The 6 Best Rewards Cards in America

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If you’re going to choose one card, what should it be? And what’s really the best rewards card out there? To answer this question you need to understand the (3) kinds of value you can get from a rewards credit card.

  1. Initial bonus offer. A card may have an attractive acquisition bonus. And you should get the card. But that doesn’t mean you should put any spending on it once you’ve earned the bonus. It’s like the old saying that the best marketing in the world is the enemy of a bad product.

  2. Benefits for having the card There are cards you should get because they give you better treatment from an airline or hotel, lounge access, annual free hotel nights, or other perks — perks that are worth far more than the card’s annual fee — but again, that doesn’t mean you should put any spending on the card. Get the card, stick it ninin a drawer, unless you have to show it to access your perks.

  3. Rewards for your ongoing spend There are cards that are rewarding for your ongoing spending. They earn valuable points (like Chase Ultimate Rewards or American Express Membership Rewards), and earn them quickly (more than one point per dollar). That’s where you want ongoing spend to go.

I often list the best signup bonuses, or lists of which card is best for which category of spending. But what are the best cards overall that hit it out of the park, the triple threats that deliver value across all three dimensions?

Here are I think the six cards that qualify:

  • American Express Gold Card offers four points per dollar in two different categories: restaurants worldwide and at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 in purchases annually, then 1 point per dollar spent) and earns 3X Membership Rewards points on flights booked directly with airlines and amextravel.com.

    The card has a $100 airline fee credit and second with a $120 annual dining credit which gives enrolled cardmembers up to $10 per month in statement credits for using the card at Shake Shack, The Cheesecake Factory, Ruth’s Chris Steak House and Grubhub/Seamless.

    The airline fee credit is based on calendar year not cardmember year. So if you get the card now you can use the $100 credit in 2019, and then at the beginning of 2020, meaning getting $200 in credits during your first cardmember year.

  • Chase Sapphire Reserve has great earn, a great bonus, and decent benefits. The signup bonus is 50,000 points after $4000 spend within 3 months. You earn triple points on travel and dining, and those points transfer to airline miles and hotel points.

    The card has a $550 annual fee, but there’s a $300 annual travel credit (automatically rebates qualifying travel spend) and a $100 global entry credit, plus you get a Priority Pass for airport lounge access with unlimited visits and no fee for guests.

    That’s a strong bonus and fast earn, with good benefits, though not as strong benefits as American Express has with their premium card. 5/24 applies.

  • Platinum Card By American Express earns valuable points (Membership Rewards that transfer to airline miles), has a strong signup bonus (60,000 points after $5000 spend within 3 months), and earns 5 points per dollar on airfare.

    There’s a $200 annual airline fee credit (which you can use in 2019, and again at the beginning of 2020, so twice during your first cardmember year) and a $200 annual Uber credit. There’s also a $100 Global Entry credit.

    Lounge access is American Express’ own Centurion lounges, Delta lounges when flying Delta same day, Airspace, Plaza Premium, and Escape lounges and Priority Pass lounges (excluding restaurant credits).

    And you get elite status with Marriott, Hilton, National Car Rental, and Uber. It’s also a pretty hefty metal.

  • Ink Business Preferred℠ Credit Card has an 80,000 point signup bonus after $5000 spend within 3 months. That can even be enough for a roundtrip business class award ticket between the US and Europe. These points transfer directly to airlines and hotels.

    It earns 3 points per dollar on travel — that’s airlines, hotels, rental cars, tolls, even Uber — and 3 points per dollar on shipping and advertising on social media and search engines, so great for anyone who advertises on Facebook or Twitter, or who spends money advertising with Google. It also comes with $600 protection against theft or damage when you use it to pay your cell phone. 5/24 applies.

    You get a great signup bonus, great points-earning, and a good benefit in cell phone coverage.

  • Citi Prestige Card used to be a great benefits card but in my opinion they’re largely killing the 4th hotel night free night benefit. Instead they’ve turned this into a huge card for points-earning (5 points per dollar on air travel and restaurants, 3 points per dollar on hotels and cruise lines) plus Priority Pass card with unlimited visits and 2 included guests, though Citi has eliminated nearly all of the extra protections like trip delay, baggage delay, etc.

  • Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card lets you buy any flight without worrying about restricted award availability using your rewards. It earns 2 miles per dollar spent, and those now transfer 2:1.5 into several airline frequent flyer programs. That makes this card a double threat: great for buying paid travel, also great for transfers to frequent flyer programs since with many of those programs you’re earning 1.5 miles per dollar spent.

