The 12 Best Travel Credit Cards To Maximize Your Rewards [December 2021]

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Whether you spend a little or a lot, travel frequently or just occasionally, you’ll find tremendous value in having the right travel rewards-earning credit card.

The right travel rewards-earning credit card does more than help you offset the cost of travel. It can:

  • Let you linger with late checkouts and freshen up with early check-in at hotels
  • Reimburse you for airline checked baggage fees
  • Allow you to experience some of the best hotels in the world
  • Provide discounted (or free) flights, hotel rooms, and experiences
  • Give you priority access to special entertainment and sporting events
  • Provide a 24/7 concierge service
  • Cover your rental vehicle for theft and damage
  • Give you access to some of the nicest airport lounges in the world

And this is just a sampling of the benefits of having a travel rewards credit card. The perks you’ll receive with the actual card you carry will vary, but they should complement your travel profile while rewarding your spending habits.

Let’s take a look at some of the best travel rewards credit cards available in 2021, review their perks and benefits, and consider which card might be a perfect match for you, depending on your travel goals and spending priorities.

Best Card for First-Time Cardholders

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

One of the most compelling reasons to hold a travel rewards credit card is to fund your travel goals, and one of the most valuable ways to accomplish this is to earn Chase Ultimate Rewards points. That’s because Chase Ultimate Rewards points are easy to earn and offer flexible redemption options.

This is a great card for first-time cardholders since you’ll go on to earn 5x points on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards, 3x points on dining, online grocery purchases, and select streaming services, plus 2x points on all other travel purchases.

When it comes time to redeem your Ultimate Rewards points — whether you’re transferring your points to hotel or airline partners or using the Chase travel portal to book your travel — the experience will make you a fan forever.

You can’t go wrong beginning your travel-rewards journey with any Chase credit card that earns Ultimate Rewards points. The Chase Sapphire Preferred card is an especially fine first choice because it allows you to redeem your points for 25% more in value. Plus, it comes with perks like a $50 annual Ultimate Rewards hotel credit, and bonus points equal to 10% of your total purchases made the previous year.

Best Cards for Luxury Travelers

The Platinum Card® from American Express

When you prefer the best travel experiences, you want only the best travel rewards card. If you’re an international traveler who won’t settle for anything less than a nice comfy seat, lounge access, and premium travel perks and benefits, you’re going to want the Amex Platinum card.

Arctic Club Seattle - a DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel
Enjoy the complimentary hotel elite status that comes with the Amex Platinum card. Arctic Club Seattle – a DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel. Image Credit: Hilton

The benefits of the Amex Platinum card collectively create a stunning package of everything a luxury international traveler needs to elevate their travel experience.

Note that some benefits require enrollment through your American Express account.

Bottom Line: The Amex Platinum card sets the standard for a premium travel rewards card. If its benefits are some you can use, the value will far exceed the annual fee. There’s even a possibility of getting a 100,000- to 150,000-point welcome bonus for the Amex Platinum card

Chase Sapphire Reserve®

The Chase Sapphire Reserve card is not just another premium travel rewards credit card. Yes, it earns rewards on travel and dining, offers a fine collection of premium travel benefits (including lounge access), and grants annual statement credits for travel purchases.

But it also does something that no other travel rewards credit card does: when you redeem your points for travel on the Chase travel portal, 50% more value is added to your points.

For example, if you redeem 60,000 Ultimate Rewards points, you’ll receive $900 in value toward your travel purchase.

While expensive long-haul premium flights can be better secured utilizing Ultimate Rewards airline transfer partners, a sweet spot for redeeming your Ultimate Rewards points is for first-class domestic flights.

If you’re a frequent domestic traveler, this means you can basically travel in first class for the price of economy.

