Forget Chase and American Express -- These Travel Cards Will Surprise You

We've all heard of Chase, Amex and Capital One travel cards, but what about those lesser-known (yet just as rewarding) options?

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It’s always amusing to see your favorite travel blogger taking trips of a lifetime. But you may wonder how they afford it. Most use credit card rewards to cut costs. But how? What perks are really saving them money and how much are they having to spend to make the rewards worthwhile?

Even though there are hundreds of different credit cards available from major card issuers, most of the buzz is generated by a few of the most popular products, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve® or The Platinum Card® from American Express

But I’ve been traveling using credit card rewards and perks for years, and found a few unsung heroes that are just as rewarding as the big-name cards. If you look beyond those popular choices and consider some lesser-known options, you could get a card that holds more value and better perks. 

Wyndham Rewards Earner Card

Solid hotel and dining perks for no annual fee

CNET’S PICK
Wyndham Rewards Earner® Card
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Wyndham Rewards Earner® Card

7.8/10 CNET Rating CNET rates credit cards by comparing their offers to those of their categorical competitors. Each card is individually evaluated through a formula which reflects the standards and expectations of the contemporary market. Credit card issuers have no say or influence in our ratings. How we rate credit cards
Intro Offer
75,000 points 75,000 points after first $2,000 spend within six months
Annual fee
$0
APR
20.99% to 29.99% (Variable)
Rewards rate
1x – 5x Earn 5X points on eligible purchases made at Hotels by Wyndham as well as on qualifying gas purchases.; Earn 2X points on eligible dining and grocery store purchases (excluding Target® and Walmart®).; Earn 1X points on all other purchases (excluding Wyndham Vacation Club down payments).
Rewards Rate
5x
Earn 5X points on eligible purchases made at Hotels by Wyndham as well as on qualifying gas purchases.
2x
Earn 2X points on eligible dining and grocery store purchases (excluding Target® and Walmart®).
1x
Earn 1X points on all other purchases (excluding Wyndham Vacation Club down payments).

Next to hotel brands like Marriott, Hilton and Hyatt, Wyndham isn’t as well known. And even then, most people associate Wyndham with budget brands such as Days Inn, Super 8 and LaQuinta. These hotels are fine for their purpose, but most don’t imagine them as part of their ultimate dream vacation. 

However, Wyndham is partnered with Caesars Entertainment, a hotel and casino company with properties that dominate the Las Vegas strip. Wyndham also owns Vacasa, a vacation rental management company that has properties in Hawaii, Colorado and Florida. 

To earn stays in these areas, you can get the Wyndham Rewards Earner® Card*. It’s a no-annual-fee credit card that offers a few perks including a cardmember booking discount and automatic Wyndham Rewards Gold status, which offers preferred room selection, late checkout and 10% more points on qualifying hotel stays. 

Tip

Wyndham Rewards Earner® Business Card* is even better. It offers even higher reward rates, a better welcome offer and top-tier Diamond status with Wyndham and Caesars Entertainment. 

PenFed Pathfinder Rewards Visa Signature Card

All the premium travel perks with a $95 annual fee

CNET’S PICK
PenFed Pathfinder® Rewards Visa Signature® Card

PenFed Pathfinder® Rewards Visa Signature® Card

7.6/10 CNET Rating CNET rates credit cards by comparing their offers to those of their categorical competitors. Each card is individually evaluated through a formula which reflects the standards and expectations of the contemporary market. Credit card issuers have no say or influence in our ratings. How we rate credit cards
Intro Offer
50,000 points 50,000 Bonus Points when you spend $3000 in the first 90 days
Annual fee
$95 *Waived for existing Honors Advantage Members
APR
17.99% Variable
Rewards rate
1.5x – 4x 4X Points on all Travel categories for PenFed Honors Advantage Members; 3X Points on all Travel categories; 1.5X Points on all other purchases
Rewards Rate
4x
4X Points on all Travel categories for PenFed Honors Advantage Members
3x
3X Points on all Travel categories
1.5x
1.5X Points on all other purchases

The PenFed Pathfinder® Rewards Visa Signature® Card has many of the benefits offered by premium rewards cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve and Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card*. The card includes credits for Global Entry and TSA PreCheck, trip delay reimbursement and auto rental collision damage waiver. The card also comes with a few other perks, including a complimentary priority pass airport lounge annual membership. 

Here’s the best part: It only charges $95 annually, and even that’s waived for PenFed Honors Advantage Members. PenFed Honors Advantage Members are people with a (free) PenFed checking account, or current or former members of the military. 

At this price level, it’s an exceptional rewards card, especially with its 50,000-point welcome bonus after spending $3,000 within the first 90 days. And it’s a good pick if you need to transfer a balance since the card offers a 0% intro APR offer for 12 months (then 17.99% variable) on balance transfers made in the first 90 days, which is good considering the current average credit card APR of 20.66%. With all these features, you’ll be begging your friends to let you pay for dinner. 

