There are dozens – no, hundreds – of travel rewards credit cards out there for travelers to choose from. Between big welcome bonuses, annual fees, points programs, airlines, and perks … how can you decide which card (or cards) are right for your wallet?
I faced that same question heading into the New Year, re-evaluating what's in my wallet and how I can shuffle things around or add a new card to my wallet in order to maximize my spending, earn more points, and travel more for even less in 2023.
Here are the top three cards I'll be swiping most frequently this year – and why I decided each deserves a space in my wallet.
How I Decide if a Card is Right For Me
Smart use of travel credit cards is an integral part of saving on travel, but credit cards are serious business.
Consumer debt is a major problem in the U.S., and you should never open a credit card just for the sake of earning points and miles. If you can't afford to pay off your purchases immediately, you should skip it. It requires a lot of patience, forethought, and most importantly, financial responsibility.
When you're ready, there are a few things to consider before getting a travel credit card – especially one you plan on keeping long term.
A Big Welcome Bonus
A huge welcome bonus of points is a great first reason to give a travel credit card a first look. It's exactly what they're designed to do: Pull in new customers with the promise of a bunch of points or miles. And it's the easiest way to earn a large number of points or miles for the least amount of spending.
For starters, make sure the credit card you're eyeing currently has an enhanced welcome bonus. You might be considering a co-branded Delta credit card like the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card or the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card. Delta and Amex regularly roll out bigger welcome bonuses of up to 90,000 SkyMiles, but those aren’t available right now. It's better to wait.
Most importantly, be sure you can responsibly meet the spending required to get the sign-up bonus. Sometimes it takes spending just $1,000 or $2,000 in first three months to earn a bonus. In the case of the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card, you need to spend $4,000 in the first three months to get the 75,000 Venture miles bonus.
Remember: You only get one shot at earning the big welcome offer points bonus. If you miss out on meeting the spending required, you won't get another shot at earning them. Make sure you have a strategy to meet the required spending before you open a card.
Ease of Using the Points or Miles
Unless you have a specific trip in mind you're working towards, it's best to accumulate flexible points and miles that can be used in multiple ways.
Unlike co-branded airline or hotel cards, flexible rewards cards from banks like Chase, American Express, Citi, and Capital One allow you to use the points for flights on multiple airlines, hotels, car rentals, and more. You can even transfer those points to a dozen or more different airline and hotel programs.
Let's say you find a great flight deal on Google Flights or get an alert in your inbox from Thrifty Traveler Premium – maybe even a chance to book a business class seat using points. By collecting flexible points, you'll have a stash that can be used in multiple ways to cover the expenses of your vacation.
Don't get me wrong: There are plenty of good reasons to get an airline or hotel credit card … but they aren't the best cards to keep in your wallet for your everyday spending.
Weighing Annual Fees vs Benefits
An annual fee can be enough to scare you away from getting a card, especially if you're looking for a card to have long-term.
But before writing off a higher annual fee, I always do the math. Usually, the higher the annual fee means the card has more benefits. Can I take advantage enough that it will offset the annual fee? And I don't just look at the perks: Welcome bonuses in year 1 and bonus spending categories that allow me to earn even more points are worth considering, too.
The Spending Categories
Sometimes a great sign-up bonus and benefits are enough to sign up for a card. But in order to keep a card in my wallet, I want to make sure it's a good card for my ongoing, everyday spending.
What are you spending the most money on? For me, it's groceries, dining, and travel. Then there is everything else. I want to make sure I have cards in my wallet that earn as many rewards as possible in those categories.
But personally, I also want to keep it simple. I don't want to sift through a half dozen cards or more and try and remember which card I should be using for every purchase.
For me, that means I want just a few go-to cards at the front of my wallet I can use for almost any purchase this year. So what are the top three cards I keep in my wallet?
Card #1: The Capital One Venture X Card
If you're only going to have one travel credit card in your wallet this year, the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card should be it.
Capital One launched the Venture X at the end of 2021 and it has been a smash hit – for good reason. Venture Miles aren't just incredibly valuable, but they're also super easy to use – inf act, they can be used on more travel expenses than almost any other card on the market, thanks to the Purchase Eraser function.
It comes with a ton of useful, premium benefits and credits, and you earn 2x Venture Miles on every dollar you spend.
Click Here to learn more about the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card
The Capital One Venture X Welcome Offer Bonus
Let's start with the welcome offer bonus.
You'll earn 75,000 Venture Miles after spending $4,000 in the first three months of card membership. Factor in that spending requirement, and it means you'll earn at least 83,000 miles right off the bat.
These miles are worth a minimum of $830 towards travel and potentially much more.
As I mentioned, using these miles is incredibly easy. Not only can you send the miles to nearly 20 airlines and hotels that are Capital one transfer partners, but you can also just use the Capital One Purchase Eraser to erase any travel purchases. That means you can use the card to pay for accommodations, flights, train tickets, and more … and then just go back and use your miles to erase the charges.