Ultimate Rewards Travel Portal redemption
Redeeming your Ultimate Rewards for travel with the Chase Sapphire Reserve card gives you 50% more value. Image Credit: Chase

We should also talk about earning Ultimate Rewards, too, as the card is clearly a winner with earnings of 10x points on hotels, car rentals, and dining purchases through Chase Ultimate Rewards, 5x points on airfare through Chase Ultimate Rewards, and 3x points spent on all other travel and dining purchases. All other purchases earn 1x, and purchases using the Chase shopping portal can earn as much as 20 points per $1.

Benefits of this card include worldwide Priority Pass lounge access, but there are more than 90 lounge and restaurant locations domestically.

A $300 travel credit each card anniversary year automatically reduces travel expenses, and a statement credit of up to $100 for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck just adds even more value. Through December 31, 2021, any remaining $300 travel statement credits on your Chase Sapphire Reserve card will automatically be applied to grocery store and gas station purchases.

The road warrior will find value in the additional travel coverage that comes with the card, including auto rental collision damage coverage and 24/7 travel and emergency assistance.

Bottom Line: The world traveler can certainly find value in having the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, but the frequent domestic traveler who likes to fly first class, enjoys Priority Pass lounge and restaurant access, and spends a lot on travel and dining will fare very well by having the card. 

Capital One Venture X Card

The newest addition to the premium travel rewards card arena is the CapOne Venture X card. Packed with premium benefits a traveler can appreciate, such as elevated rewards for travel purchases and a generous welcome bonus to jumpstart your earnings, you’ll find value early on as a cardholder.

Your earning and redemption experiences are also enhanced significantly when you utilize the Capital One Travel portal. With an extraordinary 10x earnings on hotels and rental cars, 5x earnings on flights, and a $300 travel credit, it will pay to utilize the portal frequently.

The elevated earning on the card goes beyond Captial One Travel purchases with 2x miles per dollar spent on every other purchase. Plus, at your card anniversary, you’ll earn another 10,000 miles.

Additional redemption options allow you to erase previous travel purchases with Purchase Eraser or transfer miles earned on your card to travel partners, most of which transfer at a ratio of 1:1.

As a Visa Infinite card you’ll enjoy related benefits such as cell phone insurance, primary car rental insurance, trip cancelation, trip interruption, trip delay, and baggage insurance.

Last, but certainly not least, we like that the card comes with complimentary Priority Pass Select membership giving you access to over 1,300 lounges worldwide and unique access to Capital One Lounges.

If you’ll utilize Capital One Travel, this premium card offers a lot of value for just a $395 annual fee.

Bottom Line: With a lower annual fee for a premium travel rewards card, the CapOne Venture X card could deliver plenty of value for the cardholder who will utilize the Capital One travel portal for travel purchases and redemptions. 

Best Value Hotel-Branded Card

Marriott Bonvoy Boundless® Credit Card

For the traveler who values choice when it comes to hotels, you won’t find a hotel chain with more properties around the world than Marriott. Plus, each year after your card anniversary, you’ll receive a complimentary hotel night certificate (good for up to 35,000 points in value).

We like that the card delivers plenty of earning potential, good-value redemption options, and lots of additional benefits without a high annual fee.

Hotel room welcome amenity
You’ll receive a free hotel night certificate each year after your Marriott Boundless card anniversary. Image Credit: Christine Krzyszton

Additional benefits of having the Marriott Boundless card include:

  • Complimentary Elite Status: 15 elite night credits per year toward a higher elite status, good for Silver status
  • Accelerated Earnings: Earn up to 17 points per $1 at participating Marriott Bonvoy hotels and 2 points per $1 on all other purchases

You’ll also receive a variety of Visa Signature travel perks with the card, including:

  • Roadside dispatch
  • Auto rental collision damage waiver
  • Travel and emergency assistance
  • Baggage delay insurance and lost luggage reimbursement
  • Travel accident coverage
  • No foreign transaction fees

Bottom Line: If you’re loyal to a particular hotel brand, it makes sense to be earning additional rewards on those hotel expenditures with a hotel-branded travel rewards credit card… especially when those rewards can be turned into more free nights. 

