Travel credit cards are the best way to gain the most value from your everyday spending and enhance your travel experience. Miles and points earned from credit card sign-up offers and spending can be redeemed for amazing travel experiences around the world for a fraction of the retail price. If the concept of miles and points is new to you, check out our beginner’s guide to miles and points.
But what exactly are travel credit cards?
Here at Frugal Flyer, we define a travel credit card as “a credit card that earns a point currency that can be redeemed for travel, provides travel insurance and/or provides perks that enhance the travel experience.” This is in contrast to the “cash-back” credit card that many of us are used to, which earn a percentage of purchases that are made with the card that can ONLY be used as credits to reduce your credit card balance.
Each travel card comes with its own unique points, earning capabilities, perks, and insurance coverage. With so many options on the market, this guide will recommend the best beginner credit cards to get started on your points and miles journey.
Credit Cards & Good Financial Habits
Before we get into the weeds with everything you need to know to get started with travel credit cards, there is something you need to keep in mind. While we can all get huge value from our everyday spending using credit cards, it’s important to keep in mind good financial habits.
We recommend paying your credit card in full for every statement, not carrying a balance, and keeping credit utilization to below 30%. If credit cards are new to you, check out our introduction on how credit cards work and everything you need to know about credit scores before diving into the rest of this article.
My Path to Getting Started with Travel Credit Cards
In 2017, I got my first credit card – the CIBC Dividend Visa Card. At this point, I had no idea that my everyday spending could return tremendous value through credit card rewards points. The thousands of dollars I spent on the card only yielded very minimal cash back to use as a statement credit. While I was able to build my credit score with this card by paying on time and in full every month, I simply was not getting any impactful value.
Thinking “There must be a better way,” I embarked on my points and miles journey! My first travel credit card ended up being a product switch; the CIBC Dividend Visa was traded in for the CIBC Aventura Visa Infinite. This card gave me my first taste of redeeming credit card points for flights and a heightened travel experience. I was able to fly “for free” using Aventura points back to my hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, while I was studying at Queen’s University. Additionally, I was able to visit airport lounges for the first time with the card’s 4 lounge passes. From then on, I was hooked!
While I don’t necessarily recommend that your first travel credit card should be a product switch (because you’ll often miss out on a juicy sign-up bonus), this card opened the floodgates and led me to signing-up for each of the top beginner travel credit cards that we’ll talk about below.
Best Travel Credit Cards for Beginners
American Express Cobalt Card
Widely regarded as one of the best credit cards in Canada, the American Express Cobalt card provides a great way to enter the travel credit card game for beginners because of its generous earning categories, the flexibility of Membership Rewards points (MR), and an easy to acquire sign-up bonus.
The American Express Cobalt card earns Membership Rewards points and gives cardholders the opportunity to earn 5x Membership Rewards on eligible restaurant, food delivery, and grocery store purchases.
Check out our American Express Cobalt card review for more details.
15,000 Membership Rewards
The Cobalt Card has earning categories that provide tremendous value on everyday spending that you might otherwise get a low return on, including:
- 5 Membership Rewards points per dollar spent on groceries, restaurants, and food delivery (up to $2500/month)
- 3 Membership Rewards points per dollar spent on streaming services, including Netflix, Disney+, Apple TV+, Apple Music, and Spotify, among others found here.
- 2 Membership Rewards points per dollar spent on travel (airlines, hotels, trains, taxis, ridesharing) and gas.
- 1 Membership Rewards point per dollar spent on everything else.
The power of the American Express Cobalt card lies in the 5x Membership Rewards points for “eats and drinks,” which includes grocery stores, restaurants, and food delivery services. With MR points valued at approximately 2.2 cents per point, you could potentially get over 10% return on spend for all of your food and drink needs. Points earned from the Cobalt card can be transferred to American Express’s transfer partners for incredible value.
This was my choice for my first new application for a travel credit card because of its generous earning category of groceries and dining, which, if you’re like me, is easily the largest spending category in my budget. I also subscribe to many streaming services such as Netflix, Disney+, and Spotify, and the Cobalt card can return up to 6% on my spending in these categories.
Additionally, this card, as opposed to some of the other cards in this article, does not have a minimum income requirement, making it an excellent starter card for students, young professionals, new Canadians, or anyone else looking to kickstart their credit history. The easy-to-meet sign-up bonus combined with the ability to earn massive amounts of points on everyday categories makes the American Express Cobalt card my most recommended beginner travel credit card.
