,000-bonus offer is worth an impressive $500. To get this bonus, you simply need to spend $3,000 during the first three months. After this period, you can earn double points on every single purchase you make, regardless of whether it’s a train ticket, meal or grocery purchase.

The air miles you receive are not tied to any specific airline, which means you can go where you want and shop around for the option that costs the least.

  • Network: Capital One
  • Rewards Scheme: Air miles not tied to any specific airline
  • Annual Fee: $95 ($0 for first year)
  • Interest Rate: 17.24% to 24.49% Variable APR
  • Intro Bonus: $500 (50,000 points)
  • Intro Offer: $100 application credit for TSA Pre or Global Entry.

Discover It Miles

The Discover It card has featured on many of our top lists, from reward credit cards to secured and student credit cards. The Discover It Miles credit card has many of the same great benefits, but this time it is aimed at frequent travelers.

There is no annual fee and consumers can earn 1.5x air miles every time they spend. What’s more, during your first year, Discover will match all the rewards you earn with no limit. If you earn 20,000 miles, they’ll give you another 20,000, for a total of 40,000 or the equivalent of $400.

You can also convert your miles into cash if your busy schedule slows down and you stop traveling as much as you once did.

  • Network: Discover
  • Rewards Scheme: Use miles to travel or convert into cash
  • Annual Fee: $0
  • Interest Rate: 13.49% to 24.49% Variable APR
  • Intro Bonus: Miles doubled at the end of the year

Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority 

The Southwest Rapid Rewards card has one of the highest fees for any standard travel rewards cards and when you consider that all air miles are tied to a single airline, it can seem like a pretty raw deal. However, there are some added extras to make it worthwhile.

For instance, there are no foreign transaction fees with this card, all members can secure $75 in credit every year and an additional 7,500 points on their first-year anniversary. When you sign up and spend $1,000 in three months and $5,000 in 6 months, you’ll also trigger a payout of 40,000 points and then 35,000 points, for a total boost of 75,000.

And that’s not all, as card members can earn points every time they spend, get 20% back on in-flight purchases, and upgrade their boarding four times a year.

  • Network: Visa
  • Rewards Scheme: Air miles tied to Southwest Airlines
  • Annual Fee: $149 ($0 for first year)
  • Interest Rate: 17.49% to 24.49% Variable APR
  • Intro Bonus: 75,000 points
  • Intro Offer: $75 credit every year plus airline bonuses

Bank of America Travel Rewards

The Bank of America Travel Visa card offers 1.5 points on every $1 that you spend and gives all new users 25,000 points when they spend $1,000 during the first three months of use. There is no annual fee, no foreign transaction fees, and members of the Preferred Rewards Program can secure even more benefits with payouts that are up to 75% greater.

  • Network: Visa
  • Rewards Scheme: Turn points into travel rewards
  • Annual Fee: $0
  • Interest Rate: 16.49% to 24.49% Variable APR
  • Intro Bonus: 25,000 points
  • Intro Offer: Earn between 25% and 75% as a preferred member

American Express Gold Card

American Express credit cards often has the best rewards for businesses and for high-spending personal users; the American Express Golden Card is a great example of this. You can earn 35,000 points when you spend $4,000 during your first three months and there are also regular statement credits to secure when you use your card at specific vendors.

At $250, the annual fee is very high, but if you have a good credit score you’ll get a low interest rate and can earn 3 to 4 times more points every time you spend money in airports and supermarkets.

  • Network: American Express
  • Rewards Scheme: Point-based system
  • Annual Fee: $250
  • Interest Rate: 17.49% to 25.49% Variable APR
  • Intro Bonus: 35,000 points
  • Intro Offer: $100 airline credit

Capital One Spark Miles for Business

The Capital One Spark Miles credit card goes above and beyond and is one of the most reward-heavy cards on the market right now. Applicants can pick up 200,000 bonus miles for a limited time, and if they spend $5,000 during their first three months, they will earn an additional 50,000 miles.

Keep in mind that the average reward card user spends less than $900 and the average credit card user spends close to half that. Unless you’re a high-earner and a big spender, this bonus may be out of reach, but it has a low APR that comes in at less than 19% and you will be considered with a credit score of 670 and above; providing you can earn enough rewards to offset the annual fee and will use it for business purposes, it’s worth considering.

