Summer is almost upon us, which means many of you WalletPop readers are probably pondering summer vacation plans. But there's a tougher decision to make than whether you want a window seat or an ocean-view room, and that's choosing the best travel rewards credit card for your lifestyle. After all, if you're going to hit the mountains, beach or just the open road, you might as well have a card that will let you rack up points, discounts and other perks on your travels.
WalletPop tapped a pair of credit card experts -- Curtis Arnold, founder of the CardRatings.com, and Doug Miller, senior analyst at research firm Corporate Insight -- to sift through the literally dozens of travel cards out there. Here's the roundup of the ones these experts dub first-class:
Capital One Venture Rewards Visa
This fairly new entrant offers what Arnold calls "aggressive" incentives. Users get double miles on all purchases, plus 10,000 bonus miles if you spend $1,000 in the first three months after signing up. (The industry standard is 100 reward miles equal a dollar.) In addition, the card has a lower-than-average interest rate that's currently 13.99% (it's variable so this could go up in the future) as well as no foreign transaction fees -- a boon if your travels take you beyond U.S. shores. This card, like many in this space, does have an annual fee, but it's a relatively low $59 a year, which Capital One waives for the first year. Figuring out much you're earning is a simple formula: divide your miles by 100. In other words, if you have 27,000 miles, that's good for a $270 statement credit on any airline ticket you buy with the card.
Hilton HHonors Surpass American Express
If you're a fan of Hilton hotels, this card is a great pick, both Miller and Arnold say. Since you earn nine points per dollar spent at Hilton hotels, six points per dollar spent on what AmEx terms "everyday spending" categories and three points per dollar everywhere else, those points can add up really quickly, even if you don't travel a lot. Users also get an extra 40,000 bonus points after their first purchase. Other perks include free "gold" status at Hilton hotels, which gives you benefits like executive lounge access, and airport lounge access. Only bummer? The $75 annual fee. A night at a hotel in the Hilton family of brands can be redeemed for as little as 7,500 points, but redemption for stays at higher-end properties (brands like Hampton Inn and your DoubleTree), you need to have 25,000 rewards points.
Starwood Preferred Guest American Express
Arnold says this brand's Starpoints loyalty program enjoys a good reputation among travelers, which makes a card that offers more ways to earn points in that program an attractive pick. The $45 annual fee is waived for the first year, and Starwood stays earn users two points per dollar spent. For regular travelers, this card offers one other big incentive: Users can transfer the "Starpoints" they accumulate to a frequent flier program. Users need to spend between 2,000 and 35,000 points for a free night's stay (depending on the class of hotel and where it's located). To redeem points for flights, you need a minimum of 10,000 Starpoints.
This relatively new card builds on Discover's Miles card. It comes with a $60 annual fee (the Miles card is free) in exchange for quicker rewards-earning and more bonus miles. Users get two points per every dollar spent and can earn an extra 1,000 bonus points per month for the first 25 months as long as they make one purchase on the card each month. This adds up to a total of 25,000 bonus miles in just over two years, which is similar to many other cards' introductory-purchase bonus. Discover just spreads it out over time to give people incentive to use the card regularly. Like the Capital One card, the Escape gives you credit for travel rather than a free trip outright; the formula is the same, too: You get a $100 credit for each 10,000 miles earned, so if you're a big spender, those miles add up fast. The Escape also holds its own against other, non-travel credit cards when it comes to fees. There's a six-month promotional rate of 0% on purchases and balance transfers, and the APR is a below-average 11.99%.
United Airlines Mileage Plus Select Visa
In general, Miller says he's not wild about reward cards branded to one particular airline because it locks a user in to just that carrier. If you're a regular United flier, though, he says this card is worth exploring. For a $95 annual fee, you get similar initial purchase bonuses to the higher-end sister card United offers (that charges a $375 annual fee!). Miller says the nice thing about this card is it comes with tiered mileage rates: three miles per dollar spent with United, two miles for every dollar spent on "everyday" purchases and other Star Alliance flights. (Users earn the industry standard of one point per dollar on everything else.) The standard rule of thumb is that a round-trip flight within the U.S. costs roughly 25,000 points.
One word of advice: With all these cards, it helps to keep your family's travel habits in mind. If you tend to stay with friends and relatives, for instance, a card geared toward frequent hotel guests probably wouldn't be your best fit. Likewise, if you hate airplanes, skip the ones that offer extra credit each time you fly.
Best travel reward credit cards