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You don't have to pay an annual fee to get a solid travel rewards credit card. You might not get all the fancy perks that come with some of the more luxe travel cards, but there are some really good options that will help you earn rewards to pay for your next adventure.
To make sure you're choosing the best no-annual-fee travel card for your needs, we analyzed 12 popular options using an average American's spending annual budget and digging into each card's perks and drawbacks to find the best of the best based on your travel habits. (See our methodology for more information on how we choose the best cards.)
There are two key perks that are essential when choosing a travel card: no foreign transaction fees and the ease with which you can cash in rewards for travel. And the card is even better when you can earn bonus rewards for travel-related purchases. The cards in this round-up check every box, and based on our calculations, you could earn upwards of $1,500 in cash back over five years. Plus, some of the cards may offer travel insurance, which provides added value.
Here are CNBC Select's top picks for the travel credit cards without an annual fee:
3X points on dining out and ordering in; gas, rideshares and transit; flights, hotels, homestays and car rentals; and popular streaming services. 1X points on all other purchases
20,000 bonus points when you spend $1,000 in purchases in the first 3 months
0% APR for 12 months on purchases and qualifying balance transfers
14.49% to 24.99% variable on purchases and balance transfers
Introductory fee of 3% ($5 minimum) for 120 days, then 5% ($5 minimum)
Who's this for? This card offers a strong rewards program whether you're a frequent traveler or someone who spends most of their time closer to home (or, like many of us, are a combination of the two). The Wells Fargo Propel American Express® Card is a well-rounded card that offers unlimited 3X points per dollar spent on dining out, ordering in, travel, and a number of streaming services, including Apple Music, Hulu, Netflix, Pandora, Sirius XM Radio Inc. and Spotify Premium.
Frequent travelers will like this card because it gives you points not just on flights and hotels but also car rentals, homestays and ridesharing services. There are no blackout dates on flights booked through Go Far® Rewards, and there are no foreign transaction fees.
There's also an impressive welcome bonus for a no-annual-fee card: Earn 20,000 points after you spend $1,000 within the first three months. That's the equivalent to $200 in cash.
The additional perks geared toward travelers are also worth noting. Cardholders can take advantage of lost luggage reimbursement, car rental loss and damage insurance, roadside assistance and 24/7 travel and emergency assistance.
This card also provides a year of no interest on purchases and balance transfers. (After the introductory period there's a 14.49% to 24.99% variable APR.) If you have expected upcoming expenses that you want to pay for over time, or you're looking to consolidate debt, the Wells Fargo Propel American Express® Card can help you finance debt without incurring interest charges.
Unlimited 1.5X miles on every dollar spent on all purchases
Discover automatically matches all the cash back you earned at the end of your first year
*See rates and fees and our methodology, terms apply.
Who's this for? The Discover it® Miles card comes with a generous rewards program that makes it a standout among travel cards.
Unlike some other cards on this list, you won't earn more for travel or dining related purchases. The Discover it® Miles card offers users unlimited 1.5X miles on all purchases. But for higher spenders, Discover offers a welcome bonus that's hard to beat: It will match all of the points you earn after the first 12 months. If you rack up 35,000 miles within the first 12 months, Discover will match you with 35,000 miles. That's a total of 70,000 miles or $700 toward travel. (Based on our calculations, the average card user will earn around 32,777 miles in the first year.)
With this card, there are no blackout dates when you pay for travel purchases using your card. And, you can easily redeem miles as a statement credit for travel or cash as an electronic transfer to your bank account. The best part is, miles earned never expire even if your account is closed.
5% back in Uber Cash on all Uber purchases including Uber rides, Uber Eats orders, and JUMP bike and scooter rides; 3% back in Uber Cash on restaurants, bars, hotels and airfare; 1% back in Uber Cash on all other purchases
$100 Uber Cash after spending $500 on purchases in the first 90 days
15.74%, 21.74%, or 26.49% variable on purchases and balance transfers
Either $10 or 3% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater
Who's this for? The Uber Credit Card recently relaunched with a new rewards program geared toward fans of Uber services. Cardholders earn 5% back in Uber Cash on all Uber purchases including Uber rides, Uber Eats orders and JUMP bike and scooter rides. Plus 3% back in Uber Cash on restaurants, bars, hotels and airfare and 1% back in Uber Cash on all other purchases.
This card has one of the most competitive welcome bonuses available: $100 Uber Cash after spending $500 on purchases in the first 90 days. That's like earning 20% back in rewards.
