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While travel hasn’t yet returned to its formerly robust level, there’s still a lot of pent-up demand to get back on the road and into the air in the next year. And when that happens, a lot of Americans are undoubtedly going to want — no, they’re going to need — a well-deserved vacation.
That’s where CNN Underscored’s list of the best travel credit cards for 2021 can come in handy. The right credit card can earn you enough in travel rewards to make your getaway easier, or more enjoyable, or — dare we say it — even almost free. Our comprehensive methodology compares every aspect of each travel credit card to our “benchmark credit card” — the Citi® Double Cash Card — to determine which cards can get you the most perks or rewards.
So take a few minutes to check out our list of the best travel credit cards in 2021 and think about which one might get you to that getaway as planes soar back into the skies again.
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card: Best overall travel card
American Express® Gold Card: Best “non-travel” travel card
Chase Sapphire Reserve®: Best for travel purchases
The Platinum Card® from American Express: Best luxury travel perks
Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card: Best airline travel card
World of Hyatt Credit Card: Best hotel travel card
Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card: Best for easy-to-use travel rewards
Why did we select these cards as our best travel credit cards for 2021? Dive into the details of each card with us and see how they stack up.
Why it’s great in one sentence: The Chase Sapphire Preferred earns valuable Ultimate Rewards points for every dollar you spend on it, and the points can be redeemed for travel and other eligible categories at 1.25 cents per point, or transferred to the program’s airline and hotel partners for potentially even more useful travel redemptions.
This card is right for: People with larger than average travel and/or dining expenses (including food delivery) who want a low-fee card with basic transferable points.
- Earn 2 points for every dollar spent on travel (or 5 total points if purchased through Ultimate Rewards).
- Earn 3 points for every dollar spent on dining, select streaming services and select online grocery purchases.
- Earn 1 point per dollar on all other purchases.
- Points can be redeemed for travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal at a rate of 1.25 cents per point.
- Now through Dec. 31, 2021, points can also be redeemed for purchases made at Airbnb and Away through awaytravel.com.
- Points can also be transferred to any of Chase’s 14 airline and hotel partners.
- No foreign transaction fees.
- $95 annual fee.
Sign-up bonus: Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening.
What we like about the Chase Sapphire Preferred: It may not seem like it, but at over 10 years old, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is practically the granddaddy of travel credit cards. With classic travel, dining, streaming services and online grocery bonus categories, 5 points per dollar on Lyft rides and a 60,000-point sign-up bonus, it should be easy to quickly score plenty of points with the card.
Speaking of points, most food delivery services will code as “dining” on the Sapphire Preferred and earn 3 points per dollar, just like at a restaurant, so you’re covered if you’re ordering at home more often nowadays. And card holders also get a complimentary DashPass subscription for at least one year when they activate it by Dec. 31, 2021.
But the real power of the Sapphire Preferred is in its redemptions. You’ll get 1.25 cents per point when redeeming points through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal, and can get potentially even more value when transferring points to one of Chase’s 14 travel partners. In fact, the Ultimate Rewards program still features some of the best transfer partners, including United Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Hyatt Hotels, and all Chase partners transfer at a 1-to-1 ratio.
Chase also added new redemption options to the Sapphire Preferred last year. The issuer’s “Pay Yourself Back” tool allows you to redeem points on purchases beyond just travel. The current eligible categories are Airbnb and Away purchases made through awaytravel.com. Through Dec. 31, 2021, you’ll get 1.25 cents per point when redeeming this way.
To top it off, as international travel resumes, you’ll be able to safely use the Chase Sapphire Preferred overseas, since it has no foreign transaction fees. It even provides primary car rental insurance, so you don’t have to look to your own auto policy first if you have an accident with your rental car.
You’ll get primary car rental insurance with the Chase Sapphire Preferred.
What could be better: The Chase Sapphire Preferred is a classic, but in some ways it’s starting to get long in the tooth. Though the card’s recent enhancements added more bonus categories and a higher earning rate on dining purchases, other credit cards offer bonus points or cash back in the same travel categories, and in some cases at higher rates (though usually accompanied by higher annual fees).
Even our benchmark Citi Double Cash card earns 2% on all purchases (1% when you buy, plus 1% when you pay it off), though you can get more value when redeeming your Sapphire Preferred points than you can with simple cash back.
For many people, the Chase Sapphire Preferred isn’t as flashy as its older sibling, the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which comes with travel perks and a $300 annual travel credit (but also a much higher annual fee). But if you don’t need or won’t use all those extra perks, you may be better off with this significantly less expensive version.
Where it beats our benchmark card: Travel and dining bonus categories, excellent travel protections, solid airline and hotel partners and sign-up bonus.
Where our benchmark card is better: The Citi Double Cash has no annual fee, an introductory rate on balance transfers and easy cash back.
Read CNN Underscored’s Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card review.
Learn more and apply for the Chase Sapphire Preferred.
Why it’s great in one sentence: The American Express Gold card earns tons of valuable Amex travel points on practically all the food-related purchases you’re making even when you’re not traveling, and the credits available on the card nearly offset its annual fee.
This card is right for: People who can utilize all of the card’s various credits and who spend significant money at restaurants, on food delivery services or at U.S. supermarkets while they’re not on the road.
- Earn 4 points for every dollar you spend at U.S. supermarkets (up to $25,000 per year in purchases, then 1x).
- Earn 4 points per dollar at restaurants worldwide.
- Earn 3 points per dollar for flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
- Earn 1 point per dollar on everything else.
- Up to $120 in annual dining credits.
- Up to $120 in Uber Cash annually.
- $250 annual fee (see rates and fees)
- Terms apply.
Welcome bonus: Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first six months after opening the account.
What we like about the American Express Gold: Calling it our “best ‘non-travel’ travel card” may sound odd, but the Amex Gold is a perfect choice if you want to earn as many travel points as possible even when you’re not traveling, and then have lots of ways to use those points on trips down the line.
First, with the Amex Gold, you’ll earn 4 points for every dollar you spend on restaurants worldwide, and on up to $25,000 in annual purchases at U.S. supermarkets (1 point per dollar thereafter). Most food delivery services count as “restaurants” on this card, so that means the vast majority of your food purchases will earn 4x points, regardless of how you’re eating.
You’ll also earn 3 points per dollar when you book airfare directly with an airline, so if you’re looking to jump on any sales for flights later in the year, you can pay for them with the Amex Gold and earn extra points on those as well.
The points earned on this card are American Express Membership Rewards points, which are extremely useful. You can redeem them directly for flights via Amex Travel at 1 cent each, but if you put in some extra effort and research, you can potentially get much more value from them by transferring them to any of Amex’s 21 airline and hotel partners, which include Delta Air Lines, JetBlue, Marriott and many more.
Read More: The best travel credit cards of 2021