Best Rewards Credit Cards of 2017

Maximize your rewards with the right credit card.

If you want to earn rewards quickly (who doesn’t?), it’s important to choose a card that aligns with your spending habits and goals. With the number of cards out there, it can be difficult to narrow down the options — but don’t worry. We’ve done the research to make finding your ideal rewards card quick and simple.

The Best Rewards Credit Card Combo for 2017

We recommend pairing the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card with the Chase Freedom® to maximize your earning potential. Here’s how.

Our top pick for 2017.
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With the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, you’ll get 2X points on travel and dining, an impressive signup bonus, and access to the super-flexible Chase Ultimate Rewards program. Chase Ultimate Rewards Points transfer 1:1 to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs. Get the Chase Freedom® too to take advantage of the rotating 5% cash back categories.

5% cash back on rotating categories.
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Pairing these cards allows you to maximize rewards in several popular categories. But that’s not all: you can also combine rewards on both cards to accumulate Chase Ultimate Rewards Points even faster! Keep reading to learn more about these cards and our other top picks — and find the one that works best for you.

The Simple Dollar’s Best Rewards Credit Cards for 2017

A Detailed Look at Our Top Picks for Best Rewards Credit Card

Keep these questions in mind as you learn more about our top rewards cards. Here are our top picks for 2017!

Most Versatile Rewards Credit Card

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is one of the most popular cards on our list, and no wonder. The rewards you’ll earn with this card are extremely versatile. Redemption options include gift cards, statement credits, and 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs. Additionally, if you’ve already earned points with other rewards programs like United MileagePlus®, Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards®, or Marriott Rewards®, you can combine them with your Chase Ultimate Rewards points.

The best part? Points you earn with the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card are worth 20% more when redeemed for travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards® portal. Additionally, if you have another Chase card like the Chase Freedom®, you can consolidate points between cards to earn rewards even faster.

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  • Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $625 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Named Best Credit Card for Flexible Travel Redemption - Kiplinger's Personal Finance, July 2016
  • 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • Earn 5,000 bonus points after you add the first authorized user and make a purchase in the first 3 months from account opening
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 50,000 points are worth $625 toward travel
  • No blackout dates or travel restrictions - as long as there's a seat on the flight, you can book it through Chase Ultimate Rewards
  • Use this card whenever you book a trip or opt to eat out! You’ll earn 2X points on travel and restaurants worldwide.
  • Consider combining this card with the Chase Freedom®. Points are transferrable between Chase cards, so you can combine them to earn free trips faster.
  • Book travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards® to score a 20% bonus.
This card is short on travel perks, which could make it harder to justify the $95 annual fee if you don’t travel or eat out often. If travel perks are a priority for your new card, we recommend the Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express.
If the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card had a middle name, it would be Flexibility. Cardholders enjoy access to the popular Chase Ultimate Rewards® program (with 25% redemption bonus on travel!) There are no blackout dates or travel restrictions, and points transfer 1:1 to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs. Good news, international travelers: you won’t pay foreign transaction fees with this card — but you will earn 2X points on travel and restaurants worldwide. Overall, this card is a standout option for anyone looking to earn rewards toward their next getaway.

Best Cash Back Rewards

Chase Freedom®

The Chase Freedom® is an extremely popular cash back card that offers high-rate cash back and flexible rewards redemption. With this card, you’ll earn 5% cash back in categories that change quarterly. That means you can earn rewards in multiple categories throughout the year. When it’s time to redeem your rewards, don’t forget to browse the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal for special cardmember offers!

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  • Earn a $150 Bonus after you spend $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening
  • Earn 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in combined purchases in bonus categories each quarter you activate
  • Unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases – it's automatic
  • 0% Intro APR for 15 months from account opening on purchases and balance transfers, then a variable APR of 15.74-24.49%. Balance transfer fee is 5% of the amount transferred, $5 minimum
  • Enjoy new 5% categories every 3 months
  • Cash Back rewards do not expire as long as your account is open
  • No annual fee
  • Pay attention to the rotating bonus categories. They change every three months, and you’ll have to “activate” each time to earn 5% cash back.
  • Consider pairing this card with a higher-earning Chase card, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. (Points are transferrable between Chase cards, so you can pool them to earn rewards faster.)
There’s not much fine print here; the Chase Freedom® is a pretty straightforward card. If want a card without an annual fee but don’t want to keep up with rotating categories, the Discover it® Miles – Unlimited 1.5x Rewards Card might be a better fit. (Though you won’t earn rewards as quickly.)
The Chase Freedom® offers 5% cash back in popular categories, with an easy-to-earn signup bonus and no annual fee. If you prefer cash back to travel rewards and your spending aligns with Chase’s rotating categories, this card fits the bill.