  • Network: Capital One
  • Rewards Scheme: Air miles and travel expenses
  • Annual Fee: $95 ($0 for first year)
  • Interest Rate: 18.49% Variable APR
  • Intro Bonus: $2,000 (200,000 Points) + 50,000 when you spend $5,000 in 3 months
  • Intro Offer: $100 application credit for TSA Pre or Global Entry.

Chase Sapphire Preferred

The Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card was created with big-spending frequent travelers in mind. It utilizes a point-based system and awards consumers with extra points every time they spend money on transport and travel, including a 5x points boost when using Lyft.

In addition, consumers are given a free subscription to DashPass, a service offered by DoorDash that provides free delivery on all food orders over $15. This subscription is worth around $100 a year and is ideal if you’re constantly on the road and find yourself placing regular food orders online.

This is not a travel reward card in the strictest sense, as it doesn’t use an air mile or frequent flyer system like the other ones on this list. However, travelers will benefit the most from this card and when all things are considered it can earn more benefits as one of the aforementioned cards.

  • Network: Visa
  • Rewards Scheme: Point-based, with bonuses for transportation and travel
  • Annual Fee: $95
  • Interest Rate: 17.49% to 24.49% Variable APR
  • Intro Bonus: $750 (60,000 points)
  • Intro Offer: Free DashPass subscription for one year.

Top Tips for Using Travel Credit Cards

Get the most from your travel credit card by keeping the following tips in mind. These tips are designed to keep risks low and rewards high, which is bad for the provider but perfect for you.

Calculate in Advance

Travel credit cards will tell you everything you need to know before you apply. You can find all the benefits in the terms and conditions, including the exact reward rate, air mile value, and other benefits. 

Once you have this information, you can calculate how beneficial the card will be based on your projected or previous expenditures. Consider values such as the amount of money spent on transport, hospitality, food, bills, and everything else that could earn you reward points; estimate how many points you would have earned, and see if this would actually save you money when compared to what you have now.

If the figure is low, you may be better off with a typical rewards credit card, one that offers you cash back instead of travel rewards and is designed to help you cover bills and other everyday expenses.

Repay Your Balance

As we have discussed many times before, reward credit cards are a great idea if you pay your balance in full every month and a terrible idea if you do not. They generally have higher interest rates than traditional credit cards as consumers focus more on the rewards and less on the cost. 

If you pay your balance, these rates won’t factor into the equation and ultimately it doesn’t matter how high they are. However, if you miss just a single balance the interest you accumulate could offset all those rewards.

The average reward card user spends just under $900 per month on these cards. Assuming a high reward rate of 3% for all purchases, you’ll earn $27 a month. However, if you have a balance of $10,000, an interest rate of 25% and a monthly payment of $300, you’ll be paying more than $200 in interest alone, none of which impacts the actual balance and all of which makes your $27 cash back look meaningless.

By option for a traditional credit card instead, you could shave a couple percentage points off the interest total and save tens of dollars a month. Even better, if you use a balance transfer card, you could get 0% interest for up to 18 months.

Pay Attention to the Fees

Some travel credit cards allow you to use your points to pay off all travel expenses. Whether you spend your money on flights, hotels or additional charges, if you have the points then you can simply offset those costs and effectively travel for free. Others, however, provide free flights only and for these programs you will be required to cover extra costs such as baggage charges and taxes.

Most schemes will cover you for domestic costs, but if you’re using your points to fly abroad you could be over $200 out of pocket by the time these fees are added.

Look for Limits

Travel reward cards lure you in with the promise of introductory rewards, bonus points, and higher payouts for specific purchases. However, many of these offers are limited to a specific timeframe or dollar amount. For instance, they may offer you up to 5x more points on groceries but drop back down to 1x when you spend just $5,000 during a single calendar year.

The dollar amount mentioned in these limits refers to your annual spend and not your potential rewards. For instance, if a card states the following: 

  • Earn 5% cash back on groceries (up to $1,000)

This means that the first $1,000 you spend in a calendar year will earn you a 5% rate, ($50 total) and not that you can earn up to $1,000 in cash back with that rate.

Find the Expiration Date

Expiry dates are rare on cash back reward cards and you can accumulate points at will and use them whenever you’re ready. With point and mile-based systems, however, there are limits regarding when these miles need to be used by.

Consult the terms and conditions before you apply to make sure these limits are suitable. If you only fly once a year or once every other year, there’s no point signing up for a card that demands you use all points within 6 months.