Best travel rewards cards for 2016

Planning on exploring the world in 2016? We rounded up the cards that will save you money on flights, accommodations, and other common travel expenses.

First, the usual disclaimer – the right card for you will depend on your spending, appetite for maximization and travel goals. Don’t assume our top-ranked cards will be the best fit for rewards cards 2016

About our ranking standards

Some of the cards below are from our issuing partners. However, we didn’t base our rankings on that. Instead, we based them on the following:

Flexibility: Travel plans change, so we gave preference to cards that let you redeem for flexible travel credits, or that give you several redemption options. You’ll therefore notice that there aren’t many co-branded airline/hotel cards on our list.

Earning power: Travel is expensive, so you want all those little rewards points and miles to add up quickly. Cards with all-around higher earnings or bonus categories therefore had an edge.

Extras: Travel credits that cancel out annoying travel fees. Perks that make travel just a little more comfortable. These things helped lift a card’s ranking.

Annual fee: While an annual fee didn’t disqualify any cards, the fee had to be justifiable for most travelers.

Sign-up bonus: If your trip is in the near future, getting a bunch of rewards right out of the gate is vital. So we took each card’s sign-up bonus into account.

Fees: If you also want to use your travel card while traveling, you don’t want to pay foreign transaction fees if you leave the country. Because these pesky fees can cancel out rewards, all the cards we chose waive them.

1. Chase Sapphire Preferred

Why we ranked it we did: You’ll find this one at the top of many a travel-cards list, and for good reason. It combines a reasonable annual fee with plenty of flexibility.

The Sapphire Preferred is part of the Chase Ultimate Rewards program, so you have plenty of redemption options, including travel (for which you get 20 percent off on Chase’s website). You can also transfer points directly into Chase’s airline and hotel partners, where they can be worth more if you redeem strategically. Finally, while we don’t necessarily recommend it, you can redeem your rewards for good-old cash back and still get a penny per point.

Things are pretty sunny on the rewards-earning side, too, as you get 1 point per dollar on most spending and 2 points per dollar on dining and travel – categories you’ll probably hit a lot while purchasing travel and while on the road. You can get even more points by utilizing Chase’s Ultimate Rewards Mall partners.

Finally, the Sapphire Preferred gives primary rental car insurance. You’ll like this benefit if you rent cars frequently. Most cards provide rental car insurance of the secondary variety, meaning you have to file a claim with your regular auto insurance before your card’s coverage pays out. But this card covers you from the beginning, a rare perk.

Caveats to consider: The Sapphire Preferred isn’t as perk-heavy as some of the top-tier travel cards. It’s more about earning rewards and redeeming them strategically — not about sipping wine in the airport lounge. Also, because it’s not an airline card, you’ll still have to pay for checked baggage (if the airline you’re flying charges you for it), which can add up if you traveling a lot (you probably are).

In the recent past, the spending requirement for the sign-up bonus has been a bit high – in the neighborhood of $4,000 in three months.

2. American Express Premier Rewards Gold

Why we ranked it where we did: This card offers some higher-level perks while still charging an annual fee within the realm of “reasonable.” We put it below the Chase Sapphire Preferred because the $195 annual fee (waived the first year) might be a bit too much if you don’t maximize all the benefits, and we wanted to keep things friendly for the entry-level rewards chasers.

Like Chase, American Express has its own robust rewards and redemption marketplace, called the Membership Rewards program, where you can use your points in pretty much all the ways you can with Chase. That includes transferring your Membership Rewards points to AmEx’s partner hotel and flight programs.

Your rewards-earning reach is also robust. You get 3X points on purchases directly from the airlines; 2X rewards at gas stations; grocery stores and restaurants; and 1 point per dollar on everything else, meaning you can rack up points from travel and everyday life.

What could put this ahead of the Sapphire Preferred for you is the $100 airline fee credit, which can be used toward baggage fees and in-flight refreshments. If you use this credit in full every year, that brings the annual fee down to $95 (same as the Sapphire Preferred).

Finally, you get some unique perks, including premium roadside assistance and a $75 credit against spa services, dining and more when you stay at a hotel in AmEx’s portfolio.

