Best Travel Cards

One of the most common mistakes that people make when getting into points and miles is opening co-branded credit cards first. The thought process is innocent enough, and without guidance makes a lot of sense. “I’m want to fly to Paris on American Airlines, so I’m going to open an American Airlines credit card.”

As logical as this sounds, put a pause on that thinking. Sometimes, it is the correct way of thinking. Other times, it makes more sense to focus on general travel cards.

This guide will help you understand why general travel cards are often some of the best cards to have, as well as compare options before you open your next card.

Travel Rewards Credit Cards

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In This Article

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  • Travel Card Overview

    General travel cards are a key part of any points and miles strategy.

    What do we mean by general travel cards? General travel cards are cards issued by banks that earn bank points. Cards such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, The Platinum Card from American Express, or the Citi Premier Card. These differ from what we call co-branded cards that earn points with a specific hotel or airline loyalty program.

    You’ll find travel cards issued by most major U.S. banks. While American Express, Chase, and Citi are the most common, many other banks offer their own cards too.

    Travel cards come in broad categories with various benefits. On the low end you’ll get cards that just earn points without additional benefits, but have no annual fee. Meanwhile, there are some premium travel cards that offer everything from lounge access to travel insurance, but with higher annual fees as high as $550 a year. And, of course, you’ll find cards with more moderate annual fees and features.

    Travel cards often come with a sign-up bonus, although some cards without an annual fee may not have a sign-up bonus. Don’t be surprised to learn that some cards with a more moderate annual fee may come with a higher bonus than the premium cards with a more premium annual fee.

    While general travel cards are often some of the best options out there, there’s two types of travel cards that you should know.

    The Two Types of Travel Cards

    When it comes to travel cards, there are two different types of travel points. The difference is very important to be certain you’re getting the right type of travel points that fit in with your future plans.

    Most people are in pursuit of the first type of travel cards: those that issue transferable points. These points can be redeemed one of two ways.

    First, you can redeem transferable travel points directly through the issuing bank’s travel portal at a fixed cash value. Typically, you’ll receive a value of 1 to 1.5 cent per point. This means that a flight that costs $100 would require anywhere from about 6,700 points up to 10,000 points.

    The second way you can redeem transferable points is implied by the name. You can transfer them to travel partners. By transferring to partners you can sometimes get a much higher value than the 1 to 1.5 cents per point that you get through a bank’s travel portal. Partners typically include both hotels and airlines, but the specific partners will vary from bank to bank.

    The second type of travel cards have their use, but typically aren’t as desirable as transferable cards. These cards limit you to only redeeming points against the cost of travel. They don’t have any transfer partners for you to transfer your points to. This means the value of each point is fixed, so you can’t get outsized value by using transfer partners.

    This key difference is why you’ll see people talking more about transferable points such as Chase Ultimate Rewards or Citi Thank You Points. Although, as you grow in your points and miles adventure you may find that non-transferable points have their own place.

    Why You Should Care About Travel Cards

    Many people get a trip in mind and focus on earning specific points to build that trip. This leads them to opening co-branded cards rather than travel cards. This can have unfortunate and unintended consequences on the success of your trip.

    What if you are collecting United miles to fly to Thailand, but when you go to book your flights there is no availability? Or what if you’re collecting Hilton points to stay at the Conrad Koh Samui only for the hotel to be sold out?

    If you’ve only collected United and Hilton points, you’d be pretty much out of luck. If, instead, you’ve collected Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards, you’d be able to transfer to other partners and be able to salvage your trip.

    This one example shows you the biggest advantage of points earned from travel cards. You get the flexibility to use different partners to help you accomplish your travel goals.

    Flexibility shows up in a few different ways.

    First, if the plans you originally make aren’t available due to a hotel being sold out or flights not having availability, you can utilize alternative options. Sure, you may have planned to stay at a specific hotel or wanted to fly on a particular airline, but if there is no award availability you can look to other hotels and flights so you can still take your trip.

    Another way where the flexibility of transferable points comes into play is the ability to utilize award charts of different transfer partners to book the same flights for less points. For example, you could use United to book a round-trip first class flight on ANA from Chicago to Tokyo for 242,000 miles. If you’re focused on collecting only United miles you’re locked in to United’s award chart. If, instead, you collect Chase Ultimate Rewards as well you could transfer your Ultimate Rewards to Virgin Atlantic and book the same flights for only 120,000 points.

    There is a reason why you should care about non-transferable points. Non-transferable points are great for booking good travel deals or for alternative accommodations like AirBNBs or hotels that aren’t associated with a major hotel chain.

    If the benefit of flexibility isn’t enough to convince you, there are some extra benefits that tend to come with travel cards that you won’t find as often on co-branded credit cards.

    The Extra Benefits That Come With Travel Cards

    Before diving into the extra benefits that come with travel cards, you need to be aware that these benefits aren’t available on every card. You’ll typically find them on premium and value cards. Cards with no annual fee come at a sacrifice, and that sacrifice is typically extra benefits. Be sure to review the perks of each card you’re applying for if you’re seeking one of these extra benefits.

    There are numerous benefits that come with travel cards. It would take a long time to discuss each individual benefit available on every card out there. Instead, let’s just highlight the travel related benefits you can get with the best travel cards out there.

    Some of the most popular benefits that can be found on the best travel cardsinclude airport lounge access, concierge services, rental car discounts, and a variety of insurances. Some of the more useful insurances include baggage insurance, which can reimburse you in case your baggage is delayed, damaged, or lost while traveling.

    Another popular insurance is trip interruption or cancellation insurance. This insurance can help save you in case you have to cancel a trip due to illness, weather, or other things outside of your control (although, global pandemics typically aren’t covered unless you become sick yourself).

    Finally, one of the insurances typically reserved for premium cards is rental car insurance. Some rental car insurance is primary, meaning it pays out before your personal car insurance, whereas others is secondary meaning it pays out extra if your personal insurance isn’t enough.

    These benefits are definitely something to consider when choosing the best travel card, so let’s take a look at how the best travel cards on the market really break down.

    Best Overall Travel Cards

    Let’s face it, there really isn’t one overall best travel card. Some people will make an argument for this card or that card, but choosing even two cards per category as the “best” travel cards is simply impossible.

    What isn’t quite an impossible task is choosing the best travel card in a few different categories. Keep in mind that there may be some co-branded cards that are competitive in each category, but you can find those over in our other “best card” articles to get an idea of what co-branded cards are competitive.

    The reason why they aren’t included here is because, well, this is the best general travel cards, and also because a great co-branded credit card is really only great for that one airline or hotel group. It simply wouldn’t make sense to say that it is one of the best general travel cards for hotels when it is only the best card for one hotel group.

    With that said, let’s start by choosing the best travel cards for hotels.

    Best Travel Cards for Hotels

    When it comes to choosing the best travel cards for hotels, a few questions come to mind. Does the travel card have quality hotel transfer partners and what extra hotel benefits come with the card?

    One of the benefits that helps differentiate some cards over others is the ability to earn hotel status simply by having the card. This may be a small benefit, but it’s enough to help push some cards ahead of others.

    Best Premium Travel Credit Card: Hotels

    (Tie): The Platinum Card from American Express and the Citi Prestige Card

    Best Value Travel Credit Card: Hotels

    Best Business Travel Credit Card: Hotels

    Best No Annual Fee Travel Credit Card: Hotels

    Best Travel Cards for Flights

    The primary consideration when choosing the best travel card for flights is a variety of transfer partners. Being able to book flights with all three major alliances, plus a few unique airlines really elevates some cards over others.

    Additionally, your flights are the point in your travel that is most likely to be impacted by weather. Flights are also the point where your luggage is most likely to be lost, damaged, or delayed. That’s why a card with quality travel and baggage insurance helps differentiate between the good and the best travel cards for flights.

    Best Premium Travel Card: Flights

    Best Value Travel Card: Flights

    Best Business Travel Card: Flights

     

    Best No Annual Fee Travel Card: Flights

    Best Credit Cards for Travel Insurance

    If travel insurance is more important to you than anything, you’ll want a card that offers the best travel insurance. While you’ll find the best travel insurance on premium cards, some banks have begun adding travel insurance as a benefit on their standard travel cards.

    Best Premium Travel Card: Insurance

    Best Value Travel Card: Insurance

     

    Best Business Travel Card: Insurance

    Best No Fee Travel Card: Insurance

    Best Credit Cards for Lounge Access

    Lounge access is a benefit that can easily save you some money on all your trips. How many times have you been in the airport and go to get a bottle of water and a snack, and it comes out to $10-$15? If you travel with friends and family, then multiply this by the number of people you typically travel with. And if it is a round-trip flight, potentially double that amount.

    It is easy to see how lounge access can easily save you money on your travels. Especially if you’re traveling with multiple people multiple times a year.

    Best Premium Travel Card: Lounge Access

    Best Value Travel Card: Lounge Access

    Best Business Travel Card: Lounge Access

    Best No Annual Fee Travel Card: Lounge Access

    There are currently no cards without an annual fee that offer lounge access.

    Bottom Line

    Travel cards that earn bank points tend to be more valuable than co-branded cards that earn points with just one loyalty program. The flexibility you gain from bank points, whether transferable or not, gives you many more options when planning your next vacation.

    There are a lot of additional benefits that tend to come with bank cards as well. Such as lounge access, travel insurance, or baggage insurance. If you’re wanting a card with these specific benefits, there are plenty of great options out there.

    FAQ:

    I know exactly what hotel I want to stay at, should I still get travel points instead of hotel points?

    Most likely, yes. The flexibility you get with travel points gives you the option to stay elsewhere in case the hotel doesn’t have any availability. That being said, there’s no reason why you can’t collect both so that you have the travel points as a backup option.

    How do I know if I should book through a bank’s travel portal or transfer to an airline?

    The easiest way to know if you should book through a bank’s travel portal or transfer to an airline is to simply compare both. If the flight costs 45,000 points in the portal, but 60,000 points with a transfer partner you should go ahead and book in the portal.

    Can I use travel points to book trips for someone else?

    Absolutely! When booking via a bank’s travel portal you can book a flight for someone else, or put their name on a hotel reservation.

    This isn’t necessarily the case with transfer partners. Some restrict who you can book flights for. Check with the transfer partner you’re planning to use before you transfer the points.

    Can I transfer points from a hotel or airline program to a bank program?

    No, transfers only go one way: from banks to loyalty programs. Once you’ve transferred your points from the bank, you cannot get them back.

    Which transferable points are the best?

    This completely varies based on your needs. Having a good understanding of the various transfer partners will help you decide which are the best to collect for your next trip.

    I’m new to points and miles, which travel card should I open up first?

    When it comes to travel cards, you should start with Chase. Chase has the heaviest restrictions on their applications, such as the Chase 5/24 rule.

    In rare cases, it can make sense to start with other cards, but generally Chase should be your first go to.