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The Shwezigon pagoda in Bagan, Myanmar. Why not head to an exotic destination using your travel credit card's rewards points?

Stefan Munder / Creative Commons BY

The Shwezigon pagoda in Bagan, Myanmar. Why not head to an exotic destination using your travel credit card's rewards points?

3 best travel rewards credit cards

How to maximize your travels by racking up points with the right cards

People often ask how I can go on so many trips and I’m quick to tout the benefits of strategically chosen travel credit cards in making getaways more feasible. My husband and I save thousands of dollars per year on flights and accommodations this way, and if I weren’t such a stickler about getting the greatest return on each point, we could use our benefits for car rentals and train travel, too.

Money saving tips for cruises

I’ve met fellow credit card aficionados who really understand the system of racking up points and using them to maximize impending escapes, but many times when I mention which credit cards we use and how far the points can truly go, people stare wide-eyed, either in awe that we’re able to do this or concerned that I've spent so much time learning about points systems. (Has it become a bit of an obsession? Yes!)

I’ll never spend too much time talking about the best uses of points because there are professional bloggers out there who provide all of the information you’d ever want to learn (see The Points GuyNerd Wallet and Million MIle Secrets for starters).

But for those who don't have time to nerd out on credit card advice, here's my rundown of the 3 Travel Rewards Credit Cards that will go the longest way. 

AAdvantage Executive World Elite

For travelers who rack up the miles to far-flung destinations

Giraffe Center, Nairobi, Kenya
Shannon Kircher / The Wanderlust EffectGiraffe Center, Nairobi, Kenya — a trip courtesy of points earned on our American Airlines credit card.

Truth be told, I don’t love everything about American Airlines. The planes could use some rethinking and the customer service could use beefing up. That said, its One World Alliance has the best offerings for us since there are endless options for destinations around the globe.

AAdvantage Executive credit card
AAdvantage Executive credit card

With major carriers like American Airlines, British Airways, Qatar Airways, Cathay Pacific, Royal Jordanian and others as part of the lineup, you're pretty much guaranteed decent flight routes around the world. Plus, American’s point system is fair and simple enough for most travelers to easily grasp. They operate on a high season/low season schedule for different regions with set rates for standard vs. saver fares in economy, business and first class. For bargain hunters, you can fly within the United States, including Hawaii, Alaska and parts of the Caribbean, for as low as 12,500 points each way during low season (25,000 for first class).

Earning 30,000 to 100,000 points in bonus points

You shouldn’t even consider using points if they’re valued at less than 2.5 cents per point, but great value is really above 4 cents per point

While American’s point system recently underwent an overhaul, the American Airlines Citibank Executive Card makes it easy to earn points on your AAdvantage account and can offer some excellent start-up bonuses. When we signed up, they were advertising a 50,000 mile sign up bonus (a great option considering it’s often around 30,000), but after reading about a lesser-known 100,000 point start-up bonus option, I called in and chatted with a rep about what was available. As fate would have it, the 100,000 point option was still available with a $10,000 spend in a 6 month period. We were in the lead up to our wedding so racking up the necessary expenses was doable — surprise! weddings aren't cheap! — and it earned us a hefty number of points toward future travel. That 12,500 each way low season fare I mentioned? You could get four round trip flights within North America using those bonus miles. If you choose your destinations wisely, you can eek out some serious value with far-flung destinations and second-tier airports within the system.

With the AAdvantage MasterCard, you’ll earn 1 point per dollar on your purchases, double points when you book an American Airlines flight using the card. You also get access to the Admiral’s Club when you travel, which is a major bonus for us (normally $50 per person) since we typically try to use the lounge when our layover is long enough. When you spend $40,000 or more per year on your card, you get a 10,000 qualifying mile bonus, too, which gets you a bit closer to your upgraded status (25,000 miles needed for Gold).

Using AAdvantage points

We’ve used our miles many times for round-trip flights to and from the U.S. from St. Maarten; this is especially great when we can score those 12,500 point fares. Most recently (I’m extra proud of this), we used our points to score our round-trip flights to Africa (into Kigali and out of Cape Town) using a combination of American Airlines and Qatar Airways for 87,500 points each way in business/first class (37,500 for economy), and about $145 in tax per person. Economy fares alone would have cost us around $3,000 round trip with our dates and routes, so we ended up scoring big on this purchase!

