The Best Hotel Rewards Credit Card of 2017

We’ve researched seven hotel rewards credit cards and selected a winner based on intro points, points-per-dollar, APR and other important categories.

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There isn’t a single traveler out there who doesn’t love a free night in a hotel.

Over the past few years, travel bloggers and credit card experts have gone crazy over the various ways you can use hotel rewards credit cards to score free nights at everything from small-town inns to beautiful resorts on an island paradise.

As a result, “Best of” hotel credit card lists are as plentiful as mai-tais and daiquiris at an all-inclusive resort.

We wanted to do our own research in this area to make sure you find a card that can get your toes between the sand on a private Caribbean resort as fast as you possibly can. The results of our research are what you’ll read here: seven different hotel rewards cards judged across eight scored categories and one bonus category.

How We Scored the Hotel Rewards Card Competition

We assigned 7 points to a hotel card if it finished first in its category, 6 points if it finished second, and so on. We doubled the points in four categories because we felt they were more important to travelers: rewards nights, points for a Category 1 hotel, points-per-dollar, and tier upgrades.

So, if a card got 4 points in each of the eight scored categories, its final score would be 32.

Because the results of our bonus category are far more subjective than the other categories, we didn’t include the bonus rankings in our scoring.

As you read through how the cards perform in these categories, we recommend that you think about these cards as short-term and long-term tools. Don’t get stuck on what they offer up front; sometimes the dazzling free nights or points are just covering for blah benefits down the road.

Here are the seven cards competing for Best Hotel Rewards Card of 2017:

Here’s a chart of the cards we’re analyzing (all information was current at the time of research):

  • Sign-up points/nights bonus: What kind of free stuff do you get when you sign up?
  • Spending requirement to get bonus: How much do you have to spend in the first three months to get the free stuff?
  • Points for Category 1 hotel: How many points it costs to book a night the cheapest rewards tier?
  • Points per dollar: How many points you get for every dollar you spend with your card?
  • Tier upgrades: Do you get to bump up past the basic hotel membership level?
  • Free anniversary night: Do you get a free stay on your sign-up anniversary?
  • APR: What’s the APR and is there a 0% offer?
  • Annual fee: How much does the card cost each year?

Will our winner be the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express, the hotel rewards card that’s captured the hearts of many leading personal finance sites?

Or could the winner be one of the Hilton HHonors Surpass from Amex, or maybe the Hyatt Visa from Chase or the Marriott Rewards Premier from Chase?

You’ll find out by the end of this article. In the meantime, we’ll award a winner to each category we studied. Let’s start with something every hotel lover craves: free nights and points.

Sign-up Points Nights Winner: Hilton HHonors Surpass & Marriott Rewards Premier

Trying to figure out which card offers the best nights/points bonus takes a quick rundown on how points work for hotel cards.

The hotel chains in this competition assign levels to their hotels. The “cheapest9rdquo; ones are Category 1 hotels, and the most luxurious ones are the highest level.

Our chart tells you how many sign-up points you get, as well as how many points Category 1 hotels cost. So, here are the best deals in the bunch:

  1. Hilton HHonors Surpass: 10 nights (12 with 5th Night Free)
  2. Marriott Rewards Premier 10 nights
  3. IHG Rewards Club Select: 6 nights
  4. Starwood Preferred Guest: 8 nights or 12 nights
  5. Choice Privileges Visa/Marriott Rewards Premier: 4 nights
  6. Hyatt Visa: 2 nights
  7. Wyndham Rewards: 2 nights

The clear winners here are the Hilton Honors Surpass (75K points) and Marriott Rewards Premier card (80K).

The Hilton’s 75,000 sign-up bonus can get you 10 nights in a Category 1 hotel. Another perk – if you book four nights in a standard room with your rewards points, you’ll get a fifth night free. Book a pair of four-night stays and you’ll get two free fifth nights. Not bad!

We think the most interesting cards here are the Hyatt Visa and SPG Amex. With the Hyatt card, you can use your rewards nights at any Hyatt property. You can use those nights at a hotel that would normally cost 30,000 points, which is a great perk.

With the SPG Amex, you can book a Category 1 hotel (70+ choices) for 3,000 during the week, but those same hotels can be booked for 2,000 points on the weekend. However, this deal isn’t as good as it seems, and we’ll tell you why in a few minutes.

