A vacation should be rewarding in and of itself. But if you can find a credit card that will give you miles, points or other perks when you travel, it’s an extra bonus. The right card can even help you save money on your summer travels.
But finding the right one for you can be a challenge. Because credit card issuers switch up promotions and the fine print on their cards all the time, even savvy consumers struggle to keep up. So we asked a trio of experts to suggest the most valuable travel reward credit card offers out there. Here’s what they said:
Chase Marriott Rewards Visa
“If you’re a frequent traveler and have a hotel chain or a series of hotel chains you like or use a lot you can rack up rewards quickly,” says Doug Miller, senior analyst for banking and cards at consulting firm Corporate Insight. The card has a $30 annual fee, but it’s waived for the first year. The industry standard for earnings and redemptions is 1 percent, where a dollar spent on the card equals one point and 100 points equals a dollar in rewards, which is what cardholders earn on their purchases. But if you use the card to pay for a room in one of 3,200 hotels in the Marriott family of brands, you get three points per dollar spent. The card also feeds into Marriott’s customer loyalty program, so cardholders can earn more points that can be cashed in for free nights at certain Marriott hotels.
“For a no-fee card they have a great redemption rate,” Miller says. “It isn’t tied to any specific airline or hotel brand, which makes it a good pick for travelers who aren’t brand-loyal. Although you earn points at the same one-point-per-dollar rate as most other cards, this one gives cardholders $100 off eligible travel purchases for every 7,500 points. In other words, earn the equivalent of $75 in rewards, get $100 in credit.” Plus, he says, “it’s a straight statement credit, which offers a nice flexibility.”
Miller adds that heavy travelers might be interested in the premium version of the card, the Blue Sky Preferred Card; for a $75 annual fee, it lets you earn 2 points per dollar spent and gives you $100 a year toward airline fees like checked-bag charges and in-flight meals.
“If you’re planning on taking an RV or other road trip, it’s your best bet,” says Odysseas Papadimitriou, CEO of CardHub.com, a credit card comparison website, and a former Capital One executive. “It gives you 6 percent cash back at supermarkets and 3 percent at gas stations.” Cardholders also get that 3 percent rate at department stores, and 1 percent on other purchases. Plus, there’s a sign-up promotion going on now that lets new cardholders earn $100 cash back if they spend $500 within the first 60 days after they’re approved. The only bummers: a $75 annual fee, and a rule that excludes warehouse store purchases.
Papadimitriou also recommends this card, which is issued by Chase. If you spend $2,500 within the first 90 days after you’re approved, you earn 50,000 miles, which is roughly enough for two domestic flights or one transatlantic flight. Just be sure to factor in the $95 annual fee when you calculate the value of your free airfare. (Oh, and don’t forget all of those other annoying things like taxes and ever-increasing fuel surcharges.) You earn 2.5 miles for every dollar spent on British Airways bookings, and 1.25 miles for every dollar you spend on other purchases. The card doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee, which typically adds around 3 percent to the cost of any purchases you make outside the U.S. or with a merchant that processes its credit transactions through an overseas bank.
One note: This card doles out its rewards in miles rather than points, which can be a little different if you want to redeem that credit for a free flight. Rather than basing your reward on the price of the ticket, you have to calculate the miles flown.
Curtis Arnold, the founder of credit card comparison website CardRatings.com, gives AmEx a third appearance on our list. “I like the PenFed card because they’re running a promotion on it right now,” Arnold says. “You get 5 points per dollar spent on hotels and dining until August 31,” meaning it’s good for vacation travel. If you’re a frequent flyer, the ongoing rate for airfare rewards is 5 points per dollar. “We’ve recommended this card for years,” Arnold says. Another bonus? No annual fee.
PenFed is short for Pentagon Federal Credit Union. Unlike many other credit unions, though, you don’t have to live in a certain city or work for a specific employer to be eligible. PenFed requires would-be cardholders to join either the National Military Families Association for a one-time (nonrefundable) fee of $20, or Voices For America’s Troops for a one-time (again, nonrefundable) $15 fee.
Both Papadimitriou and Arnold recommend this one. You earn two miles per dollar spent on the card. Unlike the British Airways card above, these miles convert to a cash value, so you’re essentially earning 2 percent cash back if you use your rewards for travel-related purchases. Venture isn’t tied to any specific hotel, airline or travel provider, so this is another good card for travelers who aren’t brand-loyal. The Venture also doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. Right now, Capital One is running a promotion that gives new cardholders 25,000 miles (that’s the equivalent of $250 off an airline ticket or hotel stay) if you spend $1,000 in the first three months.
One catch is the $59 annual fee, although Capital One does waive that for the first year. And there is a version of the Venture card, called VentureOne, that doesn’t charge an annual fee. “It kind of depends on how aggressive a spender you are. If you’re a more aggressive charger, the 2 miles per dollar is going to be a better deal,” says Arnold.
Wondering if the fee is worth it? Take a look at the math: Say you charge $500 a month on your card. Over the course of a year, that’s $75 in rewards for the no-fee card versus $120 in rewards, minus the $59 fee for the other card, which still brings you out ahead by $61. If you’re a statistically average spender, you could do even better. According to credit card industry publication The Nilson Report, the average amount cardholders spend monthly is $667, and people who have reward cards spend much more.
One final note about travel reward cards: No matter how good the deal seems, it’s not going to be worth it if you revolve a balance. Most reward cards, travel ones included, come with higher APRs than non-reward cards. If you don’t pay your bill in full every month, you’ll pay way more in interest than you’ll ever earn in freebies.