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Editors' Choice Awards 2011: Best Travel Rewards Card

by SmarterTravel Staff
Editors' Choice Badge: Travel Rewards Card
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on May 17, 2011. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: Air Canada, Air France, Alaska, American, American Express, Bank of America, British Airways, Capital One, Chase, Citi, Continental, credit card, Delta, Diners Club, elite status, frequent flyer, Lufthansa, Starwood Hotels, United, US Airways, Virgin Atlantic.

Winner: Starwood Preferred Guest from American Express

In choosing the Starwood Preferred Guest card from American Express, our top scoring factor was the ability to earn actual airline miles rather than just cash value. 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 17 major foreign lines including AirFrance/KLM, British Airways, Lufthansa, and Virgin Atlantic. Moreover, when you transfer 20,000 points, you get a 5,000-mile "bonus," making the Starwood card 25 percent more generous than the airlines' own cards. You can also transfer to Continental and United, but only at an unattractive 50 percent point value. Starwood hotel rewards are also competitively generous, as is its "pay with points" option.

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Of course, earning real airline miles with Starwood's partners may not be everyone's main objective, so you might also consider some alternatives:

  • If the airline you use most isn't a Starwood participant, your own airline's card is probably your best bet.
  • Capital One Venture cards earn high marks for cards that incur no foreign exchange surcharge and offer a generous cash-value reward schedule. Several premium cards from AmEx, Chase, and Citi also waive foreign exchange surcharges.
  • Diners Club/Carte Blanche is still the only card to offer primary rental car collision coverage across all its cards, but primary coverage is available through some other business cards, and American Express offers primary coverage as a modest-cost option on its cards.
  • And although it's not a "reward" card, Bank of America's debit cards offer no-fee local currency withdrawals from ATMs in several major worldwide destinations.

Note that we didn't include fees, charges, or enrollment bonuses in our scoring – those factors vary too much depending on your credit score and the current promotions.

Editors' Choice 2011 homepage

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