Best travel credit cards of 2021
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Travel credit cards are the ultimate tool to make traveling more affordable and enjoyable. Whether it’s a branded credit card made for airline and hotel chain loyalist or it’s a more flexible general-purpose travel card, maximizing a top travel credit card can earn you thousands of dollars worth of travel expenses — and that’s before we even jump into additional perks like lounge access and lost luggage insurance.
Here at Million Mile Secrets, we spend all day looking for new credit card offers online, then we dive in to calculate the true value of the offer. In this breakdown, we’ll reveal the secrets to help you get the real deals and stay away from the junk.
|Credit Card||Annual fee||Welcome bonus||Bonus value (based on our valuations)||Top perk|
|The Platinum Card® from American Express||$550 (see rates & fees)||75,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in your first six months of card membership.||$1,080||Unparalleled lounge access|
|American Express® Gold Card||$250 (see rates & fees)||60,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first six months of account opening||$1,080||4x points at restaurants worldwide and on the first $25,000 in purchases per calendar year (then 1x) at U.S. supermarkets|
|Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card||$95||60,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 on purchases within the first three months from account opening.||$840||Global Entry/TSA PreCheck credit (up to $100)|
|Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card||$95||60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening. Plus earn up to $50 in statement credits towards grocery store purchases for use within the first 12 months of account opening.||$1,020||Primary rental car insurance|
|Chase Sapphire Reserve®||$550||50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening||$850||Up to $300 annual travel credit|
|Citi Premier® Card||$95||60,000 bonus points after making $4,000 in purchases within the first three months of account opening||$750||Annual $100 off any hotel stay of $500 or more|
|Ink Business Preferred Credit Card||$95||100,000 bonus points after you spend $15,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening||$1,700||Cell phone protection|
The Amex Platinum card’s benefits are quite valuable and include an annual airline incidental fee credit of up to $200 on your selected airline; up to $200 in U.S. Uber credits per year (can be used for UberEATS) and up to $100 in credit for Saks Fifth Avenue per year. With the Amex Platinum card, you’ll get access to more airport lounges than with comparable cards. The Amex Platinum card has a $550 annual fee, which is not waived the first year (see rates and fees) and has no foreign transaction fees (see rates and fees).
Why The Amex Platinum card is the best for premium travel
The American Express Platinum card is worth the annual fee if you use the perks and credits. Each year you can get up to $500 total in credits for Uber, Saks Fifth Ave. and airline incidental fees. That means you’ll easily come out ahead if you can get just $50 in value from the other benefits like airport lounge access. And the limited time offer for streaming and wireless phone services can offset the travel perks you won’t be able to take advantage of.
If you max out the card’s statement credits (up to $500) and only get value from the intro bonus ($1,200 based on our Amex points value), you should still get $1,150 in value the first year.
The Amex Gold card’s benefits and perks are loaded with valuable credits. You can earn up to $120 dining credit ($10 monthly) each calendar year at participating restaurants (enrollment required). This card also has no foreign transaction fees (see rates and fees). There’s a $250 annual fee (see rates and fees), but the credits you’ll earn will offset most of that cost.
Why Amex Gold card is the best for restaurants
On top of 4x Amex Membership Rewards points at restaurants worldwide, with the Amex Gold Card, you can get up to $120 in dining credits every year, making it one of the best credit cards for restaurants. Here’s how it works.
You’ll get $10 per month in dining credit for purchases at:
- The Cheesecake Factory
- Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse
- Participating Shake Shack locations
Being able to earn two Venture miles on every purchase is pretty great, especially because you don’t have to worry about tracking bonus categories — everything is simple and straightforward.
Why Capital One Venture Rewards is the best for simple travel rewards
One thing that makes the Capital One Venture worth the annual fee is its straightforward rewards program. All you have to do is pay for travel expenses (such as airfare, hotel stays and parking) with your credit card, then log in to your account and erase the charge by redeeming your miles.
It also has a smaller annual fee than other cards that reimburse Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fees, which usually have higher annual fees that are often between $450 and $550.
Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That’s $750 when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. Plus earn up to $50 in statement credits towards grocery store purchases.
