4 Essential Credit Cards for Every Canadian Traveller

I’m often asked about the best Canadian credit cards for travel. The answer always depends on a number of factors: your travel goals, your appetite for annual fees, the current signup bonuses, etc.

As much as a one-size-fits-all solution seems too good to be true, I always find myself coming back to the same recommendations, as the best cards rise to the top on any occasion.

Here are four Canadian credit cards that deserve a permanent spot in your wallet, each of which can benefit every Canadian traveller.

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American Express Cobalt Card

The American Express Cobalt Card has been a fan favourite ever since its debut in 2017. It’s a supercharged everyday earner that also has flexible transfer partners through earning American Express Membership Rewards (MR) points.

The card earns an unbeaten 5 MR points per dollar spent on groceries and dining (up to $30,000 annually), 3 MR points per dollar spent on streaming services, and 2 MR points per dollar spent on gas, public transit, and travel purchases.

In particular, the rewards on eats and drinks is unparalleled in the Canadian credit card scene. If you’re able to maximize your earning at grocery stores and restaurants, you’re sure to wind up with a healthy balance of MR points every year.

Most Canadians will benefit from having a 5x food card, as groceries and dining combine to make up a large slice of many Canadians’ personal everyday spending.

But what sets the Cobalt Card apart from competitors with similar earn rates is the flexibility and value of Membership Rewards. You can transfer the points earned on your card to Aeroplan, British Airways Avios, Air France/KLM Flying Blue, and Marriott Bonvoy, among other programs.

Transferring MR points to one of these airline loyalty programs gives you access to the three major worldwide airline alliances: Star Alliance (Aeroplan), Oneworld (Avios), and SkyTeam (Flying Blue). By transferring your rewards and redeeming them through loyalty programs, you’ll unlock high-value and aspirational bookings that you can’t achieve with other types of points.

By pairing sky-high earning rates with transferable rewards, the Cobalt Card is actually better than co-branded cards for racking up frequent flyer miles and hotel points on everyday spending.

Although transferring points to airline and hotel partners will almost always be your best option value-wise, you can also redeem MR points against any travel purchase at a rate of 1 cent per point. This is great because you’re not tied to a particular loyalty program, which, while offering more valuable bookings, are often more limiting.

This means that the 5 MR points you earn per dollar spent at grocery stores and restaurants is essentially the same as receiving a minimum value of 5% back. By transferring out to travel partners, you can push that number up to over 10% by redeeming your points for long-haul travel in premium cabins.

The Cobalt Card is most definitely a keeper card, and with its modest monthly fee of just $12.99, it won’t put a large dent in your budget.

If there’s one credit card I believe every Canadian should have, it’s the Cobalt Card.

Marriott Bonvoy American Express Card

The Marriott Bonvoy American Express Card is by far the best hotel credit card in Canada. While signing up for this card is worthwhile to receive the welcome bonus, the real power of the card comes from its perks that you receive year after year.

One ongoing benefit is the annual Free Night Award worth up to 35,000 Bonvoy points. You’ll receive this Free Night Award every year you hold onto the card, beginning in your second year with the card.

The Free Night Award is easily worth more than the $120 annual fee, especially since you can now top up your Free Night Awards by up to 15,000 points.

Topping up allows for a lot more flexibility in redeeming your Free Night Award, and unlocks some luxury properties that may not be available at the 35,000-point level. With a top-up, you can use the free night that comes with this card for redemptions up to 50,000 points per night.

You won’t get the Free Night Award in your first year with the card, but the points you earn from the welcome bonus are also worth more than the annual fee.

Therefore, the Marriott Bonvoy American Express Card offers net-positive value in every year you hold the card, and that’s why I’m a strong advocate for it. Even if you’re not a Marriott loyalist, you never know when a $120 hotel night might come in handy.

Stay at The Dorian Calgary using a 35,000-point Free Night Award

Plus, there’s also the Marriott Bonvoy Business American Express Card. The two cards are very similar, with the business variant offering the same 35,000-point Free Night Award starting in the second year, but at a slightly higher annual fee of $150.

If you find value in these Free Night Awards and use them frequently, you should also add the Bonvoy Business Card to your roster. You’ll come out ahead as long as you use the free night at a value above the cost of the $150 annual fee.

Also, if you’re pursuing Marriott Bonvoy Platinum Elite status or higher, the Bonvoy Card is a useful shortcut. Each year you hold the card, you’ll get 15 elite qualifying nights.

Just by being a cardholder, you’ll receive 15 elite qualifying nights every year. Since earning Marriott Bonvoy Elite status requires you to stay a specific number of nights in a calendar year, the 15 nights from your credit card essentially lowers the bar by 15 nights for each status level.

Unlike the Free Night Award, you won’t have to wait a year before receiving this benefit, as the elite qualifying nights should show up in your Marriott Bonvoy account shortly after opening your new credit card.

Unfortunately, if you hold both the personal and business Bonvoy cards in Canada, you’d only receive 15 nights in total – you won’t be able to stack the 15 nights from each card. To do that, you’ll need to dabble in US credit cards.

HSBC World Elite Mastercard

The HSBC World Elite Mastercard is an important piece in your wallet, especially if you often travel internationally.

Almost every Canadian credit card will charge you a 2.5% fee for every purchase you make that isn’t in Canadian dollars. However, the HSBC World Elite Mastercard is an exception to that rule, as it has no foreign transaction fees.

