If you want a travel card that will help you rack up points without the headache of spending categories or annual fees, look no further.
In a recent analysis of the best travel credit cards, CNBC Make It reviewed 35 of the most popular travel cards in the U.S. Using a sample budget based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we estimated how much money each card would save the typical American, as well as frequent travelers, after five years. We also evaluated the ease of use of each card, plus notable features and potential downsides, including annual fees and interest rates.
The Bank of America Travel Rewards card makes life easy. You get 1.5 points for every dollar you spend on any purchase, plus a 20,000-point bonus if you spend $1,000 in the first three months of getting the card, which is worth $200 in travel.
While the Capital One Venture offers a better flat-rate of 2 points for every dollar spent, it requires an annual fee after the first year. The Uber Visa from Barclays card has no annual fee, but its reward structure is a bit more complicated. The Bank of America Travel Rewards card, by comparison, is both easy and free.
What sets the card apart from its close competitor, the Discover It Miles, is its bonuses for Bank of America customers. Those with a Bank of America checking account get a 10 percent bonus on all their rewards, which effectively earns them 1.65 points per dollar. Meanwhile, if you have a Bank of America account or Merrill Edge or Merrill Lynch investment accounts with a combined $20,000 in them, that bonus turns into 25 percent as long as you enroll in the bank’s Preferred Rewards program, and it can be as high as 75 percent if your accounts hold $100,000.
Here's what the card offers at a glance:
- Rewards: 1.5 points per dollar
- Annual fee: None
- Bonus: 20,000 points if you spend $1,000 in first three months
- Variable APR: 0 percent introductory APR on purchases for 12 months; 16.49 to 24.49 percent based on your credit score thereafter
- Estimated five-year return for average travelers: $1,010 to $1,680
- Estimated five-year return for frequent travelers: $1,190 to $1,980
- How you redeem points: Receive statement credit for travel purchases, book travel directly through Bank of America Travel Rewards, or redeem for cash or gift cards at a lower rate
- Notable perks: 10 to 75 percent bonus available to Bank of America customers
To determine the best deal for travelers who want an easy, no-fee card, 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.
We also include a range for the estimated return because, in most cases, the value of a credit card's rewards vary depending on how they are redeemed. The estimates 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.
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