The Truth About Each of the Major Rewards Credit Cards, in a Nutshell

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In June I wrote the truth about each airline and hotel chain in a nutshell. Jim asked me to do the same thing for each of the major rewards credit cards.

Airline rewards cards:
You get airline cards for their initial bonus and for travel benefits like early boarding and free checked bags (if you don’t already have elite status). Ongoing spend is generally more valuable on bank cards whose points transfer to a variety of airline frequent flyer miles programs.

  • Don’t spend money on the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card [offer expired], you want it if you live in a Delta hub city and lack status, but you’ll earn more points using American Express Membership Rewards cards and you can choose to transfer those points to Delta or to other airlines.

  • The same holds for a UnitedSM Explorer Card, Chase points transfer to United and you earn points faster with Chase Ultimate Rewards cards like Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and Ink Business Preferred℠ Credit Card. (United is reportedly mad at Chase over this.)

    Notably though the UnitedSM Explorer Card may have the best benefits of a mass market airline card, because (1) United’s Basic Economy is the most draconian, so you need the card or elite status in order to still bring a full sized carry on bag on board, and (2) you’ll get 2 one-time United Club passes each year for your account anniversary as well. The card gets you access to last seat availability on extra miles awards as well as extra saver award availability that general members don’t have.

  • The one reason to spend on a Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card is that the points you earn count towards a companion pass, where you get to designate one person to travel with you for just the cost of taxes when you fly Southwest either on a paid ticket or on points.

Cathay Pacific First Class

Hotel rewards cards:
You get hotel cards for help with hotel elite status, and for annual free nights — if you’re paying a fee for a hotel card it’s like buying a Groupon, you get a luxury hotel stay at a big prepaid discount.

  • Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card gets you Gold status from Hilton, the only mid-tier hotel status that comes with complimentary breakfasts. Each year you spend $15,000 on the card you’ll earn a weekend night reward, and $40,000 in a calendar year earns Hilton Diamond status through the end of the next calendar year.

  • The World Of Hyatt Credit Card is the only one I want to spend money on, that’s because (1) they encourage you with free nights along the way, (2) it helps towards elite status, and (3) I find their status to be the most rewarding.

    You get an annual free category 1-4 night each year at card renewal, and an additional free night after $15,000 in spend each cardmember year. It comes with 5 qualifying night credits towards elite status every year and 2 more elite nights for every $5,000 you spend on the card. That gets super rewarding because it stacks with nights you stay even on points, such as points transferred in from Chase and because you get another category 1-4 free night after 30 elite nights, a choice of gift card or points at 40 nights, confirmed suite upgrades at 50 nights, and a category 1-7 free night (plus Globalist status and assigned Hyatt concierge) at 60 nights.

  • The IHG® Rewards Club Premier Credit Card gets you a free night after each account anniversary year at eligible IHG hotels worldwide; a free reward night each time they redeem points for any stay of 4 or more nights; and platinum status for as long as you remain.

  • Marriott Bonvoy BoundlessTM Credit Card is worth getting for its initial bonus, worth keeping for the annual Free Night Award (which can be used at properties that require up to 35,000 points for the night) every year after account anniversary as well as for 15 Elite Night Credits each calendar year that can be used towards higher tier levels. However like most hotel cards spending is not well-rewarded.

Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur

Bank rewards cards:

  • Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is the best card for getting started in miles and points, with the best initial bonus offer of any personal card at 60,000 bonus points after $4,000 spend in the first 3 months from account opening. Where banks have made so much progress over airlines and hotel programs is the ability to transfer points to a variety of different programs, and choose which one later — that gives you tons of flexibility to have the points you need, when you need them, with the program that offers you the award you want.

  • Ink Business Preferred℠ Credit Card is the fastest-earning small business card with 80,000 bonus points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening and 3x earning on the first $150,000 spent on travel; shipping; internet, cable and phone services; and advertising with social media sites and search engines.

  • Chase Sapphire Reserve® was the ‘it’ card when it first launched with a 100,000 point bonus, now it’s half that and other rewards cards have done a lot to catch up, but 3x earning on travel and dining remains strong. (This is not my referral link, information about the product is neither provided nor reviewed by its issuer.

  • American Express® Gold Card is my go-to for restaurant and on up to $25,000 per calendar year of U.S. supermarket spend, earning 4x in those categories.

  • The Platinum Card® from American Express gets you access to more airport lounges than any other card, encompassing Centurion, Delta, Priority Pass, Plaza Premium, Airspace, and Escape lounges. It comes with modest Hilton and Marriott status too.

  • Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card has come out of nowhere over the past year to become a double threat, 2% back on spend towards travel as always but now points also transfer to airline miles.

  • The Blue Business® Plus Credit Card from American Express is the best single card for otherwise-unbonused spend, offering a full 2 Membership Rewards points on your first $50,000 in purchases per year.

  • Citi Prestige Card was once a benefits-rich card to rival Amex Platinum, now Citi has done a 180 making it weak on benefits and strong on points-earning. 4th night free hotels has been devalued, no more American Airlines lounge access or golf benefit and Citi’s gutting travel protections. However it now earns 5x on air (like Amex Platinum) and on restaurants (beating slightly Amex Gold).