And in response to the current pandemic, Chase has added a temporary yet valuable benefit called Pay Yourself Back, wherein you can use your Chase points to give yourself a statement credit to offset purchases at dining establishments, grocery stores and home improvement stores. From May 31 to April 30, 2021, you can redeem your points for 1.25 cents each.
Why Chase Sapphire Preferred is the best for overall value
The Sapphire Preferred is one of the top cards for beginners in the miles-and-points hobby. I’ve had this card for many years and I take it on all my trips. When you subtract the Chase Sapphire Preferred’s $95 annual fee from the value of the welcome bonus and the card’s benefits and perks, the card’s value is pretty clear. With a bonus worth $1,020 (based on our points valuation) and a paltry $95 annual fee, you can get a first-year value of $925.
The Chase Sapphire Reserve benefits include the ability to earn 3x Chase Ultimate Rewards points on travel (excluding $300 travel credit), 10x points on Lyft rides (through March 2022) and dining worldwide and one Chase point on all other purchases. You’ll receive a free year of a Lyft Pink membership when you activate it by March 31, 2022. Lyft Pink is a membership that normally costs $19.99/month and comes with perks, like:
- 15% off all rides
- Three free cancellations a month (if you rebook within 15 minutes)
- Three free bike/scooter rides per month
- Priority airport pickups
- Waived lost and found fees
To activate your membership, just add your Sapphire Reserve card as a payment option in your Lyft app and you’ll be prompted to activate your Lyft Pink membership.
You’ll also now receive:
- 10 Chase points per dollar on streaming services (up to $1,500 in spending)
- 5 Chase points per dollar at gas stations (up to $1,500 in spending)
- 5 Chase points per dollar with Instacart (up to $3,000 in spending)
You’ll also get up to $50 in statement credits towards an Instacart Express membership. Read our Chase Sapphire COVID-19 benefits post for more details.
Why Chase Sapphire Reserve is the best for premium perks
The best perk of this card is the annual $300 in travel credits, which are automatically earned whenever you make a qualifying purchase, including airfare, hotels, rental cars and more. And due to the COVID pandemic, Chase has made it even easier to use this credit (and added others!) by implementing additional perks.
For example, through the end of the year, the annual $300 credit will also reimburse you for purchases at gas stations and grocery stores. And with the new Pay Yourself Back benefit, Chase Sapphire Reserve cardholders can Chase points to give yourself a statement credit to offset purchases at dining establishments, grocery stores and home improvement stores. Throught April 21, 2021, you can redeem your points for 1.5 cents each.
The card also comes with $60 in credit in 2021. The credit will automatically be applied to DoorDash orders when you pay with the card. On top of that, you’re also eligible for at least a complimentary year of DashPass (normally $9.99/month), you must activate the offer by Dec. 31, 2021. DashPass gets you waived delivery fees on orders of $12 or more at participating restaurants.
The Chase Sapphire Reserve is the best premium travel rewards credit card. The Sapphire Reserve sign-up bonus is worth at least $750 in travel. And with the $300 annual credit for travel purchases every cardmember anniversary, that’s $1,050 in value in the first year, not counting other money-saving perks you enjoy as a cardholder.
In addition, everyone planning to renew their Chase Sapphire Reserve this year will pay just a $450 annual fee (as opposed to the $550 standard annual fee). Making this card even more valuable for current cardholders.
This card offers a variety of ways to earn Citi ThankYou points, including 3 points for every dollar spent at supermarkets, restaurants, gas stations, air travel and hotels, and 1 point for all other purchases. You can redeem these ThankYou points and receive gift cards for stores and restaurants, shop online with them at Amazon and Best Buy, or get travel rewards. Plus, Citi partners TrueBlue, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club and Singapore Airlines so you can transfer your ThankYou points directly to them and get flights faster.
The Citi Premier card also comes with no foreign transaction fees, an annual $100 off a single hotel stay of $500 or more (excluding taxes and fees) when booked through thankyou.com, and Citi Entertainment benefits, which give cardholders exclusive access to discounted prices on special events like concerts, sports games and more. With only a $95 annual fee, this card pays for itself over and over again.
