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Travel 101: Best Credit Cards for Travelers

By Daniel Bortz
updated September 29, 2021
Credit Card Travel 87263709
Mukhina1/Dreamstime
Rewards. Low fees. Hassle-free redemption. The right plastic in your wallet can unlock a new world of travel opportunities. Our finance whiz weighs in.

Part of being a savvy traveler is making sure you have the right credit card to maximize your travel rewards. Of course, there are a ton of travel credit cards for you to choose from. So, what’s the best piece of plastic for you?

Ultimately, it boils down to your travel behaviors—and marrying how you spend money traveling with a credit card’s rewards program. “I always recommend having a redemption goal in mind before you set off to earn points and miles,” says Zach Honig, editor-at-large at The Points Guy. “Those 100,000 Alaska miles you racked up with credit card sign-up bonuses won’t do you much good if you don’t plan to fly Alaska or any of its partners.”

If you’re eyeing an airline rewards card, “make sure the miles you’ll earn can get you where you need to go,” Honig says. Likewise, if you’re focused on earning hotel points, “make sure there’s actually a participating property at your intended destination,” Honig advises.

International travelers should look for a credit card with no foreign transaction fees, says Bill Hardekopf, a credit expert at LowCards.com. Why? Because some cards charge up to a 3% fee on foreign transactions, which can effectively negate whatever rewards points, dollars, or miles you’d earn using the card.

Granted, a travel rewards credit card isn’t right for everyone. For one thing, rewards credit cards typically have higher interest rates than non-rewards cards. Consequently, “you shouldn’t have a rewards card unless you’re going to pay off the balance each month,” Hardekopf says. Also, because some rewards cards have high annual fees (like the Visa Black Card, with its whopping $495 annual fee), having one may not make sense for infrequent travelers.

That being said, many consumers can save big bucks with a travel rewards credit card—that is, assuming you remember to redeem your rewards. (A recent Bankrate.com report found that three in 10 credit cardholders have never redeemed their credit card rewards.)

Still, it begs the question: what are the best credit cards for travelers?

Focusing on credit cards with not only generous rewards but also low fees and convenient redemption options, we spoke to Honig and Hardekopf for their top recommendations. One of these five cards could be a great addition to your wallet.

Chase Sapphire Preferred card: If you’re looking for a credit card that earns points that you can transfer to hotel and airline partners with ease, this is the card for you, Honig says. If you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months, you’ll earn a 50,000-point sign-up bonus that will get you two free round-trip domestic flights or multiple nights at a high-end hotel. In addition, the card offers rental car insurance and has no foreign transaction fees. The card, however, has a $95 annual fee after the first year.

Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard: This rewards card has been around for a while, but it’s still one of the best rewards cards for airline miles, Hardekopf says. The card has a nice sign-up bonus of 40,000 miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 90 days—enough to redeem a $400 credit toward an eligible travel purchase. You earn 2 miles on all purchases (a solid payout compared to other miles rewards cards) and get 5% of your miles back every time you redeem them. The card has no foreign transaction fees, but there is an $89 annual fee after the first year.

Citi ThankYou Premier card: You earn 3 points on travel for a range of expenses, including gas, airfare, hotels, cruises, car rental agencies, travel agencies, railways, public transportation, tolls, taxis, and parking. (Translation: there are plenty of opportunities to accrue points with this card.) This is also a great all-around rewards card, says Honig, since you earn 2 points on restaurants and entertainment and 1 point on all other purchases. It has a $95 annual fee after the first year.

United MileagePlus Explorer card: If you’re looking for an airline carrier-specific credit card, this one earns top marks, Honig says. Similar to the Barclaycard, you earn 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 90 days. You earn 2 miles per $1 spent on tickets purchased from United and 1 mile per $1 spent on all other purchases. You also get nice perks, such as priority boarding and one free checked bag for you and a companion traveling on your reservation. The card has a $95 annual fee after the first year but no foreign transaction fees.

Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card: LowCards.com rated this card 5 out of 5 stars for several reasons. First, you can get a one-time bonus of 20,000 miles if you spend $1,000 on purchases within the first 3 months. You also earn unlimited 1.25 miles per $1 spent on all purchases. The best part? Redeeming your rewards is a piece of cake. “You can fly any airline, stay at any hotel, anytime,” Hardekopf says. And, unlike the other cards on this list, this card has no annual fee. 

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