How much you’ll save by using your HSBC World Elite Mastercard will entirely depend on how much you spend on foreign transactions, but you can think of it as if you’re saving 2.5% on every transaction denominated in a foreign currency.

In addition to foreign spend, the card is great for travel purchases as well. You’ll earn 6 HSBC Rewards points per dollar spent on travel, including flights, hotels, car rentals, and cruises.

Plus, as the card isn’t an Amex, it’s more likely to be accepted in far-flung corners of the globe. I often find myself using it to pay for independent accommodations and short-haul flights in offbeat destinations, as well as day-to-day expenses.

HSBC Rewards are unique in Canada, as one of the only ways to earn rewards that transfer to Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer miles. Singapore’s own loyalty program is the only way to book Singapore Airlines First Class, one of the best flight redemptions in the world.

Singapore Airlines A380 Suites Class – Double bed

If you’ve got Singapore Suites in your sights, you’d do well to focus your spending on the HSBC World Elite Mastercard. Otherwise, you can also transfer your points to British Airways Avios or Cathay Pacific Asia Miles, as this is the only Canadian Mastercard with transferable rewards.

If you prefer more flexible travel bookings, HSBC Rewards are very flexible, easily redeemable at a rate of 200 points to $1 against any travel expense charged to the card. That’s effectively a minimum value of 3% back on travel bookings, or 1% back on all purchases (at the new earning rates effective February 1, 2023).

Finally, it’s worth noting that this card offers strong travel insurance. Cardholders under the age of 65 enjoy excellent emergency medical insurance, up to $1 million for trips up to 31 days.

Starting February 1, 2023, this coverage will double to $2 million, and will also be made available if you’re 65 years or older for 21 days, and remain at 31 days if you’re under 65.

You’ll automatically have this coverage just by being a cardholder, meaning that you don’t have to charge any portion of your trip to the card to have access to this insurance coverage.

To keep your costs down, the card comes with an annual $100 Travel Enhancement Credit. This credit is very flexible, as it can be used against many travel expenses charged through an online travel agency.

This effectively reduces the $149 annual fee to $49 per year. Plus, with HSBC Advance or Premier banking, you can have the fee reduced further or waived entirely.

All in all, the HSBC World Elite Mastercard is a very affordable option to keep year after year, even if you only use it for its select advantages.

TD Aeroplan Visa Infinite Card

If you travel with Air Canada, as almost every Canadian traveller is bound to do with some regularity, the TD Aeroplan Visa Infinite Card certainly has a place in your wallet.

With your credit card linked to your Aeroplan account, you’ll automatically have access to preferred pricing when redeeming Aeroplan points for flights operated by Air Canada.

For shorter domestic flights, this results in modest savings of a few thousand points. For longer international flights, you could save tens of thousands of Aeroplan points on a one-way booking, or more if you also have Aeroplan Elite Status.

You’ll also enjoy a free first checked bag on all Air Canada flights. This perk applies to the cardholder and up to eight travelling companions on the same reservation, whether you’ve booked with cash or points, whether or not you’ve used the card to pay for the flight.

Depending on how often you fly, and how often you check a bag, this benefit can really add up and save you a lot of money over the course of a year. But even for an occasional traveller, the value can be substantial.

Also, when you use an Aeroplan card to pay for the taxes and fees on an Aeroplan flight reward, you’ll be covered by TD Aeroplan Visa Infinite Card’s travel insurance, including trip cancellation, trip interruption, delayed and lost baggage insurance, and flight delay insurance. Most other credit cards won’t extend this coverage on an Aeroplan award booking, but an Aeroplan card will.

Plus, your Aeroplan points will never expire as an Aeroplan cardholder, so it’s a good failsafe to always keep one active in case you hit a stretch of low travel activity.

As an added bonus, the TD Aeroplan Visa Infinite Card comes with a $100 NEXUS credit. A NEXUS card can save you hours in airports all over the world, and this card is the only mid-tier Aeroplan co-branded credit card that comes with this benefit.

This card usually offers a first-year annual fee waiver as part of its signup bonus, keeping your initial costs down. For long-term cardholders, TD offers a continuous waiver of the $139 annual fee as long as you have a TD All-Inclusive Banking plan.

While all Aeroplan credit cards offer a slew of Air Canada perks, I like the TD Aeroplan Visa Infinite Card for its unique features, its frequent high signup bonuses, and my longstanding relationship with TD.

If you primarily bank with CIBC, you could consider their cards, which are nearly identical to TD’s. Alternatively, if you’re a high spender, a very frequent flyer, or just looking for stronger benefits, you might find value in the higher annual fee on a premium TD Aeroplan Visa Infinite Privilege Card or American Express Aeroplan Reserve Card.

Conclusion

Whether you’re signing up for your first travel credit card, or you’re looking for the next card to add to your collection, you really can’t go wrong with any card on this list. Having all four in your wallet will make sure you’re ready to maximize your travel rewards and perks at all times.

Whenever I’m asked by friends, family, or Points Consulting clients, I invariably circle back to these four cards as my baseline recommendation. There’s a use case for every traveller – from Miles & Points beginners to advanced aviators, from frequent flyers to occasional adventurers – and they all come at an affordable price point.

Most importantly, you don’t even need to use most of these cards on a daily basis to benefit from them! They all offer benefits that outweigh the costs of keeping them year after year.  They make for great low-maintenance fixtures in your strategy, freeing up your attention and spending capacity to focus on chasing the next big signup bonus.

If these cards aren’t already in your wallet, be sure to work them into your rotation as soon as you can.