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The best credit cards for international travel typically share a few common qualities. They offer high rewards and substantial signup bonuses and waive their foreign transaction fees. High rewards and signup bonuses are characteristic of any quality rewards credit card, but the foreign transaction fee is specific to international travelers and a crucial item to consider when applying for a travel card. Usually, foreign transaction fees are an extra 3% charge on every out-of-country purchase (sometimes you'll see 2.7% as well). If you do a fair amount of traveling abroad, you'll save a lot of money by equipping yourself with a card that waives the "f/x fee," as it is sometimes abbreviated.
Here are NerdWallet's top picks for the best credit cards for international travel.
Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card
One of our perennial favorites, the Chase Sapphire Preferred has earned a reputation for offering a massive signup bonus. Currently, the bonus is 40,000 points when you spend $3,000 in the first three months. Typically, 40,000 points equates to $400 in rewards. However, by redeeming for travel booked through Chase, your points are worth 25% more. The full value of the bonus stands at a whopping $500.
Ongoing rewards accumulate at a 1-point-per-dollar base rate, with double miles on travel and dining at restaurants. Unlike most cards, 1 point per dollar is not equal to a 1% rewards rate in this instance. You have to take into consideration the redemption bonus for booking travel with Chase and the annual rewards dividend. The rewards dividend gives cardholders a bonus sum equivalent to 7% of the points earned over the course of the year. If, for example, you earn 100,000 points in a 12-month span, you'll receive an additional 7,000 points at the end of the year. Including those two factors in our calculation, the base rewards rate can be as high as 1.34%.
Miles earned with the Sapphire can be transferred to some of the leading travel loyalty programs at a 1:1 conversion rate. The programs include those run by Amtrak, British Airways, United Air Lines, InterContinental Hotels Group, Marriott, and Southwest Airlines. There is no foreign transaction fee, and the annual fee is $95 (waived the first year).
Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard
The Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard is the best travel card for long-term value. It has no foreign transaction fee and comes with a free subscription to travel-organizer service TripIt Pro, but the real draw is in its long-term rewards rate. It earns 2 miles on every $1 spent, much like the Capital One Venture Rewards, but it does one better: If you redeem your miles for a statement credit against travel expenses, you get 10% of your miles credited back to your account. So if you use your Barclays miles to wipe out gas, hotels, airfare, and so on, your rewards rate is essentially 2.2%. That's on top of the 40,000 Barclaycard Miles signup bonus, which is also worth 10% more when redeemed for travel. Its $89 annual fee is waived the first year.
If you're a rewards hacker and can get great value out of, say, a United mile or Marriott point, you're better off with the Sapphire Preferred, which lets you transfer to other programs. However, if you're like me and would rather not cobble together an itinerary to get the most value out of my points, you'll prefer the simplicity of the Arrival.
Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Credit Card
I know what you're thinking: Whoa, now, Southwest is a domestic carrier! They can't take me to Europe! And how am I supposed to go on my annual hike through the Himalayas?
Turns out Southwest has a few tricks up its sleeve. Yes, the airline flies only to destinations in North America. But the Southwest credit card uses partners to offer free flights to destinations around the globe. You can go anywhere your wandering heart desires!
Right now, Southwest is offering a killer signup bonus. When you spend $2,000 in the first three months, you get 50,000 points good for two round-trip domestic flights. That's hard to beat. Ongoing rewards accumulate at 1 point per dollar spent, with double miles on purchases with Southwest, AirTran, and Rapid Rewards hotel and car-rental partners.
Again, there is no foreign transaction fee, saving you 3% on every out-of-country purchase. The annual fee is $99, but that's offset by the annual 6,000 anniversary bonus points (worth $100 of "Wanna Get Away" fare). Essentially, then, the card has no annual fee.
United MileagePlus Explorer
This is a pretty cool airline-branded card. It has a lot of neat features that frequent travelers will adore. Let's start with the signup bonus. At 30,000 miles, you have enough to pay a free round-trip domestic flight. To get the bonus, you'll have to charge $1,000 within the first three months -- pretty doable for most consumers. Ongoing rewards accumulate at 1% on all charges, plus double miles for purchases made with United.
A big draw of the MileagePlus Explorer is the multitude of fringe perks. For starters, your first checked bag on every flight is free, saving up to $100 on every round trip. You also get priority boarding, two free passes to the United Club every year, and primary rental-car insurance. Not a bad collection of bonus benefits.
In addition, you can redeem miles for flights to a vast number of destinations. You aren't limited to earning flights with United. Points can be redeemed with any of the Star Alliance, which includes US Airways, Air China, Air Canada, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, and many more. The annual fee is a little steep at $95, but it's waived the first year, and your rewards should easily make up for it.