Best Card for the Everyday Spender

American Express® Gold Card

Want a card that doubles as an everyday spending card and a travel rewards card? Get richly rewarded with the Amex Gold card that offers a stellar 4 Membership Rewards points for every $1 spent at U.S. supermarkets, up to $25,000 per calendar year (1x thereafter), and at restaurants!

As a traveler, there’s no need to be loyal to a single airline — with the Amex Gold card, you’re going to earn 3 valuable Membership Rewards points for every $1 spent for flights purchased directly from the airline and via Amex Travel.

You can also redeem those Membership Rewards points for travel with any airline or hotel and for other travel purchases at Amex Travel.

Everything you need to know about the Amex Gold card, its additional benefits, and how to book travel through the Amex Travel website can be found in our expert guides.

Hot Tip: With so many different issuers in the travel credit card space, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with each bank’s specific rules before applying. 

Best Cards for Travelers Who Want Simple Earnings and Redemptions

Keeping track of bonus spending categories, quarterly registrations, and complicated redemption processes may have deterred you from securing a travel rewards-earning credit card.

If that’s the case, you’ll find these Capital One travel rewards cards refreshingly simple:

Capital One Venture Rewards Card

  • Earn 2 miles per $1 spent on every purchase
  • Redeem miles for travel or transfer to airline partners
  • Global Entry or TSA PreCheck fee reimbursement
  • Annual fee waived the first year

Capital One VentureOne Rewards Card

  • Earn 1.25 miles per $1 spent on every purchase
  • Redeem miles for travel or transfer to airline partners
  • $0 annual fee

No need to wonder which category of expenses earns more than others — you’ll earn the same on any purchase you make. It’s that simple!

When it comes time to redeem your rewards, however, you will have choices. One of the best values for your miles will be to use Purchase Eraser to “erase” prior travel purchases with a statement credit at a value of 1 cent for each mile. Or, transfer your miles to airline partners and book award tickets to receive potentially higher value for your reward miles.

Bottom Line: For straightforward earnings and redemptions, Capital One travel rewards credit cards allow you to forget about managing your rewards and let you concentrate on planning your next trip instead. Learn how to decide between the 2 featured cards in our detailed comparison of the CapOne Venture card vs. CapOne VentureOne card.

Best Card for the Low Spender

Stacks of coins
You don’t have to spend a lot of money to find value in a travel rewards-earning credit card. Image Credit: Singkham via Shutterstock

Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express

You don’t have to be a big spender to earn travel rewards. With a relatively low minimum spend requirement once you’re approved for the Amex Blue Cash Everyday card, you can earn a welcome bonus and jumpstart the rewards-earning process.

Perhaps you haven’t pursued a rewards-earning credit card because you don’t spend a lot and might be wondering whether it’s worth the effort at all. You may be surprised to learn that the purchases you’re already making can earn rewards to help you fund a trip, or just add some cash to your bottom line.

Because you’ll be earning rewards on your everyday purchases with the Amex Blue Cash Everyday card, you don’t have to spend big for the cash-back to start adding up. On groceries alone, you’ll earn $180 after getting 3% back from $6,000 in annual purchases at U.S. supermarkets.

Add that to your 2% earnings at U.S. gas stations and select U.S. department stores, and you’ve paid for your hotel nights without spending any more than you’d normally spend!

Whether your travel goal is a weekend trip away with the family or a flight to visit an old friend, you can utilize the cash-back you earn on the Amex Blue Cash Everyday card to help offset the cost of your adventure.

Hot Tip: If you’re working toward a travel goal and using a cash-back credit card, you may want to purchase gas, hotel, or other travel-related gift cards with your rewards to help save for your trip. 

