Travel rewards cards are both more difficult to use and more valuable than cash back rewards credit cards, and airlines seem to be making the process even more confusing. Cash back cards are extremely simple — spend money, get a specific amount of cash back in your account — while travel rewards cards, on the other hand, require users to do homework to figure out how to redeem them.
But travel rewards are typically more valuable than straight cash back, and there are flexible options that offer some of both worlds: a decent fixed rate at which points can be turned into cash, and the opportunity to transfer miles to airlines for high-value international and first class award flights.
These cards may not be the best for scoring blowout first and business class flight awards, but they all offer a reliable way to turn spending into rewards more rapidly than most cash back cards. While programs like American Express Membership Rewards may promise a bigger bang, this list focuses on cards with travel points that can be redeemed as effortlessly as possible.
Breaking It Down:
Venture Miles can always be redeemed for virtually any travel expense at a flat rate of two cents per point. This is unrivaled in the travel industry, considering the points can simply be applied to your monthly statement. This feature is sometimes called the “travel purchase eraser”
This makes the Venture card much easier to use, while points can still be transferred to airlines and hotels to book special trips.
This Card’s Superpower: This card earns a total of 10 points per dollar spent on hotels booked through a promotion with hotels.com, the highest guaranteed return rate on any card spending category we cover.
- Guaranteed Travel Return, All Expenses: 2 percent
- Guaranteed Travel Return, Travel Expenses: 2 percent
- Guaranteed Travel Return, Dining Expenses: 2 percent
- Guaranteed Travel Return, Hotel Expenses: 10 percent
Best For: Simple Travel Redemption and Broad Spending
Not For: High Return Rates for International Business and First Class Flights Can Be Found More Easily Through Amex, Chase and Citi programs.
Fee: $95 per year, waived first year
Chase Sapphire Preferred and Sapphire Reserve
Chase’s travel cards, the Sapphire Reserve and Sapphire Preferred, are often chided by die-hard points and miles collectors. Chase does not have as many transfer partners as rival American Express. Rather, the Sapphire cards are near the top of this list because of a combination of good transfer partners and the ability to get decent value for points on any flight or hotel room.
This Card’s Superpower: In addition to earning high point bonuses on dining and travel, Sapphire Reserve Cardholders get an extra 50 percent when converting their points to hotel stays or flights through the pay-with-points travel portal. Chase is also the only program allowing transfers to Southwest Airlines’ always-on Rapid Rewards program.
- Guaranteed Travel Return, All Expenses: 1.5 percent (Reserve), 1.25 percent (Preferred)
- Guaranteed Travel Return, Travel Expenses: 4.5 percent (Reserve), 2.5 percent (Preferred)
- Guaranteed Travel Return, Dining Expenses: 4.5 percent (Reserve), 2.5 percent (Preferred)
Best For:Widespread Travel, International Economy and Domestic U.S. Flight Rewards
Not For:Low Credit, Maximizing International Business and First Class Redemptions
Fee: $450 Sapphire Reserve, $95 Sapphire Preferred
Citi, like Chase, has its own cohort of transfer partners for ThankYou Points earned through the Premier Card. Citi’s transfer partners tend to be slightly more obscure, however, and include only JetBlue among domestic U.S. carriers. That might make it more difficult to get outsize rewards on U.S. first class flight, and domestic flights that might otherwise be expensive to book using cash.
This Card’s Superpower: In terms of earning potential, Citi’s Premier Card beats out Chase’s Sapphire Preferred, and Citi waives the $95 annual fee for a year. Rewards bonuses including triple points earned on travel and gas, and double points on a broad range of dining and entertainment expenses.
Unfortunately, Citi does not offer the boosted 1.5 cent-per-point redemption when booking flights using its travel portal. Redemption for pay-with-points flights booked through said portal is capped at 1.25 cents-per-point.
- Guaranteed Travel Return, All Expenses: 1.25 percent
- Guaranteed Travel Return, Travel and Gas Expenses: 3.75 percent
- Guaranteed Travel Return, Dining and Entertainment: 0.025 percent
Best For: Flexible International Air Travel Rewards
Not For: Hotel Redemptions, U.S. Domestic Travel
Fee: $95 per year, waived the first year
Given that these are both no-fee credit cards, they are easy first options. On their own, points earned through Chase Freedom cards are worth exactly one cent each when redeemed for travel through the Chase Portal (now run via Expedia).
