How to Choose Your Travel Rewards Credit Cards

Man pulling credit card out of wallet

Travel rewards credit cards — you get advertisements for them all of the time.

And not just from your bank, but from airlines, hotel companies, and even cruise lines.

If you use them wisely, these credit cards can earn you rewards from room upgrades and priority pass boardings to free trips for you and your family.

But as a business or leisure traveler, how do you choose which one is the best travel credit card for you?

This guide reviews the main types of travel reward credit cards as well as five things to consider when choosing the one (or two or three) for your wallet.

Table of Contents

1. Types of Travel Rewards Credit Cards
2. The Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards
3. How to Pick a Travel Rewards Credit Card
4. How Does Travel Frequency Weigh In?
5. Let Hotel Engine Be Your Ultimate Travel Portal

Types of Travel Rewards Credit Cards

First of all, there are two major types of travel rewards credit cards:

1. Branded Credit Cards

Branded credit cards are those from popular airline and hotel companies, like United, Southwest, Hilton, etc.

If you belong to a travel loyalty program, like a hotel rewards program, these cards can give you a lot more bang for your buck since they often entitle you to various perks.

Some even allow you to earn loyalty points at an accelerated rate.

The major disadvantage of these cards is that your redemption options are usually limited to the travel company and its partners.

Plus, some companies have blackout dates or other restrictions on points redemption.

Fees and terms apply with each of these, so check their respective websites for more information.

2. Flexible Rewards Credit Cards

These are travel rewards credit cards not associated with any specific travel company and are instead offered by credit card issuers, like Bank of America, American Express, etc.

The main advantage of these cashback credit cards is that they are not explicitly designed for travel yet can offer travel benefits like annual travel credits and airport lounge access.

The disadvantages are that they can have (sometimes very high) annual fees and it often requires a huge number of points to earn even basic rewards.

Terms apply with each of these, so check their respective websites for more information.

Discover the 5 Ways to Take the Stress Out of Managing Hotel Bookings

The Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards


Woman chcking into hotel


Now that we know the difference between the two major types of travel rewards credit cards, it’s time to discover some of the best ones out there.

Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express Card

gold card partnership between Delta Airlines with American Express as the card issuer. There is a $0 annual fee for the first year and $99 after. You need a Good credit score of 660 to qualify.

How to Earn Travel Perks:

  • Rewards rate: earn 2x miles for every dollar spent with Delta, at U.S. supermarkets, and global restaurants and 1x miles per $1 spent elsewhere
  • Welcome bonus of 40,000 miles (about $484 in Delta airfare) for spending $1,000 within the first 3 months of opening the account
  • Free checked bags
  • If you spend $10,000 in combined purchases throughout the year, you receive a $100 Delta flight credit

Hilton Honors American Express

A hotel credit card issued by AmEx with no annual fee. Hilton Honors American Express card members earn points and redeem them on everyday purchases and stays at Hilton portfolio hotels.

How to Earn Travel Perks:

  • Earn 7x points for every dollar spent on Hilton hotels and resorts
  • Earn 5x points for every dollar spent on dining and groceries in the U.S.
  • Earn 3x points on every other eligible purchase
  • Bonus categories: get 80,000 points if you spend $1,000 on purchases within the first 3 months of card membership; 50,000 points if you spend an additional $4,000 in the first 6 months
  • Redeem points for free nights at Hilton properties

IHG Rewards Club Premier Card

The IHG Rewards Club Premier Card is issued by Master Card and lets cardholders earn and redeem points with hotel stays at IHG chains, like Kimpton, InterContinental, Holiday Inn, Candlewood Suites, and more.

How to Earn Travel Perks:

  • Earn up to 5,000 bonus points when you stay at any participate IHG hotel property
  • Lowest, member-only rates on hotels
  • Redeem points for free hotel stays
  • No blackout dates
  • Flexible tier benefits
  • Points balance transfer to miles when you fly with partner airlines
  • Also, earn and redeem points when staying at boutique Mr & Mrs Smith lodgings

American Express Platinum Card

The Platinum Card is issued by American Express and has a hefty $695 annual fee. You need a Good/Excellent credit score of at least 660 to qualify.

How to Earn Travel Perks:

  • ​Rewards rate: Earn 10x points on purchases at restaurants across the globe and small businesses in the U.S. up to $25,000 in combined purchases
  • Bonus 100,000 Membership Rewards points after you use the card on $6,000 worth of purchases within the first 6 months of your account opening
  • Earn 5x Membership Rewards points on prepaid hotels booked through American Express Travel
  • Earn 5x Membership Rewards points for flights booked directly with airlines or through AmEx Travel
  • Earn cashback and rewards when you spend money with partner companies like Walmart, Audible, SiriusXM, and The New York Times

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

The Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card is a Visa card with a $95 annual fee. To qualify, you need a Good-Excellent credit score of at least 660.

How to Earn Travel Perks:

  • Rewards rate: You earn 2 miles per dollar on every purchase
  • Earn 5x miles on hotels and rental cars when you book through Capital One Travel
  • Redeem points with travel through Capital One Travel or use your miles for travel purchase reimbursements
  • Bonus miles: you get a one-time bonus of 60,000 (about $600 in travel) once you use the card for $3,000 worth of purchases
  • To qualify for bonus miles, you must spend the $3,000 within three months of your account opening
  • No spending limits
  • Miles never expire for as long as your account remains active
  •  Receive up to $100 application fee credit for use at Global Entry or TSA Pre-check

Chase Sapphire Preferred Card / Chase Sapphire Reserve Card

The Chase Sapphire Cards are Visa-issued cards with a $95 and a $550 annual fee, respectively. You need an Excellent credit score, at least 720, to qualify.

