I have more than a dozen credit cards to maximize travel rewards, and I'd recommend 5 of them to anyone who asks

eric rosenberg and mom

Courtesy Eric Rosenberg

Eric Rosenberg and his mother, Andrea, at Crater Lake in Oregon.

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I started with credit cards like many people do: I found a favorite rewards card that didn't charge an annual fee and excitedly redeemed cash back every time my balance reached the minimum $25 to cash out.

But after working as a bank manager and doing a bit more research, I started apply for new cards to earn large bonuses and earn even bigger rewards on my everyday spending. After all, the big credit card issuers regularly release new innovative cards with great features, or make updates to existing ones.
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Counting my wife's cards where I'm an authorized user, we currently have 14 open cards. Here are some favorites that I regularly suggest to family and friends and cards I would never go without.

Keep in mind that we're focusing on the rewards and perks that make these credit cards great options, not things like interest rates and late fees, which will far outweigh the value of any points or miles. It's important to practice financial discipline when using credit cards by paying your balances in full each month, making payments on time, and only spending what you can afford to pay back.

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Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or the Chase Sapphire Reserve

One of the cards I've held onto for the longest length of time is my Chase Sapphire Card. It started as a Sapphire Preferred card years ago, and I eventually upgraded it to the ultra-premium Chase Sapphire Reserve.

While this card charges a $550 annual fee (up from $450, as of January 12, 2020), I find it to be totally worthwhile. It pays me 3x points per dollar on all travel (excluding a $300 travel credit) and restaurant purchases and 1x everywhere else. (On January 12, it also added 10x points on Lyft rides.) While I really only use it for travel purchases (read the next section to learn why), its benefits are great for a frequent traveler.The card gives you a $300 annual statement credit for the first $300 you spend on travel per year. Because I would spend the $300 anyway, the annual fee is effectively $250. Depending on how you value the Reserve's new benefits with Lyft and DoorDash (you can get up to $120 in credits for DoorDash food delivery), that effective annual fee could be worth it.
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The Sapphire Reserve also includes a Priority Pass Select membership that gets me access to airport travel lounges around the world. Over the last month, I've probably enjoyed $75-plus in value of drinks and meals at lounges in London, New York, Los Angeles, and Los Angeles.

Learn more about the Chase Sapphire Preferred »

Learn more about the Chase Sapphire Reserve »

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American Express Gold card

The Amex Gold card charges $250 per year. That's another big annual fee, but one that's worth it for me. It earns me 4 points per dollar on dining with no limit, 4 points per dollar at US supermarkets up to $25,000 in annual purchases (then 1x), and 3 points per point for flights books directly at airlines or amextravel.com.
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I like Chase points a little more than American Express Membership Rewards points due to Chase's selection of transfer partners, but you can't beat the category bonuses for US supermarkets and restaurants worldwide. That earns this card a permanent spot in my wallet.

It also gives you an annual airline fee credit of up to $100 for things like in-flight purchases and baggage fees. If you like GrubHub, Seamless, Cheesecake Factory, Ruth's Chris, or Shake Shack (at participating locations), you'll get a credit worth up to $10 per month on purchases there. If you take full advantage, that's up to $220 in annual fee credits. That brings your true annual fee down to an effective $30.

Learn more about the Amex Gold card »

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Chase Freedom or the Chase Freedom Unlimited

The Chase Freedom gives you 5% back (or 5x points) on up to $1,500 spent in popular quarterly rotating bonus categories once you activate each quarter, and the Chase Freedom Unlimited offers an unlimited 1.5% cash back on all spending.

On their own, the cards give rewards in the form of cash back, but you can convert to points at a rate of 1 cent = 1 point if you also have a card that earns Ultimate Rewards points, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Reserve. I have the Chase Freedom and my wife has the Freedom Unlimited. We're authorized users on each other's cards so we can get the best return on spending all the time.

I actually bought a label maker so I could put a sticker on the back of each card to remind me where to use them. Keeping track of the rotating categories for the Chase Freedom, which changes the bonus categories every three months, can be tough. But the effort is worthwhile when you want to book a flight or hotel night with points! Neither card has an annual fee.
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Learn more about the Chase Freedom »

Learn more about the Chase Freedom Unlimited »

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Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card and the United Explorer Card

I don't use the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless card for much shopping, but I keep it because I get an annual free night award worth up to 35,000 points. Compared to the $95 per year I pay for the card, I'm bound to come out ahead when I book the free night.As a frequent flyer, I often find myself on the way to those hotels on a United flight. I keep the United Explorer card primarily for the free checked bag benefit. Whenever I use the card to pay for a flight, I get a free checked back each way. If I bring my wife and we both check a bag, that's worth $120 per round-trip right there. The card also gives me a credit that covers my Global Entry cost, worth up to $100 every four years. Those benefits alone outweigh the $95 annual fee (waived the first year).
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Learn more about the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless card »

Learn more about the United Explorer card »

Pick the right cards for what you value

I'm a big fan of travel, so for me, a card that covers my travel costs is hugely valuable to me. With a family of four, I'm happy to save on plane tickets and hotel nights whenever I can. For the way I travel and the brands I prefer, this combination of cards works very well. If you prefer cash back, you probably want a different list of cards. In that case, check out Business Insider's list of the best cash-back cards.

What is most important is to focus on what works well for your needs. Because I love luxury travel and want to pay as little as possible, these are a good fit. If you love to travel, you may want to add one or more to your own personal finance arsenal.

Click here to learn more about the best travel rewards credit cards »

Disclosure: This post is brought to you by the Personal Finance Insider team. We occasionally highlight financial products and services that can help you make smarter decisions with your money. We do not give investment advice or encourage you to adopt a certain investment strategy. If you take action based on one of our recommendations, we get a small share of the revenue from our commerce partners. This does not influence whether we feature a financial product or service. We operate independently from our advertising sales team.

Business Insider may receive a commission from The Points Guy Affiliate Network, but our reporting and recommendations are always independent and objective.

Please note: While the offers mentioned above are accurate at the time of publication, they're subject to change at any time and may have changed, or may no longer be available.

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