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It seems like every day, there’s a new credit card welcome offer that catches the eye. Anything from 50,000 miles to 100,000 points and even free hotel stays. But couple that with high annual fees and hard to understand terms and conditions, it’s quite understandable that deciding on your first credit card for travel can lead to “analysis paralysis.”
But not all cards are created equal. Here are our five picks for the best travel credit cards for beginners and why they made our list.
Chase Sapphire Preferred
While the Chase Sapphire Reserve is the crown jewel of the travel credit card market at the moment, the Preferred version of the card is often overlooked. The Chase Preferred credit card strikes a balance between a modest annual fee, rich card benefits, and generous travel rewards.
For a $95 annual fee (first year free), you’re treated to double points on dining and travel purchases. You can also earn trip cancellation/interruption protection, and a 25% redemption bonus when you redeem your Ultimate Rewards points for travel through Chase and their numerous transfer partners.
The latter two are the most important features of the card. Each Ultimate reward point is normally worth one cent per point. When you redeem them for travel through Chase, they’re actually worth 1.25 cents per point, which represents a better than average redemption value.
On top of that, you’re getting access to the long roster of Chase Ultimate Rewards Transfer partners. Which means you can transfer one Ultimate Reward point to any number of airline or hotel partners at a 1:1 ratio. This opens up a plethora of redemption opportunities where you could use a reduced number of Ultimate Reward points for a show-stopping vacation.
Airline Transfer Partners
- Aer Lingus – AerClub
- Air France/KLM – Flying Blue
- British Airways – Avios
- Iberia Plus
- Korean Air – Skypass
- Singapore Airlines – KrisFlyer
- Southwest Airlines – Rapid Rewards
- Virgin Atlantic – Flying Club
- United – MileagePlus
Hotel Transfer Partners
- Hyatt – World of Hyatt
- IHG Rewards Club
- Marriott Rewards
- Ritz Carlton Rewards
As a traveler, you’ll also get trip interruption/cancelation/delay protection, baggage loss/delay protection, and an auto rental collision damage waiver benefit. Note that this is the most valuable rental car protection benefit of any card on this list, as it is “primary protection.” That means if you damage your rental car, you can file a claim with Visa instead of against your personal car insurance policy.
Other cards on this list offer it in the “secondary” position if they offer it at all. This means you must file a claim against own personal car insurance policy first.
As a Visa Signature card, you’ll also receive purchase protections. This provides a refund against damage and theft of an item within the first 120 days after purchase. There is also an extended warranty on items.
Final Thoughts Regarding the Chase Sapphire Preferred
A lot of credit card gurus will try and steer you to the Chase Sapphire Reserve over the Preferred, arguing that you could make back the higher annual fee ($450 for the Reserve) if you take advantage of its even higher number of card benefits.
The problem is, you have to qualify for at least a $10,000 line of credit (a Visa Infinite requirement), possess a high credit score, and keep track of whether you actually use enough benefits to make back the increased annual fee. Remember, both versions of this card offers the same 50,000 points sign-up bonus offer.
For beginners, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is the overall best travel credit card for beginners because it keeps things simple to understand and reasonable to manage. You can see how it compares to the popular Capital One Venture here.
Citi ThankYou Premier
An often-overlooked card, the Citi ThankYou Premier Card offers a similar value proposition to the Chase Sapphire Preferred. A $95 annual fee (waived the first year) gives you access to triple points on travel and gas purchases, double points on dining and entertainment purchases, and one point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
As a World Elite Mastercard, the Citi ThankYou Premier offers similar (but better) benefits than that of a Visa Signature card.
When you’re on the road, Mastercard offers World Elite Cardholders travel accident insurance, baggage loss/delay protection, and trip cancellation/interruption/delay protection. Lifestyle benefits include a 24/7 concierge, which can make reservations for you or tend to other needs. You’ll also get a free ShopRunner 2-day shipping membership (which is similar to Amazon Prime for other online retailers), and early access to concerts through Citi Private Pass.
