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Here’s the thing about travel rewards credit cards. There are so many – how do you find the best one for your situation?
One thing I’ve noticed over the last couple of years is that credit card companies follow basically the same formula. A customer signs up, they spend $2k, $3k, $5k and in return get a hefty chunk of rewards points.
Typically, you’ll receive enough for a cheap roundtrip ticket to go somewhere not too close, but not too far away.
With that model, why not just choose the one that looks the coolest or the one that offers the extra 10,000 points over the rest of the pack?
When looking at the best travel rewards credit cards, it’s important to really identify what you need out of a credit card.
The first step to determining this is figuring out these factors:
- Can I spend enough to reach the bonus minimum without completely screwing myself financially?
If it’s going to take a year to pay off the $5,000 you racked up on that new card in order to get initial 100,000 bonus miles, that card may not be the best option for you.
We’re not going to get too deep into money management here (there’s a great blog called Mr. Money Mustache for that), but in order to really capitalize on travel rewards credit cards, it’s important to not get in over your head.
- Do I have good enough credit to get approved? Most cards dedicate a chunk of their fine print to covering odds of approval. If your credit and debt-to-income ratio is good, you should be good to go. Bad credit and high debt on other credit cards? Your options are limited, particularly when it comes to optimizing rewards.
- Am I planning to keep this card long term?
Let’s look at two sample scenarios many digital nomads may find themselves in:
Scenario 1: The Nomad-In-Residence
Mark has been living in Chiang Mai for six months. He plans to head back to the US for the holidays but first wants to spend a couple of months in Bali to check out the nomad scene there.
Mark applies for one of the many travel rewards credit cards that provide a big points bonus at a set rate – let’s say 50,000 bonus miles after he spends $3,000 in the first three months.
Mark gets approved, and immediately buys a one-way ticket to Denpasar, two months of lodging, coworking membership, scooter rental, and an Indonesian SIM card for his phone.
He also buys some new travel gear, enough that he hits the minimum dollar amount ($3,000).
He gets his rewards miles and uses them to pay for his flight back home to the states, saving a cool $500. This is enough to offset the cost of his travel gear, scooter rental, and SIM card.
Mark’s lodging and coworking membership were bills that he pays each month anyway no matter where he’s at, therefore he’s not really spending more money than normal (aside from the flight to Denpasar, running about $200)– it’s just all front-loaded at one time.
Because of this, Mark is able to pay off the $3,000 in only a couple months. He incurs a very minimal amount of interest and cancels the card long before that pesky $250 annual fee hits his balance.
Scenario 2: The Nomad-On-The-Move
Rachel is the type of person who can’t stay in one place for too long. Lately, she’s been country hopping every couple of months. She consistently pays the bills for herself and her dropshipping store on travel rewards credit cards and earns pretty hefty miles as a result.
She uses those miles not only to purchase airline tickets to each destination but to upgrade to business class whenever possible.
The cards which allow her to optimize her rewards are cards offering 2 and 3 points per dollar spent, instead of the traditional 1 or 1.5. Like Mark, she tries to pay her balance each month and rarely accumulates noticeable interest.
Rachel plans to keep her three travel rewards credit cards for an extended period of time. Because she’s racking up so many miles, she doesn’t mind paying the annual fee.
She’s still coming out thousands of dollars ahead each year.
There are innumerable variations on these stories as well as other situations. But part of applying for the best travel rewards credit cards is understanding what you want to get out of them, and how you plan to use them. Learn more in our Beginner’s Guide To Travel Hacking.
Now, without further ado, here are the best travel rewards credit cards for Q4 2017.
Top 6 best travel rewards credit cards
This card is consistently on the short list of best travel rewards credit cards. Users earn 3X points on travel and dining purchases along with a $300 annual travel credit reimbursement – just for having the card.
The sign-up bonus is 50,000 miles when you spend $4,000 in the first three months.
