Our Favorite Travel Credit Cards

Apr 10, 2020

Looking to travel for free (or cheap)? Read about our favorite travel credit cards that have saved us thousands on flights and other travel expenses!

We often get asked how we can afford to travel and while there are many things we do to save money to travel and while traveling, one of the biggest things that have helped us travel more while on a budget are travel credit cards.

We know credit cards are a controversial topic, but we believe that if you treat them like a debit card, only spend what you have, and pay them off every single month, they are one of the best travel tools out there!

Ever since we got our first travel credit card, we have been able to travel for significantly less. By taking advantage of the large sign up bonuses and earning lots of points through our normal purchases, we’ve essentially earned free money and have taken many flights for free or for much less out of pocket. 

For example, in 2019, we flew to Mexico City, to Arizona, back and forth to Austin for 5 months to build our van (18 one way flights total), to Italy, and to Chicago for a total of around 32 one way flights for around $2,000 total (an average of $63/one way). The majority of the flights were 100% free with credit card points, minus the taxes and fees, while for some we used a combination of credit card points, frequent flyer miles, and money out of our pocket. Pretty crazy! 

In this blog we’ll share the different types of travel credit cards, our favorite travel credit cards, how to decide which travel credit card is for you, and helpful resources to check out. 

Looking for more travel planning tips? Check out these posts:

Note: all opinions expressed here are our own and not the opinions of any banks, credit card issuers, hotels, or airlines. We are sharing what has worked well for us, but everyone’s situation is different. We are not financial advisors and we recommend speaking to a professional for more personalized financial advice.

Types of travel credit cards

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Before we dive into specific credit cards, there are two main types of travel credit cards to choose from, as well as different price points to choose from. Each has its own benefits and downsides to consider when deciding which travel credit card is for you.

Co-branded travel cards (airline or hotel specific)

Co-branded travel credit cards are tied to a certain airline or hotel, like United or Hyatt. These cards earn points that can only be used at the specific airline or hotel. 

These cards can be great if you’re looking for rewards specific to those brands, such as free nights or upgrades, but they can also limit your options if a certain reward isn’t available when you need to use it, such as award seat availability. 

We only recommended getting these if you only (or mostly) stay at these specific chains or fly the same airline. 

General-purpose travel cards

General-purpose travel cards give rewards that can be used like cash on any airline or hotel brand, such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve or Capital One Venture Card.

These travel cards are best for those who don’t stick to specific airlines or hotels and want the most flexibility for flights and accomodations. While you get more flexibility, the downside is that you typically do not get brand specific perks.

While we have had both co-branded travel cards and general-purpose travel cards, we personally like to keep our flight and accommodation options open by using general-purpose travel cards that aren’t tied to specific airlines or hotels.

Premium vs. Budget Credit Cards

Another big differentiator between travel credit cards are Premium vs. Budget cards. 

Premium credit cards come with a high annual fee, but earn miles much faster and come with many more perks. Budget credit cards on the other hand, have a much cheaper (or free!) annual fee, but typically earn points at a slower rate and do not come with as many perks.

When deciding between the two, it is important to weigh the perks for each and decide which one you’re going to get the most value out of. It is a balance between how much of a fee you are willing to pay, how fast you want to earn points, and what perks come with it. 

We have a mixture of Premium and Budget travel credit cards, but we use our Premium cards much more regularly. For us, the high annual fee has paid for itself many times over with how many points we have accumulated, with the free food and drinks we can get in the lounge, and the additional money we get off Ubers or on travel expenses. However, that annual fee charge does sting every time though!

How to get the most value from a travel credit card

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Here are a few tips to help make sure you get the most value from your travel credit card!

Make sure you hit the minimum spend
To get the most value from a travel credit card, you need to make sure you hit the minimum spend to get the sign up bonus. These requirements differ between cards, but the sign up bonus typically can cover a round trip flight, so missing out on that would be heartbreaking!

We recommend applying for a travel credit card around a big purchase you have to make in order to help earn the sign on bonus. For instance, if you are needing a new laptop, get the credit card then use that card to buy the laptop.