Etihad First Apartment

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, 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.


  1. Gary,

    I have had the Sapphire Reserve since inception and frankly I think it’s a much better card than the AMEX PLT which I have had for the past 20 years but see a steady decline in value other than as a corporate travel card and then it works. In the past year I find myself using the Sapphire R as my everyday card. At least for now they retain the restaurant value at airports which if one travels a lot can be most gratifying.

  2. Surprised not to see Citi Prestige on this list since it now has 5x on restaurants and travel. In addition, to other benefits.

  3. Gary,

    Where is US Bank Altitude Reserve? For the casual traveler, it is very, very hard to beat provided you use a Samsung phone which allows 3X nearly everywhere for in person shopping. That is a 4.5% return, with easy redemption. It is tough to beat.

  4. Pleased do the same for cash back cards. Big cash bonuses for minimum spending plus cash for spending.

  5. @Jerry

    See my US Bank Altitude Reserve comment. That 4.5% return is for travel, but super easy to game into cash.

  6. Any word yet if points earned on Prestige can be transferred to Premier thereby retaining the 1.25 cents per point travel redemption after September?

  7. It is hard to justify the $250 AF for Amex Gold unless you can use the $120 dining credit and $100 airline credits. Otherwise, assuming you value Amex points at .015 you would have to spend $16,666 just to break even on the annual fee (from the 4x points v. 3x UR points at Chase).
    The CNB Crystal card also offers 3x points on groceries (worth .04 per $1 spent), but unlike Amex it is very easy to cover the $450 AF with airline credits and the like.

    Also there is no reason to mention PP lounges in the same sentence as Amex, seeing as they are discontinuing restaurant dining, which is a huge benefit.

  8. Having gone from AMEX Green all the way to Black, down to Platinum and now to Gold, not sure why I don’t just bail once and for all. I ceased seeing value for AMEX a few years ago but inertia and a 47 year history has prevented me from leaving altogether. Perhaps time to downgrade to Green, where I started! I virtually never use is.

  9. I would have liked to see the Aspire and Brilliant cards included in the hotel section. Also, for AA loyalists, Mileup is a great card as it offers 2x on groceries with no fee. All AA fliers should have it IMO.

  10. Boraxo – I value the dining credit at 100% (live in NYC, so Grubhub gets a lot of spending), and AMEX offers 4x on grocery (none of the Chase cards have a regular grocery bonus), so it is really easy to justify AMEX Gold. Is is also really easy to justify Chase Sapphire Reserve purely on the travel category (though the Citi Premier is a good alternative). It is also really easy to justify Amex Platinum based on Uber Credits, Marriott/Hilton status, SkyClubs and Centurion lounges (I don’t care about Priority Pass) and benefits like FHR.

  11. For me, earning means nothing – it all comes down to transfer partners. No sense in using the Chase Sapphire Reserve when 1) the only Asian airline is Singapore and 2) the overinflated prices levied against customers after the switch to the Expedia portal.

    Citi Thank You has Cathay, EVA, Garuda, Thai, Jet, Singapore
    Amex Membership Rewards has ANA, Cathay, Singapore
    Chase Ultimate Rewards has Singapore

  12. Anthony- Amex Plat is the hardest to justify for those who don’t need any of those perks (which are easily obtained elsewhere) except for DL fanboys. The Amex clubs are overrated and overcrowded, I predict Amex retention rates will plummet a year after the signup bonuses post. I see no need to keep $450 AF cards …

  13. One other thing worth saying about CapitalOne is it’s the program which most reminds you that you are always, always BUYING the miles when you transfer. Whether it’s substituting for 1.5 cpp UR redemptions or substituting for 2% cash on CapitalOne, it’s always something that actively costs money (and therefore has to make financial sense). I believe CapitalOne sells the miles at 1.33 cents per point if I recall correctly.

  14. @Gary – How do you access your free United passes with the United card? I looked for mine under United Club & Lounges, but they’re not there. Where do you find yours?

  15. @Christian
    Sign in to the United app and touch the profile icon in the extreme upper right of the screen. Your free passes will be there.

  16. Hyatt card. The more you look, the more value you see. More than what Gary has discussed.

    Do a deep dive.

  17. You mentioned the Hilton Surpass card but not the Aspire?
    The Aspire card is much better than the Surpass…I hope you know about it.

  18. @Boraxo :: shrug:: I have the amex gold card, CSR and Plat. Obviously I am not keeping them all, but to me the gold card is a no brainer. I get the $120 annual dining credit and easily use that. I get grocery spend covered which I can’t get from the CSR. On top of that I have an amex offer that is giving me an extra point on seamless/grubhub (so actually 5 pts dining for most of my orders). The plat makes sense over the CSR if you are going to have delta flights or use airports with centurion lounges. Those lounges tend to be better than the PP lounges along with the gold status for hilton. There was talk of chase raising the AF on the CSR. If that came to pass I think that would make the decision to drop the CSR much easier for me. Right now I am looking at my upcoming travel schedule for the next year to see if the CSR or Plat makes more sense. I have an ink business preferred so the general travel bonus I have covered already and that card also gives me cell phone insurance. I don’t put any spend on the CSR anymore.

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