The Best Rewards Credit Cards

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The 30-Second Review

The best rewards credit card to add to your wallet is going to depend on your spending habits — you want to match the biggest rewards to your biggest expenses. But we've done the hardest part for you: analyzing the rewards structures, bonuses, and fees of over 100 cards, and finding which ones are best for most people.

If you want to earn rewards from your credit cards, you need to know two things: which credit cards offer the most rewards, and which rewards match your spending habits.

“I think the most important attribute of a good rewards card is applicability,” credit expert John Ulzheimer, formerly of FICO and Equifax, advises. “Do the card’s rewards appeal to you? If not, then it’s not the best option for you.”

Take, for example, two of our favorite cards. The Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express delivers a massive 6% back on groceries and 3% on gas. That’s some of the best rewards potential available from any card on the market — but it’s worthless if you eat out all the time and don’t own a car. In that case, your expenses are way more aligned with Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. It’s one of the best travel credit cards, earning 2x points for travel and dining and includes a hefty 50,000-mile sign-up bonus.

We spent four months researching over 100 credit cards, and found the ones we think will benefit the most people. If you know your spending habits already, you can jump straight down to our picks by category.

But if you’re still learning how to pick the best rewards card for you — read on.

Our Picks for the Best Rewards Credit Cards

Best for Cash Back

Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express With 6% back on groceries, 3% on gas, and 1% on everything else, this card is worth the $95 annual fee.

If you’re looking to earn as many rewards as possible, start with a cash back card. Cash is the most universal form of rewards; an airline card, for example, may limit how you redeem the miles you earn strictly to airfare.

Picking a cash back card takes the same understanding of your spending habits as any other rewards card. But there are a handful that have such juicy cash back rewards that we recommend them for just about anyone: the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express, the Chase Freedom®, and the Discover it® Cashback Match.

We’ll start with by comparing their rewards, and take a look at how much money those rewards translate into.

Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express

6% cash back on groceries, for up to $6,000 in purchases per year

$60 for every $1,000 spent ($360 if you spend up to the $6,000 maximum)

3% cash back on gas and department stores purchases

$30 for every $1,000 spent

1% cash back on all other purchases

$10 for every $1,000 spent

$250 bonus after spending $1,000 in the first three months

$250

Discover it® Cashback Match

5% cash back on categories that rotate every quarter, for up to $1,500 in purchases per quarter

$50 for every $1,000 spent ($300 per year if you spend up to the $1,500 maximum every quarter)

1% cash back on all other purchases

$10 for every $1,000 spent

Cash back matched at the end of your first year as a card member

If you earn $300, Discover will give you an additional $300

Chase Freedom®

5% cash back on categories that rotate every quarter, for up to $1,500 in purchases per quarter

$50 for every $1,000 spent ($300 per year if you spend up to the $1,500 maximum every quarter)

1% cash back on all other purchases

$10 for every $1,000 spent

$150 cash back after spending $500 in the first three months

$150

As you can see, the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express will get you the highest cash back percentages overall, plus the highest cash back bonus. (Getting 6% back on anything is pretty much unheard of, let alone something as everyday as groceries.) If you’re looking for the highest cash back rewards potential, you’ve found it.

But that doesn’t mean the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express is necessarily the best rewards card for you.

Take a look at the bonus structure. You have to spend $1,000 in three months to earn your Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express bonus, versus the $500 required to get the Chase Freedom® bonus. This is a hint that the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express is designed for slightly higher spenders than the Chase Freedom®.

Here’s another hint: The Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express has a $95 annual fee, while the Chase Freedom® and the Discover it® Cashback Match have no annual fees. AmEx assumes that you’ll be spending enough money — and earning so many rewards — that you won’t miss the $95. It’s not wrong. If you max out your rewards potential, you can use it to pay off that annual fee and still have more left over than you’d get if you maxed out the rewards of either one of the other cards. But if you don’t earn enough cash back, that $95 stings a lot more.

So look at your spending habits. Do you usually put $1,000 on a credit card every three months? Do you spend close to $6,000 on groceries per year? Or are you more likely to benefit from the flexible rewards categories — and lower cost of entry — of the Chase Freedom® or the Discover it® Cashback Match?

