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4 of the best starter travel cards of 2021

The Points Guy logo The Points Guy 10/8/2021 The Points Guy
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Please note: the offers mentioned below are subject to change at any time and may not be available. Clicking on a link may take you to an updated offer for that card.

Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new card details and information. 

The world of credit cards can seem overwhelming when you’re just getting started. But, if you’re looking to move on from your cash-back card (or even a student card), you’re in the right place. The right starter travel card can offer much more rewarding perks — a rite of passage into adulthood.

With so much information and so many options, how do you know which card to choose? Do you want transferable points? Airline miles? Free nights at a hotel chain?

Analysis paralysis and decision fatigue can really hold you back at the beginning. The key to picking the right card is to start by setting your travel goals.

There are no right or wrong answers to these questions — it’s all about what’s important to you. You may even change your mind as you gain experience in the world of points and miles. Once you’ve made your decisions, touyou can start matching your answers to the right card.

We’ve put together this list of the best starter credit cards so you don’t end up with loyalty points that don’t match your goals. We also kept simplicity in mind when compiling this list — none of these cards are tied to complicated, difficult-to-understand programs, nor do they have intimidating annual fees, and all of them are potentially worth keeping in your credit card inventory for the long term.

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In This Post

Best starter travel rewards credit cards

Related: TPG’s beginners guide to credit cards: Everything you need to know

Comparing the best starter travel rewards credit cards

Here are the key details of the best starter travel rewards cards, including the welcome offers and the key earning features.

Card Welcome offer Minimum spending Bonus categories
Chase Sapphire Preferred Card 60,000 points $4,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening 5x on Lyft through March 2022

5x on travel when booked through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal

3x on dining

3x on select streaming services

3x on online grocery purchases (excluding Walmart and Target)

2x on travel

1x on everything else
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card 60,000 miles $3,000 on the card within the first three months of account opening 2x for every dollar you spend with the card on every transaction
Citi Premier Card 80,000 points $4,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening 3x ThankYou points on air travel, hotels, gas stations, restaurants and supermarkets 1x on everything else
American Express Gold Card 60,000 points  $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new card within the first six months 4x on dining at restaurants

4x on up to $25,000 in purchases at U.S. supermarkets per calendar year (then 1x)

3x on flights booked directly from the airline or through the Amex Travel Portal

1x on other eligible purchases

Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

chart: (Photo by John Gribben for The Points Guy) © Provided by The Points Guy (Photo by John Gribben for The Points Guy)

Annual fee: $95.

Sign-up bonus: 60,000 points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months of account opening.

Why it’s a great starter card: There’s a good reason why the Chase Sapphire Preferred is our top pick for our list of starter cards: It comes with a best-ever welcome offer, earns 3 points per dollar on dining and 2 points per dollar on travel (along with a handful of new bonus categories) and the Ultimate Rewards points it earns are easy to use with top airline and hotel programs such as United MileagePlus and World of Hyatt.

Your points can also be redeemed for 1.25 cents apiece to book flights or rooms at any airline or hotel through the Ultimate Rewards travel portal, plus the card offers a way to use points at a 25% bonus through the Pay Yourself Back program.

Related: Why the Sapphire Preferred should still be the first rewards card in your wallet

The card also comes with terrific travel benefits, including primary insurance when you rent a car and no foreign transaction fees. And you can’t beat the all-time-high sign-up bonus of 60,000 points. Combine it all with an annual fee of only $95 and you’ve got a card that offers great value, especially if you’re starting in the world of travel rewards.

Official application link: Chase Sapphire Preferred Card with a 60,000-point bonus.

Read our full review of the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card.

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

a close up of a hand: (Photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy) © The Points Guy (Photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy)

Annual fee: $95.

Sign-up bonus: 60,000 miles after spending $3,000 on the card within the first three months of account opening.

Why it’s a great starter card: Travelers getting started in the points and miles world, or those who aren’t inherently loyal to a single hotel chain or airline, can take full advantage of the flexibility that this card offers.

Gallery: How To Prepare for a Retirement Without Social Security Income (GOBankingRates)

While you won’t get any airline-specific perks such as free checked bags, you’ll be able to use your rewards to jump on the cheapest cash ticket to wherever you’re going while still taking advantage of flexible transfer partners in all three major airline alliances (Star Alliance, Oneworld and SkyTeam). This card packs a lot in for a $95 annual fee, and it even makes the cut as one of our overall best travel credit cards.

Official application link: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card available with 60,000 bonus miles.

Read our full review of the Capital One Venture Rewards card.

Citi Premier® Card

(Photo by John Gribben for The Points Guy) © Provided by The Points Guy (Photo by John Gribben for The Points Guy)

Annual fee: $95.

Sign-up bonus: 80,000 ThankYou points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months of account opening.

Why it’s a great starter card: The beauty of the Citi Premier Card is its breadth of bonus categories. The card earns 3 ThankYou points per dollar on air travel, hotels, restaurants, gas stations and supermarkets and 1 point per dollar everywhere else, helping you to rack up lots of points in no time. When it comes to spending those points, you can transfer them to any of Citi’s 15 airline partners. If you’re an American Airlines fan, Citi has offered the ability to transfer your points over to AAdvantage until Nov. 13. The card comes with no foreign transaction fees and a $95 annual fee.

