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Traveling can be expensive. After factoring in taxes, fees and accommodation costs, you might resign yourself to taking a staycation.

Using travel credit cards can make affordable trips possible, but deciphering the differences between them can be confusing. Learn more about the best travel rewards credit cards so that your supermarket visits can help you book a trip to a tropical paradise.

1. The types of travel rewards cards

Credit Cards fanned out, Visas, Master Cards
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There are several basic types of rewards you can earn from travel reward credit cards.

The basic types of travel reward credit cards are as follows:

  • Transferable points
  • Fixed-value point systems
  • Points that are redeemable for airline miles
  • Points that are redeemable for hotel stays
  • Cards with luxury perks
  • Travel rewards credit cards for businesses

Transferable points

If travel flexibility is important, you might want a card that allows you to transfer your points. With these, points can be cashed in with dozens of airlines or hotels. It’s best to wait to transfer your points until you’re ready to book your trip.

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The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card earns Chase Ultimate Rewards points, which can be transferred to several airline and hotel loyalty programs. It pays:

  • 1 point for every $1 spent.
  • 2 points for travel and restaurant dining purchases.

This card is one of the best overall travel rewards cards, and offers the most flexible ways to spend points.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
Credit Rating Needed:
Excellent, Good
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Who it's good for:

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card works well for cardholders with good credit scores, looking for flexible travel points.

Key benefits:

Earn 60,000 bonus points for travel---equivalent to $750 when redeemed---with the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card.

This premium card earns 2X points on travel and dining, and 1 point per dollar on all other purchases. Along with having a lower variable APR between , the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card allows for 1:1 point transfer to other airline and hotel loyalty programs.

Fixed-value travel rewards credit cards

Using a fixed-value rewards card can give you peace of mind when spending on miscellaneous travel expenses. With these, any expenditure that counts as travel can be redeemed with points, including Airbnb stays and flights that you can’t redeem miles for.

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People looking for simplicity might consider the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard®. It’s simple to use because the rates are easy to remember. Cardholders get double miles for every $1 spent on any purchase in any category.

Credit cards for airline miles

If you’re interested in the best credit card for airline miles and don’t need to earn points for other travel expenses, consider choosing a card that gives you airline-specific points. This is helpful if you usually use the same airline for travel.

You may not want to choose this option if the airline doesn’t fly out of a nearby airport. You’ll be more likely to use these points if it’s convenient to redeem them.

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Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card offers plenty of perks for frequent flyers. Cardholders earn:

  • 2 points points per $1 spent on purchases through Southwest and its Rapid Rewards hotel and car rental partners.
  • 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases.

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card
Credit Rating Needed:
Excellent, Good
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Who it's good for:

The Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card is an excellent card for regular customers of Southwest Airlines who want to redeem rewards for Southwest flights.

Key benefits:

Cardholders will earn 2 points for every $1 spent on Southwest purchases and Rapid Rewards hotel and car rental partner purchases. Cardholders will earn 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases.

Other perks include 20% back on in-flight drinks and Wi-Fi and $75 in Southwest travel credit each year.

Hotel rewards credit cards

Some of the best hotel rewards credit cards let you redeem points for hotel stays. They also provide bonus points for booking hotels. These can go a long way toward free accommodations if you stay in hotels frequently. But you have to think about the hotel chain that you prefer to use to get the most out of your card.

Others are flexible, earning points for all categories of purchases. The two cards featured below also waive international transaction fees.

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The Hilton Honors American Express Ascend Card earns Hilton Honors points, which can be redeemed at Hilton hotels around the world. Cardholders receive points for any purchase. They’ll get:

  • 12 points per $1 spent at participating Hilton properties.
  • 6 points per $1 spent on certain categories, such as restaurants in the U.S.
  • 3 point per $1 on everything else.

Even though this card is geared towards hotel stays, it can get you 10 airport lounge visits per year.

Hilton Honors American Express Ascend Card
Credit Rating Needed:
Good, Excellent
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Who it's good for:

The Hilton Honors American Express Ascend Card works best when used in conjunction with the Hilton Honors program. Patrons of Hilton hotels and resorts will get a lot of mileage out of the arrangement.

Key benefits:

Earn 125,000 Hilton Honors Bonus Points and build points quickly with 12X Hilton Honors Bonus Points on charges with Hilton. The cardholder also gets 6X the points at eligible supermarkets, restaurants, and gas stations.

For travelers who frequent Marriott properties, the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless™ Credit Card may be preferable. Guests can use their points at more than 6,700 Marriott and partner properties worldwide. That includes some beautiful Ritz-Carlton properties. Travelers earn:

  • up to 6 points for every $1 spent at Marriot Bonvoy hotels.
  • 2 point per $1 on all other purchases.

Marriott Bonvoy Boundless™ Credit Card
Credit Rating Needed:
Excellent, Good
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Who it's good for:

The Marriott Bonvoy Boundless™ Credit Card --- formerly known as the Marriott Rewards Premier Plus card --- is great for travelers who enjoy staying at Marriott properties and are ready to score big points and take a dream vacation.

