The best travel rewards credit cards, from the Chase Sapphire Reserve to the Capital One Venture card

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The best travel rewards credit cards, from the Chase Sapphire Reserve to the Capital One Venture card

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Here are the best travel rewards credit cards available now:

When it comes to rewards credit cards, there are two main categories: cards that earn travel points or miles, and cards that earn cash back. With cash-back cards, you simply receive money back on your spending, whereas the rewards you earn with travel credit cards require some effort to redeem.

While it takes more work to use travel rewards compared to cash back, the upside is that you can get much more value for your points compared to receiving cash back. For example, Business Insider's David Slotnick got almost 6 cents per point when he used Chase Ultimate Rewards to book a first-class flight to Japan. With cash back, your rewards will always be worth the same amount.

There are two main types of travel rewards cards:

  • Cards that earn transferable points: Transferable points are generally bank rewards that you can move over to travel partners. Transferable points currencies include Amex Membership Rewards points, Capital One miles, Chase Ultimate Rewards points, Citi ThankYou points, and Marriott Bonvoy points (which transfer to more than 40 airline partners).
  • Airline and hotel co-branded cards: These cards earn points or miles within a respective hotel or airline program; you don't have the option to redeem your rewards with a wide variety of travel partners (or if you do, the transfer ratio usually isn't great). See our guide to the best airline credit cards, as well as our guide to the best hotel credit cards.

In this guide, we're focusing on cards that earn transferable points, not on co-branded credit cards for airlines or hotels. Airline and hotel co-branded credit cards can make sense if you travel frequently and are loyal to a particular brand, but if your main goal is to earn as many rewards as possible on your spending and have lots of options for using your points, cards that earn transferable points are the best option.

Plus, transferable points like Amex Membership Rewards are generally worth more than airline miles or hotel points. The Points Guy values Amex points at 2 cents apiece, compared to just 0.6 cents per Hilton Honors point.

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Keep reading for the full details on the top travel rewards credit cards available now.

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.

Chase Sapphire Reserve

Chase sapphire reserve card

David Slotnick / Business Insider

Who it's best for: Anyone looking to maximize rewards on travel and dining who doesn't mind paying a premium annual fee in exchange for great benefits

Welcome bonus: 50,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months

Annual fee: $450

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Pros: 3x points on travel and dining, $300 annual travel credit that applies to almost any travel purchase

Cons: High annual fee

Not everyone wants to pay a $450 annual fee, but if you're serious about maximizing your rewards and you travel frequently, the Sapphire Reserve is worth it.

Not only do you get up to $300 in statement credits toward travel each year (and Chase has a very generous definition of travel - including everything from airfare to highway tolls), but you also earn 3x points on travel and dining (excluding the $300 travel credit). You also get airport lounge access through the Priority Pass network, which has more than 1,200 locations worldwide.

When it comes to redeeming points, you can book travel through Chase and get 1.5 cents per point (a 50% bonus over the standard 1-cent-per-point rate), or you can transfer your Ultimate Rewards to travel partners like Hyatt, British Airways, and United.

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Plus, the Chase Sapphire Reserve - along with the less-expensive Chase Sapphire Preferred - offers some of the best credit card travel insurance around. You'll enjoy protection if your flight is delayed, if your baggage is delayed or lost, primary car rental insurance, and more if you book eligible travel and meet the benefit requirements.

Click here to learn more about the Chase Sapphire Reserve »

Chase Sapphire Preferred

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The Points Guy

Who it's best for: Anyone who wants similar benefits to the Sapphire Reserve with a lower annual fee; those who are new to travel rewards

Welcome bonus: 60,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months

Annual fee: $95

Pros: High sign-up bonus, great balance of benefits and travel protections

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Cons: Other cards earn bonus points faster

If you don't want to pay $450 for the Chase Sapphire Reserve, it's worth considering the Sapphire Preferred card instead. Chase Ultimate Rewards points are some of the easiest travel rewards to use - you can redeem them for travel directly through Chase and get more than 1 cent per point (you get 1.25 cents with the Preferred and 1.5 cents with the Reserve), and Chase's selection of transfer partners is great for US-based travelers, with United, Hyatt, Marriott, and more.

The Sapphire Preferred has a $95 annual fee, and it earns 2 points per dollar on travel and dining. It also offers the same travel protections you'll find on the Sapphire Reserve. In short, it's a great option for anyone who's new to travel rewards or who doesn't think they'll be able to justify the higher fee of the Sapphire Reserve.

