Memorial Day is right around the corner, and summer vacations are top of mind. How are you going to pay for your trip? Credit card issuers are constantly piling on perks to attract new customers, and those with good credit who play their cards right can score big bonuses—which will help them afford their next getaway.
While the rewards for hotel- and airline-affiliated cards are often terrific, it’s nice to have options. That’s why TIME Moneyland asked three credit card experts to name the cards that currently offer the best travel flexible rewards—i.e., points that don’t tie you down to a single hotel or airline. Flexible reward cards are growing in both number and popularity. Depending on how frequently you travel and how much you spend, you’ll have to decide if your top priority is snagging a big bucket of miles or points for signing up, or earning a high rate of rewards on an ongoing basis.
(As usual, think long and hard about applying for one of these cards if you plan to revolve a balance; the interest will negate the value of any promotional “freebies.”)
In no particular order, here are five cards that are tops for flexible travel rewards:
The Capital One Venture Rewards Visa card was given the nod by two of our experts, Amber Stubbs, managing editor at CardRatings.com, and Odysseas Papadimitriou, founder and CEO of CardHub.com (and former Capital One executive). Stubbs touts the card’s high earn rate of 2 points per dollar on all purchases, which can be redeemed for flights, hotels and other travel rewards. The initial bonus of 10,000 points translates into $100 worth of rewards. The card carries an annual fee of $59, which is waived for the first year. Typical of Capital One, it has no foreign transaction fees.
The PenFed Premium Travel Rewards American Express has the distinction of being the only card on this list that’s issued by a credit union rather than a bank. It has an APR starting at 9.99% variable for new purchases, comparable to the low rates you would expect from a no-frills “vanilla” card with less generous rewards, Stubbs says. It’s also the only card on our list with no annual fee and doesn’t charge cardholders foreign transaction fees. The current sign-up bonus gives new cardholders rewards worth $250 after spending $650 in the first three months. Frequent fliers, take note: The card gives 5 points per dollar spent on airfare in addition to 1 point per dollar on other purchases. PenFed stands for Pentagon Federal Credit Union, and membership is required. PenFed is pretty inclusive, though, making membership available to a wide variety of consumers, for as little as $15.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa card earned praise from both Papadimitriou as well as John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at SmartCredit.com. Spending $3,000 in the first three months gets cardholders a bucket of 40,000 points, which can be converted into $500 worth of travel rewards. One down side is the card’s $95 annual fee, although Chase does waive that fee for the first year. There are no foreign transaction fees. Cardholders earn two points per dollar spent on travel and restaurant purchases, and one point per dollar on other purchases.
The Blue Cash Preferred American Express is another of Papadimitriou’s favorites. New cardholders currently can earn $150 in rewards after charging $1,000 in the first three months. This AmEx has a more complicated tiered earnings structure, but based on your spending patterns, it might be worth the $75 annual fee. Cardholders earn a whopping 6% cash back at supermarkets, 3% at gas stations and department stores, and 1% cash back on other purchases — although warehouse clubs are excluded. One bummer: This is the only card on our list that charges a foreign transaction fee (2.7%), so it’s wise to choose a different card to use on trips abroad. And steer clear of carrying a balance long-term; after the initial 12-month teaser rate of 0% expires, purchase APRs range from 17.24% to 22.24% variable, the highest on our list.
The Escape by Discover card really spreads out its introductory bonus — you have to hang in there for 25 months — but the advantage is that there’s no four-figure minimum spending threshold to get the bonus. New cardholders earn a bonus of 1,000 miles (worth $10 in rewards) for each month they make a purchase on the card, with a total maximum of $250. The $120 worth of rewards in the first year more than makes up for the card’s $60 annual fee. Cardholders also earn two miles per dollar spent that can be redeemed for travel rewards in increments of 10,000 miles or $100. Discover doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee, but then again, it’s not widely accepted outside the U.S.