What's the best reward card for a single big purchase?

Cash-back cards can be lucrative, but sign-up bonuses on travel cards can offer more value

Cashing In columnist Tony Mecia
Tony Mecia is a business journalist who writes for a number of trade and general-interest publications. He writes "Cashing In," a weekly column about credit card rewards programs, for CreditCards.com

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Question Dear Cashing In,
I'm 27, with credit between good and excellent. I use BankAmericard Cash Rewards for all my purchases. I use Chase's United Airlines card for my travel through United. I have 60,000 miles on it, and it has a $95 yearly fee. (I am not happy with that card, as I don't travel with United anymore.) I have to spend $6,000 next month, and I am looking to pay via credit card. I need a maximum monetary return in the form of cash rewards or points. Any suggestions? -- Mukul

Answer Dear Mukul,
It is smart to take stock of the cards you use on a regular basis. Many times, people become accustomed to using the cards they have, then go on autopilot, rarely examining other card offers that might suit them better. 

This is especially true in your case, as you are preparing to make a big purchase and want to ensure you receive the biggest return.

First off, I would suggest that if you have a card you do not use that carries an annual fee -- such as your United MileagePlus Explorer card from Chase -- consider canceling that card. You will not lose your United miles, although you should think about cashing them in for a flight, because they expire in 18 months with no activity. You don't want to continue paying that $95 fee if you are no longer receiving a benefit from the card.

From there, let's look at the other cards you have and perhaps some others that might make sense. Your BankAmericard Cash Rewards card (no annual fee) gives you 3 percent back at gas stations, 2 percent at grocery stores and 1 percent everywhere else. Note that the bonuses at the grocery and gas stations are capped once you charge a combined $1,500 in those categories each quarter. 

Assuming that the $6,000 you're planning to spend is not at a grocery store or gas station, you would earn $60 back if you put that purchase on your BankAmericard Cash Rewards card.

If you want cash back, you can do better than that with a different card. The highest flat rate for a cash back card that I know of is 2 percent back on all purchases. The Citi Double Cash card and the Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express card give cash back at that rate, and neither has an annual fee. Using either of those would give you $120 back on your $6,000 purchase.

Rather than picking a new card based on a single purchase, a better strategy might be to select one based on the kind of rewards that interest you. For instance, you say you no longer fly United. Is there another airline you use frequently? Do free hotel stays appeal to you? 

Another consideration is sign-up bonuses. If you switch cash back cards to one of the ones I mentioned, you'll make $60 more on your big purchase than if you use the card currently in your wallet. But you'll miss out on a sign-up bonus, because generally cash back cards do not offer them -- or if they do, they're pretty meager.

In contrast, many travel reward cards do offer sign-up bonuses worth much more than that $60 difference -- sometimes hundreds of dollars. For instance, the Capital One Venture Rewards card  ($59 annual fee, waived first year) gives you 40,000 miles once you spend $3,000 in three months. Those 40,000 miles can be redeemed for travel worth $400. Same with the Barclaycard Arrival Plus  ($89 annual fee, waived first year): 40,000 miles after spending $3,000 in three months, with those miles worth $400 in travel. Both of those cards also happen to offer 2 miles for every dollar spent. 

There are many other examples of sign-up bonuses that dwarf the rewards you would receive from your $6,000 purchase. Note, however, that most travel reward cards have annual fees.

Mukul, figure out what kind of rewards appeal to you, find a card that meets your longer-term needs -- maybe with a solid sign-up bonus -- and put your big purchase on that. Good luck!

See related: When to close an annual-fee card, Poll: Wealthy cardholders prefer cash-back rewards

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Updated: 03-21-2019