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While most of us are still stuck at home (or at least close by), travel credit cards with perks like free hotel nights and airport lounge access have lost some of their allure. Especially since many of those credit cards also charge high annual fees that can top $500 per year. That said, folks are still spending money on everyday things, so you should carry a card or two that continues to earn rewards you can redeem for future travel—or cash back in the meantime.
Credit card issuers have diversified the types of products they offer, and many have launched cards without annual fees that still provide a great rate of return. There are also a few good financial reasons to carry a no-fee card—primarily that opening one can raise your overall line of credit, and keeping it open (why close it if there’s no annual fee, after all?) can lengthen your credit history and help boost your credit score over time. That means when you’re ready to open a higher-end rewards card later, you’ll have an even better score to help you qualify.
For the moment, though, here are some of the best rewards credit cards without annual fees, and why you might want to open one of them.
Cash back cards
No vacation plans in the near future? You might want to shift your rewards strategy to earning cash back instead of airline miles or hotel points so you can redeem your rewards for statement credits every month.
Best for everyday earning: The Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express
One of the top earners, this card is also offering $200 back to new cardholders in the form of statement credits after spending $1,000 within the first three months. Here’s what else makes it special.
- Earn an impressive 3 percent cash back on up to $6,000 per year in eligible purchases at U.S. supermarkets (then 1 percent after that)
- Earn 2 percent cash back at U.S. gas stations and select U.S. department stores, including Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, and JCPenney
- Earn 1 percent back on everything else
Best for the first year: Chase Freedom Unlimited®
Another excellent earner, the Chase Freedom Unlimited currently features one of the best sign-up bonuses of any card without an annual fee. Earn $200 back after you spend just $500 on purchases in the first three months of account opening. Plus, cardholders can rake in 5 percent cash back on grocery store purchases (excluding Target and Walmart) on up to $12,000 spent in the first year. If groceries are a major spending category for you, this card represents an unparalleled opportunity to save money that first year. What’s more…
- It earns 5 percent back on travel purchased through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal
- Earn 3 percent back on drugstore purchases and at restaurants, including takeout and eligible delivery services
- Finally, get 1.5 percent back on everything else
Keep in mind that if you have a more premium Chase card that earns Ultimate Rewards points, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card or the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, you can combine the points you earn from the Freedom Unlimited with the ones from those accounts and transfer them to the Ultimate Rewards program’s travel partners like United, Southwest, Hyatt, and Marriott, which makes this card even more dynamic.
Best for earning without thinking about it: Citi® Double Cash Card
Need a card with a simple rate of return without having to think too much? Then the Citi Double Cash Card might be your match.
- Earn 1 percent cash back when you make a purchase
- Earn an additional 1 percent back when you pay your monthly bill
- No bonus categories or spending caps to keep track of —just a simple 2 percent back on everything as long as you pay your minimum due on time every month
The Citi Double Cash is currently being converted into a World Elite Mastercard, which means you can count on extra benefits like a $10 Lyft credit (up to once per month) after you take five rides or more in a month; complimentary ShopRunner membership with free two-day shipping from more than a hundred online retailers; and cell phone insurance to cover your device being stolen or damaged, worth up to $600 per claim and $1,000 per year (with a $50 deductible).
Best for flexibility: Citi Rewards+℠ Card
Want the ability to redeem your rewards for cash back or convert them into airline miles? Then this card might be the right choice. The points it earns can be redeemed for cash back and travel through Citi, or converted into JetBlue TrueBlue points at a 5:4 ratio. However, if you also have the Citi Premier® or Citi Prestige®, you can combine your rewards accounts and transfer points at better ratios to Citi’s 16 airline partners, such as Air France/KLM Flying Blue, Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer, and Virgin Atlantic Flying Club.
New cardholders can earn 15,000 bonus points, worth up to $150 cash back, after spending $1,000 in the first three months of account opening.
- The card earns two points per dollar on the first $6,000 spent per year at gas stations and supermarkets
- Earn one point per dollar on everything else
- Points are rounded up to the nearest 10 on every purchase. So if you buy $21 worth of gas, you’ll earn 50 points: 21 doubled to 42 thanks to that bonus category, then rounded up to the nearest 10
- Cardholders also receive 10 percent of their redeemed points back on the first 100,000 points per year, netting them even more value
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Best for travel: Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card
Like the higher-end Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card, this version earns miles (just 1.25 per dollar compared to two with the Venture) that can be redeemed for gift cards and a variety of travel purchases–flights and hotels, but also things like train tickets and taxi rides. You can also convert them into frequent-flier miles with 13 airlines including Air Canada and JetBlue, or points with two hotel chains, Wyndham and Accor.
Right now, new applicants can earn 20,000 bonus miles (worth $200 toward travel) after spending $1,000 within the first three months. If you’re redeeming for bookings through Capital One Travel (the card’s travel portal) or toward travel purchases you make with your card elsewhere, miles are worth one cent apiece, which is a pretty good rate of return. (Redeeming miles for cash back toward other charges only nets you a half-cent apiece in value.) This card also stands out since it doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees, which is still unusual among cards with no annual fee.