A tip on how not to use your AAdvantage points? When flying transatlantic, try to avoid British Airways when possible. Their taxes make the value of points drop hugely (e.g., taxes for St. Maarten to Cape Town flying British Airways would be over $800 R/T; it was way less using Qatar instead). Many times these flights aren’t available online so be sure to do the legwork and call in when you find a route that works – it can be a huge savings and a better airline option!

How to apply & current promotion highlights

  • Executive MasterCard with AAdvantage Elite Travel Benefits: Apply here for 60,000 points; apply here for 50,000 points.
  • Annual fee: $450
  • APR: 15.49% variable rate
  • 50,000 or 60,000 bonus miles earned dependent on spending $5,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening. 
  • Access to American Airlines Admiral’s Club, which entitles you to unlimited complimentary admission to more than 50 lounges worldwide for yourself and two guests, or your entire immediate family. 
  • Earn 2 AAdvantage miles for every $1 spent on eligible American Airlines purchases

Chase Sapphire Preferred

Flexibility & great deals to Central and South America

A beach scene at Punta Sal, Honduras. Our journey to Honduras was one of many round-trip flights covered by points using Chase Sapphire Preferred.
Shannon Kircher / The Wanderlust EffectA beach scene at Punta Sal, Honduras. Our journey to Honduras was one of many round-trip flights covered by points using Chase Sapphire Preferred.

If I were allowed a single credit card that I could use to accrue miles, it would be the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. Hands down, it’s the best card available for globetrotters with great point conversions, no foreign transaction fees, built-in travel insurance and other benefits. I’ve had nothing but wonderful experiences with the team at Chase; they’re quick to call if they think something is potentially fraudulent and they FedExed me new credit cards to Jerusalem when mine had to be cancelled unexpectedly.

Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card
Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card

Chase transfers 1:1 to a host of airlines including United, British Airways, Southwest and others, along with a handful of hotel chains. Plus, the sign-up bonus provides a great base. When we signed up, we earned a 40,000 mile bonus once we hit our $5,000 spend in the first months of joining.

In terms of earning, all purchases earn 1 point per dollar, with 2 points per dollar on travel and dining, and bonus points earned if you shop through the Chase portal where hundreds of stores are easily accessed. (I’ve earned 5x points on Nordstrom and Sephora orders just by going through the portal first.) Additionally, while it’s hard to put a real value on this, the built-in travel insurance represents a solid value for travelers. If you charge a car rental and deposit on your Chase card, you can decline anything but extra basic coverage. During our road trip in Ireland, this represented a savings of literally hundreds of dollars.

How we maximize Chase

For us, as residents of Anguilla in the Caribbean, we find that transfers to United are the most valuable because of United’s partner airlines with Star Alliance. In the U.S., Southwest would likely have been a valuable transfer partner, but with St. Maarten as our nearest major international airport, being able to fly United or Copa (one of United’s partners) is a godsend. Traveling from St. Maarten to anywhere in Central or northern South America falls under the lowest tier for point transfers with their Saver option; it costs only 10,000 points each way or 20,000 for business class when it’s available. We’ll also being using our Chase points on South African Airways on an upcoming flight from Kigali, Rwanda, to Johannesburg, South Africa (17,500 per person one way plus taxes instead of a roughly $500 one way air fare per person).

How to apply & current promotion highlights

  • Chase Sapphire Preferred card: Apply here for 50,000 points that are earned after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months.
  • Annual fee: $0 for first year, then $95
  • APR: 16.24% to 23.24% variable rate
  • Earn 2X points on dining at restaurants from fast food to fine dining
  • Earn 2X points on all travel from air fare and hotels to taxis and trains
  • Pay no foreign transaction fees when you use your card on purchases made outside the United States.
  • Get 20% off travel when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, a $625 flight requires just 50,000 points.

SPG Preferred American Express

For connoisseurs of high-end hotels & luxury properties

Le Meridien Fisherman’s Cove, an SPG property you can book for about 10,000 points per night.
Shannon Kircher / The Wanderlust EffectLe Meridien Fisherman’s Cove in the Seychelles, an SPG hotel you can book for about 10,000 points a night.