Spending Requirement to Get the Sign-Up Bonus Winner: Wyndham Rewards Visa

This category in our competition offers much quicker milestones than what you’d find in the travel cards we sized up. Here are the standings:

  1. Wyndham Rewards Visa: After first purchase
  2. Choice Privileges & IHG Rewards Club Select: $1,000
  3. Hyatt Visa: $2,000
  4. Hilton HHonors Surpass, SPG Amex, Marriott Rewards Premier: $3,000

We love that the Wyndham rewards kick in with your first purchase; you don’t have to keep track of your spending and your rewards will arrive quicker than if you had to rack up $3,000 in purchases. Choice Privileges, IHG Rewards and Hyatt Visa have low thresholds as well.

In research for our article on travel cards, we used the Bureau of Labor Statistics 2015 research to show that the average American would have no problem spending $3,000 in three months.

So, whether you get the Wyndham card or the Hilton/SPG/Marriott cards, you’re most likely going to get your rewards.

Points for a Category 1 Hotel Winner: Hyatt Visa

This category was an interesting one for us because the hotel with the lowest Category 1 points wasn’t the winner. Here are our standings:

  1. Hyatt Visa: 5,000
  2. Marriott Rewards Premier: 7,500
  3. Choice Privileges Visa: 8,000
  4. SPG Amex: 3,000 (2,000 on weekends)
  5. Hilton HHonors Surpass: 7,500
  6. IHG Rewards Club Select: 10,000
  7. Wyndham Rewards Visa: 15,000

Hyatt’s points program offers Category 1 rooms at 5,000 points and there are more than 70 hotels in this category. Plus, all but nine of those more than 100 Category 1 hotels are in the United States.

We ranked the Hilton below the Marriott and Choice Privileges because it offers 64 Category 1 hotels, but only two are located in the United States: one in Cleburne, Texas, and one in Columbus, Georgia. Not too impressive.

Same rules apply to the SPG Amex … there are only three Category 1 hotels in the United States: one in Tucson, Ariz., one in Kansas City, Mo., and one in Romulus, Mich.

Marriott has a strong lineup of Category 1 hotels: nearly 120 hotels in the U.S.

Points-per-dollar Winner: Hilton HHonors

This category has some mind-blowing points-per-dollar benefits; way more than what we’ve found with travel cards. Here are the results:

  1. Hilton HHonors Surpass: 12:1 at Hilton hotels, 6:1 on dining/grocery stores/gas, 3:1 on rest
  2. Choice Privileges Visa: 15:1 at Choice Privileges hotels, 2:1 on everything else
  3. Wyndham Rewards: 5:1 at Wyndham hotels, 2:1 on rest
  4. Marriott Rewards Premier & IHG Rewards: 5:1 at brand’s hotels, 2:1 on travel, 1:1 on rest
  5. Hyatt Visa: 3:1 at Hyatt hotels, 2:1 on travel/dining, 1:1 on rest
  6. SPG Amex: 5:1 at SPG hotels, 1:1 on rest

The Hilton card wins this category running away, with its insane points bonuses on Hilton stays and on dining, grocery store, and gas station purchases. How many points can you expect per year with the Hilton’s juicy bonuses?

Based on the stats we gathered from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American household spends about $4,000 on groceries, $3,000 eating out and $2,100 on gas. So, with 6:1 on dining out, groceries and gas, you’re looking at 54,600 points per year because of the bonuses.

Those three spending categories fall under the around $25,000 you can expect to spend on your card in one year, which leaves around $15,000 subject to the Hilton’s 2:1 perk, or 30,000 points.

Our calculations suggest you can bring in about 85,000 points a year with the Hilton card, not including any purchases you make at Hilton properties (12x points bonus).

No other card comes close in this category.

Tier Upgrade Winner: IHG Rewards Club Select

Five of the seven hotel cards we researched included upgrades to the hotel’s “frequent flyer” programs. Here’s a chart of the benefits of the upgrades:

As you’ll see, two of the hotels don’t bump you up into higher tiers. Here’s our breakdown of the rankings, according to seven categories we felt were most important for a guest’s upgraded experience:

  1. IHG Rewards Club Select: 6 out of 7 categories
  2. Hyatt Visa: 6 out of 7 categories
  3. Hilton HHonors Surpass: 4 out of 7 categories
  4. Marriott Rewards Premier: 3 out of 7 categories
  5. Choice Privileges Visa: 2 out of seven categories
  6. Starwood & Wyndham: No tier upgrades

Both the IHG Rewards and Hyatt put you into tiers that met six of our seven categories. We gave the nod to the IHG Rewards because you get a 50% bonus on your points when you cash them in for a rewards stay.

While the Hilton HHonors Surpass’ Gold Status doesn’t give you a complimentary upgrade when you check in, you do get access to discounted room rates.

