To determine which card offers the best deal for travelers who want cash back, CNBC Make It compiled a list of 35 highly rated travel credit cards. We vetted each card based on its reward offers, introductory and eventual APR, annual fee, bonus, recommended credit score, late fee, balance transfer fee, foreign transaction fee, redemption rates, transfer options, customer reviews and extra perks.
We then estimated how much money each card would save the typical American and a frequent traveler after one year, two years and five years. Our assessment heavily weighs the five-year return to avoid a large sign-up bonus skewing the results. We also assume that most people want a great card that they can stick with for years, especially since bouncing from card to card can be bad for your credit score.
To estimate the return, we used expenditure data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to make a sample budget broken down by average annual spending in categories like gas ($1,909), groceries ($4,049), dining out ($3,154) and general purchases ($12,833). The general spending category includes shopping, entertainment, public transit, vehicle expenses other than gas, some household costs and travel expenses like airline fares ($403), hotels ($475) and vehicle rentals ($64).
For the average-traveler budget, travel expenses were drawn directly from the BLS. For the frequent-traveler budget, we revised these categories upward based on the expert recommendation that you should spend at least $8,600 on travel and dining each year to make getting a travel card worth it. We increased the expenses proportionally to the average budget, estimating annual airfare costs of $2,300, hotel costs of $2,700 and vehicle rentals of $400.
The estimates also incorporate bonuses and perks like travel credits that can be used to pay for flights. (Less quantifiable perks like TSA Precheck credits and free bag checking were considered for each card but not included in the estimated returns.) Estimates assume you have a high credit limit and that you use your card for 90 percent of the purchases you make in these categories, accounting for instances where you have to use cash or shop somewhere that doesn't accept your card. They also assume you don't carry a balance.
We looked at the 35 most popular travel credit cards—here's our pick for No. 1
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