Best Rewards Credit Cards of 2017

Maximize your rewards with the right credit card.

If you’re a homebody who’s into family stay-cations, a credit card that focuses on travel rewards just doesn’t fit. Likewise, a cash back card with no travel rewards isn’t an ideal match for frequent flyers. Choosing a credit card with a rewards structure that aligns with your spending habits will ensure your rewards stack up quickly. You’ll also want to carefully consider redemption options. Do you want to earn rewards you can redeem for free travel? Is cash back more your style? Or maybe you’d prefer a super-flexible card that does both?

We’ve researched the top rewards credit cards so you don’t have to. Keep reading to find your perfect match.

The Best Rewards Credit Card Combo for 2017

To maximize your earning potential for travel points and cash back rewards, we recommend pairing the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card with the Chase Freedom®. Here’s how.

Apply Now on Chase's secure website
Apply Now on Chase's secure website

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card offers exceptional rewards, including 2X points on travel and restaurants worldwide and 1:1 points transfer to airline and hotel loyalty programs. With the Chase Freedom®, you’ll earn 5% cash back in rotating categories, along with 1% unlimited cash back on all other purchases. When you pair these cards, you can maximize your rewards in several rotating categories and, even more importantly, maximize the benefits of the Chase Ultimate Rewards® program — points are transferrable between the two cards.

Combine your rewards on both cards to earn Chase Ultimate Rewards® points even faster. Redeem your points for a wide range of rewards, including travel, cash back and gift cards. You can even redeem points on the go, online or with the Chase Mobile banking app.

The Simple Dollar’s Best Rewards Credit Cards for 2017

2017’s Best Rewards Credit Cards:
An In-Depth Look at Our Top Picks

From travel and cash back rewards to concert tickets, these rewards cards have earned our top honors in their respective categories. Find your category, find your card, and apply online in minutes.

Most Versatile Rewards Credit Card

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Apply Now on Chase's secure website

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is the Swiss Army Knife® of rewards cards — it does a lot of useful things. Use the card to earn a variety of rewards including travel, gift cards and statement credits. (Note: points are worth 25% more when you redeem for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®!) You can also take advantage of a 1:1 point transfer to leading hotel and airline loyalty programs and consolidate points with select Chase cards.

This card’s versatility also comes into play with travel and restaurant purchases. The 2X points earned for travel purchases covers not just airfare and hotels but also several types of ground transportation, including passenger trains, taxis, buses, limos and ferries. You also get 2X points on dining worldwide, which means you can earn rewards points at restaurants overseas as well as stateside. The $0 foreign transaction fee is another good reason to use the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card for international dining.

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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
  • Earn 2X points per dollar on travel and dining worldwide and 1 point per dollar on all other purchases.
  • Spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months to earn 50,000 bonus points, worth $625 toward travel when redeemed through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
  • Pair with the Chase Freedom® to transfer points between cards and combine them to earn free trips faster.
  • Redeem points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards® to receive 25% bonus.
While the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card scores high marks for versatility, it’s short on travel perks. If you want even more travel benefits, we recommend the Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express. It offers 3X points on airfare booked directly with airlines and 2X points at U.S. restaurants, gas stations and supermarkets. Plus, you’ll enjoy high-value perks like Personalized Travel Service, a $100 airline fee credit, and Premium Roadside Assistance.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card has just about everything you could want in a no-nonsense, multi-purpose rewards card. Its flexibility makes it easy to earn points toward a variety of rewards, and the ability to use the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card with travel loyalty programs and other Chase cards, combining or consolidating points, can add even more dimensions to your rewards strategy.

Best Cash Back Rewards

Chase Freedom®

Apply Now on Chase's secure website

Are you a cost-conscious shopper who can visualize your monthly credit card statement growing larger with every swipe? The Chase Freedom® can offer relief with high-rate cash back you can redeem for a statement credit to lower your monthly balance. Flexible rewards redemption gives you other ways to use your points too, including travel and gift cards. Also, you’ll earn 5% cash back each quarter on rotating categories like gas stations, grocery stores and department stores, and unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases.

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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
  • Activate your 5% bonus category every quarter when the categories change to maximize your rewards.
  • Earn 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in combined purchases in bonus categories per quarter and 1% unlimited cash back on all other purchases.
  • Redeem points for cash back through an electronic deposit into your checking or savings account, gift cards, or an account statement credit.
Keep in mind that you’ll need to activate the 5% bonus every quarter when the categories change. If you prefer an option without rotating categories — even if it means earning rewards less quickly — the Discover it® Miles might be more to your liking. It offers unlimited 1.5X Miles for every $1 spent on all purchases, any time of year, and you can redeem your Miles for travel statement credits in addition to cash.
The Chase Freedom® offers great opportunities to earn high-rate cash back and other rewards at a brisk pace, without a lot of moving parts to keep track of. It’s our top choice for a simple, no-annual-fee cash-back card that helps you convert purchases into rewards with ease.