Free Anniversary Nights/Points Winner: IHG Rewards Club Select

This category included two types of anniversary rewards: nights and points. Here’s our list of which hotels offered the best perks:

  1. IHG Rewards Club Select: Free stay at any hotel within the IHG family
  2. Marriott Rewards Premier: Free stay at a category 1-5 hotel
  3. Hyatt Visa: Free stay at a category 1-4 hotel
  4. Choice Privileges Visa: 8,000 points
  5. Wyndham Rewards: 6,000 points
  6. Starwood & Hilton: None

We put IHG at the top of the list because there are no limits on where you can redeem your anniversary night. Marriott limits their anniversary night redemptions, as does Hyatt. Last on the list here is the Wyndham Rewards points bonus; you get 6,000 points each year, less than half of what you’d need to book a reward night.

The APR’s we saw on these cards ranged from 15.49% to 25.24%. Here’s our ranking of each card:

  1. Hyatt Visa: 16.24%
  2. SPG Amex & Hilton HHonors Amex: 15.49%-19.49%
  3. Wyndham Rewards: 15.49%-20.24%
  4. Marriott Rewards Premier & IHG Rewards: 16.24%-23.24%
  5. Choice Privileges Visa: 149%-25.24%

We like that the Hyatt card offers a set percentage; if you’re accepted for the card, you’re going to get 16.24%. The Choice Privileges card has a huge range of APR and the highest top-end interest rate (25.24%).

Quick tip: On a continuous $4,000 balance, one percentage point of APR equals about an extra $36 per year.

Annual Fee Winner: Choice Privileges

Because some cards waive your annual fee the first year, we’ve decided to judge each card by its two-year annual fee total:

  1. Choice Privileges: $0
  2. IHG Rewards Club: $45
  3. SPG Amex: $95
  4. Wyndham Rewards: $135
  5. Hilton HHonors & Hyatt Visa: $150
  6. Marriott Rewards Premier: $170

There was no debate here – Choice Privileges’ zero annual fee is unbeatable. Both the IHG and SPG hotel cards waive your annual fee the first year, giving a very reasonable two-year total.

Bonus Category – Best Perks Winner: Hilton HHonors

This category is the final one in our analysis of 2017’s best hotel rewards credit cards. This one is subjective; it’s not as easy to pin down as the other categories. So, we decided to pick the top perk of each card, then talk about which perk is best.

  • Hyatt Visa: Upgrade to Platinum status
  • SPG Amex: Points can be transferred to airline frequent flyer programs
  • IHG Rewards Club: Upgrade to Platinum Elite status
  • Hilton HHonors: Chance for Diamond status/Priority Pass Select Enrollment
  • Wyndham Rewards: 0% for 15 months on balance transfers
  • Choice Privileges: 0% for 15 months on balance transfers
  • Marriott Rewards Premier: Points can be used to purchase Priority Pass membership

To us, the winner here is the Hilton HHonors card’s Diamond status perk. Cardmembers can achieve Diamond status with $40,000 in purchases in one year.

Normally, you’d have to log 30 stays or 60 nights, or rack up 120,000 in points to get that status. Here’s another fantastic perk – you get Diamond status for the rest of the year in which you hit $40,000 in spending, plus all of the following year, too.

Entrance into this includes a 50% return on points used for a rewards night. So, if you spend 20,000 points on a room, you get 10,000 points credited back to your account. No other card gives you the chance to gain top-tier status so quickly.

Your Hilton HHonors Rewards Premier card also gets Priority Pass Select membership (a status given to members of certain financial institutions).

This perk gives you $27 entrance into any of the nearly 1,000 Priority Pass airport lounges in the world. These lounges often have complimentary drinks and snacks, as well as comfortable seating, a bar and, in some cases, showers.

The Marriott Rewards Premier comes in a distant second here. Their best perk is that they let you trade in points for Priority Pass memberships: Standard (20K points), Standard Plus (55K points) and Prestige (85K points).

New cardmembers could potentially sign up for Standard Plus membership (first 10 lounge visits are free, $27 after that) and still have enough points for three free nights in a Category 1 hotel.

So, are you ready to hear our pick for the best travel card of 2017? Before we get there, let’s recap the winners of each individual category:

  • Sign-up Points/Nights Winner: Hilton HHonors Surpass/Marriott Rewards Premier
  • Spending Requirement to Get Sign-Up Bonus Winner: Wyndham Rewards Visa
  • Points for a Category 1 Hotel Winner: Hyatt Visa
  • Tier Upgrade Winner: IHG Rewards Club Select
  • Free Anniversary Nights/Points Winner: IHG Rewards Club Select
  • Best APR Winner: Hyatt Visa
  • Annual Fee Winner: Choice Privileges
  • Points-per-dollar Winner: Hilton HHonors Surpass
  • Bonus Category Best Perks Winner: Hilton HHonors

First, the Card You Thought Might Win but Didn’t: SPG American Express

Choosing the best hotel rewards card is pretty tough. There’s a lot at play here that we haven’t mentioned yet. For instance, hotel categories are based on luxury and location.