Click here to learn more about the Chase Sapphire Preferred card »

Capital One Venture Rewards card

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The Points Guy

Who it's best for: Anyone who doesn't want to worry about bonus categories or complicated redemption options

Welcome bonus: 50,000 Capital One miles after you spend $3,000 in the first three months

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Annual fee: $95 (waived the first year)

Pros: Purchase Eraser makes it easy to use miles; no bonus categories to keep track of; option to transfer miles

Cons: No bonus categories; airline transfer partners aren't the most user-friendly

The Capital One Venture is a great "set it and forget it" card, in the sense that you don't have to worry about various bonus categories for earning rewards. You'll earn 2 miles per dollar, no matter what you buy.

This card also offers one of the most straightforward ways to redeem rewards for travel: The Purchase Eraser Tool lets you "wipe" travel purchases from your card statement, at a rate of 1 cent per mile. So the 50,000-mile sign-up bonus is worth $500 toward travel.

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You also have the option to transfer Capital One miles to more than a dozen frequent flyer programs, including Air Canada Aeroplan, Etihad Guest, JetBlue TrueBlue, and Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer. The transfer ratio is 1.5 airline miles for every 2 Capital One miles you transfer.

The selection of transfer partners is best suited to someone who wants to travel internationally and who doesn't mind spending some time researching the best ways to redeem miles with the different frequent flyer program options. But the upside is that you can always use the Purchase Eraser tool instead. You also get up to a $100 Global Entry application fee credit.

Click here to learn more about the Capital One Venture Rewards card »

The Platinum Card from American Express

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Crystal Cox/Business Insider

Who it's best for: Anyone who wants access to the fanciest airport lounges and can take advantage of the various annual statement credits with Uber, Saks, and more

Welcome bonus: 60,000 Amex Membership Rewards points after you spend $5,000 in the first three months

Annual fee: $550

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Pros: 5x points on flights booked with airlines or through Amex Travel; very long list of benefits

Cons: Very high annual fee; statement credits come with lots of limitations

The Amex Platinum has one of the highest credit card annual fees, but it can be well worth it if you travel a lot and you can put all of its statement credits to use.

You'll earn 5x points on flights when you book directly through the airline or through Amex Travel, which makes the card a great choice for purchasing airfare. In 2020, the card will be an even better choice, since it will add trip cancellation and interruption insurance. And the card already offers some of the best purchase protection, so it's a good option for buying expensive items (and don't forget to see if you can take advantage of an Amex Offer for bonus points or cash back).

The Amex Platinum offers more airport lounge access than any other personal travel rewards card - in addition to Priority Pass membership, you get access to Amex Centurion Lounges, Delta Sky Clubs (when you're flying Delta), and more.

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The card's three annual statement credits can go a long way toward offsetting the high annual fee. You get up to $200 in statement credits toward airline incidental fees like checked bags and inflight purchases; up to $100 each year toward Saks Fifth Avenue purchases; and up to $200 in annual Uber credits.

Just keep in mind that there are several caveats. You're limited to one designated airline (you can choose it each year in your Amex account) for the airline incidental fee credit, and both the Saks and Uber credits are divided into portions. You'll get up to $50 in statement credits toward Saks purchases from January to June, and another credit of up to $50 for Saks purchases from July to December. With the Uber credit, you get up to $15 each month, and a $20 bonus in December for a total of $35 that month.

Click here to learn more about the Amex Platinum card »

American Express Gold card

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Crystal Cox/Business Insider

Who it's best for: Anyone who eats out frequently; anyone looking to earn bonus points at US supermarkets

Welcome bonus: 35,000 Amex points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months

Annual fee: $250

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Pros: Great earning rates, particularly 4x points at restaurants worldwide and 4x points at US supermarkets (on up to $25,000 each year, then 1 point per dollar); monthly dining credit can be useful; eye-catching design

Cons: Annual fee is verging on premium; statement credits have limitations; high minimum spending requirement for relatively low welcome bonus

The Amex Gold card is an ideal travel rewards card for anyone who frequently eats out and/or shops at US supermarkets. You'll earn 4x Membership Rewards points on these purchases (though note the $25,000 annual cap for US supermarkets; after that, you'll earn just 1 point per dollar, but that's a pretty high cap). The card also earns 3x points on flights booked directly with the airlines or through AmexTravel.com, and 1 point per dollar on everything else.

