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Do you spend your free time flying to exotic destinations? Maybe you’re a frequent road-tripper, driving from hotel to hotel across the country. However you like to vacation, travel-focused credit cards can help you earn free flights, hotel stays and other perks that can make your travels less expensive.
Travel credit cards allow you to earn either rewards points or airline miles whenever you make a purchase. The most lucrative of these travel cards often require high credit scores—but what if you don’t have a long credit history? What if you’re a recent college graduate who’s rarely used credit cards or someone who’s made most of their purchases with cash? Don’t worry. Several solid travel cards are within reach for consumers with limited credit histories.
Here are Bankrate’s recommendations for travel cards that offer solid rewards programs even to consumers who haven’t yet built up years-long credit histories.
A note about your credit
Your odds of qualifying for the credit cards listed below will increase if your FICO credit score is 700 or better. That might sound high, especially for someone still building a credit history, but it’s not. FICO reported that in August 2021, the average FICO score in the U.S. hit 716. Getting to 700, then, is a goal that even those with a shorter credit history can attain by paying their bills on time every month and by keeping their credit card debt low.
But what if you don’t have a credit history? This could be you if you haven’t used credit cards, mostly pay your bills with cash and don’t yet have any loans that you are paying back. You’ll need to build at least a short credit history—enough to generate a score—before applying for any of these credit cards.
If you don’t have a credit history, before searching for a travel rewards card, consider applying for a secured credit card. A secured card acts like a traditional credit card, but your credit limit is based on a deposit that you make with the bank issuing the card. If you deposit $600 with the bank, for example, your credit limit will be $600.
It’s easier to qualify for these cards, even if you have no credit history. And if you make on-time payments over several months, you’ll steadily build a credit history and credit score. You’ll then be able to apply for traditional credit cards, including those offering travel rewards.
Travel cards for consumers without a long credit history
If you’re hunting for a rewards credit card that earns miles or points, you have several options, even if you’re new to using credit cards. Here are four solid choices:
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card: Best for earning travel rewards quickly
The Chase Sapphire Preferred is one of the more valuable travel cards available thanks to its generous rewards program. You’ll earn 5X points on any travel purchases you make through the Chase Ultimate Rewards online portal and 2X points on all other travel purchases.
You’ll also earn 3X points on dining (including eligible delivery services), 3X points on online grocery purchases (except for those at Target, Walmart and wholesale clubs), 3X points on select streaming services and 1X points on all other purchases. Additionally, through March 2022, you’ll earn 5X points on Lyft Rides.
The Sapphire Preferred comes with a generous welcome offer, too; you’ll earn 60,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 on purchases within the first three months of opening your account. That equals $750 toward travel when you redeem these points through Chase Ultimate Rewards. In general, you can redeem your points for flights, hotel stays, gift cards, statement credits and more.
The downside? This card does charge an annual fee (though at $95 a year, you can easily generate enough rewards points to cover it). Also, because the Sapphire Preferred does come with such a generous rewards program, you’ll need a higher credit score to qualify for this card. If you already have a solid score and travel and eat out a lot, this can be a lucrative rewards card for your wallet.
American Express® Green Card: Best for frequent traveling and dining out
With the American Express Green Card, you’ll earn 3X points on travel purchases (including airfare, hotels, ride-share services and tours), 3X points on transit purchases (including bus rides, ferries, subways and trains), 3X points at restaurants worldwide and 1X points on all other purchases.
For a welcome offer, the Amex Green Card gets you 30,000 Membership Rewards points when you spend $2,000 on purchases during your first three months of account opening.
The Green Card isn’t the most exclusive of American Express credit cards, though you will need a solid credit score—a FICO score of 700 or better, for example—to qualify. Fortunately, even consumers with shorter credit histories should be able to generate a credit score of 700 or higher.
On the negative side of things, this card comes with a higher annual fee of $150. Again, though, if you spend enough on travel and dining out during the year, the points you earn will more than cover this fee.
Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card: Best for no annual fee
The Capital One VentureOne Rewards card is one of the simpler rewards cards available. You’ll earn 1.25X miles on all purchases and 5X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel. You can redeem your miles for flights and hotels and even transfer them to one of Capital One’s 19 transfer partners.
