There is no "best" credit card for every traveler, because "best" really depends on your personal circumstances or preferences. But there are some credit cards that are, objectively, "really good" for certain features. If you're in the market for a travel rewards card, consider the following credit cards based on how you value the reward features listed below.
Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express. If you’re accumulating miles in Aeroplan (Air Canada), Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, or 29 foreign lines, you can earn genuine airlines miles faster with Starwood’s card than you can with each airline’s co-branded card.
With the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express, you earn one point per dollar charged, the same as with airline cards; you can transfer Starwood points to airline miles at a 1:1 ratio; and you can get a 25 percent bonus when you transfer 20,000 points. You also earn five points per dollar charged at Starwood hotels, broken down as two points per dollar as a card member and three points per dollar as a Starwood Preferred Guest member.
The downsides: You don’t get the complimentary checked bag benefit that most airline cards provide; you get only a half-mile per point when you exchange to United; and there’s no telling how long this card will be around following the Marriott merger.
Annual fee: first year, $0, then $95 per year.
The Hyatt Credit Card from Chase Bank. In my recent comparison of hotel rewards credit cards, I found the Hyatt Credit Card offered a high value of 6.45 cents per dollar charged at Hyatt hotels for points used to arrange award Hyatt rooms. It also had an unusually high payback of more than two cents per dollar charged for everyday purchases, as well as unusually robust travel insurance benefits.
Annual fee: $75.
If you just want to earn maximum free hotel stays, the Choice Privileges Visa Credit Card from Barclaycard offers the equivalent of a 10 percent return on expenses at Choice hotels for points used for Choice awards. But this card still assesses a 3 percent foreign surcharge.
Complimentary Trip Cancellation Insurance
Many premium credit cards offered by Chase, such as the IHG Rewards Select Credit Card, Marriott Rewards Premiere Credit Card, and Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, plus Capital One Venture Card, Citi ThankYou line of credit cards, and the Platinum Card from American Express, include complimentary trip-cancellation insurance.
Most also include baggage loss, baggage delay, and flight delay benefits. Although these benefits are not quite as robust as the benefits available from third-party travel insurance, they’re robust enough that many travelers could forego buying any more insurance.
Complimentary Medical Insurance
Premium cards, such as the Platinum Card from American Express or the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard. When you pay an annual fee of $400 and up, one of the benefits you get is reasonably good coverage for medical costs and emergency evacuation when you're traveling. As with trip-cancellation, the benefits are less than you get with a good third-party policy, but they’re good enough for many travelers. (Disclosure: Citi is an Airfarewatchdog advertiser.)
Primary Rental Car Collision Coverage
The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and United MileagePlus Explorer Card. Although many cards include rental car collision coverage, almost all such coverage is secondary: When a rented car you’re driving is damaged, your card is charged immediately, and you must then make a claim on your regular automobile insurance; the card picks up only what you can’t first recover from your insurance, and making a claim may increase your rates. Primary coverage means the card picks up the full cost from the get-go and you have to make no claims.
Access to Airport Lounges
Platinum Card from American Express. Although most airline premium cards with annual fees north of $400 a year include access to the sponsor airline’s lounges plus lounges operated by the Priority Plus program, the Platinum Card from American Express is tops because it includes access to Delta lounges, the top-tier version of Priority Pass, with no entry fees, and access to the growing network of Centurion Lounges operated by American Express. That, along with the card’s many other benefits, can justify the card’s annual fee for many travelers.
High-Value Cash Rewards
Hundreds of credit cards earn the cash equivalent of 1 cent per dollar charged to the card, and many offer 1.5 cents. That’s the current baseline. If you’re looking for a higher payback on non-travel expenses, you have a wide range of choices.
The Venture Miles Rewards Credit Card from Capital One and Fidelity Rewards Visa Signature Credit Card still pay 2 cents cash value for every dollar charged, regardless of where. And dozens of cards return a cash value of 1.5 cents per dollar charged, many with no annual fee.
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.