Best No Annual Fee Rewards Card

Discover it® Miles – Unlimited 1.5x Rewards Card

The Discover it® Miles – Unlimited 1.5x Rewards Card is an attractive new card that has caught our attention. With this card, you’ll earn unlimited 1.5x rewards on every purchase, every day. For every $1 you spend, you earn 1.5x Miles — and there’s no annual fee. While Discover cards aren’t as widely accepted as those backed by Visa® or Mastercard®, the rewards and benefits make it a serious contender for many people.

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Card Highlights Provided by Discover:
  • Unlimited 1.5x rewards on every purchase, every day. For every $1 you spend, you earn 1.5x Miles.
  • Get a mile-for-mile match of all the rewards you’ve earned at the end of your first year, automatically.
  • Redeem your rewards in any amount for cash or a travel credit. You’ll always get $1 for every 100 Miles you’ve earned.
  • Get your FICO® Credit Score for free on monthly statements, on mobile and online.
  • 100% U.S. based customer service. Talk to a real person any time.
  • No Annual Fee.
  • Click "APPLY NOW" to see rates, rewards, FICO® Credit Score terms, Discover Match® details & other information.
  • Use this card for purchases in categories that your other cards don’t cover, or that you’ve already maxed out.
  • Planning on making a large purchase soon? Consider using this card to maximize your first-year cashback match.
  • Redeem rewards for cash or travel credit.
The flat rewards structure makes it simple to earn unlimited points on every purchase you make. But if your spending follows certain patterns, you could earn more rewards faster with a card that offers more than 1.5X points per dollar. We recommend the Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express for 3X points on travel — or the Chase Freedom® for 5% cash back in bonus categories.
Looking for a straightforward travel rewards card with no annual fee? The Discover it® Miles – Unlimited 1.5x Rewards Card could be just the ticket. You’ll earn unlimited 1.5X points on every purchase, every day — no rotating categories or enrollment required. Plus, because points are redeemable for travel credits or cash, you can use your rewards your way.

Best Fixed-Value Travel Credit Card

Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®

Choose the Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®, and you’ll earn 2 miles per dollar on every purchase — no rotating categories to track. And since you can use your miles for travel with any airline or hotel chain, rewards redemption is more flexible than you’ll find with many travel cards.

Plus, with no foreign transaction fees, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® is also the perfect card for your overseas trip.

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  • Earn 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 90 days - that's enough to redeem for a $500 travel statement credit
  • Earn 2X miles on all purchases
  • Redeem for travel or cash back statement credits, gift cards and merchandise. Redemption values vary
  • Get 5% miles back to use toward your next redemption, every time you redeem
  • Miles don't expire as long as your account is open, active and in good standing
  • No foreign transaction fees on anything you buy while in another country
  • 0% introductory APR for 12 months on Balance Transfers made within 45 days of account opening. After that, a variable APR will apply, 16.74%, 20.74% or 23.74%, based on your creditworthiness.
  • Please note, there is a fee for balance transfers
  • Transfer balances from high-APR cards, then pay them off during the intro APR period to avoid interest payments.
  • Use this card when you travel abroad — there are no foreign transaction fees.
  • Spend $3,000 in your first 90 days to earn the signup bonus.
  • Consider pairing with a cash back card that offers higher rewards rates in bonus categories.
With this card, you’ll have an annual fee of $89 after the first year. Additionally, while the flat points structure is convenient, you could earn more rewards on certain types of purchases with a card like the Chase Freedom® (which offers 5% cash back in rotating categories).
The Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® offers cardholders a super-simple approach to rewards: 2X miles on every purchase, every day. (No rotating categories to track or sign up for.) Plus, each time you redeem your points, you’ll get 5% miles back toward your next redemption. With redemption options from travel to gift cards, you can use your points as you like. Rewards programs don’t get much simpler than that!

