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The Best Rewards Credit Cards…

Our Picks for the Best Rewards Credit Cards

Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express

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

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

10% cash back on Amazon.com, for up to $2,000 in purchases made during the first six months*

$100 for every $1,000 spent ($200 if you spend up to the $2,000 maximum)

3% cash back on gas and department stores purchases

$30 for every $1,000 spent

1% cash back on all other purchases

$10 for every $1,000 spent

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

$250

*Offer only available if you apply before January 11, 2017

Discover it® Cashback Match

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

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

1% cash back on all other purchases

$10 for every $1,000 spent

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

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

Chase Freedom®

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

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

1% cash back on all other purchases

$10 for every $1,000 spent

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

$150

As you can see, the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express will get you the highest cash back percentages overall, plus the highest cash back bonus. (Getting 6% back on anything is pretty much unheard of, let alone something as everyday as groceries. Don’t even get us started on that 10% back for Amazon purchases.) If you’re looking for the highest cash back rewards potential, you’ve found it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s how their rewards break down:

Virgin America Premium Visa Signature® Card

8 points for every $1 spent on Virgin America purchases

1 point for every $1 spent on other purchases

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

British Airways Visa Signature® Card

3 Avios for every $1 spent on British Airways purchases

1 Avios for every $1 spent on other purchases

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

United MileagePlus® Explorer Card

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

1x miles per $1 on all other purchases

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

30,000 miles after you spend $1,000 in the first three months

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

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

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

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

Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express

3% unlimited cash back on gas

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

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

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

10% cash back on Amazon purchases, for up to $2,000 in purchases made during the first six months*

$100 for every $1,000 spent ($200 if you spend up to the $2,000 maximum)

3% unlimited cash back on department store purchases

$30 for every $1,000 spent

1% cash back on all other purchases

$10 for every $1,000 spent

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

$250

*Offer only available if you apply before January 11, 2017

Costco Anywhere Visa® Card by Citi

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

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

3% unlimited cash back on restaurants and eligible travel purchases

$30 for every $1,000 spent

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

$20 for every $1,000 spent

1% cash back on all other purchases

$10 for every $1,000 spent

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

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

Discover it® Secured Credit Card – No Annual Fee

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

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

1% cash back on all other purchases

$5 for every $500 spent

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

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

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

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

Best Reward Combinations

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

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

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

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

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

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


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