Additionally, Chase offers credit when users apply for TSA Precheck or Global Entry. They also ensure a smooth transfer to hotel and airline rewards programs, car rental benefits, and no foreign transaction fees.
There is a $450 annual fee – but this is easily offset even by utilizing only some of the rewards. See the latest offer here.
- Notable mention: Chase Sapphire Preferred. A slightly watered down version of the Reserve, but with a much lower ($95/year) annual fee ($0 intro annual fee for the first year). Earn 60,000 bonus points after $4,000 spent in the first three months, 2X rewards points on travel & dining at restaurants, and 1x on everything else. Your points are worth 25% more when you redeem them for travel! Check out this card here.
Platinum Card from American Express
60,000 rewards points are yours after you spend $5,000 in the first three months. Additionally, and what really puts the Platinum Card among the best travel rewards credit cards, is the 5X points when buying airfare directly from an airline or with American Express Travel.
The catch here, which is actually a huge benefit, is that you pay the balance in full each month – so there is no interest.
Users also receive $15 in Uber credit each month and a $200 airline fee credit. Plus, the card offers perks at over 1,000 airport lounges around the world.
The annual fee for this card is $550. Check out the latest offerings and specials here.
- Notable mention: Business Platinum Card from American Express. The rewards are structured a bit differently here, but as far as business travel rewards credit cards go this is one of the best. 50,000 bonus miles after $10,000, an additional 25,000 bonus miles at $20,000 spent within three months. $595 annual fee. Read up on the most current offer here.
Simply put, Chase has the travel rewards credit cards game down to a science. This business credit card offers 80,000 bonus points after the cardholder spends $5,000 in the first three months. That’s enough for an international round-trip ticket to a number of desirable destinations.
Unless you’re spending over $150,000 per year on the card, you’ll also enjoy 3X points per dollar spent on travel, shipping, online advertising, as well as internet, cable, and phone services.
Travel reimbursements for cancellations and changes are available, as are free cards for team members. The best part? The annual fee is only $95. View the latest offering here.
Best hotel rewards credit card
Most major hotel and resort chains have a rewards credit card. What makes this one better than others is that Marriot offers 6x Bonvoy points for every $1 spent at over 6,900 participating Marriot Bonvoy Hotels and if approved, you can earn 75,000 Bonus Points after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months of account opening.
Plus you get an additional Free Night Award (valued up to 35,000 points) every year after account anniversary and 15 Elite Night Credits each calendar year.
Best airline rewards credit card
This is among the best travel rewards credit cards because United offers a strong purse of perks.
Cardholders are allowed a free checked bag on each trip, which can be a big deal these days with any US-based airline. Priority boarding is also included, so you’re guaranteed that prime overhead storage bin space.
One point per dollar spent, 2 points in some cases. Currently, you can earn 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.
Holders also receive two United Club passes each year, which will help you directly offset that $95 annual fee that is charged after the first year (especially if you like to enjoy a drink before a flight or take advantage of free food).
Let’s just hope United can up their customer service to be in line with their rewards program. Learn more about this card here.
This is the card to get if you are looking to travel to one of the many Southwest destinations (Domestic in the US or to the Caribbean).
You can currently get 40,000 miles after meeting the $1,000 minimum spend in the first 3 months. The highly sought after Companion Pass takes 110,000 miles so this is a definite boost towards getting that in your hot hands.
Holders also get a $75 Southwest travel credit each year plus 7,500 bonus points after your cardmember anniversary which helps offset the $149 annual fee. Learn more about this card here.
Making your selection
When choosing from the best travel rewards credit cards, remember that the right one is right for YOUR situation – not necessarily that of someone else you know. Consider your upcoming travel plans, budget, and long-term plan for the card.
Once that’s decided, the perks are right around the corner!
*Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, hotel, airline, or other entity. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of the entities included within the post. Zero To Travel has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Zero To Travel and CardRatings may receive a commission form card issuers.
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