See this year's top picks for frequent fliers and road warriors.

By MoneyMoney.comTaylor Tepper and Taylor Tepper /
September 23, 2015
travel credit cards
Credit: Nicholas J. Reid/ Getty Images

MONEY and NerdWallet have picked the best credit cards in five different categories: cash back, borrowing, travel rewards, student, and small business cards. Most of our picks assume you are using cards strategically to maximize rewards, and paying off your bill each month to avoid fees and finance charges. MONEY also went one step further this year to add an “easy choice”—the best no-muss, no-fuss, no-annual-fee option.

Easy Choice: Barclaycard Arrival World

  • APR: 16% to 24%
  • Annual fee: $0
  • Rewards:
    • Two miles for every $1 spent on travel and dining
    • One mile for every $1 spent on anything else
    • A 5% bonus when redeeming miles for travel spending
  • Sign-up bonus: 20,000 miles after spending $1,000 in the first 90 days
  • Why it’s a winner: Cost-conscious cardholders who are modest spenders but want some travel rewards should look to this card. There’s no annual fee, no foreign-transaction fees, and even a yearlong 0% APR period on balance transfers made within 45 days of opening the card. You’ll earn solid rewards, including double miles for every dollar you spend on travel or at a restaurant; those miles will go even further when you redeem them for travel purchases.
  • Caveat: Earning miles on this card is tougher than with some of the other travel winners. If you expect to spend more than $1,000 a month, this card’s cousin—the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite—will be worth the $89 annual fee.

Best for Frequent Fliers (Tie): Chase Sapphire Preferred

  • APR: 16% variable
  • Annual fee: $0 the first year, then $95
  • Sign-up bonus: 40,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first three months
  • Rewards:
    • Two points for every $1 spent on travel and dining
    • One point for every $1 spent on anything else
    • 5,000 points when you add an authorized user who makes a purchase within three months
    • 20% off travel when redeeming points for airfare, hotel stays, car rentals, and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards
  • Why it’s a winner: Valuable points and integration with partner programs make Chase Sapphire Preferred the best choice for those who want the most travel flexibility. You have a few options: You can redeem points against charges on your statement—getting 1¢ per mile—or get an extra 20% bonus if you use Chase’s platform to buy travel. Or you can transfer points directly to Sapphire’s travel partners: airlines (such as United and British Airways), hotels (Hyatt, Marriott), or trains (Amtrak). Those programs can be more generous or flexible, letting you use points to pay for upgrades or book business-class tickets.
  • Caveat: Chase has upped the amount you must spend in the first three months to earn a sign-up bonus.

Best for Frequent Fliers (Tie): Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite

  • APR: 16% to 20%
  • Annual fee: $0 the first year, then $89
  • Sign-up bonus: 40,000 miles after spending $3,000 in 90 days
  • Rewards:
    • Two miles for every $1 spent
    • A 5% bonus when redeeming miles for travel spending
  • Why it’s a winner: Like the Sapphire, this card offers top rewards without entangling you in an airline’s loyalty program, but it allows big spenders to rack up miles more quickly. The sign-up bonus itself nets you $420 worth of travel spending, but even after that first year you can recoup the annual fee with about $750 in monthly spending. Other benefits: There are no foreign-transaction fees, and you can get your credit score from TransUnion for free via the Barclaycard website.
  • Caveat: This card doesn’t let you transfer miles to airline or hotel programs.

Best for Hotel Aficionados: Starwood Preferred Guest

  • APR: 15% to 19%
  • Annual fee: $0 the first year, then $95
  • Sign-up bonus: 25,000 points after spending $3,000 in 90 days
  • Rewards:
    • Up to five points for every $1 spent on Starwood hotels
    • One point per $1 for everything else
  • Why it’s a winner: When it comes to hotel rewards, not all points are created equal. Other programs may offer more points per purchase (as does Citi Hilton HHonors card) or a greater sign-up bonus (IHG Rewards Club Select)—but the quants at NerdWallet say a Starwood Preferred Guest point is about five times as valuable as those offered by Hilton and more than three times as great as IHG’s. Why? Because these points go further. Starwood’s are worth about 2.2¢ to 2.4¢ each when they’re redeemed for hotel stays—far in excess of what you’ll get through rival programs. You can also transfer points to about 30 frequent-flier programs; you’ll even get a 5,000-point bonus when you transfer 20,000. And Starwood recently nixed its foreign-transaction fee, making overseas travel less costly.
  • Caveat: To reap the card’s benefits, you’ll have to stay in one of Starwood’s 1,200 hotels. But the company’s portfolio includes brands such as Westin, W, and the St. Regis, so it’s hardly a sacrifice.

See all of MONEY’s picks:

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