By Adam Jusko, ProudMoney.com, adam@proudmoney.com

Ranking travel credit cards is difficult, because what’s “best’ depends on how often you travel and whether or not you are already regularly earning rewards through a specific airline or hotel loyalty rewards program. For that reason, our “best” list is actually split in three to accommodate each situation:

Best Travel Credit Cards for Frequent Travelers (without loyalty to a specific airline/hotel)

This list assumes you travel often enough that you’re willing to pay an annual fee to get greater rewards on your spending as well as get perks like airport lounge access and travel credits. Note that the points earned on these cards are not restricted to a specific airline or hotel loyalty program.

  • The Best: Chase Sapphire Reserve – Our pick for the best luxury travel credit card has a $450 annual fee but lots of perks. First, you get a $300 credit against travel expenses charged to the card, so, if you’re a frequent traveler, this should easily offset $300 of that $450 annual fee. In terms of rewards points, get 3 points per dollar on travel and restaurant purchases, and 1 point per dollar on all other purchase. You can also get a one-time 50,000-point bonus if you spend at least $4000 with the card in the first three months of having it. If you redeem points toward travel through Chase Ultimate rewards, the points are worth 1.5 cents each — for example, 50,000 points equals $750 worth of travel. You can also transfer points on a 1-to-1 basis with partner travel programs including Southwest, United, Marriott, more. Other perks: Airport lounge access through the Priority Pass Select program, $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre application, no foreign transaction fees on purchases outside of the United States. Why It Wins: The best travel credit in relation to card annual fee, generous point redemption for travel, attractive transfer partners, solid point earnings formula.
  • Next Best: American Express Platinum Card – Note that this is a charge card and you must pay your full balance every month. This card has a $550 annual fee. You get a $200 travel credit per year, but only with a single airline of your choice, so keep that in mind if you travel with multiple airlines. Get 5 Membership Rewards points per dollar on airline tickets purchased directly from the airlines or through American Express Travel. Also get 5 points per dollar on hotels booked through American Express Travel, and 1 point per dollar on everything else. You can get a one-time 60,000-point bonus if you use the card for at least $5000 in purchases in the first three months that you have it. Get up to $200 in free Uber rides per year, but a $15 limit in any single month except December (when the limit is $35). Offers free airport lounge access through its own American Express lounges as well as through partner lounge programs. You can also transfer points on a 1-to-1 basis with Delta Airlines and other travel partners. Other perks: $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre application, extra upgrades and perks at certain hotels, no foreign transaction fees on purchases outside of the United States.
  • Also Worth Considering: The Chase Sapphire Preferred is sort of a scaled-down version of the Sapphire Reserve. While it has fewer perks, it is still a strong card (especially when transferring points to Chase’s attractive travel partners) and has a considerably smaller annual fee of $95 (waived for the first year), making it a better starting point for occasional travelers who aren’t sure whether the more expensive cards make sense for their needs.

Best Travel Credit Cards for Occasional/Infrequent Travelers (without loyalty to a specific airline/hotel)

If you have a preference for travel rewards but you don’t travel regularly for business or pleasure, you might consider one of the following four cards. They don’t offer a lot of extra travel perks, but you can use the “miles” you receive like cash toward travel purchases. (The miles are not restricted to a specific airline or hotel loyalty program.) For example, with each of these cards, 10,000 miles (or points) equals $100 toward your travel expenses.

We would be remiss, however, if we didn’t point out that many of these so-called “miles” cards are really just cash back cards marketed under another name, and you could earn greater rewards by simply using a better cash back credit card like one in our list of the best credit cards.

  • Capital One Venture Card – You’ll get 2 “miles” for every dollar spent with this card. You can earn a bonus 50,000 miles (worth $500) if you spend at least $3000 with the card in the first three months of having it. There is a $95 annual fee, but this is waived for the first year you have the card.
  • Barclaycard Arrival Plus Mastercard – Earn 2 “miles” per dollar charged to this card, “plus” a little extra: every time you redeem your miles, you’ll get 5% of the amount redeemed added to your account to get you started on your next reward. (You must have 10,000 miles earned to redeem your miles.) You can get a bonus of 70,000 miles (worth $700 in travel) if you spend $5000 with the card in the first 90 days of having it. There is an $89 annual fee, but this is waived for the first year you have the card.
  • Discover It Miles Card – This credit card offers 1.5 “miles” per dollar charged to the card. It has a very intriguing bonus opportunity: all of the miles you earn in the first year will be doubled, meaning you are effectively getting 3 miles per dollar in the first year. (After the first year you go back to the straight 1.5-miles-per-dollar formula.) There is no annual fee for this card.
  • Bank of America Travel Rewards Visa – Earn 1.5 points for every dollar you charge to this card. You can also earn a bonus of 25,000 points (worth $250 in travel) if you use the card for at least $1000 in purchases in the first 90 days of having it. There is no annual fee for this card.

