The Best No Annual Fee Cards If You’re Just Starting With Points

by joeheg

Even before we started writing Your Mileage May Vary, our friends and family would ask how we could travel as much as we did to so many places while managing to stay at fancy hotels and fly in lie-flat seats at the front of the plane. When I explained that it was because of points I earned by signing up for and using travel cards, and how I was able to book the Westin Tokyo by transferring AMEX and Diners Club points to SPG, their eyes clouded up (Note from Sharon: So do mine…) and I knew that I had lost them.

When someone is getting started, they want things to be straightforward and easy to understand. They don’t want to be bombarded with information about which card will maximize every earning category and how to use alliance partners to find award sweet spots.

If I’m asked which is the best card, I’ll try to get a sense of their goals. If they’re looking for points for hotel stays or domestic flights on a specific airline, I might steer them to a co-brand card first. Being able to score a quick award and matching the benefits of those who have status might be enough to get them hooked. At least I know they’ll be able to use the points they’re earning.

But if someone says they’re not sure what award they’re working towards, I’ll recommend a card that will earn transferable points. I also try to make the earning and redemption possibilities as easy to understand as possible. There are only a few entry-level cards that award points you can transfer to other programs. In addition, some programs don’t partner with many (or any) major US airlines, giving newbies a steep learning curve before being able to use their points for a “free” flight or hotel stay.

Here are a few cards which I think are solid choices for people just getting started. (We earn referral points if you decide to sign up with the links for cards in this post, which helps us keep YMMV headquarters running strong) 

No Annual Fee Cards

#3 – AMEX Everyday

a credit card with numbers and symbols

The Everyday card is the only no-annual-fee personal card from American Express that earns fully transferable Membership Rewards points. The earning structure of the card isn’t very impressive, as you’ll earn 2x points for supermarket spending and 1x points on everything else. If you use the card 20 times per billing cycle, you’ll earn a 20% bonus. This shouldn’t be difficult if this is your main card, and you’d be earning 1.2 Membership Rewards points per dollar charged to the card.

Membership Rewards also has some easy-to-understand transfer partners in Delta SkyMiles, JetBlue TrueBlue and Hawaiian Airlines HawaiianMiles.

  • Are Lingus Aerclub
  • Aeromexico Club Premier
  • Air Canada Aeroplan
  • Air France / KLM Flying Blue
  • ANA Mileage Club
  • Cathay Pacific Asia Miles
  • Avianca LifeMiles
  • British Airways Executive Club
  • Delta SkyMiles
  • Emirates Skywards
  • Etihad Guest Miles
  • Hawaiian Airlines HawaiianMiles
  • Iberia Plus Miles
  • JetBlue TrueBlue
  • Qantas Frequent Flyer
  • Singapore KrisFlyer Miles
  • Virgin Atlantic Flying Club

Hotel Programs

  • Choice Privileges Rewards
  • Hilton Honors
  • Marriott Bonvoy

While not the best value, AMEX has partners people are familiar with and we’re only talking about opening the door.

#2 – Capital One Venture One

a blue credit card with white text

Capital One is a new player in the transferable points space and the Venture One card takes full advantage. Earning 1.25 points per dollar for every purchase and 5x points for hotels and rental cars booked through the newly revamped Capital One travel portal is impressive for a no-annual-fee card.  The big drawback of the Capital One program is the lack of familiar transfer partners.

  • Aeromexico Club Premier
  • Aeroplan
  • ALL – Accor Live Limitless
  • Asia Miles
  • Avianca LifeMiles
  • British Airways Executive Club
  • Choice Privileges
  • Emirates Skywards
  • Etihad Guest
  • EVA Air – Infinity MileageLands
  • Finnair Plus
  • Flying Blue (Air France KLM)
  • Qantas Frequent Flyer
  • Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer
  • TAP Miles&Go
  • Turkish Airlines Miles&Smiles
  • Virgin Red
  • Wyndham Rewards

But if you’re just getting started and are able to book “free travel” with your points through the Capital One portal, you might not need to learn how you can book United flights with Singapore and Delta flights with Flying Blue and Virgin Red.

#1 – Bilt Mastercard

a black credit card with silver and white text

I’m aware that by putting this card at the #1 spot, I’m opening myself up to an army of people @ing me on Twitter, or Threads. However, there’s no denying that the combination of points-earning possibilities and transfer partners puts Bilt head and shoulders above any other no-annual-fee option

Issued by Wells Fargo, the Bilt card is targeted at renters. In fact, it’s the only card where you can pay rent with a credit card without having to pay a service fee and earn points for the most basic everyday expense.

Even if you don’t pay rent, the earning structure is impressive for a no-annual-fee card:

  • 3x points for dining expenses (based on merchant code reporting)
  • 2x points for travel expenses booked directly with airlines, hotels, cruise and car rental companies
  • 1x points for rent expenses (up to 50,000 points per year)
  • 1x points for all other expenses

There is a requirement to use the card 5 times per statement period to earn the bonus points, which isn’t much to ask.

In addition to Bilt offering more point bonus categories than any other no-annual-fee card, the list of transfer partners is one that seasoned points hackers dream about:

  • Are Lingus Aerclub
  • Air Canada Aeroplan
  • American Aadvantage
  • British Airways Executive Club
  • Cathay Pacific Asia Miles
  • Emirates Skywards
  • Flying Blue (KLM & Air France)
  • Hawaiian HawaiianMiles
  • World of Hyatt
  • Iberia Plus Miles
  • IHG One Rewards
  • Turkish Airlines Miles&Smiles
  • Virgin Points
  • United MileagePlus

In case you didn’t notice, Bilt is currently the only program to partner with two major US airlines, along with World of Hyatt, the most valuable hotel points currency.

Sure, there may be better booking sweet spots booking through partners, but having access to American Airlines and United Airlines inventory for non-saver space (even if it’s slightly more expensive) makes booking an award easier. Once someone has booked an award flight to Vegas using United miles, you can start to explain how they’d be able to book the award for less using Aeroplan miles. Not to mention having the ability to transfer points to World of Hyatt for some amazing hotel rooms, although maybe not in Vegas anymore.

Final Thoughts

If you’re a points and miles enthusiast, there are a million things going through your head when someone asks which credit card they should sign up for. If you’re dealing with a beginner who’s looking for an entry-level card, it’s best not to try to explain how the American Express Platinum Card is a great value because you can make up the annual fee with the travel credits. Instead, get a basic idea of what they’re looking for and if they’re not ready to pay a $100 annual fee, steer them to one of these no-annual-fee cards which all earn transferable points. And if they’re currently paying rent, there’s no better card to get started than the Bilt Mastercard which pays rewards points for what’s probably their largest monthly expense.

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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary

1 comment

eponymous coward May 6, 2022 - 8:25 pm

TIL Southwest and Jet Blue aren’t major airlines.


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