Key benefits:

Limited Time Offer! Earn 100,000 Bonus Points after spending $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. Earn 6X Bonvoy points per $1 spent at over 6,700 participating Marriott Bonvoy hotels.

Cardholders also can get an additional Free Night Award (valued up to 35,000 points) every year after your account anniversary.

Premium travel rewards credit cards

If having a luxurious travel experience is important to you, look for a card with premium rewards and perks that will allow you to vacation like a millionaire. Many of these offer concierge services or fee credits for airport lounges and upgrades. The other elite travel benefits are extraordinary. This is the card to choose if you’re happy to pay for flights and accommodations but enjoy getting additional privileges for free.

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The Platinum Card® from American Express gives you luxury perks that offset the card costs, including:

  • Uber credits
  • Airline fee credits
  • Reimbursement for Global Entry or TSA Pre-Check applications
  • International and domestic airport lounge access
  • Room upgrades
  • Hotel credits to spend on dining, spa or other activities

The Platinum Card® from American Express
Credit Rating Needed:
Good, Excellent
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Who it's good for:

The Platinum Card® from American Express is iconic, one of the original premium credit cards --- and it remains a solid travel rewards card for anyone who loves amassing points and being pampered with perks.

Key benefits:

Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points once a new card has been used to make $5,000 in purchases during the first 3 months. And, cardholders collect 5X Membership Rewards® points on: flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel; and prepaid hotels booked on amextravel.com.

Cardholders pay a $550 annual fee, but they might easily make that back through perks. They enjoy Uber VIP status and up to $200 in free rides each year, plus: access to Global Lounge Collection airport lounges; a $200 credit on airline fees each year; benefits at Fine Hotels & Resorts valued at an average $550; and up to $100 in statement credits annually at Saks Fifth Avenue.

The Mastercard® Black Card™ comes with similar luxury perks and has a comparable annual fee. Besides airline and hotel credits, cardholders are eligible for:

  • VIP airport lounge access
  • Personal chauffeurs
  • Global luggage delivery services
  • Private jet charters
  • 24/7 access to Luxury Card Concierge

Mastercard® Black Card™
Credit Rating Needed:
Excellent
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Who it's good for:

The Mastercard® Black Card™ is good for cardholders interested in travel and luxury rewards. With a high annual fee of $495, cardholders should intend to take advantage of the many tailored rewards.

Key benefits:

The card itself is made from stainless steel, giving it a weight and presence that will be noticed in restaurants and at hotel check-in.

Cardholders can access the 24/7 Luxury Card Concierge, helping cardholders book reservations, tickets and travel experiences.

Cardholders will receive $100 Global Entry application fee credit, a $100 annual airline credit toward qualifying purchases and other travel benefits, such as rental car insurance.

Travel rewards credit card for business

Business travelers may have unique needs. For example, they may need to use in-flight Wi-Fi or airport lounges. Plus, they probably fly more often than some other travelers. The best travel rewards credit card for businesses takes these requirements into account.

Cards that cater to these needs can help them save money and work efficiently even when they’re away from home. Small businesses may choose these cards so that their employees can contribute to travel costs by using their points.

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The Chase Ink Business Preferred℠ Credit Card, like the Sapphire Preferred® Card, offers excellent overall flexibility for businesses. Businesses can actually earn a 25% point value increase when redeeming for travel specifically. How you can earn points:

  • Earn 3 points per dollar on travel and select business categories
  • Earn 1 point per dollar on everything else.

Ink Business Preferred℠ Credit Card
Credit Rating Needed:
Excellent, Good
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Who it’s good for:

Businesses with a range of expenses, looking for the best overall travel flexibility. Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening., for a total of $1,000 towards travel.

Key benefits:

The Chase Ink Business Preferred℠ Credit Card is a great option for businesses who want flexible benefits from their credit card. Cardholders get 3 points for travel and select business categories up to $150,000, and 1 point for all other purchases with no limit. Points can be redeemed for cash back, gift cards, travel (with a 25% point boost for travel booked through Chase Ultimate rewards), and more, which is perfect for the business that wants flexibility in points redemption.

2. Understand your needs

Oia, Santorini, Greece island. Carefree girl tourist wearing red dress.
Maridav / Shutterstock
Make sure to examine your travel habits. International travelers may see more benefits from a Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card than a specific airline's card.

No travel reward credit card is perfect for everyone. To choose the best travel rewards credit cards, take into account the type of traveling that you do.

Some questions to ask when you’re considering the type of card to apply for include the following:

How do I travel?

Frequent air travelers who are loyal to one airline will benefit from airline rewards cards. You can often earn points for buying tickets on that airline and redeem them for travel with the same company, compensating you for your loyalty.