If you're a fan of Uber and want to earn an industry-leading 5% back in rewards on all your Uber rides or Uber Eats orders, the Uber Credit Card is a great choice. There are also no foreign transaction fees, so you can use this card abroad without the typical 3% fee other cards may charge.
While there are no annual travel credits, this card does offer cell phone protection up to $600 for damage or theft when you pay your monthly phone bill with your card.
5X miles on hotel and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel℠, 1.25X miles per dollar on every purchase
20,000 bonus miles once you spend $1,000 on purchases within the first 3 months from account opening
0% APR for 12 months
14.49% to 24.49% variable
3% for promotional APR offers; none for balances transferred at regular APR
Who's this for? Anyone looking to book hotel rooms should consider the Capital One VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card and its impressive offer 5X miles on hotel and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel℠. This no-annual-fee card also gives cardmembers an unlimited 1.25X miles on all other purchases, making it a solid choice for everyday use.
Another perk is the intro 0% APR period, which lasts for 12 months for new purchases. After that, the APR is 14.49% to 24.49% variable.
The Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card offers new users a strong welcome bonus: 20,000 bonus miles after they spend $1,000 on purchases within the first three months. You can redeem miles for past travel expenses using the Purchase Eraser®, which is essentially a statement credit. Or you can book new travel reservations through the Capital One Rewards Center.
Additionally, with this card, it's possible to transfer your miles to any of Capital One's partner airlines, including JetBlue, Emirates Skywards, Air Canada and Air France. (Read how to make the most of your airline miles.)
Cardholders can also redeem their miles for cash in the form of a check or account credit, gift cards and more, though rates for these other redemption options vary.
Learn more: CNBC Select's Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card review
1.5X points per $1 spent on all purchases
25,000 bonus points if you make at least $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days of your account opening, which can be redeemed for a $250 statement credit toward travel purchases
0% APR for the first 12 billing cycles on purchases
3% of each transaction with a $10 minimum
16.49% to 24.49% variable
Who's this for? The Bank of America® Travel Rewards for Students is a great choice for students who plan on studying abroad or traveling during breaks. The rewards program is geared toward travel, and cardholders earn 1.5X points per dollar spent on all purchases.
You can redeem rewards as a statement credit to cover the cost of travel purchases — a simple way to reduce the cost of taking a spring break vacation or buying a plane ticket home. There are no foreign transaction fees, making it an ideal card for students studying abroad.
Cardholders can redeem their rewards at any time and at any amount, including when shopping on Amazon.
This card also comes with a longer-than-average special financing offer of no interest for 12 billing cycles (then 16.49% to 24.49% variable APR). A full year of no interest is a great way for you to pay off new purchases over time, without incurring interest charges. We recommend you pay off your balance on time and in full each month.
You must be 18 or older and enrolled in school (college, vocational or trade school) to qualify for this card.
To determine which cards will put the most money back in your pocket, CNBC Select evaluated 12 popular travel credit cards with no annual fee offered by major banks, financial companies and credit unions that allow anyone to join. We compared each card on a range of features, including travel rewards (points and miles), annual fee, welcome bonus, introductory and standard APR, one-time perks, annual perks, redemption rates, as well as factors such as required credit and customer reviews when available.
CNBC Select teamed up with location intelligence firm Esri. The company's data development team provided the most up-to-date and comprehensive consumer spending data based on the 2019 Consumer Expenditure Surveys from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. You can read more about their methodology here.
Esri's data team created a sample annual budget of approximately $22,126 in retail spending. The budget includes six main categories: groceries ($5,174), gas ($2,218), dining out ($3,675), travel ($2,244), utilities ($4,862) and general purchases ($3,953). General purchases include items such as housekeeping supplies, clothing, personal care products, prescription drugs and vitamins, and other vehicle expenses.
We then estimated how much the average consumer would redeem over the course of a year, two years and five years, assuming they would attempt to maximize their rewards potential by earning all welcome bonuses offered and using the card for all applicable purchases. All rewards total estimations are net the annual fee.
It's important to note the value of a point or mile varies from card to card and based on how you redeem them. When we calculated the estimated returns, we assumed that cardholders are redeeming points/miles for a typical maximum value of 1 cent per point or mile. (Extreme optimizers might be able to achieve more value.)
Our final picks are weighted heavily toward the highest five-year returns, since it's generally wise to hold onto a credit card for years. This method also avoids giving an unfair advantage to cards with large welcome bonuses.
Note: We didn't calculate the estimated rewards rate for college student credit cards because the focus should be on building good financial habits not optimizing points.
While the five-year estimates we've included are derived from a budget similar to the average American's spending, you may earn a higher or lower return depending on your travel habits.