Best rewards credit cards

By  |  Published: October 11, 2017

Best rewards card: Spring 2017

 

Best rewards card: Spring 2016

 

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If you want to get more value from your spending, a rewards card that offers points or miles could be just what you need to ramp up your earnings and cut your travel costs.

All three of our best rewards credit cards offer big sign-up bonuses, travel perks and flexibility when redeeming rewards.

Before you pick a rewards card, though, think carefully about your spending habits and travel plans. Some rewards cards offer lavish benefits to frequent travelers, while others reward cardholders who are modest spenders who want significant rewards without a big commitment. 

To help you pick the best rewards card for your wallet, CreditCards.com evaluated some of the top-rated cards in the rewards card category and asked a panel of judges to rate the CreditCards.com staff’s top three picks.

Judges for the Best Rewards Credit Card were personal finance expert Holly Johnson (clubthrifty.com), travel expert Johnny Jet (johnnyjet.com), personal finance blogger Michelle Schroeder-Gardner (Making Sense of Cents), personal finance journalist Lisa Gerstner, CreditCards.com Editor-in-Chief Daniel P. Ray and CreditCards.com senior industry analyst Matt Schulz. 

Winner: The Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard

Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard card
  • 2 points per dollar on all purchases
  • Redeem points as statement credits to cover travel purchases
  • 5% bonus when you redeem points for statement credits
  • 40,000 points if you spend $3,000 in first 90 days
  • $89 annual fee, waived first year

Other features: No foreign transaction fees, free upgrades and discounts on business class tickets with partner airlines

Editor's rating:
star-rating
4.5/5
Read our review

 

Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard card

  • 2 points per dollar on all purchases
  • Redeem points as statement credits to cover travel purchases
  • 5% bonus when you redeem points for statement credits
  • 40,000 points if you spend $3,000 in first 90 days
  • $89 annual fee, waived first year

Other features: No foreign transaction fees, free upgrades and discounts on business class tickets with partner airlines

Editor's rating:
star-rating
4.5/5
Read our review

The Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard, which delivers an impressive amount of value and doesn’t charge a three-figure annual fee, edged out the Chase Sapphire Reserve card to win first place in our best rewards card contest.

For the average American, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard is tough to beat. It is flexible. It comes with a strong sign-up bonus and a lower minimum spend needed to get it.

— Matt Schulz
Senior Industry Analyst, CreditCards.com

“For the average American, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard is tough to beat,” says CreditCards.com senior industry analyst Matt Schulz. “It is flexible. It comes with a strong sign-up bonus and a lower minimum spend needed to get it.”

Simple, hassle-free earnings on everyday purchases
The Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard’s flat rewards rate (two miles for every $1 in spending) is especially valuable to cardholders who don’t have the time or inclination to track their purchases or make sense of a complicated rewards scheme, our judges say. 

As a result, cardholders who travel only occasionally can easily earn free flights.  

“You bank your points quickly with two points for all purchases,” notes CreditCards.com Editor-in-Chief Daniel P. Ray.  

Affordable rewards
The Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard charges cardholders $89 a year – considerably less than most competitors – and the card’s annual fee is waived in the first year.

The Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard also awards a hefty 40,000-point sign-up bonus – enough to purchase a $400 airline ticket – after cardholders spend $3,000 in the card’s first three months. That contrasts with many high-end competitors, which require cardholders to spend $4,000 or more to earn a similarly large sign-up bonus.

“The Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard offers a relatively low-cost, low-risk way to play the rewards game to your advantage,” Ray says. “If you are the sort who isn’t a jet setter, but takes maybe one, maybe two international trips per year, this card is an outstanding companion.”

Added security when traveling abroad
The Arrival Plus card also won points from judges for its chip-and-PIN capability and its travel-friendly terms, including not charging foreign transaction fees.

“It is one of the very few chip-and-PIN cards available in the U.S., so it may save you some headaches on that big family vacation,” says Schulz.  

Most U.S. credit cards are chip-and-signature cards, but the Barclaycard lets you choose a PIN for added security. As a result, chip-and-signature cardholders often have difficulty using their card at some foreign venues, such as automated kiosks that require a PIN to process a transaction.  