Capital One Venture X Annual Fee vs Benefits
The $395 annual fee for this card can sound pretty steep. But as soon as you start doing the math, the annual fee doesn't look so bad.
First, there is the $300 annual travel credit to use through the Capital One travel portal. As long as you plan to spend at least $300 each year on travel, that makes the annual fee more like $95. On top of that, you'll get 10,000 Venture Miles each year (starting in year 2) on your cardmember anniversary. These are worth at least another $100 towards travel expenses.
Those two benefits alone are worth $400 for a card with an annual fee of only $395. And that's before you even get to all the other benefits the card provides.
Two of my favorite perks that come with the card are the $100 Global Entry or TSA PreCheck credit and the amazing new Capital One lounges, including the first location in Dallas. Plus, underrated benefits like all of the trip protection the card provides, and the primary car rental insurance can be really valuable.
The Capital One Venture X Spending Categories
This is one of the best cards to have in your wallet for everyday spending. You get 2x points on everything so there's no thinking involved when you swipe this card.
That will make it my go-to, catch-all card for any expenses that won't earn bigger bonuses on another card below. And that's why it's at the front of my wallet this year.
As a sweetener, it'll also earn me 5x on flights – and 10x on hotels and rental cars – when I book through the Capital One Travel portal.
Full Benefits of the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card
- Earn 75,000 Venture Miles after spending $4,000 in the first three months of card membership.
- $300 Annual Travel Credit: Each year, cardholders will get up to a $300 travel credit to use through the Capital One Travel booking portal.
- Capital One Lounge & Priority Pass Select Lounge Access: Cardmembers will also be able to bring up to two guests with them at no additional cost on each visit.
- Up to a $100 Credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck: Membership in either program is good for five years and cardholders will get this credit every 4 years.
- 10,000 Mile Anniversary Bonus: Every year on your account anniversary, you'll receive 10,000 bonus miles after paying your card's annual fee. These miles are worth a minimum of $100 towards travel.
- Earn 2x Miles on every purchase & More: Cardholders will earn 2x miles on every dollar spent. Cardholders will also earn 10x miles on hotels and rental cars booked through the Capital One travel portal and 5x miles on flights booked via the portal.
- Complimentary Hertz President's Circle Status
- $395 Annual Fee: Add up to four authorized users at no additional cost
Click Here to learn more about the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card
Card #2: The American Express® Gold Card
The American Express Gold® Card is the go-to card for traveling millennials, and I'm one of them.
This card makes it into my wallet for two main reasons. The first is that it's always good to have Amex Membership Rewards. They are transferable to 20-plus airlines and hotels – including Delta, my preferred airline and a great way to snag deals thanks to frequent Delta SkyMiles flash sales.
But the second, and most important, reason? No card is better for maximizing my spending on groceries and dining. The Amex Gold earns 4x points per dollar spent at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 annually).
Click Here to learn more about the American Express Gold Card.
The Amex Gold Welcome Offer
You can earn 60,000 Membership Rewards Points after spending $4,000 within the first six months of card membership. It's one of the easiest bonuses to earn, as you have a full six months to spend $4,000 – not just three. That works out
But you actually may qualify for an even bigger, 75,000-point offer via CardMatch with the same spending requirement.
Using Amex Membership Rewards
You can use Membership Rewards points to book hotels and flights through the Amex Travel portal. But it's much better to leverage some of the great Amex transfer partners, to which you can directly send your points. That includes some of our favorites like…
- Looking to fly to Japan in business class for the same amount of miles most airlines charge for economy? ANA is your answer, and it’s another great transfer partner with dirt-cheap rates to fly to Europe as well: Just 88,000 miles roundtrip in business class!
- Virgin Atlantic is one of our absolute favorite Amex transfer partners, and it’s another great option. When Delta is charging 280,000 SkyMiles or more to fly in Delta One, you can snag the exact same seat by transferring just 50,000 Amex points to Virgin Atlantic. In general, Virgin Atlantic can be a great way to save miles to fly Delta. Frequent transfer bonuses of 10% to 30% or more just make it better.
- Avianca Lifemiles is one of the strongest airline programs out there. This quirky Colombian airline’s miles are insanely versatile and lucrative. As a whole, LifeMiles mixes good rates on award flights with very low fees and no fuel surcharges. Considering many airlines pass on hundreds of dollars in fees, that’s a recipe for a great frequent flyer program. You can book domestic flights on United Airlines for fewer miles than United itself would charge. It’s also one of the best ways to book flights in business or first class to Asia.
The Amex Gold Annual Fee vs Benefits
The annual fee on this card can also seem steep, coming in at $250 (see rates & fees). But the credits that come with the card can easily offset that fee, but only if you can take advantage of them.
