Best Credit Cards for Travel Spending (2021)

From Travel Strategies
Jump to: navigation, search

  Easily Earn Points for Free TravelBest Cards for Each Bonus Category

Make sure to read the tips and general advice in our Optimize Rewards by Using Different Cards for Different Purchases guide.


Card suggestions (for most people)

Most people are going to want at least one premium credit card (like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, Citi Prestige, or Amex Platinum Card), so that they can get free access to airport lounges and other valuable benefits. And most of these premium cards also offer great reward rates on travel purchases. A few of them also provide free travel insurance when you use them to pay for your tickets. Which Premium Reward Card is Right for You?

The simplest option is to stick with the Sapphire Reserve Card or Ink Preferred Card. They earn 3x Ultimate Rewards points, valued at 5.1 cents per dollar, on every type of travel purchase, including ground transportation and cruises; and provide the best travel insurance available from any credit card (the Sapphire Reserve is better). After adjusting for its $300 travel credit and $60 DoorDash credit, the effective annual fee is $130-250. Its not a bad idea to stick to this card for your travel and restaurant purchases. But if you spend a lot of money on airfare and restaurants or decide on a different approach than the Chase Unlimited combo for your everyday spending, you might be better off using one of the other cards for your travel spending.

If you have one of the Sapphire cards or the Ink Preferred, you can earn even better rewards on some travel purchases by using the no-annual-fee Freedom Unlimited (or Freedom Flex) card instead. It earns 5x Ultimate Rewards points (8.5%) on travel bought on the Chase website. This will only make sense on some of your purchases, since you won't get access to most travel insurance benefits and can usually get better deals on hotels and cars on other websites.

The Amex Platinum Card earns the most valuable rewards on airfare. It earns 5x Membership Rewards points, valued at 7.5 cents per dollar, on flights booked directly with the airline or through Amex Travel and offers travel insurance (but not baggage delay insurance). Also, you only get travel insurance if you book a round-trip itinerary (but you can pay independently for each of the different segments).

For most people, the effective annual fee on the Platinum Card is too high to justify the card just for the airfare rewards and other benefits. But if you are collecting signup bonuses or highly value some of the Platinum Card's benefits, you could easily wind up having one of the several different varieties, at least for a year at a time. If so, you should probably use it to earn extra points on your airfare purchases. Just be sure you are comfortable using the resulting Membership Rewards points for booking frequent flyer tickets.

The Platinum Card also provides 5x Membership Rewards points for prepaid hotel bookings bought through Amex Travel. But, when you book this way, you won’t get any credit or benefits with the hotel’s loyalty program and you are unlikely to get the best room rates. So, this is only a good option when you are staying at a non-chain hotel, the rates are prepaid (but possibly cancellable), and Amex’s prices happen to be good.

The Citi Prestige is another option with every high reward rates on airfare and online travel agencies. It earns 5x ThankYou points, valued at 7 cents per dollar, on both airfare and purchases on online travel agencies, and 3x ThankYou points, valued at 4.2 cents per dollar, on hotels and cruises. If you already have the Amex Platinum Card, you are generally better off earning 5x Membership Rewards points on airfare with that card instead. The Membership Reward points are generally more valuable, and you'll get at least some travel insurance benefits. If not, you may prefer to settle for Chase's 3x Ultimate Rewards points on airfare purchases, because they come with built-in travel insurance, are easier to redeem, and may not require an extra annual fee.

If you are deciding between the Amex Platinum and Citi Prestige Card to earn extra airfare rewards, you might prefer the Prestige card's 5x reward rate on restaurants and purchases with online travel agencies, unique 4th night free benefit, simpler travel credit, and more generous Priority Pass membership to the Platinum Card's larger lounge network and other benefits. Just remember that you won't get free travel insurance. The Prestige Card has $495 annual fee. A $250 automatic travel credit drops the effective annual fee to $245.

The U.S. Bank Altitude Reserve Card can be your best option if you don’t want to mess around with frequent flyer points or you don’t travel enough to warrant getting a more expensive card. It earns 4.5 cents per dollar on all travel purchases (as well as on anything bought with a mobile wallet).  There are a few no-annual-fee credit cards that offer good bonus rewards on travel, but for most people, the limited lounge access and other benefits you’ll get from the Altitude Reserve, make it worth paying what amounts to $75 per year. For people who can't get the Sapphire Reserve, the Altitude Reserve provides the highest reward rate of any card that includes extensive travel insurance benefits.