A common misconception about American Express cards is that “American Express is not widely accepted.” While I admittedly also believed this at the beginning of my credit card journey, I quickly discovered that 95% of the stores/restaurants/services that I regularly spend with happily accept American Express. Additionally, they have a map where you can search if your frequent stores accept your new Cobalt card!
Check out our full review of the American Express Cobalt card to learn more!
TD Aeroplan Visa Infinite Card
The TD Aeroplan Visa Infinite Card allows us to enter the Aeroplan ecosystem, which is the loyalty program of Air Canada. Aeroplan is extremely valuable to Canadians as they operate the most flights and offer the most destinations from every major Canadian airport.
The TD® Aeroplan® Visa Infinite* card earns Aeroplan points and offers cardholders various benefits including a free first checked bag on Air Canada and a $100 NEXUS membership credit.
Jan 3, 2024
The card has modest earning categories of 1.5 Aeroplan points per dollar on gas and groceries and 1 Aeroplan point per dollar on everything else. While the point-earning potential isn’t as high as the American Express Cobalt, we recommend this card for its easy-to-use perks when flying with Air Canada.
TD Aeroplan Visa Infinite cardholders can receive a first free checked bag for themselves and up to 9 travelers on their itinerary. With the cost of the first checked bag at $35 plus tax, this card can easily pay for itself if you and your companions prefer to check your bags when flying. For those of us who love to ski, snowboard, golf, and bike, this card provides outsized value since you’ll be required to check your equipment when flying.
For example, if you and a partner decided to fly roundtrip for a ski trip to Whistler with your ski equipment, you would get over $150 in value, just by holding this card. The card pays for itself on one trip and is one of the best ways to save on Air Canada baggage fees!
The TD Aeroplan Visa Infinite provides strong travel insurance coverage. Of note, flights redeemed with Aeroplan points are still covered by this travel insurance, as long as you charge the applicable taxes and fees to the card. This makes it a great credit card to use to take advantage of travel insurance on award flights through Aeroplan.
Ever wonder how people can zoom through the security and customs line at the airport when traveling to the United States, or go through the much shorter line when driving across the land border? More likely than not, these people have NEXUS, which is a Trusted Travellers Program that allows you to be pre-approved to cross the border to and from the United States as a Canadian. The TD Aeroplan Visa Infinite card offers a $100 NEXUS credit to be used by yourself or your family. You can learn more by reading our Definitive Guide to the NEXUS Card in Canada.
Cardholders also receive access to Aeroplan preferred pricing on award redemptions. This is a unique perk that most may overlook when considering this card. In the simplest terms possible, holding an Aeroplan co-branded credit card allows you to book flights using fewer Aeroplan points. The points that you save vary depending on the route that you take, but this perk allows our hard-earned points to go further!
Finally, if you currently bank with TD, you may qualify to have the annual fee waived if you have a TD All-Inclusive Banking account. For those who currently bank with CIBC, you may want to check out the CIBC Aeroplan Visa Infinite card, as they also provide an annual fee rebate if you have a CIBC Smart Plus account. These cards are essentially identical; however, the CIBC version does not include the $100 NEXUS rebate of its TD counterpart.
Scotiabank Passport Visa Infinite Card
Whenever I went to the airport, I always wondered, “How do people get into those fancy lounges?” I thought I had to make millions of dollars or fly hundreds of flights to make the guest list of airport lounges. Little did I know, credit cards are the easiest and most accessible way to unlock airport lounges and an elevated flying experience. Our pick for the best beginner credit card for lounge access is the Scotiabank Passport Visa Infinite card.
The Scotiabank Passport Visa Infinite card earns Scene+ Rewards points and offers cardholders benefits such as no foreign transaction fees and six complimentary airport lounge access passes annually.
Jan 3, 2024
This card is part of the Visa Infinite Airport Companion Program and includes 6 airport lounge visits per year. These lounge passes unlock access to the collection Plaza Premium and other lounges at all major Canadian international airports (a full list can be found here). Once you enroll your Scotiabank Passport Visa Infinite card online, simply show your lounge pass via the mobile app, and enjoy some food, drinks, WiFi, and comfy seats before boarding your flight!