Frontier Airlines World Mastercard

Affordable flights, but few redemption options

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Frontier Airlines World Mastercard®
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Frontier Airlines World Mastercard®

6.7/10 CNET Rating CNET rates credit cards by comparing their offers to those of their categorical competitors. Each card is individually evaluated through a formula which reflects the standards and expectations of the contemporary market. Credit card issuers have no say or influence in our ratings. How we rate credit cards
Intro Offer
60,000 Travel Miles Earn up to 60,000 Travel Miles after qualifying account activity
Annual fee
$89
APR
21.24% to 29.99% (Variable)
Rewards rate
1x – 5x 5x on Frontier Airlines Purchases; 3x on Restaurant Purchases; 1x on all other Purchases
Rewards Rate
5x
5x on Frontier Airlines Purchases
3x
3x on Restaurant Purchases
1x
1x on all other Purchases

Frontier has two reputations. The first is for low fares on flights– it’s often possible to book tickets for $19 each way. The other is for high fees for carry-on bags, checked bags and seat assignments. But when you have the Frontier Airlines World Mastercard®* -- which charges a $89 annual fee -- you can earn elite status that lets you waive the costs for these services. 

This card offers one Elite Status Point for each dollar spent on purchases, and you can reach their Elite Silver status with 10,000 points. Elite status unlocks free seat assignments and priority boarding.

You’ll reach Elite Gold status after 20,000 points. Elite Gold status offers premium seating and a free carry-on bag. The Frontier card also offers boosted rewards rates for dining and Frontier purchases to help you fast-track earning points.

But this card really stands out for its other perks, including a $100 flight voucher each account anniversary and a generous welcome bonus that can add up to two roundtrip flights. If Frontier is an option for most of your upcoming destinations and you try to travel on a budget, consider applying for Frontier’s co-branded card.

Wells Fargo Autograph Journey Card

CNET’S PICK
Wells Fargo Autograph Journey℠ Card
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Wells Fargo Autograph Journey℠ Card

7.4/10 CNET Rating CNET rates credit cards by comparing their offers to those of their categorical competitors. Each card is individually evaluated through a formula which reflects the standards and expectations of the contemporary market. Credit card issuers have no say or influence in our ratings. How we rate credit cards
Intro Offer
60,000 bonus points Earn 60,000 bonus points when you spend $4,000 in purchases in the first 3 months – that’s $600 toward your next trip.
Annual fee
$95
APR
21.24%, 26.24%, or 29.99% Variable APR
Rewards rate
1x – 5x 5X points on hotels; 4X points on airlines; 3X points on other travel and restaurants; 1X points on other purchases
Rewards Rate
5x
5X points on hotels
4x
4X points on airlines
3x
3X points on other travel and restaurants
1x
1X points on other purchases

It’s good by itself, but even better with Wells Fargo’s cash rewards card

Wells Fargo doesn’t have a vast portfolio of rewards cards like its competitors, but its newest travel card -- the Wells Fargo Autograph Journey℠ Card* -- is on par with the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. It offers higher reward rates for hotels and flights booked with Wells Fargo compared to Chase’s card. Both cards have a $95 annual fee, but instead of the Sapphire Preferred’s $50 annual hotel credit when booking with Chase, the Autograph Journey has a $50 annual statement credit with a $50 minimum airline purchase when booking with Wells Fargo. 

Another pick

The Wells Fargo Active Cash® Card offers a flat 2% cash rewards on purchases. Even though it’s a no-frills card, you’ll have cellphone insurance and you can transfer your rewards from the Active Cash to airline miles and hotel points and redeem them with your Autograph Journey card.

Read more: Move Over, Chase Sapphire Preferred. This New Travel Credit Card Is Turning Heads

Even though the travel partner list that you can transfer your rewards to for potentially more value isn’t extensive, the points can still offer more savings on trips. 

Despite its lack of transfer partners, credit card industry insiders are taking note of its compelling new offerings. So while this card may be flying under the radar now, it won’t for long. 

*All information about the Wyndham Rewards Earner® Card, the Frontier Airlines World Mastercard® and the Wells Fargo Autograph Journey℠ Card has been collected independently by CNET and has not been reviewed by the issuer.

The editorial content on this page is based solely on objective, independent assessments by our writers and is not influenced by advertising or partnerships. It has not been provided or commissioned by any third party. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products or services offered by our partners.

As a freelance personal finance writer since 2008, Jason has contributed to over 100 outlets including Forbes, USA Today, Newsweek, Time, U.S. News, Money.com and NerdWallet. As an industry leader, Jason has spoken at dozens of conferences and is the founder and producer of CardCon, an annual conference for credit card media. Jason also consults with individuals and small business owners to create customized plans to help them earn and spend travel rewards. He can be reached via his website; JasonSteele.com and on LinkedIn.
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