While the $250 annual fee is on the high side, you can offset it by up to $220 thanks to two annual statement credits. You get up to $100 in airline incidental fee credits (it's the same deal as with the Amex Platinum, where you have to select one airline) that you can use to cover baggage fees, in-flight purchases, ticket changes, and more.

You also get up to $120 in annual dining credits, but it's divided into up to $10 in credits each month, and the credit only applies at the following restaurants and delivery services: Grubhub, Seamless, The Cheesecake Factory, Ruth's Chris Steak House, Boxed, and participating Shake Shack locations.

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Click here to learn more about the Amex Gold card »

American Express Green card

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Crystal Cox/Business Insider

Who it's best for: Anyone who's tempted by the Chase Sapphire Preferred but prefers Amex's transfer partners

Welcome bonus: 30,000 Amex points after you spend $2,000 in the first three months

Annual fee: $150

Pros: 3x points on travel and dining; generous selection of statement credits

Cons: Statement credits are somewhat random and won't be useful for everyone, in which case the annual fee is a bit high

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The Amex Green card recently got a major update, and it's now a real contender when it comes to travel rewards cards with a mid-tier annual fee. It earns 3x points on travel and dining, which is even better than the Chase Sapphire Preferred (with a slightly lower $95 annual fee). In fact, you could make the argument that the Amex Green is now a better card than the Sapphire Preferred, but it depends on what benefits matter most to you.

In addition to earning a strong return on your dining and travel spending, the Amex Green card offers a few different statement credits that may or may not move the needle for you. You get up to $100 per year in statement credits when you use your card to pay for CLEAR membership. CLEAR is similar to TSA PreCheck, but in addition to getting you expedited security access at airports, it's available at select stadiums and arenas. It costs $179, so unfortunately the statement credit won't cover the entire cost.

You also get up to $100 in credits each year when you use your card to purchase airport lounge access through LoungeBuddy. Plus, if you apply by January 15, 2020, you can get up to $100 in credit when you make an eligible purchase with Away luggage in the first three months from account opening.

Click here to learn more about the Amex Green card »

Frequently asked questions

What is the best travel rewards card?

We think the Chase Sapphire Reserve is the best overall travel rewards card, but the best card for your particular situation will depend on what benefits you care about the most, as well as how you feel about paying a high annual fee. You don't need to spend $450 a year for a great travel rewards card; there are great options under $100 as well.

We'd recommend opening a travel rewards card that earns Amex or Chase points, since these are among the easiest rewards to redeem and you have various travel partners to utilize. But if you've investigated your options and are confident that you can get value out of their rewards, cards that earn Capital One miles or Citi ThankYou points can make sense as well.

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How do I pick a travel rewards card?

There are a few different things you'll want to evaluate when deciding on the right travel rewards card for you:

  • Sign-up bonus - Is this card offering an attractive intro bonus to new cardholders?
  • Bonus categories - Does the card earn you bonus rewards on your most common purchases, such as dining out or travel?
  • Ease of use - How easy is it to use your points? A travel rewards card can offer all the points in the world, but if the options for using them aren't convenient for you, chances are you'll be leaving value on the table. Make sure you research your options for redeeming rewards with a travel credit cards before you apply. That means taking a look at the rewards program's travel partners, as well as your options for using rewards to book travel directly through the credit card issuer's website.
  • Perks - The more benefits a credit card has, the higher its annual fee tends to be. So you'll want to make sure you'll be able to utilize most of its perks, such as annual statement credits, airport lounge access, and complimentary elite status.
  • Annual fee - If you don't want to pay a high annual fee, you can rule several travel rewards cards out. Luckily, though, you still have some great options under $100.

Are travel rewards cards worth it?

Travel rewards cards are worth it if you're able to get significant value out of their benefits and rewards. Before you apply for a card, make sure you'll actually use all the features that contribute to the card's annual fee. For example, if a card offers an annual statement credit of up to $200 toward travel but you can't use it, you're probably not getting what you pay for.

How do travel rewards cards work?

Travel rewards cards earn you points (or miles) on every purchase you make, with the goal of helping you earn enough rewards to book free travel. The best travel rewards cards earn points that can be transferred to various airline and hotel partners - like Amex, Chase, or Citi points.

How do I get a free flight?

Applying for a travel rewards credit card and earning its welcome bonus is a great way to work toward a free flight. Domestic award flights in economy typically require about 25,000 points, so depending on the welcome bonus, you could have enough rewards for a flight right out of the gate.

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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