The Top 5 Travel Rewards Cards

The best travel rewards credit cards today offer more than just the promise of free airfare or an upgrade. Here are five credit cards that offer the greatest miles, cash-back rewards and other valuable perks for frequent flyers.

Travel rewards credit cards have received a bad rap over the last few years, as severe airline restrictions make cashing in points for travel more and more difficult. But the best travel rewards cards today offer more than just the promise of free airfare or an upgrade.

Some card issuers are ramping up bonus sign-up points, offering elite lounge access and free baggage check-in, and complimentary hotel stays. While most cards charge annual membership fees, many are waived for the first year. (Cardholders in good standing often are able to convince issuers to waive those fees in future years, if they take the time to call and ask.)

Which cards offer the best travel rewards? Here are five that offer the greatest miles, cash-back and other perks for frequent flyers, as ranked by money-management and information website Money Crashers.

1. Capital One Venture Rewards Visa.

Annual fee: $59 (waived for the first year)

Annual percentage rate (APR) on purchases: 11.9%, 15.9%, or 19.9%, based on creditworthiness

Money magazine called this card the best rewards card “if you aim to rack up airline miles.” Essentially, miles earned on this Capital One card act the same as cash. For each dollar you spend, you earn you two “miles,” which can be redeemed as a credit of one cent against future travel-related expenses. With the card, you can choose to use the miles for air fare, to receive credit towards elite status, and to become eligible for upgrades, according to Money Crashers. As a bonus, the card charges no foreign exchange fees.

The $59 annual fee is waived for the first year, and you’ll need to spend $2,950 a year in future years to recoup the cost of the fee.

Learn more about the Capital One card here.

2. Starwood Preferred Guest Card from American Express.

Annual fee: $65 (waived for the first year)

APR on purchases: 2.90% for the first six months; thereafter 15.24% (variable)

Frequent-flyer miles aren’t the only travel perks offered by card issuers. American Express’ Starwood Preferred Guest Card lets card holders earn points in Starwood Hotel’s Starpoints program, which can be used for free stays at their extensive hotel network, including the Sheraton, Westin, and W Hotels.

Starwood was also named the top travel rewards card by Smarter Travel Media:

“Our top scoring factor was the ability to earn actual airline miles rather than just cash value,” according to the site. “Plus, you can transfer Starwood points to airline miles, one-to-one, into programs of five major North American airlines — Air Canada, Alaska, American, Delta, and US Airways -- and major foreign lines including AirFrance/KLM, British Airways, Lufthansa, and Virgin Atlantic.” When you transfer 20,000 points, you get a 5,000-mile "bonus," making the Starwood card 25% more generous than the airlines' own cards, Smarter Travel reported.

You get up to 5 points for every dollar spent at one of the Starwood’s hotels or resorts, and 1 point per dollar spent everywhere else. There are no blackout dates or capacity restrictions. Also, when you redeem an award for four nights, your fifth night is free, Money Crashers reported.

Learn more about the Starwood Preferred Guest Card here.

3. American Express Platinum Card.

Annual fee: $450

APR on purchases: No interest charges if you pay your balance in full each month.

Do you spend a lot of money on travel? The American Express Platinum card is card for you. The card’s travel benefits are too long list here, but they include a $200 annual airline fee credit and memberships in several airline lounge and car-rental programs, according to Money Crashers.

Each dollar you spend earns you a point in American Express’s Membership Rewards program, which is second only to Starwood in its ability to transfer points to airline miles at will. Like some other travel rewards cards, this card has no foreign transaction fees. The card’s biggest drawback is its annual fee -- a hefty $450 (though card credits shave that cost).

Learn more about the American Express Platinum Card here.

4. Delta SkyMiles Reserve Card from American Express.

Annual fee: $450

APR on purchases: 14.50% (variable)

The Delta SkyMiles Reserve card lays on the travel perks, including a membership in Delta’s Sky Club lounges, free baggage check-in for your first bag for you and all of your traveling companions, and the opportunity to earn elite qualifying miles in the airline’s Medallion program, Money Crashers reported.

You can earn up to 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) with your first purchase, plus, additional bonus miles of up to 30,000. Cardholders also receive upgrade priority over equally ranked passengers who don’t have the card.

Learn more about the Delta SkyMiles Reserve Card here.

5. British Airways Visa Signature Card from Chase.

Annual fee: $79

APR on purchases: 14.24% (variable)

With the British Airways Executive Club card, you can redeem miles through its OneWorld Alliance to travel with partners airlines such as American Airlines. The card has no foreign transaction fee.

Cardholders earn 1.25 miles for each dollar spent and 2.5 miles for every dollar spend on British Airways purchases. You can also earn a “Travel Together” companion ticket that’s good for two years by spending $30,000 in a calendar year. With it, you can redeem two-for-one awards on British Airways flights, doubling the value of miles. Finally, cardholders can earn 25,000 bonus British Airways Miles after your first purchase, plus an additional 25,000 bonus Miles when you spend $2,500 in the first 90 days. That 50,000 is equal to one transatlantic flight, or two domestic flights.

Learn more about the British Airways Visa Signature Card here.