Some rewards cards are better for all-around travel, and others are better for only airline or hotel use. (Photo: Thinkstock)
Deciding on a travel rewards credit card can be a confusing game of poker: Which card do you go all in with? The benefits, fees, and international rules all vary by card, and the fine print is no beach read.
Two independent travel sites recently released surveys on the best rewards cards for travel, and though they used different methodologies, they arrived at similar conclusions: Their top three all-around cards are the same, though they varied greatly in their choices for the best airline-only card (with one harsh rebuke from a points expert we talked to).
CardHub evaluated more than 1,000 cards within different categories, including cards that are best for flying, hotels, and road trips. Its top three all-around travel cards were these, in no particular order: Barclaycard Arrival Plus, Capital One Venture Rewards, and Chase Sapphire Preferred.
Meanwhile, consumer advocacy site NextAdvisor calculated an actual dollar figure for the most valuable cards for all-around travel, flights, and hotels, based on how much you earn in rewards for every $100 spent during different times of the year. The top three performers among the 17 leading cards it considered? The very same cards as CardHub’s, with the No. 1 spot going to Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard, with its $2.20 in flight and hotel rewards per $100 spent.
NextAdvisor’s report said that the Barclaycard’s value was buoyed by an extra 10 percent points boost when using points on travel. “This means if you spend 10,000 in points on travel, you’ll get a 1,000-point bonus deposited to your rewards bank — a huge benefit we have not seen with any other rewards card,” NextAdvisor said.
Of 17 rewards cards reviewed by NextAdvisor, here are the rewards they calculated. (Graphic: NextAdvisor)
CardHub noted that, as with the Barclaycard, you can get a 40,000-point bonus upon signing up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Capital One Venture Rewards cards, and none of the cards have international transaction fees — important if you’re traveling abroad often. The site complimented Capital One for awarding two miles per $1 spent, with no limits or expiration dates, and Chase Sapphire for a $500 travel redemption or $400 statement credit after spending $4,000 during your first three months with the card.
When asked what other perks among the top-rated cards could be most enticing to travelers, CardHub spokeswoman Jill Gonzalez told Yahoo Travel over email, “Capital One Venture Rewards credit card offers the possibility of getting you special access and preferred seating at popular sporting events, premier golf outings, and concerts.”
Best for airlines
While both reports agreed on the all-around winners, they diverged on the best cards for those who want to maximize just airline or hotel points. CardHub’s favorites for airline rewards were the Frontier Airlines World MasterCard and the PenFed Premium Travel Rewards American Express card. The former includes 40,000 bonus miles that can be redeemed for two round-trip domestic flights after just $500 spent, and the latter awards five points for every $1 spent on airfare.
When Yahoo Travel contacted Brian “The Points Guy” Kelly, an authority on rewards cards, he strongly disagreed with the Frontier Airlines pick, going so far as to call it “irresponsible.” He noted Frontier’s lack of partner airlines to fly with, as well as notorious fees that include charging for overhead bin space.
“What good is an award ticket, when you need to pay for everything from overhead bin space to bringing a purse on board,” Kelly said.
When told of Kelly’s comments, CardHub senior editor John Kiernan said the Frontier card’s value would depend on how close one lived to the airline’s routes.
“There are limiting factors in regard to any airline or rewards partnership, depending on where you live, where you plan to travel, and the flexibility of your future arrangements,” he said. “With that being said, an extra $400 for people who can fly Frontier is certainly a great deal that is hard to beat.”
For airline miles, Kelly prefers the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card (it includes 40,000 bonus miles plus an annual coach companion ticket, with such partners as American Airlines and Emirates) and the Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard (30,000 miles and 10% mileage rebate). He did generally agree with the surveys’ all-around card picks, adding his preference for the Citi ThankYou Premier Card.
Note: After this article was published, the bonus miles for the Alaska Airlines card shrunk from 40,000 to 25,000.
Virgin America Visa Signature took the top spot among NextAdvisor’s airline rewards cards. (Graphic: NextAdvisor)
* This value assumes card holders will redeem their earned points for travel, thereby receiving an extra 10% point bonus.
** This value assumes that the card holder will redeem their earned points for travel.
^ This value assumes the user transfers their points 1:1 to a participating travel program.
NextAdvisor’s top-value airline card was the Virgin America Visa Signature card, which gives $2.51 in flight rewards per $100 spent. You and your companion also get a free checked bag on Virgin America flights, plus $150 off a companion ticket each year. Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard was No. 2 at $2.20. NextAdvisor didn’t include the Frontier Airlines card in its survey.
Best for hotels
NextAdvisor’s top-ranked hotel rewards card, the Starwood Preferred Guest card from American Express, gives a $2.30 value for each $100 spent, and it was also among the four top hotel cards honored by CardHub.
The Starwood card awards “a hefty four to five points per $1 spent at Starwood hotels and 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases,” the NextAdvisor report said. “The combined point earnings mean that cardholders can effectively earn $2.82 for every $100 they spend with the card, assuming they use their rewards for hotel stays.”
CardHub’s other favorites for hotels were these:
Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature card: Gives a potential 85,000 bonus points within 90 days that can be redeemed for up to nine free hotel nights.
IHG Rewards Club Select credit card: Gives up to 14 free hotel nights for spending $1,000 during the first three months.
Hilton HHonors Surpass credit card: Gives up to 12 free hotel nights for spending $3,000 during the first three months.
CardHub also named two favorite credit cards for road trips: The PenFed Platinum Rewards Visa Signature card (gives five points per $1 spent on gas at any station and three points per $1 spent on groceries) and Blue Cash Preferred from American Express (gives 6 percent cash back on groceries and 3 percent cash back on gas).
Being armed with all this information about card benefits can be both a blessing and a curse, even when factoring in flights versus hotels. Is it worth signing up for multiple cards to reap the big immediate benefits, or is it better to play the long game and shoot for cards that pay off over time?
"That depends,” Gonzalez of CardHub told Yahoo Travel. “Are you in the market for a new credit card specifically for an upcoming trip, or are you looking for a way to save on consistent travel? A short-term traveler should look at initial bonuses garnered within the first three months of an account opening. Looking at the long term, we found a traveler can save almost $740 over the first two years the accounts are open, when comparing the best and worst travel cards.”