8 Best Travel Credit Cards of 2014

creditcardstackThere are a lot of people who probably think they are starting to get into this miles-collecting business who are still making stupid decisions like the Capital One card.

In fact, this just happened to a friend of mine who had been asking for miles-advice.

Really, what good are all my posts about complex routing gems if you don’t know how to get miles in the first place?

So I want to put my stamp on these 8 cards.

But first, there are a few things to get acquainted with.

For instance, it is a little bit subjective as to what the best “point currency” is.  In my opinion, it’s Chase Ultimate Rewards points simply because of their ability to transfer to United. So really what I’m saying is, I love United miles.

But ultimately (no pun intended) I love “miles” over bank points and that is what this list is focused on. I’ve written about how transferring Ultimate Rewards points to United will actually save you a ton for travel. A whole ton. But still, if you’re extremely lazy you can just use the shopping portal…or you could cash out for one cent each point. But don’t pay more because of your laziness.

And one last note before we begin, miles aren’t just redeemable on their own airline, but can be redeemed for any airline within the alliance. For example, United miles can be used for any airline in Star Alliance globally, and AA miles can be used for any airline in the OneWorld Alliance.

 

1) The Chase Sapphire Preferred

This has long been my favorite credit card.

  • 40,000 point sign up bonus.
  • No foreign transaction fee.
  • 2.14 points on dining and travel.
  • 1.07 points on everything else.
  • Transfers to United, Hyatt, Southwest, etc…
  • Annual fee waived the first year, and then $95
  • Downgrades into the regular Sapphire card (with no annual fee) or Freedom (with no annual fee)

The 2 points per dollar on travel has simply won me over. The fact that the card is actually metal (I cut one open, or rather I tried to), is just cool but I’m in it for the Ultimate Rewards points.

May I also note that when you call Chase you get a real live person on the phone. It’s actually almost weird. No “press 19 to talk to a incompetent person” it’s just a ring and “hello”. But again, I’m in it for the points.

When I say points though, really I like the ability to transfer to United miles.  United miles have led me to book crazy things like the Pacific Hopper (40,000 miles in business class including 8 countries) and the Caribbean Hopper. I’d do it again too. United is a member of Star Alliance, which is the biggest airline alliance. Plus, they allow one stopover on roundtrip award tickets – which is basically a second destination at no extra cost.

 

2) Chase Ink Bold

  • 50,000 point bonus
  • No foreign transaction fee
  • 5x points at office supply stores and bills like cell phone, landline, internet and tv services.
  • Transfers to United, Hyatt, Southwest, etc…
  • Annual fee waived first year, then $95
  • Is a business card

People are probably upset that this isn’t number one, but for most people, the Sapphire Preferred is a better card. I mean, in terms of daily spends. I know for myself dining and travel make up… like 100% of my expenses.

Still, this card is baller and Ultimate Rewards points transfer to United, Southwest, Hyatt, etc… Note, that it is a business card and it’s a charge card.

 

3) The Starwood (SPG) card

  • 25,000 bonus points: 10,000 after first purchase and another 15,000 after you spend $5,000 within the first 6 months.
  • Transfers 1:1 to many airlines including American, US Airways, Air Canada and more…
  • Annual fee waived first year, then $65.

This used to be the favorite of everyone in the game, if I recall. And it’s only recently that it’s been bumped off as the daily spender since the Ink Bold has more shopping portal perks, I guess.

Still, SPG is not just a hotel chain; its points transfer to pretty much every airline at a 1:1 ratio. In fact, if you transfer in groups of 20,000 you get 25,000 miles. So it’s more like a 1:1.25 ratio.

I say almost because the transfer to United is half (2:1), which is a bummer. But I have status with AA… which is my first favorite airline and second favorite miles currency.

The reason I love American Airlines is the same as United: big alliance (One World), good award chart and no fuel surcharges. This is huge, airlines like British Airways charge out the wazoo in “fuel” on award tickets.

So with SPG you can transfer to the airline of your choice and avoid fees but also, you can check the award availability first and then transfer. But note that transfers take about a week or two, which is a bummer as Amex MR points and Chase UR Points transfer instantly.

However, I can’t possibly understand how/why a respectable international hotel branded credit card would have a foreign transaction fee.

 

4) Amex Premier Reward Gold Card

  • Currently there is no big bonus, but I’ve seen the card have 50,000 point sign up bonuses and rarely 75,000 points.
  • Annual fee waived for the first year, then $175
  • 3 points/$ on airlines
  • 2 points/$ on gas and supermarkets
  • Transfers to a ton of airlines 1:1 including British Airways, Air Canada, ANA and more…
  • Sometimes British Airways has given “transfer bonuses” where you get a 20%, 30% and sometimes 50% bonus for transferring from Amex to BA.

