Are Travel Credit Cards Worth It? Absolutely. Here Are The Best Cards To Get

Are Travel Credit Cards Worth It? Absolutely. Here Are The Best Cards To Get

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CNN Underscored reviews financial products such as credit cards and bank accounts based on their overall value. We may receive a commission through the LendingTree affiliate network if you apply and are approved for a card, but our reporting is always independent and objective. Terms apply to American Express benefits and offers. Enrollment may be required for select American Express benefits and offers. Visit americanexpress.com to learn more.

On the heels of vaccines rolling out across the country, travel is starting to roar back to life. And as that happens, a lot of Americans are undoubtedly going to want — no, they’re going to need — a well-deserved vacation.

That’s where CNN Underscored’s list of the best travel credit cards for 2021 can come in handy. The right credit card can earn you enough in travel rewards to make your getaway easier, or more enjoyable, or — dare we say it — even almost free. Our comprehensive methodology compares every aspect of each travel credit card to our “benchmark credit card” — the Citi® Double Cash Card — to determine which cards can get you the most perks or rewards.

So take a few minutes to check out our list of the best travel credit cards in 2021 and think about which one might get you to that getaway as planes soar back into the skies again.

Chase Sapphire Preferred Card: Best overall travel rewards card
American Express® Gold Card: Best “non-travel” travel card
Chase Sapphire Reserve: Best for travel purchases
The Platinum Card® from American Express: Best luxury travel perks
Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card: Best airline travel card
World of Hyatt Credit Card: Best hotel travel card
Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card: Best for easy-to-use travel rewards

Why did we select these cards as our best travel credit cards for 2021? Dive into the details of each card with us and see how they stack up.

Why it’s great in one sentence: The Chase Sapphire Preferred earns 2 Ultimate Rewards points for every dollar you spend on travel and dining purchases, and the points can be redeemed for travel and other eligible categories at 1.25 cents per point, or transferred to the program’s airline and hotel partners for potentially even more valuable redemptions.

This card is right for: People with larger than average travel and/or dining expenses (including food delivery) who want a low-fee card with basic transferable points.

Highlights:

Earn 2 points for every dollar spent on travel and dining purchases. Earn 1 point per dollar on all other purchases. Points can be redeemed for travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal at a rate of 1.25 cents per point. Now through September 30, 2021, points can also be redeemed for purchases at grocery stores, dining establishments and home improvement stores at a rate of 1.25 cents per point. Points can also be transferred to any of Chase’s 13 airline and hotel partners. No foreign transaction fees. $95 annual fee. Sign-up bonus: Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening, plus up to $50 in statement credits on grocery store purchases within your first year of account opening.

What we like about the Chase Sapphire Preferred: It may not seem like it, but at over 10 years old, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is practically the granddaddy of travel credit cards. With classic travel and dining bonus categories, 5 points per dollar on Lyft rides and an 80,000-point sign-up bonus, it should be easy to quickly score plenty of points, especially since most food delivery services will code as “dining” on the CSP and earn 2 points per dollar. And card holders also get a complimentary DashPass subscription for at least one year when they activate it by December 31, 2021.

Related: Here’s why the Chase Sapphire Preferred is our favorite travel credit card for beginners.

But the real power of the Sapphire Preferred is in its redemptions. You’ll get 1.25 cents per point when redeeming points through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal, and can get potentially even more value when transferring points to one of Chase’s 13 travel partners. In fact, the Ultimate Rewards program still features some of the best transfer partners, including United Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Hyatt Hotels, and all Chase partners transfer at a 1-to-1 ratio.

Chase also added new redemption options to the Sapphire Preferred in 2020. The issuer’s “Pay Yourself Back” tool allows you to redeem points on purchases beyond just travel. The current eligible categories are grocery stores, dining establishments (including delivery and takeout) and home improvement stores. Through September 30, 2021, you’ll get 1.25 cents per point when redeeming this way.

To top it off, as travel resumes, you’ll be able to safely use the Sapphire Preferred overseas, since it has no foreign transaction fees on international purchases. It even provides primary car rental insurance, so you don’t have to look to your own auto policy first if you have an accident with your rental car.

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You’ll get primary car rental insurance with the Chase Sapphire Preferred.