Best No Annual Fee Rewards Card

Discover it® Miles

Apply Now on Discover.com's secure website

For some cardholders, there are three magic words: no annual fee. The Discover it® Miles is our top recommendation in that category of rewards cards. In addition to generous travel and cash back rewards, this card offers a few features that aren’t available from some key competitors. For instance, there’s no late fee on your first late payment. In the area of security, you get $0 Fraud Liability for unauthorized purchases. The Discover it® Miles also differentiates itself from similar cards by offering 100% U.S.-based customer service available any time.

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Card Highlights Provided by Discover:
  • We'll match all the Miles you've earned at the end of your first year. Bonus Miles - For example, if you earn 30,000 Miles, you get 60,000 Miles.
  • Unlimited 1.5x Miles per dollar on all purchases, every day, with no annual fee.
  • No Blackout Dates - fly any airline, stay at any hotel.
  • Redeem your rewards in any amount for cash or a travel credit.
  • Freeze your account in seconds with an on/off switch either on the mobile app or website to prevent new purchases, cash advances, and balance transfers.
  • 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, Discover Match® details & other information.
  • Earn unlimited 1.5x Miles for every dollar spent on all purchases, from airfare and hotels to groceries and online shopping.
  • Book your travel with Discover it® Miles and redeem your Miles as a statement credit toward the purchase. Eligible travel purchases include airfare, hotel stays, rental cars, and more.
  • Get an automatic match of all the Miles you’ve earned at the end of your first year.
You can get a higher rate per dollar spent with the Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® — 2x miles compared with 1.5x miles — although it would mean paying an annual fee after the first year. Also, if your goal is earning rewards for overseas travel, cards from issuers such as Visa and MasterCard are more widely accepted internationally (and among small businesses domestically).
The Discover it® Miles is a user-friendly card that requires little effort on your part — and no annual fee, of course — to earn generous rewards. You also get considerable flexibility in earning and redeeming your rewards. You’re not locked in with booking travel through a particular airline or staying at a particular hotel, and you don’t have to deal with blackout dates. If you’d rather have cash than a statement credit for travel purchases, you can redeem your Miles for cash at any time.

Best Fixed-Value Travel Credit Card

Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®

Apply Now on FindMyBarclayCard.com's secure website

For travelers who like simplicity and flexibility with their fixed-value credit cards, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® makes it easy to earn miles, redeem your rewards and go. You don’t have to keep track of rotating categories. The 2X miles per dollar rewards rate, 5% miles back redemption reward, and 50,000-mile signup bonus are the icing on the cake. And speaking of miles and rewards redemption, your miles never expire as long as your account remains open, active and in good standing.

In addition to travel awards, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® gives you other ways to get your money’s worth. With the annual fee waived for the first year, the card offers a solid initial value. You can also take advantage of the 0% Introductory APR on balance transfers to pay off another card and save on interest.

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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
  • Redeem your miles for travel statement credits starting at 10,000 miles for $100 toward all or a portion of your travel purchases. (Terms apply.)
  • Spend $3,000 in your first 90 days to earn the 50,000 bonus miles, redeemable for a $500 travel statement credit.
  • Get 5% miles back every time you redeem to use toward your next redemption.
  • If you choose to transfer a balance from a high-APR card, pay off the balance during the intro APR period to avoid interest payments.
Remember that with cards in this category, you’re simply earning points for travel reimbursement at a fixed rate. Although you have flexibility in redeeming your points for travel, they’re non-transferrable to frequent flyer or hotel loyalty programs. For 1:1 point transfer to popular travel rewards programs, we recommend our top pick, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card.
The Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® may not be flashy, but some cardholders will see its simplicity as the key benefit. For those who want to earn points at a steady fixed rate without adjusting their spending habits to coincide with bonus categories, this card provides a clear path to their objective. Also, the 2X miles rate is superior to that of many other fixed-value cards.

Best BofA Card

BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Credit Card

Apply Now Learn more about this card

With no annual fee and 1.5 points per $1 spent on all purchases, the BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Credit Card has a lot going for it. Cardholders who also have a Bank of America checking or savings account will find even more to like, since they’re eligible for a 10% customer points bonus on every purchase. If they’re also Preferred Rewards clients, the potential bonus ranges from 25% to 75%. BofA banking customers can maximize their ability to earn points with this card, points they can easily redeem for travel statement credits.