A luxurious hotel in Tampa, Fla., for example, may cost the same as a mid-range hotel in New York City. The better the location, the more points it costs to book a room, even if it’s in a “mediocre9rdquo; hotel.

Comparing the bang you can get for your rewards points buck is a really relative argument. Overall hotel chain quality is something to consider as well. Choice Privileges hotels aren’t going to stack up well against Hyatt or SPG hotels.

So, in the end, we’ve decided to stick with the eight different categories we’ve covered. Based on our research, the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express is definitely not the winner despite it being the favored card of NerdWallet, Value Penguin, The Simple Dollar and Wise Bread.

The card doesn’t offer anniversary rewards, there are only three Category 1 hotels in the U.S., there are no upgrades in membership tiers and all non-Starwood purchases have a paltry 1:1 points-to-dollars ratio. We don’t see a big upside for the average consumer looking for a hotel rewards credit card they can use.

Now, for the winner of our best hotel rewards card of 2017.

The Best Hotel Rewards Credit Card of 2017 is the Hilton HHonors Surpass from American Express

According to our scoring system, the Hilton HHonors Surpass by American Express is the top hotel rewards card. It scored major points by finishing first in two of the weighted categories: sign-up points and points-per-dollar.

This card’s intro points, 75,000, give you 10 nights at any of their Category 1 hotels, and if you book four rewards nights in a row, you get a free fifth night. Those are great perks, in our opinion.

However, this top-ranked card comes with a caveat – there are only two Category 1 hotel in the United States. The rest of its low-points hotels are located abroad.

We checked up on their Category 2 hotels and found 65 hotels. These hotels cost 15,000 points per night. The Hilton HHonors Surpass’ high points-per-dollar ratio makes up for the cost of a Category 2 hotel – the average household can rack up around 85,000 points per year.

Second Place in the Best Hotel Rewards Card of 2017: Hyatt Visa and Marriott Rewards (tie)

The race for the top spot in this competition was really close. While we think the Hilton HHonors Surpass was worthy of the #1 spot, think of the Hyatt Visa and Marriott Rewards Premier as tied for #1.5.

The main reason we say this is that their Category 1 hotels are really affordable and there are more than 175 U.S.-based choices between the two cards, whereas the Hilton HHonors only has two Category 1 choices. These two cards also offer some strong tier upgrades.

Deciding which of these cards is better was tough. The Marriott Rewards Premier offered a fantastic 80,000 rewards points, especially considering they have more than 100 Category 1 hotels in the U.S. that cost just 7,500 points.

However, the Marriott card carries the highest APR of the cards we analyzed, and it has the second-highest annual fee.

The Hyatt Visa’s two sign-up nights were a meager total compared to the 10 you could book with the Marriott card, but the Hyatt nights can be redeemed at any hotel in their chain, whether it’s a Category 1 or Category 7. Hyatt’s top-category hotels are also more affordable than Marriott’s: 30,000 to 45,000.

Hyatt’s 16.24% APR was also the best of the bunch, considering every other card offered a range of interest rates instead of a single one. American Express’ cards ranged from 15.49% to 19.49%.

Though the Hyatt Visa finished one point ahead of the Marriott card, we felt the Marriott’s tremendous sign-up bonus pushed it into a tie.

The Choice Privileges Visa, IHG Rewards Club Select, Starwood Preferred Guest Amex and Wyndham Rewards Visa rounded out our rankings. Here is a list of the weighted final scores:

Want to Read More “Best of” Articles About Travel Credit Cards?

This article on the best hotel rewards credit cards of 2017 is part of a collection of “Best Of” articles we’ve written about travel cards. ∙ The Best Points & Mileage Credit Cards

Needed FICO Score for the 5 Best Rewards Cards

The needed FICO score (credit score) to qualify for a rewards credit card depends on several factors. Each credit card company decides what credit score is required for their card. If a credit card company is looking to recruit new customers, then they may accept a lower credit score than another credit card company. If a company is feeling the credit crunch and being very selective about new accounts, they may require a much higher score. Or a credit card company may decide to accept a range of credit scores, but charge a higher APR as the FICO score drops.

Because different credit card companies have different requirements for the needed FICO score, there are rewards card available for different ranges for credit scores. Here are some of the best options currentl y available. Each credit card may use a FICO requirement slightly different from the one listed. Offers are subject to change without notice .

