The Best Credit Cards For Travel & Frequent Travelers – Money Perception

This is one of the questions I’m asked the most when people find out I write about travel, and understandably so – it’s important to make the right choice to save money and get rewards, and pretty much everyone is going to use a credit card anyway so you might as well maximize the advantages.

But the issue is a lot more complex than it sounds, because all travelers are different. There are numerous websites and ratings ranking the best travel reward cards, but almost all focus exclusively on the number of points earned, the signing bonuses, and the ease of redemption. These are all very important, especially for less frequent travelers who just want to accrue some free travel through their everyday spending. But because of this formula, airline branded cards and premium/luxury cards tend to not make the “best card” lists, though they are good fits for some people. In many cases, the best solution is multiple cards you use for different purposes.

For example, I use a United branded card from Chase as one of my two main cards and I do it for two specific reasons. First, the annual fee includes a full United lounge membership, which I use a lot, and it costs less than just the lounge membership on its own (why I don’t know). Secondly, in addition to the miles accrued that can be used for flights and other rewards, I accrue flexible “tier” miles that I can use at will or roll over annually. This means that if I am on the verge of making a higher tier of status in the Mileage Plus program, I can buy up with my earned tier points, and the difference between being silver and gold or between gold and platinum is far more valuable to me in terms of free upgrades and benefits than a few more miles towards a free coach ticket. These kinds of cards often only make sense for frequent fliers who would join a lounge anyway, but all the airlines, including United, also have a cheaper entry level branded card that gives a free checked bag, and this benefit can easily pay for the annual fee in just one or two trips. For occasional travelers it may make sense to pick up one of these just to save luggage fees (and often get earlier boarding) even if you only use it to charge flights.

Every day purchases like gas can add up to free travel faster if you choose the right credit card. Shutterstock

Some other higher annual fee premium cards include lounge benefits. I dumped my high-priced Delta American Express card when Delta hit me with a double whammy, dropping my ability to bring a guest without paying a fee and not allowing me to use the club when I’m not flying Delta (United lets me use it regardless). A better bet is the even pricier American Express Platinum, which includes memberships to both the new Amex Centurion branded lounge network (small network but the best lounges) and Delta’s club. In fact, the Platinum card may have just gotten even more valuable in this regard, as overcrowding just led Amex to drop its policy of letting lower tier cardholders (Green and Gold) buy their way into the lounges daily. So if in the past you visited a couple of times a year and paid a la carte, upgrading your card make might make sense – especially since they are opening two more Centurion lounges this month in Philadelphia and Hong Kong.

For my second primary card I use a hybrid of one of the perennially ranked “best” travel cards, the Chase Sapphire, and a premium lounge card. That would be the Sapphire Reserve, a step up from the more common Sapphire Preferred. The big differences – beside a higher annual fee – are a bigger “travel credit” that any even occasional traveler will easily (and automatically, with no thought or effort) earn back, which greatly reduces the annual fee, the best point per travel dollar earnings ratio on the market, and a membership in the Priority Pass lounge network, which I have used for years and is excellent, especially overseas and especially for those who are not heavily loyal to a particular airline.

Most aviation experts I know rate the Chase Sapphire Reserve as the all-around best of the premium cards, and when I recently managed the aviation poll for Cigar Aficionado magazine, where I am contributing travel editor, and tallied the opinions of the most expert aviation specialists, travel journalists, consumer advocates and luxury travel agents in the business, this card won. “A high annual fee, but it provides plenty of perks like free annual travel credits, rebates for TSA Pre-Check and Global Entry membership, Priority Pass membership to worldwide lounges, and the ability to transfer points to a number of airline and hotel partners. You can also redeem points directly for airfare on any carrier, which means no need to fumble around airline websites searching for available award seats,” said airline and luxury travel sector journalist Ramsey Qubein. It is also virtually impossible to get more than two miles per dollar spent, or “double miles,” on any purchases with any card – even ticket purchases on airline branded cards only do 2x, but Sapphire Reserve is better, offering 3x on all travel related purchases. Aviation expert Michael Holtz, founder of SmartFlyer, an incredible agency that specializes in helping luxury travelers use their miles better for upgrades and premium tickets, summed up: “Triple points on travel charges is killer!” (I wrote about SmartFlyer here).

For some folks, low fee or no fee cards are the best answer, especially if you just want to use your regular spending to score the occasional free ticket (or hotel room or rental car) and are not a frequent traveler. Almost all travel related cards today have a big mile or point bonus you get when you sign up after spending a certain (reasonable) amount in the first three months, and for this reason, some avid mileage strategists flip cards often. Following are the best non-premium cards for a wide range of travelers, as evaluated by several ranking authorities, including, and

There are a couple of details you don’t have to sweat. No foreign transaction fee sounds good and is good, and you should check, but almost all of these travel oriented cards offer it so it is not a big differentiator. I’ve also ignored interest rates because while some are higher or lower they are all heinous and you just should never carry debt on your credit card month to month and if you do, accumulating points for free travel is the least of your problems.