What could be better: The Chase Sapphire Preferred is a classic, but in some ways it’s starting to get long in the tooth. Other credit cards now offer bonus points or cash back in those same travel and dining categories, and in some cases at higher rates (though usually accompanied by higher annual fees).

Even our benchmark Citi Double Cash card earns 2% on all purchases (1% when you buy, plus 1% when you pay it off) and not just on travel and dining, though you can get more value when redeeming your Sapphire Preferred points than you can with simple cash back.

For many people, the Sapphire Preferred isn’t as flashy as its older sibling, the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which comes with travel perks, higher bonus rates and a $300 annual travel credit (but also a much higher annual fee). But if you don’t need or won’t use all those extra perks — especially right now with travel so limited — you may be better off with this significantly less expensive version.

Where it beats our benchmark card: Travel and dining bonus categories, excellent travel protections, solid airline and hotel partners and sign-up bonus.

Where our benchmark card is better: The Citi Double Cash has no annual fee, an introductory rate on balance transfers and easy cash back.

Read CNN Underscored’s Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card review.
Learn more and apply for the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card.

Why it’s great in one sentence: The American Express Gold card earns tons of valuable Amex travel points on practically all the food-related purchases you’re making even when you’re not traveling, and the credits available on the card nearly offset its annual fee.

This card is right for: People who can utilize all of the card’s various credits and who spend significant money at restaurants, on food delivery services or at US supermarkets while they’re not on the road.

Highlights:

Earn 4 points for every dollar you spend at US supermarkets (up to $25,000 per year in purchases, then 1x). Earn 4 points per dollar at restaurants worldwide. Earn 3 points per dollar for flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com. Earn 1 point per dollar on everything else. Up to $120 in annual dining credits. Up to $120 in Uber Cash annually. $250 annual fee (see rates and fees) Terms apply. Welcome bonus: Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first six months after opening the account.

What we like about the American Express Gold: Calling it our “best ‘non-travel’ travel card” may sound odd, but the Amex Gold is a perfect choice if you want to earn as many travel points as possible even when you’re not traveling, and then have lots of ways to use those points on trips as the pandemic wanes.

First, with the Amex Gold, you’ll earn 4 points for every dollar you spend on restaurants worldwide, and on up to $25,000 in annual purchases at US supermarkets (1 point per dollar thereafter). Most food delivery services count as “restaurants” on this card, so that means the vast majority of your food purchases will earn 4x points, regardless of how you’re eating right now.

You’ll also earn 3 points per dollar when you book airfare directly with an airline, so if you’re looking to jump on any sales for flights later in the year, you can pay for them with the Amex Gold and earn extra points on those as well.

The points earned on this card are American Express Membership Rewards points, which are extremely useful. You can redeem them directly for flights via Amex Travel at 1 cent each, but if you put in some extra effort and research, you can potentially get much more value from them by transferring them to any of Amex’s 21 airline and hotel partners, which include Delta Air Lines, JetBlue, Marriott and many more.

Related: Green, Gold, Platinum: What’s the difference between American Express cards?

Then there are the annual credits. While the Amex Gold has a substantial $250 annual fee, you can earn almost as much from the card’s credits as you pay for it.

Each year you have the Amex Gold, you earn up to $120 in dining credits, which can be used for purchases at Grubhub, Seamless, The Cheesecake Factory, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Boxed and participating Shake Shack locations. These are doled out in portions of up to $10 each month, but the credits don’t roll over from month to month, so you must use them or lose them.

Amex has also added up to $120 in Uber Cash each year to the Amex Gold. Again, these credits come in $10 monthly installments and can be used either for Uber rides or on Uber Eats orders. Combining the Uber Cash and dining credits will give you up to $240 in annual credits, which would leave you with an effective annual fee of only $10 if you can use them all.

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You’ll get up to $10 each month in Uber Cash with the American Express Gold card.

What could be better: The one big downside of the Amex Gold is that most of the annual credits come in monthly installments rather than annual chunks, so you’ll need to make sure you can take advantage of them each month to make the card worth it.

Also, while Amex points are valuable, they’re best used for the airline and hotel transfer partners, which take some time to understand and flexibility to maximize. If you’d prefer to just book flights through a standard online travel portal, you might be better off with one of the Chase or Capital One cards, which can offer more value when redeeming rewards the easy way.

