Flying is a great option for many travelers, but it isn’t for everyone. Ground transportation can sometimes save you time, money, and frustration, and a car or train might be the best choice for your trip.
Yet many travel credit cards offer rewards in airline miles or airport lounge access, which aren’t worth a thing if you want to avoid airports in the first place. So, if you don’t like to fly, you may have written off travel credit cards completely, but you should reevaluate that stance.
While there are fewer travel credit cards that specialize in trains, cruises, and other terrestrial modes of transportation, the ones that do can offer substantial rewards, like savings on train tickets and cash back on gas purchases. And there are also some more general credit cards that offer flexible rewards that can be used for hotels, car rentals, and even a flight or two if you have to fly. For instance, the Chase Sapphire Preferred—our best overall choice—offers smart ways to redeem points and earn cash back.
If you love to travel and you’re not a big fan of flying, these five choices could be the best credit cards for you.
Most of these cards come with an annual fee, but some cards offer perks each year that are worth more than the fee total. The U.S. Bank Altitude Reserve Visa Card card is probably the best example of this.
APR rates and credit limits vary based on your individual credit. Credit limits and interest rates for each card are determined based on each cardholder's personal situation, so we did not take that information into account when evaluating these cards. One thing to remember is that if you pay your card off in full every month, you will not be charged interest.
Banks have final say on who they accept for a credit card. These recommendations were put together with the assumption that applicants would have average credit or above. That being said, banks decide who they will issue credit cards to using criteria including, but not always limited to, an individual's credit score when evaluating each applicant.
How We Evaluated
I’m a travel writer who has been writing about credit cards for the last six years and studying card benefits for many years longer, so I know this space well. As a traveler myself, I also know what benefits travelers will need and use. To examine cards for surface-based travel, I looked at major credit cards that are co-branded with cruises and trains as well as cards that offer flexible points that can be used for different types of travel-related redemptions other than flying. The best cards were chosen based on the value of rewards (both points and perks), fees, and general accessibility.
Chase Sapphire Preferred
The Chase Sapphire Preferred has been a favorite travel credit card for its great benefits and flexible points since it was introduced in 2009. Points earned through the card can be used for all kinds of travel redemptions including hotel stays, cruises, car rentals, and even flights. This card has a $95 annual fee.
Points: Chase created a proprietary reward system called Ultimate Reward points and the more money you spend on your card, the more Ultimate Rewards points you’ll receive. The Sapphire Preferred card offers 2 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent on all travel and dining purchases and 1 Ultimate Reward point per dollar spent on everything else.
Ultimate Rewards points can then be used to book hotels, cruises, car rentals, vacation rentals, and more directly through Chase’s travel portal at a rate of 1.25 cents per point ($0.0125). For additional flexibility, points can also be transferred to Ultimate Rewards partners. Most Ultimate Rewards transfer partners are airlines, but you can also transfer your points to rewards programs from hotel chains like Hyatt, InterContinental Hotels Group, and Marriott.
If you just want the cash back, Ultimate Rewards points can be redeemed for cash at a rate of 1 point for $0.01.
Perks: The Chase Sapphire Preferred has many great benefits in addition to how flexible the points are. It offers primary car rental insurance coverage, meaning if something happens to your rental car you won’t have to make a claim to your own insurance policy first. It also doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees for any trips you make abroad and offers purchase protection and extended warranty protection.
If you don’t like to fly, there’s a good chance you’ll end up driving to your destination. If you do, then a card that rewards you for filling up the tank is a solid choice. Our top pick for a gas card is the Blue Cash Preferred Card, a cash-back card with a $95 annual fee—though through December 10, 2020, the annual fee is waived for the first year.
Points: The Blue Cash Preferred Card gives you 3% cash back on any money spent at U.S. gas stations, plus some other transit-related expenses like taxis and rideshares, tolls, and parking.
You’ll also earn 6% cash back on the first $6,000 per year on spending at U.S. grocery stores (and then 1% at grocery stores after $6,000), and 1% cash back on all other purchases.
Perks: The Blue Cash Preferred Card doesn’t have many additional perks, but it does offer an introductory 0% APR on purchases for the first 12 months. After the introductory APR period, the interest rate will be increased based on your creditworthiness. It also offers secondary car rental loss and damage insurance; secondary means that you must first make a claim to your own car insurance policy.
If you’d much rather travel by train than plane, and you’re planning on traveling within the United States, you’ll be on Amtrak. While there are two Amtrak-branded cards to choose, we recommend the Amtrak Guest Rewards World Mastercard. This card has a $79 annual fee.
Points: As far as earning points goes, you’ll get 3 Amtrak Guest Rewards points per dollar spent on purchases with Amtrak and 2 Amtrak points per dollar spent on all other travel purchases. Purchases that aren’t travel related will earn 1 Amtrak point per dollar spent.
And the Amtrak Card doesn’t have foreign transaction fees, so if your travels take you to places beyond Amtrak’s reach, you can still earn points towards future trips.
Perks: The Amtrak Card comes with a few nice perks. When you open your account, you’ll get a complimentary Companion Coupon, which means you can have two people travel on the same train for the price of one. The Companion Coupon is valid for a free companion rail fare with purchase of a regular adult rail fare, that is valid on both one-way and round-trip Amtrak tickets. There are a few blackout dates for the coupon, but it is overall pretty easy to redeem and can offer fantastic value.
You’ll also be able to upgrade to a higher class ticket and get one free pass to an Amtrak lounge when you’re traveling on a regional train.
The U.S. Bank Altitude Reserve comes with a hefty $400 annual fee, but it is packed full of benefits that could make it worth it if you value some of the premium benefits this card offers.
Points: For every dollar you spend on travel and with a mobile wallet (like Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, Google Pay, etc.), you’ll earn 3 points. All other purchases made with your Altitude Reserve will earn 1 point per dollar.
Perks: Easily the most valuable benefit of the Altitude Reserve card is the $325 annual travel credit. You will automatically be reimbursed for the first $325 in purchases you make from hotels, car rental companies, taxis, limousines, passenger trains, cruise lines, and airlines. If you use this benefit each year, you effectively bring the annual fee on this card down to only $75—putting it on par with other cards on this list.
In addition to the travel credit, you’ll also receive a TSA PreCheck/Global Entry fee reimbursement. While these are both programs that are geared toward flyers, members of Global Entry also receive expedited privileges at the U.S.-Canada and U.S.-Mexico land borders when crossing back into the U.S.
While the Citi Double Cash card isn’t technically a travel credit card, who can argue about cold hard cash that can still be used for travel? Especially when we’re talking about a card that doesn’t charge an annual fee.
Points: The Citi Double Cash card is simple and straightforward, while still being rewarding. It offers 1% back on every purchase when you make your purchase and 1% back when you pay off your balance. Assuming you do both, the Citi Double Cash card works out to a 2% cash back card.
Perks: Most cards that don’t have annual fees don’t have a ton in the way of additional perks, and the Citi Double Cash doesn’t really stand out here. It does offer a 0% APR on balance transfers for 18 months, as long as the transfer is made within 4 months of opening the account, but that’s all there is to write home about. After the introductory APR period, the APR will increase based on your creditworthiness.
We use standardized and scientific testing methods to scrutinize every product and provide you with objectively accurate results. If you’ve found different results in your own research, email us and we’ll compare notes. If it looks substantial, we’ll gladly re-test a product to try and reproduce these results. After all, peer reviews are a critical part of any scientific process.