Best BofA Card

BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Credit Card

If you want great rewards without an annual fee, the BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Credit Card is absolutely worth a look. As a cardholder, you’ll earn a steady 1.5 points per $1 spent on every purchase. Since there’s no limit on the flat-rate rewards you can earn, you won’t have to watch for a rewards limit — or enroll in special bonus categories — to earn rewards.

Earning points with the BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Credit Card is simple, and redeeming is just as easy. Since points are redeemable for a “travel credit,” you can use them to reimburse yourself for any type of travel. That means no blackout dates or airline/hotel restrictions!

Bank of America customers can score even more rewards. Cardholders with an active Bank of America® checking or savings account earn an additional 10% customer points bonus on every purchase.

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  • Earn unlimited 1.5 points per $1 spent on all purchases, with no annual fee and no foreign transaction fees and your points don't expire
  • 20,000 online bonus points if you make at least $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days - that can be a $200 statement credit toward travel purchases
  • Use your card to book your trip how and where you want – you’re not limited to specific websites with blackout dates or restrictions
  • Redeem points for a statement credit to pay for flights, hotels, vacation packages, cruises, rental cars, or baggage fees
  • Comes with chip technology for enhanced security and protection at chip-enabled terminals
  • 0% Introductory APR for 12 billing cycles for purchases, then 15.74% - 23.74% Variable APR
  • Get an additional 10% customer points bonus on every purchase when you have an active Bank of America® checking or savings account
  • If you’re a Preferred Rewards client, you can increase that bonus to 25% - 75%
  • Spend $1,000 in your first 90 days to earn the signup bonus.
  • Redeem points for statement credits to pay for flights, hotels, baggage fees, and other travel expenses.
  • Traveling overseas? Bring this card — there’s no foreign transaction fee.
Depending on your spending habits, you could earn more with a card that offers higher-rate cash back, like the Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express (3X points on flights) or the Chase Freedom® (5% cash back in rotating categories).
Why the BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Credit Card? There’s no annual fee. If you’re a Bank of America® customer or a Preferred Rewards client, you’ll get a customer points bonus to earn rewards even faster. And because points are redeemable as travel statement credits, you have lots of flexibility, with no blackout dates or restrictions at booking. For straightforward rewards and flexible redemption, this card has a lot to offer.

Best Cash Back Bonus

Discover it® Cashback Match™

The Discover it® Cashback Match™ boasts the best cash back bonus on our list: Cashback Match™. Discover will match your cash back dollar-for-dollar at the end of your first year — automatically.

With this card, you’ll earn 5% cash back on rotating categories that change each quarter. Combine its user-friendly rewards structure with other Discover benefits (cash back redemption at Amazon.com, free FICO® Credit Scores, $0 annual fee), and the Discover it® Cashback Match™ is a solid option, especially for new cardmembers.

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Card Highlights Provided by Discover:
  • You could turn $200 into $400 with Cashback Match™. Get a dollar-for-dollar match of all the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year, automatically.
  • Earn 5% cash back in rotating categories each quarter like gas stations, Amazon.com, restaurants, wholesale clubs and more, up to the quarterly maximum each time you activate. Plus, 1% cash back on all other purchases.
  • Redeem your cash back for any amount, any time. Cash rewards never expire.
  • 100% U.S. based customer service.
  • Get your FICO® Credit Score for free on monthly statements, on mobile and online.
  • No annual fee.
  • Click "APPLY NOW" to see rates, rewards, FICO® Credit Score terms, Cashback Match™ details & other information.
  • Watch Discover’s rotating categories, and earn 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in purchases. (Categories change each quarter; activation required.)
  • Monitor your FICO® Credit Score for free on your account statements and online.
  • If you choose to transfer a balance, pay it off during the intro APR period to avoid paying interest.
  • Spend as much as you can on this card during your first year. At the end of the first year, you’ll get dollar-for-dollar Cashback Match™ automatically.
Discover’s rotating categories change every quarter, and activation is required to earn 5% cash back. (If you forget to activate, you’ll earn a flat 1%, as you would with purchases outside the bonus category.) Rotating categories not for you? If you’re interested in travel rewards in addition to cash back, consider the Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® for 2X miles on every purchase.
If Discover’s rotating bonus categories fit with your spending habits, you can earn a lot of cash back quickly with the Discover it® Cashback Match™. As the name suggests, Discover will match any cash back earned at the end of your first year for double the rewards, automatically. Another cool perk: you can use your cash back for part or all of Amazon.com purchases (redeem instantly at checkout). To recap, that’s Cashback Match™, 5% cash back in rotating categories, and 1% on everything else — all with no annual fee.

