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Best Travel Rewards Cards Without an Annual Fee

Looking to dive into the world of travel cards? If you’re an infrequent traveler or prefer simplicity, a no annual fee travel credit card may be best for your needs.

By Megan Doyle | American Express Credit Intel Freelance Contributor

5 Min Read | October 1, 2021 in Cards



The best travel rewards credit card is the one that works for your travel and spending style.

For some, that may be a straightforward travel rewards card with no annual fee.

Still, many travelers find the extra benefits of annual fee travel cards are worth the cost.

So you’re thinking about getting a travel rewards credit card. But maybe you’re not a frequent traveler, or maybe you’re not sure you need the bells and whistles – and annual fee – of a premium travel rewards card. If so, you might want to start with a no annual fee travel credit card. But with so many options, how can you choose?

If you’re ready to dip your toes in the world of travel rewards cards – and maybe a pool in Cancún – read on to learn how to choose a no annual fee card that best suits your lifestyle. 


Types of Travel Rewards Credit Cards with No Annual Fee

To be able to choose the best no annual fee travel rewards credit card to fit your needs, you need to first understand what’s available to you. There are two main types of travel rewards cards with no annual fee options:

Co-branded travel credit cards: These travel rewards cards are co-branded with a specific airline or hotel chain, meaning the miles and points you earn can only be used to book flights, hotel stays, or upgrades within the card’s specific company. This makes them a good choice for travelers who are loyal to a particular airline carrier or hotel company. For example, American Express offers no annual fee co-branded Credit Cards among its Delta and Hilton cards. Perks usually include points or miles multipliers on specific spending categories or even boosted loyalty program status, depending on the card.

General purpose travel credit cards: These travel rewards cards are not tied to any particular airline or hotel chain. Rewards are usually earned in the form of points that can be redeemed for travel within a list of approved airlines or hotels depending on the card issuer. While these travel cards offer a little more flexibility when choosing a flight or hotel booking, card members may not get the same loyalty program perks often offered with co-branded cards. General purpose travel rewards cards with no annual fee tend to offer more straightforward benefits than their annual fee counterparts.


Common Features of No Annual Fee Travel Rewards Cards

Just because a travel rewards card has no annual fee doesn’t mean it won’t have benefits that can help make your journeys more affordable or enjoyable. Of course, not all cards are the same, but here are some common features to consider when looking for the best annual fee travel rewards card for you:

  • Points or miles multipliers: Most general purpose no annual fee travel credit cards will offer points or miles on approved travel-related purchases. Some might even offer points on additional eligible spending categories, like dining, gas, or groceries. For co-branded travel cards, you can usually expect to earn extra points or miles on purchases made with the specific hotel or airline. Again, some cards might offer bonus points for spending in different brand-agnostic categories, like supermarket spending. Consider a card that will help you earn points in the areas you spend most – it’ll help you earn rewards faster.
  • Welcome bonuses: Most travel rewards credit cards, co-branded or not, offer a welcome bonus. These usually require card members to spend a certain amount of dollars within a set time frame. For example, spending $500 within the first three months of card membership might earn you 10,000 miles or hotel chain points. This can give the occasional traveler a boost toward their next trip.
  • Loyalty status boosters: Co-branded travel cards with no annual fee might offer complimentary airline or hotel status boosts, but you may need to spend a certain amount on the card every year to receive this type of benefit. A higher loyalty status can often lead to perks like discounts and upgrades.
  • In-flight discounts: Some no annual fee co-branded airline cards offer benefits like discounts on in-flight purchases. For example, one card offers 20% off on eligible in-flight purchases, applied in the form of a statement credit.
  • No foreign transaction fees: Foreign transaction fees can put a damper on an international trip because they often go unnoticed until it’s time to pay your bill. Fortunately, most no annual fee travel rewards credit cards have no foreign transaction fees, meaning you won’t be liable for surcharges when you use your card outside of U.S. territories – or even online from a foreign merchant.
  • Car rental insurance: Some no annual fee travel rewards credit cards offer secondary rental car insurance coverage, typically for damage or theft, that kicks in after your personal auto insurance pays.


When to Consider a Travel Rewards Card with an Annual Fee

Despite the benefits of no annual fee travel cards, it’s important to consider that many travelers find the added benefits of annual fee cards are worth the cost. For example, even a lower fee of $95 a year can enhance the travel experience by adding extra perks like free checked bags, priority boarding, airport lounge access, and even travel insurance.

You may want to consider a no annual fee travel credit card if you’re an infrequent traveler who wants to earn points or miles for the purchases you regularly make. It might just add some perks while making travel a bit less expensive. But if you travel at least once a year and would benefit from added perks like free checked bags or priority boarding, you may want to consider whether an annual fee travel rewards card is worth the cost.


The Takeaway 

If you’re just starting to venture into the world of travel rewards credit cards and are not a frequent flyer, one with no annual fee might be perfect for you. Even with no annual fee, you can get perks like points or miles that can be redeemed for flights and hotel stays, and protections like rental car insurance. Still, the best travel rewards credit card is the one that aligns with your travel and spending style. In some cases, it may be worth considering a travel card with an annual fee if you’d benefit from added perks like free checked bags. 

Megan Doyle

Megan Doyle is a business technology writer and researcher whose work focuses on financial services and cross-cultural diversity and inclusion.


All Credit Intel content is written by freelance authors and commissioned and paid for by American Express. 

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