What is the Credit Score Needed to Apply for Travel Rewards Credit Cards?

Want to apply for a new travel rewards credit card but not sure if your credit score is high enough? As long as you have good or excellent credit, you will most likely qualify for standard travel credit cards. Even if you have a fair credit score in the 600s, you can still qualify for many cards. Let's find out the credit score needed to apply for travel rewards credit cards.

Before we take a look at the various travel rewards credit cards, let's first clarify the difference between fair, good, and excellent credit below.

  • Fair Credit: 600-699
  • Good Credit: 700-799
  • Excellent Credit: 800+

As you will find out, many travel rewards cards require good or excellent credit. Although you can still qualify for many cards if your score is at least 650 and have a sound credit history. Even if you have a score in the 600s, you can still qualify for several rewards card, especially airline rewards credit cards.

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If you want to earn rewards points that can be redeemed for any travel purchase, you will want a flexible travel rewards card. These cards tend to require good or excellent credit scores of at least 700 (good credit).

All available credit score information has been provided by Credit Karma.

Chase Sapphire Preferred

Required Credit Score: Good or Excellent (700+) Average Credit Score: 736 Typical Low Score: 646

The Chase Sapphire Preferred is one of the best flexible travel rewards credit cards, and it will require a good to excellent score. You can earn two points for every dollar spent on travel and dining. The real value of the Sapphire Preferred is the redemption options. Points are worth 1.25 cents each (10,000 points=$125) when you book your next trip with Chase or you can transfer them on a 1:1 basis to many of the best airline and hotel loyalty programs like United, Southwest, IHG, Marriott, and Hyatt.

Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard

Required Credit Score: Good or Excellent (700+) Average Credit Score: 736 Typical Low Score: 684

The Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard has a little more rigid acceptance policy. This card earns two miles per dollar on every purchase. You redeem the miles for travel statement credits with a 1% redemption ratio (10,000 miles=$100). But, you also get a 5% redemption bonus ($5 for every $100 statement credit) for miles that can be redeemed next time.

Reward miles do not expire as long as your account remains in good standing.

Premier Rewards Gold from American Express

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American Express' Premier Rewards Gold Card (Photo: American Express)

Required Credit Score: Good or Excellent (700+) Average Credit Score: 729 Typical Low Score: 658

The Premier Rewards Gold from American Express earns 3x points on flights booked directly with the airlines, 2x points at U.S. restaurants, gas stations, and grocery stores, and 1 point for all other purchases.

It also comes with a $100 airline fee credit and with an annual fee of $195 (waived the first year) it is an affordable alternative to the Platinum Card from American Express, which basically has the same credit score standard.

If you have a credit score in the 600s, airlines reward credit cards are your best bet. Some of the elite cards still require good or excellent credit, but, others have an average credit score in the 600 range.

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Required Credit Score: Fair to Excellent (600+) Average Credit Score: 670 Typical Low Score: 607

Either of the Southwest credit cards is a great option if you have a credit score in the 600s. For a limited tim you can earn a sign-up bonus of up to 60,000 Rapid Rewards points and earn 2 miles per $1 on Southwest and travel partner purchases. Each year, you can also earn a 6,000 point anniversary bonus with the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier and a 3,000 point bonus with the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus credit card. And, all the purchase rewards points earned count for the annual Southwest Companion Pass as well!

United MileagePlus Explorer

Required Credit Score: Good or Excellent (700+) Average Credit Score: 714 Typical Low Score: 633

The United Mileage Plus Explorer Card from Chase is another good option. With domestic reward fares starting at 10,000 miles, United has respectable award ticket prices and many destination options. Plus they are a 1:1 travel partner with the Chase Sapphire Preferred. Several of the card benefits include 2 miles per $1 on United purchases, first bag is checked free, priority boarding, and two one-time passes to the United Explorer lounge every year.

Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card

Required Credit Score: Fair to Excellent (600+) Average Credit Score: 675 Typical Low Score: 624

There are several varieties of the Delta SkyMiles credit card. The Gold Delta is a good option if your credit score is in the 600s. Card benefits include two miles for every dollar in Delta purchases, one free checked bag for up to nine people, priority boarding, and the $95 annual fee is waived the first.

You might also be able to get a limited time offer of 60,000 bonus SkyMiles when you apply before 7/5/17.

The last section is for hotel travel rewards credit cards. These offerings often have an average credit score in the 700s, but, it is still possible to get approved with a score in the 600s.