Best Perks

Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express

Looking for a card with amazing travel perks and ongoing rewards? Look no further than the Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express. It’s a great option for anyone who purchases airfare frequently (and wants to earn rewards on everyday expenses).

This card combines bonus points on airfare with strong everyday rewards categories. As a cardholder, you’ll earn 3X points on airfare booked directly with the airline — plus 2X points at US restaurants, US gas stations, and US supermarkets, and 1X point per $1 spent on all other purchases.

Best of all, you’ll get access to the Membership Rewards program, with redemption options from statement credits to merchandise to travel booked directly with American Express. Points are also transferrable to popular airline and hotel loyalty programs, including the Starwood Preferred Guest program, Hilton Honors, JetBlue, and British Airways.

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  • Earn 25,000 Membership Rewards® Points after you use your new Card to make $2,000 in purchases within the first 3 months.
  • 3X points for flights booked directly with airlines. 2X points at US restaurants, US gas stations, and US supermarkets. 1X points on other purchases. Terms and limitations apply.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • $100 Airline Fee Credit. Up to $100 a year in baggage fees and more at one airline.
  • Get a $75 hotel credit on qualifying charges, plus a room upgrade upon arrival, if available with The Hotel Collection at americanexpress.com/hc. Terms apply.
  • $0 Intro Annual Fee for the 1st year, then $195.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
  • Use this card on flight purchases and at U.S. restaurants, gas stations, and supermarkets to earn extra cash back.
  • Planning a trip abroad? Pack this card — it has no foreign transaction fees.
  • Book hotel stays through The Hotel Collection on this card. When available, you’ll get a complimentary room upgrade upon arrival.
Note that you’ll only earn 2X points at restaurants, gas stations, and supermarkets in the U.S. (Often travel internationally? Check out our next pick, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card.) There’s also a $195 annual fee after your first year, but the yearly credits ($100 for airline fees and $75 for qualifying hotel purchases) will almost cover the annual fee — if you travel often enough to use them. If you don’t, we recommend a flexible cash back card like the Chase Freedom®.
The Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express is popular with frequent travelers for a reason. With 3X points on flights and 2X points on dining, groceries, and gas, your rewards should stack up quickly, whether you’re at home or abroad. But it’s really the outstanding travel perks that set this card apart. Whether you’re traveling for business or leisure, this card will be a first-class companion.

Best Rewards Credit Cards: Summed Up

Rewards Credit Cards Best For…
1 Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card Travel
2 Chase Freedom® Cash Back Rewards
3 Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® Fixed-Value Travel Credit Card
4 BankAmericard Travel Rewards® No Annual Fee
5 Discover it® Cashback Match™ Cash Back for New Members
6 Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express Perks

Research the 92 Best Rewards Credit Cards for 2017

The rewards credit cards directory shown below is a comprehensive listing of every rewards credit card worth considering. It started as a list of nearly 1,630 cards. I created this directory and used it as a starting point for all of my research so that I could review all cards on the same criteria and reduce the list to a more manageable number. It’s updated weekly and reflects any new changes to the credit cards as well as new card additions and removals.

Using both the information shown in the directory and other features, I took a data-driven approach to select the top rewards credit cards. Multiple factors were taken into account, as I wasn’t looking for just the highest rewards alone. I wanted to find the card that has the best combination of the elements that are most important to the majority of people seeking a rewards card.

Rewards Credit Cards Directory

The directory also includes all the various types of rewards credit cards. You can use the rewards credit card directory to sort and filter by the components that are most important to you. To rank the cards, I rated each rewards credit card feature in order of importance based on my research.

When evaluating rewards credit cards in general, you’ll see that so many categories have an impact on rating each card. I took nearly 14 different components into account. Based on all of the features and data collected, I developed a Rewards Credit Card Rating, which is essentially a summary of how a card performs as a rewards card. The Overall Rating is a measure of the card compared to every single type of card.

Sort, filter, or search for what matters most to find the best rewards credit card for you.

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Introductory Annual Fee of $0 the first year, then $95
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Rating Methodology

To better describe the data and overall rating, I’ll explain each valuable component below. These aren’t the only factors that went into rating each card, but these are some of the most valuable and the features that you’ll want to understand before getting any rewards card.

