Travel rewards credit cards
First up are the cards that can get you the most value if you're willing to put in the work: travel rewards credit cards that earn Amex, Chase, and other bank points. You can transfer these points to various airline and hotel partners, as well as use them to book travel directly through your credit card issuer.
The mega-popular Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, Chase Sapphire Reserve, American Express® Gold Card and others fall into this category.
Chase Sapphire Preferred— The rewards card that started it all. For a $95 annual fee, you get 2x points on travel and dining, not to mention valuable protections like primary car rental insurance and baggage delay insurance. Read the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card review.
Chase Sapphire Reserve— The premium sibling to the Sapphire Preferred has a $450 annual fee, but offers more perks like a $300 annual travel credit and 3x points on travel and dining. Read the Chase Sapphire Reserve review.
American Express Gold Card— If dining is one of your top spending categories, the Amex Gold is a great card for you. It earns 4x points at restaurants (and 4x at US supermarkets on up to $25,000 each year, then 1x) and each month you get up to $10 in statement credits when you use the card at GrubHub, Seamless, The Cheesecake Factory, Ruth's Chris Steak House, Boxed, and participating Shake Shacks. There's a $250 annual fee. Read the Amex Gold Card review.
The Platinum Card® from American Express— It's one of the most premium personal credit cards out there, with a $550 annual fee and a long list of benefits. You get annual statement credits for airline incidental fees, Saks purchases, and Uber rides, and can access a variety of airport lounges including Amex's own Centurion Lounges. Read the Amex Platinum review.
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card— Like the Sapphire Preferred, the Venture Rewards Card packs in a lot of benefits for a sub-$100-annual-fee card, and in this case the $95 annual fee is waived the first year. You'll earn 2x miles on all purchases, and 10x miles on hotel bookings made with the card via hotels.com/venture. You can redeem miles to cover travel purchases on your statement, or transfer them to a selection of airline programs. Read the Capital One Venture Rewards card review.
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Cash-back credit cards
Not everyone travels enough to make cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred worth it. If you'd prefer to earn money back on your spending, you have plenty of great options as well. Unless otherwise specified, these cards don't have an annual fee.
Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card— This is a top cash-back card thanks to its many bonus categories. You'll earn 3x points (3% cash back) on eating out and ordering in, on travel, gas stations, rideshares, and transit, and on popular streaming services, and 1% back on everything else. It's also one of the rare no-annual-fee cash-back cards to waive foreign transaction fees. Read the Wells Fargo Propel Amex card review.
Chase Freedom Unlimited— This card offers a solid flat rate (1.5% back) on every purchase, and it's one of the most flexible cash-back cards around, because it gives you options. If you decide you'd like to get into travel rewards further down the line, you can combine your cash-back earnings from the Freedom Unlimited with Chase Ultimate Rewards points from a card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred to use them toward travel. Read the Chase Freedom Unlimited review.
Chase Freedom— Like the Freedom Unlimited, the Chase Freedom earns cash back on every purchase. But instead of offering a flat cash-back rate, it offers 5% back on up to $1,500 spent each quarter of the year in rotating bonus categories, such as gas stations and streaming services, and 1% back on everything else. You have to activate the bonus each quarter to earn the 5% back. The Freedom's cash-back earnings can be combined with Ultimate Rewards points if you have a more premium Chase card. Read the Chase Freedom review.
Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express— This card has a $95 annual fee, and it has some great bonus categories. These include 6% back on select US streaming services, 6% back on up to $6,000 spent at US supermarkets each year (then 1%), 3% back at US gas stations and on transit, and 1% on everything else. Read the Blue Cash Preferred Card review.
Capital One Savor Cash Rewards Credit Card— If you want to earn extra cash back on your dining purchases, this is a good pick. The Savor card earns an unlimited 4% back on dining and entertainment, 2% back at grocery stores, and 1% back on everything else. There's a $95 annual fee that's waived the first year, and no foreign transaction fees. Read the Capital One Savor card review.
Read more: The best cash-back credit cards of 2019
Airline credit cards
If you're loyal to a specific airline — or even if you just travel with the same airline multiple times a year — it could be worth holding a co-branded credit card to get a free checked bag, priority boarding, and other perks. Airline credit cards run the gamut from entry-level to premium options, and the best choice for you will depend on how frequently you travel.
Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card— Alaska miles are very valuable, and also hard to come by. Alaska's co-branded card (with a $75 annual fee) is a great way to earn them, and you also get a companion fare each year. Read the Alaska Airlines Visa review.
Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express— If you fly Delta a handful of times each year, this card is a good option. It has a $95 annual fee that's waived the first year, and offers the basic airline perks like a free checked bag, priority boarding, and 2 miles per dollar on Delta purchases. Read the Gold Delta SkyMiles Amex review.
Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express— For more frequent Delta flyers, the Platinum Delta Amex could make sense thanks to additional benefits like an annual companion certificate and the ability to earn Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) toward Delta Medallion elite Status. The card has a higher $195 annual fee, but if those perks are useful to you, it can be worth it. Read the Platinum Delta SkyMiles Amex review.
Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card— This card has a $99 annual fee, and earns 2 points per dollar on Southwest purchases. One of the top reasons to consider it — or any other Southwest credit card — is that the sign-up bonus you earn from meeting the minimum spending requirement counts toward the Southwest Companion Pass. The Companion Pass lets you designate one person to travel with you on Southwest for free (minus taxes and fees) when you have a flight booked. Read the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier card review.
United Explorer Card— United's co-branded credit card with a $95 annual fee stands out for offering bonus miles on categories other than just United purchases, and an application fee credit for up to $100 for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry. As a cardholder, you also get access to additional low-level award space, which makes it easier to stretch the miles you earn. Read the United Explorer card review.
United Explorer Business Card— The business version of the Explorer card also has a $95 annual fee, and it offers bonus miles at gas stations, office supply stores, and restaurants, in addition to on United purchases. Read the United Explorer Business card review.
Read more: American vs. Delta vs. United — we compared the 3 most popular airline credit cards
Hotel credit cards
Hotel co-branded credit cards can get you complimentary elite status, bonus points on stays, and other solid perks. As with airline credit cards, the options run the gamut from basic cards with annual fees under $100 to premium picks that offer fancier benefits.
Hilton Honors Aspire Card from American Express— This card has a $450 annual fee, but if you have even just a few Hilton stays in a year it can be well worth it. You get complimentary Hilton Diamond status, which can get you free breakfast and complimentary room upgrades, and each cardmember year you'll get up to $250 in Hilton resort credits and up to $250 in airline fee credits each calendar year. Read the Hilton Aspire card review.
Hilton Honors American Express Business Card— If you qualify for a small business credit card and are a Hilton loyalist, consider this card with a moderate $95 annual fee and benefits like bonus points on Hilton stays and complimentary Gold Hilton status. Read the Hilton Honors Amex Business card review.
IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card— This card gets you a lot in exchange for an $89 fee. Each year you get an anniversary night that you can use at hotels that cost up to 40,000 points, and you get complimentary IHG Platinum status. It often runs lucrative sign-up offers, to boot. Read the IHG Rewards Club Premier card review.
Read more: The best hotel credit cards
Business credit cards
If you run your own company or even if you just have a side gig like freelancing or selling items online, a business credit card is a great way to separate your work expenses and earn rewards targeted to business spenders. Many business credit cards offer bonus points on categories like office supplies, and if you opt for a high-end card you can enjoy luxury travel benefits like airport lounge access.