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What cards should I get for travel rewards? A simple travel rewards strategy with 2-4 cards.

Unlock more travel rewards. This guide covers the best travel rewards credit card strategy if you’re willing to go beyond carrying a single card and get 1-3 additional cards to earn travel rewards. Following the recommendations in this guide will get you the most travel rewards while keeping the number of cards you carry manageable.

This article is one of a series of articles that answers the most common question I receive: “What credit card should I get?”

Is this the right recommendation for you?

This article is right for you if:

  • You travel a few times a year and want to use your rewards for travel. You’ll get the most from the perks and rewards in the card recommendations if you take at least 2 trips a year.
  • You don’t want the complexity of learning travel transfer partners. This strategy gives you points that you can use for excellent value without having a PhD in miles and points.
  • You’re willing to get 2-4 credit cards. We’ll publish a guide soon with our recommendation for a single travel rewards credit card. But if you’re willing to get more than one card, you can earn more travel rewards.
  • You’re willing to pay an annual fee for perks and rewards. Getting the most value out of travel rewards requires holding a premium card that carries an annual fee. But we’ll help you figure out which one provides the most value.

Quick recommendation: Which cards to get at a glance.

Want to jump straight to our recommendation for the best 2-4 card travel rewards strategy? Here are the highlights.

Essential cards to get

Chase Freedom Unlimited® card art
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card card art or Chase Sapphire Reserve® card art

Optional cards to get

Chase Freedom Flex card art Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express card art

Get either or both of these cards to increase the rewards you earn.

Make the most of your cards

  • Use your cards for purchases in categories where they earn the most rewards (see the table below)
  • Transfer all of the points you earn on your Chase Freedom cards to your Chase Sapphire-branded card.
  • Use your points to book travel through Chase Travel℠.

Recommended cards for a travel rewards wallet:

Here’s a bit more on each of the cards that I recommend to build a basic travel rewards wallet.

Chase Freedom Unlimited: Your “everywhere else” card.

Chase Freedom Unlimited® card art
Chase Freedom Unlimited®

The first card you should get is the Chase Freedom Unlimited®. This is the card that you’ll use everywhere that you don’t use another card for better rewards or benefits. This card earns a minimum of 1.5% cash back on all purchases, and offers an extended warranty and purchase protection. The Freedom Unlimited has no annual fee.

Although the card is marketed as earning cash back, the card earns points in Chase’s Ultimate Rewards® program. The program offers several ways to get excellent value from your points, but the easiest is to transfer your points to a Chase Sapphire-branded card and redeem them for flights or hotels through Chase Travel℠.

Chase Sapphire: Pick one Sapphire-branded card to boost your point value

To make the most of your rewards, you’ll need to hold either the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card or Chase Sapphire Reserve®. Having one of these credit cards does three things:

  • Increases the value you can get from your points. When you use your points to book travel through Chase Travel℠, you’ll get 25% more value from your points with the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and 50% more value with the Chase Sapphire Reserve®.
  • Earns you more points on your travel purchases. Both the Sapphire Preferred and Sapphire Reserve earn more points on travel than the Freedom Unlimited.
  • Gives you access to market-leading travel insurance protections. Booking your travel with a Chase Sapphire Preferred or Reserve card protects your trip with best-in-class travel insurance protections including primary auto rental collision damage wavier, baggage delay insurance, travel accident insurance, trip cancellation/interruption insurance and trip delay/reimbursement coverage.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card card art

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card offers 5x points on travel you book through Chase Travel℠ and 2x points on other travel.

You’ll get a $50 statement credit each year for hotel stays purchased through Chase Travel.

With the Sapphire Preferred, you can redeem your points for 25% more value when you book travel Chase Travel. The card’s annual fee is $95/year.

If you don’t travel often, want to minimize costs, or don’t care about airport lounge access, you’ll likely prefer the Sapphire Preferred.

Chase Sapphire Reserve®

Chase Sapphire Reserve® card art

The Chase Sapphire Reserve® earns 5x points on flights and 10x points on hotels and rental cars booked through Chase Travel℠. You’ll also get 3x points on other travel purchases.

The card offers $300 in statement credits that get applied automatically toward a long list of travel expenses, plus airport lounge access to Priority Pass lounges and the Chase Sapphire Lounge by The Club.

Finally, you’ll get 50% more value from your points when you use them to book travel through Chase Travel. The card’s annual fee is $550/year.

The Sapphire Reserve is a better choice if you spend a large amount on travel each year or want airport lounge access.

Sapphire Preferred vs. Sapphire Reserve. Which to pick?

In most cases, the choice between the cards comes down to how many trips you take per year. The Chase Sapphire Reserve® is likely better for you if you take 3 or more trips per year. If you take fewer trips than that, go for the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. If you’re interested in a deeper dive on comparing the cards’ value, we’ll have an article on this later this month.