Rewards Rate

Rewards Rate refers to the actual rate at which you can earn rewards using the rewards credit card. Most of the consistent rewards credit cards will offer 2x points, miles, or cash back on common purchases without any limits. These cards are very versatile and are the best credit cards to own as your primary card.

Cash back credit cards offer higher rewards rates in specific categories, but have limits on the amount you can earn. The rotating category cash back credit cards enable you to earn 5% cash back every quarter on something different, but once you hit the $1,500 limit each quarter your rewards rate drops down to 1%. This is why owning a consistent 2x rewards card is important — to pick up the slack and continue earning double the points.

Then, there are rewards credit cards that are tied to one brand. Again, Rewards Rate as a whole measures the amount of rewards you can earn, plus the places where you can earn those extra rewards. An airline credit card, hotel credit card, or brand loyalty (affinity) credit card will enable you to earn high rewards with that specific brand.

However, if you make purchases away from the brand, it’s likely that you’ll only earn at a 1% or 1x points rate, which means you’re missing out. This is generally why I only recommend these cards in special circumstances or if you’re looking to add a third, fourth, or fifth credit card and you spend a lot of money.

Perks

There are many benefits to owning a rewards card beyond what’s advertised. First off, many of the top cards have travel insurance benefits, car rental insurance, and purchase protection insurance. Beyond that, premium cards offer you special VIP services, access to exclusive events, and use of airport lounges.

Airline credit cards are probably near the top when it comes perks for a rewards credit card. Since the cards only offer rewards for purchases made on the airline (in most cases), they compensate by offering priority boarding, free checked bags, companion fares, and other travel benefits on the airline. These can be great perks for people that travel often, especially the companion fare.

Sign-Up Bonus

The consistent all-around rewards credit cards tend to offer some of the largest sign-up bonuses in the industry. Often, you’ll have to spend a certain amount of money to get these bonuses dropped into your account. Usually it’s anywhere between $1,000 and $3,000 spent in the 90 days. The top cards offer sign-up bonuses of up to $400, while others go up to $200. The key here is to make sure you capitalize on your sign-up bonus!

Airline credit cards also have large bonuses in the form of air miles. Essentially, it’s the same monetary value as, say, a $400 statement credit bonus. However, in my experience it’s much less straightforward booking a flight with air miles than it is to get $400 to show up on your statement as a credit.

Cash back credit cards have some of the smallest bonuses in the industry, likely because the rewards rate on purchases is so high (even though there’s a limit to the amount you can earn). Still, the bonuses on these cards are nice and tend to be around $50 to $100, although I’ve seen special offers as high as $200.

Intro APR

Introductory APR isn’t too important as it relates to earning rewards, but it gives you the flexibility and freedom to make purchases without having to worry about carrying a balance as a new cardholder. For example, some of the best introductory offers in the industry can go as high as 0% APR for 18 months. That means you don’t have to make a payment for 18 months. Of course, you still need to pay attention and keep up with your payments so you aren’t left with a massive balance a year and a half after signing up for the card!

An Intro APR can be a dangerous tool or a wise tool depending on how you look at it. If you know you need to make a major purchase in the next few months and you can pay it off without hesitation in the next year, it’s fine to take advantage of these offers. However, if you’re signing up for a card and spending way more than you should because you don’t have to pay interest, you might get into trouble.

I advise you to tread cautiously and carry the least amount of balance possible if you plan on taking advantage of a 0% intro APR deal.

Ongoing APR

I included ongoing APR because it’s important to think about. You shouldn’t sign up for a rewards credit card if you plan on carrying a balance. Any way you look at it, the amount you’ll earn in rewards won’t be able to offset the high costs of paying off a balance that’s accumulating interest each month.

Sometimes, things happen and you might get into a situation where you have to carry a balance. In that case, cash back cards generally have the lowest ongoing APRs. Again, you really want to avoid this at all costs. A credit card is a great financial tool if used the right way. You can be paid back for making purchases in the form of rewards and build your credit.

If used the wrong way, your credit can be destroyed. You’ll be stuck making high interest payments and you’ll trigger a financial downward spiral. Make sure you pay off your balance each month or cut back on your spending. (Side note: I’ll probably hammer this point home at least one more time as you continue reading.)

Choosing the Right Rewards Card

Credit cards aren’t one size fits all. Here’s how to find one that fits just right.