The good news doesn’t stop with lounge access with the Scotiabank Passport Visa Infinite. This is one of the few cards in Canada that offer no foreign transaction fees when used outside of the country.
This means that we can use this card while traveling outside of Canada and avoid incurring the nasty 2.5%+ foreign transaction fee that most credit cards charge. A useful travel tip: remember to always choose to pay in the local currency if asked when using this card (or any credit card for that matter!); you’ll almost always get a worse exchange rate if you choose to pay in Canadian dollars!
This card comes with modest earning categories and earns rewards in the form of Scene+ Rewards points:
- 3 Scene+ points per dollar spent on groceries at Sobeys, Freshco, Foodland, IGA, and others in the Sobeys group.
- 2 Scene+ points per dollar spent at all other grocery stores and restaurants
- 2 Scene+ points per dollar on entertainment, like movie theaters, concert tickets (e.g., Ticketmaster), etc.
- 1 Scene+ point per dollar on everything else.
Similar to their TD and CIBC counterparts, those who have a Scotiabank Ultimate Package chequing account can get the annual fee waived every year. With decent earning categories on important categories such as groceries and dining, the Scotiabank Passport Visa Infinite provides a unique opportunity to be a “one-stop shop” travel credit card that includes lounge access and no foreign transaction fees!
American Express Marriott Bonvoy Card
For those of us who don’t fly as often and prefer road trips or “stay-cations,” the American Express Marriott Bonvoy card provides an annual free night certificate that can be redeemed for up to 35,000 Marriott Bonvoy points.
The American Express Marriott Bonvoy card earns Bonvoy points and offers cardholders benefits including an annual free night and 15 qualifying nights towards elite status.
Check out our American Express Marriott Bonvoy card review for more details.
50,000 Marriott Bonvoy
While it does come with a $120 annual fee, this can easily be offset by the value of the free night certificate that comes with the card every year. For example, on a road trip to New York City, you can use your free night certificate to stay at the Moxy NYC Downtown, which would cost $253 CAD otherwise! Subtract the annual fee and you’ve gained over $130 in value!
With Marriott Bonvoy being the largest hotel chain in the world, you’re bound to find a hotel to use this certificate and earn and redeem points wherever your journey takes you! We’ve curated a list of the best Marriott properties to use your free night certificate at in North America if you are curious about some of your potential redemption options.
No Annual Fee Credit Cards
We understand that paying annual fees can be intimidating, especially if it is your first travel credit card. For those who want to dip their toes in the water in the points and miles game without an annual fee, here are two options that we recommend.
American Express Green Card
This American Express Green card is a great and low-stakes way of getting familiar with using American Express and the Membership Rewards ecosystem, while still earning a respectable welcome bonus.
If you are still worried about whether or not you will be able to use American Express often enough at shops you frequent, the Green Card is a great (and free!) way to figure out if Amex fits your lifestyle. Points earned from the Green Card can be transferred out to partners for travel, just like the Cobalt.
CIBC Aeroplan Visa Card
The CIBC Aeroplan Visa card is the only no annual fee Aeroplan credit card on the market.
While the earning categories are not stellar on this card (1 Aeroplan point per dollar on gas, groceries, Air Canada purchases, electric vehicle charging and 0.67 points per dollar on all other purchases), you are still able to unlock Aeroplan Preferred Pricing for more favorable point redemptions with those hard-earned Aeroplan points. Plus, your Aeroplan points won’t expire as long as you hold onto this free card.
Best Travel Credit Card Combinations for Beginners
One of the best ways to get the most value out of any travel credit cards is to have setups that maximize the value of each. Here are some of our favorite beginner setups and how we would use them for maximum value.
American Express Cobalt & TD/CIBC Aeroplan Visa Infinite Card
One of the best ways to get the most value from your American Express MR points is to transfer points to American Express’s transfer partners to book flights or hotels. Our favorite transfer partner is Air Canada Aeroplan, where Membership Rewards are transferred 1:1 to Aeroplan points. Aeroplan can then be used to book flights with Air Canada or their partner airlines.
One of our favorite beginning credit card setups is to use the American Express Cobalt with one of either the TD or CIBC Visa Infinite Cards to amass a large pool of Aeroplan points to book flights. Here’s how we would use this combo after meeting the sign-up bonuses on each card:
- The Cobalt card will act as our primary earner to amass a large pool of Membership Rewards points because of its superior earning categories. Use it at grocery stores, restaurants, food delivery, gas stations, travel, and streaming.
