Maximize your travel and dining spending by choosing the right travel rewards credit card.
While the coronavirus pandemic disrupted a lot of travel plans over the last year, three COVID-19 vaccines have been approved for emergency use and it’s going to become safer and safer to travel over the next few months. That means that it’s time to start planning an absolutely epic vacation.
A lot of work goes into planning a great vacation, but there is one thing you could do that will help you get ready to hit the road before you even know whether you want to head to the shore or the mountains — sign up for a travel credit card.
You see, travel credit card membership has some pretty serious benefits. First, these cards come with some of the highest travel reward points out there — every time you use one, the points you earn can be used toward a future (or sometimes a past) travel purchase. And if you spend money on certain eligible purchases, you’ll earn even more bonus points and start working your way toward bonus miles and elite status. A travel rewards card also comes in handy for travel perks such as first-class upgrades for the frequent traveler, priority boarding, free TSA Precheck and Global Entry, airport lounge access and exclusive hotel or rental car benefits. We’ll add that they’re similar to an airline card, but offer more flexible benefits.
So, if you want to start earning points that will be useful down the road, it’s time to start vetting the travel perks offered by some of the top travel credit cards. If you already have a travel rewards card, use this downtime to take stock of what it offers. There could be better rewards out there.
How to pick the best travel credit card
The points and travel benefits that you accrue through a travel rewards program are often redeemed through your credit card issuer’s website (or app) or appear as a statement credit that reimburses you for past travel-related and everyday purchases you made with your travel credit card. Points or miles can also be transferred to travel partners — mostly hotels and airlines — at a fluctuating conversion rate, where they can then be used to book a flight or hotel room. More on that later.
To choose the best travel credit card, there are a few key factors to consider:
- Annual fees. Every single travel rewards program reviewed here has annual fees, with some climbing as high as $550, but those fees are usually mitigated by monthly or annual credits.
- Exclusive perks. Some of these travel rewards card options also grant access to exclusive travel perks, like airline lounges, priority boarding or VIP welcomes at hotels. The value of those perks is subjective and something you’ll have to evaluate for your needs and wants.
- Foreign transaction fees. None of the best travel cards makes users pay a foreign transaction fee, so a foreign transaction fee is not something you have to worry about with any of the credit cards recommended below.
The best travel credit card for foodies and big grocery shoppers
American Express The Gold Card
Reward rates: 4x points on dining and supermarkets, 3x points on flights (booked directly with airline or amextravel.com), 1x points on all other purchases
Annual fee: $250
Welcome bonus: 60,000 points
Bonus redemption threshold: Spend $4,000 in first six months
APR: 15.99% to 22.99% variable
Foreign transaction fees: None
Credit requirement: Good to Excellent
As the only card on this list that offers a high rewards rate on both dining and US supermarket purchases, the Gold Card from American Express is a great option for those who don’t currently spend a ton on travel every year, but would like to travel at a discount with points earned spending money on food.
If you spend more than about $7,000 annually on dining and US supermarkets (including smaller grocery stores, but excluding big-box stores like Walmart or Target), the $250 annual fee is well worth it. Considering the average American household spent $7,923 on food in 2018, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, many households could benefit from the Gold card. (If you spend a high amount on both food and travel each year, I recommend the Chase Sapphire Reserve instead.)
The Gold Card has a broad spectrum of rewards categories for a travel card, with 4x points on dining and US supermarkets and 3x points on flights booked through the AmEx portal, the website where points can be redeemed. The $250 annual fee is partially offset by up to $120 in annual dining credits (through services like Grubhub and Seamless) and up to $100 in annual incidental flight fees, which cover things like in-flight dining, Wi-Fi and checked baggage fees. The sign-on bonus is fairly standard at 60,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $4,000 in the first six months, which is worth up to $1,000.
There are two ways to redeem points with the Gold Card. The first is for travel purchases made through the American Express Travel portal, where one point equals 1 cent. The second option is to transfer your MR points to one of 18 airline partners or three hotel partners for a value of up to 2 cents per point. Since your points are worth twice as much when transferred, we highly recommend transferring to a travel partner and looking for good redemption deals in order to maximize your earned points.
How we picked the best travel credit cards
To determine our recommendations for the best travel credit card, we researched 19 of the most popular travel rewards credit cards (listed below) and selected based on the best monetary value for certain customer profiles, such as frequent travelers, those who spend a lot on dining and groceries or those who are looking for an easy way to travel at a discount with miles earned on everyday spending. We always hold overall net value as paramount, since choosing the right rewards credit card is about saving money and being financially responsible, not being lured by perks or offers that are flashy or irrelevant.
To determine when a card makes financial sense, these cards were compared with the top no-annual-fee cash-back card for dining and travel, the Wells Fargo Propel. Since the Propel card gives cardholders 3x points (3% cash back) on travel, transit and dining with no fee, it was used as a baseline for judging the below cards.
- Platinum Card from AmEx
- Gold Card from AmEx
- Chase Sapphire Preferred
- Chase Sapphire Reserve
- Capital One Venture
- Capital One VentureOne
- Bank of America Premium Rewards
- PenFed Pathfinder Rewards Card
- Uber Visa Card
- BofA Travel Rewards
- Discover It Miles
- Virgin Atlantic World Elite Mastercard
- Hilton Honors American Express Surpass
- Marriott Bonvoy Boundless
- JetBlue Plus
- Alaska Airlines Visa Signature
- United Explorer Card
- Delta Reserve Credit Card from American Express
- Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express
- Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express