Recommended cards (other options)

If you can deal with some extra complexity, the Wells Fargo "Combo" is the best no-annual-fee option. It earns 4.5% on travel, without any annual fees. The trick is that you need to have two different Wells Fargo cards. And because you can only get one Wells Fargo card every 15 months, it will take some time to put this plan into action. The Wells Fargo Propel Card earns 3x points on Travel (and Restaurants, Gas, and Streaming Services). Normally these points are only worth 1 cent each. But, if you also have the Wells Fargo Visa Signature Card, you can redeem points for airfare purchases through the Wells Fargo portal at 1.5 cents each. That works out to 4.5 cents per dollar.

If you frequently travel on Amtrak, the Amtrak World Card offer perhaps the best rewards on travel spending. It earns 2x Amtrak points on all travel purchases, which can then be redeemed for 5.8 cents on Amtrak travel. Points are extremely easy to redeem.

Quick comparison

The point values used in the table below are estimates based on a typical traveler. They may need to be adjusted for your individual preferences and travel patterns. For example, if you highly value premium cabin award tickets and are willing and able to build up large point balances, Ultimate Rewards, Membership Rewards, and ThankYou points are much more valuable and you should earn as many of those types of points as you can. If you have trouble finding good frequent flyer redemptions, you might want to focus on cards that earn points that can be used more like cash. Deciding What Type of Points to Earn

The annual costs in the table below reflect the annual fee minus any travel credits. For travel credits that are harder to redeem, we value the credit at 50% of the maximum credit amount. We value the Amex Airlines Incidental Credit at only 25% of the maximum credit amount. If you are willing to do the work or are otherwise able to get full value from these credits, the effective annual fee can be considerably lower.

Some cards waive the annual fee for the first year. But the table focuses on what you would pay in the longer term.

Value Earns Included Purchases Includes Insurance Annual Cost
Freedom Unlimited Card
8.5% 5x UR Only travel bought on Chase website No $95+
Freedom Flex Card
8.5% 5x UR Only travel bought on Chase website No $95+
Fairwinds Visa Signature Card
7.5% 5x Points All travel Yes $249
US Bank Altitude Reserve
7.5% 5x Prepaid hotels & rentals booked through US Bank Yes $75
Amex Platinum Card
7.5% 5x MR Airfare and prepaid hotels booked through Amex Yes $400
Citi Prestige
7% 5x TY Airfare and Online Travel Agencies - $245†
Amex Business Gold (if one of your two categories)
6% 4x MR Airfare - $295
Synovus Travel*
6% 5x All travel (up to $5,000 per year) - $50
Amtrak Credit Card
5.8% 2x All travel - $79
Chase Sapphire Reserve
5.1% 3x UR All travel Yes $190-250
Ink Preferred (Business card)
5.1% 3x UR All travel Yes $95
Priceline Rewards Card
5% 5x Prepaid hotels rooms at Priceline and Cruises - $0
Wells Fargo Propel Card (with Wells Fargo Visa Signature)
4.5% 3x GoFar Flights, hotels, car rentals, transit, homestays - $0
US Bank Altitude Reserve
4.5% 3x All travel Yes $75
Amex Green Card
4.5% 3x MR All Travel - $150
Amex Gold
4.5% 3x MR Airfare - $30-250
Citi Premier
4.2% 3x TY Airfare and hotels - $95
BOA Premium Rewards / BOA Travel Rewards
2-4.1% 2-4.1x# All travel Yes $45
Amex Everyday Preferred (with 30 transaction bonus)
3.75% 2.5 MR Airfare and prepaid hotels booked through Amex - $95
Penfed Pathfinder (for account holders)
3.6% 4x All travel purchases - $0
Chase Sapphire Preferred
3.4% 2x UR All travel Yes $95
Hyatt Card
3.4% 2x Airfare and car rentals Yes $75
Amex Everyday (with 20 transaction per month bonus)
3.3% 2.2x MR Airfare and prepaid hotels booked through Amex - $0
CNB Crystal Infinite
3.3% 3x Most Travel Yes $150
Morgan Stanley‡ (for Morgan Stanley customers only)
3% 2x MR Airfare and car rentals - $0
AAA (available to anyone)
3% 3% All travel - $0
Costco / Sam's Club
3% 3% All travel -/- $0
Southwest Plus
2.8% 2x miles Southwest, plus hotels and car rentals - $69

* The Synovus Card is only available to people that live within their territory in the Southeast.

