Best Travel Credit Cards with No Annual Fee
The best travel cards with no annual fee offer a lot of value, from high rewards yields on every $1 of spending, lucrative new cardholder bonuses, and ancillary perks like free access to your FICO® Score.
Great for: Unlimited Miles and versatility Discover it® Miles
- INTRO OFFER: Discover will match ALL the Miles you've earned at the end of your first year, automatically. For example, if you earn 30,000 Miles, you get 60,000 Miles. That's $600 towards travel!
- Earn unlimited 1.5x Miles for every dollar spent on all purchases all with no annual fee.
- No Blackout Dates - fly any airline, stay at any hotel.
- Redeem your Miles as a statement credit towards travel purchases.
- Freeze your account in seconds with an on/off switch either on the mobile app or website to prevent new purchases, cash advances, and balance transfers.
- Get your free Credit Scorecard with your FICO® Credit Score, number of recent inquiries and more.
- Receive FREE Social Security number alerts-Discover will monitor thousands of risky websites when you sign up.
- No Annual Fee.
Great for: Sign-up bonus Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card
- Enjoy a one-time bonus of 20,000 miles once you spend $1,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $200 in travel
- Earn 1.25X miles on every purchase, every day and pay no annual fee. Plus earn 10X miles on thousands of hotels; learn more at hotels.com/venture
- Fly any airline, stay at any hotel, anytime
- Enjoy a low intro APR on purchases for 12 months; 13.74%-23.74% variable APR after that
- Travel when you want with no blackout dates
- No foreign transaction fees
- Miles won't expire for the life of the account and there's no limit to how many you can earn
Great for: Intro bonus Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
- Earn unlimited 1.5 points per $1 spent on all purchases, with no annual fee and no foreign transaction fees and your points don't expire
- NEW OFFER: 25,000 online bonus points if you make at least $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days of account opening - that can be a $250 statement credit toward travel purchases
- Use your card to book your trip how and where you want – you’re not limited to specific websites with blackout dates or restrictions
- Redeem points for a statement credit to pay for flights, hotels, vacation packages, cruises, rental cars, or baggage fees
- Comes with chip technology for enhanced security and protection at chip-enabled terminals
- 0% Introductory APR for 12 billing cycles for purchases, then 16.99% - 24.99% Variable APR
- Get an additional 10% customer points bonus on every purchase when you have an active Bank of America® checking or savings account
- If you’re a Preferred Rewards client, you can increase that bonus to 25% - 75%
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Travel cards with no annual fee allow you to earn points or miles without losing some of the benefits that you would be paying for with annual fee cards. Most importantly, the best travel cards also allow you to build up rewards you can redeem on your own schedule, as there are no blackout dates and the rewards you earn do not expire.
- Jump to
- How we picked the winners
- Why you can trust us
- What is a travel card?
- How travel rewards credit cards work
- How travel statement credits work
- What you should know about travel statement credits
- How travel portal cards work
- Types of travel card sign-up bonuses
- Is a no-annual-fee travel card right for you?
- What's the catch?
- Features of the best travel rewards credit cards with no annual fee
How we picked the winners
We picked no-annual-fee cards with a simple rubric, favoring cards that offered high rewards rates, low minimum redemption thresholds, and redemption methods that enable you to use your rewards how you want, and when you want. That last point is especially important -- all of the cards on this list offer statement credit redemptions, which means you won’t ever have to deal with blackout dates or be limited to a specific travel portal when choosing how to spend the points and miles you’ve earned.
Why you can trust us
We’re credit card reward junkies who use travel cards every day to rack up rewards to help us pay for our next hotel stay, flight, or rental car. Having used many of the best (and frankly, the worst) travel cards on the market, we’ve learned that travel cards aren’t created equally. Points from one card aren’t necessarily as valuable as points earned by another card. Some cards have finicky restrictions on what travel you can book, while others do not. Here at The Ascent, we’ve focused on cards that thread the needle of offering high sign-up bonuses, lucrative rewards programs, and redemption requirements that are easy to meet -- the perfect trifecta for any no-annual-fee travel card.
What is a travel card?
Travel credit cards are a specific category of cards with rewards programs and perks that are designed for the frequent traveler. Travel cards typically offer a high rewards rate when points or miles you earn are redeemed for travel, plus perks like no foreign transaction fees that you won’t necessarily find on other credit cards.
