10 best travel rewards cards

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(MoneyWatch) If you love to travel, getting a generous travel rewards card can pay you in spades -- or, rather, in free flights and nights at luxury hotels. But the value of the points you earn can vary markedly from one program to the next.

What travel rewards card will give you the most generous payout for your dollar spent? NextAdvisor, a web-based review site, set to find out by testing the cost of booking flights and other rewards using the points provided by 14 popular programs. By testing the availability of rewards and the number of points it took to buy specific items, the site aimed to put a dollar value on each point -- something that can otherwise be difficult to do.

Their conclusion: Capital One's Venture card provides the most generous travel rewards in the industry, paying $2 for every $100 spent. And the $2 payout is consistent, no matter whether the Venture Card's points are being used for flights or for hotels. (Some other credit card programs pay more for one than the other.)

Discover's Escape program came in a close second, also paying $2 per $100 in spending for both hotels and flights. The tie-breaker that landed Capital One the top spot was that it is more widely accepted, according to NextAdvisor.

"Sometimes the value of rewards can be murky because they're paid in points or miles," said Tasha Lockyer, senior editor at NextAdvisor.com, which also ranks best cash-back cardsbest cards for students; and the cards with the lowest annual percentage rates for those who maintain a balance. NextAdvisor tested the rewards by pricing the products you could purchase with rewards and dividing the number of miles or points it took to buy them. The site tested multiple sample locations for both flights and hotels, in high season and low, to come up with average dollar values.

Which programs pay the most? Here's their top 10, showing issuer and the value returned through booking flights and hotels, per $100 spent. To see the full list (or apply for any of the cards), check out the full survey here.

1. Capital One Venture: Flights, $2; Hotels, $2

2. Discover Escape: Flights, $2; Hotels, $2

3. Starwood Preferred Guest (American Express): Flights, $1.30; Hotel, $2.50

4. United Mileage Plus Explorer: Flights, $1.94; Hotel, $0.86

5. Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards (Chase): Flights, $1.92; Hotel, undetermined

6. Blue Sky from American Express: Flights, $1.33; Hotel, $1.33

7. Platinum Delta Skymiles (American Express): Flights, $1.26; Hotels, not available

8. Capital One, Venture One*: Flights, $1.25; Hotel, $1.25

9. Citi Hilton HHonors: Flights, **; Hotel, $1.15

10. Marriott Rewards Premier: Flights, **; Hotel, $1.11

* Capital One Venture One is the no-fee version of the Venture Card. Although Venture pays more generous rewards, it charges a $59 annual fee. 

** The value of both Hilton and Marriott's flight rewards depends on which airline you fly.

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