- Transfer Membership Rewards points to your Aeroplan account to combine them with the points you collected from the signup bonus on your TD/CIBC Aeroplan Visa Infinite card.
- Book flights using your Aeroplan points to take advantage of the free first checked bag, Aeroplan preferred pricing and travel insurance.
Holding an Aeroplan Visa Infinite card also allows you to use a credit card for purchases at merchants that do not accept American Express.
American Express Cobalt & Scotiabank Passport Visa Infinite Cards
For those of us who want the elevated travel experience of airport lounges, we recommend combining the American Express Cobalt with the Scotiabank Passport Visa Infinite. Consistent with our recommended beginner strategy, the Cobalt card acts as our earner, allowing us to collect Membership Rewards points to transfer to our favorite airline.
Then, we’ll let the Scotiabank Passport Visa Infinite take it from there; we’ll use this card to enter many of the lounges at major Canadian airports for a chance to enjoy their food and beverage selections, get some work done with complimentary WIFI, or just relax before we board our flight.
The Scotiabank Passport Visa Infinite will keep working for us, regardless of our final destination, with its no foreign transaction fee and Visa’s worldwide acceptance, helping us avoid pesky fees when abroad. If you value airport lounge access and aren’t fixated on only flying Air Canada, this may be the best option for you!
American Express Cobalt & National Bank World Elite Mastercard
The National Bank World Elite Mastercard has had a consistent spot in the heart of Frugal Flyer’s writers, thanks to its great travel insurance coverage. While you should definitely read more about the travel insurance on the National Bank World Elite Mastercard, we recommend it as part of a setup with the American Express Cobalt card for its ability to provide travel insurance coverage even if only the taxes and fees are paid using the card.
While our Cobalt + TD Aeroplan Visa Infinite setup provides coverage for trips redeemed with Aeroplan points, this setup will cover us regardless of the frequent flyer program that we transfer our Membership Rewards points to.
Here’s an example trip that could benefit from this setup:
- Membership Rewards points from the American Express Cobalt card transferred to British Airways Avios to book a flight from Toronto to London-Heathrow in economy class for 25,000 Avios points (learn how to reduce surcharges on British Airways redemptions first!).
- Applicable taxes, fees, and fuel surcharge will be charged to the National Bank World Elite Mastercard.
If we followed this above sample trip from Toronto to London, we would be covered with the National Bank World Elite’s strong travel insurance coverage. This is ideal for those of us who don’t anticipate flying with Air Canada often and will be transferring points to other American Express transfer partners.
Other Credit Card Setups & Combinations
While we outline 3 strong beginner credit card setups, don’t feel limited by these suggestions. Your spending and travel needs are unique; check out our many credit card reviews and try exploring different possible combinations to meet your goals!
Combining travel credit cards to address gaps in perks, lounge access, travel insurance, etc. is a great way to elevate your overall travel experience. We recommend starting slow with one or two travel credit cards to familiarize yourself with the points and miles game and how to maximize the unique benefits of travel credit cards. As you progress, we encourage you to expand your travel credit card setups beyond two cards to ensure that all of your travel needs are covered.
As long as you can justify any annual fees incurred, aren’t stretching your budget to meet spending requirements, and can keep track of all of your cards and points, we don’t think there is such a thing as “too many cards!”
Travel credit cards are a great way to maximize the return on your everyday spending. They are the key to unlocking elevated travel experiences for a fraction of the price. Combining credit cards into setups can ensure that you’re always maximizing the points earned from your everyday spending and ensure that you will always have a card for all your needs.
Before applying for one of the cards we’ve listed in the guide, make sure that you can meet the minimum spending requirements to receive the welcome bonus and that you will be able to get value from the points currency that you’ll be earning.
Latest posts by Quentin Tsang (see all)
- Review: Grand Hyatt Athens - Dec 1, 2023
- Ultimate Guide to American Express Canada Transfer Partners - Oct 30, 2023
- Choosing Credit Card Welcome Offers: A Tutorial - Oct 12, 2023
- The Best Aeroplan Credit Cards for Canadians - Sep 18, 2023
- Best US Bank Accounts for Canadians - Aug 24, 2023