There is an annual dining credit of up to $120 but there's a catch: You can only use it in $10 increments split up monthly for charges at GrubHub, The Cheesecake Factory, Wine.com, Goldbelly, Milk Bar, & participating Shake Shack locations. I don't regularly use these delivery services or eat at those restaurants, so this particular credit doesn't mean much to me.
Then there is an up to $120 annual Uber credit, once again split up in $10 monthly increments. This is definitely easier to use – either for Uber rides or UberEats orders once a month.
So is that worth it? The 60,000-point welcome offer bonus (or 75,000, if you are lucky) combined with the 4x points at groceries and restaurants makes it more than even for me. It'll be my go-to card whenever I'm buying groceries or picking up the tab for dinner.
Read more: Amex Gold Card Annual Fee: Is it Worth $250?
Full Benefits of the American Express Gold Card
- Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards Points after spending $4,000 within the first six months of card membership… but see if you qualify for a 75,000- point offer via CardMatch with the same spending requirement.
- Earn 3x points for flights booked directly with airlines and at amextravel.com.
- Earn 4x points at restaurants on an unlimited amount of spending.
- Earn 4x points at U.S. supermarkets on up to $25,000 of spending per calendar year. 1x points per dollar spent after that
- Earn 1x points on other purchases
- Up to a $120 annual dining credit split up monthly in $10 increments for charges at GrubHub, Seamless, The Cheesecake Factory, Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, Boxed & Participating Shake Shack locations
- Up to $120 in Annual Uber Cash split up into $10 monthly amounts. These can be used for Uber rides or for Uber Eats food delivery.
- Amex Gold cardholders get a free year of Uber Eats Pass – Uber Eats’ paid membership with unlimited $0 delivery fees, 5% off all food deliveries over $15 at eligible restaurants or on eligible restaurant purchases.
- No Foreign Transaction Fees
- $250 annual fee (see rates & fees)
Click Here to learn more about the American Express Gold Card.
Card #3: The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card comes in with the lowest annual fee at $95 … but also the least number of benefits of the three cards.
So why do I have this card? Chase Ultimate Rewards points are incredibly valuable and great to have when planning almost any trip.
Chase Sapphire Preferred Welcome Bonus
The welcome bonus is currently 60,000 Ultimate Rewards for spending $4,000 in three months.
With the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Ultimate Rewards are worth at least 1.25 cents per point when you book flights or other travel through the Chase travel portal. That means the welcome bonus is worth a minimum of $750 in travel – and potentially much, much more.
I actually picked this card up last year, back when it was offering a record-busting 100,000-point bonus. Though that bonus has since disappeared, it was reason enough to put it in my wallet, where it remains today.
Using Chase Ultimate Rewards
Chase Ultimate Rewards are more versatile and easy to use than almost any other points program out there.
Chase Sapphire Preferred Annual Fee vs Benefit
The $95 annual fee is easily offset by the 60,000 welcome bonus. That alone was enough for me to justify it. And like the Venture X, the card also comes with trip protections and primary car rental insurance.
Chase Sapphire Preferred Spending Categories
There are some pretty good spending categories that come with this card including 3x on dining and 3x on online grocery purchases. But because I earn more on those categories with my Amex Gold, I won't use this card.
But I do use this card to pay for my streaming services to earn 3x points. I also use it to earn 2x on all travel purchases. Even though I'd earn more on many travel purchases with the Amex Gold – and the same amount on the Venture X Card – I' m always looking to pad my balance of Chase Ultimate Rewards points. Plus, the good travel insurance coverage on travel purchased with my Sapphire Card is a nice perk.
These spending categories and the value of Ultimate Rewards make this card a mainstay in my wallet. I'll probably look to complement this card with one of the no-annual-fee Chase Freedom cards sometime in 2023, which will help earn even more points this year.
The Full Benefits of the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
- Welcome Bonus: 60,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points after spending $4,000 in the first three months of card membership.
- 3x points per dollar spent on dining, including eligible delivery services
- 3x points per dollar spent on online grocery purchases (excluding Target, Walmart, and wholesale clubs)
- 3x points per dollar spent on select streaming services
- 2x points per dollar spent on travel purchases
- Earn up to $50 in statement credits each account anniversary year for hotel stays purchased through the Chase Ultimate Rewards Travel Portal
- Earn 5x total points on travel purchased through the Chase Travel Portal, excluding hotel purchases that qualify for the $50 Anniversary Hotel Credit.
- Earn 5x points per dollar spent on Lyft rides through March 2022.
- Recommended Credit Score: Excellent/Good
- Foreign Transaction Fees: None
- Annual Fee: $95
Click here to get more information about the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card.
I've looked at countless travel credit cards on the market, but not every card deserves a spot in my wallet – or yours. These three cards will be at the front of my wallet all year, a strong basis to earn more points in 2023.