What makes the Freedom attractive are rotating bonus categories that earn 5 percent, or 5 points per dollar spent, on different categories every quarter. The Freedom Unlimited Card doesn’t earn on any bonus categories, but rather a flat 1.5 percent on every purchase.
This Card’s Superpower: Anyone who has a Sapphire Preferred or Sapphire Reserve card, however, can redeem the points at those accelerated rates, and transfer them to the full cohort of airline and hotel transfer partners.
- Guaranteed Travel Return, All Purchases: 1 percent (Freedom), 1.5 percent (Freedom Unlimited)
- Guaranteed Travel Return, Bonus Categories: 5 percent (Freedom)
- Guaranteed Travel Return, All Purchases w/ Sapphire Reserve: 2.25 percent (Freedom Unlimited)
- Guaranteed Travel Return, Bonus Categories w/ Sapphire Reserve: 7.5 percent
Best For: Augmenting earning on a Sapphire Card with bonus categories or extra Unlimited earning. No fee points-based rewards that can be used for travel. Starter card (not great credit).
Not For: The Freedom card isn’t as attractive for travel rewards as a standalone card.
No annual fee
Special Offer: 15,000 points after spending $500 in the first three months after the card opens. (Chase Freedom). Three percent on all purchases in first year up to $20,000 (Freedom Unlimited).
Like Capital One’s travel redemption system, points earned through the Arrival Plus card can be directly applied to travel expenses (or other expenses) on your billing statement.
This Card’s Superpower: While the redemption cashes out at 1.05 cents-per-point, the double points earning on every category makes this card a good option to pick up points on expenses for which you might not earn a bonus with another card.
- Guaranteed Travel Return, All Purchases: 2.1 percent
- Guaranteed Travel Return, Travel Purchases: 2.1 percent
- Guaranteed Travel Return, Dining Purchases: 2.1 percent
Best For: Current 70,000-point introductory bonus after spending $5,000 in 90 days after the card opens.
Not For: Travel and dining expenses that could go on cards above.
Fee: $89 per year, waived the first year
This is an interesting card that I haven’t written about before today, not only because of extremely high earnings in travel spend, but because it’s also a zero-interest balance transfer card, a zero fee card and a points rewards card. This is a unique combination that could allow one to transfer an old balance, earn an intro bonus and earn reliable travel rewards all at once.
Guaranteed Travel Return, All Purchses: about 1 percent
Guaranteed Travel Return, Travel Purchases: about 3-4 percent
Guaranteed Travel Return, Dining Purchases: about 1 percent
Best for: No annual fee points bonus (rare). Those looking to earn decent returns on travel purchases with a smaller bank, and anyone contemplating a balance transfer.
Not for: Those willing to consider a higher-octane rewards card with Chase, Citi or Capital One.
No annual fee
Southwest Airlines’ fleet of Visa credit cards belongs on this list because of the absolute ease of redeeming the airline’s Rapid Rewards points. Southwest has three cards, each with escalating Southwest Airlines perks in addition to the points earned. For the purposes of earning and redeeming points, all are roughly the same, though the Premier and Priority cards have additional revolving bonuses that come around each card anniversary.
This Card’s Superpower: Among airlines studied in a reward seat analysis by IdeaWorks, Southwest’s Rapid Rewards was the only one that provided 100-percent seat availability.
Of note: Rapid Rewards redemption is calculated at a fixed rate based on cash fares, similar to how the above rewards points might be used to book airfare through travel portals.
- Guaranteed Travel Rewards Return, All Purchases: about 1.7 percent
- Guaranteed Travel Rewards Return, Southwest Purchases: 3.4 percent
Best For: Always available U.S. and Central America/Caribbean Flights
Not For: Overseas Travel, Hotels, Living in areas without Southwest Airlines service
Fee: $69 to $149
Upshot: Choosing The Right Card For You
Cards that allow maximally flexible redemption, meaning you can erase travel purchases right from your statement balance using points, are the easiest to use. That said, those with bigger plans might want to consider a mixed card like Chase Sapphire or Citi Premier, which provide an opportunity to redeem points at a fixed rate (albeit through a travel portal) or transfer points to airlines for business and first class bargains.
Ultimately, one should consider travel habits, spending habits and tolerance for solving puzzles when considering which card might be right to add.
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