Related: Chase Sapphire Preferred vs. Citi Premier: Which mid-tier travel card is better?

Official application link: Citi Premier Card with an 80,000-point bonus.

Read our full review of the Citi Premier Card.

American Express® Gold Card

(Photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy) © Provided by The Points Guy (Photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy)

Annual fee: $250 (see rates and fees).

Welcome offer: 60,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $4,000 on the card in the first six months of card membership.

Why it’s a great starter card: The Amex Gold Card is fantastic for anyone looking to leverage their everyday spending for excellent rewards — while also enjoying useful statement credits for things like dining and ride-hailing services. You’ll earn 4x points on restaurants, including takeout and delivery, and on up to $25,000 in purchases per calendar year at U.S. supermarkets (then 1x).

Cardholders also receive up to $120 in annual statement credits ($10 per month) toward dining and up to another $120 per year ($10 per month) in Uber Cash toward U.S. Uber rides and Uber Eats orders after enrolling their card. Added together, that brings the out-of-pocket cost of the card’s $250 annual fee closer to a mere $10.

Keep in mind that you could be targeted for a higher offer through the CardMatch tool or referral offers (so check there first). Offers are subject to change at any time.

Official application link: American Express Gold Card with a 60,000-point welcome offer.

Read our full review of the Amex Gold Card.

How to choose the right starter travel card for you

There is no one-size-fits-all travel card. With so many great options, it can be hard to decide which card (or cards) to get to begin building your credit card portfolio. Make sure you’re choosing a card that fits your spending habits, travel goals and budget.

Start by taking inventory of what categories you spend the most money on each month.

Do you live in a large city where groceries and dining typically make up most of your monthly spending? Then consider cards such as the Citi Premier or Amex Gold Card that offer rewards across those categories. From there, narrow your options based on your travel goals.

Last, consider your budget. If you don’t think you’ll get more than $250 in value from the Amex Gold every year, maybe the Premier’s lower $95 annual fee is a nice compromise between your travel goals and budget.

At the end of the day, it’s all about considering which cards will give you the most value each year, either through earned rewards, perks or a mix of both.

Related: Why there’s no such thing as the ‘best’ credit card

What credit score do you need for a travel credit card?

Most travel credit cards require good-to-excellent credit, meaning you’ll want a score over 650, at least. A score of over 700 is ideal*. That’s not to say that you won’t be approved if your score isn’t that high, but it is a good rule of thumb when you consider applying for a credit card.

The cards on this list are a bit easier to be approved for than luxury cards such as The Platinum Card® from American Express or the Chase Sapphire Reserve, but you’ll still need to have established credit and a good score to have the best chance of getting approved.

If you don’t currently have a credit score, you’ll want to build credit with a beginner card, a secured card or by becoming an authorized user on someone else’s card. If your credit score is less than stellar, it’s a good idea to take the necessary steps to improve your score before applying for a travel rewards credit card.

Related: What credit score do I need for the Chase Sapphire Preferred?

Don’t forget about Chase’s 5/24 rule

It’s worth talking about the elephant in the room: Chase’s 5/24 rule. According to this rule, Chase will likely automatically reject your application if you’ve opened five or more personal cards in the last 24 months across all issuers (although most business cards don’t count toward your total).

Because of this restriction, conventional wisdom is to start by using up your five slots with Chase before moving on to other issuers. When you’re just starting with travel rewards, it can be easy to underestimate the importance of this rule, but Chase offers some of the most valuable travel rewards cards on the market, and if you don’t get them first, you might not be able to get them later.

Many times, it makes sense to ignore the 5/24 rule and set off in a different direction, but it’s not a decision you should make lightly. Unless you have a very good reason for looking elsewhere, you should probably start with a Chase card first. And there aren’t many better choices than the Chase Sapphire Preferred.

Related: What to do after you reach 5/24

Bottom line

With so many travel rewards cards out there, choosing which one to apply for might seem overwhelming. But you can’t go wrong with any of the choices on this list, as all of the options offer great rewards rates and an introduction to the world of points and miles. So make your travel goals for the year, then use this guide to pick the right card.

Then, make sure you meet the minimum spending threshold on the card. For example, if you have just graduated from college (congrats!) and are soon moving to a new city to start your first job, you should apply for one of the cards above now to meet the sign-up bonus requirements. You’ll then have a stash of points and miles that can be incredibly useful as you plan your post-pandemic trips.

Additional reporting by Chris Dong, Stella Shon and Madison Blancaflor.

For rates and fees of the Amex Gold Card, please click here.

For rates and fees of the Amex Platinum Card, please click here.

Featured photo by Francesco Carta fotografo/Getty Images.

* The Points Guy credit ranges are derived from FICO Score 8, which is one of many different types of credit scores. If you apply for a credit card, the lender may use a different credit score when considering your application for credit.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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