American Express Membership Rewards Points have a ton of transfer options like ANA, Air Canada, British Airways and many more. So not only is it flexible, it transfers instantly.

The other big perk is that the card earns 3x on flights and 2x on gas and grocery stores. It’s a fast earner with big sign up bonuses. We got this card with the 50,000 point bonus but have seen it as high as 75,000 points!

The downside is the $125 (for the non-premier) to $175 annual fee, which isn’t too big of a deal as it’s waived the first year. Who is keeping this card for $175? And why is it so high?

They also have different sign up bonuses usually, and same with the business versions.

 

5) American Airlines cards

  • 30,000 miles for spending $1,000 in the first 3 months
  • Get 10% of all redeemed AA miles back
  • Get PriorityAAccess, which gives quick lines through security, quicker checkin and early boarding
  • Free checked bag
  • AA has one of the best award charts

The Citi AA cards have been a true blessing to me. But in short, the bonus has been good in the past (I remember back when it was 75k for a long time). But for me, it’s not just the bonus to my second favorite miles, it’s the 10% back feature. With all the AA miles I spend, I get 10% back because I have this card.

They also added some new benefits, like the AAccess, which lets you board more quickly and I believe expedites you through TSA.

For sure this is my top 5 and so far it’s an easy list. Maybe I would wait for a higher bonus but AA is always a great option as they don’t charge fuel surcharges on awards (except when redeeming on British Airways).

 

6) United card

  • 30,000 miles after you spend $1,000 in the first 3 months
  • 2 club lounge passes annually
  • Free checked bag
  • Annual fee waived first year, then $95

If the bonus is up to 50,000, which it often is… this card is a no brainer. They seem to send out targeted offers for those who have United miles and have yet to have the card. But still, I don’t turn down United miles.

Another feature is the fact that you get an extra 10,000 United miles for every calendar year in which you spend $25,000 on the card. If you spend $25,000 in a year, it’s a nice bonus.

Again, I love United miles. The routing rules, stopover rules, fair prices, lack of fees, the big alliance to redeem flights on 22 airlines and the great award booking site… reason enough.

United does not pass on fuel surcharges when redeeming on any of their partners. This and the stopover rules make United miles incredible. Which is also a reason to go for the above Chase cards.

 

7) US Airways card

  • 30,000 miles for first purchase
  • Redemptions on US Air are 5,000 miles cheaper (so an off peak ticket to Europe is 30,000 miles)
  • Annual companion ticket for 2 people – when you book a flight two people can go with you for $99 each
  • Annual lounge pass for two
  • Annual fee of $89 (although is there a version with no annual fee?)

Well, US Airways is merging with AA… so if you’re patient enough, that’s some extra AA miles. It’s kind of a win win. I love US Air miles almost as much as AA miles.

Although, US Airways is a gem of it’s own. Great award chart, no fuel surcharges on awards, and a stopover allowed with very loose routing rules. The biggest cons are the fact that their award search engine includes no partners and you can’t currently book oneway awards.

 

8) The British Airways card

  • 50,000 miles (aka Avios) from spending $2,000 in the first 3 months
  • No foreign transaction fee
  • Earn 1.25 miles (aka Avios) per dollar
  • Every year you spend $30,000 on the card you get a companion pass (only good on BA which charges insane fuel fees).

If the bonus is 100,000 miles (which for the BA card, happens once a year), it’s a no brainer. Although more recently the spend requirement has been really high for the remaining 50,000. Still, you do what you can.

And even the regular 50,000 offer is still great. People tend to hate on this because of the fuel surcharges. But read my post on the Best Use of British Airways Avios and you’ll be good to go. It’s almost as simple as redeeming on Air Berlin to Europe instead of British Airways itself. That right there is a $500 price difference.

 

Conclusion

I would do hotel cards but I feel it’s distracting. You can get hotel points other (easier and cheaper) ways. I’m not saying that I don’t have the Club Carlson and IHG card, I do, but I’m saying hotel points aren’t as valuable as miles.

I pretty much value the cards in this order but the bonuses kind of change everything around at times. But we do all of our spending on either the Chase Sapphire Preferred or the American Airlines cards. Ultimately, those are the two main currencies we’re going after.

Here’s how I tend to look at these cards and what I’ll gain from each:

  • Chase UR points (from Sapphire Preferred or Ink Bold) -> United miles
  • United card gives United miles
  • SPG points -> American Airlines miles
  • American card gives American Airlines miles
  • US Airways -> American Airlines Miles (eventually)
  • Amex -> ANA or British Airways miles
  • British Airways card gives British Airways miles (Avios)

Essentially if I don’t find award availability with OneWorld Alliance airlines (using AA miles or BA miles) I can check Star Alliance with United miles. Spreading my earnings out between the two works out well.

