April 21, 2021

Model Desac

It’s Time to Fly

Consider Using a Travel Credit Card to Pay

8 min read

CNBC Select’s editorial team works independently to review financial products and write articles we think our readers will find useful. We may receive a commission when you click on links for products from our affiliate partners.

My 2020 travel plans were a bust, but I’m still dreaming about all the places I’ll go once it’s safer to get on the road again — and I’m not alone.

According to the American Express Travel: Global Travel Trends Report, 76% of travelers are creating their destination wish list for future travel, even though they might not be able to travel yet.

If you count yourself among those people, it’s probably exciting to think about all of the places you plan on visiting. You may be planning a long-overdue trip to visit family or finally rescheduling a getaway with your significant other.

While you’re creating your destination wish list, you should also consider how you plan to pay for a vacation. The cost of travel can add up, and 61% of survey respondents plan to spend more than they normally would on a trip this year, since they couldn’t travel in 2020.

Using the right credit card can save you a great deal of money on travel and allow you to benefit from robust benefits, like airport lounge access and dining credits.

Below, we break down the best travel credit cards that can take your next vacation from basic to luxurious.

Best travel credit cards for 2021

Best overall

American Express® Gold Card

On the American Express secure site

  • Rewards

    4X Membership Rewards® points on restaurants worldwide (including takeout and delivery, plus, Uber Eats purchases) and 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

  • Welcome bonus

    60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases within the first 6 months from account opening

  • Annual fee

  • Intro APR

  • Regular APR

  • Balance transfer fee

  • Foreign transaction fee

  • Credit needed

Pros

  • Up to $120 dining credit annually ($10 a month) for purchases made with Grubhub, Seamless and eligible restaurants (after a one-time enrollment)
  • Up to $120 Uber Cash annually ($10 a month) for U.S. Uber Eats orders and U.S. Uber rides (card must be added to Uber app to receive the Uber Cash benefit)
  • Strong rewards program with 4X points earned on dining worldwide and 3X points earned on flights booked directly with airlines or amextravel.com
  • Baggage insurance plan covers up to $1,250 for carry-on baggage and up to $500 for checked baggage that is damaged, lost or stolen
  • No fee charged on purchases made outside the U.S.

Cons

  • No introductory APR period
  • $250 annual fee
  • Estimated rewards earned after 1 year: $1,074
  • Estimated rewards earned after 5 years: $2,969

Rewards totals incorporate the points earned from the welcome bonus

Runner-Up

Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card

Information about the 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.

  • Rewards

    5X miles on hotel and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel℠, 2X miles per dollar on every other purchase

  • Welcome bonus

    60,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 on purchases within 3 months of account opening

  • Annual fee

  • Intro APR

    N/A for purchases and balance transfers

  • Regular APR

    17.24% to 24.49% variable on purchases and balance transfers

  • Balance transfer fee

    3% for promotional APR offers; none for balances transferred at regular APR

  • Foreign transaction fee

  • Credit needed

Pros

  • 5X miles on hotel and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel℠
  • Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee credit up to $100 every 4 years

Cons

  • No introductory APR
  • There’s a $95 annual fee
  • Estimated rewards earned after 1 year: $1,066
  • Estimated rewards earned after 5 years: $2,531

Rewards totals incorporate the miles earned from the welcome bonus

Best welcome bonus

Chase Sapphire Preferred®

  • Rewards

    5X points on Lyft rides through March 2022, 2X points on travel and dining worldwide, 1X points on all other purchases

  • Welcome bonus

    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 a $50 statement credit towards grocery store purchases.

  • Annual fee

  • Intro APR

  • Regular APR

    15.99% to 22.99% variable on purchases and balance transfers

  • Balance transfer fee

    Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater

  • Foreign transaction fee

  • Credit needed

Pros

  • Points are worth 25% more when redeemed for travel via Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Transfer points to leading frequent travel programs at a 1:1 rate, including: IHG® Rewards Club, Marriott Bonvoy™ and World of Hyatt®
  • Free DashPass subscription for a minimum of a year when you activate by December 31, 2021
  • Travel protections include: auto rental collision damage waiver, baggage delay insurance and trip delay reimbursement
  • No fee charged on purchases made outside the U.S.