Best Card for Family Road Trippers

Travel with Kids car and child
Be a road trip hero with the right travel rewards credit card. Image Credit: HTeam via Shutterstock

Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express

It’s Friday afternoon and the workweek is done. You’re ready to high-five the family when you arrive home because you’re hitting the road for a weekend adventure. It doesn’t happen often… but this weekend it’s on!

We’re certain the Amex Blue Cash Preferred card was created with family road trippers in mind. After all, you’ll earn cash-back on all the purchases you’ll be making during your trip, and you can use the cash-back you earned previously on everyday expenses to actually help fund your trip.

It’s a win-win cash-back solution for the family that hits the road together or those who just want a little extra cash flow.

Earning 6% cash-back on U.S. supermarkets (up to $6,000 per year, then 1%) delivers up to $360 each year in cash-back. Add all the cash you’ll earn with 3% cash-back on your U.S. gas stations, and you’ll have plenty of travel funds for that weekend road trip.

Not only do you earn cash-back at U.S. supermarkets and U.S. gas stations, but the card also offers 6% cash-back on select U.S. streaming subscriptions and 3% cash-back on transit, including taxis and rideshares, parking, tolls, trains, buses, and more.

The Amex Blue Cash Preferred card just might make you a family road trip hero!

Best Card for the Budget Traveler

Chase Freedom Unlimited®

Do you like to travel but have a tight budget? The Freedom Unlimited card has a little secret that might help you out.

The Freedom Unlimited card earns 5% back on travel purchased through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal, 3% on dining and drugstore purchases, plus 1.5% back on all other purchases that fall outside of these bonus categories.

The trick is, the cash-back you earn on all of your purchases with the Freedom Unlimited card is not just cash-back; it can be redeemed for travel or transferred to Chase premium credit cards for even greater value.

If you like to travel on a budget, Ultimate Rewards points are perfect for securing economy flights on the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal. Booking travel is easy, and you can redeem your points for airline tickets, hotels, car rentals, and travel experiences.

To step up the value of your Ultimate Rewards points, you can transfer them to a Chase premium card such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve card or the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, where the value of your Ultimate Rewards Points is increased by up to 50% more (see our example below). You’ll also have the option to then transfer your points to airline and hotel partners for even greater potential value.

Flights with Chase
Ultimate Rewards can work well for planning a family vacation. Image Credit: Chase

With no annual fee, a simple earning structure, and the value you can receive when redeeming Ultimate Rewards Points (or transferring points to premium Chase cards), the Freedom Unlimited card is a fine choice for the budget traveler.

Now go tell your family they’re going to Disney World!

Bottom Line: When redeeming Ultimate Rewards points for travel, you can pick any airline, hotel, or travel experience without worrying about award availability or blackout dates — redeeming your points is just like paying with cash. You’ll also be earning frequent flyer miles!

Best Card for the Hotel Loyalist

If Hilton is your hotel brand of choice, you’ll be happy to learn that the perks and benefits you receive in its Hilton Honors loyalty program will be elevated to a new level when you carry and use one of its hotel-branded credit card.

Let’s take a look at how your experience can be enhanced with the addition of a hotel-branded credit card.

Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card

It’s unusual that a credit card alone would grant top elite status to the cardholder, especially without a required level of spending each year — but that’s exactly what you’ll receive by having the Hilton Aspire card. And it’s not the only premium benefit that comes with this card!

  • Top Diamond Elite Hilton Honors status: Valid for as long as you have the card, you’ll receive room upgrades (including suites), breakfast, hotel amenities, bonus points, internet, and more. Diamond elite members receive 20 Hilton Honors points per $1 spent at Hilton properties, and the Hilton Aspire card elevates that to a total of 34 points per $1.
  • Free Hotel Room Nights: Receive 1 free hotel room night each card anniversary year, plus another when you spend $60,000 on the card each year. You’ll also receive your fifth night free when booking award nights with your points.
  • Airline and Hotel Statement Credits: Get $250 in incidental airline fees, a $250 Hilton resort credit, and a $100 property credit at Conrad or Waldorf Astoria properties.
  • Worldwide Lounge Access: Your Hilton Aspire card comes with a full Priority Pass Select worldwide lounge membership.
  • Terms Apply.