Marriott Rewards Premier

Required Credit Score: Good or Excellent (700+) Average Credit Score: 721 Typical Low Score: 638

The Marriott Rewards Premier from Chase is an awesome card as points can be redeemed at any Marriott, Starwood, or Ritz-Carlton property. And, you also earn 5 points per $1 for your Marriott, Starwood, or Ritz-Carlton stays. As an added bonus, you can also earn 2 points per $1 on direct airline purchases, rental car agencies, and restaurants. And, every year you get a free anniversary night stay at any Marriott category 1-5 hotel.

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Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express

Required Credit Score: Good or Excellent (700+) Average Credit Score: 743 Typical Low Score: 657

Often considered one of the best hotel rewards cards, the Amex SPG is a definite fan favorite. If you stay at Starwood properties often, you need this card to quickly rack up the reward nights that start at only 4,000 points. You will earn 2 Starpoints per $1 at Starwood and Marriott properties. And, as a sign-up bonus, you can earn 25,000 bonus points that can get you five rewards nights or be redeemed for airline flights from 150 airline partners.

Many travelers look for the bonus offers and additional card benefits when considering a new travel rewards credit card. But, if you doubt your credit score is high enough to get approved, you might choose not apply until you have the credit score needed to apply for travel rewards credit cards without getting denied. If you’re still trying to build your credit score, you might have the best chances with airline rewards cards.

The Best Travel Reward Credit Cards

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There are few things as alluring as the promise of free travel to exotic destinations. The banks know this, and have long offered travel rewards to customers for using their credit cards. In turn, savvy credit card users maximize their rewards to travel in comfort and style well beyond their means. (See also: How Travel Rewards Credit Cards Really Work)

Recently, I was explaining this to an European executive sitting next to me in Lufthansa's Airbus A380 business class while returning home from a vacation in Italy. I told him that my family and I could not possibly have paid for our three $7,000 tickets for this flight. But thanks to my travel rewards credit cards, my journey was all but free after some taxes and fees. Through careful selection and use of rewards, these kinds of trips have become an annual occurrence for my family. While there are innumerable ideas, tips, and tricks to be gleaned from endless hours of research, my mission is to do the work for you and deliver only the most valuable advice to busy people who lack the time and patience to discover and decipher these deals. (See also: Cash Back vs Travel Rewards: Pick the Right Card for you)

Choosing The Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards

It would be nice to pick the best travel reward cards in a purely empirical manner, the way one would choose a card with the lowest interest rate. Unfortunately, each travel rewards card offers a unique mix of benefits and drawbacks, and rarely is one card ideally suited for everyone's travel aspirations. I have read thousands of blog and forum posts, written hundreds of credit card reviews, and personally held dozens of different travel rewards cards over the last twenty years. In the end, I judge these cards based on three criteria:

  • Value: The return in cents per dollar spent
  • Flexibility: Cards that offer the most opportunities for redemptions — no blackout dates, a variety of partners, etc.
  • Costs And Fees: If fees are justified by its rewards and benefits

Of all the travel rewards cards currently offered, these are the ones I find most rewarding.

Score reward cardScore reward cardCardholders of the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card are able to transfer their points to Chase travel partners at full value — 1,000 Chase points equal 1,000 partner miles/points. For most cards, some value gets lost during the transfer. Or get 20% off travel booked through Chase's site. Earn 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases worldwide. There are no foreign transaction fees. The intro annual fee is $0 the first year, then $95.

Bonus offer: Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That’s $625 in travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. Earn 5,000 bonus points after you add the first authorized user and make a purchase in the first 3 months from account opening.

Bank of America® Travel Rewards Credit Card

Score reward cardThe Bank of America® Travel Rewards Credit Card offers 1.5 points per $1 spent on every purchase, with no limit to the points you can earn and no expiration date on the points. If you're a Bank of America® customer, you get an additional 10% customer points bonus on every purchase when you have an active checking or savings account with Bank of America. Points can be redeemed as a statement credit to pay for flights, hotels, vacation packages, and more with no blackout dates and restrictions. This card has no annual fee and no foreign transaction fees.

Online exclusive bonus offer: Get 20,000 online bonus points if you make at least $1000 in purchases in the first 90 days — redeemable for a $200 statement credit that you can put towards travel purchases.

Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card

Score reward cardScore reward cardThe Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card is a simple travel rewards card that offers two miles per dollar spent on all purchases. Earn unlimited miles and redeem them for statement credit on travel purchases, allowing you to choose any airline or hotel, and earn miles on your travel rewards. There is no annual fee for the first year. It's $59 thereafter.

Bonus offer: Get a one-time bonus of 40,000 miles once you spend $3,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $400 in travel.