Step 1: Analyze your spending.

If your spending often falls within popular categories like groceries, gas, or online shopping, look for a card that offers bonus rewards on those types of purchases. If it doesn’t, consider a flat-rate rewards card.

Step 2: Choose your rewards type.

Cash back rewards are redeemable for statement credits or gift cards, while travel rewards are good for airfare, hotel stays, and more. Some cards even offer both, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card.

Questions to Ask Yourself

    • Do you want to earn travel rewards?

If you travel often or plan to travel more, a travel rewards card could be just what you’re looking for. Would you rather earn hotel loyalty points or frequent flyer miles – or both?

    • Would you rather earn cash back?

Our favorite cash back cards allow you to earn rewards on everyday purchases, then redeem them for cash, gift cards, or statement credits. Popular rewards categories include groceries, gas, online shopping, and more. If travel rewards aren’t a priority for you, check out our favorite cash back cards.

    • Is flexibility most important?

For maximum flexibility, consider a card like the Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express. This card allows you to redeem points for gift cards, travel, merchandise, or entertainment.

The Truth About Rewards Credit Cards

There’s so much data to consider when choosing a rewards credit card. With all the data points, it’s often hard to distinguish what’s most important because much of this information is geared toward people who aren’t using credit cards the right way. When you use a credit card responsibly, finding the right rewards credit card is relatively simple: nothing else matters except rewards, bonuses, and benefits.

Most credit card review sites look at the following data points:

  • Introductory APR
  • Standard APR
  • Sign-up bonus
  • Rewards rate
  • Additional bonus rewards
  • Introductory balance transfer rate
  • Standard balance transfer rate

These data points are all worth knowing. I also looked at each of these. The problem is when you don’t carry a balance, APR doesn’t matter, balance transfer rates don’t matter, and fees don’t matter. All that’s left is to analyze are the rewards, bonuses, and perks as well as how they can be used.

The key factor of rating a rewards credit card lies below the surface-level details. How can you redeem your rewards? Are there extra advantages and amenities not included in the data points above? The answer is yes.

To get a better feel for each card, I put myself in the position of the cardholder. I dove into the nuances of the best rewards credit card programs to find the truth about rewards credit cards.

The Golden Rule: Don’t Carry a Monthly Balance on Your Credit Card

I mentioned this already, but I’m making a point of highlighting it here because of how important it is. If you want a rewards credit card, avoid carrying a balance at all costs. Your interest payments will completely wipe out your point accumulation and cost you too much money, time, and headaches. It’s simply not worth it.

If you currently have a balance and you want to pay it down, consider a balance transfer card to get back on track.

If you adhere to this rule, you will never need to worry about what ongoing APR your card offers. A lower APR is clearly better, but you shouldn’t be concerned about the APR unless you carry a balance.

Annual Fees Are an Investment to Earn More Rewards

Most people cringe at the thought of coughing up dough for the privilege of using a rewards card, but the truth is that paying the annual fee is usually worth it. Many of the best rewards cards have annual fees that are normally waived in the first year. Given the extra rewards you can earn for using the card and the massive sign-up bonuses, annual fees won’t turn out to be an additional cost. It really depends on how much you plan on spending on the card, though.

Think of it this way: If you spend $20,000 per year and get 1x point per dollar spent with a no annual fee card, you’ll receive $200 worth of points. If you spend the same amount with a rewards card that earns 2x per dollar but has a $95 annual fee, you’ll get $305 worth of points ($400 minus $95). That’s a 52.5% increase!

Your annual fee investment is $95 and your increase is $105. This amounts to a “return on investment” (ROI) of $105/$95, or 110.5%. No investor on Wall Street can match that return year in and year out.

There are plenty of great rewards credit cards out there with no annual fee. I’m just advising that you shouldn’t make your choice solely based on the fee because the bonus and additional rewards you earn will usually offset the fee.

Capitalize on Sign-Up Bonuses

Almost every top rewards credit card has a great sign-up point bonus. This is serious free money you don’t want to miss out on when signing up. You’re defeating the purpose of signing up for a top rewards credit card if you don’t meet the spending requirements to collect your sign-up bonus.