One more thing to be aware of: The Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express gives cash back in the form of statement credits; that is, when you earn cash back, you can only use it to pay off your credit card statement. The Chase Freedom® and the Discover it® Cashback Match offer multiple ways of redeeming your cash back, including direct deposits into your bank account. To learn more about how these cards stack up (as well as how rotating cash back categories work), read our full review on the best cash back credit cards.

Best for Travel

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card 2x points on travel and restaurants, plus a 50K point bonus if you spend $4K in the first 3 months.

After cash back credit cards, travel credit cards tend to offer the best rewards in terms of value and flexibility. These cards can be used to fund the occasional trip, but they’re really designed for people who a) already travel frequently or b) want to rack up a bunch of rewards to pay down the cost of an expensive vacation.

For group A, we suggest the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and the Chase Sapphire Reserve℠. For group B, our favorite is the Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®.

Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the rewards you could earn. Keep in mind that a point is worth roughly one cent for all three cards.

Base Rewards

Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®

2x miles on purchases

$20 for every $1,000 spent

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

2x points on travel and dining

1x points on all other purchases

$20 for every $1,000 spent

$10 for every $1,000 spent

Chase Sapphire Reserve℠

3x points on travel and dining

1x points on all other

$30 for every $1,000 spent

$10 for every $1,000 spent

 

Bonus Rewards

Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®

50,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first 90 days

$500

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

50,000 bonus points if you make $4,000 in purchases in the first 90 days

$500

Chase Sapphire Reserve℠

100,000 bonus points if you make $4,000 in purchases in the first 90 days

Up to $300 in annual statement credits

Up to $100 application fee credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✔®

$1,000 / $300 / $100

 

Redemption Bonuses

Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®

5% miles back every time you redeem

Your 50,000-mile bonus could turn into 52,500 miles ($525)

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Point value increases by 25% if redeemed for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®

Your 50,000-mile bonus could be valued at $650

Chase Sapphire Reserve℠

Point value increases by 50% if redeemed for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®

Your 100,000-mile bonus could be valued at $1,500

Each of these cards also comes with an annual fee: $89 for the Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® (waived for the first year), $95 for the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card (waived for the first year), and $450 for the Chase Sapphire Reserve℠.

As you can probably guess from the annual fees alone, each of these cards is designed for a different kind of traveler.

Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®: People who want their travel rewards card to be the go-to card in their wallet, and do not plan on combining their travel rewards card with another cash back rewards card. You’ll earn 2x points on every purchase with no limit, and be able to redeem those points as travel statement credits. Shop throughout the year on your Barclaycard, and then use your points to pay off your annual vacation.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card: People who want to use a travel rewards card alongside a cash back rewards card — we recommend combining the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and the Chase Freedom® — to maximize the rewards they earn on each purchase. Swipe your Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card on travel and dining purchases; swipe your Chase Freedom® on everything else, and combine your cash and points to spend in the Chase Ultimate Rewards® marketplace.

Chase Sapphire Reserve℠: Frequent travelers who can afford to spend a lot of money on travel. This card can also be combined with the Chase Freedom® if you want to earn 5% cash back on additional spending categories, but the point of getting the Chase Sapphire Reserve℠ — and paying the $450 annual fee — is to run a lot of cash through the card, pay it off, earn your points, and increase the value of those points by an extra 50% when you make travel purchases through the Chase Ultimate Rewards® marketplace.

If you already feel a little overwhelmed by all of these points and miles and bonuses, you might be better off with a cash back credit card. (Remember, you can always use your cash back to pay off travel purchases, too!) Otherwise, consider your spending habits and your travel budget — as well as the likelihood that you’ll be able to keep up with managing multiple rewards cards at once — and choose the travel card that makes the most sense with your jet-setting lifestyle. For more, read our review on the best travel credit cards.

Best for Airline Rewards

Virgin America Premium Visa Signature® Card 8 points for every $1 you spend on Virgin America purchases, 1 point on everything else, and 15K bonus points if you spend $1K in the first 90 days.