Because frequent travelers tend to be higher spenders, travel cards also typically offer some of the most lucrative new cardholder bonuses, making them a top pick for people who want to get a quick start to earning rewards toward their next trip.
How travel rewards credit cards work
The biggest difference between travel credit cards and other rewards cards is how points can be redeemed. The best travel cards with no annual fee typically offer two basic types of redemptions:
- Statement credit redemptions (points or miles are redeemed to “erase” travel purchases from your statement).
- Travel portal redemptions (points or miles are redeemed directly through the issuer’s portal).
Depending on how you like to book travel, you may have a preference for one type of redemption method over another. We’ll explain why below.
How travel statement credits work
Statement credit redemptions are popular among travel card users because they offer the most flexibility when redeeming rewards. The typical statement credit travel card allows you to redeem points or miles at a flat rate, often equal to $0.01 per point or mile, against travel purchases you make on the card.
So, if you have 100,000 points worth $1,000 in travel value, you could book a $1,200 trip with your card, and then use the points to redeem for a statement credit. When your redemption is processed, $1,000 of the $1,200 travel charge will be credited to your account, effectively allowing you to go on a trip for just $200 out of pocket.
You can think of a statement credit as a way to “erase” travel purchases from your statement. The big advantage is that you can book travel however you’d like, and then use a statement credit to reimburse you for the charge later.
What you should know about travel statement credits
There are three reasons why many people prefer statement credit redemptions over portal-based travel cards.
Statement credits are the most flexible redemption method.While many banks offer their own travel portals where you can spend your points directly, cards that offer statement credit redemptions allow you to book travel how you want to, through your preferred service. Expedia? Not a problem. The local travel agent? Sure. As long as the purchase codes as travel, you can redeem for a statement credit against the purchase. (If you are unsure whether or not a purchase will qualify, speak with your credit card company before making the purchase -- they should be happy to help.)
Statement credits rock for small travel expensesTravel doesn’t necessarily mean hopping on a flight to go overseas, it can often be something as small as renting a car, taking the subway, or grabbing a ride from Uber or Lyft. Travel cards that offer statement credit redemptions with low minimums allow you to erase more purchases from your statement more often, so that your points can be redeemed quickly rather than left to accumulate for months before they are used.
Statement credits empower bargain shoppersIf you’re the kind of person to find a last-minute deal on a condo, pay for it with a coupon code, then double-dip with an AAA discount, a statement credit travel card may be right for you. One advantage of statement credit travel cards is that you can find a good deal anywhere, pay for it with your card, and redeem your rewards for a statement credit against it later. This can help you get more travel value out of every point or mile you earn. People who love last-minute travel deals often get far more out of statement credit redemptions than portal-based rewards programs.
How travel portal cards work
Many card issuers also maintain travel portals where their cardholders can redeem their points for airfare, hotels, car rentals, and more. These travel portals work like any ordinary online travel agency, except stays are typically priced in terms of points or miles, rather than dollars.
Travel portal cards have a few unique advantages:
- Pay with points or miles -- Using a bank’s travel portal enables you to skip a step and redeem your points or miles for a travel purchase immediately, whereas a statement credit travel card requires you to book a trip with the card and request a statement credit later.
- Variable points and miles valuation -- Statement credits assign a fixed value to each point or mile you earn, but travel portal redemptions can value points at a different rate. This can be both good and bad, as some redemptions might value your points at a higher rate than the advertised rate, while others might value your rewards at a lower rate. For example, a room through a card travel portal might cost $200 per night, whereas you might be able to book the room directly with a discount for $150 per night. In this case, your points or miles would go further by booking directly and requesting a statement credit for the purchase.
Types of travel card sign-up bonuses
Card issuers use sign-up bonuses to reward new cardholders for opening an account and making a certain amount of purchases within the first few months of account opening. Of no annual fee cards, travel cards often offer the largest new cardholder bonuses, which can put you on the fast-track toward a free flight, hotel, rental car, or all three!
New cardholder bonuses come in two forms:
- Bonus points or miles upfront -- Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card offers a classic sign-up bonus in the form of a 25,000 points bonus ($250 in travel value) when qualifying cardholders spend at least $1,000 in the first 90 days after account opening. Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card offers a bonus of 20,000 miles (worth $200 redeemed for travel statement credits) when spending $1,000 within three months.