How to Earn Travel Perks:

  • Rewards rate: 5x points on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards, 3x points on dining, 2x points on additional travel purchases
  • Bonus rewards: earn 60,000 bonus points after spending $4,000, which equals about $750 in travel rewards that you can use with Chase Ultimate Rewards
  • Bonus rewards can only be redeemed if you make $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of opening your account
  • Use your card to get 25% more on airfare, hotels, and rental cars through Chase Ultimate Rewards
  • Earn points on purchases made at gas stations, online grocery shopping, and dining purchases.
  • At the end of the year, you earn annual travel credits to use on your next vacation

Citi Premier Card

Citi Premier Card is a Mastercard with a $95 annual fee. To qualify, you need an Excellent/Good credit score of at least 660.

How to Earn Travel Perks:

  • Rewards rate: Earn 3 rewards points per dollar spent on groceries, restaurants, hotels, airfare, and gas and 1 point for all other purchases
  • 80,000 point bonus if you use the card on $4,000 worth of purchases within the first three months of account opening
  • Annual hotel savings benefit
  • Points never expire
  • No limit on the number of points you can earn
  • No foreign transaction fees on purchases

Discover it Miles Card

Discover it Miles Card is a Discover card with a $0 annual fee. To qualify, you must have Good-Excellent credit score of at least 660

How to Earn Travel Perks:

  • Rewards rate: 1.5x miles on every dollar of every purchase
  • Miles-for-miles match with signing up, minimum spending, or rewards max out
  • Turn miles into cash for anything, even to pay your minimum monthly bill payment
  • Redeem points as a statement credit on travel expenses like hotels, airfare, Uber rides, restaurants, and more
  • No blackout dates

See also: 7 Underused Hotel Services and Amenities (and How to Find Hotels That Offer Them)

How to Pick a Travel Rewards Credit Card

So, what plastic payment method is best for you?

Here are five things to consider when choosing a travel rewards credit card:

1. Your Spending Habits

As Tim Winship of puts it: Are you a frequent flier or a frequent buyer?

If you fly frequently with a specific airline or stay at a certain hotel chain, then a branded credit card can provide many rewards.

However, if most of your credit card spending is not travel-related, then a flexible rewards card will likely serve you better.

This is because of the earning structure of each card type.

Branded credit cards usually offer more points per dollar you spend on their brand. Conversely, flexible rewards cards usually reward you based on a fixed percentage of total spending.

So which you choose should depend on how you spend:

  • Are you only looking to use your travel credit card at branded hotels, airlines, and their partners?
  • Or are you more interested in using your card on everyday purchases and redeeming points with more flexibility in the future?

2. Brand Partnerships

Many airline-branded credit cards offer perks at hotels and vice versa.

For example, the Delta SkyMiles members earn priority boarding on Delta flights and extra miles when you use your card to book rooms with partner hotels like IHG and Marriott Bonvoy.

3. Signup Bonuses and Other Perks

Signup bonuses can be significant. Remember what we noted about Hilton Honors bonuses for new cardholders?

You can earn 80,000 points if you spend $1,000 on purchases within the first 3 months and 50,000 points if you spend an additional $4,000 in the first 6 months of card ownership.

Similarly, select cards get you free upgrades, baggage fee waivers, rental car insurance, elite status in loyalty programs, and more.

4. Flexible Redemptions

The best cards allow you to redeem your points for different travel services and don’t impose blackout dates or other restrictions.

Ensure the travel rewards card you choose lets you earn money towards flights, hotels, and car rentals. And always double-check any limitations to make a more informed choice.

5. Annual and Transaction Fees

Flexible rewards cards usually have high annual fees and steeper interest rates, much more so than branded credit cards.

It’s crucial to read the fine print for every card that interests you since you need to examine the fee structure, like Intro APR and Variable APR for each.

Also, look into the nitty-gritty of how they define terms like “calendar year.”

Some cards, like the Citi Premier card, have zero foreign transaction fees, which is essential for overseas travelers. This will not pique your interest if you only travel domestically, however.

How Does Travel Frequency Weigh In?


Hand holding black, green, and red credit cards


As you read the information above corresponding to each card, you probably thought, “that sounds great to me!” and “hmm, that doesn’t apply to me” at certain points.

And that’s a great thing. How often you travel and for what purpose should absolutely decide your reasons for which travel credit card you choose.

Odds are, if you’re reading this article, you travel frequently for personal or professional reasons.

Leisure travelers may be best served with airline credit cards that earn you points or miles on dollars you spend on air travel and stays in partner hotels.

If you’re a business frequent traveler, you shouldn’t limit yourself to just one credit card. In fact, you might do well to have an airline-branded card, a hotel-branded card, and a flexible rewards card.

Let Hotel Engine Be Your Ultimate Travel Portal

If you travel for business, Hotel Engine’s business lodging solution helps you manage your hotel bookings with ease and save money.

In fact, you save up to 60% on lodging when you stay at one of our more than 700,000 global hotel partners.

Not only that, but you can take advantage of perks like the Direct Billing program. This virtual account streamlines your monthly bill. protects you from fraudulent charges, and layers the rewards you earn to use on future stays, with no blackout dates.

Like travel insurance, it’s the best way to protect your business while traveling where and when you need to.

Stretch your travel budget even further by booking through Hotel Engine, where you will get the best rates and earn rewards toward future travel.

Can’t beat that!