Dinner’s on me!
One thing I have loved doing with our travel cards is picking up the dinner bill for work dinners or out with friends. As long as you trust your employer or friends to pay you back, this is a great way to get extra miles!

Refer a friend
Some cards have offers where if you refer your friends and family to sign up for the card, you get loads of bonus miles for each person that signs up!

Multi-card strategy
If you decide to have more than one travel credit card, you can also be strategic and use specific ones for specific things. For example, if one card gives you 3x the points for dining and travel expenses, you would use that for those purchases.

But if another card has 2x the points for every purchase, you could use that one for any purchase that doesn’t get 3x points. The only downside of this is that then your points are spread out among a few different cards, so you may not have as high of a balance in one account.

Treat it like a debit card
We also highly advise only spending money you have and paying off the balance every month. If you’re carrying a large balance and have to pay the high interest rate, all the benefits you get from these cards is totally erased by the interest that adds up very quickly. 

For more information on how a credit card can impact you financially, including your credit score, check out this article by Experian or speak to a financial professional. 

Our Favorite Travel Credit Cards

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We currently have four travel credit cards, which we have signed up for because of the generous sign up bonuses, as well as how fast we can accumulate points and the perks. Below are our favorite travel credit cards, including the four we have now, as well as one that we have had previously. 

For each, we’re sharing important information, like the annual fee, as well as the perks that come along with them.

Chase Sapphire Reserve

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The Chase Sapphire Reserve card is our favorite travel credit card overall and is the one we have historically used the most. Even after we deplete the points, we tend to gain enough back for a free flight pretty quickly. And the bonus value you get for your points is incredible!

If you’re a frequent traveler, who wants the flexibility of choosing any airline and the ability to get more money for your points, we couldn’t recommend this card more!

Annual Fee: $550/year + $75 for each additional authorized user

A few things to note about this: 

  • This fee was a lot less when we signed up, so keep in mind that these fees can change.
  • You can avoid the authorized user fee by adding your card to your spouse/authorized user’s Apple Pay account.
  • You get a $300 travel credit each year, which we will cover below, so technically the card only costs $250 a year. 

Sign Up Bonus: As of writing this blog post (April 2020), the sign up bonus is 50,000 miles if you spend $4,000 in purchases in the first three months of opening the card.

Airline: This card is not airline specific, which means you can use it for any airline!

Our Favorite Perks
While the high annual fee is a bit shocking, the perks make the fee worth it in our opinion! 

  • Your points have 50% more value. This is by far our favorite perk! For most travel credit cards, 100,000 points is worth about $1,000 in travel. However, with the Chase Sapphire Reserve, your 100,000 points would be equal to $1,500 in travel if you book through their portal. 
  • 3x points per dollar on travel and dining worldwide. What this means is if you spend $200 on a flight or eating out with your Chase Sapphire Reserve card, you’ll get 600 miles. Combine this 3x points with the 50% bonus and you can get a lot more points for your spending!

    For example, this $200 flight would transfer into 600 points and with the 50% bonus, this would be redeem for about 900 points ($90), instead of 600 ($60). Compare this to the Capital One Venture card, which we will cover below, you’d only get 400 miles for this purchase.
  • 1x points per dollar for most other expenses.
  • $300 travel credit per year. Every year, you’ll get $300 back for any travel expenses you pay with your card. This includes Ubers/Lyfts, hotels, Airbnb, flights, etc.
  • Priority Pass membership. This is another one of our favorite perks! Priority Pass is a program that gives you free access to airport lounges around the world. Not every airport has a Priority Pass lounge and some lounges are better than others, but any lounge is better than none! In the lounge you can get free food, coffee, and alcohol, which can save you a lot of money in the airport.
  • TSA Precheck or Global Entry. With your card you can get reimbursed for the application fee for TSA Precheck or Global Entry (up to $100)
  • Trip and rental car insurance. Never pay for a rental car’s expensive insurance again! With the Chase Sapphire Reserve, you get auto rental collision damage waiver, trip cancellation/trip interruption insurance, travel and emergency assistance services, and more!
  • 1:1 point transfer to many hotel and airline loyalty programs. This includes United, Southwest, JetBlue, KLM, Air France, Emirates, British Airways, and more!
  • 10X points on Lyft rides. This is a new benefit through March 2022. So if you ride with Lyft, you get wayyy more points!
  • No foreign transaction fees. Whenever you use your card internationally, you will not have to pay any foreign transaction fees.