Why choose an airline card instead of a travel rewards card? Good question. We typically don’t recommend it, but if you have a favorite airline you fly exclusively, getting a credit card for that company gets you access to rewards you can redeem against the cost of your flight, as well as airline-specific perks you aren’t going to get with travel cards, like free checked bags or free companion tickets.

Think of it this way: If you’d prefer flexible rewards that can be redeemed to cover a variety of travel expenses, choose a travel credit card. If you know that most of your travel expenses come from flights purchased through a single airline, an airline credit card makes sense — especially if you combine it with a cash back rewards card to earn rewards on non-airline purchases.

If you aren’t already loyal to one airline, we suggest looking at Virgin America, British Airways, and United, and their respective cards: the Virgin America Premium Visa Signature® Card, the British Airways Visa Signature® Card, and the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card.

Here’s how their rewards break down:

Virgin America Premium Visa Signature® Card

8 points for every $1 spent on Virgin America purchases

1 point for every $1 spent on other purchases

15,000 bonus points, worth up to $300 in blackout-free reward flights, after making $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days

British Airways Visa Signature® Card

3 Avios for every $1 spent on British Airways purchases

1 Avios for every $1 spent on other purchases

50,000 bonus Avios after spending $3,000 in the first three months

United MileagePlus® Explorer Card

2x miles per $1 spent on tickets purchased from United

1x miles per $1 on all other purchases

5,000 miles after you add your first authorized user and make your first purchase in the first three months

50,000 miles after you spend $3,000 in the first three months

10,000 miles after spending $25,000 in a calendar year

Their additional perks are way too numerous to mention here, so we pulled out some of the standouts for each card.

  • The Virgin America Premium Visa Signature® Card and the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card get you a free checked bag for both yourself and your companion on every flight.
  • The Virgin America Premium Visa Signature® Card gives you $150 off a companion ticket every year.
  • The British Airways Visa Signature® Card offers a free Travel Together Ticket for a companion every year you make $30,000 in purchases on your card. (This Travel Together Ticket is in the same class as the one you book, which means if you book a first-class seat, your companion gets to ride first class for free.)

And last but not least, there are the annual fees. The Virgin America Premium Visa Signature® Card has a $149 annual fee; the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card comes with a $95 annual fee (waived for the first year); and the British Airways Visa Signature® Card also has a $95 annual fee. To learn more about how to evaluate airline credit cards — and to see how your preferred airline’s option might stack up — check out our full review of the best airline credit cards.

Best for Rewards on Gas

Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express This card again! You get unlimited 3% back on gas, plus all its other cash back on bonuses.

If you spend a lot of time in the car and are looking to save money on gas, your best rewards card is most likely one we’ve already featured: the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express.

The Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express gets you 3% cash back on gas (typically about as good as you’re going to get) with no limit on how much cash back you can earn. Add in all of the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express’ other rewards and this card stands out whether you’re in or out of the car.

If you’re a Costco shopper, you should consider the Costco Anywhere Visa® Card by Citi. You’ll get 4% cash back on eligible gas purchases worldwide, including gas at Costco, for up to $7,000 in purchases per year, plus a slew of other perks.

Let’s compare those rewards:

Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express

3% unlimited cash back on gas

$30 for every $1,000 spent ($210, if you spend $7,000)

6% cash back on groceries, for up to $6,000 in purchases per year

$60 for every $1,000 spent ($360 if you spend up to the $6,000 maximum)

3% unlimited cash back on department store purchases

$30 for every $1,000 spent

1% cash back on all other purchases

$10 for every $1,000 spent

$250 bonus after spending $1,000 in the first three months

$250

Costco Anywhere Visa® Card by Citi

4% cash back on gas, for up to $7,000 in purchases per year

$40 for every $1,000 spent ($280, if you spend up to the $7,000 maximum)

3% unlimited cash back on restaurants and eligible travel purchases

$30 for every $1,000 spent

2% unlimited cash back on Costco and Costco.com purchases

$20 for every $1,000 spent

1% cash back on all other purchases

$10 for every $1,000 spent

What do these numbers mean? Yes, you’d earn slightly fewer rewards on gas with the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express than you would with the Costco Anywhere Visa® Card by Citi, but the former’s additional reward opportunities are so high that we still recommend the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express as our top gas rewards card.