Cons

  • $95 annual fee
  • No hotel-specific perks or credits
  • No introductory 0% APR
  • Estimated rewards earned after 1 year: $1,006
  • Estimated rewards earned after 5 years: $2,028

Rewards totals incorporate the points earned from the welcome bonus

Best for luxury travel

Chase Sapphire Reserve®

  • Rewards

    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 including eligible delivery services, takeout and dining out, 1X point per $1 on all other purchases

  • Welcome bonus

    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®

  • Annual fee

  • Intro APR

  • Regular APR

    16.99% to 23.99% variable

  • Balance transfer fee

  • Foreign transaction fee

  • Credit needed

Pros

  • $300 annual travel credit for travel purchases
  • Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee credit up to $100 every four years
  • Priority Pass™ Select lounge access at 1,000+ VIP lounges in over 500 cities worldwide
  • Points are worth 50% more when redeemed for travel via Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Special benefits at The Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection
  • Free DashPass subscription for a minimum of a year when you activate by December 31, 2021
  • $60 DoorDash credit in 2021
  • Complimentary year of Lyft Pink membership

Cons

  • High $550 annual fee, but it can be offset by taking advantage of all the card’s perks
  • No introductory APR
  • Estimated rewards earned after 1 year: $1,231
  • Estimated rewards earned after 5 years: $2,755

Rewards totals incorporate the points earned from the welcome bonus

Best for no annual fee

Wells Fargo Propel American Express® Card

Information about the Wells Fargo Propel American Express® Card has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.

  • Rewards

    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

  • Welcome bonus

    20,000 bonus points when you spend $1,000 in purchases in the first 3 months

  • Annual fee

  • Intro APR

    0% APR for 12 months on purchases and qualifying balance transfers

  • Regular APR

    14.49% to 24.99% variable on purchases and balance transfers

  • Balance transfer fee

    Introductory fee of 3% ($5 minimum) for 120 days, then 5% ($5 minimum)

  • Foreign transaction fee

  • Credit needed

Pros

  • No annual fee
  • No fee charged on purchases made outside the U.S.
  • 0% APR for the first 12 months on purchases and balance transfers
  • No blackout dates on air travel when redeemed through Go Far Rewards

Cons

  • Minimum reward redemption amount of 2,500 points
  • Balance transfers incur a 3% fee ($5 minimum)
  • Estimated rewards earned after 1 year: $584
  • Estimated rewards earned after 5 years: $2,120

Rewards totals incorporate the points earned from the welcome bonus

Best for low interest

TD First Class℠ Visa Signature® Credit Card

Information about the TD First Class℠ Visa Signature® Credit Card has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.

  • Rewards

    3X miles earned on every $1 spent on travel and dining, plus 1X mile earned on every $1 spent on everything else

  • Welcome bonus

    25,000 miles when you spend $3,000 within the first 6 billing cycles

  • Annual fee

    $89, waived for the first year

  • Intro APR

    0% APR for the first 12 billing cycles on balance transfers

  • Regular APR

  • Balance transfer fee

    $5 or 3% of transfer, whichever is greater

  • Foreign transaction fee

  • Credit needed

Pros

  • 3X miles on every $1 spent on travel and dining
  • 25,000 miles when you spend $3,000 within the first 6 billing cycles
  • 0% APR during the first 12 billing cycles on balance transfers
  • No fee charged on purchases made outside the U.S.

Cons

  • No additional travel credits, like TSA PreCheck/Global Entry application credit
  • Points aren’t worth more if you book travel through a special portal
  • Estimated rewards earned after 1 year: $752
  • Estimated rewards earned after 5 years: $2,403

Rewards totals incorporate the points earned from the welcome bonus

Bottom line

Dreaming about future travel can be exciting, but paying for a vacation can take some of the fun out of it. If you use one of the travel cards mentioned above, you can earn lucrative rewards that can offset the cost. And if you choose a premium travel card, you can save money on flights, hotels and food with annual travel or dining credits — helping you lower your total bill but hold on to the good memories.

Our methodology

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.

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Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the CNBC Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.

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