These bonuses can reach values of $400 or more, so make sure you collect on it. In most cases, when you meet the required spending,

Ways to Redeem Points Are As Valuable As Ways to Earn Points

One of the key benefits of a great rewards card is being able to redeem points the way you want to. Your points don’t do you any good if you can’t use them. This applies across the board for different types of rewards cards. We talk a lot about general rewards, but some of the airline cards and hotel credit cards are able to offer you a higher rewards earning potential for purchases with their brand.

The two premier rewards platforms that give you the most flexibility when redeeming points are Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Points. You can’t go wrong with either of these platforms when redeeming points for travel, entertainment, gift cards, or cash back.

If you carry more than one rewards credit card like I do, it can really pay off to have them on the same rewards platform. That way, you can combine points and take advantage of special point dividends, bonuses, or deals. Always think about how you’ll redeem points before signing up for a rewards card.

How To Save More Money By Maximizing Rewards

I’ve talked at length about the benefits of using a rewards credit card. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all card that delivers superior rewards on every conceivable spending category AND has the most flexible point redemption options.

Given the limitations, many people will want to employ some strategies to get the most out of their rewards. My recommendation is to use at least two rewards credit cards. Using more can help, but the added annual fees may eat away at the benefits of carrying an additional card if you don’t spend enough.

Let’s assume you want to completely max out your rewards earning potential without owning an excessive amount of cards. Owning two or three cards is the right number to get the most rewards and still keep the cards active (assuming you’re paying off the balances). You’ll be able to take advantage of the bonuses and ongoing rewards without major limitations.

There are many strategies to maximizing your rewards cards while keeping the number of credit cards you own down to a minimum. Here are a few examples:

  • Overlap categories on the same rewards platform (like Chase Ultimate Rewards).
  • Combine business and personal rewards credit cards.
  • Use a consistent rewards card and a cash back card.
  • Overlap two types of travel rewards cards

Case Study #1: Overlap Categories on the Same Rewards Platform

The goal with this strategy is to take two or more rewards cards that earn bonus points in different categories and combine them to earn more than you would by just earning 1% on all other purchases. The ideal situation is to keep both cards on the same rewards platform so you can easily combine the points from each card when you want to redeem them.

My favorite way to do this right now is to use the Chase Ultimate Rewards platform. If you used the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card to earn 2x points on travel and dining, you could add the Chase Freedom® to take care of rotating bonus categories like groceries, gas, and department stores.

There are a couple added benefits to using these two cards. First, the Chase Freedom® card does not have an annual fee, so you can employ this strategy for just $95 per year (the annual fee on Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card). Second, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card points are worth 20% more when redeemed for travel on the Ultimate Rewards platform. The Chase Freedom® points are not eligible for this benefit as a standalone card.

Here’s the good news: Chase Ultimate Rewards lets you combine card points, so you can transfer your Chase Freedom® points to your Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, and those additional points will be worth 20% more when redeemed for travel!

The Power of the Platform

Let’s say you accumulate 50,000 points on your Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and 20,000 points on a second card on a different rewards platform. You then decide to take that Caribbean vacation you’ve always wanted and use Chase Ultimate Rewards to book your trip. You see that two flights cost a combined $750. Your Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card points when redeemed for travel will cover $625 of the cost, but you have to pay out of pocket for the remaining $125 because you can’t combine your points.

Now, let’s say you’re in the same scenario except your “other card” is the Chase Freedom®. You decide to combine your points with your Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card points, so you now have 70,000 points to use. On most other rewards platforms, 70,000 points equals $700. However, with the 20% bump you get with Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, your combined 70,000 points now are worth $875 — enough to cover your airfare for your vacation!

Case Study #2: Combine Business and Personal Rewards Cards

If you run a small business or are self-employed in some way, you can use one of the best business credit cards as your secondary card. Business cards often have better rewards in different categories that can be overlapped. My colleague uses the Chase Ink® business cards for his business and combines points with his personal credit cards on the Chase Ultimate Rewards platform to get maximum value.

For example, he puts all of his gas and hotel stays on his Chase Ink Bold® for 2x points. He also charges his cell phone bill, Internet service, and landline to that card to earn 5x points. Then, he books any travel or dining on his Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card to earn 2x points.

Redeeming is easy because both cards will get you 20% more when redeemed for travel through Chase. All he has to do is combine the points and book his tickets.

Case Study #3: Consistent Rewards + Cash Back

When you want a simple strategy for rewards and you’re not as concerned with your cards being on the same platform, you can split up your cards. Your goal here is to earn a straight 2% back on all purchases while giving yourself a boost above 2% in certain spending categories.