What about gas station rewards cards? Many chains offer their own branded rewards cards. These options might look like they’re offering decent rewards — and we consider “decent” to be at least 3% cash back on gas purchases — but they are unlikely to offer as many rewards as our top picks, once you add up all of the bonuses and benefits. Not to mention that branded credit cards tend to charge ridiculously high interest rates. Read the fine print very carefully before you sign up with a gas station rewards card, and know what you’re getting yourself into. Learn more in our full review of the best gas credit cards.

Best Rewards for People with Bad Credit

Discover it® Secured Credit Card – No Annual Fee One of the only secured card that still offers cash back rewards: 2% on restaurants and gas, plus 1% on everything else.

Don’t let bad credit keep you from earning rewards. The Discover it® Secured Credit Card – No Annual Fee is designed to help you rebuild your credit while rewarding your hard work.

The Discover it® Secured Credit Card gives you 2% cash back on restaurant and gas purchases, for up to $1,000 in combined purchases every quarter, as well as 1% cash back on all other purchases — and, like the Discover it® Cashback Match, it matches all of the cash you earn during your first year as a cardmember.

Discover it® Secured Credit Card - No Annual Fee

2% cash back on restaurant and gas purchases, for up to $1,000 in combined purchases every quarter

$80 per year, if you spend $1,000 every quarter

1% cash back on all other purchases

$5 for every $500 spent

Cash back matched at the end of your first year as a cardmember

If you earn $85 cash back, Discover will give you an additional $85 cash back

Be aware that your credit limit will be relatively low. The Discover it® Secured Credit Card requires a security deposit to open a line of credit, and your credit limit will match your security deposit. You won’t be able to run up a lot of purchases in order to earn piles of cash back — and that’s a good thing.

The best way to use this card is to make occasional purchases, pay them off on time and in full every month, and use Discover’s FICO Score tools to watch your credit score improve. You’ll still earn at least 1% cash back on every purchase you make, and Discover will match that cash back at the end of your first year as a cardmember. If you’ve been using your secured card responsibly, Discover will also return your security deposit. You can continue to use your Discover it® Secured Credit Card to build credit and earn rewards, and transition to a better credit card (with better rewards) as your credit score grows. Learn more in our review of the best credit cards for bad credit.

Best Reward Combinations

If you want to maximize your rewards, you need more than one rewards credit card in your wallet. Although you can really combine any two (or more) rewards cards (cash back + travel, cash back + airline, airline + gas) we have a couple of favorite card combos.

First, the Chase Freedom® and the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. This combination is good for anyone who plans on putting quite a lot of cash through their cards. Here’s how you’ll use them:

  • In your first three months of card ownership, get the bonus on each card. Spend $500 on the Chase Freedom® to earn $150, and $4,000 on the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card to get 50,000 points.
  • After that, use the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card to earn 2x points on travel and restaurant purchases, unless travel and restaurants are included in that quarter’s Chase Freedom® rotating 5% cash back categories.
  • Use the Chase Freedom® for all other purchases.
  • Transfer your Chase Freedom® cash back rewards to your Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card.
  • Use the combined rewards on your Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card to make purchases through the Chase Ultimate Rewards® marketplace, keeping in mind that your point value increases by 25% every time you redeem for travel purchases.

Are you getting excited about how this all fits together? We are. Here’s another winning combination: the Discover it® Cashback Match and the Discover it® Miles - Unlimited 1.5x Rewards Card. Follow these steps:

  • Use the Discover It® Cashback Match to get 5% cash back on rotating categories each quarter.
  • Use the Discover it® Miles – Unlimited 1.5x Rewards Card, which gets you unlimited 1.5x miles on all purchases, for everything else.
  • Both cards will match your rewards at the end of your first year as a cardmember.

Definitely note that you don’t have to keep your cards in the same card family. For example, you could use the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express to get 6% cash back on groceries and the Chase Freedom® to get 5% cash back on its rotating categories. (The Chase Freedom® is a Visa card, so you’ll never be stuck not getting at least some rewards on the off chance a vendor doesn’t take AmEx.)

Did You Know?

Rewards don’t just happen. You have to earn them.