If you don’t travel a ton and still want to benefit from some of these benefits, we suggest checking out the Chase Sapphire Preferred, which has a lower annual fee ($95). It doesn’t have some of the big perks: like the travel credits, lounge access, or 3x points on travel and dining, but it’s a great cheaper alternative!

The Capital One Venture Card, which we will cover in a bit, is another good, more affordable option.

American Express Platinum

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The American Express Platinum is a great card with loads of benefits, like the Centurion Lounge, but you might find that some merchants don’t accept American Express outside the US (or even in the US), making this card possibly not as ideal for every purchase situation. 

If you’re a frequent traveler, whose home airport has a Centurion Lounge (or other Global Lounge Collection lounge), and you want the flexibility to choose any airline, this is a great card to consider! 

Annual Fee: $550/year + $175 for a total of three additional authorized users. For this card, Adam just has the card in his Apple Pay in case he needs to use it, but it’s under my name. 

Sign Up Bonus: As of writing this blog post (April 2020), the sign up bonus is 60,000 miles if you spend $5,000 in purchases in the first three months of opening the card. We have also seen some people get offered 75,000 miles.

Airline: This card is not airline specific, which means you can use it for any airline!

Our Favorite Perks:

  • 5x points on airfare and hotels. The only caveat with this is that the flights must be booked directly with airlines or through amextravel.com and the hotels must be prepaid and booked on amextravel.com. For any other expenses, you get 1x points per dollar.
  • Priority Pass + Global Lounge Collection Access. Similar to the Chase Sapphire Reserve, you get access to Priority Pass lounges, but the extra perk (and one of the main reasons we got this card) is to get access to Centurion Lounges and other Global Lounge Collection lounges, including the Delta Lounge when flying Delta. These lounges tend to be nicer, have better food options, and more space to spread out and work. 
  • TSA Precheck or Global Entry. With your card you can get reimbursed for the application fee for TSA Precheck or Global Entry (up to $100)
  • $15 for Uber rides per month. The catch with this is that you have to put your Amex Platinum in your Uber account and select “Uber Cash” to pay.
  • $200 airline fee credit per year. This means that you can get up to $200 back in airline fees, like baggage, incidental fees, in-flight drinks. You do have to choose one airline to get this benefit from though.
  • Marriott Bonvoy Gold Elite + Hilton Honors Gold status. Not only do you get Gold status at one major hotel chain, but you get it at both! This will get you perks like room upgrades, free breakfast, early check in and late check out, and more!
  • Transfer miles to other airlines and hotels. While you can book any airline with this card, you can also transfer your miles to a specific airline, like Aeromexico, KLM, Air France, Emirates, Air Canada, ANA, Delta, Hawaiian, and more. You can also transfer to Hilton, Marriott, or Choice Privileges. 
  • No foreign transaction fees. Whenever you use your card internationally, you will not have to pay any foreign transaction fees.
  • Trip and rental car insurance. You’ll be covered if you have an incident with your rental car, if your luggage gets lost, or if you miss a connection.

Capital One Venture Card

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We both individually got the Capital One Venture card before our Italy trip to help us get our flights to and from Italy for free. This card has some pretty nice point perks for everyday spending, like 2x points on every purchase, so we have started to use this one more for groceries, fuel, and anything we can’t get 3x points on with our Chase Sapphire Reserve. That way, we are maximizing the amount of points we can get for any purchase.

If you want a low yearly fee, want to earn more on every purchase, and want the flexibility of choosing any airline, the Capital One Venture Card is a good pick!