One way to do this is to sign up for the Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® to earn 2x miles on all purchases. From here, you have several options to add a cash back card that earns high rewards in rotating categories.

This selection will largely be situational depending on what you spend your money on. My favorite cash back card is the Chase Freedom®, just for the variety alone. You have more choices here because you can open your options to cards on different rewards platforms.

You most likely will not use your cash back card as much as your Barclaycard, so I would use those cash back points either as statement credits, spending money, or to redeem for gift cards. Then, use all of your Barclaycard points for travel-related or larger purchases.

You can’t maximize your rewards by only owning a cash back card. Even the best cash back card must be used in combination with another rewards credit card to ensure you earn greater than 1% back on every purchase you make.

Remember, you won’t be able to combine points in this scenario, so make sure you have options for redeeming each set of points. Since you’ll be using your cash back card in limited situations, it might not make sense to pay an additional annual fee, which is why I recommend the Chase Freedom®.

Case Study #4: Overlap Two Travel Rewards Cards

If you travel often, you may want a little extra juice in your rewards program. Here, you need to take into consideration frequent flyer programs, preferred airlines or hotels, and point transfer partners so you can use your points in the most efficient way possible.

What I recommend is pairing a solid, general rewards card with an airline or hotel card.

What’s important to remember:

  • Most airline and hotel cards don’t earn higher than 1x points away from their own brands.
  • The best general rewards cards have frequent flyer transfer partners.
  • Your rewards are attached to the airline or hotel rewards program and changes do happen.
  • Most rewards cards and airline cards carry annual fees, so don’t sign up for all of them!

Keeping those points in mind, there are many ways to execute this strategy. Below is an example to illustrate how you could maximize your rewards points.

Travel Card + Airline or Hotel Card = Max Travel Rewards

Sign up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card to get a great sign-up bonus and solid rewards on travel and dining, plus capitalize on the 20% bonus point redemption. This is your starting point for earning travel rewards.

Next, choose your preferred airline or hotel. This is much more difficult since it depends on your preferences and geography. One way to choose is to look at your Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card point transfer partners. With this program, you can transfer your points to partners such as United, British Airways, Southwest, Hyatt, and Marriott. Points transfer on a 1:1 basis, so you should first consider any of these specialty cards.

If you fly one airline a lot you can double dip on points and miles, then transfer credit card points to airline miles. Adding the United MileagePlus® Explorer card won’t net you any immediate points difference, since both cards earn 2x on United purchases. However, you might travel United enough to take advantage of mileage deals by transferring Ultimate Rewards points from your Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card.

Finally, with these two cards you’ll be paying two annual fees. Consider adding a no annual fee cash back card to boost your points on rotating categories that aren’t covered by Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. You might need gas or groceries while traveling, and cash back cards can cover you in these categories.

Research Recap

The marketplace for rewards credit cards is enormous. I collected data on 1,630 credit cards for this project. It’s been an ongoing effort that I’ve been a part of for nearly two years.

One priority for me is to make sure this page is continuously updated. I get emails daily about changes and updates directly from the credit card issuers so we’re able to make the changes fast, keeping everything current. This page can be updated as often as daily or weekly, so you’ll see some details change from time to time.

Beyond simply presenting the research and the numbers, I looked for strategies to help you make the best decision and use your credit cards wisely.

Many of the tips and practices outlined here are things I actually put into practice on a daily basis. I made an effort to put myself in your position — the position of the cardholder — in order to create something useful. Luckily, I own several of these cards myself and I’m able to speak from personal experiences.

While this article mainly focuses on overall rewards credit cards, I also completed several other pieces that discuss each rewards type more specifically. If you’re interested in credit card rewards, I encourage you to check out some of the other articles, as each piece offers more depth on the individual card types.

You can take a look at my article on cash back credit cards. I also wrote another detailed article on airline credit cards, which you’ll find useful if you fly on one airline or travel often. My colleague wrote a great piece on travel credit cards that sums up any credit card you should consider for travel, including general travel cards and various types of brand credit cards.

If you have any questions, please feel free to ask in the comments section below. I do my best to respond to everyone!

About this resource:

Created on: April 19, 2017

Updated on: April 19, 2017

Edited by: Sarah Ban, Michael Gardon

Research by: Mike Jelinek, Montana Thomas, Michael Gardon

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