Once you’ve got your rewards card, you need to both earn and redeem your rewards. “The best rewards cards are the ones where you’re actually engaged in the program and realize tangible benefits rather than just racking up a lot of points or miles that you’ll rarely use,” Ulzheimer explains.

In other words: Be proactive. If you have both a cash back and a travel card in your wallet, know which card to swipe for which purchases. If you sign up with Chase Freedom® or Discover it® Cashback Match, make sure you activate your 5% cash back categories every quarter. If your credit card offers a bonus for spending a certain amount of money in the first three months, go after that bonus — and then pay off your balances so you don’t get charged interest.

Once you earn your rewards, make sure to use them! This is extra-important if your credit card offers rewards in a non-cash format, like miles or points.

Use the card’s bonus structure to determine whether it’s a good match.

Before you apply for a rewards credit card, take a look at its bonus structure. Would you be able to put the required dollar amount on the card — and pay it off — to earn the card’s bonus?

If you can’t afford to pay off the balance required to get the reward bonus, it might be an indication that this rewards card is not the best card for you.

We’ve listed rewards cards that offer bonuses after spending $500 in three months and cards that offer bonuses after spending $4,000 in three months, so pick the card that matches your budget and spending habits.

Pay attention to the fine print.

Dan Crimmins, financial coach with Crimmins Wealth Management and author of award-winning financial blog Roots of Wealth, reminds us to look at the fine print: “Before exploring the rewards that some cards offer, you should look at the annual fee, the introductory APR, and the ongoing APR. Be aware of ‘teaser’ rates offered if you will be carrying a balance beyond the introductory time period.”

In the case of our top picks, we’ve gone over the fine print to make sure there aren’t any surprise “gotchas,” but this is often where other types of rewards cards — especially brand rewards cards — get people in trouble. “Yes,” the sales clerks say, “you can save 15% on your purchase if you sign up for a credit card right now, and you’ll earn two points on every dollar you spend at our store.” What they don’t tell you is that your new credit card will charge 25% interest.

In some cases, a high annual fee is worth it.

Several of our top rewards cards include annual fees — and that’s okay. “Most higher-end rewards cards are going to have annual fees, and that’s just a nature of their business,” Ulzheimer says.

“Annual fees shouldn't be deal breakers, especially if you're getting benefits that outweigh the fees.”

John Ulzheimer Credit expert, formerly of FICO and Equifax

However, you do need to make sure that you’ll be able to access all of those benefits. If you’re paying the $450 annual fee for the Chase Sapphire Reserve℠ card, for example, will your budget allow you to put $4,000 on the card in the first three months — and pay that balance off in full — to earn the 100,000 bonus points and make that fee worth it?

An annual fee only makes sense if you are able to take advantage of the majority of the rewards the card offers. That doesn’t mean that you need to feel guilty if you don’t max out your rewards; not everybody with the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express will spend $6,000 on groceries every year. But if you’re only spending $2,000 on groceries every year because you eat most of your meals out, this card might not be the right card for you — and you might want to look for a card that offers rewards on restaurants, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card.

If you’re trying to decide between two similar rewards cards, consider the other benefits.

We know that some of our top rewards cards — especially the Chase Freedom® and the Discover it® Cashback Match — look really similar. How do you choose between them?

It’s time to consider the additional benefits. The Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express, for example, includes extended warranty benefits as well as travel accident insurance, to name just a few of the card’s perks. Chase Freedom® comes with extended warranty benefits, purchase and return protection, and more. The Discover it® Cashback Match has a Freeze it® switch that lets you go online and “freeze” your card, preventing new purchases, cash advances, or balance transfers — which comes in handy if your card is accidentally lost or stolen.

There’s one more factor to consider: “If the cards are so similar vis a vis their rewards that you’re looking at non-rewards attributes to tip the scale one way or the other, then it really comes down to customer service,” Ulzheimer reminds us. “Discover and American Express are almost always at the top of the list when it comes to customer service to their cardholders.”

The Bottom Line

The best rewards cards offer rewards on the purchases you were already planning to make. Look for rewards cards that make sense with your current spending habits, and consider combining cards to maximize your rewards potential.

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