[In Pictures: The Best Fall Drives.]
Escape by Discover Card
If you're looking for a clear-cut program, consider the Escape by Discover card. Unlike other Discover cards that distribute points based on a tier system, Escape awards two miles for every dollar spent on the card, no matter what you purchase. Plus, for every month you use the card, you'll earn an extra 1,000 bonus miles (this bonus offer is capped at 25,000 miles.) You can cash in your miles for free flights, cruises, hotel stays, and car rentals, which you can book through any airline, travel agent, or online travel site. As an added benefit, you will receive a zero percent APR on both purchases and balance transfers for the first six months after activation, although there is a 10.99 to 15.99 APR that will kick in during month seven. The card comes with a $60 annual fee.
To earn travel rewards without the annual fee, check out the Miles by Discover card instead. The Miles card offers unrestricted travel with your rewards, but you'll only earn one mile per every dollar spent, and your monthly bonus miles will be capped at 12,000 rather than 25,000.
Starwood Preferred Guest by American Express
American Express is known for its extensive rewards programs, and the Starwood Preferred Guest card is no exception. With every dollar spent on this card, you will earn one "Starpoint," plus up to five Starpoints for every dollar you charge at any Starwood Preferred Guest hotel or resort. You can redeem your points for free nights at more than 1,000 participating hotels in 100 countries. Plus, if you use your card to book two nights at any Sheraton hotel or resort involved in the Starwood Preferred Guest program, you'll receive the third night free. You can also use your points to save on flights with more than 350 airlines without having to worry about blackout dates. You'll rack up 10,000 Starpoints with any first purchase, and you can earn an additional 15,000 points—enough for two free nights at a luxury hotel—if you spend $5,000 on your card in six months or less.
While this package is generous, you'll discover that good things don't come cheap. There is no charge for the first year of usage, but you can expect a hefty $65 fee tacked on to your bill for each subsequent year that you stick with the program, plus a 15.24 to 19.24 APR. If you're a hotel hopper and would like to earn even more on travel, opt for the Hilton HHonors Surpass card from American Express. This program grants you nine points per every dollar spent at participating Hilton Family hotels, plus free nights and room upgrades. And the Hilton HHonors Surpass card's annual fee is only $10 more a year than the Starwood Preferred Guest card.
There's been a lot of buzz surrounding the Chase Sapphire card, particularly about its travel rewards. For every dollar charged, you'll earn one point that can be applied toward both airfare and hotels, as well as merchandise, gift cards, and even cash. You'll also earn an additional point for each dollar spent on eligible airfare purchases made online, and you'll get 10,000 bonus points if you charge $500 in the first three months of membership. Don't worry about using your points in a timely manner, because there are no earning restrictions or expiration date. Plus, if you book any travel arrangement through the Chase Ultimate Rewards program, you won't have to worry about travel restrictions or blackout dates. When it comes to managing your account and your rewards, Chase makes things easy by providing access to Blueprint, a free service that helps you keep your card in check by tracking your spending and allowing you to set up a payment plan for large purchases. The best part: no annual fee.
If you are a frequent credit card user, you might consider the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. With this program, each dollar you spend on travel (including train tickets and taxis) and dining earns you two points, and you'll need 20 percent fewer points than a regular Chase Sapphire cardholder to make travel plans through the Chase Ultimate Rewards program. You can also collect a 7 percent dividend on all your points (even those you've already redeemed). But expect to pay a fairly high annual fee: $95 after the first year.