    The card offers a one-time bonus of 50,000 miles once you spend $3,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening. And the card gives you up to $100 application fee credit for Global Entry or PreCheck, not bad for a card with a $0 annual fee the first year; $95 after that.

Which one is best overall for you depends on which benefits you’ll make the most use of, and what categories your spending falls into.

In all of these cases you’re earning points that transfer to your choice from a variety of different mileage programs. That way you can put the points where you need them, when you need them based on the award you want and which airline has availability at that time.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Editorial note: any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer. Comments made in response to this post are not provided or commissioned nor have they been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any bank. It is not the responsibility of advertisers Citibank, Chase, American Express, Barclays, Capital One or any other advertiser to ensure that questions are answered, either. Terms and limitations apply to all offers.

Comments

  1. @ Gary — AMEX Gold is a ripoff after initial bonus. The remainder are primarily only good for the initial bonus. Then, keep a couple, but not all.

  2. A very reasonable points-earning, no-annual-fee US bank card for card purchases of $2 or less: Citi Rewards+.

  3. I agree – I have Amex Gold, Amex Platinum, Chase Sapphire Reserve, Capital One Venture in my wallet right now.

    Gene, Amex Gold is the most lucrative card I have right now.

  4. @Gene

    I have LOTS of cards and have run the numbers several times to see which card is best for what purchases.
    The Amex Gold is the best for people with a lot of dining and grocery purchases.
    The only card that comes close is, believe it or not, the Amex Hilton Surpass, if you can hit the $15K annual spend with bonus (dine, grocery, gas) categories only and can use the free night at a >60K point hotel. My valuations are Amex MR points at 1.4cpp and Hilton at 0.4cpp.
    If you can use the Amex Gold credits, then the annual fees are close to a push as well.

  5. Bank of America Premium Rewards VISA.
    Being a Platinum Honors Preferred member, I get no cost brokerage trades,
    and on the credit card side…..
    3.5% cashback on all travel and restaurants
    2.65% cashback on all other general VISA purchases
    Plus they offer a fairly comprehensive travel insurance package at no extra charge.

    I use Costco Citi Card for gas purchases (4% cashback) and I use
    American Express Preferred Cashback for 6% back on groceries.

  6. Basic question never addressed so far in your blog: to transfer points from your credit card to any airline, you must first be a member of that airline, correct? Which airline memberships do you recommend ?

  7. @Ely: Yes, you must have an account with the airline to transfer points into. Those accounts are, in every case, free and instantaneous to establish. So there’s no need to evaluate which frequent flier programs are “recommended”, just join them all, as necessary.

    There are some rare edge cases in which there are some actions you might want to take in a frequent flier account that cannot be done until you’ve had the account open for several months. Examples are (I think) buying points into an Avianca Lifemiles account and moving Avios points among British Airways, Iberia, and Aer Lingus.

  8. funny that Gary receives commission for all 6 cards. i’dd love to see the list include cards where Gary doesn’t receive commission

  9. Gary what about the Southwest Airlines Business Card that only req$3,000 spending and is $99 per year?
    And I will be getting a second Card that transfers miles to both airlines and hotels that requires about the same amount of spending 3k-which card do u recommend as my second card?
    What happened to the Avianca Lifetime rewards card? that looked pretty good?

  10. @josh rogan – what’s more interesting is how they shift. For *years* the blogosphere said “applying for one card, OMG YOU NEED THE CHASE SAPPHIRE PREFERRED!” and then they had a bunch of absurd reasons why their readership would want one. (Which was nuts in context; we’re obviously zealots and not the casual crowd – everybody meets the spend threshold for a $50 difference.) The logos was always around why CSR < CSP.

    But now that they upped the annual fee for scant benefits, somehow the Chase Sapphire Reserve is the shining star. I have to wonder how the referral benefit calculus changed. Gary, care to share the referral structure and how that changed? That would make for a very interesting article.

  11. A good summary. However it would be unfair to suggest the credits offered by Amex Plat are equivalent to Chase CSR. The Chase $300 travel credit covers a broad range of travel expenses, e.g. airfare, hotels, car rentals, etc. Ditto for the doordash credit. The Chase 15% Lyft discount is automatic and doesn’t require monthly purchases. Amex has a very strict list of travel fees that qualify for $200 reimbursement, and I rarely pay any of these fees. And the Uber credits require monthly usage. Finally CSR covers priority pass for up to 3 people per visit, plus restaurants. Amex includes its own lounges and Escape lounges. These may be important differences depending on the location of the cardholder.

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