Top Credit Card Choices for Frequent Flyers

Learn which card is right for your kind of travel and spending habits. Choosing correctly can mean the difference between a free vacation and just plain old card fees.

It's hard to turn on the TV and not see an advertisement for a travel rewards credit card. We love to travel and credit card companies know it, which is why so many airlines have teamed up with banks to issue reward cards for frequent fliers. At first, it started out easy. The more miles you flew, the better rewards you could get, like free flights and upgrades. But as the offers and industry evolved, and as consumers grew more savvy, airline companies and their credit card partners began to make things more complex.

No longer could you fly X miles and expect X points or credit. Instead, you had to fly with this sort of ticket during this period of time and so on. In addition, credit card companies and their airline partners made it trickier to earn those amazing sign-up offers and cash-in points. Nowadays, there are hundreds of frequent flyer credit card programs for just about every airline in the world. Banks are more than happy to partner with these airlines because if you're flying, you're spending. And credit card companies love a spender.

From Chase to American Express to Bank of America, every issuer offers a travel credit card that is usually associated to an airline company or alliance. With so many on the market, it can be hard to decide which one to get. We sifted through the offers and decided on our top four picks for travel reward credit cards. Even if you've never accumulated points or used the wrong card, here's how to find the best card for you.

Why Travel Rewards?

If you use a credit card for purchases, you may as well earn free travel while doing so. Travel reward cards allow you to rack up airline miles or travel points while spending money on everyday purchases. Miles or points can be used to buy airline tickets, hotels or train tickets, depending on the card. It is increasingly difficult to accrue miles through actual flights.

They are awarded based on the amount you pay for the ticket, not actual miles flown. Nowadays, the best way to build up miles is through a credit card. These credit cards also come with other travel-related perks, such as no foreign transaction fees, trip cancellation insurance, free checked bags, and/or airport lounge access. Most travel cards also come with a major sign-up bonus that in some cases cover the cost of a round-trip flight.

But travelers beware, travel rewards cards are only worth getting if you can pay off your balance each month. Otherwise, you'll get slammed with high interest rates. Also keep in mind that most rewards cards come with an annual fee. We chose four cards based on their current bonuses, ease of redemption, flexibility, customer reviews and reasonable annual fee.

Most Flexible: Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

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The Chase Sapphire Preferred card is a great all-around travel rewards card, but it is best for domestic or international travelers who like flexibility and are not loyal to a particular airline. Accepted worldwide, it offers flexible point redemption. In fact, since JPMorgan Chase launched Chase Sapphire Preferred in 2009, experts have praised it as one of the best rewards cards around.

Keep in mind, the card is targeted to affluent consumers and requires a very good credit score. It can charge a very high APR to those with lower scores. The card’s bonuses and perks don’t come for free either, as spending thresholds and various fees apply.

Best Airline Card (Domestic): Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards

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Southwest Airlines flies to 90 destinations in the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean. It has hubs in major US cities: Chicago, Las Vegas and Baltimore. The Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier card is useful for domestic travelers who live near a Southwest hub. Not only can you earn free travel, but it helps make flying more comfortable.

For 20 years, Southwest has partnered with JPMorgan Chase, which issues its Rapid Rewards Premier card. And for good reason! The Southwest Rapid Rewards card is a particularly good choice for families because it's easy to rack up points, and when you do, cheap to redeem. Since points are allocated based on seat prices, you can really cash in during a sale.

Cardholders also get two free checked bags and are given flexibility on certain travel fees. Like most rewards cards, the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier card requires very good credit and charges a high APR to those with lower credit scores.

Best Airline Card (International): United MileagePlus Explorer

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The United MileagePlus Explorer card is a great airline card for international travelers. Members could be eligible for a signup bonus and other bonuses in addition to some of the following perks:

United Airlines flies to 337 destinations in 54 countries, from Havana to Hong Kong. It has many direct international flights from hubs like Newark, Chicago, and Los Angeles. United is part of the Star Alliance.

Its MileagePlus rewards can be redeemed with 28 Star Alliance members like Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines. Each year on your cardmember anniversary, you receive two passes to the United Club, where you get free wine and a break from airport chaos. Some fees apply, but the value of the card typically outweighs them with free checked bags, reimbursement for delays and lost luggage and lodging situations covered in some extenuating travel circumstances. This makes it one of the best cards for travelers looking for comprehensive benefits.

Apply for the United MileagePlus Explorer card here

If you fly United Airlines frequently, the MileagePlus Explorer Card is a great value.

Easiest: Capital One Venture Rewards

Launched in 2010, the Capital One Venture card is one of the most flexible rewards cards on the market. Capital One Venture Rewards points can be used at many hotels or on flight purchases. They are not limited to particular brands.

They count toward a range of travel purchases, including things not usually covered by reward cards: train tickets, taxis, buses, bed and breakfasts and travel agents. And since the Capital One card is not tied to a single airline, there are no blackouts. Also, miles don’t expire. If you're looking for a card with moderate fees and high reward potential, look no further. If you want to use your miles on a wide range of travel purchases, the Capital One Venture card is an excellent choice.

Weigh Your Options Carefully

Travel credit cards are so potentially lucrative that it can be tempting to sign up for many of them at once. That's probably a bad idea. If you don't spend enough money to get the sign-up bonus, a rewards card is largely useless and you'll still have to pay that annual fee. Making unnecessary purchases simply to earn flights could land you in debt.

Moral of the story: start small. Choose the one airline or rewards card that is the best fit for you and watch those miles take you on flights to Philadelphia, Paris, or Perth.

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Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed on this page are those of the author's alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer.