Best Fee-Free Travel Credit Card

19

In response to my recent post “What is the best credit card?” a reader pointed out that I should have included the Wells Fargo Propel card on the list.  I agree, but for one thing: even though the Propel is issued by Wells Fargo, it’s an Amex card.  The point of that post was to recommend a single rewarding card (or sometimes two) for those who don’t want to carry around lots of different cards.  I can’t recommend Amex or Discover cards to that audience since they’re often not accepted internationally.  Even in the US there are many merchants that don’t accept Amex cards.

Still, the Wells Fargo Propel card is interesting because it has great earning power for a no-fee card.  Heck, it has great earning power for any card, especially when combined with the no-fee Wells Fargo Visa Signature card to redeem points for airfare at 1.5 cents per point.  Does that make the Wells Fargo card the single best no-fee travel rewards card?  Let’s dig into the data to find out…

Initial contenders

We maintain a database of rewards cards which we use to populate all of our credit card pages (Best Credit Card Offers, Best Big Spend Bonuses, Best Rewards for Everyday Spend, Best Category Bonuses, etc.).  I dug through the database to find cards with no annual fee, no foreign transaction fees, and which are available today for new signups.  That resulted in this lengthy list of cards:

Card Info Name and Earning Rate (no offer)
Wells Fargo Propel American Express® Card
Base
Travel
Dine
Gas
Other
Earning rate: 3X flights, hotels, homestays, car rentals, dining, gas, rideshares, transit, and streaming services
PenFed Pathfinder Rewards American Express Card
Base
Travel
Earning rate: ⚬ 3X or 4X Travel ⚬ 1.5X everywhere else ⚬ 4X travel for Access America
Checking account holders and military members
Bank of America Travel Rewards
Base
1.5X
(1.5%)
Travel
Earning rate: 1.5X everywhere; 3X for travel booked through BOA's travel center
Huntington Voice
Base
1%
Travel
3%
Dine
3%
Gas
3%
Grocery
3%
Shop
3%
Office
3%
Biz
3%
Other
3%
Earning rate: 3% cash back on up to $2K in spend in the category you choose each quarter: gas stations, travel & entertainment, restaurants, discount & warehouse stores, grocery stores, utilities & office supply stores, electronics and computer and camera stores, department and apparel and sporting good stores, auto parts & service, and home improvement stores
Costco Anywhere Visa
Base
1%
Travel
3%
Dine
3%
Gas
4%
Earning rate: ⚬ 4% gas (up to $7K spend / year) ⚬ 3% restaurant & travel; 2% Costco ⚬ 1% everywhere else
Uber Visa Card
Base
Travel
Dine
Brand
Earning rate: 5% Uber Cash for Uber spend (including UberEATS) ⚬ 3% Uber Cash for dining, hotels, and airfare ⚬ 1% Uber Cash everywhere else
Barclays Arrival™ World MasterCard®
Base
Travel
Dine
Earning rate: ⚬ 2X Miles for travel and dining ⚬ 1X everywhere else
Paypal Cashback Mastercard
Base
2%
Earning rate: 2% cash back everywhere
Discover it Miles - Double Miles your first year
Base
1.5%
Earning rate: 1.5 miles per dollar for all spend.
Citi® Expedia+ Credit Card
Base
Brand
Earning rate: 3X Expedia purchases
Capital One Savor One
Base
1%
Dine
3%
Grocery
2%
Other
3%
Earning rate: ⚬ 3% on dining & entertainment ⚬ 2% on purchases at grocery stores ⚬ 1% everywhere else ⚬ Through 1/31/21: 5% Uber Eats.
Capital One Quicksilver
Base
1.5%
Earning rate: 1.5% everywhere
Choice Privileges® Visa Signature® Card issued by Barclays
Base
Brand
Earning rate: ⚬ 5X at Choice Hotels and on purchases of Choice Hotels points or gift cards ⚬ 2X everywhere else
JetBlue Card
Base
Dine
Grocery
Brand
Earning rate: ⚬ 2X restaurants and grocery ⚬ 3X JetBlue ⚬ 1X everywhere else⚬
Hilton Honors American Express Card
Base
Dine
Gas
Grocery
Brand
Earning rate: ⚬ 7X Hilton spend ⚬ 5X US restaurants, US Supermarkets, and US gas stations ⚬ 3X on all other eligible purchases

Final contenders

Next, I winnowed down the list to the cards that offer more than 1.5% base earnings or at least 3% travel, based on our Reasonable Redemption Values (RRVs).  These restrictions eliminated cards like Capital One QuickSilver, Discover It Miles, JetBlue, Choice, Hilton, Arrival, SavorOne, and Expedia.

The remaining list of contenders is 7 deep (sorted with best rewards for travel purchases on top):

Wells Fargo Propel American Express® Card
Base
Travel
Dine
Gas
Other
Earning rate: 3X flights, hotels, homestays, car rentals, dining, gas, rideshares, transit, and streaming services
PenFed Pathfinder Rewards American Express Card
Base
Travel
Earning rate: ⚬ 3X or 4X Travel ⚬ 1.5X everywhere else ⚬ 4X travel for Access America
Checking account holders and military members
Bank of America Travel Rewards
Base
1.5X
(1.5%)
Travel
Earning rate: 1.5X everywhere; 3X for travel booked through BOA's travel center
Huntington Voice
Base
1%
Travel
3%
Dine
3%
Gas
3%
Grocery
3%
Shop
3%
Office
3%
Biz
3%
Other
3%
Earning rate: 3% cash back on up to $2K in spend in the category you choose each quarter: gas stations, travel & entertainment, restaurants, discount & warehouse stores, grocery stores, utilities & office supply stores, electronics and computer and camera stores, department and apparel and sporting good stores, auto parts & service, and home improvement stores
Costco Anywhere Visa
Base
1%
Travel
3%
Dine
3%
Gas
4%
Earning rate: ⚬ 4% gas (up to $7K spend / year) ⚬ 3% restaurant & travel; 2% Costco ⚬ 1% everywhere else
Uber Visa Card
Base
Travel
Dine
Brand
Earning rate: 5% Uber Cash for Uber spend (including UberEATS) ⚬ 3% Uber Cash for dining, hotels, and airfare ⚬ 1% Uber Cash everywhere else
Paypal Cashback Mastercard
Base
2%
Earning rate: 2% cash back everywhere

Grading criteria

We’re not done yet.  The ideal travel card would check all of these boxes:

  • Accepted everywhere (sorry Amex)
  • Rewarding for all travel (hotels, airfare, trains, cruises, etc.)
  • Rewarding for dining (I expect that travelers eat out often)
  • Rewarding for all other purchases
  • Automatic travel protections
  • Other valuable perks

Fee-Free Travel Credit Cards Graded by Greg

Accepted World-wide? Rewarding for ALL Travel? Rewarding for Dining? Rewarding for all other purchases? Automatic Travel Protection Other Valuable Perks
PenFed Pathfinder Rewards American Express Card
Wells Fargo Propel World American Express® Card
Huntington Voice Mastercard    
Bank of America Travel Rewards Visa    
Bank of America Travel Rewards with Platinum Honors    
Costco Anywhere Visa    
Uber Visa Card    
Paypal Cashback Mastercard

Explanation of ratings

  • Accepted worldwide?  Visa or Mastercard gets an A, Amex gets a C.
  • Rewarding for all travel?  3% or more gets an A if the definition of travel is broad.  2% to under 3% gets a B.  1.5% to under 2% gets a C.  Huntington Voice gets a B because 3% is limited to $2K spend per quarter and because you must choose a single 3% category.  Bank of America Travel Rewards gets lower grades because only purchases booked through their travel portal are eligible for higher travel rewards.
  • Rewarding for dining?  3% or more gets an A.  2% to under 3% gets a B.  1.5% to under 2% gets a C.  Huntington Voice gets a B because 3% is limited to $2K spend per quarter and because you must choose a single 3% category.
  • Rewarding for all other purchases?  2% or more gets an A.  1.5% to under 2% gets a B.  Under 1.5% gets an F.  Uber gets a C instead of an F because a good number of “everywhere else” purchases get 2% (online purchases, including online purchases made with third party payment methods like PayPal, Venmo, Apple Pay, Android Pay, and Samsung Pay).
  • Automatic travel protections: Cards without travel protections get an F.  Those with travel protections, including car rental and trip cancellation & interruption, get an A.  Wells Fargo Propel gets a B because it includes travel protections, but not trip cancellation & interruption.
  • Other valuable perks: I gave a B to cards that offered almost any perks at all beyond those granted automatically by the payment network since these are fee-free cards after all.  PenFed gets an A because it includes $100 in airline fee reimbursements every year.  That’s awesome for a fee-free card.

Which is best?

Costco Anywhere Visa

Costco Anywhere Visa

Annual Fee: $0

Card Type: Visa Signature

Base
1%
Travel
3%
Dine
3%
Gas
4%

Earning rate: ⚬ 4% gas (up to $7K spend / year) ⚬ 3% restaurant & travel; 2% Costco ⚬ 1% everywhere else

Accepted World-wide?
Rewarding for ALL Travel?
Rewarding for Dining?
Rewarding for all other purchases?
Automatic Travel Protections
Other Valuable Perks
Costco Anywhere Visa

I was shocked to find that the Costco Anywhere Visa checked the most boxes.  If I hadn’t started from our card database, I wouldn’t have even thought to include this card in a travel card roundup.  Of course, this one isn’t really fee-free since you are required to have a paid Costco membership to get the card.  Still, for those who shop Costco anyway, it’s a strong performer.  It’s not good for everywhere else spend, so I’d recommend pairing it with something like the Paypal Mastercard to fill in that hole.  Notably, the Costco Anywhere Visa is the only non-Amex card in the roundup to include automatic travel protections.

Uber Visa

Uber Visa Card

FM Mini Review: The refreshed version of this card (as of 10/28/19) no longer earns cash back. Instead, it earns Uber Cash. This card only makes sense for the most die-hard of Uber fans.


Annual Fee: $0

Card Type: Visa Platinum or Signature

Base
Travel
Dine
Brand

Earning rate: 5% Uber Cash for Uber spend (including UberEATS) ⚬ 3% Uber Cash for dining, hotels, and airfare ⚬ 1% Uber Cash everywhere else

Big spend bonus: ⚬ Annual $50 subscription credit when you spend $5,000 in a year (good for things like Netflix, HBO NOW, Amazon Prime, etc) — note that this benefit kicks in during the second year if you spend $5K in year 1)

Noteworthy perks: Up to $600 mobile phone insurance against theft or damage when you charge your total monthly bill to the card ($25 deductible) ⚬ No foreign transaction fees

Accepted World-wide?
Rewarding for ALL Travel?
Rewarding for Dining?
Rewarding for all other purchases?
Automatic Travel Protections
Other Valuable Perks
Uber Visa Card

The Uber Visa card also checks a lot of boxes and also should be paired with a good “everywhere else” card.  But this one lacks travel protections.

Other notables

PenFed Pathfinder Rewards American Express Card

FM Mini Review: A $100 annual travel credit is terrific for a card with no annual fee.


Annual Fee: $0

Card Type: Amex Credit Card

Base
Travel

Earning rate: ⚬ 3X or 4X Travel ⚬ 1.5X everywhere else ⚬ 4X travel for Access America
Checking account holders and military members

Noteworthy perks: ⚬ $100 Travel Credit (To be used towards baggage fees, lounge access, onboard food & drink, etc.) ⚬ $100 Global Entry credit ⚬ Amex Offers

See also: PenFed Pathfinder Rewards American Express Card Complete Guide

Wells Fargo Propel American Express® Card

FM Mini Review: Combine points with the Wells Fargo Visa Signature to get 1.5 cents per point in value towards travel (or 1.75 cents per point if you spend $50K per year on the Visa Signature and combine your points).


Annual Fee: $0

Card Type: Amex Credit Card

Base
Travel
Dine
Gas
Other

Earning rate: 3X flights, hotels, homestays, car rentals, dining, gas, rideshares, transit, and streaming services

The PenFed card offers outstanding perks for a no-fee card, but it’s not very rewarding outside of travel purchases.  The Wells Fargo Propel card offers a bit less in the way of perks, but a bit more in rewards.  Both would have been standouts in this roundup if only they were Visa or Mastercards.  I just can’t bring myself to crown an Amex card as a best Travel Card.  Amex just isn’t accepted in enough places.

Bank of America Travel Rewards

Annual Fee: $0

Card Type: Visa Signature

Base
1.5X
(1.5%)
Travel

Earning rate: 1.5X everywhere; 3X for travel booked through BOA's travel center

Noteworthy perks: Up to 75% bonus for Preferred Rewards banking customers

See also: Up to 2.625% back for timeshares, fortune tellers and more

Bank of America Travel Rewards (with Platinum Honors Preferred Rewards)

Annual Fee: $0

Card Type: Visa Signature

Base
2.625X
(2.63%)
Travel
5.25X
(5.25%)

Earning rate: With Platinum Honors status with Bank of America's Preferred Rewards program, this card earns: 2.625X points for all spend (and 5.25X for travel purchased through BOA's travel center)

The Bank of America Travel Rewards card offers the best rewards of the bunch for those who have $100K or more in assets combined across Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, and Merrill Edge.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t offer travel protections.  For those interested in this card, I think you’re better off paying the $95 annual fee for the Bank of America Premium Rewards card instead.  See this post for full details: Bank of America cards: awesome if you’ve got $100K lying around.

Alternatively, it’s worth considering pairing this card with one of the fee-free cards that offer good travel protections. That way you can pay for transportation with a card that offers travel protection, and then pay for other stuff with the Travel Rewards card in order to greatly increase your overall rewards earnings.

Where are the transferable points?

I’m on record many times saying that transferable points programs are my favorite rewards programs.  These are bank issued points that can be used to purchase travel, redeem for cash, or transferred to airline and hotel loyalty programs.  Unfortunately, none of them offer the combination required for inclusion in this post.  The best no-fee transferable points card, in my opinion, is the Amex Blue Business Plus which offers 2X everywhere for the first $50K of spend per year, then 1X.  Unfortunately, Amex does charge foreign transaction fees with this card.

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