Whether you’re brand new to travel hacking or a seasoned veteran, we all had to start somewhere. Many of us, who have been ‘in the game’ for a while now, regret at least one of the cards that we signed up for early on. This post is aimed at helping you avoid that mistake and jump-start your rewards earning with the best card for your individual travel goals.
When picking your first travel rewards card there are several things to consider – sign-up bonus, category bonuses, value of rewards, annual fee, etc. There are lots of great cards on the market right now so I’ll break down the pros and cons of each, while weighing the above mentioned factors.
There are thousands of different banks in the United States and many of them offer credit cards to their banking clients. When it comes to travel rewards cards, there are four big banks that you should be aware of – American Express, Capital One, Chase and Citi. These are the banks to focus on when getting started and the ones that I’m going to discuss more in detail.
In my opinion, the American Express® Gold card is the best starter card for ongoing perks and category bonuses. The Amex Gold card earns 4x points on dining worldwide plus takeout and delivery in the U.S., 4x points at U.S. supermarkets (up to $25,000 in spend per calendar year, then 1X once the spending threshold is reached), and 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com. All other eligible purchases earn 1 point per dollar.
In addition to offering extra points in some of the best every day spending categories, this card also comes with a $120 Dining Credit: Satisfy your cravings and earn up to $10 in statement credits monthly when you pay with the American Express® Gold Card at Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Goldbelly, Wine.com, Milk Bar and select Shake Shack locations. Enrollment required.
American Express is currently offering 60,000 Membership Rewards Points for new cardmembers after spending $4,000 in the first 6 months. The annual fee on this card is higher than the other beginner cards at $250, but I think it’s easily justifiable when you consider the monthly dining and Uber credits View Rates & Fees. Membership Rewards can be transferred to any of American Express’ 20 transfer partners or used to book travel through the Amex travel portal.
Terms and Restrictions Apply. “Enrollment Required” per Amex guidelines for benefits where enrollment is required.
- Great bonus categories
- Monthly dining and Uber credit
- Solid intro offer
- Higher annual fee
Capital One® has offered the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card for more than a decade now. In that time, it’s become a very popular card amongst travelers because of the straightforward earning structure and the ease of using rewards.
On the earning side, the Venture card keeps things simple by awarding 2x Venture Miles for every dollar spent. While it’s exciting to earn extra miles in bonus categories, especially if they’re categories you spend a lot in, some people will definitely be better off just earning 2x everywhere.
This card also offers a really competitive 75,000 mile sign-up bonus after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months. In addition to the sign-up bonus, The Venture card also includes up to $100 in credit for enrolling in TSA Precheck or Global Entry and two complimentary visits to Capital One Lounges per year. The annual fee is a manageable $95 and can be easily offset with the credit for TSA Precheck and annual lounge access.
- Rewards are easy to earn and redeem
- Good intro offer
- Lounge access
- No bonus categories
- No domestic airline transfer partner
Chase completely changed the travel rewards card game in 2009 with the introduction of the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card card. Up until that point, cards weren’t offering bonus categories or giving cardmembers additional ways to redeem points. To this day, the Sapphire Preferred remains one of the best travel rewards cards on the market and is also one of the best cards for getting started.
The Sapphire Preferred comes with a solid 60,000 point sign-up bonus after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months. It has some very practical, but not industry leading, category bonuses – 3x points on dining and streaming, as well as 2x on a very broad travel category. Another benefit of this card is the $50 annual Ultimate Rewards hotel credit.
When it comes to redeeming your points, the Sapphire Preferred has access to all 14 of Chase’s Ultimate Rewards transfer partners. In addition to transferring points to partners, you can also redeem points for travel booked through the Chase Travel Portal at a rate of 1.25 cents per point. The annual fee on the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card card is $95, but I find it easy to justify with all the benefits that the card offers.
- Valuable rewards
- Lots of redemption options
- Weaker category bonuses than competitors
The Citi Premier® card is another great option for beginners and it currently has the highest sign-up bonus out of all the beginner cards. The current welcome offer on the Premier card is 80,000 ThankYou Points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months. That many points can go a long way for any beginning travel hacker.
In addition to offering the highest welcome offer, the Premier card also helps you earn ongoing rewards with useful bonus categories like 3x ThankYou Points at restaurants, supermarkets and gas stations. It also earns 3x on flights and hotels, which covers a bulk of most people’s travel spending. All other purchases earn 1 ThankYou Point per dollar spent.
When it comes to redeeming points, cardmembers can transfer their ThankYou Points to any of Citi’s 18 travel partners. Points can also be redeemed for gift cards or to pay for purchases at Amazon or Best Buy. Just like most of the other beginner cards, this one comes with a manageable $95 annual fee.
- Excellent sign-up bonus
- Great category bonuses – it’s easy to earn extra points on most of your spending
- No domestic airline transfer partner
Picking the best beginner card is a lot like asking mom to choose her favorite child – it’s not an easy answer. Each of the four major banks offer a good option for anyone that’s just getting started with travel hacking. That’s great news, because it means that you really can’t go wrong with any of the cards discussed in this post.
Having said all that, if I had to choose just one card to sign up for and start earning rewards with – my choice would be the Citi Premier® card. The 80,000 point sign-up bonus, combined with all of the amazing category bonuses, make it easy to rack up a lot of points in a hurry. The sooner you can pad your balance of points, the sooner you can cash in for free travel – and that’s when the fun really begins!
Final Thoughts It can be overwhelming trying to decide where to start with travel hacking. Most people want to take it slow, and for that reason it’s important to make your first card the right one. Thankfully, there are lots of great beginner cards out there and you really can’t go wrong with any of them.