Best Loyalty Travel Credit Cards from Specific Airlines & Hotels

In this category, it is tough to really “rank” cards. Why? Because most people who travel often enough to get a credit card from a specific airline or hotel chain:

  1. Already have an airline or travel program that they prefer, or
  2. Are essentially forced to use a specific airline and/or hotel based on availability of flights/hotel locations.

So, if you already have an established loyalty relationship based on your travels, it makes sense to get the credit card that enhances what you are already earning. (For example, if you generally fly United and have been earning United miles because United has a hub at your airport, it simply makes sense to get a United credit card as well.)

That said, we’ll look at the travel card options from the major travel providers and give some opinions on what they are offering:

Airlines:

  • American Airlines AAdvantage Credit Cards – American offers three main credit cards (issued by Citi) for earning extra AAdvantage miles. Frequent travelers and/or high spenders should consider the Executive Card ($450 annual fee) while less frequent travelers still get nice perks from the Platinum Select Card ($99 annual fee but fee is waived for the first year). Note that American Airlines also partners with Barclays Bank on a line of “Aviator” branded credit cards that are mainly available at airports or on the plane when you travel. It is difficult to understand why American wants to confuse its customers with these other cards when the Citi cards are much more heavily marketed.
  • Delta SkyMiles Credit Cards – Delta offers 4 different credit cards with plenty of variance in what is being offered. (They also offer 3 business credit cards with some similarities to the personal cards.) Basically the perks go up based on how much of an annual fee you are willing to pay. To save space on this page, we offer a lengthy comparison of the Delta cards when you click here.
  • Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Credit Cards – Southwest offers three credit cards, with the Priority Card being our overall favorite, though not necessarily by much. Check out the features of all three to see what fits your travel profile the best.
  • United Airlines Credit Cards – United offers three credit cards, but only two of them make sense for the frequent traveler. The MileagePlus Club Card, with its $450 annual fee, is worth it if you travel often and charge a lot to your card. If you travel and/or spend less frequently, go for the Explorer Card with its $95 annual fee, which is waived for the first year. (We are NOT fans of the United TravelBank Card. It has no annual fee but does NOT offer MileagePlus miles. Instead it offers points that are worth one penny each when redeemed toward United purchases. You could get a regular cash back card that gives you a better return on your spending and more flexibility in how you spend your rebates.)
  • Alaska Airlines Visa Signature – If you’re a frequent customer of Alaska, you can earn extra miles here. Get 3 miles per dollar charged to the card on Alaska Airlines purchases, and 1 mile per dollar everywhere else. Also offers free checked bag, no foreign transaction fees, and several Companion Fare perks. $75 annual fee.
  • JetBlue Plus Card ($99 annual fee) or JetBlue Mastercard (no annual fee) – If you’re regularly jumping on a JetBlue flight, go for the JetBlue Plus Card because it gives you double the points on JetBlue flight purchases and your first checked bag is free. The standard JetBlue MasterCard is OK if JetBlue is your regular airline but you don’t travel that much.
  • Other cards to consider if you regularly travel with these airlines: Allegiant, Frontier, Hawaiian, Spirit.

Hotels:

  • Marriott Rewards Visa & SPG American Express Cards – Marriott is the heavy hitter in the hotel game, especially since it acquired the Starwood hotels and their popular Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) loyalty program. The merger has left things a little messy in terms of their rewards credit cards, however. Use the links provided to investigate the current choices.
  • Hilton Honors American Express Cards – If Hilton is your hotel chain of choice, the chain’s American Express credit cards offers generous point rewards on all your purchases, plus status, bonus opportunities, and more. American Express has recently expanded the lineup of Hilton cards, so click over to their site to see which makes sense for your needs.
  • Hyatt Visa Credit Card – Piggyback on your existing Hyatt points with this generous credit card, which includes a free night each year for being a cardholder as well as other perks and bonuses. $95 annual fee.
  • Wyndham Rewards Visa – Wyndham offers two credit card options, a no annual fee card and a $75 annual fee card. Both let you boost your Wyndham Rewards totals and enjoy other perks, including a bonus opportunity of up to 30,000 points based on your initial card spending. (30,000 points is equal to 2 free Wyndham nights under the hotel chain’s generous & simple rewards redemption system.)
  • Other cards to consider if you regularly stay at these hotels: Choice Privileges Visa (Comfort Inn & others), IHG Rewards (Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn, Kimpton, etc.)