Where it beats our benchmark card: Welcome bonus, annual credits, bonus categories and solid airline and hotel partners.

Where our benchmark card is better: The Citi Double Cash has no annual fee, an introductory rate on balance transfers and easy cash back.

Read CNN Underscored’s American Express Gold Card review.
Learn more and apply for the American Express Gold Card.

Why it’s great in one sentence: The hugely popular Chase Sapphire Reserve comes with a high price tag but also a $300 annual travel credit, airport lounge access, a $60 annual DoorDash credit in 2021, a massively increased earning rate when you use Lyft and 3 points for every dollar you spend on travel and dining.

This card is right for: People who make lots of travel purchases, even in their daily lives while they’re not on the road right now.

Highlights:

$300 annual travel credit. Earn 3 points for every dollar you spend on dining purchases. Earn 3 points per dollar on travel purchases (after using your $300 travel credit each year). Earn 10 points per dollar on Lyft purchases through March 2022. Earn 1 point per dollar on all other purchases. Points can be redeemed for travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal at a rate of 1.5 cents per point. Now through September 30, 2021, points can also be redeemed for purchases at grocery stores, dining establishments and home improvement stores at a rate of 1.5 cents per point. Points can also be transferred to any of Chase’s 13 airline and hotel partners. $60 annual DoorDash credit in 2021. Up to two years of free DashPass membership. One free year of Lyft Pink membership. Complimentary Priority Pass Select airport lounge membership. No foreign transaction fees. $550 annual fee. Sign-up bonus: Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening.

What we like about the Chase Sapphire Reserve: When it first launched in 2016, the Chase Sapphire Reserve was an instant hit, thanks in part to its broad travel and dining categories. It’s incredibly easy to earn bonus points with the card, since “dining” includes almost every restaurant, fast food and even food delivery services such as Seamless.

A $60 annual DoorDash credit further adds to the card’s value, especially right now. If you can utilize it along with the travel credit, you’re left with an effective annual fee of just $190.

The ability to redeem points you earn with the card for any flight or hotel at a rate of 1.5 cents per point via the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal makes the card’s rewards easy to use, though you’ll potentially get even more value if you can dive into the more advanced airline and hotel transfer partners.

Also, like the Sapphire Preferred, Chase added its new “Pay Yourself Back” feature to the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which allows you to redeem points on purchases beyond just travel. The current eligible categories are grocery stores, dining establishments (including delivery and takeout) and home improvement stores, and through September 30, 2021, you’ll get 1.5 cents per point when redeeming this way.

Related: Chase extends “Pay Yourself Back” categories on its Sapphire cards.

And if you plan to fly regularly once travel resumes, you’ll find solid value in the card’s Priority Pass Select airport lounge membership, with access for you and up to two guests to over 1,200 lounges around the world.

American Express

Visit the Plaza Premium Lounge at London Heathrow, part of the Priority Pass Select network.

What could be better: While the high cost of the Chase Sapphire Reserve was easy to justify for the last several years, it increased its annual fee from $450 to $550 at the start of 2020, so you really need to be able to use all of the card’s perks for the price to make sense, which can be difficult given the current worldwide travel situation.

The Lyft bonus category means you’ll earn an impressive 10 points for every dollar you spend on the ride-sharing service, but it won’t be of any use to most people who aren’t currently using Lyft. The same goes for the added DoorDash annual credit and free DashPass membership, which are only valuable to folks who order food for delivery and have DoorDash service in their area.

And while the travel and dining bonus categories were market-leading four years ago, there are now other credit cards with similar if not even better earning rates in those categories, such as the Amex Gold, which earns 4 points per dollar on restaurant purchases worldwide. Or, if the annual fee increase on the Sapphire Reserve is too much to stomach, consider the cheaper Chase Sapphire Preferred with fewer travel perks but only a $95 annual fee.

Where it beats our benchmark card: Easy-to-use travel credit, travel and dining bonus categories, excellent travel protections, solid airline and hotel partners, and sign-up bonus.

Where our benchmark card is better: The Citi Double Cash has no annual fee, an introductory rate on balance transfers and easy cash back.

Read CNN Underscored’s Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card review.Learn more and apply for the Chase Sapphire Reserve.