People who take vacations often can also look for cards that reward them for travel-specific expenses. It's nice to know that you're earning your next vacation while you're sipping a margarita on a beach somewhere.

What do I regularly spend money on?

Some cards reward you for buying anything, and others only give you points for purchases in certain categories. Busy parents may earn significant rewards using a card that offers extra points for gas and grocery purchases. If you’re always spending money on hotel stays, go for a card that gives you points for those purchases.

Do I want to cover basic travel expenses or extras?

Many travel credit cards offset the high price of airplane tickets or hotel accommodations. But the elite cards simply give you upgrades. If you can afford to take a vacation but want to travel like a king or queen, a luxury card will suit you well. If you just want to be able to take a vacation in the first place, a card that rewards you with miles or transferable points for everyday purchases is the way to go.

3. Compare rewards and terms

Business woman waiting at premium airport lounge, being brought refreshments by a server.
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A great perk with premium travel cards? Access to premium airport lounges.

Some cards have steep annual fees. Others have conditions that affect your earnings. For example, some cards require you to activate bonus rewards in certain categories. When it comes to comparing the rewards, you might have to crunch some numbers to determine whether you’ll actually save money after paying the fee.

Make sure that you read the fine print so that you know the hidden perks as well as the downsides of the cards that you choose. Some cards give you more points for booking travel through their portal. You may also save on travel expenses or get free upgrades when you use a certain card on your trips.

For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve® and Preferred cards are similar. Both allow you to transfer your points, but the Sapphire Reserve® has additional perks. It offers:

  • 3 points instead of 2 for every $1 spent on travel and restaurant dining.
  • A $300 statement credit on travel purchases once a year.
  • Access to select airport lounges.
  • Trip delay insurance.
  • Elite benefits with some rental car companies.

Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Credit Rating Needed:
Excellent
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Who it's good for:

The Chase Sapphire Reserve® card is for people who are going places. Named "Best Premium Travel Credit Card" for 2018 by MONEY® Magazine, it has some of the most generous travel rewards around --- and it makes an impression.

Key benefits:

Earn 50,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when the points are redeemed through the Chase Ultimate Rewards® program.

Cardholders also get a $300 annual travel credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to the card each account anniversary year, and an up to $100 credit on Global Entry or TSA Pre✔® application fees. The card provides access to more than 1,000 airport lounges worldwide, and it charges no foreign transaction fees.

The annual fee of $450 is a lot steeper than the Sapphire Preferred®’s $95 fee. However, if you’ll take advantage of the features and spend generously on restaurants and vacations, it might be worth it to choose the card with the higher fee.

Many cards waive the annual fee for the first year. Others reimburse you for Global Entry or TSA Pre-Check application fees.

4. Check for sign-up bonuses

Business Class Airplane Meal
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Some cards award substantial sign-up bonuses, and you could end up with enough points for business class in a very short time!

After you’ve compared everything else, look at the sign-up bonuses. These often give you almost immediate gratification.

For example, new Chase Sapphire Preferred® cardholders get 60,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first three months after opening an account. Those points are worth $750 when they’re redeemed through Chase Ultimate Rewards. Sapphire Reserve cardholders only get 50,000 bonus points for spending the same amount of money.

The Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card gives you 10 miles for every $1 that you spend when you book through Hotels.com. As a bonus, you get 50,000 miles for spending $3,000 in the first three months. That’s equivalent to $500 worth of travel.

Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card
Credit Rating Needed:
Excellent, Good
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Who it's good for:

The Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card is the perfect card for the frequent traveler who flies on a variety of airlines and stays at a range of hotels.

Key benefits:

Earn 10X miles on thousands of hotels, through January 2020, and transfer miles to over 12 leading travel loyalty programs. Fly any airline, stay at any hotel, anytime --- with no blackout dates. Miles won't expire for the life of the account, and there's no limit to how many can be earned.

Plus, a cardholder will receive a one-time bonus of 20,000 Miles after spending $1,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening. That's equal to earning $200 off travel.

Southwest has an excellent sign-up bonus. You’ll get 40,000 points after spending only $1,000 in the first three months, which immediately qualifies you for a domestic flight.

5. Give your application the best shot

credit card application form
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You typically require good to excellent credit to qualify for the best travel rewards cards. Don't be discouraged if you don't get it right away.

Depending on your travel needs, you may want to apply for two or three cards and rack up points on all of them. But be careful when applying for several cards at once.

The travel credit cards with the best perks often require you to have excellent credit. If your application is not accepted, you may only have a few more chances to apply for other cards before you’re penalized for making too many credit requests.

Therefore, give yourself the best chance for success the first time that you apply. Have your frequent flyer number handy, be ready to declare your income, fill out the application and hope for the best.

When you decide on the best travel rewards credit card, use it for as many qualifying purchases as possible. You don’t have to spend more than your budget allows for, but you should use the card as your primary payment method. Pay it off every month so that the interest fees don’t counteract the rewards that can launch you on your next adventure.