The Platinum Card® from American Express

Score reward cardScore reward cardThe Platinum Card® from American Express is best for the frequent flyer who can appreciate free access to over 1,000 airport lounges in the American Express Global Lounge Collection SM . Other benefits of this premium card include a $200 annual airline fee credit, $75 hotel credit, fee credit towards an application for the Global Entry program or TSA PreCheck, complimentary Hilton Honors and SPG Gold Status upon enrollment, and up to $200 savings on Uber annually. Cardholders earn points in the American Express Membership Rewards program with their purchases — 5X points for flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel, 5X points on eligible hotels booked on, and 1X point on other eligible purchases. There are no foreign transaction fees. There is a $550 annual fee for this charge card. Terms apply. See rates and fees.

Bonus: Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you use your new Card to make $5,000 in purchases in your first 3 months.

Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card

Score reward cardScore reward cardThe Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card offers unlimited 1.25 miles per dollar on every purchase. While the rewards are lower, the APR range is also lower than most cards (0% intro APR on purchases for 12 months; 12.99% - 22.99% variable APR after that). There are no foreign transaction fees and no annual fee.

Bonus: 20,000 one-time bonus miles after spending $1,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening — equal to $200 in travel!

No discussion of rewards credit cards is complete without the warning that these products are only best for those who always pay their balances in full and never incur interest. Everyone else should use the card with the lowest APR. That said, if you do pay your balance off every month, and you love to travel, then you have much to gain by applying for and using one of these top travel rewards cards. Join me in the exciting world of those who regularly travel for free.

My wife and daughter on one of our trips earned through travel rewards cards:

How to score free trips with credit card rewards

Traveling can be expensive. American Express found that the average amount Americans spent on a week-long summer vacation in 2015 was about $1,000 per person.

Score reward card

Traveling can be expensive, especially if you have a family of five as I do. American Express found that the average amount Americans spent on a week-long summer vacation in 2015 was about $1,000 per person. For a family of five, that’s $5,000 — a big chunk of change for a week of sightseeing.

One of the ways my family keeps costs under control is by taking advantage of the best travel rewards credit cards and hotel and airline loyalty programs to score free flights and accommodations. I’ve already saved more than $500 on hotel stays for a couple of weekend trips my family has taken this year by cashing in points I earned using a Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card.

I’m a travel rewards amateur, though. My goal is to eventually get most — if not all — of my travel is free, which is the case for Holly Johnson. Johnson blogs about travel and saving money at and takes seven to eight trips a year with her husband or entire family of four and pays next to nothing.

She does it by maximizing credit card rewards and racking up points through loyalty programs. Although anyone can use her tips to maximize their credit card rewards, her strategy — which is used by many so-called travel hackers — works best if you meet these criteria:

  • You have a credit score of at least 700, ideally 720, to qualify for the best rewards cards.
  • You don’t carry a balance on the cards.

If you’re charging cards to rack up points and aren’t paying off what you owe each month, you’re also racking up interest, which can wipe out any savings you’re getting with free accommodations or flights. “It9rsquo;s not very rewarding to end up in debt,” Johnson said.

If you want to start traveling for free, here’s what you’ll need to do.

The major hotel chains — such as Hilton, Hyatt and Marriott — and airlines — such as American Airlines, Delta and United — have loyalty programs that let members earn points for booking hotel rooms and flights. Once you have enough points, you can redeem them for free stays or flights.

I’m a member of Southwest Airlines’ Rapid Rewards loyalty program. I fly about three times a year and typically earn enough points to score at least one free flight. Rapid Rewards and other airline loyalty programs also allow members to earn points when booking rental cars and hotel rooms with their partners and by making purchases from retail partners on their online shopping malls.

Johnson said that she belongs to almost all of the hotel and loyalty programs available because they are free and offer perks beyond points, such as free WiFi and room upgrades. You won’t earn points as quickly through loyalty programs as you can through rewards credit cards, but if you’re worried about racking up debt with credit cards, the loyalty programs might be better for you. By joining loyalty programs and using rewards cards simultaneously, you can accumulate points much faster.

Get Rewards Cards That Offer Flexibility

With so many airline-branded cards, hotel-branded cards and general travel rewards credit cards out there to choose from, which one should you get? Johnson recommended getting a rewards card that isn’t tied to a particular airline or hotel because you’ll have more flexibility with how you use your points. For example, if you don’t end up traveling much, you can redeem your points for gift cards or cash.

Her favorite by far is the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, which lets you earn two points for travel and restaurant purchases and one point for all other purchases. Points can be transferred at full value — 1 point for every $1 — to participating travel loyalty programs such as British Airways Executive Club, Southwest Rapid Rewards, United MileagePlus, Hyatt Gold Passport and Marriott Rewards.