The only downside is that it doesn’t get the 50% bonus (or some other perks) like the Chase Sapphire Reserve does, but if you strategically use both cards depending on the points per dollar, you’ll be able to save the most amount of points!

Annual Fee: The first year is free and then it’s $95/year. Authorized users are free too!

Sign Up Bonus: As of writing this blog post (April 2020), the sign up bonus is 50,000 miles if you spend $3,000 in purchases in the first three months of opening the card. 

Airline: This card is not airline specific, which means you can use it for any airline!

Our Favorite Perks:

  • 2x points on all purchases. No matter what you’re buying, you’ll get 2x points which is pretty sweet!
  • TSA Precheck or Global Entry. With your card you can get reimbursed for the application fee for TSA Precheck or Global Entry (up to $100)
  • Transfer miles to other airlines. While you can book any airline with this card, you can also transfer your miles to a specific airline, like Aeromexico, KLM, Air France, Emirates, Air Canada, Qatar, JetBlue, Qantas, and more!
  • No foreign transaction fees. Whenever you use your card internationally, you will not have to pay any foreign transaction fees.
  • Trip and rental car insurance. You’ll be covered if you have an incident with your rental car or your trip will be covered if you used your card to buy your flights.

Note: this card does not come with lounge access 🙁

Alaska Airlines Card

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We got the Alaska Airlines card when we lived in Seattle, which is Alaska Airlines’ headquarters. It was a super convenient card for us to use when we lived there, as we mostly flew Alaska and I also had status because of work travel. 

They also have nonstop flights to Hawaii, which was a huge perk for us. When we signed up, they had a special buy one, get one ticket offer, which got us to Hawaii for super cheap! We used this, combined with some points, to get both of us to Oahu during Thanksgiving for $550! The tickets would’ve been $1,800 had we paid all in cash.

If you live in a city with tons of Alaska Airlines flights, this card is a no brainer!

Annual Fee: $75/year + a free authorized user

Sign Up Bonus: 40,000 miles + Alaska’s Companion Fare ($99 fare plus taxes and fees) when you spend $2,000 within the first 90 days of opening your card.

Airline: This card works the best for Alaska Airlines, but you can also redeem miles with their partner airlines

Our Favorite Perks:

  • $99 companion fare each year. By far the best perk of this card! Not only do you get the companion fare when you sign up, but you also get it every year. This means you could buy one full price ticket to Hawaii and get the second for $99 (plus taxes and fees)!
  • Free checked bag on every flight. If your bag is too large to carry on or you just want to wander around the airport without lugging it around, this is a great perk! You can also use this perk for up to 6 people in your party.
  • 3 miles for every $1 spent on eligible Alaska Airlines purchases. You also get 1 mile per $1 on any other purchase.
  • No blackout dates. This means you can redeem your miles anyday!  
  • Alaska Airlines perks. You’ll get 50% off Alaska Airlines lounge passes and 20% back on inflight purchases. 
  • No foreign transaction fees. Whenever you use your card internationally, you will not have to pay any foreign transaction fees.

Note: this card does not come with lounge access 🙁

Southwest Airlines Priority Rapid Rewards Card

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The Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards card was the first travel card we applied for, back when we lived in Texas! Southwest is based out of Dallas so there are tons of flights out of Austin to most cities in the US, as well as in the Caribbean. 

Southwest is awesome because the fares are usually affordable and checked bags are always free. They also don’t have assigned seating, which some people hate, but we tend to get a better seat this way! 

We do not have this card anymore, as we can drive anywhere in the US and our travel priorities have shifted to international, but it’s still a great card. They now have three levels of the card: Plus, Premier, and Priority. We will focus on the Priority card, as it has the most perks.

If you want to travel mostly in the US and live in a city with many Southwest flights, we highly recommend this card!

Annual Fee: The 3 different levels of Southwest cards range from $69-$149/year. The Priority card is $149. Authorized users are free too!

Sign Up Bonus: All 3 cards offer 40,000 miles if you spend $1,000 in the first 3 months of opening the card.