Chase Freedom Flex℠: A little extra complexity for a lot of extra points

Chase Freedom Flex card art
Chase Freedom Flex

Using just a Chase Freedom Unlimited® and one of the Sapphire cards will get you plenty of travel rewards, but if you want to earn more rewards, look at picking up the Chase Freedom Flex℠. The Freedom Flex has no annual fee.

The Chase Freedom Flex℠ offers 5% cash back on up to $1,500 you spend in bonus categories that rotate quarterly. To earn 5% rewards, you must activate your categories, but Chase will send you an email each quarter that will let you know what categories are on offer and you can activate your categories with one click.

Historically, the Freedom Flex has offered some pretty useful categories, including:

  • Grocery stores
  • Gas stations
  • Lowe’s
  • Wholesale Clubs
  • Walmart

In practice, I find that I am able to fully maximize the $1,500 of spending in each category in 2-3 quarters each year, netting me a minimum of 15,000 additional Ultimate Rewards® points each year—enough for an extra $225 of travel when paired with a Sapphire Reserve.

The Freedom Flex also offers cell phone protection when you pay your monthly cell phone bill with the card. This makes it the best card to use to pay your monthly cell phone bill.

Groceries and Gas: Pick a card for rewards in these categories

Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express card art
Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express

You can further increase the rewards you earn by picking up an additional card that offers bonus rewards in categories where you spend the most money. For many, a card that earns more rewards on gas and groceries is a great choice.

My favorite card for gas and groceries is the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express. When paired with the Chase cards above, the Blue Cash Preferred can give you cash back rewards in categories where you would otherwise earn 1.5% with the Chase Freedom Unlimited®:

  • 6% cash back on groceries on up to $6,000 per year in purchases at U.S. supermarkets.
  • 6% cash back on select streaming services.
  • 3% cash back on gas at U.S. gas stations.
  • 1% cash back on other purchases.
  • $84 in credits ($7 monthly) for The Disney Bundle. (Enrollment required. Terms apply.)

Alternatively, you could select other cards from our list of the best cards for groceries and our post on the best cards for gas rewards. Or if you buy your groceries from Target, Whole Foods, or Walmart, you could pick a card that earns better rewards at the place you buy your groceries.

How to use the cards

Here’s which card to use for each type of expense.

For these expenses…Use these cards…Because…
All travel
Hotel bookings, airline tickets, car rentals, dining, busses, parking lots, garages
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card card art Chase Sapphire Reserve® card art
Sapphire Preferred or Sapphire Reserve
These cards earn as many or more rewards in these categories as the other cards and have the best travel insurance protections.
(Optional) Monthly cell phone billChase Freedom Flex card art
Chase Freedom Flex
This is the only card in this wallet that has a cell phone protection benefit.
(Optional) Purchases in 5% rotating categoriesChase Freedom Flex card art
Chase Freedom Flex
You can earn 5% cash back (as Ultimate Rewards) in rotating categories.
(Optional) Gas and groceriesBlue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express card art
Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express or another card with rewards on gas or groceries
This card earns more rewards in these categories than the other cards.
Everything elseChase Freedom Unlimited® card art
Chase Freedom Unlimited®
You’ll earn 1.5% cash back on general purchases.

Where to learn more

Once you’ve picked up our recommended cards, come back to this page to learn about the cards’ benefits and features.

  • Look at our guide to Chase Ultimate Rewards to learn how to redeem your points.
  • The extended warranty benefit included in your cards gives you an extra year of warranty coverage on many of the things you buy with your card, for free.
  • Learn why you should pay your cell phone bill with a card that offers cell phone protection.
  • Read about how to use the Visa car rental insurance included on your cards.

Bottom line

If you want a simple wallet to earn rewards that you can spend on travel, the combination of the the Chase Freedom Unlimited® and either the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card or Chase Sapphire Reserve® is hard to beat. You can earn even more rewards by adding the Chase Freedom Flex℠ and a card that earns rewards on gas and groceries like the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express to your wallet, but consider those a next step rather than an essential component of your wallet.

American Express card disclosures
  • For rates and fees of the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express, please visit this link: See Rates and Fees

About the author

  • Aaron Hurd

    Aaron Hurd is a credit card, travel rewards, and loyalty program expert. Over the past 15 years, he has authored over a thousand expert contributions published by leading outlets including WSJ, TIME, Newsweek, Forbes, NerdWallet, The Points Guy, Bankrate, CNET, and many others. He has also served in consulting roles for many of these same outlets, designing content strategy, hiring teams of teams of editors and contributors, developing thought-leadership pieces, and ghost-editing for senior editors. Aaron is well-known in the miles and points community and regularly presents about travel rewards at conferences like the Chicago Seminars and Minnebar. Aaron has enjoyed the game of optimizing credit card rewards since getting his first credit card shortly after he turned 18. He started learning about credit cards and travel rewards from the (now defunct) FatWallet Finance forums and FlyerTalk. He holds more than 40 open credit cards and has first-hand experience with almost every major credit card product.

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