Why Citi Premier card is the best for earning points on everyday purchases
If you regularly spend money on groceries, gas, or at restaurants, the Citi Premier offers some competitive ways to earn points. This card fits into the spending habits of the average person, making it easy and convenient to rack-up rewards.
One of the best ways to earn points with this card is by using it at gas stations. With 3 points for every dollar spent on gas, this card has one of the best earnings at gas stations on the market. While some cards offer 5 points on dining or travel, the Citi Premier’s 3 points for these purchases definitely isn’t a bad deal. You’ll be earning points for every single purchase you make on this card, so you can’t really go wrong with the Citi Premier.
The Ink Business Preferred benefits include the ability to earn 5x Chase points on Lyft rides through March 2022, 3x Chase points on travel, shipping purchases, internet, cable and phone services, and advertising purchases made with social media sites and search engines (up to a maximum of $150,000 in combined purchases per account anniversary year) and one point per dollar on all other purchases
The card also comes with built-in insurance perks like cell phone protection, primary rental car insurance (when renting for business purposes), trip interruption coverage and purchase protection.
Why it’s the best for business travel
The Ink Business Preferred is the best card for earning Ultimate Rewards points, thanks in large part to it’s increased 100,000-point bonus offer. With the Chase Ink Business Preferred you can use Chase points to pay for travel booked through the Chase travel site at a rate of 1.25 cents per point. That makes this offer worth at least $1,250 in travel.
This is a business credit card, so you’ll need to have some sort of business activities in order to qualify. We value Chase points at two cents each making this offer worth an amazing $1,905 after you pay the $95 annual fee.
Research methodology: How we select the best credit cards for travel points
You know how you get credit card offers in the mail and throw them away? Not us. We open all of them, then grab a magnifying glass and read the fine print. We spend all day looking for new credit card offers online, then we dive in to calculate the true value of the offer.
We examine the details and let you in on the secrets that the airlines, hotels and cruise ship companies don’t want you to know.
Credit card introductory bonuses are the fastest way to earn big travel rewards. When deciding what new card to get, we’re always looking at the sign-up bonus points — some of the biggest credit card welcome bonuses available are worth over $1,000 — but beyond that, it’s important to weight some details beyond the big pot of bonus points at the end of minimum spending requirement rainbow.
The three criteria we weigh when judging a bonus are:
- The monetary value of the bonus – we calculate the dollar value of the points and miles earned for each bonus, to break down which bonus is the best bang for your buck.
- Minimum spending requirements – to earn the introductory bonus, you must spend a certain amount using your new card within a certain time frame. We like reasonable spending requirements that make it easy to get your bonus. We do list cards with bigger requirements – but only if the reward is huge.
- Time allotted to meet spending requirement – the total spending amount is just a part of the equation and we consider it to be just as important as the window of time given to meet this spending requirement and be eligible for those sweet bonus points.
Ongoing reward rates
We prefer travel credit cards that keep rewarding you even after you earn the initial big welcome bonus. While earning rewards through the ongoing rates is a slower burn than the sign-up bonuses, I find them just as exciting because this is where picking the best card becomes more subjective and where we’ll help you sort out which is the best for you. The secret to selecting a credit card that will be a long time star in your wallet? Your spending habits. If it’s your first credit card you can select a card to serve as an all-around player, or if you’re already venturing further into the point and miles game, you can leverage multiple cards that earn in complementary categories.
There are two variables when determining the redemption value of each credit card issuer: the monetary value of the goods or services you’re exchanging for rewards and the flexibility in what they can be used.
Above all else, we prioritize the value of what your earning can get you, but the benefit of flexible Membership Programs like Chase Ultimate Rewards and Amex Membership Rewards is undeniable. We always recommend these cards for the beginners and for people looking for a straightforward travel card. Of course, many of these cards are the best in the game when it comes to maximizing points, so we recommend everyone having one of these in their wallet.
We focus on the annual fee that comes with some of these cards because our goal is to make travel cards a positive investment, to then use those rewards to indulge in our passion for travel. Of course, there are some great options of travel credit cards with no annual fee, some of which have very competitive rewards considering the low investment.