In the points community (yeah, it’s a thing), Starwood points are widely considered to be the most valuable because they’re the toughest to accrue. As with any point system, you have to understand the true value of a given point. A bonus of 100,000 points sounds great, but if it costs 100,000 per night to book an entry-level room at a basic hotel, then is the value really there?

SPG Preferred American Express card
SPG Preferred American Express card

With SPG points, there’s a wide spread, from properties costing 2,000 points a night for a free night to super luxe properties in exclusive destinations valued at 30,000+ per night. In between those two extremes, there are some incredible values to be had, especially in the Category 3 and 4 tiers.

You’ll earn points for each stay at a Starwood property, plus bonus points for booking with your SPG Amex and further bonus points if you carry any SPG status (made easier when you’re approved for the card). Of course, the real key — as with any card — is the initial bonus that fast-tracks you to free stays. If you keep an eye out, there are some exceptional signing deals for a boost, some up to 35,000 points (typically it’s about 20,000 – 25,000 points). In our case, a $3,000 spend in three months earned us a 30,000-point bonus, which could score us getaways like 10 nights at the Le Méridien Angkor in Cambodia (3,000 points per night) or 3 nights at Le Meridien Fisherman’s Cove in the Seychelles (10,000 points per night).

The biggest question mark now lies in how the points will be affected with the Marriott-Starwood merger, but in the meanwhile, the current value of Starwood points in mid-tier properties can be exceptional.

Le Méridien Angkor in Cambodia — score a room for 3,000 points per night.
Le Méridien Angkor in Cambodia — score a room for 3,000 points per night.

How we’ll use our Starwood points

Your views on points spending will differ depending on how you personally value your points and how often you travel, but I’m all about getting as much value out of each point as possible. Generally speaking, this means you shouldn’t even consider using points if they’re valued at less than 2.5 cents per point, but great value is really above 4 cents per point. For a really strategic use of points when you have enough to do something but not quite enough to really score the getaway you want is the Cash + Points option, when available. In this scenario, you operate on a co-pay system, where you pay a portion of your stay in points, and the remainder in cash, which will help stretch your points further and potentially bring a wow property within reach.

How to apply & current promotion highlights

  • SPG Preferred American Express card: Apply online here and get 25,000 points if you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months.
  • Annual fee: $0 for first year, then $95
  • APR: 15.49% to 19.49% variable rate
  • Free nights at more than 1,200 hotels and resorts in over 100 countries with no blackout dates. hotels include St. Regis, The Luxury Collection, W Hotels, Le Méridien, Westin, Sheraton, Aloft, Element Hotels, Four Points by Sheraton and Tribute Portfolio.

Our travel credit card lineup

There are other cards that bring their own value to the plate, but I’ve found that we have a fair bit of buying power with the combination of these three cards. Our American Airlines Citibank card is for use around the globe, with the exception of Central and South America. Our Chase Sapphire card has scored us great deals for travel within Central and South America, along with some stints further afield (e.g. first class to Vegas for 30,000 points) and with strategic use on partner airlines. Our SPG card is our go-to for hotel stays.

As a rule, we don’t use our AAdvantage miles or our Chase Sapphire Points to purchase room nights since generally we’ve found better value using points for flights. In actuality, if we limited ourselves to two primary getaways per year, we could travel entirely free (with the exception of taxes) using airline miles and SPG points.

I was always wary of credit cards growing up, but if you’re responsible about paying off cards monthly (we’re diligent about not carrying over too much of a previous balance) and have the credit to qualify for some of the more useful cards for point accrual, credit cards can be a great tool to help make travel more feasible and more enjoyable!

What are your go-to credit cards for travel? Any that have provided exceptional value for globetrotting?

Note: Cruiseable doesn't accept payments for editorial coverage. See our Ethics & Disclosure policy. This article originally appeared on The Wanderlust Effect.

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Shannon Kircher
Shannon Kircher is chief curator of Cruiseable and founder and editor of The Wanderlust Effect, a travel blog focused on experiential travel with a luxury slant. Originally from California, she resides full time on the island of Anguilla where she and her husband operate the luxury boutique hotel Frangipani Beach Resort.