If you are loyal to a particular hotel chain or airline, however, you shouldn’t ignore the hotel- and airline-branded rewards cards. Look up card offers or use an online tool that compares cards to help you decide which travel rewards card you’ll benefit from most.

Take Advantage of Sign-Up Offers

Most rewards cards offer bonus points for signing up for a card and spending a certain amount on money within in a specified period of time, typically the first 90 days of having the card. Fulfilling this requirement is the fastest way to earn enough points for free travel — especially if you take advantage of several offers during the year, Johnson said. She signed up for 10 travel rewards credit cards last year and has already signed up for two cards this year.

The bonus from just one card can be enough to net her free flights for her entire family of four, she said. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card currently is offering 50,000 bonus points — worth $625 in travel rewards — for new cardholders who spend $4,000 in three months after opening an account.

Johnson said she can sign up for more cards in a year than most people because she owns two businesses and can take advantage of bonus offers for both personal and business credit cards. Couples can rack up points quickly if both spouses sign up for cards with bonus-point offers, she added.

If you plan to sign up for more than one card, Johnson said you should do so every three months rather than all at once. That way, it will be easier to meet the spending requirements to earn bonus points. This strategy is also a good idea because you might improve your chances of being approved for cards if you spread out your applications. Opening new lines of credit can affect your credit score, but Johnson said she’s seen little impact on hers, which is above 800.

Charge Everything to Your Rewards Cards — Then Pay Them Off

One of the main reasons I haven’t earned enough points from my hotel-branded card to get all of my hotel stays for free is because I haven’t charged enough to my card. Even though I pay off my credit card balance, I’ve been reluctant to use my card to pay for all of my everyday purchases. I’ve gotten over that reluctance though because, as I said, my goal is to travel for free.

Johnson said she uses her credit cards for gas, groceries, business expenses, and all of her regular bills, including car, health, and homeowners’ insurance. “We dig really deep to find things to pay with our credit card,” she said.

When Johnson makes purchases, she uses the card that will give her the most points for that purchase because the number of points you can earn per purchase varies from card to card. The free Wallaby mobile app and browser extension can help you identify which card to use for which purchase to get the most rewards points if you have several cards.

Johnson also pays off her cards once a week so interest doesn’t accrue. “I never get a bill because I always pay it [off],” she said.

Book Trips Far in Advance

Not only is there a strategy for earning points, but there’s also a method for redeeming them. Johnson said that you need to plan trips well in advance of your travel dates to get the most out of rewards points.

You have to plan ahead if you want to take advantage of bonus points because it can take a few months to earn them and then another month for them to be credited to your account. Additionally, some airlines and hotels have a limited number of rooms and seats on flights that can be redeemed for points, so if you don’t book far enough in advance, you’ll miss out and be left with points you can’t use, she said.

At times when I’ve waited until the last minute to book a hotel room for a weekend getaway, I haven’t been able to find rewards rooms that suited my needs. My family needs a suite because we have three kids. But sometimes by the time I wanted to book the trip, the only rooms left that could be redeemed for points had just one king-size bed.

Johnson said that she went to Cancun last December by redeeming sign-up bonus points from Marriott Rewards Premier credit cards for a package that included flights on Southwest and a seven-night stay at a JW Marriott, which typically costs $800 per night. The rewards availability in December is limited because it’s a peak travel season, but she was able to redeem her points because she booked her trip nine months in advance.

Be Flexible With Travel Plans

Being flexible with your travel plans also can help you get more out of your rewards points, Johnson said. For example, she recently stayed at a Westin hotel on Grand Cayman Island during the offseason because it required fewer points.

When she flies overseas, she typically departs on a Wednesday because there are more rewards seats available on midweek flights. Just as you would compare prices for hotels and flights at various times to find the best deal, you have to compare the number of points you’ll need for hotel and flight options as well as the availability of options that can be booked using points, she said.

If you have more than one rewards card, you need a system to keep track of them. Johnson said she uses a spreadsheet to record the following details so she can stay organized:

    • Date she signed up for a card
    • Date by which she needs to spend a certain amount to earn the sign-up bonus
    • Date of the 12-month point if and when an annual fee is charged

    If she’s opened a card with an annual fee that she knows she doesn’t want to keep, she’ll close the account before the fee is charged.

    It sounds like it could be tedious keeping track of points and earning enough to get free travel, but Johnson said it isn’t. If it was, she wouldn’t do it. “I like to earn stuff free,” she said. “But I also don’t want my life to be complicated.”