If the recent past is any indication, you can expect a decent sign-up bonus with a reasonable spending requirement.

Caveats to consider: AmEx may not be accepted outside the country. The 3X airline category may not be flexible enough for some travelers, as you won’t get any bonus points for hotels, ground transportation or flights purchased through online booking sites.

3. Starwood Preferred Guest card

Why we ranked it where we did: Remember how we said above that almost no co-branded airline/hotel cards made the list? This one’s the exception.

Yes, it’s a hotel card, but you can transfer Starpoints directly to partner airline programs, the list of which outstrips that of the two cards above. You also get a 5,000-point bonus if you transfer 20,000 points.

Want to use your Starpoints for hotel stays? Starpoints have a good reputation. In various point-valuations, they consistently are worth more than other hotel points.

Rewards aside, you get complimentary Boingo Wi-Fi and in-room premium Internet. You also get credit toward SPG elite status.

The $95 annual fee is waived the first year, and it’s conceivably low enough cancel out with a free stay or free flight, with little effort.

The sign-up bonus tends to fluctuate on this card, but, if you time it right, you can start out with a lot of points for a reachable spending requirement.

Caveats to consider:
The only bonus category is Starwood stays. You get 1 point per dollar on pretty much everything else, meaning it may be harder to accumulate points quickly on your everyday spending. You’re also limited to Starwood for hotel redemptions, whereas the cards above allow you to redeem with other chains.

Plus, Starwood is merging with Marriott, and nobody really knows what is going to happen with the SPG program and the card when that happens.

4. Discover it Miles

Why we ranked it where we did: This card is a newcomer on the scene, and it makes our list because it offers a respectable return on spending (especially in the first year) and charges no annual fee.

You get 1.5 percent back on everything AND double miles (that’s 3 miles per dollar) the first year. You also have access to Discover Deals for additional rewards (or discounts) on certain purchases.

We ranked it below the cards above because your points have fixed value, and there’s no way to squeeze more value out of them by redeeming strategically. Instead, you’ll redeem your reward miles for a penny each for statement credits against travel (hotels, flights, train tickets and more). You might consider that a good thing.

Despite having no annual fee, Discover gives you some unique perks. If you purchase Wi-Fi on the plane, the card covers up to $30 per year. You also get free FICO score access and Discover’s “Freeze-it” feature, which allows you to lock down your card remotely via an app if, say, your wallet gets stolen on a trip.

Caveats to consider: There’s no traditional sign-up bonus with this card. Instead, all your points earned the first year are doubled. This means two things: 1) You have to concentrate a lot of spending on this card the first year and 2) You have to wait a full year for the doubling of points to occur.

You may also encounter acceptance issues abroad with Discover.

5. No-annual-fee Barclaycard Arrival

Why we ranked it where we did: There’s also an $89-annual-fee version of this card, but the benefits on that card got downgraded big-time this year. Still, we feel the lesser-known, no-annual-fee version still has a lot to offer travelers in search of an easy-to-use, no-annual-fee card.

You might think of this card as a very-stripped-down Chase Sapphire Preferred. You get double miles on dining and travel (1 mile per dollar on everything else) and can redeem for travel statement credits (for 1 cent per mile) or cash back (0.5 cents per mile). You can up your earnings a bit by shopping on Barclaycard’s rewards mall.

What helped this card slide onto our list is the redemption bonus – you get back 5 percent of your miles every time you redeem. Free FICO access helped, too.

Caveats to consider: While this card may help you earn rewards for travel, it offers no on-the-road perks for travelers. Barclaycard also nerfed the redemption bonus this year, decreasing it from 10 percent to 5 percent.

Honorable mention: Platinum card from American Express

We figured many of those looking for best-of rankings for travel would be coming at this from an entry-level angle. So we picked cards that don’t require a large financial investment up front. If you’re a frequent business traveler or are looking for luxuries like lounge access, the American Express Platinum ($450 annual fee) might be the card for you, with its airport lounge program, $200 travel-fee credit, Hilton HHonors Gold status and more. We just couldn’t bring ourselves to publish a Top Travel Cards list without at least mentioning it.

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