There is no single "right" travel-rewards credit card for everyone. If there were, it would already be in everyone's wallet, and other cards would wither and die from lack of consumer interest. What there is, however, is the right card for you, given your very specific travel and consumption patterns.
There are a multitude of pre-established categories available for identifying traveler types and assessing their various needs, but where credit cards are concerned, the two most serviceable would be frequency of travel and brand loyalty. With that in mind, here's how to find the right travel rewards card for you, based on which category or subcategory of consumer you belong to.
A Travel Rewards Card for Infrequent, Brand-Agnostic Travelers
For every 100 passengers on any randomly chosen plane, 80 would probably fall into the category of infrequent, brand-agnostic travelers. In other words, they travel once or twice a year, and they book their flights and hotel stays based on price, resulting in no particular pattern of brand choices.
For them, there's no compelling reason to carry an airline- or hotel-specific credit card. In fact, it would be counter-productive to do so, because earning points within that program's ecosystem of partnerships would almost certainly entail foregoing the most convenient, lowest-price travel options.
Because they travel so infrequently, on cheaper fares, the miles they earn for flying will be insignificant; it would take years to earn enough for a complimentary ticket. On the other hand, earning 1 or more miles per $1 charged to a travel-rewards credit card could add up to a complimentary flight rather quickly.
The Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card is such a card, rewarding cardholders with 2 miles for every $1 spent. The miles are worth 1 cent each when redeemed for a statement credit for travel purchased on any website, whether direct from a travel supplier or from an online travel agent like Expedia or Travelocity. Unlike complimentary flights or hotel nights from airline or hotel programs, there are no blackout dates or capacity restrictions with the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card because the travel is purchased through normal channels.
There's a 40,000-mile bonus, worth $400 in travel, for new cardholders who charge $3,000 within the first three months. The annual fee is a reasonable $59, waived the first year.
A Travel Rewards Cards for Infrequent, Brand-Loyal Travelers
If you're an infrequent traveler who nevertheless favors a particular airline, the best rewards card may be the one affiliated with that carrier's program.
As an example, let's say you live in Boston and fly JetBlue once or twice a year to visit family in Los Angeles. The JetBlue Card from Barclaycard awards users 3 points in JetBlue's TrueBlue program for every $1 in JetBlue purchases, 2 points per $1 for restaurant and grocery store purchases, and 1 point per $1 for everything else. TrueBlue points are worth around 1.2 cents each when redeemed for travel on JetBlue, and there are no blackout dates or capacity restrictions on award travel.
There's a 10,000-points bonus for new cardholders who charge $1,000 within the first three months. There's no annual fee for the card.
That would be a good choice for a JetBlue loyalist. If your preferred airline is American, there's a comparable card linked to that carrier's AAdvantage program. And there are basic low-priced rewards cards affiliated with the other airlines' programs as well.
Explore the benefits of the JetBlue Card from Barclaycard.
A Travel Rewards Cards for Frequent, Brand-Agnostic Travelers
At the other end of the travel spectrum are the road warriors, typically business travelers who spend as many nights on the road as they do at home.
Because they do business with multiple airlines, their best choice for a rewards card is likely to be one of the convertible-points cards that earn points that may be transferred into a range of participating programs. Among the options: the American Express Green Card, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, the Starwood Preferred Guest card, and the Citi ThankYou Premier Card card.
Of those, the Starwood card may offer the most utility and value due to its widely convertible points and the 5,000-mile bonus when converting 20,000 points to airline miles, among its other strengths.
In addition to being redeemable for stays at Starwood hotels, Starwood points can be converted into miles in the programs of more than 30 airlines, typically at a 1:1 transfer rate. With Starwood's acquisition by Marriott and the pending integration of the two companies' loyalty programs, Starwood points may also be transferred into Marriott's Rewards program and redeemed for complimentary Marriott stays.
The card has a $95 annual fee, waived the first year.
With the Marriott-Starwood merger a done deal, the card's future is somewhat in doubt. But for the next year or so, it will survive and be hard to beat.
A Travel Rewards Cards for Frequent, Brand-Loyal Travelers
Once again, the right option for airline loyalists is bound to be the card associated with that airline's mileage program.
Taking as our example frequent flyers loyal to American Airlines, they would do well to have the Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite MasterCard in their wallets. (Disclosure: Citi is an Airfarewatchdog advertiser.)
With an annual fee of $95, waived the first year, this is the mid-priced card linked to American's AAdvantage program, the oldest and largest U.S. mileage program. (There are no-fee AAdvantage cards and a $450-a-year card as well, with lesser and greater benefits respectively. For frequent flyers, the no-fee cards earn too few miles for flights, and the high-end card includes perks that very frequent travelers probably already enjoy due to their elite status.)
AAdvantage members earn 1 mile for every $1 charged to the card, and 2 miles per $1 spent on American Airlines purchases. The AAdvantage program has an industry-leading roster of partners, allowing members to supplement their credit-card miles with miles earned from more than 1,000 other companies.
On the redemption side, AAdvantage miles can be cashed in for flights on American or on its many airline partners to nearly 1,000 destinations worldwide.
The Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite MasterCard comes bundled with several travel perks as well, including priority boarding and a complimentary checked bag on domestic flights, no foreign transaction fees, and a discount on award tickets.
So, an American AAdvantage card for American loyalists, a Delta SkyMiles card for Delta loyalists, a United MileagePlus card for United loyalists, and so on. When it comes to questions about travel rewards cards, sometimes the answers are hiding in plain sight.
Editor's note: This content is not provided by any bank, credit card issuer, airline, or hotel chain. Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed here are those of the author's alone, and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by the aforementioned entities.