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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%
  • Use the card to earn unlimited 1.5 points per dollar on all purchases.
  • Make at least $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days for 20,000 online bonus points worth a $200 travel statement credit.
  • Redeem your points to get a statement credit on travel expenses including flights, hotels, rental cars, baggage fees and more.
  • Combine the card with a BofA checking or savings account for an additional 10% customer bonus points. (Preferred Rewards clients can increase this bonus to 25-75%.)
You don’t have to bank with BofA to get a travel card with a high rewards rate. Consider the Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express, for example. Frequent travelers may find that the annual fee — waived for the first year, then $195 — is worth the money for benefits such as 3X points on airfare and a $100 airline fee credit.
The BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Credit Card has solid baseline benefits, including travel booking flexibility and the signup bonus. However, the potential to earn bonus rewards points increases for cardholders who also do their banking with BofA and are enrolled in the Preferred Rewards program. The potential to earn customer points bonuses anywhere from 10% to 75% on each purchase offers a strong incentive for account holders to make this card part of their Bank of America portfolio.

Best Cash Back Bonus

Discover it® Cashback Match™

Apply Now On Discover.com's secure website

The Discover it® Cashback Match™ offers a variation on the old saying — good things come to [cardholders] who wait. At the end of your first year, the card automatically delivers a dollar-for-dollar cash back match. Also, cash rewards never expire and are redeemable at any time, in any amount. With no annual fee and free FICO Credit Score on monthly statements, the card offers a lot of value. Thanks to Cashback Match™ and all its other useful features, the Discover it® Cashback Match™ receives our top recommendation for Best Cash Back Bonus.

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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.
  • Activate every quarter to earn 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in purchases in rotating categories like gas stations, restaurants, wholesale clubs and Amazon.com.
  • Remember that the more you purchase with the card during your first year, the bigger the Cashback Match™ you’ll receive at year’s end.
  • If you choose to transfer a balance to Discover it® Cashback Match™, be sure to pay it off during the 14-month introductory 0% APR to avoid interest. (A 3% fee applies to each balance transfer.)
  • Use your rewards instantly at Amazon.com checkout.
For consumers who want travel rewards as the main course and cash back as a side dish, we recommend the Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®. The card offers 2X miles on every purchase, with no rotating categories. In addition to redeeming miles as a travel statement credit, it also allows you the flexibility to redeem for gift cards and merchandise. (Note: redeeming miles for travel statement credit offers the best value.)
The Discover it® Cashback Match™ is a solid choice for anyone interested in a cash back bonus. It could also make a useful “starter card” for first-time cardholders. With no annual fee, it has a low barrier to entry, and access to free FICO® Credit Scores on the monthly statement can help young cardholders monitor their credit as they’re building it.

Best Perks

Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express

Apply Now on AmericanExpress.com's secure website

Frequent air travelers who like to arrive, dine and relax in style will enjoy our pick in the Best Perks category, the Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express. Generous points for many everyday purchases coupled with bonus points on airfare booked directly with airlines ensure that the points, and the easily-redeemable rewards, add up quickly. The Membership Rewards® program lets you use points for rewards from more than 500 brands and transfer points to select frequent traveler programs — Hilton Honors, JetBlue, Starwood Preferred Guest and more.

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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
  • Book flights directly with airlines to earn 3X points.
  • Earn 2X points for purchases at U.S. restaurants, gas station and supermarkets and 1X points on all other purchases.
  • Use the card to book lodging through The Hotel Collection and earn benefits including hotel credits and room upgrades when available.
  • Use on international trips to take advantage of $0 foreign transaction fees.
With the 3X airfare bonus, frequent air travel is the key to maximizing your rewards with the Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express. Fully utilizing features like access to The Hotel Collection — plus a $75 hotel credit when you stay two or more consecutive nights at a participating property — will also help you get the most value out of the card. If you’re a globe-trotting gourmet who travels strictly for the food, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card offers 2X points on travel and restaurants worldwide.
For frequent flyers, the Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express comes very close to being the ideal full-service rewards card. You can earn points and rewards in just about every phase of your trip, from airfare and lodging to incidentals such as baggage fees. The generous travel perks put this card in a class by itself.

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.

Sort By Card Name
Rewards Type
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Common Filters Great Signup Bonus
No Annual Fee
No APR for 12+ Months
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Credit Card
Rewards Type
Annual Fee
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Travel
Introductory Annual Fee of $0 the first year, then $95
Excellent
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Cash Back
$0
Below Average
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Travel
$59 ($0 for first year)
Average

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 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 of 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 equal $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 of 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: May 26, 2017

Updated on: May 31, 2017

Edited by: Sarah Ban, Michael Gardon

Research by: Mike Jelinek, Montana Thomas, Michael Gardon

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