Once you make a purchase, Mastercard also backs you up with a number of purchase protections. This includes return protection (refunds you if the retailer won’t take your item back), purchase security (refunds you if your item is lost, stolen, or damaged), and an extended warranty protection.
Citi also throws in Price Rewind, which is an enhanced version of “price protection.” They automatically scour online websites for a lower price within 60 days of purchase. If they find a lower price, or if you let them know that you found one, they’ll refund you the difference. However, as with any automated technology, your mileage may vary with this.
The Citi ThankYou Premier card offers a large number of airline and retail point transfer partners, but they’re mostly through obscure programs. Of note, the only domestic US airline on the list is JetBlue.
Airline Transfer Partners
- Air France/KLM – Flying Blue
- JetBlue – TrueBlue
- Cathay Pacific Airways – Asia Miles
- Avianca LifeMiles
- Etihad Guest
- EVA Air – Infinity MileageLands
- Garuda Indonesia
- Jet Airways – JetPrivilege
- Malaysia Airlines – Enrich
- Qatar – Privilege Club
- Singapore Airlines – KrisFlyer
- Thai Airways – Royal Orchid Plus
- Turkish Airlines – Miles & More
- Virgin Atlantic – Flying Club
Retail Transfer Partners
Sears – Shop Your Way
On the whole, these transfer partners mostly stick to a 1:1 transfer ratio. And, like Chase, you can redeem your points for travel reservations through Citi for 1.25 cents in value per point.
Final Thoughts Regarding Citi ThankYou Premier Card
If you’re partial to a Mastercard or Citi, or you have a specific need to transfer points to one of their more obscure transfer partners, the Citi ThankYou Premier card represents a solid choice in a low annual fee travel credit card for beginners. The card becomes especially attractive if a signup bonus is available (which can be intermittent). But for most beginners, we would recommend sticking to the Chase Sapphire Preferred if choosing between the two.
Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard®
The perceived underdog in the US credit card world, Barclays has spent many years trying to build its name recognition in the space. The Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard represents a surprisingly good value for beginners, thanks to its World Elite Mastercard status.
Off the top, the card offers unlimited double miles on any purchase. Each mile is valued at 1 cent in redemption value. You’ll also receive an extra 5% rebate towards another redemption every time you redeem your miles. The annual fee is slightly lower than other similar cards, at $89, that is also waived the first year.
Additionally, there is a 70,000 bonus miles offer after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 90 days. See rates and fees here for more information.
Like the Citi ThankYou Premier card, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard comes with the myriad of benefits afforded by its World Elite Mastercard status.
However, one unusual travel benefit noted by Barclays is access to the Mastercard World Elite Air program. This program can help you score a free upgraded flight, discount tickets, or a free companion ticket if you purchase a full-fare economy or business class ticket.
This program should be standard across all Mastercard World Elite credit cards but is conspicuously absent from any benefits guides for the Citi ThankYou Premier card. However, it is confirmed to be available on the Barclaycard Arrival Plus card.
Final Thoughts on the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard®
The Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® is the easiest card on our list to use in Europe. It offers Chip-and-PIN, as opposed to Chip-and-Signature, capabilities. Many unattended or automated kiosks in Europe require that you use a PIN with your chip-enabled card, which renders most US issued cards useless as they are predominately Chip-and-Signature cards.
The Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard represents a surprisingly good everyday value, offering benefits only seen in top end cards for a lower-end annual fee. As a beginner, you can’t go wrong with this card. But if you’re deciding between this card and the Citi ThankYou Premier, we’d recommend you go with the Citi ThankYou Premier card.
Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card
Their celebrity television ads may have caught your attention, but the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card is a great value for beginners if you tend to book a lot of hotel stays.
Like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus card, Venture from Capital One also offers double miles for every dollar spent (valued at 1 cent per mile in redemption value). On top of that, the card is the only one on our list that also offers a $100 credit towards TSA Pre-Check or Global Entry membership.