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21 Responses to 8 Best Travel Credit Cards of 2014

  1. newflyer says:

    Good list. You rarely do credit card posts and doing one means that you actually use these cards and we always try to support you guys by using your links when it has the cards I want as thanks for your work here.

  2. KennyB says:

    The better versions of AA, UA and US cards should be at least noted, preferably with links to the appropriate FT threads…

  3. Ron says:

    With your incomplete explanation of the PRG card, it’s clear you rarely (if ever) use it.

    PRG is my favorite card as I do significant MS at grocery. I can do as much MS as I want thanks to wide gc availability and low 0.59 cpp (which is less than 0.7 using 5x Inks or 0.79 using VRs with 1x cards like AA cards).

    PRG gives 15K MR bonus with $30K spend so the AF is effectively covered. You also get 3x on airfare plus multiple Amex bonus transfers to various airlines (BA is most common). If you take strategic advantage you can get an effective 4x on your airline spend and 3x on grocery/gas spend at the lowest cpp of any widely available everyday card. Surpass also gets 6x at grocery at 0.2 cpp, so you essentially pay $10/night per Category level (ie Cat 1 will cost $10, Cat 5 will cost $50 and Cat 10 will cost $100 – roughly 1/3 to 1/2 of lowest paid rates – which is good value even after the devaluation)

    For those places where only get 1x, I use SPG.

    Then I look for cards that have limited time bonus categories to exploit (like Citi TY 5x and BCP 6%).

    I ignore cards like Sapphire as I get significantly more value at lower cpp on other cards.

    Of course, if you are out of the country ~300 days a year (ie, the 0.00001% of your readers), then your card advice makes good sense…

    • Travel Is Free says:

      I never use it because it’s less valueable. :-p
      I understand you MAY earn more points with the amex gold, but those points are, in my opinion, worth way less. It’s a b-team list of airline transfers. AirCanada, British Airways, and ANA 1) charge fuel surcharges, 2) have stricter routing rules and 3) More expensive award charts.

      Most of my readers probably don’t want to pay fuel surcharges on award tickets.

      The CSP and Ink Bold earn at similar rates and are more valuable to me.
      To each his own I guess.

  4. WB says:

    I’m not sure I would say UA has “fair prices,” at least not after 2/1.

    Though I guess if you are aiming more for economy travel the devaluation isn’t so much of a bloodbath.

    • Travel Is Free says:

      That is true!
      I mean, yea, no one is getting the bonuses posted before feb 1. However, yea… I’m economy based. So I still love United. But I recognize a lot of people who are into this game never fly economy. I guess this is more beginner explanations anyways.

  5. The Chase bank branches have the UA 55k offer not targeted and available to everyone. A family member applied as recently as last week :)

  6. Kim says:

    Drew,

    I believe the Ink Bold is a charge (vice credit) card and that there is not a no fee charge card to which it can be downgraded. I am hoping that you are correct, but based on my reading of other blogs, you can only get the no fee ink classic or cash when downgrading from the Ink Plus credit card. So based on your current writeup, I think you meant to recommend the Ink Plus and not tbe Ink Bold.

    • Travel Is Free says:

      Hmm, thanks for the comment Kim. Took it down incase the info was incorrect. Oddly enough a quick google search showed a few blog posts about how you CAN downgrade it, speculatively. And a thread on flyertalk says you can NOT. So yea, I took that down.

      • Kim says:

        Drew,

        I am definitely going to try in the next couple months and will let you know if I am successful. It did make sense to me that you might not be able to convert a charge card into a credit card.

        Kim

  7. Andrew says:

    Where can I get a link to the IHG CC, or Club Carlson CC? Anything for the AMEX Platinum as well? Would you apply for this one yet, or wait to see what happens with new benefits?

  8. KMM says:

    I would love a follow-up post on why some of the other cards are so bad, ie. the Capital One Venture card. Thanks!

  9. Esther says:

    Are credit cards with the annual fee better than the free ones? I see you mentioned that you can downgrade to the free Saphire or freedom card. Do you get the same 40,000 miles with them?

  10. Jen says:

    Hi
    Do you and your wife each have a card or just one together? Can you collect miles and book for two on one card?

    Thanks!!
    Jen

  11. Garrett says:

    What do you do with all of these fee cards? Do you cancel them before you get the fee? Doesn’t that hurt your credit? Also, do you think you are going to be able to free-travel to Denver for my wedding? :)

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