† Citigold customers save an extra $100 on the annual fee.

‡ This card has a foreign transaction fees of 3%, making it a bad choice for booking foreign hotels and sometimes airfares.

# Cardholders with more than $20,000 in combined balances at BOA / Merrill Lynch earn bonus rewards, maxing out at 3.5 points on travel purchases with the Premium Card, and 2.625 points with the Travel Rewards card. But, with both cards you'll earn a base rate of 3 points on purchases made through BOA's travel booking site. With the relationship bonus, this can be boosted as high as 4.125%.

Free travel insurance when you use your card

Several premium credit cards offer good reward rates on travel purchases and provide free travel insurance benefits when you use them to purchase travel. The Citibank cards used to have the best travel insurance benefits of any card, but as of September 2019, no longer provide this coverage.

Chase Premium Other Chase Amex Premium BOA Premium Rewards Altitude Reserve
Covers award flights
Yes Yes Yes
Trip Cancellation & Interruption
$10,000 $5,000
($10,000 Sapphire Preferred)
$10,000 $5,000 $5,000
Trip Delay (max. amount)
$500 $500 $500 $500 $500
Trip Delay (min. hours)
6 hours 12 hours 6 hours 12 hours 6 hours
Baggage Delay (max. amount)
Baggage Delay (min. hours)
6 hours 6 hours 6 hours
Lost / Damaged Bags (per passenger)
$3,000 $3,000 $3,000 Yes $5,000
Travel Accident (Death and Dismemberment)
$1,000,000 $500,000 Yes $1,000,000
Emergency Evacuation
$100,000 None Unlimited (Platinum only) Yes $10,000
Emergency Medical
$2,500 None
Auto Rental Coverage
Primary Primary* Secondary Secondary Secondary

* For Sapphire Reserved and some other Chase cards. On Ink Preferred, rental must be for business purposes.

A few additional tips:

  • The Amex Platinum Card gives you emergency evacuation coverage, just by having the card. You don’t have to use it to buy your airfare. So, you can use it along with any other coverages.
  • Trip cancellation and interruption insurance only covers expenses that were paid for with the card. With Chase, you need to pay for any portion of the cost, including award ticket fees. With Amex, the entire cost of the trip needs to have been purchased with the card or with Membership Reward points. So, if you want your Platinum Card's trip insurance to cover non-refundable hotel and other travel expenses, you need to charge them to your Platinum Card and not use a card that earns more valuable rewards on non-airfare spending.
  • Amex's travel insurance requires round-trip travel. You can purchase each segment separately, but all segments must be purchased with your card and you must wind up in the same city you left from.
  • Chase only covers family members on the same itinerary as you, not other travelling companions. Amex covers both family members and travelling companions

When to use your hotel or airline card instead

If you have a hotel or airline branded credit card, it will earn bonus rewards when you make purchases from that hotel company or airline. However, you can usually still earn more valuable rewards from one of the cards above, rather than the hotel or airline’s own card. You’ll also get more flexibility when redeeming your points and often some added travel protections.

  • If you have the Citi Prestige, American Express Platinum Card, Freedom Flex, or Freedom Unlimited Card, they earn the highest rewards on airfare purchases. No airline card comes close.
  • The Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Altitude Reserve, and the Citi Prestige / Premier cards, (almost) always earn higher rewards than the hotel’s or airline’s card. The only exceptions are the Hilton Aspire Credit Card, Hilton Surpass Credit Card, Hyatt Credit Card, Best Western Credit Card, JetBlue Plus Credit Card, Wyndham Earner Plus Card, Wyndham Business Card, and (probably) the Frontier Credit Card.
  • If you are just using a general purpose reward card that earns 2-2.5%, you’ll always get more valuable rewards by using the hotel or airline card instead. Just make sure that you are likely to have a good chance to redeem whatever points you earn with a given hotel or airline program—it is often easier to take advantage of general bank points (or cashback) than the points you might earn separate hotel or airline programs. 

Send comments or suggestions to or leave a comment below.

blog comments powered by Disqus