In 2020, the best travel credit cards offer more than just great cash-back incentives — they also come with a range of perks and upgrades that can take your next trip from basic to bougie without spending extra money.
To help you choose the best travel card for your needs, we analyzed 35 popular travel cards using an average American's annual spending budget and digging into each card's perks and drawbacks to find the best of the best based on your consumer habits. (See our methodology for more information on how we choose the best cards.)
In recent years, travel cards have become one of the most competitive categories. As a result, some features are nearly standard across the board: no foreign transaction fees, travel credits and upgrade programs.
Where it gets interesting, and confusing, is when you start to look beyond those features. Before you sign up for a new card, consider how you'll use it and how you can best optimize the points so you're getting the most out of the rewards program, especially if you're paying a steep annual fee. It's also important to make sure you can pay off your balance on time and in full each month, because many of these cards also have high interest rates.
The good news: If you choose a card from this list, you could earn over $2,000 in rewards over the next five years based on our calculations
Here are CNBC Select's picks for the top travel rewards credit cards:
4X Membership Rewards® points when you dine at restaurants worldwide and shop at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X), 3X points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com, 1X points on all other purchases
35,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases within the first 3 months from account opening
See Pay Over Time APR
See rates and fees
Who's this for? The American Express® Gold Card is a smart choice for consumers who love travel and dining out. While the card comes with a $250 annual fee, it offers a number of luxury rewards that help offset the cost.
One big perk for travelers to take advantage of is the annual statement credits. Cardholders get up to $100 to cover airline fees (such as seat upgrades and baggage fees with participating airlines), $120 to cover restaurant charges ($10 per month at Seamless, Grubhub and other participating restaurants) and $100 in hotel credits when you book rooms through The Hotel Collection with American Express Travel.
As a welcome bonus, new cardholders earn 35,000 Membership Rewards® points after spending $4,000 within the first three months following card activation.
When using the American Express Gold Card, users earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com, 4X Membership Rewards® points on dining worldwide and purchases made at U.S. supermarkets (up to $25,000 per year, then 1X) and 1X Membership Rewards® points earned on everything else.
Membership Rewards® points value varies depending on how cardholders redeem them. You can use them in a variety of ways, from paying with points at checkout at retailers like Amazon to redeeming for gift cards or a statement credit to booking travel. (See more on how the value of points is calculated.)
In addition to the point rewards, there are also special travel perks, such as room upgrades at specific hotels and special travel discounts and amenities for those who enroll with The Travel Collection by Travel Leaders Group at no extra cost.
Unlike the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card and the Chase Sapphire Reserve® card, there is no special credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fees. And American Express isn't accepted as widely as Visa and Mastercard in the U.S. and overseas.
5X miles on hotel and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel℠, 2X miles per dollar on every other purchase
50,000 bonus miles once you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first 3 months from account opening
N/A for purchases and balance transfers
17.24% to 24.49% variable on purchases and balance transfers
3% for promotional APR offers; none for balances transferred at regular APR
Who's this for? The Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card offers no shortage of travel benefits and rewards, and if you're looking to book a bunch of travel this fall, it could be an ideal time to take advantage of this card. Card members earn 5X miles on hotel and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel℠ and unlimited 2X miles on every dollar spent.
The card has a $95 annual fee, and it has a strong welcome bonus of 50,000 points — equal to $500 toward travel — when you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first three months following card activation.
You can redeem your points for travel purchases by either using a statement credit or by booking travel through Capital One's Reward Center. You can also redeem your points for actual cash in the form of a check, but points are worth half a cent per point if you go this route.
Travelers going overseas can take advantage of no foreign transaction fees. And cardholders also get a one-time credit of up to $100 for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck. As an added plus, you can use your Venture® Rewards card to get access to exclusive sporting and music events, plus premiere culinary experiences, including the New York City Wine and Food Festival and the iHeartRadio Music Festival.
A downside: There's no introductory 0% APR period. And Capital One indicates on its website this card is for people with excellent credit scores.