Why it’s great in one sentence: It’s definitely not cheap, but the famous American Express Platinum card is a heavyweight when it comes to travel perks, with numerous annual credits; access to more than 1,200 airport lounges worldwide, including Amex’s own Centurion Lounges and Delta Sky Clubs when flying Delta; elite status with Hilton, Marriott, Hertz, Avis and National Car Rental; and many other luxury travel benefits.

This card is right for: People who want top-notch luxury travel perks, refundable travel credits and transferable travel rewards.

Highlights:

Earn 5 points for every dollar you spend on flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel (up to $500,000 per year, then 1x point). Earn 5 points per dollar on prepaid hotels booked on Amex Travel. Earn 1 point per dollar on all other purchases. Points can be redeemed for travel through Amex Travel at a rate of up to 1 cent per point. Points can also be transferred to any of Amex’s 21 airline and hotel partners. Up to $200 in statement credits annually for incidental fees at one selected qualifying airline. Up to $100 in statement credits annually for purchases at Saks Fifth Avenue. Up to $15 in statement credits every month ($35 in December) when you pay for your Uber rides with the card. Complimentary access to American Express Centurion Lounges, Delta Sky Clubs when flying Delta, and Priority Pass airport lounges (not including Priority Pass restaurants). Complimentary Gold Elite status with Hilton and Marriott hotel chains. Complimentary Preferred Elite status with Hertz, Avis and National Car Rental chains. Complimentary Shoprunner membership. Access to American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts. No foreign transaction fees (see rates and fees). $550 annual fee (see rates and fees). Welcome bonus: Earn 75,000 bonus points after you make $5,000 in eligible purchases in your first six months, plus earn 10 points per dollar on eligible purchases at US gas stations and US supermarkets on up to $15,000 in combined purchases during your first six months of card membership.

What we like about the American Express Platinum: For an annual fee of $550 a year, you need to be able to really take advantage of the perks of this card to make it worth the cost. Fortunately, that’s starting to become easier as travel returns to normal, so if you hit the road with this card, you’ll feel like a true VIP.

The Amex Platinum has access to literally thousands of airport lounges, including Amex’s own Centurion Lounges, which are considered some of the best domestic airport lounges in the US. To many road warriors, this benefit is worth the cost of the card all by itself.

But if you can also take advantage of the card’s up-to-$200 annual incidental airline fee credit as well as the up-to-$200 annual Uber credit, plus the up-to-$100 Saks Fifth Avenue credit (which you can use to buy anything at Saks, either in-store or online), you’ll be scoring up to $500 worth of annual credits for a card that costs $550 a year.

Related: 9 of our favorite credit card perks that you won’t want to miss out on.

Speaking of those credits, the Uber credit can also be used on Uber Eats purchases, which means you can still take advantage of them even if you aren’t using ride-share services at the moment. Same goes for the Saks Fifth Avenue credit, which can be used on anything you buy at Saks’ online website.

The cherry on top is the 75,000-point welcome bonus after you spend $5,000 on the card in your first six months, which at the very least you should be able to redeem for a pair of domestic airline tickets for you and a companion, or even a trip to Europe in coach for yourself.

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Use your Amex Platinum bonus to score a pair of domestic airline tickets.

What could be better: Surprisingly, the American Express Platinum isn’t a terrific card when it comes to earning points. It’s strong when you’re booking airline tickets, since you’ll earn an impressive 5 points for every dollar you spend directly with airlines. But to earn 5 points per dollar at hotels, you’ll need to book only prepaid hotels, and only through Amex Travel. For such an expensive card, those aren’t exceptional bonus categories.

Fortunately, new card members get an extra temporary bonus category. During the first six months of card membership, you’ll also earn 10 points per dollar on eligible purchases at US gas stations and US supermarkets on up to $15,000 in combined purchases. That’s a fantastic return and a great way to rack up travel points if you’re still sticking close to home.

The credits on the Amex Platinum can also be a challenge to maximize. Unlike travel credits on cards such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the up-to-$200 airline incidental fee credit is only good on the one airline you choose each year, and then only for certain fees like checked baggage or in-cabin pet fees.

The up-to-$200 annual Uber credit doesn’t come as one big credit but instead as a monthly series of $15

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