Airline: This card only has benefits if you want to fly Southwest Airlines.

Our Favorite Perks (for the Priority card specifically):

  • 2x points per dollar spent on Southwest purchases. For any other purchases you get 1x points per dollar spent.
  • 7,500 Anniversary point bonus. For the Priority card, you get 7,500 points every year on your card anniversary! This can buy you some cheap Southwest one way flights!
  • $75 Southwest annual travel credit. This alone makes this card worth it and makes the annual fee more like $74.
  • 4 upgraded boardings per year when available. This is a big benefit since Southwest has a more unique boarding process.
  • Earn points towards A-List status. A-List status gets you priority boarding, a 25% earning bonus, and some other benefits. 
  • 20% back on inflight drinks and WiFi. And Southwest WiFi is some of the cheapest in the airline industry!
  • No foreign transaction fees. Whenever you use your card internationally, you will not have to pay any foreign transaction fees.

How to choose the right card for you

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And now the hard part…which travel credit card do you choose? If you can’t tell, we struggled with this decision, which is why we now have 4 total. But you don’t need to have multiple credit cards to reap the benefits! Here are a few questions you should ask yourself before making the decision.

How often do you travel? 

If you don’t travel very often (1-2 times a year) or only travel in the US, you may want to stick to one of the lower annual fee cards. That way you’re not spending much out of pocket per year and while you may gain miles a bit slower, you won’t need to redeem them as often.

If you like to take international trips or travel 3+ times a year, we’d highly consider checking out our top two cards: Chase Sapphire Reserve and Amex Platinum. The benefits will pay for the hefty annual fee! 

Are you loyal to a specific airline or hotel?

Are you loyal to a specific airline or hotel? Live near a major airport hub? Then we’d suggest looking into a co-branded airline or hotel travel credit card. If you live in Atlanta for example, there is a good chance you’ll be flying Delta, which would make the Delta credit card (which we didn’t cover) a good option to look at.

As you may have noticed, there are no hotel travel cards on our list, as we are Airbnb lovers. So for us, a hotel card wouldn’t make as much sense. But for someone who loves hotels, a hotel card would be a good one to have in your wallet! 

Do you pick the cheapest flight regardless of airline?

Do you prefer to be flexible and pick whatever airline is cheapest? Go with one of the general-purpose cards, like the Chase, Capital One, or Amex. These will give you the most options when it comes time to book a flight.

PS: Check out our tips for finding cheap flights!

Do you want to visit lounges?

Lounges are one of our favorite perks! We are able to save $20+ at the airport on food and coffee by visiting the lounges instead. They are also a comfortable place to relax before your flight and have many outlets (sometimes a rarity in the terminal!). Some lounges have showers, massages, nap pods, and other benefits too!

On our list, only the Chase Sapphire Reserve and Amex Platinum offer lounge perks. If you travel 3 times a year, with 2 one way flights each time, that’s about $120 saved at airports!

Helpful Travel Credit Card Resources

While we have a good amount of experience with travel credit cards and are very loyal to the ones we own, there are many more cards out there to consider and tons of credit card knowledge to soak up.

We’d highly recommend reading Nerd Wallet and The Points Guy to read about other travel credit cards, see up to date offers, learn about more strategies to maximize your travel credit cards, and other tips!

We hope you found this guide helpful and feel better prepared to choose the right travel card for you. Travel credit cards have improved our travels in so many ways, from free or cheap flights, to free food and coffee, to free checked bags. Without them, we definitely wouldn’t be able to travel as much.

Want to make your credit card points last longer? Learn our tips for finding cheap flights so you can take more free flights with those points you earn!

Ready to fly for free?

Pin this blog with our favorite travel credit cards to start earning miles!

about us

Hi y’all! We’re Adam, Kathryn, and Kona, an adventurous married couple (+ pup!) living on the road in our self-converted sprinter van! You can often find us driving all around the US and Canada, scoping out the best coffee shops, eating tacos and ice cream (we’re a 5+ taco and 2+ scoop household), and enjoying nature.

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