Airline and hotel cards
Many airlines and hotel chains have introduced co-branded credit cards with no annual fees that can help you earn points or miles even if you’re grounded for now.
Best for American Airlines loyalists: American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp℠ Card
This card doesn’t have a ton of perks, but it can still help you accumulate miles for flights pretty quickly. You can earn 10,000 AAdvantage bonus miles (enough for some deeply discounted round-trip domestic economy award tickets these days) plus a $50 statement credit after spending $500 within the first three months of account opening. Here’s what else it can do.
- Earn two miles per dollar on American Airlines purchases and at grocery stores
- Earn one mile per dollar on everything else
- Get a 25 percent discount on in-flight food and drinks on American Airlines flights when you use your card to pay
Best for Delta devotees: Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card
Delta and Amex recently revamped this card to appeal to less-frequent fliers. It currently offers 10,000 miles after spending $500 in the first three months of account opening.
- Earn two miles per dollar on Delta purchases and at restaurants, including on takeout and delivery
- Earn one mile per dollar on everything else
- Cardholders get 20 percent back as a statement credit to spend on food, drinks, and audio headsets on Delta flights
- No foreign transactions fees
Best for JetBlue jetsetters: JetBlue Card
Sign up and earn 10,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 in the first 90 days. That’s worth around $130–$140 when redeemed for flights on JetBlue (the value may vary slightly).
- Earns three points per dollar on JetBlue purchases
- Earn two points per dollar at restaurants and grocery stores
- Get one point per dollar on everything else
- 50 percent back on JetBlue in-flight cocktails and food
- No foreign transaction fee
Uniting United fliers: United Gateway℠ Card
United recently created this new fee-free card and offers applicants up to 20,000 bonus miles after spending $1,000 in the first three months.
- It earns two miles per dollar on United purchases, at gas stations and on local transit and commuting, including rideshares, taxis, tolls, and mass transit.
- Through September 30, 2021, cardholders can also earn three miles per dollar on up to $1,500 per month at grocery stores
- They also get 25 percent back on food, drinks, and Wi-Fi on United flights (a Wi-Fi day pass is $29, so the savings can add up)
- No foreign transaction fees
Say hi to Hilton: Hilton Honors American Express Card
Keep socking away points for stays once you start to travel again with this low-key hotel card. You can currently earn 80,000 bonus Hilton Honors points after spending $1,000 within the first three months.
- It accrues seven points per dollar on purchases made directly with Hilton hotels and resorts
- Earn five points per dollar at restaurants, supermarkets, and gas stations in the U.S.
- Earn three points per dollar on everything else
- Cardholders also get complimentary Hilton Honors Silver elite status with perks like bonus earning on stays and a chance at room upgrades
- No foreign transaction fees
Made for Marriott: Marriott Bonvoy Bold™ Card
There are so many Marriott cards—including options from both Chase and Amex—that it can be hard to keep track of them. But this is the only one open to new applicants without an annual fee and it currently offers 30,000 bonus points after you spend $1,000 in the first three months from account opening. That’s enough points for a night at most of Marriott’s low- and mid-range properties.
- The card earns three points per dollar spent at Marriott Bonvoy properties
- Earn two points per dollar spent on other travel, including airfare and taxis
- One point per dollar on everything else
- Cardholders get 15 elite night credits annually, which is enough for Silver status on its own, but also a boost toward higher tiers if you already earn status on your own
- It doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees, either
The biggest bonus: IHG® Rewards Club Traveler Credit Card
You can earn a whopping 100,000 bonus points after spending $2,000 in the first three months of account opening, which is the highest offer this relatively new card has ever fielded. Those points can come in handy, because IHG includes brands like Intercontinental and Kimpton, among others.
- The card earns five points per dollar at IHG hotels and resorts
- Earn two points per dollar at gas stations, grocery stores, and restaurants
- Get one point per dollar on everything else
- Spend $10,000 or more in a calendar year for Gold elite status, with benefits like earning bonus points on stays and small welcome amenities at check-in
- Surprise: No foreign transaction fees!
Just because you want to rack up travel rewards or get cash back doesn’t mean you have to carry a credit card with an exorbitant annual fee. There are more rewards cards than ever without annual fees that still offer tremendous opportunities to earn free travel. The key to finding the right one for your needs will be to determine what kind of rewards you’re most interested in—airline miles, hotel points, cash back, or transferable points—and which cards provide the highest earning rates on purchases you tend to make. Thinking about those elements will help you narrow down your options to the cards that will best meet your needs.
Why—and when—should you pay the annual fee on a rewards card?
Rewards cards with annual fees usually extend higher sign-up bonuses and earn more points on purchases than their lower-priced counterparts. They also tend to bundle in more day-of-travel perks like free checked bags, hotel elite status, and airport lounge access than cards with no annual fees. So if you plan to fly a particular airline or stay with a specific hotel chain a lot more in the future, it’s worth considering a more expensive co-branded credit card. That way, you can rack up points or miles toward your next trip even quicker, and enjoy more perks while actually traveling.
While the offers mentioned above are accurate at the time of publication, they are subject to change at any time, and may have changed or may no longer be available.
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