10X points on Lyft rides through March 2022, 3X points on travel worldwide (immediately after earning your $300 annual travel credit), 3X points on dining at restaurants worldwide, 1X point per $1 on all other purchases
50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening — worth up to $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
16.99% to 23.99% variable
5%, minimum $5
Who's this for? Chase Sapphire Reserve® is enormously popular among travelers for its luxe perks and strong rewards program. In addition to offering 3X points on dining and travel purchases, cardholders get a $300 annual statement credit to apply to qualifying travel expenses.
But it's the perks that really make this card stand out for globetrotters. You can get a statement credit of up to $100 (every four years) to help cover Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fees as well as enroll in Priority Pass Select, which gives you access to more than 1,000 airport lounges worldwide with free amenities, such as Wi-Fi, snacks, beverages and more.
The Chase Ultimate Rewards® portal has everything you need to plan a vacation from booking rental cars to cruises. You can also use the Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection to book rooms and take advantage of upgrades upon arrival, complimentary meals, flexible check-in times, extra amenities and special discounts.
The value of Chase rewards points varies depending on how you use them. If you redeem points for cash and gift cards, each point is worth $.01, which means that 100 points equals $1 in redemption value. (See more on how the value of points is calculated.)
The value of points increases 50% when you redeem for travel on Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 50,000 points are worth $750 toward airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruise reservations when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. This is a great way to maximize the value of your rewards and makes this card stand out from the pack.
While this card does come with a substantial annual fee of $550, the many statement credits help to offset the costs. Cardmembers traveling internationally also don't need to worry about foreign transaction fees.
The Chase Sapphire Reserve® offers many great perks and gets a lot of buzz, but the American Express® Gold Card came out slightly ahead for estimated returns over five years when we crunched the numbers.
3X miles earned on every $1 spent on travel and dining, plus 1X mile earned on every $1 spent on everything else
25,000 miles when you spend $3,000 within the first 6 billing cycles
$89, waived for the first year
0% APR for the first 12 billing cycles on balance transfers
$5 or 3% of transfer, whichever is greater
See our methodology, terms apply
Who's this for? If you're looking for a travel card that also offers an introductory APR, you should consider the TD First ClassSM Visa Signature® Credit Card. It made our list of the top travel cards for its unique welcome bonus, impressive rewards program and relatively low 14.99% variable APR.
New cardholders can earn 25,000 miles when they spend $3,000 within the first six billing cycles. Typically, cards require you to spend that much in the first three months to qualify for the bonus offer.
The rewards program offers 3X miles on every $1 spent on travel and dining. For all other purchases, users earn 1X mile per $1 spent. You can easily redeem rewards for cash back, gift cards or travel rewards.
In addition to offering 0% APR during the first 12 billing cycles on balance transfers, the variable APR rate is 14.99%, which is significantly lower than many other competitor cards (though we recommend that you pay off your card in full and on time each month). There are no foreign transaction fees, and the annual $89 fee is waived for the first year.
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? The Wells Fargo Propel American Express® Card has a strong rewards program for a no annual fee card: Earn unlimited 3X points on gas, dining out and ordering in; rideshares and transit; flights, hotels, homestays and car rentals; and popular streaming services; plus 1X point on all other purchases.
This card is a smart choice for all types of travelers, whether you like to fly, drive or take mass-transit. And this card not only gives you 3X points at gas stations but also on purchases at toll bridges and highways, parking lots and garages. And you earn a competitive 3X points on restaurants and take out, which is great while you're traveling. When you're ready to relax, you can enjoy 3X points on select streaming services.
Wells Fargo makes it easy to redeem points for cash, gift cards or travel. There are no black-out dates when you make reservations through Go Far Rewards, but you can't start redeeming points until you've earned 2,500.
In addition to rewards, this card offers no interest on purchases and balance transfers for a full year (then 14.49% to 24.99% variable APR). If you have large upcoming expenses or debt on a non-Amex card, the Wells Fargo Propel American Express® Card provides a way to finance new and old debt without incurring interest charges. Balance transfers are charged a 3% fee, $5 minimum.
