Many credit cards offer great travel rewards and benefits, and this post reviews the best credit cards from the perspective of traveling to Walt Disney World and Disneyland. For the most part, these same cards will also be good options for travel to any destination in the world–or at least the United States.
How many of you are still with us? Half? Less? We know many people have an intense hatred for credit cards. To be totally blunt, that’s an irrational and misguided hatred. Yes, credit card debt is bad. That does not change the fact that “debt” is not an inherent element of possessing a credit card. Nor does it change the fact that an inherent element of credit cards is rewards and perks.
We understand and appreciate that credit cards are not for everyone, but that does not make them inherently bad. Between the two of us, Sarah and I have had ~20 credit cards, received tens of thousands of dollars in rewards, and never pay any interest on purchases. (In fact, all of our flights for 2019 thus far have been booked with miles.)
Okay, enough on the merits of credit cards. We’ll stop with the preachiness, but felt a little of it was necessary to overcome the terrible stigma associated with having credit cards…
Let’s turn to our methodology for determining which credit cards belong on this list. Factors include annual fees, sign-up bonuses, earning and redemption rates, reward options, redemption difficulty, and ancillary benefits (such as free checked bags).
One factor that is notably omitted is APR. All of the benefits offered by credit cards are outweighed by paying any amount of interest, and that goes for any credit card. While valuable tools if you leverage their benefits and pay off your balance in full each month, credit cards become DANGEROUS WEAPONS OF SELF DESTRUCTION (too preachy? 😉 ) when they carry a balance.
Chase Sapphire Reserve Credit Card – This is the new gold standard of travel credit cards. It became available only a few months ago, and since getting it, this has become our primary credit card for travel purchases. One reason we use this so much is because of its redemption flexibility, as its rewards are not tied to any single airline or hotel chain. Another is that it earns at a higher rate (across the board) than almost any other card.
The biggest balking point on this card is going to be that $450 annual fee. If you travel at all, knock that amount down to $150, since the card includes a $300 annual credit for travel. Still, $150 is a lot if you don’t travel much. You also receive a $100 application fee credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓, which can make that fee even more palatable. Another perk that may seem valuable is the touted access to 900+ airport lounges, but there are so many caveats that this is virtually worthless. (We’ve tried to use it 10+ times already, and have been denied each time…)
It’s the earning and redemption rates that make this a must-have for any frequent traveler. You earn 3 points for every $1 spent on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide, and 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases. Add to that a 50% bonus when you redeem those points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards. To illustrate that in practical terms, you can normally redeem 100,000 points through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal for $1,000 in travel. With the Chase Sapphire Reserve Credit Card, your 100,000 points are worth $1,500. Speaking of 100,000 points…the sign-up bonus is exactly that (after $4,000 spent in the first 3 months), meaning your sign-up alone is worth $1,500. There are several other perks, including no foreign transaction fees and a blackout date/seat waiver.
Chase Sapphire Preferred Card – Think of this as the “lite” version of the Chase Sapphire Reserve Credit Card. It has the same upsides in terms of flexibility, but with scaled back earning and redemption rates, and lacks a few of the other perks. It also lacks that $450 annual fee (but it has a $95 one, which is waived for the first year). We recommend this credit card if you travel a few times per year or less, and don’t need or want the Sapphire Reserve.
UPDATE: We’ve noticed that some Walt Disney World resorts are now available for booking through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal at reasonable rates, which really increases the utility of these two Chase Sapphire credit cards. In the past, basically your only option for on-site rewards redemption was the Swan & Dolphin…
BankAmericard Travel Rewards Credit Card – Okay, let’s say you want to pay no annual fee at all. This is pretty common sentiment, and we can respect not wanting to spend money on credit cards. However, we would caution against being anti-annual fee before doing the math to see if the benefits (based on your spending habits) don’t offset the fee. In any case, if this describes you, this card offers a moderately good reward rate, good redemption options, and a decent sign-up bonus.
The BankAmericard Travel Rewards card earns a flat 1.5 points on every $1 spent. It’s that flat 1.5 rate that makes this card our ultimate recommendation for the “no fee” category. (It also makes this an okay-ish card for general use…but still not our recommendation there, either.) Points can be redeemed as a statement credit for travel purchases. If you have a Bank of America account, you receive a 10% bonus; if you’re a Preferred Rewards client, that bonus is up to 75%. The sign-up bonus is 20,000 points after $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days, which works out to a $200 statement credit–or more if you’re eligible for the above bonuses. (Note: we do not have a Bank of America account, and this is the one card on this we don’t have.)
Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card – The next two cards are airline and hotel loyalty ones that we think will most benefit Disney travelers. The Southwest card is our airline pick for a couple reasons. First, we know Southwest is the most popular airline for Walt Disney World and Disneyland fans (it’s a popular and convenient carrier at both MCO and SNA). Second, this card makes earning and redeeming points easier than most other airline-specific cards. On a personal note, it’s no longer our preferred airline card.
For most Disney travelers, the Southwest card is the best airline-specific option. The $99 annual fee might sting a bit, but you receive a 6,000-mile anniversary bonus each year. Standard point rate is 1 point for every $1 spent, except Southwest purchases, which earn at a 2:1 rate. There are also no foreign transaction fees, and the ability to earn a Southwest Companion Pass (which is a huge one). More on that…
Bonus Hack: Open two Southwest Chase credit cards, one personal card and one business card (something as pedestrian as selling on eBay qualifies you for a business card). You’ll immediately earn 80,000 points, which is nearly enough to make you eligible for a Southwest Companion Pass. With the Southwest Companion Pass, whenever the primary traveler flies, their designated companion flies free.
Sarah and I had a Southwest Companion Pass, and during the nearly 2 years that we had it, I think we took nearly a dozen “weekend getaway” trips to Walt Disney World. With airfare that averaged less than $100 roundtrip for each of us, plus our Annual Passes to Walt Disney World, it was too much to pass up quick trips for…really, whatever excuse we could make. (So, I guess, “be careful” as this card can be dangerous.) It was easier to qualify for the Companion Pass then as the sign-up bonus was higher, meaning you’ll now need to put $30,000 on the cards to earn the pass.
You might’ve noticed above that we had the Companion Pass for nearly two years. A final tip with this is that the Southwest Companion Pass is good for the full calendar year after the year you earn it. Meaning, a Companion Pass earned in December 2019 expires December 31, 2020, but a Companion Pass earned in March 2019 also expires December 31, 2020. Plan strategically to have that Companion Pass longer!
Delta SkyMiles Business American Express – This is the gold card pictured above, and it’s a your mileage may vary type of credit card. We have and use it because Delta is our preferred carrier when we’re not using Southwest (they have great routes from LAX), and we use them to fly internationally quite often. The perks provided by this card, primarily free checked bags and priority boarding, are also nice.
Starwood Preferred Credit Card from American Express – You might wonder how the SPG card benefits Walt Disney World travelers. Well, the Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin are SPG hotels, meaning you can use and earn Starpoints there. Even outside of WDW, this is a great hotel card following the Marriott-Starwood merger because it significantly increases the properties where this card is useful (and points were not devalued in the process!).
The Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card offers up to 5 Starpoints per $1 spent at SPG locations, 2 Starpoints per $1 spent at Marriott Rewards properties, and 1 Starpoint per $1 spent on all other purchases. Your best option is redeeming earned points for hotel stays, but you can also transfer them to dozens of frequent flier programs. Finally, there’s a sign-up bonus: 25,000 bonus Starpoints after $3,000 in purchases within the first 3 months.
Disney Premier Visa Credit Card – Saving the best for last? No, not at all. This credit card is really only advantageous to use while at Disney destinations, making it a solid specialized use card for Disney fans, but not among the best cards on this list–even for Disney fans. It’s a good card to have as a 4th or 5th card, but definitely not for everyday use. We do a more thorough job of this in our Disney Visa Credit Card Pros & Conspost, but basically, it comes down to rewards and perks.
The Disney Premier Visa card has a $49 annual fee and offers 2% rewards at gas stations, grocery stores, restaurants, and most Disney locations, and 1% everywhere else. It’s also good for some discounts at Walt Disney World and Disneyland; sometimes Disney Visa holders also get a head-start on Free Dining. We know a lot of people who use this for everyday purchases and then use the rewards to pay for portions of their Walt Disney World vacations. Flip the script on that: use this credit card while at Walt Disney World, and not for everyday purchases. (Redeem the rewards for DisneyStore.com purchases.) Currently, there’s a sign-up bonus of up to $200 in rewards dollars after spending $500 within the first 3 months.
Okay, that covers it for our summary of the best credit cards for travel (with an emphasis on Disney travel). Note that the Southwest and SPG cards are not one-size fits all. Our primary airline and hotel-specific cards are for Delta, United, and Hyatt, but those are just what happen to work best for us. Also, travel cards are not the same as primary, everyday use credit cards–you should look to different cards for that. That’s a whole other topic, and one that probably isn’t relevant to this blog. There are also a couple other credit cards that are tangentially good for Disney travel if you’re taking advantage of the hacks in our Money-Saving Tips for Buying Disney Gift Cards post. With that said, which credit cards do you use for travel? Which are your favorites?