This card does not charge an annual fee—a nice perk for beginners on a budget—and you can earn a welcome offer of 20,000 bonus miles when you spend $500 on purchases within the first three months of opening your account.
Lastly, the VentureOne card offers an introductory 0 percent APR on any purchases you make during the first 12 months (followed by a variable APR of 14.99 percent to 24.99 percent)—meaning you have a full year to pay off any purchases before incurring interest charges.
Citi Premier® Card: Best for varied spending
With the Citi Premier Card, you can earn ThankYou points on a wide variety of purchases. You’ll earn 3X points on gas station, air travel and hotel purchases (making this a lucrative card if you travel often) as well as 3X points on restaurant and supermarket purchases. All other purchases earn 1X points. You can redeem your points for everything from travel to cash back to gift cards and more.
Additionally, the Citi Premier card offers a generous welcome bonus of 80,000 ThankYou points when you spend $4,000 in purchases during the first three months of account opening. Keep in mind this card does charge an annual fee of $95.
Is a travel card right for you?
The challenge with travel cards is that the most lucrative ones usually charge annual fees that can range from $95 to $150 or more a year. You’ll have to determine whether you travel enough or spend enough to make paying this fee worthwhile.
Say your card charges an annual fee of $95 and you can earn 3X rewards points for every dollar you spend on travel purchases and dining out. If every 100 rewards points equal $1.25 in redemption value, earning 10,000 rewards points in a year would equal $125—more than covering your annual fee. To earn those 10,000 rewards points, you’d need to spend about $3,334 in dining and travel purchases during the year.
Of course, the more you spend on those purchases, the more you’d earn. If you spend $6,000 on dining out and travel using the same card outlined above, you’d earn 18,000 rewards points from those purchases. That would come out to a redemption value of $225. And that doesn’t cover any additional points you’d earn from other purchases. Some travel rewards cards offer lower rewards points for every dollar you spend on non-travel purchases, and those dollars can add up to solid rewards points, too.
Overall, you’ll need to determine if you spend enough each year on travel or other points-generating categories to easily cover your annual fee and generate enough points to earn miles or hotel stays.
How do I choose a beginner travel card?
There are several factors to consider when you are ready to pick a travel credit card. Here are some of the most important.
Points vs. miles
Some travel cards earn free miles while others generate points that you can turn into free miles or use for other rewards, such as free hotel stays, gift cards or cash back. Looking at how you travel will help determine which type of card is best for you:
- If you are a frequent flyer, a card that earns miles might be the best choice.
- If you often travel by car, take cruises or enjoy cross-country train trips, you might do better with the flexibility offered by a card that earns points.
- If you want the ability to spend your rewards on anything you’d like, a card that generates points rather than airline miles is probably the better choice.
General travel or airline-specific card
Several airlines offer their own co-branded credit cards. These cards earn miles, but only for a specific airline (though some will let you transfer miles to partner airlines). If you always travel on one specific airline, an airline credit card is a smart choice. But if you prefer to hunt for the lowest airfare and aren’t committed to flying one specific brand, it may make more sense to look for a general travel card. These cards allow you to turn your rewards into miles that you can use with a variety of airlines.
When choosing a travel rewards card, it’s important to look not only at the miles or points it generates, but at the perks it provides, as well. Some cards give you a credit for TSA PreCheck, so you won’t have to pay any fee to skip the long security lines at airports. Others offer free access to airport lounges around the globe or let you check bags at no cost. And if you plan on working during your flight? Some rewards cards will pay for any WiFi connection fees while you’re flying. These perks can provide a lot of value if you are a frequent traveler.
The bottom line
Traveling is expensive, but a travel rewards credit card can help you reduce or, if you spend enough, eliminate expenses, from the cost of your flight to your hotel stay. The key is finding the rewards card that earns you the most depending on your spending habits. Fortunately, there are plenty of choices available, even for applicants who don’t have the longest credit history.
All information about the American Express® Green Card has been collected independently by Bankrate.com and has not been reviewed or approved by the issuer.