“I like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus over the Chase Sapphire Reserve for two reasons,” says travel expert Johnny Jet. “It has a much lower annual fee, and the Barclaycard Arrival Plus has chip-and-PIN capability, which makes it easier for travel internationally.”  

Fewer travel benefits
The Arrival Plus card doesn’t offer many additional travel benefits, though, making it a less lucrative choice for frequent travelers.  

“It has a lot fewer perks overall,” says personal finance expert Holly Johnson. “You don't get airport lounge access or a travel credit, nor do you get a refund for Global Entry or TSA Precheck.” Those perks alone can add up to hundreds of dollars’ worth of value every year.  

You also can’t transfer your points to airline or hotel loyalty partners, says Johnson, which can be a big drawback for frequent travelers. 

On the plus side, you don’t have to go through your issuer to purchase your travel, and there are no restrictions on when or where you can fly. Many travel loyalty programs, for example, impose travel blackout dates and restrict tickets that cardholders can buy.

No. 2: The Chase Sapphire Reserve card

Best card
  • 3 points per dollar on travel and restaurant purchases
  • 1 point per dollar on other purchases
  • 50,000 points if you spend  $4,000 in first 3 months
  • $300 annual travel credit (applies to most travel purchases)
  • 1:1 point transfer to most frequent flier partners
  • $450 annual fee

Other features: $100 Global Entry or TSA Precheck credit, no foreign transaction fee, complimentary airport lounge access, select Visa Infinite hotel, air and car rental perks

Editor's rating:
star-rating4.4/5
Read our review

 

Best card

  • 3 points per dollar on travel and restaurant purchases
  • 1 point per dollar on other purchases
  • 50,000 points if you spend  $4,000 in first 3 months
  • $300 annual travel credit (applies to most travel purchases)
  • 1:1 point transfer to most frequent flier partners
  • $450 annual fee

Other features: $100 Global Entry or TSA Precheck credit, no foreign transaction fee, complimentary airport lounge access, select Visa Infinite hotel, air and car rental perks

Editor's rating:
star-rating
4.4/5
Read our review

A breakout star in the rewards card category since it launched in 2016, the Chase Sapphire Reserve card won second place for best rewards credit card. 

The Chase Sapphire Reserve card isn’t nearly as lucrative as it was when it first stormed onto the travel scene with a 100,000-point sign-up bonus offering more than $1,500 worth of free travel. But with its current 50,000-point sign-up bonus, the Sapphire Reserve still offers a tremendous amount of value for regular travelers, our judges say. 

Generous rewards
“In my opinion, The Chase Sapphire Reserve offers the best bonus, the most generous perks, and a more well-rounded and flexible rewards program than any other card out there,” Johnson says. 

New cardholders earn 50,000 bonus points that are worth up to $750 in free travel if they spend $4,000 in the card’s first three months. Cardholders also earn three points for every dollar spent on travel and dining, making it a lucrative pick for cardholders who eat out frequently or spend big money on business or personal travel.  

A bounty of travel perks
What really sets the $450 annual fee Chase Sapphire Reserve card apart from the competition are its perks, say judges, including a $300 annual travel credit that can be used to pay for any type of travel, ranging from airline tickets to rental cars.

“Some other premium cards impose limitations on the type of purchases that qualify for such a rebate,” says personal finance journalist Lisa Gerstner. For example, some cards will only offer rebates on incidental charges, such as baggage fees.

With the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, “as long as you spend $300 a year on airfare, hotel stays, or car rentals – or even on train, bus, ferry or taxi fares –  you can count on getting the credit,” she says.

Great for frequent flyers
The Chase Sapphire Reserve card also offers a fee credit for TSA Precheck or Global Entry, which can make traveling less of a headache.

“Most regular flyers would agree that paying $85 for TSA Precheck or $100 for Global Entry is well worth the money, allowing them to avoid some of the slog that comes with getting through security or customs at the airport,” Gerstner says.

“With the Reserve card, you won’t even have to cover that investment: You’ll get a reimbursement of the application fee for either program.”

In addition, the Chase Sapphire Reserve card offers free airport lounge access – including for your accompanying family members – to more than 1,000 lounges around the globe. The card also includes some of the most generous travel insurance benefits around. Cardholders also don’t pay foreign transaction fees when they use their cards abroad. 

