The 6 Best Underdog Travel Cards

They called him small and lazy. They told him he would never win.  But they forget one thing: he had heart. With the help of a half-blind jockey, he won race after race and defeated the Triple Crown Winner War Admiral in the “Race of the Century.” In the process, Seabiscuit, brought the nation, reeling in the midst of the great depression, a reason to hope.  Americans love an underdog, which is why America loved Seabiscuit, the little horse that could.  Legend goes that in the middle of the race with War Admiral, Seabiscuit’s jockey, on instruction from his trainer, intentionally let War Admiral catch him, just so Seabiscuit could look the other horse in the eye and then surge ahead again for the win.¹  This post is for Seabiscuit, and the underdogs of another world: the second-tier travel card.

I love second-tier travel cards (I call them this because they are a step down from the premium travel cards that offer amazing perks and rewards, but charge hefty yearly fees).  I love second-tier travel cards.  They have reasonable fees, offer great travel protection, and provide a wonderful way to build up travel rewards points and earn free flights.  They are the true underdogs of the travel-card world.

I’ve taken a look at six of the best second-tier travel cards and place them roughly in the rank I think they are most valuable.  But each one offers something a little different, so take a look for yourself and let me know if you would rank them differently!  My first choice is still the Chase Sapphire Preferred (the card I have), followed closely by the Citi Thank You Premier card.  I generally prize rewards programs and travel insurance (baggage and trip cancellation) heavily, but you might feel differently!

Chase Sapphire Preferred

“Biscuit” Rating²:  This card is Seabiscuit, running down the stretch ahead of War Admiral to win the Race of the Century and become a legend.

Fee —  $95, waived the first year.

Sign Up Bonus – 50,000 Chase points, equal to $625 in travel.

Rewards: 2 miles for every dollar on travel and dining.  (Unless otherwise noted, all cards mentioned here get 1% rewards on everything else.)

Redemption bonus: 25% through travel center (This is why the 50,000 points sign up bonus is actually worth $625 in travel: 500 + (500/4) = 625.

Pros: The redemption bonus gets me every time.  Every point I earn, when used for travel, is actually 25% more valuable.  Another way of thinking is every dollar I spend on travel and dining earns me not just 2 points, but 2.5 points.  Chase also has the best transferability of points.  You can transfer in two ways.  You can transfer between cards (for example, earn points with a cash-back Chase Card and transfer those points to your travel card).  I write about this strategy when I discuss the Three Musketeers of Chase.  Chase’s card universe cannot be beat by any competitors when it comes to this.  Second, you can transfer points to airline partners.  This includes Southwest.  When you consider that buying points on Southwest is not usually the traditional 100 points : 1 dollar towards a flight, this can be amazingly valuable.  I’ve bought flights on Southwest that only needed about 3,000 points, for a $70 or $80 flight!  Chase also has excellent travel protection that includes lost baggage and trip cancellation protection.

Cons: The big drawbacks of the Chase Sapphire Preferred card are in the rewards.  You are limited to getting bonus earns on just travel and dining. The other is that in order to get the redemption bonus, you have to book through the Chase travel center.  It’s actually quite good, but like Kayak and other travel sites, doesn’t get every deal out there, which can render your points useless.  For example, I was not able to book online with Spirit airlines using my points.

Citi Thank You Premier Card

“Biscuit” Rating: This card is War Admiral, coming up just short in the Race of the Century.  Still pretty great!

Fee — $95, waived the first year.

Sign Up Bonus – 30,000 points, worth $375 in travel.

Rewards – 3 points per dollar spent on gas and travel, 2 points per dollar on dining and entertainment.

Redemption Bonus – 25% through Citi’s travel center.

Pro: This card was my runner-up, and it was a close one. It has almost all the perks that the Chase Sapphire Preferred card does: 25% bonus redemption through Citi’s travel center, ability to transfer points between Citi Cards and to partner airlines (including Jetblue, Virgin, and Singapore Airlines), and good travel insurance like lost baggage insurance and trip cancellation protection.  It also has a couple of extras the Chase Card doesn’t have, like small bumps in points monthly if you also bank with them, and a more generous rewards program than Chase.

Cons: The reason I rank this card (slightly) below Chase’s is that it has a much lower sign up bonus, and the Citi card universe is not as robust as Chase’s. Again, I’m referring to the strategy I outlines in Three Musketeers.  The only card that I saw in the Citi universe that I would want to link to this travel card would be the Citi Cash back card, which gives you two points per dollar spent on everything.  But that card also has no sign-up bonus, so the strength of this internal transferability is limited.

Bank of America Premium Rewards Credit Card

“Biscuit” Rating: This card is Seabiscuit racing with a 50 pound handicap.  (Did you know in many horse races, the favored horses have to carry weights to make the race more exciting?  Seabiscuit did  this routinely at the Santa Anita Handicap; probably why he had so much trouble winning it!)

Fee – $95, not waived the first year.

Sign up Bonus – 50,000 points, equal to $500 on travel.

Airline Credit — $100 towards airline incidentals (like baggage fees or an in-flight meal).

