Best travel rewards cards

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(MoneyWatch) If you find yourself regularly jetting across the country, spending many a night in hotel rooms and airport gates, you're the perfect candidate for a travel rewards card. Many of these cards charge annual fees, but frequent travelers maintain that they're well worth the cost.

The reasoning is simple: Not only can your everyday spending on these cards land you the extra miles necessary for pleasure trips on the airlines you know best, they can often boost you into premium flier classifications that provide valuable perks, ranging from upgraded seating to access to exclusive airport waiting areas.

John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at SmartCredit.com, for example, is a huge fan of Delta's American Express Reserve credit card. He pays a whopping $450 annually for the card, but says it's worth it because he travels a lot and the mileage bonuses available for his spending and travel levels provide first-class upgrades, which can be far more valuable than a free ticket. (There are cheaper alternatives for the same card, but they provide fewer perks.)

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For instance, if you wanted to fly from Los Angeles to New York, an economy class ticket would cost about $300 on Delta, but a first class ticket would set you back $2,000 or more, depending on the flight dates and times. But flyers with Delta's "medallion" status are submitted for free upgrades, which could land you in first class whenever there's room. In addition, Ulzheimer says, the premium card gets him access to Delta's airport lounges, a perk that otherwise costs $450 annually.

"The card is not a cheap date, but when you consider the cost you'd have to pay to access their SkyClubs, it almost pays for itself," he says.

However, if Ulzheimer flew primarily on American, United or Southwest -- or if he was a loyalist to one hotel chain, like Starwood or Hilton -- he'd likely be equally enthusiastic about their credit cards, since the perks are very airline-specific.

"Frequent travelers who exclusively fly with one particular airline or stay at one particular hotel chain might find it worthwile to get a card tied to that company, as it will likely offer especially attractive rewards on bookings," says Odysseas Papadimitriou, chief executive of CardHub.com.

However, for those not loyal to one airline or hotel chain, most experts recommend one of three cards: Chase Sapphire Preferred or Capital One's Venture or VentureOne cards.

What makes Chase Sapphire noteworthy is a bonus, says Bill Hardekopf, president of LowCards.com. Those who spend at least $3,000 on the card in the first three months get 40,000 bonus points, in addition to two points for each dollar spent. Once a year, cardholders also receive a 7 percent "dividend," he says. Importantly, too, these miles can be transferred to any airline's frequent flier program, so you're not restricted to traveling with one airline. The catch: The annual fee is $95, but it's waived for the first year.

Capital One has two good choices, the Venture card and its VentureOne card. What's the difference? The Venture card has a $59 annual fee, but offers two points for each dollar spent, notes Erik Larson, president of NextAdvisor. VentureOne has no annual fee, but offers just 1.25 points per dollar.

The cards are otherwise identical. Cardholders are able to redeem points by simply picking a travel-related charge on their bill - any hotel or airline charge qualifies - and apply points to pay it off at a rate of one point per penny. The points show as a credit your bill and can be redeemed by calling the company's customer service line, or by simply signing onto its web site.

The simple way to choose between these two cards is ask yourself whether you'll spend at least $10,000 a year on this credit card. If you do, the more generous reward formula of the Venture card will more than make up for the annual fee. (At $10,000 in charges, you'll get $200 in rewards on Venture vs. $125 with Venture One.) If you spend significantly less, it won't.

Visit CBS MoneyWatch on Thursday for a look at the best cards for students.

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