Flexible redemption
Judges also liked the Sapphire Reserve’s flexible redemption policy, which can be useful for frequent travelers. For example, tickets purchased through Chase’s Ultimate Rewards portal don’t come with any travel restrictions or blackout dates and can be purchased with fewer points. 

Chase also awards a 50 percent bonus when Sapphire Reserve cardholders redeem their points through Ultimate Rewards, causing the points’ value to jump to one and a half cents per point. 

“The fact you get a 50 percent discount on travel booked through the Chase portal is huge,” Johnson says. “And you can still transfer your points to popular loyalty programs like Southwest, Hyatt, IHG Rewards, Marriott and British Airways.” 

Sapphire Reserve cardholders also have lots of options other than travel when redeeming points. 

“I appreciate that if for some reason you decide to trade points for cash, you’ll get a reasonable rate of a penny per point, rather than the more punitive rate of a half-cent or so that some travel cards serve up for cash redemptions,” Gerstner says. 

Not for occasional travelers
The Sapphire Reserve can be a great choice “if you are a frequent traveler who can take advantage of all the amazing high-end perks that the card offers,” Schulz says. 

The card’s $300 annual travel credit helps cut the cost of the card, but if you don’t use the travel credit and other Sapphire Reserve card perks, such as the triple-point bonus on travel and restaurant purchases, you won’t get much value after the card’s first year.

No. 3: Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature card

Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature card
  • 6 points per dollar at Carlson Rezidor hotels
  • 3 points per dollar on other purchases
  • 50,000 points with first purchase
  • 10,000 points if you spend $1,500 in first 90 days
  • $50 annual fee

Other features: Automatic upgrade to Silver Elite status, 10 qualifying nights toward next elite level, 15% bonus points on hotel stays, complimentary room upgrades

Editor's rating:
star-rating
4.4/5
Read our review

 

Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature card

  • 6 points per dollar at Carlson Rezidor hotels
  • 3 points per dollar on other purchases
  • 50,000 points with first purchase
  • 10,000 points if you spend $1,500 in first 90 days
  • $50 annual fee

Other features: Automatic upgrade to Silver Elite status, 10 qualifying nights toward next elite level, 15% bonus points on hotel stays, complimentary room upgrades

Editor's rating:
star-rating
4.4/5
Read our review

A favorite of hotel card enthusiasts, the Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature card won third place in our best rewards card contest. 

Whether you have a taste for high-end hotel stays or prefer mid-tier chains, such as the Radisson or Country Inn and Suites, the Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature card offers lucrative perks and amply rewards loyal Carlson Rezidor hotel guests.

Bountiful rewards
The Club Carlson card offers new customers a generous 85,000-point sign-up bonus if you spend $2,500 in the card’s first three months. It also rewards ongoing cardholders with an annual 40,000-point loyalty bonus that helps make up for the card’s $75 annual fee.

In addition, the Club Carlson card offers a plentiful number of rewards points for hotel and everyday purchases, including 10 points for every dollar spent at Carlson Rezidor hotels and five points for every dollar spent on general purchases.

Club Carlson points aren’t worth quite as much as the average card rewards point, but the Club Carlson rewards card’s ample rewards rate can still buy a significant number of free hotel stays if cardholders use the card regularly.

Good perks
The Club Carlson card also offers a number of traveler-friendly perks, making it a good value for frequent hotel guests. For example, the card can help Club Carlson fans upgrade their elite statuses and earn special benefits, such as room discounts and upgrades, early or late checkout and free breakfast.

“The Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature card has outstanding value for those who frequently use Club Carlson properties,” says CreditCards.com Editor-in-Chief Daniel P. Ray. “Unlike other general purpose travel cards, it offers an annual bonus that keeps Club Carlson loyalists coming back.”

 

Meet our judges:

Johnny Jet

Johnny Jet, travel expert and publisher of JohnnyJet.com

Favorite rewards card: Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard

“I like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus over the Chase Sapphire Reserve for two reasons: It has a much lower annual fee, and the Barclaycard Arrival Plus has chip-with-PIN capability, which makes it easier for travel internationally.”  