Benefits and perks
Airport lounges with complimentary food and alcohol, no foreign transaction fees, and TSA PreCheck are some of my favorite perks that save money and time. The credit cards with higher annual fees always offer a wide range of perks — if used correctly these perks alone can justify their annual fee.
Co-branded credit cards are also great for this same reason as they make sure to have benefits for their loyal customers. So while you’re picking out your next credit card, consider whether you should get a co-branded from your go-to airline or the hotel chain you frequent.
How the different types of travel credit cards work
There are several ways to earn points and miles, with travel credit cards being the quickest and most affordable way – both by earning introductory bonuses (also called sign-up bonuses or welcome bonuses) and with ongoing spending.
However, there are many different styles of travel rewards credit cards and to be able to decide which one is a good fit. They each work in dramatically different ways. Let’s break down each type!
Travel credit cards that earn transferable rewards are a bit more complicated to use, but offer the most potential value. Earning transferable points is also an excellent hedge against frequent flyer program devaluations. If airline A makes a negative change to its award chart, with flexible points you’ll still have other options for making the most of your rewards.
The major transferable points programs are:
Who is this for? As transferable rewards can be converted to points or miles with many different loyalty programs, this is the perfect strategy for those who aren’t loyal to certain airlines and hotel programs. Transferable points give you the freedom to use whichever program best suits your needs.
Cobranded airline credit cards earn miles and have benefits tied to a specific airline. For example, most Delta credit cards will get you free checked bags, but only when you’re flying with Delta.
Who is this for? Airline cards are great for those who regularly fly certain airlines, as they have airline-specific benefits. In other words, they make the most sense to open if you’re loyal to that airline or live in a hub city.
Airline credit cards are also good for those with flexible vacation plans. While you can find some amazing deals, airline miles are unfortunately subject to blackout dates and inventory restrictions, meaning if you don’t book far enough in advance, you might not be able to book your desired dates with miles. Not usually a big problem, but something to be aware of.
Opening a hotel credit card can be a great way to earn free nights and fast track your way to elite status. Cobranded hotel cards can also be good options for keeping long-term because of the ongoing benefits. For example, the World of Hyatt Credit Card has a $95 annual fee, but every year that you renew you’ll get a reward night at a Category 1-4 hotel. That free night can easily be worth more than what you pay to keep the card, and you get five elite night credits every year as well.
Who is this for? While there is an exception or two, hotel credit cards work similarly to airline credit cards. You can only use the points you collect and the card’s hotel benefits for the specific hotel chain the card represents. In other words, if you have a Marriott card, you can only use rewards at Marriott hotel brands.
Fixed-value point cards
Some of the best card for travel points earn rewards that have a fixed value. These are the most straight-forward cards you have because the points/miles you earn can be redeemed for travel (or other rewards) at a set value. The Capital One Venture card used to be a fixed-value travel point card, and you could redeem your miles to erase eligible travel purchases at a rate of one cent per mile. But when Capital One added transfer partners if transformed into both a transferable points card and a fixed-value point card.
Who is this for? Credit cards that earn fixed-value points often work similarly to cash back credit cards. Simply make a travel purchase, and use your points to offset the cost. You don’t have to worry about blackout dates, award availability, etc. And you can often use the points for a myriad of travel purchases, such as airfare, hotels, rental cars, etc.
If you don’t want to worry about award charts and all that jazz, stick to this easiest-to-use travel rewards currency.
Why travel credit cards are certainly worth owning
Travel credit cards are most definitely worth their price, as long as you remember to pay your balance in full and on time every month. If you pay your cards in full and on time every month, then the value that you can squeeze out of a travel credit card is often more than the other types of credit cards. Cash back cards shine in their simplicity but travel cards are the best way to maximize returns, so despite the fact that these cards may sometimes have strict qualification criteria requiring good credit, they are absolutely worth the extra trouble.
For rates and fees of the Amex Platinum Card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Amex Gold card, click here.
For the rates and fees of the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card, please click here.
For the rates and fees of The Business Platinum Card from American Express, please click here.
Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)