There's also cell phone protection for damage to or theft of your phone up to $600 per claim and $1,200 per 12-month period ($25 deductible applies and you must pay your bill with your Wells Fargo Propel American Express® Card).
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.
If you travel often and pay for purchases with cash or debit, you're missing out on rewards and perks that can make travel more affordable. It can be in your best interest to get a credit card that awards high rewards rates on airfare, hotels, rideshares and other common travel expenses.
Using one of the travel cards mentioned above can earn you more than $2,000 in rewards over five years, which can help you offset the cost of past travel expenses or an upcoming vacation.
If you're interested in submitting a travel credit card application, keep in mind that card issuers usually require you to have good credit or excellent credit (scores above 670). Therefore, it's key to check your credit score before applying for a travel card.
Once you know your credit score and can check if you prequalify for a travel card, choose the best card for your needs and apply.
There is a variety of travel credit cards available, from general to airline- and hotel-specific, and all the choices can make it hard to settle on one. In order to choose the best card for your needs, you should consider several factors. Here are some tips on how to choose a credit card.
Consider whether you're willing to pay an annual fee. Some travel cards have steep annual fees over $500, which can be worthwhile, but not for everyone. Make sure you do the math to see if an annual fee travel card is for you.
Another key factor to consider is the type of travel you do most. If you travel within the U.S., then it doesn't really matter if a card charges foreign transaction fees. But if you're off to Mexico or Spain, then it's important to have a no foreign transaction fee card.
Rewards should also play a part in your decision. Do some research to determine which card offers a rewards program more geared toward your spending habits. If you dine out a lot when you travel, consider the American Express Gold Card with 4X points on dining worldwide. But if you want a competitive rewards rate on all sorts of travel, the Wells Fargo Propel American Express Card has no annual fee and 3X rewards on travel purchases.
You can compare card benefits side by side to see if one card rates better than another. The Chase Sapphire Reserve, for example, offers complimentary lounge access, while the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card gives cardholders a fee credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck.
If you're having trouble narrowing down the best travel card for you, it can be helpful to compare credit cards. You should first list the benefits you're looking for and any deal breakers, such as an annual fee. Then consider cards that have those benefits.
But if you don't want to pay a high annual fee, the Venture Card is only $95 compared to the $250 you'll pay for a Gold Card. (See rates and fees.)
In order to make the most of your travel card, you should familiarize yourself with the various credit card benefits and fees. Take note of any annual fees, foreign transaction fees and the APR associated with your account. Also consider the rewards rates and added perks, such as annual statement credits.
Once you're familiar with the terms of your card, you can start optimizing them. That may include setting reminders to use the annual $300 travel credit provided by the Chase Sapphire Reserve or submitting a Global Entry application with the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card to take advantage of the up to $100 credit.
If you have multiple credit cards, you might want to have a plan for the best time to use each card. Let's say you have the Wells Fargo Propel American Express Card and American Express Gold Card. Use the Amex Gold Card for all your dining expenses to earn 4X points, then use the Propel Card for all your travel purchases to earn 3X points.
Travel credit cards aren't for everyone. If you travel infrequently, you should consider alternative credit card options, such as cards with dining, grocery or gas rewards. There are cards that can provide up to 6% back in those categories, allowing foodies, meal-preppers and commuters to benefit.
Beyond rewards, you might benefit from a card that offers a 0% APR period. Some cards offer no interest for over a year on new purchases and balance transfers, such as the Citi Simplicity® Card with 0% for the first 18 months on purchases and balance transfers (after 14.74% to 24.74% variable APR). When used responsibly, these cards can help you get out of debt without high interest charges.
To determine which cards will put the most money back in your pocket, CNBC Select evaluated 35 popular travel credit cards 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 and assume that you are paying your credit card balance on time and in full each month so as not to incur interest charges.
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.
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.
For rates and fees of the American Express® Gold Card, please click here.
Information about the Wells Fargo Propel American Express Card and Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.