Holly Johnson

Holly Johnson, personal finance expert and publisher of Club Thrifty

Favorite rewards card: Chase Sapphire Reserve 

“In my opinion, the Chase Sapphire Reserve offers the best bonus, the most generous perks, and a more well-rounded and flexible rewards program than any other card out there.”


Lisa Gerstner

Lisa Gerstner, contributing editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance

Favorite rewards card: Chase Sapphire Reserve

“In many cases, I’d shy away from giving the crown to a card with a $450 annual fee, but the Chase Sapphire Reserve comes with such an attractive set of perks that you don’t have to be a jet setter to glean plenty of value from the card.”


Matt Schulz

Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com

Favorite rewards card: Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard

“For the average American, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard is tough to beat. It is flexible. It comes with a strong sign-up bonus and a lower minimum spend needed to get it.”


Daniel P. Ray

Daniel P. Ray, editor-in-chief at CreditCards.com

Favorite rewards card: Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard

“The Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard offers a relatively low-cost, low-risk way to play the rewards game to your advantage. If you are the sort who isn’t a jet setter, but takes maybe one, maybe two international trips per year, this card is an outstanding companion.”


 

How we choose our best cards
This is the second year that CreditCards.com has held a contest for best cards in their class. To help choose the best cards for each category, the CreditCards.com staff consulted credit card and personal finance experts and nominated the top three cards as finalists. CreditCards.com staff also rated cards through its credit card reviews program.

For each review, CreditCards.com ranks the cards using a weighted scoring system that assesses the cards’ most relevant attributes. Each card attribute is ranked on a scale of 1 to 5. For cash back cards, CreditCards.com evaluated a number of common rewards features, including:

  • Estimated rewards value (47 percent): Because card applicants typically place a high value on rewards earnings, the CreditCards.com staff assigned the greatest weight to the amount of earnings cardholders take home. The staff uses a formula to calculate the estimated yearly value, assuming cardholders spend $1,325 per month, averaged over three years. The formula includes an average rewards rate, sign-up bonus and annual fee. The staff then assigns a score depending on how the estimated rewards value compares to other cards.
  • Rewards flexibility (40 percent): With rewards credit cards, a rewards card’s redemption options are often crucial to a cardholder’s satisfaction. Some cards make it so complicated to redeem points or miles that cardholders will put off redeeming their rewards. The CreditCards.com staff focuses heavily on the flexibility of card redemption options and assigns a substantial amount of weight to that category. Using a scale of 1 to 5, the staff rates factors such as expiration dates, how easy it is to earn and redeem cash back, whether there are limits on how much cardholders can earn, minimum redemption thresholds and whether cardholders can transfer card rewards. 
  • Features (10 percent): The CreditCards.com staff also considers the quantity, uniqueness and value of the features for each card and rates them on a scale of 1 to 5.
  • Annual percentage rate (APR) (3 percent): Rewards cardholders are typically advised not to carry a balance because rewards card rates are notoriously high. Because cardholders generally don’t want to carry a balance, the CreditCards.com staff assigned less weight to the card’s APR. The staff assigns a score depending on how the average APR and the introductory APR compares to other rewards cards.

After three cards were chosen as finalists for the best rewards card contest, a panel of five judges -- including credit card and personal finance experts and two members of the CreditCards.com staff -- were asked to independently judge the finalists and rank them in order of preference. The card with the best average rank was chosen as the winner. 

See related: 7 ways to get the most from rewards credit cards, 5 questions to ask before applying for a rewards card, Strategies for spouses doubling up on rewards cards, 4 fine-print traps to watch out for in credit card rewards programs, Holiday travel: 7 ways to snag an early deal using card rewards

All best credit card stories are prepared by CreditCards.com staff. Opinions expressed therein are solely those of the reviewer and have not been reviewed or approved by any advertiser. The information, including card rates and fees, presented in the story is accurate as of the date of the story. Check the credit card terms and conditions link on the issuing bank’s website for the most current information.



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About this Award

CreditCards.com’s Best Credit Cards awards program brings together prominent industry experts and journalists to choose the best credit card within a monthly category. Our editorial staff nominates cards based on a set of objective criteria. CreditCards.com is not compensated for any of the nominations or awards. Advertiser disclosure.




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