Earning Hilton Honors points is easy: you’ll receive 14 points per $1 spent at Hilton properties; 7 points per $1 spent on airlines, Amex Travel purchases, U.S. restaurants, and U.S. rental cars; and 3 points per $1 spent on all other purchases.

Redeem your Hilton Honors points for the best value by booking free hotel nights with points or with cash and points. Our expert guide on the best ways to redeem your Hilton Honors points will help make sure you receive maximum value at redemption time.

Hilton Seychelles Labriz Resort & Spa
Carrying a premium card like the Hilton Aspire card can deliver benefits beyond those granted to Hilton Honors members, like a fifth-night free at the Hilton Seychelles Labriz Resort & Spa! Image Credit: Hilton

Final Thoughts

There’s a lot to think about when it comes to selecting a travel rewards-earning credit card. Fortunately, each card has its own distinct characteristics that match up with certain travel and spending profiles. This makes it possible to zero in quickly on which travel rewards credit card might be a good fit for you.

Remember, because Chase plays a prominent role in the travel rewards credit card arena, you’ll want to consider the Chase 5/24 rule in your selection process.

Regardless of which card you choose, we know for sure that travel rewards credit cards can change the way we travel and the way we live. The cards allow us to earn points, cash, or miles on purchases we would be making anyway and give us the ability to offset the cost of travel we may have never considered otherwise.

The information regarding the Capital One Venture X Card, Capital One Venture Rewards Card, Capital One VentureOne Rewards Card, Chase Freedom Unlimited®, and Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card was independently collected by Upgraded Points and not provided nor reviewed by the issuer. 

For rates and fees of The Platinum Card® from American Express, click here.
For rates and fees of the American Express® Gold Card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express, please click here.

Frequently asked questions

How do travel rewards credit cards work?

Travel rewards credit cards earn points or cash-back on every dollar charged to the credit card. They’re called travel rewards credit cards because you either earn points or cash on travel-related purchases, redeem points or cash for travel, or both.

Travel rewards credit cards can earn points or cash-back for travel purchases, dining, gas, groceries, or other categories. The rewards can be used for free travel or to offset the cost of travel.

Which is the best travel rewards credit card?

The best travel rewards credit card for you is the one that earns rewards you can use and fits your spending habits.

For example, if your everyday spending is on groceries, gas, and at department stores, but you rarely travel, you won’t find value in a premium travel rewards credit card that offers global lounge access and luxury hotel perks. You probably won’t want to pay the high annual fee either.

You may fare much better with a cash-back or flexible rewards-earning credit card that doesn’t charge an annual fee but allows you to earn rewards to offset the cost of an annual vacation.

What credit score do I need to get a travel rewards credit card?

You will generally need to have excellent credit to secure the best travel rewards credit cards.

There are many sources of credit scores as each of the 3 major credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax, and Transunion) have their own, and then there are combination scores such as FICO and VantageScore. According to Experian, an excellent VantageScore (which is widely used by creditors) is considered to be 750 or higher.

Which credit card is the best for international travel?

If you frequently travel internationally, you’ll want a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. Most of the travel rewards credit cards we covered in this article do not charge these fees.

If you value premium travel perks and don’t mind paying an annual fee, you can’t go wrong with the Amex Platinum card or Chase Sapphire Reserve card. Both offer global lounge access, flight credits, and great redemption value for your points when redeemed for flights.

If you can use the benefits these cards offer, you’ll receive value that more than offsets the annual fee.

Christine Krzyszton

About Christine Krzyszton

Christine, who lives in Northern Michigan, travels about 300,000 miles a year despite her remote location. Her expertise is traveling the world on a weekend with no pre-determined destination in mind, letting the cost of the airfare determine where she will go. She has over four million flown miles and elite status on all three major domestic carriers.