But the biggest surprise is that you can earn 10x miles when you book and pay for your hotel stay through Hotels.com, using a special link. You can stack it with Hotels.com’s Rewards program, which offers the 11th night you book for free calculated as a rebate of the average price of the previous 10 nights booked.
Effectively, you can stack the two programs, which gives you 10% in rewards with miles on the Venture card. It also gets you 10% back through the Hotels.com Rewards program, for a total of 20% rewards on hotel stays. This is the most generous hotel reward of any credit card on the market.
If you redeem your miles for travel, you can truly score any seat, any airline, with no blackout dates, as Capital One often boasts. That’s because you can book your new reservation through Capital One’s booking tool (provided by Orbitz) or by having a past travel purchase credited back to you.
Final Thoughts on the Venture From Capital One Card
As a Visa Signature card, the Venture from Capital One also offers a myriad of other benefits (similar to the Chase Sapphire Preferred). These include an extended warranty on purchases, purchase security, lost luggage reimbursement, travel accident insurance, and more. While not as feature rich as World Elite Mastercards, it does offer an above average number of card benefits.
With a $95 annual fee (waived for the first year), generous hotel rewards, and Visa Signature benefits, Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card represents a great value for those who book hotel stays often.
Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority
Rounding out our list of best travel credit cards for beginners is the newest card on the market, the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority card. We find that most beginners to travel credit cards lean towards an airline or hotel specific rewards card. As the nation’s largest airline, we picked this particular Southwest Airlines card for both its travel redemption opportunities and other unique card benefits.
The Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority card offers two Rapid Rewards points for every dollar spent on Southwest and partner hotel/car rental purchase and one point per dollar spent on anything else. These points are valued at 1.2 cents per point redeemed.
You’ll also receive 7,500 points during each annual anniversary, a $75 annual Southwest travel credit, four upgraded boardings per year, 20% back on in-flight purchases of drinks and Wi-Fi, and the ability to earn points towards qualification for both A-list elite status and a companion pass.
The latter being the better benefit, as earning 40,000 Rapid Rewards points in a year’s time could translate to a free companion pass. This pass is the holy grail of air rewards, allowing anyone you designated to travel with you for free whenever you travel, for one year (taxes and fees not included).
While most airline credit cards offer free checked bags to cardholders, Southwest already offers two free checked bags to every passenger. Southwest is also famous for its no change fee and no cancellation fee policies, for both paid and reward flights. All of which makes traveling Southwest a cinch.
One curious problem with the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority card is that it is initially issued as regular Visa card with no additional card benefits. However, a Chase representative confirmed that once you’re approved for the card, you can request the card be upgraded to a Visa Signature card.
Visa Signature benefits would, presumably, be the same as other Visa Signature cards, including travel and purchase protections. But given the newness of this card, verification of full Visa Signature benefits has yet to be confirmed.
Final Thoughts Regarding the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Card
There are very few corners of the country where Southwest Airlines doesn’t fly to. Starting in a few months, it will begin flights to Hawaii. The prospect for Hawaii award travel many entice many to sign up for this card.
As it stands today, Rapid Rewards members can redeem their points for any seat available. Redemption amounts are based on a conversion of 78 points per $1 spent on airfare.
Overall, the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority card represents a rare find. Valuable card features, customer-friendly airline, and easily-usable benefits make this card one of the best travel credit cards for beginners. Despite its higher-than-average $149 annual fee, most users can and will easily make back that amount in benefits. They’ll do this by flying with Southwest Airlines and using the Priority card.
Bottom Line Regarding Best Travel Credit Cards For Beginners
Depending on where you fly, you may find that other airline or hotel credit cards better suit your travel needs. Regardless, our list is based on a general audience. Only you know your financial situation. You can determine what the best travel credit cards for beginners is for yourself.
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Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided by any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.