TSA– $100 for TSA pre-check.  This is the only 2nd-tier card I know that gives this!

Rewards – 2 points per dollar on travel and dining, 1.5 on everything else.

Pros: This is a brand new card from Bank of America, and it seems to borrow a lot of the great parts of other cards.  It has a good sign-in bonus, and provides a $100 airline credit towards incidentals like baggage fees and in-flight expenses.  It also is the only non-elite level card that pays for TSA pre-check (totally worth it if you go to the airport more than once a year).  It also provides good travel insurance, including trip cancellation and lost baggage protection.  It also provides 2 points per dollar on travel and dining, and 1.5 points on everything else, so its reward system is pretty strong.

Cons: It has no points transferability, and no redemption bonus.  This is fine if you are just looking for a simple travel card, but limits the value of your rewards.   This brings the value of this card down quite a bit in my eyes.  It also is a brand-new offering from Bank of America, so this card has few reviewers out there at this point.  Also, the yearly fee is not waived for the first year, so if you get this card and don’t like it, you’re out of luck. Plus, that’s an extra $95 you’re spending up front for it.

Capital One Venture Card

“Biscuit” Rating: This is Seabiscuit losing at the Santa Anita to Rosemont by a nose.  His jockey, Red Pollard, was blind in one eye and didn’t see the other horse coming.

Fee—$95, waived the first year.

Sign Up Bonus—50,000 miles, equal to $500 in travel.

Rewards – 2 miles for every dollar spent, x10 on hotels through their portal.

Ways to redeem: Purchase eraser.

Pros: I had this card for years and loved it.  I got two miles on every dollar I spent, and the purchase eraser, which lets you redeem those miles for card credit easily and instantaneously, is wonderful.  It does not require advance purchase, like Chase and Citi do.  Also, if you stay in hotels, check out the x10 bonus for every time you book there!

Cons: I cancelled my Capital One Venture card months ago, and since then, Capital One has made several changes to the travel program to attract customers who, presumably like me, left for the better benefits of Chase.  They came out with a fancy metal card (millennials love the metal cards, I guess?) and added the hotel bonuses.  However, Capital One still comes up short in three areas.  First, no bonuses.  You get two miles per dollar spent, and can redeem them for travel purchases, and that’s it.  Second, there is no transferability of points, either between Capital One cards, or to travel partners.  Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, they have no baggage or trip cancellation insurance.  This was one of the biggest reasons I left Capital One. Their fee used to be only $59 dollars a year, making them more competitive despite this, but now that they have upped their fee to go along with the fancy metal card, I don’t see this card as competitive.

Barclays Arrival Plus

“Biscuit” Rating: This is Seabiscuit recovering from his injury.  He lost a couple of races but eventually came on strong.

Fee – $89, waived for first year.

Sign Up Bonus – 40,000 miles.

Rewards – 2 miles per every dollar spent.

Redemption bonus – You earn back 5% of the miles you redeem for travel.

Pros: This card is almost a blend of the Chase/Citi and the Capital One Venture.  Like Chase/Citi, it has good travel protection for baggage loss and trip cancellation.  Like the Capital One card, it gives you two percent back on everything you buy, and points can be redeemed seamlessly after-the-fact for credit on your card statement.  It also comes with the nifty little 5% back on miles you redeem for travel: redeem 50,000 miles, get 2,500 back for your next trip.

Cons: Like Capital One Venture and Bank of America Premium, it has no transferability that I know of, either between Barclays cards, or with partner airlines.  Also, points have to be redeemed in increments of 10,000.  Make a travel purchase of less than $100 and want to pay for it with points? You’re out of luck.  Also, the 5% mileage back bonus system is nice, but not nearly as good as the extra 25% that Chase and Citi give you.  For example, you want to buy a $200 flight with Chase or Citi, you only need 16,000 points, and booking through their travel centers, you get a 25% bonus of 4,000 points: saves you 4,000 points. If you want to buy a $200 flight with Barclays, you need 20,000 points, and will get 1,000 points for your next trip.  I’d take the 4,000 points now over the 1,000 later.

Premier Rewards Gold–American Express

“Biscuit” Rating: This is Seabiscuit in the early years before he found his groove.  The potential is there, just not the execution.

Fee — $195 a year, waived the first year.

Sign Up Bonus – 25,000 membership rewards points.

Airline Credit — $100, towards airline incidentals.

Rewards – 3x points booked directly with airline, 2x restaurants, gas stations, supermarkets.

Pros: There are a few nice things about this card.  It has a pretty good rewards system– those who fly a lot will love 3x points–and it provides lost baggage insurance and a $100 airline credit for things like baggage fees and in-flight expenses.

Cons: This is American Express’s mid-tier travel card, but it’s fee is so high, it almost doesn’t belong here.  Give how high annual fee is, the low sign up bonus, and the fact that I do not believe it offers trip cancellation protection, I’d pass on this card.


¹ I know Seabiscuit is probably best known for his Hollywood renditions, but Laura Hillenbrand’s book, “Seabiscuit,” is an epic read so I’m using it this week as my literary reference anyway!

²Seabiscuit was affectionately called “The Biscuit” by those who knew him well.




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