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  1. Annie Pierce June 23, 2019

    Very helpful, thanks.


  2. Helpful information.

    Noticed that you have not mentioned Bank of America Travel Rewards Credit Card with no annual fees and no foreign transaction fees. It is regarded better than the ones you have mentioned. Interested to know your thoughts on it.


    • Hi Keya. Thank you for reading and for your comment. We tend to favor travel rewards cards that earn transferable rewards but the best travel rewards card will be one that works for you personally. The Bank of America Travel Rewards Card earns 1.5 points for every dollar you spend on the card and with no annual fee, a generous welcome bonus, and no foreign transaction fees, it does have value for the right consumer.


  3. SAMEER GAIKWAD October 22, 2019

    I am a road warrior traveling every week domestically. I currently book my business air tickets using Delta Platinum card (Silver medallion status) on Delta flights only and Marriott hotel bookings using Marriott chase card (Titanium Elite status).

    I also take a lot of family vacations in Europe and India. I constantly run into issues of not being able to use my Delta miles for either domestic (family) or international trips either because Delta does not have good options or the miles redemption is very high and also because I cannot use Delta lounge free of cost. We typically end up flying on non-delta flights in economy class thereby not being able to make use of the miles at all.

    What credit card would you suggest I get that will help me fly on non-Delta airlines in Business class and will make the process of redeeming the credit card miles very very easy? Would also like to use to the lounges both domestically and international for the entire family. Please advise.


    • Hello Sameer. You may want to consider the Amex Platinum for several reasons. First, you receive complimentary access to Delta Sky Club lounges (cardholder only) when traveling on Delta. You will also have complimentary access to over 1,200 additional lounges worldwide for yourself and no additional fee to bring 2 guests. You would receive 5x earnings on flights purchased through Amex Travel and hotel elite status. Finally, the Membership Rewards points earned on the card can be redeemed for travel or transferred to several airline partners, including Delta.


  4. EasternTraveler December 27, 2019

    What makes people think they need a CSR or CSP and a CFU? Especially when everyone is always talking about transferring their UR points and getting a 50% bonus on the CSP or CSR.


    • Hi EasternTraveler. One reason for pairing the Chase Freedom Unlimited with either the CSR or the CSP is to receive 1.5% cash back (Ultimate Rewards points) on purchases that only earn 1 point per dollar on the CSR or CSP. This maximizes earnings and you can then transfer those points from the CFU to either the CSR or CSP to maximize redemption options.


  5. I still can’t figure out which credit card my parents should be applying for. They’re traveling to Pakistan in February and then after that one more of same trip. They’re not frequent traveling internationally so should they apply for travel credit card at all? They want to apply for TSA Global too so please help/advice. Traveling to Pakistan from USA is a total of 24 hrs or more depending on how many stops they’ll have and how long each stop would be but they’re looking for stops that are 3 hrs or more so they don’t miss their flight. I was thinking they should apply for a credit card that would have a free lounge access benefit? Thanks in advance. Happy New Year!


    • Hi Afshan and Happy New Year to you too. If lounge access is a priority, the Platinum Card or the Sapphire Reserve card are both good choices. It sounds like your parents would also use the Global Entry credit. Additionally, the International Airline Program on the Platinum Card may help them save money on their international tickets. I would start by making a list of what you want a travel rewards card to accomplish for them. Then make sure the card you select matches up with their travel goals, has an annual fee they’re comfortable paying, and delivers benefits they’ll be able to use. Also keep in mind that this is not a permanent decision. They can try the card (or cards) for a year and see if it works for them. You may also consider just adding them as authorized users to a card you might carry that offers lounge access benefits.


  6. Not enough info for lower credit scores, such as within the 500’s range.


Any thoughts or questions? Comment below!

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