- Bonus multipliers on points earned -- Discover it® Miles offers a unique new cardholder bonus whereby it doubles all miles earned in the first 12 months. The card offers 1.5x Miles per $1 of spending, so in the first year, cardholders effectively earn at a rate of 3x Miles per $1 thanks to its new cardholder bonus.
Is a no-annual-fee travel card right for you?
Whether or not you should pay an annual fee on a travel card is a matter of how much you spend. High spenders may be better off paying an annual fee if it results in more rewards per $1 spent on the card, whereas lower spenders would be better off with a no-annual-fee travel card.
Travel cards that do not have annual fees typically reward cardholders with a rewards yield of 1.5% when miles or points are redeemed for travel. In contrast, cards that carry an annual fee typically offer a rewards yield of 2.0%. For example, Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card carries an annual fee of $95 (waived in the first year), but it offers a rewards yield of 2.0% when rewards are redeemed for travel.
Some quick math can tell us when it makes sense to pay an annual fee. All we have to do is divide the annual fee ($95) by the difference in rewards yield (0.5%) to arrive at the breakeven point of $19,000 in annual spending.
Thus, the increased rewards offered by Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card pays for the annual fee when cardholders spend more than $19,000 per year on the card. At any amount less than that, cardholders would be better off with a card that offers a rewards yield of 1.5% with no annual fee.
Be sure to take into consideration how much of your budget you can reasonably spend on a credit card, not your total amount of annual spending. Most people find that their biggest expenses (mortgages or rent, insurance premiums, cable bills, and so on) cannot be paid for with a credit card, or carry convenience fees for paying by credit card. A couple who have a total budget of $40,000 per year may only have $15,000 in credit card-eligible expenses, for example.
What's the catch?
If getting a big new cardholder bonus and high on-going rewards on every $1 spent sounds too good to be true, it isn’t. There are just two things you need to avoid to maximize the value of a no annual fee travel card.
Don’t carry a balance from month to month
Balances you carry on a credit card can accrue interest at a rate of 18% or more per year, so carrying a balance will mean that interest charges pile up faster than the rewards you earn. When the bill arrives, pay your “statement balance” amount on time, and in full, to avoid any fees or interest charges. As a rule of thumb, rewards you earn on your spending are generally equal to one to two months of interest charges.
Avoid redeeming points or miles for cash
Points or miles you earn with travel cards are generally worth less when redeemed for cash. If you are not certain that you will be able to redeem your points for travel because of a busy work schedule or because you have few travel expenses, then a cash-back credit card will offer more value than a travel credit card. As a rule of thumb, points or miles that are redeemable for $0.01 each for travel may be worth as little as $0.005 to $0.007 each when redeemed for cash.
If you avoid these two major pitfalls, you can earn high rewards with a travel credit card and redeem your rewards for the highest possible valuation, without paying a dime in fees or interest along the way.
Features of the best travel rewards credit cards with no annual fee
A few differences really make the difference between the “average” and “best” travel cards. With this in mind, the best travel cards have most or all of the following benefits:
- No foreign transaction fees -- People who care enough about travel to use a travel credit card are more likely to make purchases overseas than the average person. Some cards charge foreign transaction fees of 3% on any amount spent overseas, but travel cards frequently eliminate these fees to appeal to jet setters and vacationers alike.
- High rewards rates -- Cards that offer the highest rewards rates without requiring cardholders to jump through hoops should get priority, as they allow cardholders to earn rewards without making a second job of earning credit card points or miles.
- Easy redemptions -- Travel cards should make it easy to redeem the points or miles you earn on your card. Statement credit redemptions allow for more flexibility in how you book travel with your rewards, which is why we gave preference to these cards.
- Low minimum redemption thresholds -- Points or miles are most valuable when they can be redeemed quickly. For this reason, cards that offer low or no minimum redemptions are often better than cards that have high redemption thresholds. A high minimum may mean that you have to wait months or even years before redeeming your rewards for travel.
- Points that do not expire -- Some credit cards force you to use your points within a short period of time, but we prefer travel cards that allow you to accrue and carry points as long as your account is open and in good standing. You earned your points, so you should be able to use them as you please, on your own timeline.
- Other perks -- We tend to think that 0% intro APRs on purchases or balance transfers and free access to your real FICO® Score add true value, even if they might not be the No. 1 reason why travelers turn to travel rewards cards.