[Update: Some offers mentioned below have expired. You can view the current offers from our partners if available here — Citi Double Cash, American Express Blue Cash Preferred, Chase Freedom, Discover it, Barclaycard Arrival, Capital One Venture, Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard. Disclosure: Cards from our partners are mentioned below.]
Does it ever seem like there are a million rewards credit cards offered? Between all of the cards that offer cash back, points and miles, it can feel as if every bank has a dozen different way to reward its credit card holders. So the challenge for the rewards credit card user is to find the product that will return the most value for them.
What Kind of Rewards Do You Want?
Cash back is going to represent the most valuable reward for many credit card users, especially those that are uninterested in deciphering the more complicated travel rewards programs. On the other hand, credit cards that offer frequent flier miles or hotel points can be even more valuable than cash back, so long as you use it just for the most valuable rewards such as premium-class international airfare and luxury hotel stays. In addition, there are points and miles that you can earn in bank rewards programs that can be transferred to airline miles or hotel points. While these rewards can be even more valuable than points or miles with a single travel holder, these additional options make it the most complicated to use.
How to Pick a Cash-Back Credit Card
The right cash-back credit card will offer you the most return for the spending you do. One type of cash-back card offers a fixed percentage back for all purchases, which is ideal for people who prefer simplicity. Citi’s Double Cash card currently offers 2% cash back, which is the highest rate of return currently offered on all purchases. (You can read a full review of the Citi Double Cash here.)
Another type of cash-back card will offer a lower rate of return on most purchases, as well as bonus points for charges to some categories of merchants. For example, the American Express Blue Cash Preferred (which has a $75 annual fee) features 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets on up to $6,000 in eligible purchases each year and 3% cash back at U.S. gas stations and department stores.
Finally, there are cards such as Chase Freedom and Discover it that offer 5% cash back on select categories of purchases that change each month, and 1% cash back on all other purchases. (You can read the Chase Freedom card review and check our editorial team’s review of the Discover it card as well.)
How to Get a Hotel- or Airline-Branded Credit Card
Hotel points and airline miles can be more valuable than cash back, but only for cardholders who know how to redeem them for the most valuable rewards. For example, spending $100,000 on an American Airlines credit card will result in 100,000 miles, which can be redeemed for a business class ticket to Europe, worth about $5,000. In contrast, even a credit card that offers 2% cash back will only result in $2,000 in cash back after the same $100,000 in spending, far less than the value of that business-class ticket. Nevertheless, travelers will have to be very flexible to find an available award seats to their destination, especially in a premium class of service. (And, obviously, you need to have the means to be able to spend $100,000 on a credit card and pay it off so interest charges don’t eat away at your reward’s value.)
What About Travel Points or Miles Through a Bank Rewards Program?
The points and miles offered by bank programs can often be very valuable, but sometimes even more challenging for the average cardholder to redeem. With programs operated by banks instead of airlines or hotels you can redeem your points for merchandise, gift cards and travel reservations, usually at around a penny in value per point. But when you are able to transfer those points to programs run by the airlines and hotels, and book premium-class flights and luxury hotels, you may realize as much as a nickel per point. And by having the option of transferring your points to multiple different airlines and hotel programs, these programs are more flexible and more valuable than points or miles that are locked into a single airline or hotel chain.
Further, there are some bank rewards credit cards that offer their own proprietary “miles” including the Barclaycard Arrival, Capital One Venture and the Discover it Miles. These miles are worth a penny each as statement credits toward travel purchases, which makes them a cross between cash-back credit cards and travel reward cards.
Ultimately, it is up to each cardholder to choose the type of rewards that they want to earn, and then find the card that will offer the most value for the type of purchases they will make. In addition, applicants should also consider the value of the benefits offered, as well as any sign-up bonuses that are available. (The Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard is currently offering 30,000 points if you spend $1,000 in the first three months, for example, and that would move you more quickly toward the first-class international ticket mentioned earlier.)
At publishing time, the Citi Double Cash, American Express Blue Cash Preferred, Chase Freedom, Discover it, Discover it Miles, Barclaycard Arrival, Capital One Venture, Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard are offered through Credit.com product pages, and Credit.com will be compensated if our users apply for and ultimately sign up for any of these cards. However, this relationship does not result in any preferential editorial treatment.
Note: It’s important to remember that interest rates, fees and terms for credit cards, loans and other financial products frequently change. As a result, rates, fees and terms for credit cards, loans and other financial products cited in these articles may have changed since the date of publication. Please be sure to verify current rates, fees and terms with credit card issuers, banks or other financial institutions directly.